On working class fiction

Detail from the cover of Robert Tressell's The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
Detail from the cover of Robert Tressell's The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

In this essay from 2011, novelist DD Johnston presents a communist analysis of the definition and purpose of working class fiction.

Submitted by DD on May 15, 2013

Last week, for the second time in my life, I found myself agreeing with Margaret Thatcher. The first time was many years ago, in the mid-1980s, when Thatcher was briefly my hero. I was a timid child, who suffered from a speech impediment, and it had never occurred to me that free school milk was in any way optional. When I could, I poured my milk into a plant pot, or passed it onto the school gerbil, but on other days I downed it as one might down a glass of cheap vodka. One day, when we’d reached a certain age, the milk stopped. The milk discontinuation was attributed to ‘Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher.’ I waited a quarter of a century before I had cause to side with her again. This time, I found myself agreeing with her definition of class: according to Margaret Thatcher, ‘Class is a communist concept. It groups people as bundles and sets them against one another.’

Today, ‘working class fiction’ seems as old-fashioned as free milk: after all, as John Prescott informed us in 1997, ‘we’re all middle class now.’ In 2011, seven out of ten Brits agreed that they were middle class, whatever that term means, which seems to support The Daily Mail’s claim that ‘there are now three main classes in Britain: a scarily alienated underclass; the new and confident middle class, set free by the Thatcher revolution… and a tiny, and increasingly powerless, upper class.’

The strange thing is that the bigger the working class gets, the less we talk about it. Ours, to an unprecedented degree, is the age of wage labour. More Britons work in call centres today than worked in mines at the time of Walter Brierley, Harold Heslop, Lewis Jones, and Joe Corrie; but as yet there is no literature of the call centre. In global terms, the number of people who depend on selling their labour power has more than doubled since 1975. David Cameron has recently complained about eight million ‘economically inactive’ Britons, and, worryingly, his figure included the incapacitated, students, and full time carers. The average working week is longer than it was fifty years ago and for most of us there will be no retirement at sixty-five. We work days twice as long as did our hunter-gather ancestors.

But this reality is rarely conveyed by our novelists. Don DeLillo, perhaps the most influential writer of the neoliberal epoch, has written overwhelmingly about consumption, while he and his characters largely fantasise productive labour out of existence; for example, in Underworld, Nick describes his Lexus as ‘a car assembled in a work area that’s completely free of human presence’. Of course, this is a fantasy, and it’s precisely what Marx meant by commodity fetishism. It’s an extension of a long tradition in which, as George Orwell put it, ‘the people who make the wheels go round have always been ignored by novelists.’ Writing about work is hard – most work, after all, is boring – but not only is wage labour the dominant adult experience of our waking lives, the logic of surplus value is the factor that dominates our social and cultural existence. So I define ‘working class fiction’ as fiction that examines and antagonises the tensions inherent in capitalist society; I don’t mean only fiction that describes hardship, poverty, or social exclusion (though these realities are bound to be reflected in some characters’ experiences).

I’ve wanted to write something about class and fiction ever since the wonderful AK Press described me as a ‘working class stiff’. ’Stiff’ must be an Americanism – in the UK it means either a corpse or an erection – but the other bit I understand in terms not dissimilar to those employed by Margaret Thatcher. Capitalism functions because workers are paid only a fraction of the value we produce (the difference between the value we produce and the amount we’re paid in wages is what Marx called ‘surplus value’). Understandably, this is an arrangement that people have historically been reluctant to embrace, so capitalist societies rely on a class of people who cannot support themselves except by selling their labour power to an employer (a class of people who cannot, for example, live off their investments or savings or from income derived from letting property). This class is the working class or proletariat, and there are about 2.5 billion of us in the world. (The rest of the global workforce is overwhelmingly comprised of subsistence farmers, but there are also self-employed workers – taxi drivers, shopkeepers, freelance graphic designers, etc. – who, like proletarians, but unlike the capitalist class, need to keep working if they are to live according to the standards normal in their society.)

