Notes on the issue of class – work in progress

Firstly, this is NOT an academic document, one day it may be, but that would require adding lots of references and bringing those I have used into one of the various referencing schemes. This is a working document.  The larger study it is part of is on the ‘separation of the church from the poor’ and it is requiring me to think in terms of social classes – but I don’t have a definition for the particular group of people I am concerned about.  As it is a working document, an effort to ‘feel my way’ towards a point, I would really appreciate constructive criticism.  There would be no point however in criticising it as if it were a finished piece of writing – it isn’t!

 I was reading Social Change and the Middle Classes – Butler and Savage, which started a chain of ideas.  I note that I need to read their references: Giddins and Margaret Archer.


These days I often come across the suggestion that the whole concept of ‘class’ is no longer relevant.  [refs]  This seems to result from a definition of class as a political self-awareness developing within a group which shares a socio-economic status.  The definition is usually rooted in an understanding of a developing politicization of the ‘working class’ with all other classes defined in relation to it.  Clearly there have been some changes in class patterns, and there doesn’t appear to be much of a politicized working class any more compared to previous generations but that doesn’t mean that class itself has gone away.

 I have a very different interest in the whole issue of class.  I do not require a group of people to be politicized or to be aware of itself as a group with the potential of collective power.  I need, merely, to recognize and acknowledge the existence of groups with shared socio-economic circumstances in order to study the tendencies which exist for relationship between the group and the power-structures of the society of their time – in particular the church, since my study is in the social history of that organization.

 It is undeniable that in every era (certainly, in Britain, since 1300 where my studies have effectively begun) there have been people for whom their economic existence was, to say the least, precarious.  People who, if not destitute, lived just one disaster away from destitution.  And the potential disasters have always been many: a bad harvest, an unusually cold winter, epidemic, loss of a bread-winner (a variety of possible causes), eviction by landlord, downturn in trade, loss of employment etc.  All of these potential disasters have been, through the ages, of sufficient likelihood that between them they must have produced a tendency for people to live in constant awareness that they were ‘on the edge’ – that the boundary between themselves and destitution was very thin indeed.

 In previous times, before the politicization of the working class (described so ably by EP Thompson) they were much more likely to be aware of themselves as ‘folk of this parish’ (Pounds, The English Parish) or at a later stage, of ‘this mine’, or ‘this factory’ than as a politico-economic class. 

 So, I can’t possibly use the term ‘working-class’ to describe the mediaeval poor, since I have no reason to suppose that they had any political self-awareness of themselves as a group.  And it appears that it doesn’t seem to work as a descriptive term today either – the people who would come within my field of interest can see the unions, supposedly representing the working class, as relating to those groups who, to a large extent through union action, now have secure, relatively well-paid jobs.  While the people I am concerned about are in insecure employment, working irregular hours either part-time or on so-called ‘zero-hours’ contracts and on very low wages indeed. To them, the salary and conditions of employment of a teacher, nurse or train driver is beyond their dreams – and, largely, these are the sort of people they will see the unions representing.  Butler and Savage include these types of employment within their description of a new class – the ‘service class’ – a subset of middle-class.

I am left with two possible terms to use to describe this group of people which has existed through the ages.  The ‘underclass’ or the ‘precariat’. 

 The term ‘underclass’ is sometimes used dismissively or pejoratively which certainly counts against it.  And yet it does adequately describe a group of people who are simply ignored when class structures are drawn up according to people’s long term employment.  A person who has (relatively) secure employment as a nurse, or a carpenter, a shop assistant or a cleaner can have an economic status defined by such a structure.  The person who manages to get a few weeks or months work in one form of employment and then some time later a short period in another – interspersed by periods when it becomes necessary to fall back on whatever safety net may be provided by society at that time – that person is simply missed out of class structures when they are defined by type of employment.

 The term ‘underclass’ is however defined in terms of a politico-economic structure of society and although such a definition could be used in all periods it would require re-definition in each period to relate to the political realities of the time.  In other words, defining people as being part of an under-class is time specific – it begs the question, in each period – ‘under what class?’  I therefore choose, for simplicity’s sake, not to use this term.

 The term ‘precariat’ however seems to describe the circumstances that I am concerned with.  An existence which hovers on one side or the other of whatever line, at the time, defines the minimum for existence.  While it might (or might in fact be very difficult) be possible to define that line for any period it is the insecurity of such a life which is its distinguishing feature – and that is so for any period.

 So when the Webbs (History of the English Poor Law) talk of what they describe as the ‘labouring classes’ of the 18thC, being largely dependant on poor relief regardless of employment status, they are describing a precarious existence. Their ‘labouring classes’ could be defined as members of the Precariat, just as today’s benefit claimants, many of whom we are told are in fact working (Refs) who live in fear of whatever scheme may be brought in next by the government to reduce or remove their benefit, may also be so described. 

 I do however, have an interest in the politicization of the working class.  In previous eras, much political activity among the sub-gentry levels of society was at least to some extent in relation to the church.  Noticeably however, from the so-called ‘Peasants’ Revolt’ (1381 Ref) to the chapel revivals of the early 20thC, the people concerned are consistently described (refs) are being of the ‘middling sort’: yeomen, small traders, artisans etc.  If these were to be considered as the ‘working-class’ equivalent of their era, there were definitely people in more constrained economic circumstances than these.

 And so I have to consider what the impact of the politicization of the working class was on the precariat.  To what extent it involved them?  It certainly did, but in what manner?  Did it have the effect of lifting some forms of employment from precarious to secure status resulting in what is perceived today as a reduced relevance of the whole concept of working-class? Is the precariat something which re-forms in every generation as working practices change?  Or is it more continuous, with a culture carrying on from one generation to the next?


Posted on April 30, 2014, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Paul Callaghan

    Interesting piece Elspeth, Though I think say Union members are in relatively secure employment is an over simplification many union members are on zero hours contracts, and have poor pay and conditions. I don`t know if you have read much Marx but his ideas that with each crisis of Capitalism more and more of the middle class would lose their status and be drawn in to an ever increasing and poorer working class while those with capitol became richer seems to be coming true.

    • I am surprised to hear of any noticeable number of union members on zero hour contracts, I’d have thought the unions would have been making a massive fuss about it! I may have to read Marx eventually but I keep hoping that reading round the edges (people who refer to him) will be enough since I find it incredibly frustrating that the discussion of working class in those books relates purely to a political movement rather than simply to a group of people.

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