Category Archives: Tim Strangleman

Precariat of the World Unite?

The term “Precariat” has been bandied around for some time now as a convenient catchall for a growing sense of employment insecurity in the U.S. and Europe. It has really gained traction in the wake of British social scientist Guy Standing’s 2011 book The Precariat, provocatively subtitled ‘The New Dangerous Class’. Standing argued that all Western countries were seeing a growing band of workers at the margins of the labor market. The precariat includes the young and old, the unskilled and unqualified who, for whatever reason, are locked out of ‘good jobs’ with higher pay, pensions and other benefits, and prospects of advancement. The book made Standing something of a darling of those fighting for better conditions or questioning some of the worst effects of neoliberalism in economic life. His ideas have been debated and scrutinized on both left and right of the political spectrum.

The success of The Precariat has led Standing to write a sequel, A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens. If his first book diagnosed the problem, this one offers a prescription for change in twenty-nine articles aimed at reforming work and the conditions that give rise to precarity. The ideas in Standing’s charter range from a complete redefinition of what counts as work to suggestions for reforming education.

Standing’s books have some profound implications for the way we think about the class system in general and the working class in particular. His initial volume’s subtitle ‘The New Dangerous Class’ echoed Marx and Engels’s ideas of the Lumpenproletariat – a dispossessed group at the very bottom of society who at times could be brought into the labor market as part of the reserve army of labor. In Standing’s twenty-first century version, the precariat has the potential to undermine working-class conditions in employment in similar ways and as a group has little or no connection to mainstream society. In his Precariat Charter, Standing attempts to forge new bonds between the precariat and the rest of society.

What I find most interesting about this latest book is what it says about work and what work can, and more importantly, cannot provide. Like a number of social commentators such as the late French social theorist Andre Gorz or British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, Standing seems resigned to the idea that work has little or no value for most people. Standing criticises politicians and unions for holding on to all work at any cost regardless of whether it is rewarding work or drudge labor, carried out simply for money. This attitude, he argues, compounds the problem of the precariat by creating the conditions where workers are seen as drones and are increasing conceptualised as denizens (people who reside in a place to work with few if any rights) rather than full and active citizens of a state. He calls, instead, for a radical recasting of economic life. Undoubtedly these are powerful ideas, and it’s especially important for someone with Standing’s profile to raise these issues and offer solutions to the problems identified.

However, when we dismiss unattractive drudge work as Standing and others do, we enact a kind of violence on those who are engaged in it, and, in the process, deny agency and voice –a working-class voice. For sure, in a perfect world all work would be incredibly meaningful and fulfilling all the time. But a number of writers take a working-class perspective and find value in basic manual labor. For example, in The Mind at Work, Mike Rose shows the skill and thought that goes into what many consider the most menial of jobs – waitressing. Other great writing on so-called low-end labor, such as Studs Terkel’s Working and the lesser known How to Tell When You’re Tired by U.S. author Reg Theriault, explores the cultures of work that emerge among workers in those jobs. Both of these volumes show workers as fully filled-out people who have ideas, opinions, aspirations, hopes, dreams, and fears. Rose, Terkel, and Theriault write about working-class people with whom you could share a beer. They seem like us, because they are people like us.

In contrast, because they lack voice and agency, the workers Standing’s two books seem somehow distant. Reading his books, I don’t feel like I have anything in common with the people he describes, however worthy they are of my attention. This may be the product of the book’s big picture ambition, but I find it problematic.

Precariat_Charter_coverThis stance towards the subjects of Standing’s writing extends to the covers of both books. While in A Precariat Charter, the subjects are obviously protesting actively, on both covers the workers’ faces are digitized out, so we literally cannot see them as fully human. And on the cover of the original book we gaze upon three young guys in Hi Viz jackets slumped against a wall eating a fast food meal, images that speak to resignation, passivity, and defeat reinforcing one of the themes of the first book.

tumblr_lo50e28RP31qe6laxI applaud Standing’s commitment and passion in raising the profile of workers at the margin, but it’s important that we don’t just see working-class people as passive victims of neoliberalism. Often it is precisely workers occupying the lowest rungs of the labor market who exercise both voice and agency. After all, the labor movement on both sides of the Atlantic drew its strength in part from precisely the sectors of the economy and the types of workers that Standing defines as the precariat. So I want to propose one more article for Standing’s charter: the recognition of a shared humanity working-class people hold in common.

