Lately, lots of people have been talking about class. I read these debates, and I kind of get what they are trying to say, but it doesn’t bear any relation to what I see when I look around. People are really complicated. I have friends who could be described as ‘working class’ but would be mortified to hear themselves described so. Friends who will identify as working class, because their grandmother once chomped on an eccles cake before she got into interior design. I don’t identify with the working class culture that I hear mythologised, I grew up on council estates under Thatcher. Work did not define those communities. It’s dissapearance did.
What I see around me, is a generation of people who weren’t born into those class boxes Higer education has been open for quite a while-the so called working class got educated and learned to expect education. Education changing our self image but not economic status. That expensive education is now a basic requirement for all but the lowest paid skilled work.
Entire communities who would have been defined as working class, survive but are now considered deprived. Our credit based growth came on the back of the loss of industry that created work, and then excluded them entirely. Leaving little but state support. Those that stayed in those communities, viewed as having made the wrong choices. Creating the so called chav’ culture we are all supposed to despise.
Identity politics has been complicated by the economic system we have had since the late 70’s, and the ability to rapidly share information. A complex fluid culture that doesn’t fit into tightly defined boxes and certainly not boxes people see themselves in.. Socio economic distinctions, reace, gender, sexuality and even old class snobbery still exist-but one thing unites us all.
Debt and the importance of our relationship with credit.
The invisible burden.Our place in society defined by how much we owe, or can borrow not how much we have.
THe tories use the term ‘decent hardworking people’ because everyone defines themselves as that. Well actually, close examination reveals that the ‘decent hardworking people’ the tories talk about, are in debt. The myth of ownership and individualism creating shame at the debt our economy required, that shame allowing people to be told that this economic policy is necesary.
Contrary to popular opinion, the credit boom still hasn’t played out. In a country where wages have not risen that far, house prices have. We have a personal debt bubble of 3 times our GDP. We are maxed out. It isn’t just that banks aren’t lending, people can’t afford to borrow any more.
It is the norm that a significant portion of your salary will be going to credit payments, whatever you do. Servicing the debt necessary for fear of being blacklisted from participating in our credit based society. Car payments, mortgages, credit card payments, even mobile phone contracts.
Tax credits have allowed people to ignore the suppression of their wages. And have made mortgages that shouldn’t have been considered, affordable. Low interest rates, and easily available credit made lifelong loans of 6-7 times your household income the norm. Outrageous numbers that bear no relation to what you can earn, now an expected debt burden to a family. You know you are struggling when your credit card is being used to pay your essentials not when your savings run out. Throughout the income scale. Regardless of class. Regardless of their political affiliation. People haven’t stopped spending and started saving. People have stopped spending cos their earnings are servicing their debt..
When you lose your job or get sick, the inadequacy of the welfare state isn’t the biggest problem, your mortgage and your credit cards are. The thing that will keep you in poverty when you fall, is debt. Exclusion from the credit market very difficult to undo. When you sign on, you are signing on so your credit insurance will pay, not for the measly £67 the welfare state allows you to survive on. The jobcentre keeping you in line, for your credit card company and your mortgage. Jobcentres keeping you in line for the bank.
When you look at the way earnings are distributed, you see that actually the highest earners ARE paying their fair share of tax. Those who are paid by salary. It is only when you move into the realms of company directors, payment by dividend and shares, and bonuses that find a problem. Corporation tax is where you find people avoiding their fair share- not PAYE.
Those salaries which havent increased are paying mortgages which have. Servicing debt. Tax credits are currently subsidising house prices and wages quite a long way up the ladder. In the US this is manifesting itself with ever increasing numbers of middle class people using food stamps(helpfully administered for profit by JP MOrgan Chase) and losing their homes. In Britain we have had tax credits and relative stability- so we haven’t had to consider this. The much criticised unsustainable welfare spending subsidising this, has been one of the key protectors against the the crisis the conservatives are perpetuating. A crisis that hasn’t blown up yet.
The new working class is not flatcaps and whippets. There appear to be three distinctions. Those who keep their assets away from public hands. Those earning and in debt. And those exluded entirely.. The new working class is those paid by salary, who are in debt. It is not work that defines us, it is credit and an inability to minimise your tax obligations.
The net of undeserving, as I am so fond of saying, has never been cast so wide. Now it is all public sector workers. Teachers, professionals. Look at the relationship of the average house price to the average salary.
The so called working class and middle classs have kind of merged and just got shafted.
THe people who until recently thought they were working to provide services that were necessary, are now being told that not only have they had their wages suppressed, but they are undeserving of their pensions, their jobs, and recognition of the contribution they made. And they have mortgages and havent paid into an alternative pension. People whose skills are no longer seen as essntial for credit based growth, no matter how essential they are for the society we live in. Our small businesses dying as banks suffocate them by withholding the credit that they are forced to treat as their lifeblood. People whose wages now need subsidy for rent, and childcare are not our lowest paid workers or just public sector, but people on average and above average salaries.
Students are protesting because their very education, is now a ticket to a lifetime of servicing debt. An average mortgage and university education will leave people who would never have imagined such an amount of money, hundreds and thousands in debt before they start. The jobs they educated themselves to do, dissapearing in favour of part time unstable jobs, that won’t ever allow them to release themselves from this burden.
I saw Elizabeth Warren talking about the middle classes in america. She defined an american middle class, by credit. By debt. And in doing so, spoke to the people who were watching with me, in a way they understood. In a way they identify themselves. In way they wouldn’t, if that description had been about class or ideology. And I realised that was what was wrong with all this debate.
We are spending so much time looking for definitions of society, that might not exist, or have faded and become confused or make people self exclude- that we aren’t even bothering to look at society as it is now- and ask whether those definitions are relevant any more. Which would be fine, if it wasn’t leading us to ignore the very clear economic distinctions that have developed.
Those looking to redefine class as the basis for a political ‘movement’ could do worse than look at how much the country owes, in relation to what it earns. And have a think abou
t what that means in terms of people’s lives.
Anyway- this is middle of the night musings. I will read back in the morning and probably delete!haha