Our magical entry into the world is defined by certain philosophers as a ‘lottery of birth’, an apt phrase considering that fate smiles upon those who are born with a silver spoon in their mouth. In fact, it is not just riches and comfort, but also opportunities, resources and education that one inherits. Those who inherit advantages might never need to give a second thought to those who inherit disadvantages. Nevertheless, developed societies have prided themselves on delivering certain standards of living to their citizens, irrespective of one’s lottery of birth. Post-WWII, certain societies achieved similar or uniform standards of living, but not without the rise of socialism or communism and therefore, they are generally frowned upon. Ironically, these basic facilities can no longer be taken for granted in models where the working classes get locked into an underclass. Apart from the economy, factors such as health, housing and education are tied to class and cash.
The higher up the ladder, the more likely one is to end up with a better deal. That in part explains why parents of class-conscious societies remain obsessed with getting their children into the right school because they are convinced that it will place them higher up the ladder, provide them with the right opportunities and help them create the right circle of friends and contacts required to live a successful life. In societies like Britain, where class stratification is a reality, parents will even go as far as joining the Church and making donations to ensure a seat for their child in the best schools. This obsession is not shared by societies where basic education is free or subsidised by the State, as is the case for many countries within the European Union. Naturally, the race for a better deal in every aspect of life leads to a rat race, especially in societies where class structures are deeply entrenched. Here again, the higher up the class structure, the more likely one is to benefit from the systems in place. While birth is the first demarcation of class, schools have become a close second. Although every system and society have good intentions, the working classes often end up on the receiving end of their society’s educational policies. One of the key aspects of a capitalist model is social mobility. One may be born into a working-class family but the systems in place should provide the opportunities for social mobility.
Kenneth Williams, the famous British actor of the ’70s, may have been born into a working-class family, but his talent for acting took him into the posher parts of London. His story was inspiring for those who believed in the possibility of upward mobility. The fact that Kenneth Williams had worked his way up was proof that people could move up the class ladder. After all, social mobility is vital to any dynamic and vibrant society. However, what of those who were proud of their working-class roots?
In the UK, schools like Eton, Harrow and Westminster churn out the future leaders and elite as do universities like Oxford and Cambridge. This class of people may well end up at 10 Downing Street, but the working classes have their own heroes and leaders with a different vision of society. Jimmy Reid, the Scottish Union leader, presented his argument of the dangers of locking the working classes in physical poverty. Reid was a Marxist and so his views were easily dismissed, but study after study since then show that the attainment gap is widening, and white working class boys are being locked in spheres of intellectual poverty. Jimmy Reid’s ideals to help people develop by giving them responsibility and acknowledging the fact that wealth was a product of human labour appealed to many, but failed to inspire the ruling elite. The working class have a distinct sense of self-respect and pride. During the miners’ strikes in the ’80s, slogans like ‘Coal not Dole’ succinctly summed up the working-class attitude to taking pride in working and not living off redundancy or unemployment benefits from the state.
Diane Reay, a professor of education at the Cambridge University, writes that the white working class end up with less of everything in education, including respect. This was bound to happen because of the lack of respect for certain jobs and the absence of appreciation for the workers. While communism puts tremendous value on workers, capitalism tends to strip the working classes of their worth. During one of the debates on Brexit, a pro-EU millionaire businessman declared that migration into Britain was needed because he did not want to see his daughter become a potato picker. Apparently, only certain people’s daughters or sons were meant to be potato pickers. The idea that low-skilled work can be disrespected and is the domain of immigrants who happily accept low-paid jobs has gained respectability in many parts of Europe. Simultaneously, another pernicious ideology entered the class system. It became clear that educational progress or advancement was not meant to develop oneself or one’s knowledge, but merely the surest way of jumping up the ladder and tapping into the highly-paid jobs. This class of people may think of themselves as educated, but are in fact, just qualified and may not cherish the values of education. Many of them share an inherent contempt for the working classes and tend to look down on them. The past 40 years have set Western Europe on a one-way path of immigration for low-skilled jobs, first from European countries, and then from others. At some point, this was bound to hit the white working class.
In part those who sell the story that a country should be run as a successful business are responsible for their state. When GDP and short-term profits are made a mindless priority, the native working classes are bound to pay the price. In fact, this model has redefined Left and Right political affiliations and created a different political order. It was traditionally a very socialist value of the Left to defend the rights of the working class of their country. That very Left now defends workers from all over the world in the spirit of equality. This is a boon in disguise for businessmen, and some cannot conceal their excitement. In 2013, the US tyre mogul, Morris Taylor Jr. wrote a blunt letter to the then French Industry Minister. It boldly stated, ‘Titan is going to buy Chinese or Indian tyres, pay less than €1 an hour to workers and export all the tyres that France needs. The fact of the matter is that the rights of local workers can no longer be guaranteed by any government precisely because of the mentality of moguls. It is a long-standing joke that French workers are as lazy as toads, but apparently, even the Czech working class are spoilt and will not work for Ukrainian wages.
As a consequence of this, a new element found its way into the class system, it marked with ethnicity and ethnic underbellies. What is worse, the white working classes across Western Europe have had to live with the insecurity of losing their cultural sphere, neighbourhoods and jobs. A natural consequence of mass immigration is that certain neighbourhoods and factions of society have strained race relations.
In 2001, Unni Wikan, a Norwegian professor of anthropology, expressed her fears of ethnic underbellies in her book, ‘Generous Betrayal’. She was savagely attacked by the Left and quickly dismissed as a racist. Prof. Wikan had got it right; she was concerned that a disproportionate number of immigrants were left behind and lost out on opportunities in life. She echoed the thoughts and words of Jimmy Reid, who lamented the intellectual poverty that so many inherited because of economic poverty. The waste of human potential or the absence of resources available to a child to develop himself or herself to the fullest depends on the opportunities available to him or her.
Another lesser explored subject is nutrition for the working classes. When Covid-19 forced the world into lockdowns, it was shocking to learn that children in France and Britain (amongst other developed countries) were left starving. Working class children were dependant on school meals as their sole meal of the day. And while footballers like Marcus Rashford have thrown themselves into the mission to feed the poor, one cannot help wondering how much revenue could have been collected from simply shutting down tax havens.
In 1979, Thatcher pleased her rich circle of well-wishers by cutting the UK’s top tax rate from 83% to 60% and then finally to 40%. Former Conservative minister, Sir Ian Gilmour aptly summed up her years: “The sacrifice imposed on the poor produced nothing miraculous except for the rich.” Her political soulmate, Ronald Reagan, did likewise by cutting the top US tax rate from 70% in 1981 to 28% in 1986. Today it stands roughly at 45% for Britain and 37% in the US. These figures are conspicuously lower than the post-WWII period when the United States had top tax rates of 75%, and the United Kingdom levied even higher rates. Yet, that did not stop the super-rich from stashing away their millions in off shore havens.
When the ‘Paradise Papers’ were leaked, it confirmed every sceptic’s suspicions of the elite class, but it also proved that the ruling class and celebrities had the same passion for money irrespective of their nations, skin colour or class. Most countries seem proud of their rich and famous, but they remain oblivious to the fact their super-rich are of enormous superficial significance and add no real value to their compatriots’ lives unless they contribute to the tax structure of their respective nations. These factors have been known for years, so the real question is are we looking to eliminate the white working class altogether?