A class repressed – in more ways than one

Mike Phipps reviews The melancholia of class:  a manifesto for the working class, by Cynthia Cruz, published by Repeater

This is a book about the melancholia that ensues when one abandons one’s working class background. From an American perspective, it charts the slow erasure of social class and class difference and the growing dominance of the idea of meritocracy. But, at the same time as social class is being removed from discourse, old, culturally-constructed stereotypes of the working class continue. The middle class say the working class does not exist, while at the same time vilifying it.

Cruz argues it’s important to resist assimilation and “insist on our working-class origins, on carrying with us the lives and histories of our families, communities, histories, and culture.” In doing this, one rejects both marginalisation and the homogeneity of neoliberalism. To succumb to these pressures is, from Cruz’s own experience, to feel shame of one’s origins, alienation and depression.

But what constitutes being working class? Cruz is a bit fuzzy on this. And, compared to the UK, this question is even harder to unpack in the US, where over 90% of people consider themselves middle class and discussion on class is often a substitute for addressing race. Cruz drills down through appearances to explore inner emotions she feels are common to people of a working class background – rage, shame and hopelessness, for example – to the absence of the social and cultural capital which are enjoyed by middle class people.

There are lots of cultural references here to illustrate Cruz’s theme, not least the songs of The Jam and a range of films and novels, including Trainspotting. Cruz explores how many working class artists have struggled with issues of identity and belonging. But this focus on the cultural might also be a weakness, emphasising the transient aspects of class which can be regionally, ethnically and gender-specific.

Although Cruz does not deliberately go down this rabbit-hole, an emphasis on class as a cultural construct rather than an economic relation can sideline intersectional approaches and lead to a majoritarian form of class behaviour being taken as the norm.

Beyond this, however, there is a universality to working class existence, based on both its relationship to the means of production and its development into a class-for-itself with associated class consciousness. But this may be neither permanent nor even visible at a particular time.

The hegemony of western neoliberalism stifles the development of such a consciousness and individualises the experience of working class people, turning them into figures of middle class ridicule. Owen Jones understood this in his seminal book, Chavs, when he asks how one of the most confident, dynamic and feared sections of society – the industrial working class – became the butt of middle class amusement and contempt. Crucial industrial defeats paved the way for this in the UK and in a very short space of time the working class went from being the “salt of the earth” to the “scum of the earth.” In the US, the process was slower and more insidious but it is connected to the same illusions in meritocracy and markets.

Despite the detailed studies of working class musicians, artists, writers, and filmmakers, I’m not sure Cruz’s book adds much to Jones’ analysis and it falls short of being the manifesto it proposes in its title. But there is real authenticity to those parts of the book where the author draws on her own experiences of growing up in Northern California, where she was labelled as ‘trailer trash’ by her middle class peers.

There is a lot here that will resonate with very many readers. When an “Ivy League educated professor” tells Cruz simply she is “wrong” when she points out that the working class does exist, one reviewer from a working class background  – also the author of seven poetry publications – was reminded of the time when one of her own manuscripts “was rejected by an independent middle-class publisher because – and I quote – ‘working-class people do not speak that way’.”

In a recent interview, Cruz said, “One of the hopes I have for the book is that members of the working class will recognise themselves in it and, as a result, reclaim their place in the class struggle.” Amen to that.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocusHis book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

Subscribe to the blog for email notifications of new posts