Last week I went to a conference at Manchester Met to speak (broadly) on intersectional feminism, alongside the excellent Reni Eddo-Lodge. The event had some useful and interesting contributions, given in an atmosphere notable for constructive and supportive discussion, and for critiquing work done previously rather than seeking to reinvent the feminist wheel. Below is a transcription of the talk I gave. It works as both a synthesis of things I’ve written previously on feminism and class, and as a step towards articulating how my own type of feminism developed (clue: this year it’s thirty years since the Miners’ Strike). It also, in a personal best, contains only one use of ‘autodidact’, none of ‘hegemony’, and no mention of the Manic Street Preachers.
The concept of intersectionality has a long history, and has informed the political work of women from Sojourner Truth in 1851 to Selma James’s 1975 pamphlet ‘Sex, Race and Class’. In 1989 Kimberlé Crenshaw’s use of the term emphasised how women of colour experience multiple systems of oppression, and how their experiences and voices are frequently marginalised or erased, even within feminist or anti-racist discourses which aim at justice or liberation. Intersectionality has been the subject of much recent discussion within feminism, some of which has dismissed the concept on the grounds of its supposed academic obscurity and irrelevance to ‘ordinary’ people. I will dispute this dismissal.
The aspect of intersectionality I’ve written most about is the tension between class politics and some of the ways in which contemporary UK feminism is expressed. I’m not suggesting that class is the only dimension of oppression, or the only one worth exploring, but I do see class as something fundamental, and as something which intersects significantly with both race and gender. These interactions are particularly visible in the debate on ‘chavs’, which I see as a point at which class prejudice crosses over with several others. I will look at that debate and at the surrounding context of neoliberalism and austerity in which it takes place. I will then look at how responses to this debate, in attempting to rehabilitate working-class identity, have instead constructed exclusionary models of class based around the idea of the white male worker. I will then finally talk about how the calls for feminism to make itself accessible beyond white and middle-class women, has tended to involve negative or condescending assumptions about working-class women and their capacity for education, political consciousness and organisation.
Here is Dawn Foster’s excellent piece on the idiocy of insisting that feminism must be dumbed down for the supposed benefit of its potential adherents among the working – for which read ‘thick and theoryless’ – classes. Something implicit in Foster’s argument, which would benefit from being more frequently and explicitly stated in wider debate, is the corrective it provides to current presentations of class vs identity politics as a zero-sum game.
As I wrote the last time Coslett and co. trotted out this line, a) being ‘ordinary’ doesn’t mean being stupid, and b) the problems of the ‘ordinary’ working class are inherently intersectional. As Foster describes, grassroots organisations and actions, from Women Against Pit Closures to Southall Black Sisters, are informed by awareness of how gender and/or race impacts on class, and how class impacts on race and/or gender. This is intersectionality experienced and practiced as a day-to-day reality, enforced by existing structures of power – not a distant and alien theory into which one chooses to opt. It offers a real-life, instinctive and logical practical application of the ideas and concepts that, apparently, are so complex as to be beyond the intellectual grasp of The Likes Of Them. This shit isn’t difficult, and it shouldn’t be presented as such.
Here we go again. Yes, the performance on primetime of fierce and unapologetic left-wing populism is both a relief and a cause for celebration (more because the media as well as politics itself has grown so defanged, timid and prone to paranoid self-policing over the past few decades, with those who vocally deviate from helpless/complacent acceptance or active reinforcement of a neoliberal consensus becoming such a rarity, than because Brand was all that small-r revolutionary in and of himself). No, the conversation doesn’t and shouldn’t end there.
It is not moralistic, irrelevant, or distracting to bring up Brand’s – to understate – frustrating attitude to women when evaluating his political intervention. It is in fact far more unhelpful to insist, in response to this criticism, that Brand’s class identity somehow gives him a pass on this stuff, as though attention to issues of liberation other than the economic is just too much to ask or expect of a working-class male, even one so clearly capable as Brand of holding more than one thought in his head at the same time. Yet again, well-meaning but paternalistic and patronizing ideas are pushed of what it is to be ‘working class’ – in this case, the idea that working-class men cannot be expected to recognise or interrogate their own chauvinism or that of others, or that their doing so is somehow unnecessary.
