Class and the Arts: A Crisis of Representation
by Luke Davies
Ben Clarke and Nick Hubble, Working-Class Writing: Theory and Practice Palgrave 298pp ISBN 9783319963105 £89.99
Roberto del Valle Alcalá, British Working-Class Fiction: Narratives of Refusal and the Struggle Against Work Bloomsbury 192pp ISBN 9781474273756 £31.99
Why, when we are getting better at talking about race, gender and sexuality – particularly within the domain of cultural representation – do we consistently fail to address the subject of class? Answering this question may help unlock a few of the most baffling mysteries of our age. How, for example, at a time of unprecedented inequality levels – with 82% of wealth created last year belonging to the richest 1% – Donald Trump has been able to garner widespread blue-collar support for inaugurating the biggest corporate tax cuts in US history. Or how the town of Blaenau Gwent in Wales, who have received a disproportionately massive £4billion of European Union funding over the past 20 years, could chose to strangle one of its few remaining lifelines by voting 62% to leave the EU.
Our hardest hit communities are clearly not, as many on the left would like them to, bemoaning the true causes of their impoverishment – things like deindustrialisation, austerity and corporate greed – as they instead choose to blame immigration and government spending. The temptation, in a British context, is to attribute this to the xenophobic and self-interested impulses of a population who have never quite forgotten that they were once an empire, and who thus believe that they both could and should stand alone. I’m sympathetic to this view. Yet it also seems perverse to brand British working-class discontent as imperialistic when historically the working-classes were the least responsible and the last to benefit from the spoils of empire. I would urge people to consider, instead, that a key factor in the rightward drift of popular opinion – doubtless exacerbated by the media’s right-wing bias – is that many on the left seem to have stopped being vocal defenders of working-class interests.
That is undoubtedly true on a political level. Even if we are witnessing a resurgence of support for traditional left-wing values in the form of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, these aren't movements that working-class communities have come to fully trust – understandably, perhaps, given the decades of neglect from the left, and how fractious and disunited its return to form has been. In the domain of culture, however, I’m not sure there has even been anything resembling a recovery.
Instead there's a striking absence of prominent working-class voices in the British media, especially those belonging to the younger generation. And there is a gross underrepresentation of working-class characters in films, TV shows and literature: a 2014 LSE survey of creative industries found that only 10% of authors, writers and translators come from backgrounds typically associated with the working-classes, whilst in the category of visual media (including TV and film) for directors, arts officers and producers the figure is as low as 3%. Certainly there are anomalies (Sally Rooney's Normal People and Francis Lee's God's Own Country being two striking examples) but the general picture is undoubtedly bleak. And yet, there’s little public outcry. If you are poor and British, the likelihood is you feel under-represented and that no-one gives a shit. And while the left have been happy to tolerate this, the right have been able to take advantage by making a series of jingoistic appeals, the undercurrent of which is: if they won't fight your corner, we will.
How has this crisis of working-class representation come about, and what can be done to rectify it? Three recent publications focussing on the subject of working-class literature seek in different ways to offer answers to this question. The first is a reprint of a collection of essays entitled The Socialist Novel in Britain, one of the first attempts to excavate ‘a then largely unacknowledged cultural heritage’ of writing by British 'proletarian or working-class authors’.
H. Gustav Klaus’s introduction to the 2018 edition describes the progress that has been made in the 37 years since the initial study, when working-class literature was a relatively new field of academic inquiry. Klaus writes of the struggle to continue ’the process of recovery, rereading and reevaluation’ of literature written in the interests of the working-classes following the collapse of ‘actually existing Socialism' in the late 1980s – before describing the partial recovery brought about by critics such as Ian Hayward and Pamela Fox.
And yet, re-reading Klaus’s seminal study, it’s hard not to be left with a feeling that the early 80s were a heyday of working-class criticism – and even more dispiritingly, that the ambitions of the contributing authors were never quite met. For instance, Raymond Williams writes in an essay on Welsh literature:
‘recovery only as research, a new department of academia, is at best the beginning of the story. Significant recovery begins when at least some of the novels are put into active circulation again, for the readers and the children and successors of the readers among whom and sometimes for whom they were written.’
The authors celebrated in this collection as early pioneers of working-class fiction – E. Lynn Lynton, Margaret Harkness, Ethel Carnie Holdsworth – can hardly be said to have passed into ‘active circulation’. The wide-eyed ambition that the bias of literature departments and bookshops permeated by indefensibly skewed literary histories might be cured seems not to have come to fruition: and yet – the ambition, and belief in the cause, might still be seen to be a valuable lesson to take from this early work in working-class studies.
