Who are ‘the working class’?

In this first of a two-part series, D Hunter and John-Baptiste Oduor discuss the presence and representation of working-class voices in British culture and politics

April 17, 2020 · 11 min read
Photo: Kelly O’Brien

D Hunter: We’ve been asked to chat about the working-class voice being marginalised in mainstream political discourse, and I’m trying to work out how to begin that chat. I guess we can begin by pluralising it.

There isn’t a single working-class voice, we’re not a homogeneous group of people. One of the issues we face is how to incorporate that reality into mainstream representations and media portrayals of working-class life. The plurality of our experiences is hugely important. Whilst it’s great to have working-class writers such as Kerry Hudson, Lisa McKenzie, Akala, Cash Carraway, and Darren McGarvey being heard by larger and larger audiences, it’d be unreasonable to expect them to cover all the experiences of working-class life and politics. They’re all in their own way critiquing power structures, the elite and the economic system we live under, so for them to be saddled at the same time with being voices for tens of millions of people in this country is ludicrous.

At the same time, we have to be careful not to have the diversity of the working class used against us, which is so often the case. There are undoubtedly differences between a 19-year-old Afro-Caribbean lad from Moss Side about to become the first person in his family to go to university and a white 40-something single mum from Basingstoke trying to survive on a zero-hour contract at Sports Direct, but their experiences don’t need to be placed in opposition to each other. The richness of their lives both make up part of the tapestry of working-class existence in the UK, and all the things it has to deal with and fight against in order to survive.

The writers I mention above all know this – it’s only when those from higher up in the class system write about working-class lives that those differences become tensions. Not always through malice, but often just through ignorance. Sometimes it’s because things like solidarity are abstract to these writers. Sometimes it’s because the middle-class neighbourhoods they’re from are so monocultural that they can’t get their heads around anything else. Sometimes it’s because they can’t help but talk down to those beneath them and explain the ‘correct’ ethical position.

There are undoubtedly differences between a 19-year-old Afro-Caribbean lad from Moss Side about to become the first person in his family to go to university and a white 40-something single mum from Basingstoke trying to survive on a zero-hour contract at Sports Direct, but their experiences don’t need to be placed in opposition to each other

One of the goals I think we need to have is that, as we tell our working-class stories, we tell them in conversation with others. A challenge I’ve had during Q&A sessions when doing book readings for Chav Solidarity, is navigating the exceptionalist narrative – the idea that my experiences are a unique story of individual strength and determination and all that shit. Instead we should be making sure the discussion is around the multitude of examples of working-class strength and determination to survive in a variety of contexts under white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.


Our experiences and the stories we tell about them are much more powerful when they engage with one another, suggesting commonality without denying difference. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on all this, and particularly whether it speaks to the work you’re doing with young people and how they share their stories.

John-Baptiste Oduor: I think you’re completely right that the difficulty is defining what we mean when we talk about “the working class”. The dilemma, as you rightly say, is trying to conjure up an image of working-class life that we can point at and say: ‘It’s this thing! Right here!’. However, at the same time, singling out particular cultures, occupations, or even areas as being distinctly working-class runs the risk of excluding people who we ought to include.

What you seem to be suggesting, and I agree with the suggestion, is that the task of representing the working class – and being able to point to concrete ways of life – is a politically valuable one. And, on top of this, that it is partly the role of working-class art and culture to represent these ways of life. The issue is how to come up with an idea of who the working class are without falling prey to the usual accusations of racism and sexism.

You point out, rightly, that the working class contains a whole host of different kinds of people from all sorts of backgrounds. But isn’t the worry that, at a certain point, our image of working-class life turns into one of those collages made up of many small pictures that can’t be made out unless we go so close as to obscure the larger image? I suppose my worry is twofold. Firstly, what is the larger image which holds together all of these different types of working-class life? And, secondly, can we present this image as something that is recognisable to the people it is supposed to be an image of?

Isn’t the worry that, at a certain point, our image of working-class life turns into one of those collages made up of many small pictures that can’t be made out unless we go so close as to obscure the larger image?

