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Workers Telling Their Own Stories Can Rebuild Working-Class Pride

Recent years have seen a wave of literature by working-class authors discussing their personal experience of class — stories that often clash with patronizing accounts of the death of the working class.

Being working class isn’t just defined in terms of wages and economic indicators: it means that beauty has been stolen from your life. (Michael Browning / Unsplash)

For a few days, people had been inviting me to watch Retour à Reims (Fragments) — a new documentary inspired by Didier Eribon’s memoir about growing up in a working-class family in postwar France, and his escape from this background.

To be honest, I’d been avoiding it; my relationship with Eribon’s work is rather complex.  When I first read his Returning to Reims, I found myself sucked into its pages, besieged by flashbacks of my own childhood. But what kept me at a distance from Eribon’s memoir was my personal trajectory: in my case, my studies weren’t a factor for social mobility. After my graduation, I didn’t do any PhDs, and I didn’t enter the intellectual middle class. Instead, I went to work in kitchens for ten years — although I did also get to clean up horseshit in luxury resorts.

I wasn’t a class defector, and the bourgeoisie had steered well clear of welcoming me into its embrace (indeed, it was only too happy to exploit me). Sure, I’d left my Livorno hometown, with its fading old blast furnace and its soaring unemployment. But I’d remained in the working class, jumping from the frying pan into the fire. When I finally tried to write my story, the Daily Mail described me as a “sweary, grizzled old Italian Lefty,” with the implication that people like me shouldn’t write books but stick to cleaning toilets and cooking pizzas.

The other thing that worried me was the middle-class reception of cultural works produced by authors with working-class backgrounds. This isn’t just a problem with the writings of Eribon or, say, Édouard Louis: it affects everyone in some way. Working-class fiction risks turning out to be something quite different from intended. The memoirs of abused working-class women, which have a therapeutic value for the authors, feed the middle-class voyeurism of those who pity the poor. Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting sent countless wealthy students on poverty safaris to Scotland before returning, hungover, to their comfortable homes in southern England. And my investigation of my father’s occupational disease, Asbestos: A Working-Class Story, often earns me pats on the back from people who want to see me as a victim and not someone who wants to shed light on class privilege.

In short, we’re going through an interesting time for working-class literature, but it’s hardly plain sailing. Working-class stories are having a growing impact on the mainstream culture industry (I’m thinking of Stephanie Land’s Maid and Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain); the testosterone level of proletarian stories is dropping; and class is becoming more and more intertwined with other forms of oppression, like gender and race. The narrative of the “fight outside the pub” is dropping away, and toxic masculinity is questioned even in working-class settings.

The risk, though, is that these working-class stories are normalized in a way that makes them acceptable to middle-class readers, voiding them of any subversive elements. The story of a boy who suffers because he sees his homosexuality stigmatized in a working-class environment and accepted in the transition to the middle class — as happens in both Eribon’s and Édouard Louis’s memoirs — risks comforting the middle-class reader about his own moral superiority, demonizing the working class and presenting the bourgeoisie as a site of emancipation. (In this sense, the movie Pride points in the opposite direction, because it shows the possibility of seeking an alliance between class and LGBT politics.)

So, we need to think about the possibility that the middle class will appropriate our stories and use them for purposes we didn’t intend. Telling working-class stories, we risk falling into the paradigm of a victim, or the “good guy who made it” (a risk to which I exposed myself to with my Down and Out in England and Italy), or the criminal who puts his past behind him (as in Graeme Armstrong’s The Young Team, another great book from the recent cycle of working-class literature). We risk feeding the myth of the deserving vs. undeserving poor, of picking out the good apple in a barrel of bad ones.

Yet this can’t be a reason not to write at all. Rather, we have fight against it, by setting terms that stop our works from being flattened by a middle-class framing. Doubtless, that’s not always possible. But Cash Carraway does it well when she directly addresses the middle-class reader of her memoir, Skint Estate, accusing them of voyeurism. Édouard Louis does it when he picks up the thread of his story in his second book, Who Killed My Father. While in his debut, The End of Eddy, the father was presented as a perpetrator of reactionary and heteronormative ideology, here he is cast in a completely different, more humane way. Louis does this by explaining how his working-class father’s adherence to white supremacist, nationalist, and homophobic ideas was the result of tremendous pressure on the working class: an attempt to co-opt a portion of the “white working class” by tying them to what most resembled their exploiters, namely being male, in turn diverting class violence onto other, more subaltern groups.

