Sunday, April 29, 2007

We don't have class in Ireland

I was recently much engaged by a discussion over on Bock the Robber's blog regarding the notion of class in Ireland. It brought back a number of memories for me from around the time I began to associate with middle class Irish people for the first time.

Now as any Marxist schoolboy knows, class is not an attribute of an individual. It is a social relationship to the means of production through which we live our lives. In the most broad and abstract Marxist terms, if you operate the means of production you are working class, if you own them, you are middle class. But even old Charlie recognised that there were more than two classes in society at any given time and that the subjective experience of class varied considerably.

The problem of revolution often boiled down to how you got working class people to recognise their common relationship to the means of production under capitalism and unite as a means of changing that relationship. This is sometime referred to as the problem of 'false consciousness'.

In the industrialised societies of the 19th Century it was relatively easy for workers to recognise their common experience. They were all pretty much treated like shit, excluded from political power, education and the other trappings of citizenship we nowadays take for granted. With the top down reforms that came from the end of the 19th Century and continued during the 20th Century as a means of heading the revolution off at the pass, it became harder and harder to consider class in this clear cut kind of way. So much so that by the 1960s some deeply confused and ideologically motivated sociologists were talking about the 'end of class.'

Nonetheless, the basic principle of seeing class as a social relationship rather than a characteristic or attribute of the individual is as true now as it was in the mid-19th Century. Understanding class in this way is less a matter of what you work at, what you own, or how you label yourself in the here and now than how you experience the world and act in it in largely unconscious ways learned very early on in life. As Anthony Wilden once said 'Class is something you don't grow out of.'

When we start to think about it as an attribute of individuals, the problems and confusions around the concept really begin to escalate because, again as any Marxist schoolboy knows, we are confronted by a series of contradictions and misrecognitions about social relationships that as human beings we don't handle very well. They make us feel uncomfortable and uneasy when we experience them.

The situation becomes even more complicated and contradictory in colonised and post-colonial societies because class relationships typically get obliterated by national ones. The nationalist middle class typically horizontalizes the class structure and induces people to think of themselves as, say, Irish first and everything else second, if at all.

The Irish political structure, the practices of clientilism, stroke politics and the high degree of centralised control and localised surveillance, not to mention emigration, kept people toeing the national line and made the Irish ruling class probably the most successful in Europe at maintaining control over its people. Paradoxically, it made Irishness and the concept of identity amongst Irish people a very fragile and inward looking thing indeed.

Anyway, I digress. Until I went to work at the Institute of Irish Studies in Liverpool I had never met middle class (as defined by occupational status, access to education, and income) Irish people. My day to day experience of Irish-born people was pretty much restricted to folks from the same background as me and my parents (manual workers from Coronation St neighbourhoods) and relatives from similar backgrounds in Belfast and Dublin. The issue of class was a non-issue in such company because it was patently obvious what class we came from, raised no contradictions and therefore needed no discussion.

However, in the more socially rarified environment of the Institute I began to meet people who became increasingly agitated when I raised the issue of class politics in an Irish context. Seemingly intelligent people such as academics, journalists, diplomats, artists, and other professionals would have coniptions when Liam the Red introduced a class dimension to the discussion of phenomena relating to contemporary Irish society and culture.

They would almost inevitably and invariably resolve their unease with the same phrase: 'Ah now, Liam, you can tell you're not Irish. Everyone knows we don't have class in Ireland.' After a while I gave up trying to argue with this apparent truism in the spirit of rational debate and would simply resort to saying something like: 'Perhaps you'd be kind enough to inform my cousins in Ballyfermot and Ballymun of that next time you're passing that way, assuming you know how to find your way there.'

The illusion of the absence of class and class relationships in Ireland is precisely that, an illusion. What's more it is an illusion historically maintained by the privileged as a means of maintaining their privilege. If you speak out about it you run the risk of losing your claim to Irishness altogether, letting the side down, or otherwise being less than a credit to your race. This is a very powerful means of ideological control in a post-colonial society and when it's backed up by the sanctions of social exclusion and the threat of the emigrant boat, it doesn't take long for most folk to get on the programme.

Anyway, that's the sociology rant over. If anyone still doesn't believe me then I suggest they take this little test from the English Daily Torygraph. If the results can be relied upon, I'm expecting my invitation to the Duchess of Devonshire's next 'at home' to arrive any day now.


The Hangar Queen said...

Brilliant post Liam and I'm going to have to take a while to digest it.That piece by Bock that you referred to has been bouncing around in my skull for a bit too.

Pete McCarthy in the "Road To McCarthy" touched on this and he quotes someone as saying "In Britain there is a class structure and everyone knows how it works.In America there is no class system and everyone knows how THAT works.In Ireland there IS a class system but no-one how it works"

BTW repeated use of the term "Marxist schoolboy" has me concerned that you may be reverting to andro-centric adventurist revisionism.
In Solidarity
Comrade Hangar Class Enemy

Liam G said...

Thanks mate, profound apologies for my andro-centrism. It was a slight homage to Gregory Bateson, one of my heroes (as is the name of this blog itself). But I consider myself quite rightly politically corrected:-)

Poor old Pete McCarthy I used his stuff in teaching about identity. He died just as he was getting comfortable with his Hiberno-Englishness. He was ok for a woolly-back from Warrington :-)

The Hangar Queen said...

I had no idea he was dead!I had the good fortune to meet him in October 2002 and he was pure sound.He was at a reading in THE McCarthy's Bar and the Missus and I found the place by accident.

He was very amused by the group we became part of that night.Guitar strumming Portuguese fishermen, a gay English couple,a National Geographic staffer and me.

Rest easy only got weirder.