One of the ways of trying to resolve this dilemma is to claim that what we mean by ‘the working class’ are those people who must work for a living. This was clearly the approach favoured by Corbynism when it pitted the hard-working many up against the tax-dodging few. At the time, my worry about that strategy was its definition of the working class was just too broad. Of course, our zero-hours Sports Direct worker and the average university lecturer are both not elites. But so what? What do these people have in common other than the very weak bond of both having to work for a living? Of course, both of these groups are facing a decline in living standards, but relative decline does not, it seems to me, serve as a basis for building solidarity.

There have been lots of, quite frankly, silly articles about how the left (which people seem to think is just the Labour Party) needs to embrace the new working class, which is made up of university lecturers and gig economy workers. There are obviously quite a few problems with this. Firstly, there just aren’t enough of these people to constitute a mass movement. Secondly, the middle-class professionals included in this new working class don’t identify as working-class, and are very often hostile or contemptuous of the working class as I (and I think you) understand it. The partial success of Corbynism is that some sections of the middle class have been radicalised. But there is a more central question about if and how these downwardly-mobile professionals can work with the working class.

The 19th-century American labour organisation The Knights of Labor only welcomed members who physically produced a product for a living. Obviously this would be a ridiculous way of determining who should be in the working class, but I do think the question needs thinking about.

DH: There’s plenty in your reply that I want to engage with, and it’s a shame we have to keep this brief. You raise the notion of ‘a basis for solidarity’, and in doing so begin to take us in the right direction, where we’re asking how the working class can represent itself and point to concrete ways of life, or thinking about what larger image might hold together all these different types of working-class life.

Solidarity doesn’t demand total agreement on all matters, it asks us to find unity where there is common interest. For many, this common interest is the struggle against the dominant economic system, so ‘the working class’ is made up of those who are exploited by this system. There is plenty to be said for that argument, but it doesn’t take into account the ways in which capitalism unevenly distributes exploitation. Whether you perceive, as I do, that white supremacy, imperialism and patriarchy were woven into the fabric of capitalism from the beginning or whether you believe that was a later development, it’s undoubtedly present now. I’d argue that the working class has never had a common culture, never had a single narrative, and never been easily representable, at least not accurately.

If we want an image, it has to be a moving one, and if we want a working-class narrative it has to be complicated. For my money, this image, this narrative, has to include solidarity as a praxis. You ask if I worry about whether our image of working class life turns into one of those collages made up of small images. I worry more that we’re unable to find ways to act and think in solidarity across those small pictures, those strata. The larger image looks like the struggle to connect our stories, and to navigate and generate complex responses to the complicated and violent ways in which capitalism is entangled with white supremacy and patriarchy, encourages inter-class competition, and has individualised us.

I’d argue that the working class has never had a common culture, never had a single narrative, and never been easily representable, at least not accurately

Part of this struggle is tied to the important point you raise regarding the middle-class professionals who are being included in the new working class. It’s tricky. I view the role of the middle class (both those that constitute it and its culture) as being to commit symbolic and material violence on the working class. Finding bridges to solidarity with individuals, collectives and communities of people who have carried out this violence is an enormous challenge, and I wouldn’t have much of an argument with those who don’t want the working class to engage with it.

One framing device I’m playing around with is the idea of class traitors and class treachery. Whilst it’s not vigorously thought through, it’s helping my thought process about those people, like myself, who are working class psychologically and through experience and relation to capital, but who also benefit from white supremacy and patriarchy. I have committed acts which have betrayed my class, betrayed class solidarity, by using or relying on my whiteness and maleness. Equally, there are those who, because of various social, cultural and economic benefits given to them, have participated in acts of middle-class culture and reproduced symbolic and material violence towards working-class individuals and communities. Some have done this relentlessly and without remorse – they are class traitors – and some have committed acts of class treachery on occasion.

This treachery does not mean that acting in solidarity towards other parts of the working class is impossible, but that behavioural changes have to be made on both individual and collective levels. The middle class is the home of those who constantly commit acts of treachery within their class. The working class is the home of those who constantly commit acts of solidarity within their class, and against the systems that seek to divide us.

In part two of this series, published on Sunday 19 April, D and John-Baptiste discuss socialism, conservatism and pathways to working-class solidarity.

D Hunter is the author of Chav Solidarity and co-editor of Lumpen: A Journal of Poor and Working Class Writing. John-Baptiste Oduor teaches in a pupil referral unit and is studying for a PhD in philosophy.


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