Tim Strangleman

The Value(s) of Working-Class Jobs

When I was a kid growing up I looked up to my cousin. Ronald was twenty years my senior, and in his mid-twenties he decided to become a bus driver on London Transport. Whenever I saw him, I would be enthralled by his tales of the road, the ordinary stories of depot life, his work mates and his passengers. To a young kid, Ronald’s job made sense to me.  He did something tangibly worthwhile. My family didn’t own a car, so all our journeys involved some form of public transport, either by train or more usually by bus. In my universe, bus drivers had status. Their work was more intelligible than the labor of the Ford worker next door or the TV repairman across the street. These images of working-class work were reinforced in popular culture, and one of the most popular TV sitcoms of the decade was On the Buses,a series still being rerun somewhere in the further reaches of the UK TV schedule.  In the 1960s and 70s, we regularly saw representations of blue-collar work on our screens.

I was thinking about Ronald the other week as I read a biographical piece about the newly appointed Conservative government minister for the UK Department of Media, Culture and Sport, Sajid Javid MP. By anyone’s measure, the 44 year old Javid has had a stellar career as an investment banker with Deutsche Bank, eventually becoming a board member with a reputed £3 million annual income and a luxury lifestyle including private schooling for his children.

By contrast, Javid’s father arrived in the UK in 1961 from Pakistan with only a pound in his pocket, and he worked various jobs including driving buses in Bristol. That personal history is now a central part of the political biography of the son. Bus driving and similar jobs seem significant for politicians and journalists these days, and, they presumably assume, for their audiences.

We can read this ‘son of a bus driver’ narrative in various ways. The first would be the ‘look how far he’s come’ school of thought, which highlights the son’s battles against the odds to get to university and then on to a thoroughly middle-class trajectory. The second version uses the story to define the son as ‘a Conservative Party MP with roots in the working-class community’. Both positions at once use and discard working-class identity as the credibility it affords recedes into the background. What is notable is that being able to claim to be the son of a working-class bus driver still has traction, perhaps especially in a party seen as elitist and out of touch, led by a privately educated cadre of bluebloods.

But there’s a third way of reading this narrative of upward mobility: noting the dominant middle-class perspective it reveals. While class background is noteworthy, it is also safely tucked away a generation before. That means we don’t have to address questions of class or structural inequality directly. Rather than asking why don’t we recruit MPs from the ranks of bus drivers – or care workers, cleaners, and shop assistants – this dominant middle-class narrative naturalizes the idea that we should, and perhaps have to, draw our political class from people from who are already part of an elite privileged middle class. If being from a working-class background has not harmed Jarid’s political capital, I suspect an actual bus driver applying to stand as an MP for any of the mainstream parties would find that capital has little currency for contemporary selection panels.

This all leads me to worry about what will happen in the future, since all the mainstream UK political parties are increasingly recruiting potential members from an ever narrower band socially, economically, and educationally. Will a next generation of politicians find some kind of status and kudos from claiming a grandparental working-class background?

This distance between political elites and average people found expression in debates last year about MPs salaries. The task of determining MPs remuneration has been stripped from them – yes, they used to decide their own pay – and given instead to an independent parliamentary body.  It recommended in December 2013 that members should get an 11% rise, taking their pay from £66,000 to £77,000. The average salary in the UK is £26,500. The debate around this proposal shows that many politicians have come to see their elite peers, who earn about three times the average salary, as typical and representative of British society. This is further reinforced by the fact that many of the current cabinet, 23 out of 29, are millionaires. Even the opposition Labour Party’s shadow cabinet can claim seven millionaires. The result is that working-class jobs and the people who do them are outside the circle of experience of most senior politicians.

