Laura Harvey, Sarah Leaney and Danny Noble, Class: A Graphic Guide (Icon Books 2022), 175pp.

Class: A Graphic Guide offers an introduction to theories about class, but emphasises identity rather than material reality, finds Elaine Graham-Leigh

It might be expected that the first step for the authors of a guide to class would be to define what they take class to be, but this is rather an introduction to different ideas about what class is. The authors comment that class ‘can have different meanings to different people’. The term is therefore used variously to mean ‘an idea to describe inequalities in society, a category based on our job or income, a group of people who are fighting for their rights, a struggle over power, an influence on our likes and dislikes [and] a label shaping how we feel about ourselves and other people’ (p.3).

The effect is of a textbook, albeit a lively and highly illustrated one, where the emphasis is on recounting what writers and thinkers have said about class, rather than on an argument from the authors. Thus, for example, an early section comprises a one or two-page summary each for a number of theorists on class, including Marx, De Bois, Durkheim, Gramsci, Althusser, Giddens, hooks, Fanon and others. This technique in a text of this brevity means that complex ideas have to be dramatically compressed. It also leads to slight oddities such as attributing ideas which are fairly widely held to just one authority being quoted in paraphrase, such as for example where we’re told that ‘sociologist Satnam Virdee argues that we must situate racism within a historical analysis of capitalism’ (p.151). I am sure he does, but he is far from the only one to do so.

The overriding effect though is to give the impression of objectivity. The authors are not imposing their views about class, but discussing how it has been analysed by others, and as a result ‘encouraging you to think about social class in your own life and suggest[ing] different ways you can take action to challenge class inequalities’ (p.6). Harvey and Leaney stress that ideas are included based on their importance to the history of discussions of class, not on the preferences of the authors. Hence, for example, Althusser gets his own page, despite their misgivings because of his killing of his wife, Helene Rytmann, in 1980 (He was found unfit to stand trial and was instead committed to a mental hospital).

This does not mean, however, that the authors do not have their own viewpoint about the ideas under discussion. There are occasions where the impression of objectivity comes across as somewhat spurious, such as the one-page summary of universal basic income. This omits any indication of criticism of the idea in theory or practice, commenting that ‘this might sound too good to be true, but UBI is growing in popularity’ (p.161). It is also possible to discern an implicit stance on the general question of class beneath the explicit even-handed analysis.

Class as material or as identity?

It is clear that the authors’ standpoint is not a Marxist one. Aside from Marx’s page in the review of theorists on class, references to Marx and Marxism are not particularly sympathetic. An example is where the point that ‘ideas are powerful and have real world consequences’ is illustrated by the statement that ‘Marxism remains the ideology of several communist states and the ruling parties of China, Cuba, Laos and Vietnam (p.25), without any recognition of the extent to which practice has departed from formal commitment to the theory here. Similarly, a discussion of the post-structuralists Laclau and Mouffe includes the statement that they ‘challenged Marx’s belief that revolution is an inevitable consequence of capitalism. There is nothing natural about the struggles against power’ (p.45), without any corrective comment that regardless of what Laclau and Mouffe may have believed, Marx did not at any point think that revolution would happen without struggle.

Aside from these references, the view of class which emerges here appears to be closer to class as identity than as a material reality. This is not to say that the authors ignore the material. Harvey and Leaney comment in their introduction that they ‘have tried to acknowledge the material inequalities between class groups’ (p.5) and do acknowledge the materialist approach to class which ‘says that our position in society is determined by where we sit in economic relations of production’ (p.50). The impression by the end though is that the consensus from authorities on class that ‘class is something social’ (p.49) means that class is a matter of interpersonal relations, of culture and identity.

In this analysis, working-class people suffer from economic and social inequality. They are stigmatised, so that, for example, they do less well in school than middle-class children. Their culture is misunderstood or appropriated by middle-class people who can ‘attach and detach cultural markers from their body in order to extract value from other cultures’ (p.112). Then, to add insult to injury, they are held up for analysis by sociologists, as the illustration to a summary of the debates between the ‘cultural turn’ and ‘return to materialism’ has it, with a hooded youth asking, ‘don’t I get a say in this?’ as the academics scrutinise his culture (pp.138-9).

