Skinny size me: some women dramatise their inner conflict by shedding weight. Photograph: Ben Stockey
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The anorexic statement

Trust me, notice me, feed me: every female body conveys a message. So, when a woman starves herself, what is she saying?

I knew a woman whose job it was to take anorexics to the swimming pool. She was an occupational therapist: eating disorders were her field. She worked at a nearby clinic and we bumped into one another from time to time.

I found myself curious about her work, or more truthfully about her patients, those singular modern-day martyrs to the cause of their own bodies. Without quite knowing why, as I have grown older I have become more interested in – it could even be said, more respectful of – what might be called the anorexic statement. Perhaps it’s because, as the 45-year-old English mother of two children, my body has little power of provocation or utterance; or rather, that what it’s said or tried to say through the years hasn’t seemed to have added up to all that much. Quite what constitutes the anorexic statement I’m not entirely sure. All the same, it has a great power of disruption. It’s a stray spoke under the wheel of things that otherwise have the capacity to hurtle on headlong: family life, fashion, the destiny of the female body. The statement might be: help me. Or it might simply be: stop.

My therapist acquaintance herself had not been allowed to be picky in life, growing up in a family of brothers on a farm in the Australian outback. She knew how to shoot, drive a tractor, ride a horse bareback. She had left that rough home and come to the UK, where every couple of years for the sake of change she moved job and town – Slough, Birmingham, Chelmsford – though her solitude and her line of work did not alter. She neither sought nor seemed to expect much in the way of pleasure. In the evenings she made a sandwich and read a book in her rented room; her main meal was lunch in the canteen at the clinic, where food was plentiful and cheap. This somewhat joyless attitude to nourishment could come as no surprise, given that she spent her days among females who regarded the ingestion of a teaspoonful of peas as a physical and spiritual crisis. Once a week she led them to the poolside, skeletal and pale, for all the world to see. Even at the swimming pool these curious beings detected the threat of penetration, of the outside coming in. They didn’t want to get in the water, not, apparently, because they felt self-conscious or exposed, but for fear that they might swallow some of it without its calorific content having been established.

The easiest thing that could be said about my acquaintance was that she herself was impenetrable. Her choice of career must have sprung from some initial attraction to or sympathy with the anorexic state, but most often what she appeared to feel for her waifish charges was irritation, even anger. Anger is a common response, it seems, to the anorexic statement. At the very least, returning from a day spent on the receiving end of that statement, my acquaintance was hard put to feel – as they say – good about herself. If the anorexic is someone for whom the relationship between female being and female image must, on pain of death, be resolved, it may be that she denies that resolution to those who cross her path. They become the witnesses of her vulnerability; as such, she is more real than they. Like with the ascetic of old, her self-denial is a form of chastisement, yet the extremity of her appearance is confusing. Being female, it seeks attention, but of an unusual kind. It asks to be mothered – yet what if its aim is indeed to challenge the reality of the mother-figure and overpower it, to triumph over her, to consign her to flesh and steal her image? The anorexic is out to prove how little she needs, how little she can survive on; she is out, in a sense, to discredit her nurturers, while at the same time making a public crisis out of her need for nurture. Such vulnerability and such power: it brings the whole female machinery to a halt. My acquaintance had tales of rudeness and tantrums and sulks, of behaviour more commonly read about in childcare manuals (of the kind whose purpose, we are told, is to “test the boundaries”), even of a degree of personal insult which at the very least, I suppose, mothers aren’t paid to tolerate. She had no children of her own. And so, in an admirable interpretation of the social contract, she recognised she had something in that line to give.

Jenefer Shute offers some riveting descriptions of such interactions, between the anorexic inpatient Josie and her carers, in her novel Life-Size. “In the body,” Josie chillingly muses, “as in art, perfection is attained not when there’s nothing left to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away.”