My cousin Ronald retired after working on the buses in east London for four decades last year. When he joined London Transport in the 1970s his job had some real measure of status.  Indeed, London busmen in the 1950s (and they were all men then) were described as radical aristocrats due to their pay and conditions of service. Gradually through his career my cousin’s job dropped in status, becoming less desirable as the decades went by. He had to move depots several times as a result of corporate reorganisation and was made redundant at least once as the now privatized company he worked for lost the contract for the routes he drove. Nonetheless he retired on a company pension from a still heavily unionised job. Ronald has two children now in their twenties I know they don’t work on the buses, but perhaps they could try out as politicians? After all, their dad was a bus driver.

Tim Strangleman

Working-Class Voices Silenced

The last couple of weeks have seen the silencing of two important voices on working-class issues in the UK. Within the space of seven days, the deaths were announced of union leader Bob Crow and veteran Labour Party parliamentarian Tony Benn. Neither may be familiar to readers outside of Britain, but in their very different ways they always maintained a working-class perspective in everything they did.

While Tony Benn was born into a liberal dynasty and solidly middle-class family, he gradually moved to the left over the course of his long and eventful career. Benn entered Parliament in 1950.  By 2001, when he famously stood down to “devote more time to politics,” he was the longest serving Labour MP.  Benn had been a cabinet minister during the 1960s and 1970s. becoming increasingly frustrated with his party’s rightward list. He became a totemic figure on the left of British politics, the champion of ordinary people and of democracy. Benn’s legacy will be secured in part by his diaries, which he kept from a very young age and daily from 1964.  These writings chart Benn’s changing political stance as well as his reflections on the rising tide of neo-liberalism outside and inside his own party. He remained actively engaged politically almost until the last.

Benn’s death at the age of 88 was sad but not unexpected, but Crow was only 52 when he died from a massive and sudden heart attack. Bob Crow was the leader of the Rail, Maritime, and Transport Union (RMT), the main union representing general transport workers, especially those working on the railway and London Underground. Unlike Benn, Crow came from a solidly working-class background. Born into humble conditions in the early 1960s in the east end of London, he joined the Underground at the age of 16 as a junior track worker. His rise through the union was rapid, but Bob never lost touch with his roots and working-class culture.  Nor did he lose his accent, which was delightfully working-class London, or cockney as it is sometimes described. Crow was incredibly successful, recruiting 20,000 new members in the context of near universal decline in other unions.  He was also brilliant at securing improvements in pay and condition that most other organised workers could only dream of. As a result of this success, Bob Crow was hated with a visceral passion by the middle-class establishment in the UK, particularly in London. Former Labour Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, himself the victim of sustained character assignation over his political career, noted that he could not think of another group of working-class employees who had seen their conditions improve over the last twenty years apart from Crow’s railway workers.

The explanation for the vilification of Crow – at one stage he was labelled the most hated man in Britain –  lies in the fact that he understood the logic of market forces. He knew instinctively that in a fully or partially privatised work environment his members possessed and could exercise tremendous power if they acted, or event threatened to act, collectively. Bob Crow’s RMT were able to call industrial action on the London Underground that could bring a city of 10 million to a halt with relative ease. Politicians and media commentators condemned Crow and the RMT and often highlighted what they perceived as the ‘scandalously high wages’ that he secured for his members. Op-ed columnists scrambled to remind their readers that train drivers earned $65,000 or more a year. During the last London-wide strikeright of centre columnist Simon Jenkins decried these workers and their status.  I have always wondered if the people of London would be happier if those performing safety critical jobs were on minimum wages with few fringe benefits.  I for one am comforted to know that the driver at the front of my train and the signal worker controlling its passage under the streets of the Capital don’t have to work two jobs just to make a living wage.  Just when did it become acceptable to decry working-class living standards as being too high?