Moreover, to caricature any discomfort with Brand’s sexual politics as the preserve of joyless derailing middle-class Puritans, who simply cannot handle all this earthy proletarian jouissance, is to implicitly erase even the concept of women as part of the working class, let alone any concerns they may wish to raise. Much current backlash against identity politics is too often suffused with an unedifying and regressive glee at throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and does no one any favours. Equally, surely it’s common sense that oppression on the grounds of gender, race, disability or sexuality is fundamentally exacerbated or ameliorated by material inequality. These identities are mutually reinforcing and cumulative, not zero-sum.
I mean, we’ve been here only recently, and we’ve been here repeatedly before that. Expressing unease at an aspect of Brand’s politics shouldn’t be about imposing some absolutist hierarchy of oppressions – it is merely an obvious and necessary balancing act, a demand for more than the absolute basics from those lauded as representatives of the left, and a resistance to the imposition of restrictive ideas about class.
Is that the end of the conversation? No. What the conversation should have been about in the first place is resistance to the fact that we are being asked to accept, as ‘recovery’ and ‘return to normal’, an austerity-driven strategy of enforced impoverishment – stagnant wages that fail to keep pace with exorbitant costs of living, an explosion in the use of food banks and a breathtaking rolling back of employment rights. Opposing this does mean concentrating on material issues and class politics. Let’s just not be dicks about it.
Things I’ve written elsewhere:
- For the Wales Arts Review, What Riot Grrrl Did and Didn’t Do For Me: on female artistic expression, theory vs practice, post-punk, class and feminism, the 90s, adolescence, and Courtney Love, I think that’s everything.
- For Planet on the centenary of the Senghenydd colliery disaster, a piece about the issues it continues to raise around Welsh identity and the history of working-class exploitation and resistance.
We cannot get rid of employers and slave-driving in the mining industry, until all other industries have organized for, and progressed towards the same objective. Their rate of progress conditions ours, all we can do is set an example and the pace.
- The Miners’ Next Step (1912)
Of course, having put away excitement and belief and other childish things, I no longer await a new Manic Street Preachers album with the same starry-eyed avidity I once did. (Do you?)
On the title track and its accompanying video, I liked what Lost Communication had to say:
While I don’t doubt that the video portrays places, issues and themes that the Manics hold dear to them (as do I), I fear they have fallen into the trap of adding a romanticism to the ‘noble decline’ of the industrial heartland of Wales. There should be nothing romantic in portraying how working class communities have feebly clung on to life after being chewed up and spat out by a succession of neoliberal governments.
… and I’d add only that the swampland that lies between mawkishness and sentimentality is a thoroughly Welsh place to get stuck. On at least one of the tracks discussed in the Quietus interview, though, ‘30 Year War’, the band seem to succeed in side-stepping the rose-tinted ‘noble decline’ trap:
“It’s not about Thatcher, it’s definitely about Thatcherism, about the establishment across the last 30 years, and it doesn’t matter what government is around, we always love to portray ourselves as this holier than thou country, and yet we have scandal after scandal uncovered, right to the root of power, government, Murdoch, the police, Hillsborough, this stupification of the class I grew up in, which I think all stems from Thatcherism really. The idea that if you break down any power that we had we’re going to be fucked forever…
I find that elitist, ‘We know what’s better’ is so all pervading, from the monarchy to fucking Cameron to Mumford and Sons. We’re just told… what did one of Mumford and Sons say the other day? ‘Either ignore it or celebrate it.’ What a fucking futile attitude. Don’t say anything bad, just ignore it or celebrate it. So what about fascism then? We don’t like it, we’ll just ignore it. It does feel like the last five years has been such a redress of monarchy and establishment and public school through all points of our culture. I feel a bit helpless about it.”
Bang on, of course, as is everyone else who appears to be waking up and wondering what went wrong after the Old Weird Nineties (that Mumfordian ‘ignore or celebrate’ ultimatum is straight outta Cool Britannia, although much of that era was more notable for its ability to do both at once).
I’m glad that bullish bullshit detector of his endures to an extent. It’s encouraging that the disingenuous and damaging nature of both austerity and austerity chic is being increasingly noted, but the lack of analysis and alternatives are still too glaring for this to be any more deeply gratifying. Not that analysis or alternatives have ever been the preserve or the responsibility of rock stars.
