Class Envy

There was an interesting opinion piece The Great Divide by James Delingpole in the Sunday Times Style magazine (February 5, 2006) about a division in the middle classes between the haves and the have-nots.The haves stay in Tuscany and go on ski-ing holidays.

My own thoughts on this is that the working classes haven’t gone away, they just slave away with a phone, the laptop and the Blackberry.The have-nots referred to in the article are the normal working-class folk of yore. They are the infantry of the knowledge economy. In place of soot-covered waste coats or donkey-jackets it’s suits-and-ties or media casual.

I have no problem calling myself working-class. I learned my trade as a PR person by working with great people in the same way that I served my time as an apprentice in the chemical industry in my early 20s.

They have the same fears as the working-class of past decades with the fear of their jobs being exported to India or China rather than seeing their factory closed down by foreign competition. Self-service online and IT-driven business process management in banks has replaced robots and automation on the factory floor.

I found it particularly interesting that Delingwood assigned education and politeness with middle-class society. The working-class neighbourhood I grew up in was not full of cavemen: respect for yourself and others was something that was drilled into me. Indeed, I still occasionally have that uniquely Irish refrain from my mother asking me ‘not to disgrace the family-name’ ringing in my ears.I worked in many jobs from managing a tightly knit production team, to working on a factory line, being a cleaner, being part of a call-centre hive, banking and working in PR. It was in the middle-class environs of the PR agency life where I saw the most morally repugnant mistreatment of fellow colleagues and peers practiced.

With regards education, there has been a long tradition of a well-read working class, indeed some of the ‘new’ universities sprang out of mechanics institutes and other places of working-class education. The things that stood me in good stead for working in the knowledge economy were:

  • The wide range of reading that I did whilst working shifts in the oil industry and have carried on since
  • The work ethic that my gaffer taught me as an apprentice
  • A practical approach to problem solving that I picked up working in the chemical industry

The under-class of today are the dispossessed bypassed by the knowledge economy, rather like the farm workers left by land reforms and the industrial age. The working-class education is now a combination of the state education system, public libraries and the worldwide web were institutions like MIT Open Courseware and Wikipedia which equate to the mechanics institute of today.It will be interesting to see if or how these new working-classes get organised. If you have any thoughts feel free to use the comment facility.