Armed with this credo, she can exercise contempt on everyone around her (“They say I’m sick, but what about them, who feast on corpses?”), in what becomes a radical reliving of her primary experiences of nurture. And it needs to be radicalised: this is the moral value of the anorexic statement, that it asks questions not just of mothers or fathers or fashion editors, but of the whole societal basis for the female image. This time around, Josie can speak her mind. She can criticise the people who care for her; she can re-experience the powerlessness of childhood and know it for what it is. So unpleasant is she to the “freckled cow” who nurses her that she finally gets the reprimand she has apparently been asking for:

“Josephine, I must ask you please not to speak to me like that. I’m not your servant.” And then, unable to contain herself: “And would you please look at me when I talk to you? It really gets on my nerves.” Coldly, victoriously, I remain precisely as I am. She really should have more control.

Soon after, however, the 68-pound tyrant, having agreed at last to eat something or be force-fed through a tube, makes a revealing request of her nurse: “I want you to feed me,” she says.

My acquaintance found it hard to muster much interest in herself at the day’s end. She rarely went out or saw people: it was as though her work had bled her of confidence. She sought not public interactions but the determined security of her private boundary. In the evenings she changed into loose clothes, shut herself in her room, shut herself into a book. She wanted to be where no one could demand anything of her, like a depleted mother, except with none of the prestige of motherhood. She never kept company with men, and her female world was wholly predicated on an insidious notion, that certain women are there to give attention and others to receive it. Sometimes it seemed that her patients had indeed stolen her image and left her with nothing to trade, nothing to barter with for some share of the world’s interest. They had stolen her image and left her a mere body that could find no reflection or definition for itself. She went back home for a few weeks on holiday and returned browner, more animated, and heavier. All that meat they went in for, meat roasted over a fire and served at every meal. But more to the point, a world in which food was an entitlement and a human bond.

In her own world food had become a weapon: her evening sandwich and her indifference were a kind of savourless pacifism she exercised against it. She spent her days among people who denied themselves food in order to experience, perhaps, power, whose apparent intention to make themselves invisible made them, in fact, visible, who had discovered that by becoming less they became more. And no­where was this clearer than in the fact that they required her as their witness, for disappearing was no fun unless someone noticed you’d gone. But if anyone was disappearing, if anyone was becoming invisible, it was she.

The question of how she had come to be stranded in this place remains difficult to answer, but its source may lie in the very practicality – the tractors, the horses – she had crossed the world to escape. Denied her own experience of femininity, she had perhaps embarked on a kind of pilgrimage to find and serve these notable victims to the riddling perversity of feminine values. She could help them, sit with them while they wept and shrieked over a teaspoonful of peas, she who had never had the temerity to question or refuse anything she had been given; she who was not important enough, as it were, to be anorexic, for the hieratic significance of the anorexic body depends on it having been ascribed a value in the first place. Had she tried to starve herself on the farm where she grew up, she might simply have died: her protest, in any case, would not have been understood. She had taken photographs of this place, on her recent trip home. In order to capture its isolation, she had photographed it from a distance, recording the miles of surrounding scrubland in a sequence of separate frames that she laid one next to another across the table in a long connecting strip. Amid these featureless wastelands she defied me to locate her home, and though my eyes searched and searched the landscape it was true that I could find no evidence of human habitation. She laughed, with an unmistakable and strangely exhilarated pride, and laid her finger over a low brown shape that crouched amid the boulders and bushes that extended all around it, on and on to the white horizon. It was so small her fingertip covered it. “There it is,” she said.

It may seem superfluous for a 45-year-old mother-of-two to say that she does not exult in the life of the body, but let’s just call it a place to begin. At the very least, as a statement, it raises numerous lines of inquiry. One might be: is it obligatory, or even a moral duty, to take pleasure in one’s own physical being? Leaving aside for a moment the question of what definition of pleasure one could possibly arrive at in this particular hall of mirrors, is the value of the physical quest in any way comparable with that of the artistic, the emotional, the spiritual?