First Movement

So, we see how patriarchy, racism, and white supremacism can destroy class solidarity. And this is what Jean-Gabriel Périot’s film adaptation of Eribon’s memoir shows so well.

But let’s tell the story in the right order; I can’t say all this occurred to me upon first viewing. Not least because the film took me absolutely aback. Instead of the solo narrator I expected, I found myself faced with a choral, polyphonic tale, told by editing together voices drawn from archival documentary and cinematographic material, supported by a theoretical frame reflecting Pierre Bourdieu’s teachings on class.

There are voices that resonate in my head with an all too familiar timbre. Family scenes. Workers marrying each other — only each other — because the middle class doesn’t want to waste the family capital they’ve built up. Blue-collar workers falling in love at popular dance nights. Scenes of dancing, interviews with young working-class women.

I can’t help but think of my own family. My father and mother met in just such a place: a popular dance hall. A beautiful working-class woman says she wants to marry a working-class man, but he must be handsome, too. I can’t help but think of family photos again. Of how stunning my dad looked when he was in his twenties — though, by the end of his days in blue overalls, he was a wreck, who the public health system hurried to offload by diagnosing a pulmonary tumor. Workers’ bodies tell us the truth about their lives. Their beauty wears thin, scraped away by machines, all too soon. Being working class isn’t just defined in terms of wages and economic indicators: it means that beauty has been stolen from your life.

The film continues, but by now, my vision obeys the dynamics of internal contemplation. The images on the film bounce from my retina to my brain, and I cannot afford the external, objective, bourgeois gaze of those who may watch such a film for informative, expositional, or militant purposes. For me, every frame is a class wound that bleeds. The female voiceover takes on a hypnotic force and acts as a counterpoint to the chorus of proletarian voices from the archives.

Next — as per Bourdieu’s teachings — we have social reproduction and the exclusion of the proletariat’s children from the world of culture. The images on the screen show French children. But I keep thinking of my mother, and her stories about the class-divided middle schools. Of her desire to study, which ran aground on the utilitarian knowledge offered by a vocational school, where even mathematics was taught “for the introduction of young ladies to industry” — as the title of an old textbook of hers I found in a drawer put it; whereas my father came out of school with his head held high, a “made man,” to start working at age fourteen. Injustices, a world of injustices. Eribon’s mother comments on a layoff, and the voiceover tells us, “I have felt hatred for relations of power and hierarchy ever since.” How much empathy there is in that class hatred.

The frames flash by. The most moving moment arrives. The plight of working-class women is even more oppressive than their husbands’. Proletarian women bear the burden of domestic and unpaid care work and go without those fundamental moments of working-class sociality that allow male workers to get by, with some emotional relief: the bar, the bistro, cigarettes with friends while talking about soccer and politics. The workers’ Saturday afternoon.

But the workers’ depression is just around the corner. The voice of one worker, combined with an image of an assembly line, reminds me of Lulu from The Working Class Goes to Heaven. But he’s less of a blusterer than Gian Maria Volonté’s character. His words dig into a wounded conscience:

You’re like a machine. My hands hurt. When I change the baby, I can’t undo her buttons. They’ve devoured our hands. I have a hard time writing; it’s hard to express yourself. When you don’t talk for nine hours straight, you have so much to say that you can’t say anything. You’re afraid. We survive. On average, a worker lives till fifty-nine.

Fifty-nine. My father, after working a lifetime as a welder, died at fifty-nine from occupational cancer caused by asbestos. Fifty-nine fucking years. A worker lives, on average, fifteen years fewer than a white-collar employee, even a lower-middle-class one.

At fifty, my father looked like he was seventy. At twenty, he was as handsome as a metal cowboy. At fifty, he had Mendeleev’s table tattooed on his lungs and looked like a ravaged old man, with dull eyes, no longer full of the light of irreverence towards the rich — the “loadsamoney” — of his youth.