Employers and managers want their workers to be as productive and cheap as possible. They set targets and order efficiency reviews and sometimes monitor how long we spend in the toilet (over a million Britons work in call centres, where such monitoring is common). We workers, on the other hand, would like to take it easy. We’d like to avoid stress, take longer breaks, earn more money, chat to our colleagues, take the morning off when the wee one has mumps, and not work longer hours than those stipulated in our contracts (in 2009 – and probably every other year – I and over five million other British workers averaged more than seven hours of unpaid overtime a week). This antagonism is the basis of class struggle: the employer pushes in one direction and workers resist, either covertly and individually (by hiding behind the water cooler or phoning in sick or overlooking some paperwork or forgetting to turn over all of one's tips), or overtly and collectively (with strikes or slow downs or occupations). That’s the understanding I share with Margaret Thatcher, and that’s why I want to write about class and she’d rather pretend it doesn’t exist.

But when we talk about class in Britain, we usually think of it in the terms of liberal sociology. Sociologically, we think of the working class as grades C2, D, and E in the NRS stratification (skilled manual workers, semi-skilled or unskilled manual workers, and unemployed or casual workers). Sociological definitions of class are vital because they’re predictive of everything from how our kids do at school to how long we’ll live. But it’s become the only way of looking at class, so that today our stated ambition is equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome (we are doing exceedingly badly on both counts, of course; a 2010 study by the organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development revealed that in Britain a father’s income has more influence on how much his son will earn than in any other ‘developed’ country). We are primarily interested in social mobility, which is to say the extent to which individuals are able to move positions within the working class (to be born into social classes D or E, say, and then to find a job that places them in classes A or B). Oddly, this journey is only ever described in one direction: we don’t hear politicians applauding the examples of workers who were born in social class A or B but who, against the odds, are now working in temporary minimum wage jobs, and raising their kids in poverty.

The difference between a liberal-sociological definition of class and a communist definition of class can be illustrated with reference to Zadie Smith’s novel On Beauty. Smith’s character Levi is a black sixteen-year-old working at a multinational record store. When the store demands he works Christmas Day, Levi rebels. His father, Howard, a white university professor, explains to Levi ‘the principles of direct action as it was practised between 1970 and 1980 by Howard and his friends,’ speaking ‘at length about someone called Gramsci and some people called the Situationists.’ When Levi brings this strange ideology to his colleagues, he finds some allies among the white college kids (the story is as much about race as it is about class), but little support from the really working class people. The figure representative of the working poor is LaShonda, a black single mother of three young children. Surprisingly, given her family commitments, LaShonda is keen to work Christmas Day since she needs the money. The other sociologically working class character is Levi’s tyrannical manager, Bailey. Bailey is a sorry creature, much ridiculed by the younger workers, but when he breaks up the strike meeting, Smith has Bailey present himself to Levi as the embodiment of the real (black) working class: ‘“I know where you pretend to be from,” he said, his anger newly virulent, still holding the door but leaning in towards Levi. ‘Because that’s where I’m from’. After being humiliated by Bailey, Levi flees the record store in tears.

Smith’s take on this is fairly didactic: collective struggle is a thing from the past and those (middle class) people who still espouse it are out of touch with the working class. But this reading depends on us accepting that in this situation it is Bailey and not Levi who is working class. To a communist analysis, it is the other way round. Levi will, presumably, go to college and in time have a more desirable job than Bailey’s, but his desire for a day off threatens a minor disruption to capitalist accumulation. Bailey may have fewer life options than Levi, he probably has a harder life, and perhaps he’s more deserving of our empathy, but his class position means that in this struggle he’s enforcing the interests of the capitalist class.

If sociological analyses of class are important but inadequate, cultural definitions are useless and often harmful. The cultural identities built around long-term, secure, unionised work in heavy industry have been destroyed along with the industries themselves. We still depend upon millions of manual workers, but where these workers were once likely to be unionised and settled into long-term employment, today they’re more likely to be working on a temporary or ‘flexible’ contract. According to the British workforce survey, 83% of employers with 250 or more workers use agency staff, temp workers, or employees on zero hour contracts. More than 1.5 million Britons are employed via employment agencies. A friend of mine opted for agency work as an alternative to unemployment. The day after she registered with Office Angels, she was assigned to an HBOS call centre. For the next three years, the agency took a percentage of her salary. She was paid less than permanent workers and she received no benefits. After three years of consistently exceeding her targets, she was one of just four out of 120 workers who were offered permanent contracts. However, when HBOS checked her references, they discovered she’d been sacked from a previous job for lateness. Not only did she miss out on permanent employment, her temporary contract was terminated with immediate effect. Since she had no savings, she struggled with her bills, defaulted on her council tax payments, and was soon being harassed by bailiffs. But we’re supposed to think she’s not working class because she’s a woman, she drinks red wine, and she listens to indie music. After all, the working class are white heterosexual men who do manual labour, wear England shirts, read tabloids, and drink lager. Working class people, according to this view, are a small cultural group united by their aversion to delicatessens and foreign-language films.