1. I wrote this piece for the Wales Arts Review on Welsh history, politics and identity. Yes, again.
2. In the next issue of Planet: the Welsh Internationalist, I have written on the relationship between Welsh artists and London in the very poor disguise of an album review.
3. If you’re at this year’s Green Man, I will be there to speak to ex-Kenickie members Emma Jackson and Marie Nixon on music, gender, class, the 90s, you know the drill. My life as outtake from Phonogram continues. I shall endeavour not to use the term “escapist proletarian-glam aesthetic” more than once but can’t promise anything.
Obviously I’m pleased, not to mention surprised, to see my book reviewed in a national newspaper that isn’t the Morning Star. Without wishing to sound ungracious, though, it is mildly exasperating to see the review uncritically reflect the idea that using Big Words makes the writing ‘over-done’ and ‘in thrall to the strangulated cult-studs vernacular’. I do know what John Harris means by the latter term, of course, and I will write at a later point about the regrettable tension that seems to occur in a lot of contemporary writers, invariably ones on the left, between the wish to make one’s writing easily understood and the fear of sounding overly simplistic. The latter, incidentally, often seems to be fuelled by a feeling that, in order to be taken seriously by a small potential readership whom one has been conditioned to regard as cultural and academic gatekeepers, one needs to somehow ‘prove oneself’ by larding one’s prose with gobbets of Žižekian sophistry, lest one stand accused of being low-brow or naïve or Owen Jones or something.
The thing is that these words don’t strike me as ‘big words’ when I’m thinking or writing them, they simply strike me as the most appropriate words to use. I also dislike repeating words, and so I use a lot of words which mean similar things but which I guess might grow progressively more outlandish until the book ends up describing 90s popular culture as ‘atavistic’ rather than simply ‘backwards-looking’. Sorry about that, I guess? Ironically enough though, the review goes on to cite ‘those great pop-cultural intellectuals’ the Manic Street Preachers, whose lyrics were nothing if not a strangulated vernacular of their own. For good or ill, the Manics, in their encouragement of reading and general cultural immersion as a cure for small-town boredom and alienation, were far more of an influence on my subsequent vocabulary than some nebulous villain called Cult-Studs.
So here’s a question. Is vocabulary now considered a class signifier? Does understanding, and using, ‘big words’, mark you out as someone who cannot belong to ‘the ordinary’, ‘the normal’, the demographic conveniently delineated by external commentators as ‘working class’? Or is it the case that one’s socio-economic background does not preclude one having an expansive vocabulary? Might one have gained a knowledge of ‘big words’ from, uh god I don’t know, reading books and reading broadsheets, despite where one was brought up? And does knowing ‘big words’ mean you can never be categorised as ‘working class’? Continue reading
I write this without even attempting to address the tangled canopy of class under which the above play unravels. There is very little new under the twentieth- and twenty-first-century sun, not least the withdrawal in disgust from engagement with the whole system of parliamentary party politics. I find this tendency more in erstwhile members of the Labour Party, myself included, than anywhere else.
So often Labour seems to exist only in negative terms: as an entity at once, depending on who you ask, too centrist, too militant, too bureaucratic, too in hock to focus-groups, trade unions, spin doctors, Scotsmen, businessmen, Bennites, Blairites, castigated from so many angles for its invariable failure at any one time to be precisely what a given individual within it might desire it to be, that it’s frankly astonishing that the party in government got anything done at all. (And on a probably myopic, material level, it did, from the NHS to the minimum wage – yes, ameliorated capitalism, concessions wrung like blood out of a stone, but notable improvements to the lives of working people all the same. It’s not as though we aren’t going to miss them when they’re gone.)
The party has always been, to a great extent, held together by surface tension. Its history is a brittle ballet of compromise and pragmatism – which equals selling out – versus purism and idealism – which equals getting nowhere. I suspect each of these scenarios suits some proponents of each set of watchwords just fine. The ‘right kind’ of Labour Party has never wholly existed, has always existed more as a series of competing fantasy constructs, of potential parties never quite made real. And, like its kindergarten the National Union of Students, the party has always seemed more serviceable as a vehicle for advancing individual careers than for furthering the interests of collectives. It’s not as though this critique has only been crystallised post-Blair, although admittedly the post-Blair party appears so risibly, shamefully hollowed-out, in terms of ideology, passion and commitment, that it looks lost for good.