But Bob Crow’s story tells us something else about class, namely the way journalists wrote and spoke about him. His broad working-class London accent was an object of derision, but this always said far more about the elite class background of those making the comments than it did about Crow. With Crow, journalists and politicians were in most cases talking to someone unlike anyone they had ever met before. In one interview several years ago, the journalist Jim Pickard in the weekend ‘Lunch with the FT’ (Financial Times) column, wrote about an interview he did with Crow: “Does he ever hit people, I ask?” This was in the context of a series of descriptions of Crow’s appearance – “pugnacious face, shaved head, thickset build.” Now while I regularly read the FT and that column, I cannot recall a captain of industry being posed such a question. My favourite anecdote about Bob Crow, however, dates from just prior to the second Gulf war when he appeared on the BBC Radio flagship Today Programme. Crow was asked by the thoroughly middle-class presenter James Naughtie to agree to the proposition that the union had called a strike to coincide with the start of hostilities and was by implication being unpatriotic. Innocently Crow asked, “What war?” at which point Naughtie rose to the full height of condescending best and said “Come, come, Mr Crow — the Gulf war obviously.” Crow’s reply over a decade on still makes me smile, without missing a beat he retorted “Oh, I thought you were talking about the class war.” What was beautiful about the exchange was that the attempt to patronise Crow had backfired so badly. Crow’s intelligence, wit and quick thinking left Naughtie floundering, and the journalist knew that he had been had by someone he could not conceive of as his equal.

Bob Crow’s passing was widely mourned in Britain, and for a brief period he was paid some richly deserved complements even by those diametrically opposed to him, though often through gritted teeth. To the last, Bob Crow provided a genuinely working-class perspective in British public life.  While Tony Benn’s passing is obviously sad, it is perhaps Bob Crow who will be missed more for what he achieved, what he stood for, and the lost potential his death robs us of.

Tim Strangleman

Benefits Street, or the Road to Poverty

I got wet last Thursday, very wet.  I was standing on a picket line at my university outside the central administration protesting yet another below inflation wage offer. A one per cent pay raise will mean that my colleagues and I have lost between 10 and 15 per cent of the value of our salary through inflation since the financial crisis hit in 2008. Meanwhile the top pay in the university sector has been rising steadily.  My own Vice Chancellor has been awarded a 1.8% raise this year, but that borders on the hair-shirt compared to her peers where double digit increments are not uncommon.

While comparative pay rates in higher education are obviously important to those of us who work in the sector, the question of pay both at the top and bottom of society more generally has come to the fore in the UK over the last few months. What matters about this debate is how it is rolled up in a whole series of other factors central to the contemporary working-class experience – the link between work, welfare, wealth, and poverty.

In their recent report, The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) highlighted the fact that for the first time on record the majority of those in poverty were in working families, not registered as unemployed or retirees. This trend began to increase in 2003, and the increase in poverty within these working families halted the more general progressive trends to reduce poverty over all. As a result there are more people in poverty in working families than in workless and retired families combined, and that undermines government ministers’ claims that work itself is some kind of silver bullet cure-all for the poor. The problem isn’t simply a lack of work; it’s also about low pay. In 2012, there were around 4.6 million low-paid jobs in the UK, and 39 per cent of these workers were under 30. This means roughly one in six workers in the UK economy lives in poverty.

Low wages contribute to poverty, but so does the structure of contemporary employment, and the JRF report highlights the growth of insecure work and underemployment.  In 2012, an estimated 250,000 people were employed on zero-hours contracts (where workers are not guaranteed a fixed number of hours).  This figure has varied over the years, with a low of 110,000 people on such contracts in 2004.  Drill down into these figures and we find that the average hours worked has declined from 28 hours per week in 2000 to 21 hours in 2012.  Of course, these are averages, with the actual hours worked oscillating one week to another. In addition, 620,000 people who desired permanent contracts are on temporary ones.  They want and need permanent status rather than ‘choosing’ the flexibly of temporary work as a convenient economic lifestyle. These features of the labour market — low pay, in-work poverty, zero-hours, and temporary contracts — are all working-class issues.  All corrode the elements of settled living that gave some semblance of stability to working-class communities in the past.

Some social scientists in the UK have interpreted these features as evidence of what Guy Standing has labelled the ‘precariat’ (see John’s Russo’s blog about the book here). More recently, UK sociologists Mike Savage and Fiona Devine have developed a widened class schema with a group at the bottom that they also call the ‘precariat.’ In both instances, what unites this new group of disparate people is their common experience of various forms of labor market instability. Their existence has a powerful disciplinary role on others in more secure work. Knowledge that firms might outsource roles to contractors, or off-shore it altogether, leads individual workers and their collective representatives to temper demands for higher wages and better conditions of service.