Middle-class people, on the other hand, are privileged, illustrated by a picture of a white man in a suit and sunglasses, wearing tags that say, ‘privately educated’, ‘inherited “start-up” fund’, ‘white’, ‘good health care’, ‘able-bodied’, ‘male’ and ‘social connections’ (p.99). This is reminiscent of Peggy McIntosh’s invisible weightless knapsack theory of white privilege, which holds that white people are effectively carrying around ‘special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks‘.

The effect is both to set middle-class people up as the antagonists of working-class people and, oddly, to obscure the existence of the bourgeoisie. When everyone from children at a state school who have a quiet space at home for homework to those who can afford to buy famous works of art are subsumed into ‘middle class’, this becomes a description which elides the salient fact that the former will mostly not be from families which control the means of production, whereas the latter would have to be. This is not an analysis which would encourage solidarity between those who may regard themselves as variously working class or middle class but who are all proletarian.

Adopting this mostly non-material view of class can fall into the trap of regarding cultural similarities as showing that there are no longer any real class differences in society. The authors do indeed note the Frankfurt School’s awareness of this tactic to elide class differences, accompanied by an illustration of football fans commenting, ‘see, even the prime minister supports Arsenal’ (p.96). The point though is not that politicians trumpeting their football-fan status hides their middle-class reality. It is that regardless of how often they head down the Emirates, they are members of the ruling class, with not just cultural capital and privilege, but actual power over the rest of us.

Class is not just status

The relationship of class, however defined, to material reality is not always made clear in the book. There is an implication early on that even descriptions like ‘poor’ and ‘rich’ are a result of classification activities rather than reality. This is in a discussion of nineteenth-century classifications of populations, illustrated by an image of people squashed into boxes labelled ‘poor’, ‘rich’, ‘male’, ‘Asian’, ‘female’ and so on (p.18). It is, of course, obviously the case that the level of income and material possessions you have to have to count as rich, or lack to be seen as poor, is socially constructed and extremely variable. What is not the case though is that removing the classification would change the reality of how much money you have. This page could be read as implying that the problem is the classification, not the reality behind it.

If the image of the boxes could be taken to be arguing that we need to liberate ourselves from classification entirely, elsewhere the argument appears to be that we need, not to remove class categories, but to equalise them. We need to fight economic inequality and stigmatisation of the working class and value working-class culture. It is, of course, absolutely right to stand against the sneering view that sees working-class people and communities as lesser than the dominant, middle-class culture. However, the implication here goes further. It ends up in a place where class is an identity separate from hierarchy, as if middle-class and working-class identities would, in an equal world, sit side by side; culturally different but of equal status.

Quite what such class identities would mean, in a world where the bourgeoisie did not control the means of production and exploit the proletariat for our labour, is not clear. More seriously, removing an understanding of class as inherently a hierarchy, rather than as some sort of social distinction which is viewed hierarchically but which doesn’t have to be, crucially removes our ability to organise on the basis of class struggle.

The weakness of this view of class for organising against the ruling class is apparent from the discussions here of what is to be done. In keeping with a position on class which ends up giving the impression that it is largely about individual attitudes, the final sections put considerable stress on the importance of self-reflection. Readers are encouraged to consider the role of class in significant moments in their lives and ‘how class has impacted your own life’ (p.166). When considering action on class and culture, among other recommendations, it is suggested that they should ‘think about what meaning you attach to cultural items and practices and what meanings they might have for other people in different contexts’ (p.170).

It is not that getting involved in more vigorous activism is absent here, far from it. The authors recommend that readers could get involved in community campaigns on a range of issues, from control of common land to abolishing private schools, and rightly flag up that those in work should join a union. These suggestions, though reasonable enough in themselves, come across though as rather inchoate, particularly since existing political organisations do not come off particularly well in the text. The overall impression remains that class is a prejudice that you overcome through involvement in community activities and thinking hard about it, rather than an exploitative system imposed on us and against which we need to organise. Despite the liveliness of the illustrations and the accessibility of the text, the view of class implicit here does not aid that struggle.

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Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.