Ben Clarke and Nick Hubble address this same problem of neglect in their introduction to Working-Class Writing: Theory and Practice, writing of the ongoing ‘marginalisation of working-class studies’ within academia. In the process they offer an alternative explanation of the cause, attributing it in part to ‘the conservatism of many literature departments’ but also to ‘changes in priorities of many on the left’ – namely concerning an increased interest in critiquing ‘other social structures such as gender, sexuality and race’.
Clarke and Hubble avoid making the mistake that others have made of arguing that identity politics is responsible for the fragmentation and displacement of class struggle – insisting instead on the necessity of the current state of heightened awareness concerning these social structures, and arguing that ‘any return to working-class writing must be informed by feminist, postcolonial, and queer studies’. And yet at the same time, they remain firm in their insistence that intersectionality is a much needed synthesis: declaring simply ‘it is time to return to the problems of class that were abandoned to right-wing populists’.
Accordingly the collection goes some way towards addressing the narrow focus on the white male experience that characterised previous studies of working-class fiction (including Klaus’s volume), in particular by raising the profile of authors such as Sam Selvon, Shelagh Delaney and Mulk Raj Anand. Matti Ron’s essay stands out as in insightful exploration of ‘radicalised working-class experience’ and ‘class stratification within the black community’ in the fiction of so-called ‘Windrush generation’: unforgivably overlooked authors of real merit, like Selvon, ER Braithwaite and George Lamming.
If Williams in The Socialist Novel in Britain suggests that wider circulation of the working-class canon might be a means of galvanising interest in and recognition of working-class culture, whilst Clarke and Hubble in Working-Class Writing: Theory and Practice suggest that academics need to re-engage with working-class history and cultural output whilst simultaneously attending to the role of race, gender and sexuality in British class history, then Roberto del Valle Alcalá’s British Working-Class Fiction: Narratives of Refusal and the Struggle Against Work challenges us even further. Alcalá begins this timely and original intervention into working-class studies by questioning the way in which 'thinking about the representation of work in literature [is] virtually indissociable from the promotion of class perspective’. He goes on to argue that Marxist analyses typically valorise the principal of work by defining working-class experience as something that can be remedied by better employment possibilities and ’socially transformative aspiration’. Alcalá questions this entire way of thinking and advocates what he terms an ‘Autonomist Marxist’ position, according to which ‘the adoption of an identity linked to the enforced logic of capitalist work cannot possibly result in a truly revolutionary position’.
Alcalá argues that defining the working-classes in terms of work has deeply limited the emancipatory possibilities of left-wing literature and criticism. His study then consists of a series of against-the-grain readings of working-class literary classics such as Alan Stillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Irvine Welsh’s Skagboys, finding moments in which, far from embracing their proletariat identity or promoting workers rights, a ‘struggle against capital’s domination’ is staged through the refusal of and struggle against work.
In adopting this position Alcalá joins a number of economists, historians and literary critics – among them Nick Srnicek, Alex Williams, Rutger Bregman, David Frayne and Josh Cohen – who have in recent years challenged longstanding cultural assumptions about the inherent dignity of work. These authors have embraced the possibilities of full automation and universal basic income, in the process enabling a new conception of class that can withstand the recent fragmentation of working-class communities and the emergence of a ‘precariat’ class identified by the economist Guy Standing in 2011’s The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class.
Alcalá’s re-readings demonstrating that many fictional working-class heroes never really wanted to work are strongly evocative of the arguments of these authors, who have contested that the left have failed the working-class precisely because by defining them through their latent employment potential they have further entrenched 'the enforced logic of capitalist work’. The solution that Srnicek and Williams in particular have been keen advocates of is to redefine the economically disadvantaged as a social group and to rework the agenda so that emancipation is no longer seen to be synonymous with employment: a set of proposals for which Alcalá’s study retroactively provides a defence. Alcalá’s intervention forces us to consider whether our idea of working-class culture needs a rethink, and to question the productivist dimension of a lot of left-wing thought.
These three books each present very different answers to the problem of working-class communities feeling marginalised and remote from the social and cultural mainstream. Either, they suggest, we work harder to establish a sense of working-class history and culture; or we work to better integrate class struggle with identity-based struggle; or we loosen our definition of the working-classes as a group defined by their relation to work. These agendas are equally vital and, ultimately, mutually compatible.
At present there seems to be little widespread interest in mobilising around the issue of class representation in the manner suggested by any of these three publications, which is of course deeply dispiriting. Acknowledging our failure to talk about class more often – and the role that this may have played in the rise of populism – would be a way of kickstarting the debate.