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The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is

The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

July 3, 2017
4 min read

For some time, the political class has been living in fear of the righteous revenge of a mythical white working class – and anticipating this has been the cause of considerable misjudgement (mainly from the left) and duplicity (mainly from the right).

At particularly bad moments it is implied that the defeats of the left have been caused by a failure to sufficiently defend a white nationalist vision of politics. Any attention to gender, or race, or sexuality, or to human rights or climate change is under suspicion as an irritant to a white working class imagined as an enraged infant, endlessly on the edge of another tantrum.

We might ask what makes the left so afraid of the white working class. The right has harboured no such anxiety – it is happy to veer between indifference and condescension. But the left, the left is terrified.

This anxiety is a deep and disorientating doubt about class itself. It reveals a fear that the white working class is not allied to a class at all. Instead, whiteness becomes overwhelming, submerging other aspects of identity and giving a racial tinge to every complaint.

Yet this ‘whiteness’ of the working class is a recent preoccupation in this country, where issues of race have been disguised by narratives of empire. Naming the threatened status of whiteness reveals the last gasp of imperial fictions.

Reality of work

What if we stop taking ‘whiteness’ as the central characteristic of the working class and return to thinking about work?

It seems to me that if the right is nostalgic for an imaginary working class of the 1950s, all deference and social conservatism, the left dreams of a working class of the 1970s, largely immobile and organised in the (mass) workplace.

Yet both are dangerous fantasies, avoiding the nature of contemporary work (service or manufacturing, hospitality, retail or knowledge, customer-facing or project-based, key worker or bullshit job), where workers navigate lives shaped by precarious contracts, uncertain and/or extending working hours, an absence of advancement and a working life that is constantly punctuated by demeaning reminders of your replaceability.

This is not the work that builds ‘community’. Instead the widely-shared experience of work is of depletion, a hollowing out that disrupts human relations, fragments leisure, disperses people in the quest to earn and also to sleep. Working lives are organised to confound community as we have known it.

Insecurity and immiseration

Spaces of recuperation and domesticity have also become dispersed and precarious. Insecure (and over-priced) tenancies mirror insecure (and under-paid) contracts mirror social insecurity in the post-welfare world. It is an experience of work and of life that is experienced by women and men of all ethnicities and varying immigration status, across a range of sectors and locations.

This immiseration of working lives throws us together in unexpected ways. Work that was seen as ‘feminised’ becomes the only work in town. Workplace insecurities that were associated with minority communities become everyone’s experience. The loss of time or space for rest and recuperation leads us to better understand the value of all expressions of love and family.

This may not be the socially conservative working class imagined by the right or the already organised and tidily homogenous working class mourned by the left, but it is the actual working class of this specific phase of crisis without end. And the only politics with any hope of defending human dignity is a politics that emerges from this unruly mass, in all its fragmentation and diversity and righteous anger.

Gargi Bhattacharyya is a professor of sociology at the University of East London

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