These findings start to puncture some big holes in the popular political and press accounts of the causes and consequences of the recession. Worklessness (people without work regardless of whether or not they are officially unemployed and drawing benefits) is not the great cause of poverty politicians would have us believe, and intergenerational worklessness – where two or more generations of family members are out of work – is a more marginal issue still. When asked about welfare, most survey respondents think that benefit fraud is a massive problem accounting for large chunks of the welfare bill.  In fact, it represents less than 1% of the total. Surveys also show that most people believe that unemployment benefit makes up the largest share of the benefits budget, when in fact pensions are the greatest cost. The real problem is with the real level of wages and how employment is structured.

Unfortunately, the political and press rhetoric around welfare in the UK is if anything ramping up, with a pernicious demonization of those on benefits. The UK based Channel 4, for example, has come in for a great deal of criticism for its TV documentary Benefits Street, which is based on what the producers describe as one of the most welfare dependant addresses in the UK. They have been attacked by residents of the street, including one couple who had been extensively filmed and who alleged that their in-work status meant they didn’t fit the dependence narrative of the series and were subsequently left out of the program. Listening to a recent BBC radio piece reflecting on Benefits Street, I was struck by the different ways of talking about the people there. While politicians and journalists used the phrases ‘welfare cheats’ and ‘benefit dependent,’ the residents themselves used the term ‘poverty’ to describe conditions in their area.

This rhetorical distinction perhaps holds the key for a more informed and progressive debate about the lives of working people, one where we shift the vernacular from ‘welfare queens’ and ‘benefits cheats’ on to the terrain of poverty. Reading Jack Metzgar’spiece a couple of weeks ago about SNAP recipients in the US, I am struck by the similarity in debates about the ‘deserving’ and especially the ‘undeserving’ poor. On both sides of the Atlantic, politicians’ reluctance to talk about poverty, its causes and amelioration, creates a vacuum that more reactionary commentators are happy to fill. As the lead character in the HBO show The Newsroom laments, in the past, “We waged wars on poverty, not poor people.” Fifty years after Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty, we need to shift the vernacular more than ever.  There’s an idea worth getting wet for!

Tim Strangleman

A Working-Class Perspective on a Seasonal Tale

As your finger is poised over your mouse ready to make that last minute gift selection for a loved one this holiday, bear in mind the complex web of economic, social, and political networks that solve your problems. Over the last year, a number of critical articles and documentaries in the UK have coupled Amazon’s corporate practices with its employment regimes, and in both areas class issues have figured strongly in the critique.

The wider story about Amazon, in the UK at least, centers on tax avoidance. While the company employs around 20,000 people in the UK, it pays very small amounts of tax – £3.2 million in 2012 on UK sales of £4.2 billion. It has been able to do this – perfectly legally – by designating its UK operation as simply an “order fulfilment business,” while its office based in Luxembourg employs only 380 people. Given the tax advantage to companies such as Amazon who are prepared to offshore, it is no surprise that there is now a crisis on the UK high street with many long established chains filing for bankruptcy due to the corporate penetration of Amazon’s business model. As recent articles and critical politicians have pointed out, Amazon is sucking out the tax base within local, regional, and national economies in terms of business rates as well as wages. In a high profile battle, cosmetics company Lush is even taking Amazon to court over its tactics. Lush refuses to sell through Amazon and yet the company uses ‘Lush’ as a search term in order to capture customers who then get directed to other products.  Indeed such is the power of this corporate behemoth that before it decides to locate one of its Customer Fulfilment Centres, it extracts as much as it can from local authorities and regional economic development bodies.  For example, the Welsh government gave £8.8 million in grants to Amazon to entice the company to locate its distribution centre in Swansea, South Wales rather than some place else. Much like WalMart, an Amazon Customer Fulfilment Centre creates some poorly-paid, high-stress jobs even as it also puts other companies out of business, cutting jobs elsewhere.  And as with WalMart, Amazon’s low wages are subsidized by government welfare programs funded by the taxes that Amazon has avoided paying.

