Books

Workers v Shirkers

Chris Dillow resurrects a term – lumpenproletariat – one doesn’t hear much these days – chiefly in order to take issue with Brendan O’Neill’s assertion that an attack on Celebrity Big Brother hate figure Jade Goody is actually a disguised attack on the white working class.

The distinction between the two is not one of income or even background – though of course socio-economic conditions affect both – but of character. For example, Cilla and Eileen are almost indistinguishable in background, but one is strictly lumpen whilst the other is the proper working class, the rock on which this nation is built.

I think he’s right to draw a distinction between the two social groups. Middle class commentators and modern pseudo-radicals tend to conflate the two as if there was no distinction between the low paid employed and the their feckless neighbours – they may share the same geographical area but have radically different attitudes to work, family, and what is acceptable behaviour.

It’s easy to tell which media commenters have some knowledge of how life is lived beyond the leafy suburbs by how easily they make the mistake of assuming that being described as a member of the working class automatically equates to being boorish, allergic to work and listlessly cynical.

I was reminded of the huge gulf between classic working class attitudes and the less attractive traits of the lumpenproletariat after reading this book reviewed recently in Tribune by Paul Anderson.

The picture of working class radicalism the author paints is salutory for those who like their workers to be victims: regular socialist Sunday schools, trade union meetings at which every question went through the chair, and the cramped but bookfilled house occupied by the typical class conscious proletarian fill the pages. It’s a far cry from the pathetic helpless toiler seeking solace in brawling and boozing of contemporary middle class imagination.

The organisations which sustained, amplified and encouraged this disciplined, hardworking, and in some cases rather austere lifestyle are largely gone now. The Labour Party lost its mass working class base some time ago and the Communist Party went the way of all flesh before the 1990’s could be differentiated from the preceding decade.

But my point that working class attitudes can easily be seperated from lumpen mores by those who care to carry out more than a casual examination of life below the stairs still stands.

From the time of its birth the British working class movement threw up all sorts of institutions – and many of them survive today – which are testament to the organisational abilities and imagination of the social class no-one seems to have a kind word for these days – think of the co-operative movement, the original building and friendly societies, the philosophical societies that used to dot Northern towns and the subscription funded lending libraries and you’ll get a picture of working class life before the Labour or Communist Parties even existed.

While the modern working class has shrunk from its postwar political and demographic peak it is still a mistake to conflate it with the hoodie wearing ASBO targets that make up the contemporary underclass.

Last word to Chris:

This is why – for me at least – there’s no inconsistency between attacking Jade, and what she represents, on the one hand, and defending the working class on the other. Jade is lumpen, not working class. I’ll defend the latter as much as Brendan or Johann. But I’ll not do so by assuming that Jade and her type are members of it, still less representative ones.

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