Condition of the Working Class aims to update Engels’ classic. Elaine Graham-Leigh talked to Deirdre O’Neill of Inside Film about the project and the relevance of Engels’ work today.
Tell us about the Condition of the Working Class project
We’re taking the text of Engels’ The Condition of Working Class and making a theatre production and a film of the whole process. What we’re hoping to do is make the connection between the conditions Engels was writing about in 1844 and what’s happening to the working class now. We and Not Too Tame, a Manchester-based theatre company, are working not with actors but with ordinary people in Manchester. The idea is to bring out what they want to talk about and how they see the connections between the text and what’s going on in their lives now, and out of that will come a performance.
We’ve got four performances booked at the end of June and we’re starting work at the end of April, so it’s a hardcore schedule. Anyone can get involved, people don’t have to have experience and they don’t have to audition –it’s not the X Factor – all they need to do is be there. There are also lots of non-acting jobs. The point is that it’s a collective endeavour, so there’s room for anyone who thinks they have anything to offer.
Inside Film will be filming the whole process - the workshops, the meetings, the rehearsals and the final product - and in between, we’ll interview people and discuss Engels’ book.
Engels wrote The Condition of the Working Class in 1844, over 150 years ago, so can it really be relevant for us now?
When I read Engels’ text for the first time I was actually quite shocked by how much things haven’t changed for working class people. Obviously they have on a superficial level – people now are more likely to work in a call centre than in the factories Engels was talking about – but fundamentally there’s a lot which is very recognisable.
One of things that’s always struck me is how Engels talks about how working class people often have very little time for family life. I know people now who work incredibly hard and have to put young children into nurseries from early in the morning until late at night, and are exhausted when they pick them up, so in many ways that’s very little different.
What Engels says about the middle class and their attitude to working class people is also very familiar. He points out how the layout of cities enables middle class people to ignore the existence of poverty: they can walk through their nice parks and their nice tree-lined avenues and never actually see the squalor that people have to live in. In Manchester, the middle class areas were on the outskirts, but there were trunk roads leading from them to the centre through the working class areas, but the buildings on those roads made a sort of façade, so that they didn’t have to think about the poverty on either side of them.
Engels talks about how middle class people know what’s going on but they choose not to engage with it. He says even those who think they’re concerned about the poor have only a diluted socialism. That’s really interesting because you can talk now to middle class liberals who consider themselves to be of the left, while they’re employing working class women to do their cleaning.
Engels is talking about the effects of the Industrial Revolution, which when he was writing was the history of the last sixty years. Do you think there are parallels with the effects of neoliberalism on the working class today?
I think there definitely are. If you think about the post-war generation, my parents’ generation, my parents had a council house, and my dad worked and earned enough for my mum to stay at home with the kids. Things were hard, but there was a welfare state, there were ways that they could manage and have a decent life, and now that’s all been taken away. Since the 1970s, you can see in the last thirty to forty years, that welfare state has gradually been eroded until now there’s a full on attack. What Engels tells us, and what we can see now, is that the working class bears the brunt every time there’s a crisis in capitalism.
It’s sometimes argued on the right that no one is poor in Britain now because no one starves to death. How do you counter that criticism of Engels’ relevance to the present day?
I think there’s not as much absolute difference in living standards as the right would like to make out. People may not be living in cellars, but there are families living in very cramped accommodation, where there are several families all crammed into one small house. There are still many children who go to bed without an evening meal because of poverty, and if you’re unemployed, the level of benefits you get isn’t enough to support a dignified human life. Working class people may not be facing mass starvation but poverty and exploitation are still as real now as they were in the 1840s.
What do you want to come out of the project?
The media and the professions are dominated by middle class people who are talking about the working class, representing them in certain ways, without having the experience themselves of what it’s like to be working class in Britain now. We want this to be an opportunity for working class people to represent themselves, not be part of someone else’s narrative or someone else’s idea of what their life is like. It also needs to reach people, which is the point of the film as well as the theatre productions – it’s one thing having a voice, but to have a real voice, you also have to have people listening to it.
What we’re hoping for, more than anything else, is that through the project, people start to engage critically with how society works, and that can then be a first step to thinking about how to change it. I’ve had all sorts of people contacting me about the project, saying we need to channel our anger. People are very angry and very frustrated, what’s needed is for people to be able to come together and think together about how to channel it.
Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade, focusing on issues of climate change and social justice. She speaks and writes widely on green issues and is a member of Counterfire. Her book, A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change, will be published in April 2015 by Zero Books.
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