Even more interesting have been critiques of working conditions at Amazon, which suggest a connection between the quality of jobs and the wider sense of sustainability of community. The two biggest issues with Amazon UK have to do with employment status and the intensity of the work. In recent Financial Times and Observer newspaper pieces as well as a recent BBC TV Panorama documentary, reporters have gone undercover, obtaining employment as temporary Amazon workers.  Their reports explain how Amazon’s direct workforce of around 5000 workers in the UK swells to over 20,000 during the holidays, but most of the additional workers are hired  through temporary employment agencies.  Amazon offers these workers a carrot: the possibility of permanent employment, slightly higher wages, and better conditions if they behave themselves. In reality, most temporary employees will never enjoy these carrots.

Most temporary hires work as pickers, walking 8 to 15 miles in a shift as they navigate around the selves to fulfill customer orders.  Amazon’s distribution sites are huge as you would expect – they range from 800,000 to 1 million square feet, as large as 14 soccer fields. Workers report suffering fatigue, stress, and blisters, but more worrying is the pace of the work, which would put car factory assembly workers to shame. Each step, each minute, sometimes even each second of the picker’s shift is closely monitored with a central logistic computer telling the worker what and where to pick next and specifying the number of seconds in which they should ideally perform the task. Workers complain about this monitoring and about the company’s sick leave policy, which allows only three periods of sickness before a worker is ‘released.’

So why do people take these jobs? Amazon deliberately targets locations with high levels of unemployment, usually areas where traditional industries were once based. The South Wales base, for example, is in an area decimated by steel and coal closures. The FT magazine article emphasizes that Amazon’s centre in Rugeley, in the English Midlands, is near the site of Lea Hall Colliery, a once modern ‘super pit’ opened in 1960, which closed just before Christmas 1990. Reporter Sarah O’Connor writes that when the 800 workers were made redundant at the mine, they were being paid the equivalent of between £380 and £900 in today’s money.  Today, temp agency workers at Amazon are paid only about £220 per week. Amazon’s low wage tactics reflect a far wider problem with in-work poverty.  This link between low pay and poverty is gaining more attention in the UK, and a recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation report highlighted that of the 13 million people in poverty in the UK in 2011/12, more than half were, for the first time, living in working families.

Like the often cited truism about multinational corporations, there’s only one thing worse than being exploited by a multinational and that is not being exploited by a multinational.  This is true for the communities where Amazon is located.  In communities with high unemployment, these are jobs that pay some kind of wage. But I think we have to ask bigger questions about what companies like Amazon are doing to our communities and to working-class work. Workers must have the right to be represented by trade unions, and they should earn a living wage. O’Connor ends her piece by quoting a local estate agent in Rugeley who criticized locals’ negative attitudes toward Amazon: “People expect a job for life, but the world isn’t like that any more, is it?” Well, the miners of Lea Hall enjoyed better terms and conditions and far safer working environments than their fathers’ and grandfathers’ generations because ordinary working-class people had expected and fought for more — if not a job for life then at least job that would give them more of a life than they currently enjoyed.

So as you scan those seductive Amazon pages, spare a thought for the employment and corporate practices that lie behind your choices. You could take a working-class perspective one click at a time. Now there is a seasonal wish!

Tim Strangleman

Growing-Up Working-Class On Film Forty Years On

The_Selfish_Giant_posterThe Selfish Giant, the new film from UK director Clio Barnard, has been hailed as “A Kind of Loach 2.0” and has attracted massive and glowing attention from the press.  The film centers around the moving relationship between two young teenage boys, Arbor and Swifty, who live on a housing project in Bradford in the North of England.  To put it charitably, both boys come from ‘hard living’ working-class families, and the plot revolves around their efforts to help support their disintegrating families. Both become excluded from school after getting into a fight as they react to the abuse they suffer because of their family background; both boys are picked on because of their lack of respectability. In order earn some money while not in school they set themselves up as putative scrap men, travelling the streets with a knackered old stroller, collecting pots and pans or indeed anything made of metal that they can convert in to ready cash. Predictably they graduate from hunting out abandoned household implements to stealing cabling and wire from the utilities and railway – ‘recycling’ their ill-gotten gain through a corrupt and corrupting scrap metal trader.  The Selfish Giant is a beautiful and profoundly moving film about friendship, young masculinity, and above all working-class culture.

