When I die, I will be “the most qualified person in the graveyard”, I sometimes like to joke, as a way of highlighting the fact I now have so many qualifications (including a recently completed PhD), yet I am still poor.
My entire life has been spent in pursuit of a “decent” job. By “decent”, I mean one that is as good as my parent’s. My mother left school with only a qualification in typing but by my age (forty-two), had managed to work her way up to become the manager of a youth centre. My father completed his A Levels, got a job with the council and completed a HNC on day release and then spent the rest of his career as a surveyor – drawing up plans for aids and adaptations of disabled people’s bathrooms. I have to admit that I am somewhat reluctant to mention the nature of my parent’s “decent” jobs, for fear of creating a false impression that my upbringing was more comfortable than it was, or even worse, of being accused of not really being working-class.
My PhD thesis is about the representation of the British working classes in photobooks. Photobooks are essays made using photographs that are often accompanied by captions and other texts, and so establishing who the British working-classes are was something I had to do early on in my research. Notice that I say working-classes rather than “the working class” – this is deliberate as the working-class is not one homogenous mass – it is made up of many factions and many experiences. Even within my own family there are two distinct factions – my mother’s side, which in stereotypical terms could be described as the “rough” – my nan (who we were terrified of when we were growing up) rented a series of council flats off Scotland Road, one of the poorest and roughest parts of Liverpool. She was a single mother of four, an occasional shoplifter and cash-in-hand, part-time worker, just about surviving, with the aid of drink to drown her sorrows. My father’s side could be described as “respectable” – my grandparents (who were very kind to us), lived in a two-bedroom house in Anfield, another one of the most deprived areas of Liverpool. But they owned their home, and both had steady, manual jobs and traditional family values.
In my PhD thesis I define the term ‘working class’ as referring to both a relationship to the economy and to a cultural identity which is shaped by that position and by the struggles of generations that have gone before. And so to say that a working-class person is middle-class once they get a “decent” job or become an academic, is to deny not only an important part of their identity and habitus but also obscures the ‘hidden injuries of class’ and the struggles they have been through (and continue to go through).
Many years of doing low paid jobs throughout my teens and twenties meant that by the time I ended up training to become a secondary school Art teacher in my early thirties (after three years of applying, resitting my Mathematics GCSE at night school and training as a teaching assistant), my status as a low paid, “unskilled” worker was already deeply ingrained in my psyche and impossible to shake off. I managed to do well on teacher training, but I hated it as I lacked “inner confidence”, I never felt quite good enough and I realised that I had a lot of emotional baggage that I was carrying from my own miserable time at high school. Fortunately it turned out to be a blessing that I didn’t get any of the teaching jobs I was interviewed for, as after teacher training I went on to do an MA in Fine Art, a Masters in Research in Art and then a PhD in Art/Photography (all either partly or fully funded) – something that I could never have predicted happening.
Yet recently I have been asking myself if it has all been worth it. Have I not exchanged one form of working-class struggle and one form of precariousness for another? Have I been suffering from some sort of ‘false consciousness’? Would I have had a more comfortable, less stressful life if I had accepted my fate and settled for low paid job but with the benefit of a steady income and predictable routines – living more in the present instead of always working towards a more prosperous future that never seems to arrive? Do I have any more strength (and time) left to hold out for that “decent” job I’ve worked so hard for, or should I just throw in the towel and settle for some sort of administrative type job, that combined with my husband’s income, pays just enough to be able to afford home improvements, an annual holiday and out-of-school clubs for my daughter before she grows up? Only time will tell, but in the meantime, some comfort can be taken from knowing that although my journey has been a long and lonely one, I am not alone.
If we look back at the history of the working-classes and considerer our struggle as working-class academics to be a part of working-class struggle in general – being academics, wandering outside of our station, aspiring to a better life, does not mean we are outside of or not worthy of calling ourselves working-class or of being part of working-class history.
This includes the American working-class men that the sociologists Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb interviewed in the late 1960s and early 1970s for their research for The Hidden Injuries of Class (1972). Sennett and Cobb describe the struggle for ‘freedom and dignity’ of the working-class men they interviewed (Sennett and Cobb, 1972:30) and how class in America is structured so that ‘the tools of freedom become sources of indignity’ (Sennett and Cobb, 1972:30). By tools of freedom they mean a meritocracy in which individuals feel that through hard work and/or education they can achieve anything they want to but at the same time, if they do not achieve, they only have themselves to blame. This is what causes the ‘hidden injuries of class’ and the indignity and suffering of the men they interviewed. Throughout their interviews they discovered the same contradiction between the respect the working-class men had for those who did skilled manual jobs and coterminously, the respect the men had for education and the freedom and respect they perceived qualifications brought to people. Feelings of inadequacy compelled the men to makes sacrifices so that their children would get a good education and in turn would be respected, even though the men felt that education would lead their children ‘into work not ‘as “real” as their own’ (Sennett and Cobb, 1972:23).
Essentially, feelings of inadequacy not only caused the men they interviewed to suffer daily, but also compelled the men to push their children towards jobs and life styles that they did not respect. And all of this was done even though there was no guarantee that after all the sacrifices that would need to be made (fathers working longer hours and spending less time with their families to pay for education), that their children would end up working in better jobs, have better lives or feel any less inadequate than their fathers.
The same feelings of inadequacy and struggle for dignity are also part of the lived experience of the British working-classes (including working-class academics like myself), because of the illusion of a meritocracy that has been supported by the rhetoric and policies of Labour politicians such as Tony Blair, just as much as Conservative politicians.
We can also go back much further back in time, to the 1830s to find similarities between our struggles as working-class academics (proletarian thinkers) and the working-class individuals who joined workers’ associations and laboured by day and wrote poetry and philosophized at night, as discovered by Jacques Ranciere whilst studying archives of workers’ writing for his PhD in the 1970s, which became Nights of Labor: The Workers Dream in Nineteenth Century France (1981).
One of the most important and comforting messages that we can take from this book, is that ‘trying [our] hand at words and theories from on high’ (Rancier, 2012:22-23) is an important party of the history of the working-classes (Reid in Rancier, 2012:xxxi), not something outside of it.
Rancière, J (2012) Proletarian Nights: The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth century France. Verso, London and New York.
Sennett, R and Cobb, R (1972) The Hidden Injuries of Class. Norton Paperback, New York and London.
Blog published on The Sociological Review: https://www.thesociologicalreview.com/he-served-his-time-at-cammell-lairds/