A machine of perpetual disillusion, then, sure, but, whether stemming from self-interest, tradition, sentiment or principle, a residual and almost utopian – read: naive, deluded if you like – faith in what the party could be is very hard to shift. This post was brought on, obviously, by last week’s bravura turn by Owen Jones on Question Time, and his subsequent invocation of the ghosts of Labour past. I think Owen Jones in the wrong party, but mostly I’m fucked if I know what the right party is any more.
I find this article as a whole too blustery and otherwise wrong-headed to actually like, but the following snippet does a useful job of prising open the discourse around ‘scroungers’ versus The Respectable Poor, in picking up on the kind of reactions which need to be progressively engaged with and challenged from a position of understanding rather than superior, usually class-inflected dismissal, both here and, it seems, in the US. NB I don’t, obviously, think that the problems here expressed began with an article in Salon.
“Before that article in Salon, this mother was allowed to believe that her staying off the dole had some honor in itself– some validation of her identity– and it allowed her to survive her hardships. Now she is forced to swallow that these people are not merely as good as her, but more valuable– they get an article, they get defenders like you, they are praised for their intrinsic human value, and all she gets is mocked, belittled, “she’s too stupid to know what’s good for her!”– all she can do is comment on their life– and her small act of rebellion is to at least use the space to tell the world she exists. Rage is her defense that keeps her intact while the world seemingly ignores her.”
(Yeah, this is how I like to spend my Saturday afternoons.)
I had only one real beef with the excellent Paul Mason’s most recently printed reflection on ‘the graduate without a future’, but it’s the same beef I have with almost every recent lamentation on the state we’re in: lack of attention to class as key. Given Mason’s interesting and not especially privileged background, it seemed a particularly surprising omission. While of course I appreciated the article’s update on how there’s still no future, but there might be some putative entrepreneurial ‘survival in the cracks’, stringing beads together on a collective farm then selling them through The New Inquiry (I paraphrase) – it’s still the case that all graduates are not created equal, and some are still more equal than others. Correct me if I’m wrong (really, do correct me if I’m wrong), but while very, very obviously, it’s still shit to be a graduate right now, surely it’s marginally more shit to be a poor graduate?
Take the Coalition’s recent wheeze, the proposed cut in Housing Benefit for those under 25, which has been widely predicted to herald jobless or low-paid graduates being thrown back to live on the largesse of their parents, or failing that, on their settee. Is there really no discernable difference in the future that awaits a graduate returning to a post-industrial unemployment blackspot, and that awaiting one whose family are able and willing to subsidise their rent and support them while they work unpaid internships? Those graduating with wealth and connections are surely likely to retain their privileges? Take, too, the withdrawal of EMA and cutting of university funding, which is serving to entrench the idea of education as something undesirable because unaffordable, not something which can serve as a route out of poverty and a broadening of horizons.
Also, as several people stressed below the line on Mason’s article, this focus on the plight of the graduate – pitiable, emblematic, and potentially revolutionary as it may be – is part of a broader narrative whereby conditions which have always been likely for those at the socio-economic sharp end are becoming something to which the middle class, and their graduating sons and daughters, are increasingly exposed. The resulting shrieks of indignation are amplified in the media. While it’s true and valid to note that the current economic model is visibly failing, there are those for whom it has never really worked, and whose struggles with it scarcely ever receive broadsheet coverage. In the grand scheme of things, and especially right now, I’m not sure whether this is too insignificant a complaint to make, or whether it’s the only complaint worth making.
Chav, n. British slang (derogatory). “In the United Kingdom (originally the south of England): a young person of a type characterized by brash and loutish behaviour and the wearing of designer-style clothes (esp. sportswear); usually with connotations of a low social status.”
– Oxford English Dictionary
1. The C word
If ‘cunt’ is reportedly losing its power to shock or offend, don’t worry, other c-words are available. ‘Class’, for instance, appears to have become unsuitable for use in polite society these days, while ‘Chav’ has never been so commonplace in the respectable parlance of those who would never dream of using any other c-word so blithely. Owen Jones’ book Chavs, a welcome and necessary analysis of the latter phenomenon, identifies it as a culture ‘created and then mercilessly lampooned by the middle-class, rightwing media and its more combative columnists’, and examines the word’s place in current political and cultural discourse in the context of a simultaneous narrowing of socio-economic opportunity. Continue reading