I understand the anorexic’s notion of pleasure far better than the hedonist’s. Sometimes it has seemed to me that the second kind of pleasure is consequent on the first, that the life of sensation can be accessed only from a place of perfect self-discipline, rather as strict religious practices were once believed to constitute the narrow path to heaven. The anorexic, like the ascetic before her, publicly posits the immolation of the flesh as a manifestation of a primary physical discontent she is on her way to escaping: she represents a journey whose starting point is disgust. Body is found to be not only intolerable to but weaker than mind – how, then, can its desires and yearnings be taken seriously? The anorexic statement suggests a second body, one that will be painstakingly encroached on and attained; and hence, a second template for desire. This second body will belong to its owner as the first did not: its desires, therefore, will be experienced as not shameful, but true.

The female form is inherently susceptible to this duality, but the difficulty with the anorexic statement is that once it becomes open to other readings it breaks down. At some point in the journey a line is crossed: the slim body becomes the freakish starved body, and one by one the anorexic’s grounds for superiority are discredited and revoked. She is not beautiful but repellent, not self-disciplined but out of control, not enviable but piteous, and, most disappointing of all, she is publicly courting not freedom and desire but death. Even she may find these things difficult to believe. How to go back, on that journey? How to retrace one’s steps? For in getting where she needed to go the anorexic had to sacrifice the concept of normality. In a manner of speaking she sold her soul. She can never be “normal” about food or flesh again. So, how is she meant to live?

If the anorexic arouses irritation, even anger, it may be this quitting of normality that is to blame, because the female management of normality is a formidable psychical task from which most women don’t feel entitled to walk away. By quitting it she exposes it, she criticises it as a place to live, and moreover she forces each woman who passes her way to choose between denial and recognition of her statement, disgust.

Is it disgusting to be a woman? Menstruation, lactation, childbirth, the sexualisation of the female body – in recognising these things as her destiny, a girl is asked to forget everything that her prepubescent instincts might formerly have suggested to her. In becoming female she must cease to be universal, and relinquish the masculine in herself that permitted her as a child to find the idea of these things disgusting indeed. Likewise that masculine is now embodied for her in men, so the question becomes – do men find women disgusting? The anorexic statement dispenses with that perspective. It returns the woman to the universality of the child, and from that fusion formulates itself: I find myself disgusting.

If it has become a cultural cliché that women want to be thin more than they want to be loved (the three most cherished words these days, so the saying goes, being not “I love you” but “You’ve lost weight”), and moreover that they want to be thin not for men but for one another, the general observer might be tempted to view this as making the case for male innocence (at last!), even male redundancy.

Yet, looked at another way, the male and the preponderance of male values are perhaps more culpable in the incrimination of the female form than ever. An eating disorder epidemic suggests that love and disgust are being jointly marketed, as it were; that wherever the proposition might first have come from, the unacceptability of the female body has been disseminated culturally. Is it possible that disgust has finally got, in the famed male gaze, the upper hand? From whom, after all, has a woman ever wished to hear the words “I love you” but a man?

In Life-Size, Jenefer Shute posits the anorexic state as having two separate sources, one in the female (subjective, mother) and the other in the male (objective, father). Between them they engender in the anorexic subject the confusion between being and image of which one might suppose her to be merely an extreme cultural example. Mother – the female body – is indeed the source of disgust, but it is father – if one can be permitted the leap of seeing father as analogous with male and, indeed, with society – who makes that disgust public and hence catalyses it into shame. Without father, mother might merely have passed her disgust silently on to daughter, where it would have remained as an aspect of her private, interior being. But father brings it to the surface: it is something not just felt but now also seen. These confirmations, in Shute’s narrative, of interior suspicion (am I disgusting?) by outward commentary (yes, you are) are fatal to female self-perception in ways that might seem obvious but are none­theless intractable.

Outside and inside – image and being – are now held to be one: the girl/woman revisits and tests this impossibility by becoming the observer – the male – herself, looking at and remarking on the bodies of other women. Naturally, the discovery that image can be changed is not new: it is and always has been part of becoming a woman, in a sense that, although slenderness has long been a feminine ideal, self-hatred and the compulsion to starve oneself to death have broadly not. The question of disgust returns, accompanied by its shadow, the question of pleasure.