Class is in the body, it is embodied — under your skin, as the British feminist Annette Kuhn has written. To those who tell you that social classes don’t exist, show them the class wounds engraved on the body of a sixty-year-old working woman. “The body of a working-class woman as she ages shows the whole truth of the existence of classes,” says the Retour à Reims voiceover. I slip into a new vein of thought, pushed along by the voice of a teenager who declaims wonderful words: “I think a society will be just when the workers are happy, too.” Here ends the first movement of the film dedicated to the working class — that class destined to abolish the present state of affairs in the name of its universal calling.

Funeral With an Empty Coffin

And the second movement begins. Less emotional. More expositional-argumentative. The theme now is the political representation of the working-class world: the betrayals of the parties and unions that, having been born from the working-class movement, have now turned toward the middle class, based on the assumption that “the working class no longer exists.”

Many have held funerals for the working class — as Richard Hoggart reminds us in his introduction to the 1989 edition of George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier — but the coffin was always empty. And yet, in decades of neoliberalism, the Thatcherite mantra that classes do not exist has been repeated like a litany: society is a homogeneous system, to be managed with management techniques, without a conflict of opposing interests between distinct social groups. With the class dismantled and the workers atomized, their power is snuffed out. And the powerlessness breeds anger and frustration.

The strength of times gone by was directed against the boss and the oppressor; today’s anger and frustration are channeled against the weak and powerless. Workers’ strength turns into a machismo that targets women workers, or the weaker among their own class: immigrant workers. Urged along by the Right, they end up turning into class traitors. And when one seeks a recomposition from amid the general abstraction, instead of looking to class, they look to nation — hence the tendencies toward white supremacism among certain sectors of the class. The Right has played its hand well: it has captured the desperation of the common people and tried to divert it toward its own goals, in defense of the rich. The institutional, gentrified left doesn’t give a shit about people’s desperation; it has become a party of educated people making enlightened consumer choices. Increasingly, this only fuels the resentment of the oppressed.

Dark moods run through the second movement of the film. Mark Fisher would speak of a sense of negative justice: let what happened to me happen to others, too.

Racism, blown on the ashes of resentment by the Right, gains ground. It’s not that elements of conservatism haven’t always existed in the working-class world — and the film explains this well. But they were whispers, and ones that didn’t become the basis for political mobilization, because the parties and unions mobilized their energies from the bottom up, against the companies and the bosses. Today, the Right seeks to occupy the rhetorical space of the Left to “defend the workers,” dividing the working class along the color line, to mobilize them against foreigners.

Once famous for their generosity and solidarity, so far removed from the commercial utilitarianism and individualism of the bourgeoisie, today the workers are portrayed as petty, ignorant, and mean. But that’s not what it’s like: it’s that we’re being demonized. A quote from Dorothy Allison comes to mind. “Call us the lower orders, the great unwashed, the working class, the poor, proletariat, trash, lowlife and scum,” she wrote in Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, “I can make a story out of it, out of us.”

Here, I know for sure that we have to go back to Reims, to these damn working-class towns, and take them back. We need to speak of the bright lights of the working class, not just the shadows, and stop thinking that joining the middle class is the route to emancipation. We have to think of a working class that is also intersectional and queer. With imagery, with activism, with the power of our stories. Because we’re the fucking salt of the earth, and we need to have the pride to resist a Left made up of patronizing concerned citizens and a Right that poisons the wells of working-class solidarity.

I don’t know if it’s the film making me think this. But I imagine that the stories told by Didier Eribon, by Édouard Louis, by Annie Ernaux, instead of reassuring the middle-class reader about their supposed ethical superiority, are urging the working class to free themselves from the ballasts of sexism, heteronormativity, racism, of patriarchy. Which exist in all classes, not just the working class. I imagine these French authors fighting for a new working class that can be enlightened by their biographical trajectories, without feeling crushed by them. That they see in these works the possibility of reconstructing a new imaginary.

As David Graeber, himself born into an American working-class family, reminds us, telling our own stories is also a way that we care for each other and lift our morale. Taking care of ourselves and each other, regaining the paths of consciousness and class solidarity, fighting against the damned rich — and other oppressors, too. Here are two or three things I know for sure that we have to do, with social conflicts and with novels, with strikes and with working-class imagery. With our feet always within the class.