Since few working people fit into this prejudiced cultural stereotype, it follows that the working class has shrunk. It’s not. The working class has grown, and though the jobs available have in many instances become cleaner, they have often become lower paid and less secure. One of the interesting things about the new ‘flexible’ workforce is that many of those who in one set of statistics are deemed to have benefited from the labour market’s new flexibility, in another set of statistics are deemed to belong to a feral underclass. The underclass is a myth that was invented by Charles Murray to depoliticise unemployment, at the same moment that governments willfully created unemployment to lower wages, break unions, and control inflation. This is not controversial. Economists and politicians are explicit about the importance of unemployment when talking among themselves; indeed, there are many similarities between Marx’s theory of the ‘reserve army of the unemployed’ and Milton Friedman’s theory of the ‘Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment’. But unemployment was the defining political issue of the 1930s and 1970s, and it’s only in the neoliberal epoch that it’s been depoliticised. This has been done by dishonestly and cruelly blaming the victims of unemployment for their misfortune. That there exists a half-civilised, feral underclass unable to work is an ideological fabrication: the majority of people receiving Job Seeker’s Allowance have worked within the past six months. But we’ve been taught to think of the lowest paid and most vulnerable members of the working class as some separate category to be ridiculed and feared. The uses and implications of these hate-filled stereotypes are well documented in Owen Jones’s Chavs. Like the vulnerable clerical proletariat, ‘chavs’ are another group that have been excluded from definitions of the working class.

In part, this is classic divide and rule: it’s in the interests of employers that skilled workers are set against unskilled workers, professional workers against manual workers, employed workers against unemployed workers. (This is why we have the bizarre situation that I’m in a trade union branch with a professor I’ve never met, but I cannot legally withdraw my labour in solidarity with the cleaner with whom I speak every working day.) But excluding people from the ‘real working class’ has another political function, a function that may have been pioneered by the Bolshevik dictatorship. From the early years of the Revolution, the Bolsheviks faced the problem of running a ‘workers’ state’ that was so obviously despised by so many workers. Their solution was to argue that the workers who opposed them weren't the real working class: ideological opponents were bourgeois intellectuals; the impoverished Ukrainian peasantry were kulaks. According to Trotsky, even the Kronstadt sailors, the hero proletarians of 1917, became in rebellion a different set of sailors, a set of sailors who actually came from ‘petite bourgeois’ stock.

In contemporary Britain, working people retain one important ideological function. Like the idealised proletariat of the Soviet Union, they exist as an imagined constituency evoked in opposition to political dissent. In contrast, dissenting people are for one reason or another presented as separate from the working masses. For example, in response to the 2010 occupation of Conservative Party HQ by protesting students, Dominic Lawson wrote in The Independent:

It is interesting to imagine what said proletariat will make of the view of such students and lecturers that the increase in university tuition fees represents the most unacceptable edge of the state’s oppression. Since those attending tertiary education come overwhelmingly from non-proletariat homes, one wonders if they might instead think that this is more of a middle-class protection racket.

Lawson’s article is filled with odd assertions: he claims Nelson Mandela as a non-violent campaigner but compares the students’ vandalism with Mao’s great famine (there is, he thinks, an enduring admiration for Mao and his methods ‘in some of our former polytechnics’). But what’s relevant here is his politically-motivated attempt to exclude the protesters from the working class. He appears to misunderstand the words ‘proletarian’ and ‘tertiary’: tertiary education includes hundreds of thousands of students studying in Further Education colleges (where, in addition to academic and access courses, one can study modern apprenticeship programmes and other training courses linked to manual labour), and ‘proletarian’ designates professional and clerical as well as manual wage labourers. Perhaps his peers at Oxford came overwhelmingly from non-proletarian homes, but the same can’t be said of students across the tertiary education sector.