I was invited to react to the film on a panel ‘sociology meets film’ at my University cinema last week. Because many of the reviews had connected The Selfish Giant with Ken Loach’s film making style,  especially his 1969 production Kes, based on author Barry Hines’s novel A Kestrel for a Knave,  I decided to watch Kes before the event. Kes_1969_film_posterLike The Selfish Giant, Kes is the story of a boy, Billy Casper, estranged from education and on the point of leaving school for the adult world of work.  He finds friendship and meaning in his life through his capture and training of a kestrel. Like Arbor, Billy comes from a broken home and is shunned by his community as a result of this lack of respectability.

These films were made over forty years apart and tell us so much about what has happened to the English working class in that period. Both illustrate real poverty, restricted culture, and poor living conditions.  In both, the fabric of the built environment is shabby and unkempt. In different ways, each details the casual disregard of the education system for ‘difficult’ working-class boys. However, the central theme that unites and divides the two films is the issue of work. Arbor has virtually no prospects of getting any form of mainstream employment when he eventually turns sixteen. He makes his living in and around a deindustrial landscape of loss. Like many left behind in the wake of economic change he is living off the scrap of residual plant and machinery from former industry.  Much of the film looks as if it was shot is located on a former colliery site. Four decades earlier, Billy Casper had the looming prospect of employment in a working coalmine that is at the center of his community and already employs his abusive older brother. Both characters seem trapped by industrial landscapes in very different ways.  For Arbor there are no jobs to choose, while for Billy the life of a miner is seemingly his only choice. We see how the hidden injuries of class play out both when people have access to work and when they don’t.

After the screening and comments from the panel reflecting on the film, audience members were invited to make their own observations.  One person effectively reframed the discussion when she asked “Where is the hope?”  The panel at the front of the auditorium shifted uneasily on their stools, hoping not to get the microphone – myself included – for there is little hope in The Selfish Giant’s unrelenting bleakness. In the late 1960s when Kes was released, living standards for the English working class were rising as they had been for over three decades. While many still lived in poverty, nearly everyone had a job, and above all there was still a strong and vibrant labour movement rooted in working-class community, culture, and workplaces – perhaps especially in pit villages. Today, the Arbors do not enjoy the range social structures to fall back on, nor can they look forward to anything other than precarious employment at best. If there is hope here it lies, I think, in the humanity that Clio Barnard captures in her respectful film, which is a feature of the best drama about working class issues. We see Arbor, or forty years before him Billy Casper, as rounded characters shaped by their surroundings, for sure, but also as embedded in relationships with others. Both Arbor and Billy are capable of demonstrating care and commitment to those who are important to them, to things they value.  Because of this, the audience sees something of themselves in the characters, and so the film seems to ask, what would you do in that world? What choices would you make?

The problem, of course, is that films like The Selfish Giant won’t necessarily be seen by as wider audience as they deserve.  All the press attention will bring more viewers to see this film, and perhaps this will create another important parallel with the earlier Ken Loach film. For while Kes was not an immediate blockbuster, it eventually became a word of mouth hit seen by a very wide audience and had a presence in national life, which it still enjoys to this day. Indeed generations of school children got to read the novel A Kestrel for a Knave as part of their secondary school English classes in large part because of the success of the film. That mainstreaming of working-class subjects and issues was the positive feature of the earlier film and book.  Let’s hope The Selfish Giant has a similar impact forty years on.

Tim Strangleman

From Syria to Salford: How We See the Working Class

On the BBC a couple for weekends ago, I heard an expert on the Middle East describing how the civil war in Syria was worsening by the day. He said something like “Some of the opposition are not nice middle class liberals you know.” The clear implication was that working-class rebels were the really bad ones, the ‘other,’ that ‘we’ had to fear.

