“If I was of colour or had a disability or a different sexuality I just wouldn’t even bother turning on the television, because you feel invisible,” Times columnist and author of How to be a woman, Caitlin Moran, told the Radio Times last week.
“The lack of working class people in culture at the moment is notable,” she went on. “And when they are represented … Take Benefits Street. It’s the only time I’ve seen people on benefits on television, but you didn’t get to hear them talking about their ideas on philosophy or politics, you didn’t get to see them being joyful – it was simply about surviving, and that made them look like animals. It didn’t show them as human beings.”
This is true but something jars. Representation of working class people is not the same as representation of other so-called minorities. It’s far more troublesome because the implications of genuine representation are far less containable. Put simply, it’s possible to have a resolutely capitalist society that is authentically diverse, and comfortable with multi-ethnicities, equal representation of women, fluid sexuality and disability. It’s not possible to have a resolutely capitalist society that pays more than lip service to working class lives and experiences.
Merely on a superficial level, working class representation in culture is different. The problem is not invisibility but abject distortion and hostility. When the working class is heard in popular culture, it’s invariably with the prefix ‘white’ as if working class views can only be amplified in racial terms. Benefits Street, Benefits Britain, On Benefits and Proud, Benefits by the Sea, On the Sick, Benefits Hotel, Benefits Cat* etc (it’s quite a long list) are all fixated on looking down at people whose lives, intelligence and moral scruples are presented at a qualitatively lower level than those of the viewer. People live in ‘benefits’ houses, have ‘benefits’ babies and smoke ‘benefits’ fags.
These portrayals are dripping with condescension, stereotypes and malice. Invisibility would be a major advance. You could compare this representation with the way homosexuality or ethnic minorities were depicted in the 1970s but even that was less spiteful. It’s like the venom that’s now not acceptable to vent on other racial groups or non-heterosexual people has been stored up to be spewed on targets few will defend.
What does working class mean?
However these depictions are not of the working class per se but people on out of work benefits. The closer people are materially to those at the bottom of the heap, the more they may well want to differentiate themselves. “I don’t think I would want to be in the same class as somebody who takes what they can and has the attitude of ‘Well, I’m better off not working,” Lorraine, a fork lift truck driver, is quoted as saying towards the end of the book, Social Class in the 21st Century.
Just under half of society, if you credit official definitions, are now working class. 10.6 million people in Britain can be described as poor (in work poverty has now overtaken out of work poverty), as their income is below 60% of the median. A further 760,000 are claiming Jobseekers Allowance and 2.3 million are getting either Incapacity benefit, or its successor, Employment and Support Allowance. The term ‘working class’ can be applied to all of these groups, or just one, depending on your intention.
It’s possible to react to working class stereotypes in the same way as racial stereotypes or homophobia. Just as there is sexism and racism, so there is classism. The solution is to fight an attritional battle on sexist, racist, homophobic or classist attitudes so that eventually society is free of them. In this ideal world, working class people have their voice heard equally in culture in the same way that women, ethnic minorities, non-heterosexual and transgender people do. The working class are not looked down on or stereotyped.
But this would be a false utopia. Being working class is not a collection of attitudes to be respected, or the spur behind an ambition to colonise the commanding heights of society, but a state of being that should not exist. The aim should be a classless society. The working class should be abolished. And that is a truly transgressive aspiration.
It’s easier to see the distinction if you examine society’s acceptable and seemingly unstoppable radical edge, the push for diversity. Since 2010’s Equality Act it has been illegal to discriminate against job applicants on the basis of, not just sex or race, but sexual orientation, transgender status or disability. Discrimination obviously does happen but officially it shouldn’t. Government departments have been at the forefront of this drive. The Home Office has been recognised as one of the UK’s Top 50 Employers for Women‘employer of the year’