As it became apparent that the student protesters couldn’t all be dismissed as ‘middle class’, we were fed new exclusions. When I talked to my students, they supported the protests but believed the vandalism was the work of ‘chavs who just wanted to cause trouble’. The violence was, apparently, ‘orchestrated’ by outside influences: Theresa May explained that the protests had been infiltrated by ‘hardcore activists’ and ‘street gangs’ (the latter, a fairly blatant euphemism).

Those who resist the expansion of capital will always be dismissed this way and contrasted with an imaginary constituency of British working people. At the time of writing, in June 2011, as we approach a coordinated public sector strike over pension reform, every radio station seems to have found a man with an Essex accent who works in manual labour and has no sympathy with over-privileged public sector namby-pambies. It doesn’t matter that a quarter of all workers earning under £7 an hour work in the public sector, or that public sector workers do the equivalent of 120 million hours of unpaid overtime every year; until they step back in line and accept the race to the bottom, public sector workers have the status of kulaks.

With this ideological support, even the most privileged working class jobs are now being ‘proletarianised’. Like Joseph K in Kafka's The Trial, university lecturers can now hope at best for ostensible acquittal or postponement. Every year brings another ‘efficiency review’ and a new threat of redundancies, and the neo-liberal motto, ‘there is no alternative’, is the clarion call of the university reformers. Meanwhile, the introduction of fees has permanently altered the student-lecturer relationship, so that students are now ‘customers’ or ‘clients’, whom academics are employed to serve. Lecturers’ pensions are slashed while their duties are increased. At some universities, staff are now allocated fifty minutes to prepare an hour-long lecture. The burden of administrational work is passed onto lecturers as admin staff are made redundant and managers invent new bureaucratic tasks to sustain their own existence. Even our long-envied summer breaks, our opportunity for research and scholarly activity, are soon to disappear, as mangers illiterately insist we offer the option of a third semester. Of course, lecturers’ conditions are still much better than those of, say, agency workers employed by HBOS, but the race to the bottom benefits nobody but the capitalists.

The Industrial Workers of the World understood this more than a hundred years ago. Unlike craft unionists who organise different professions into different unions, the IWW thought all workers should be in the same union. Unlike most American trade unions of the time, the IWW organised women and African Americans. Their members were mainly immigrant workers who laboured in mines or mills, or worked as loggers or migratory farm workers. But they had a simple slogan about class: ‘if you’ve got a job and you’re working for wages then your part of the working class, while the middle class is just a joke made up to keep us fighting against one and other.’ Dominic Lawson was educated at Winchester College and then Oxford, his dad was the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and his mother was a socialite and heiress; he and other well-paid hacks don’t object to a ‘middle class protection racket’ because they’re worried about professional workers reproducing their cultural capital and excluding the poor – they couldn’t give a toss about the poor. They’re worried about different sections of the working class cooperating rather than fighting against one and other. They’re worried that mass resistance to the dictates of capital will impede the growth of the economy and inspire a transformative, revolutionary politics. Working class fiction should be defined and evaluated by the extent to which it discusses, advances, and enables such cooperation and resistance.

D.D. Johnston, 2011
D.D. Johnston's new novel, The Deconstruction of Professor Thrub, will be published by Barbican Press in June 2013



11 years 2 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by flaneur on May 16, 2013

Good article but I don't think the problem is a lack of working class writers, but one of publishers not wanting to know. Someone like James Kelman, probably the best British writer of recent times whose books are all about work, received scorn that was almost apoplectic from the literati for his Booker Prize win, which he said made releasing further books more difficult. There's also the other problem that the sort of authors doing working class fiction usually need real jobs to supplement their writing.

As an aside, Iain Levison wrote his memoirs on the various shit jobs he worked and titled it A Working Stiff's Manifesto.


11 years 2 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by DD on May 18, 2013

Cheers, Flaneur. Not sure I entirely believe Kelman that winning the Commonwealth's most prestigious literary award deterred publishers, but I agree the furor was very revealing (I think something a wee bit similar happened when Trainspotting was longlisted - not that I'm saying Welsh is an equivalent writer). I think almost all writers need another job (in many instances, as in the case of Kelman, that means teaching), unless they're writing blockbuster genre fiction. Cheers for the Levison tip - I'll check that out.

Chilli Sauce

7 years 10 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Chilli Sauce on September 3, 2016

So I've seen this article promoted on libcom countless times, but this was my first time reading it. It's a really well-written and interesting read - and anything that breaks through bullshit cultural definitions of class is well worth promoting.