I thought about that quite depressing vision of the working class the next day, when I visited a fantastic and soon to close exhibition at London’s Tate Britain art gallery of the work of twentieth century artist L.S. Lowry (1887-1976).  Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life has been an unexpected blockbuster with rave reviews. Importantly, most of those reviews have made specific reference to the working-class focus of both this curation and Lowry’s work more generally. Walking through the six large rooms of this powerful retrospective, an observer can’t ignore class, nor the places where the English working class lived and toiled. Lowry was a painter of industry and labor, and the notes to the exhibition quote his explanation of his work:  “I saw the industrial scene and I was affected by it. I wanted to get a certain effect on the canvas. I couldn’t describe it, but I knew it when I got it.”

Lowry painted ordinary life on the streets of his native Lancashire, including Salford in the North West of England where a fantastic gallery bears his name and highlights his work. Ordinary life for Lowry had industry as its backdrop – factories and mills that his trademark matchstick men and women tumble into or out of as their shifts changed. Even his paintings of working-class leisure, depicting football matches and street entertainment, are dominated by the prospect of work and the smoke-belching chimneys that defined northern England at that time. Lowry does not shy away from the grimness of working-class life.  His painting reflects street brawls, house repossessions and those crippled by industrial accident and disease, as this video shows.

Where the exhibition is especially powerful in its juxtaposition of Lowry’s art with a series of quotes from commentators, some directly addressing the artist’s craft and others offering more general insights into the working-class world he painted. These included poignant extracts from books like Robert Robert’s The Classic Slum, George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, and Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy as well as quotes from a John Berger essay. I was reminded just how good the prose in many books about working-class life in the middle years of the twentieth century was. The writing was thoughtful and reflective but pointed. But above all, it was attentive to the working-class experience, a lived experience rooted often in poverty or the fear of it. Consider, for example, this quote from Hoggart’s book, embossed on the wall of the gallery, reflecting simple points about the use of working-class language:  “Today if I hear someone using words like ‘sorrow’ and ‘misery’ freely, they usually sound slightly archaic. To my grandmother they were regular words, together with ‘care’ and ‘hardship.’ When she spoke of someone ‘taking the bread from her mouth’ she was not being dramatic or merely figurative.”

These excerpts give the exhibit visitor pause, as they were designed to do, of course. Lowry’s art and the contemporary writing from and about the working class contextualize each other.  Each art form mirrors the other’s subject matter, the one leveraging understanding of the other. As a working sociologist, I was brought up short by both the paintings and the writing. In just these four writers – and there were others – we see a focus on working-class subjects from Orwell in the 1930s, Hoggart in the 1950s, Berger in the 1960s, and finally Robert’s writing from the 1970s. A four decades span in which working-class life and prospects improved immeasurably even as more popular attention was paid to the lived experience of class and the vision of further improvement. These were writers whose books sold widely in paperback or whose essays were read and helped to form a shared understanding of class matters and a common sense of citizenship. It was perhaps no accident that British sociology and cultural studies expanded in these decades following the Second World War and, early on at least, class was central to its calling.

The exhibition begged many questions about our own age. Lowry’s canvasses recorded a bleak world that few if any would long to return to. If Lowry represented the poverty of working-class life and the heavy price industry demanded of the people and places where it was based in its heyday, then these same paintings in turn raise questions about these inner cities in Northern England now. But above all the exhibition for me prompted consideration of the presence of the working class in popular art and writing now. Lowry’s art has always been popular.  What must have been a cheap reproduction hung in a corridor of my primary school, for instance. But his art also often graced the covers of books about the working class in the decades after the Second World War when serious attention was being paid to them by the likes of Berger and Hoggart. For sure, the working class was often presented as an object of fascination; as ‘different’ from the middle class who researched or wrote about them.  There was, though, a care in that attention and an expression of humanity and recognition in the encounter between classes.

So while there has always been a distance between classes, at times in our history this gap has been narrowed. The geographic distance between Syria and Salford is a long one, but perhaps the void in class understanding may be greater still.

Tim Strangleman