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The middle-class urge to construct a narrative of struggle

We all love to exaggerate about how humble and hard-done-by we are – but we also have to recognise the ways that we benefit from how the world is organised

In our new Class Ceiling series, we unpack how class actually affects young people today – from our jobs, to the way we have sex, to our general experience of the world.

The posh person who affects the mannerisms of the working classes is a well-established figure of fun. But another distinct phenomenon has emerged in recent years: the middle-class individual who doesn’t exactly misrepresent their background, but leans into certain aspects to create an impression which, while objectively true, is a little misleading. I’m talking about middle-class people who consider having gone to state school (or better yet, a “bog-standard comp”), attended a decent university other than Oxford or Cambridge, and being raised by parents who aren’t A-list celebrities to be badges of salt-of-the-earth authenticity.

Being working class generally means being disadvantaged in a professional environment, whether through outright discrimination or a nagging sense of not fitting in; writer Natalie Olah has argued that the feeling of ‘imposter syndrome’ is often an expression of the alienation that comes from having to decode “the language, styles and tastes of the upper classes”. But within some sectors (politics, the media, the creative industries, or entrepreneurial business), there can be incentives to positioning yourself as of more humble origins than you actually are. It might lend you an air of credibility or authenticity; it might allow you to narrativise your life as a tale of unlikely triumph or to imply that whatever success you have achieved is especially hard-won and indicative of outsize talent. In a hierarchical society, you don’t even need to lie to pull this off. Sure, you might be middle class, but at least you didn’t go to private school. Your parents might be doctors, but someone at a publishing party once made an unkind quip about your northern accent. You might have gone to private school, but at least you didn’t go to Oxbridge. You might have gone to both private school and Oxbridge, but at least your uncle didn’t get you your job.

Some areas of British life are so elitist, so riven with nepotism, that these complaints may well be legitimate. Private school and Oxbridge graduates really are over-represented in prestige industries, where the fact your mum doesn’t have her own Wikipedia page can feel like enough to qualify you as a plucky underdog. But the vast majority of people didn’t receive an elite education and don’t have famous parents. Taken on their own, these circumstances are not signifiers of a gritty life on the never-never, nor do they qualify as a noteworthy piece of personal trivia. They are, in fact, entirely banal. And if you are from a comfortable background, then focusing on these exonerating details becomes a way of obscuring the other ways you will have benefited from your class position, both materially and culturally. It means that the face of societal injustice becomes people who, by any reasonable metric, are doing pretty well (if you’re from a middle-class background and working minimum wage, you are exempt from this critique). Lots of young people don’t get to go to university at all, but the discourse around educational privilege often ends up focusing on who gets to study at Cambridge and who must endure the grave injustice  – the embarrassment! – of ending up at Warwick.

That’s not to say that these grievances are completely without merit. As inequality increases, the difference between the middle classes and the upper echelons of the elite has never been wider. This is the context in which “‘the politics of envy” has emerged as one of the dominant smears against left-wing politics. Ahead of the election in 2019, for example, panellists on Question Time discussed whether it was “envy” that fuelled “Labour’s desire to steal other people’s property.” Conservative writer Anne Hendershott’s 2020 book The Politics of Envy, meanwhile, blames the covetousness of other people’s good fortune for all manner of social problems, from race riots to “woke culture”. If you support a redistributive policy or suggest the existence of billionaires is an unhealthy thing for society, you’ll find yourself dismissed by conservatives as being driven by envy, which is usually pathologised as a personal failing – a doomed attempt to wriggle out from the consequences of your own inadequacy, when the better solution would be to get on your bike.

“Your day-to-day life will probably be less annoying if you can find the inner peace to accept that, sometimes, the beneficiaries of nepotism are talented and that people who are slightly posher than you can be nice”

But why shouldn’t someone who lives in poverty envy someone who never has to worry about money? And even if you’re middle class and university-educated, isn’t it justifiable to envy someone whose parents’ bought them a flat or helped them to secure a fancy job? In Ugly Feelings, cultural theorist Sianne Ngai writes that envy is moralised as something shameful, which strips it of its potential as a way of recognising real forms of inequality. Most of us will have realised that envy can be a corrosive emotion in its own right, and that it’s not good to indulge in it too much. But it can also arise from real injustices, which is exactly why people with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo are so keen to portray it as grasping, mean-spirited and pathetic. This rhetoric also ignores the fact that it’s possible to care about inequalities you don’t directly experience, and effectively allows no legitimate way to be left-wing: if you’re privileged and support redistributive politics, then you’re a hypocrite; if you’re not, then you’re suffering from jealousy and need to get well soon.

The danger is when envy turns into its evil twin ‘ressentiment’, a concept most commonly associated with Nietzsche but reinterpreted by a number of philosophers over the years. Ressentiment is about assigning blame and scapegoating other people as the reason for your suffering, and while Nietzche’s conception of it was directed upwards, in contemporary understanding this isn’t always the case: the way that racists talk about migrants as the source of all their problems, for example, is a prime example. Political theorist Wendy Brown has argued that contemporary capitalism accelerates these feelings and that rather than being mobilising (ie encouraging people to get up and do something about their situation through collective organising), this instead engenders feelings of powerlessness and stands in the way of action. This makes sense when you look at the history of successful emancipatory movements, from the struggle for Black civil rights to gay liberation, which tend to be bound together by a sense of solidarity and positive principles (eg justice, freedom, or even love) rather than being purely reactive and motivated by narrow self-interest. So while envy is an understandable and possibly even useful emotion, ressentiment is just as likely to lead to inert grumbling as anything productive. And your day-to-day life will probably be less annoying if you can find the inner peace to accept that, sometimes, the beneficiaries of nepotism are talented and that people who are slightly posher than you can be nice.

A politics of envy needn’t be accompanied by a ‘politics of gratitude’, exactly, because simply expressing gladness that you don’t work in a factory in Bangladesh does nothing for the people who do”

There can be satisfaction in thinking of yourself as hard done by, particularly when you don’t have to undergo the hardships which come alongside it. But taken too far, this inhibits genuine solidarity with those who have it harder – if your gaze is fixed exclusively upwards, they are less likely to occur to you. Now more than ever, vast numbers of people in Britain are experiencing absolute poverty, and internationally the situation is even worse. According to economist Jason Hickel’s The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions, more than 60 per cent of the world’s population struggle to survive on less than the equivalent of $5 per day, while countries in the Global North are growing richer than ever before. It’s true that the average person’s quality of life is worsening domestically too, but to be relatively comfortable in a place like Britain is still to be a member of a global elite, benefiting from the exploitation of workers elsewhere. In light of this, it feels a little self-indulgent to gripe about how your mum isn’t the editor of The Sunday Times or that you would have had a slightly more successful career in the creative industries had you gone to Bedales.

A politics of envy needn’t be accompanied by a ‘politics of gratitude’, exactly, because simply expressing gladness that you don’t work in a factory in Bangladesh does nothing for the people who do – as well as being a bit smug, it also fosters a complacency which tells us to be happy with the way things are, simply because other people have it worse. But while ‘check your privilege’ has become a cliche, it’s important to have a sense of perspective about the position you occupy. If you’re going to complain about billionaires and Old Etonians (as well you should), you also have to recognise the ways that you benefit from how the world is organised. Because the alternative is a myopic fixation on your own advancement. That said, I’d like to make clear that I did go to state school, and that this does in fact make my stratospheric rise to the middle all the more impressive.