A personal admission: not long ago, in a period of great turmoil, I lost a considerable amount of weight. The first thing to say about this is that I was unaware, inexplicably, that it had happened. That my clothes no longer fitted passed me by: I noticed it only because other people told me so. They appeared shocked: each time I met someone I knew, there it would be, shock, a startled expression on the face. At first, I was startled in turn. They were not seeing who they expected to see; who, then, were they seeing? After a while I got used to it: indeed, I came to expect, almost to require it. A newborn baby needs to be mirrored by another human being in order to grasp that she has an outward surface, that this “self” has an appearance, that her image speaks. Through the shock of others I learned that I, too, had been shocked, that I was no longer the person I once was. My image was speaking, to me as well as to other people, telling me things I did not yet appear to know or realise.

But eventually the question of “normality” returned, as it must in the life of a 45-year-old mother-of-two. Stop, help me, feed me: this may have been my cry, but the truth was there was no one, any more, to answer. There could be no illusion, as an adult; I had left it too late to stage this apotheosis, this defeat of the first body, predicated as it is on the expectation of rescue. I had to draw back from it myself. And this was where the problem arose, because, like the anorexic, I found I could not retrace my steps, could not, as it were, go back to sleep. For years I had lived in my body half-consciously, ignoring it mostly, dismissing its agendas wherever I could, and forever pressing it into the service of mental conceptions that resulted, almost as a by-product, sometimes in its pleasuring and sometimes in its abuse. People were always telling me I should do yoga: this was one of the running jokes I had against my own flesh, for the idea that I would suspend the intellectual adventure of living even for one hour to dwell in the dumb and inarticulate realm of the auto-corporeal was as unappealing as that of spending an evening with someone I disliked. Now, as the weeks passed, instead of shock, my appearance was beginning to elicit milder manifestations of concern. I didn’t know what it meant: had I changed again? Was I no longer fragile and vulnerable? I had no idea. Never before in my life had I dared to be fragile, and all I knew was that I wasn’t ready to leave what I had become. “Have you ever thought of doing yoga?” someone said.

As a teenager I had been tormented by hunger and by an attendant self-disgust, for I saw in other girls a balance, an openness of form, that suggested they had nothing inside of which they need be ashamed. Their bodies were like well-schooled ponies, handsome and obedient, whereas I had a monster inside me whose appeasement was forever disrupting the outward surface of life. It craved so many things it could barely discriminate between them, and so indiscrimination – the failure to distinguish between what mattered and what didn’t, what helped and what didn’t, what it needed and what just happened to be there – became its public nature. It wanted, in fact, what it could get, in the light of what it couldn’t.

How thoroughly the tangible and the in­tangible confused themselves in those years. Creativity, the placement of internal material into space, the rendering tangible, became my weapon against that confusion.

When I left my boarding school – the blue serge uniform and the Cambridgeshire drizzle, the plates of stodge that were so predictable and real, the torturing sense of female possi­bilities that were not – I learned to manage the monster, more or less. Like the first Mrs Rochester it had a locked room of its own, from which it sometimes succeeded in breaking free to rend into shreds my fantasies of femininity, but I had set my mind on higher things. By locking up the monster I was making myself at heart unfree: what did I know of freedom in any case? I was accustomed to fantasy and to the safety – albeit uncomfortable – it supplied, and the notion of an integrated self was the most uncomfortable fantasy of all. In a sense, it was the monster: I could neither kill it nor live with it, and so there it remained, caged, bellowing and banging intermittently through the years, creating perhaps the sense of something amiss in those who came close to me, but caged all the same.

Yoga, understandably enough, was out: nothing could have persuaded me to enter that cage armed only with a sun salute. But my sudden emaciation in middle age did bring me into contact with the monster again, for, amid all the other losses, there in the rubble of the desecrated life, I appeared to see it lying dead at my feet. The Jungian notion of the “middle passage”, in which at mid-life all the templates for self expire or fall away, in which with sufficient destruction one has a chance to return to the blankness of birth, might have explained that death well enough to avoid detection: it simply went up in the fire, the horrible secret, along with everything else. And here, after all, was a chance to be free of my own image, the bind in which my body had held me for all these years, because, while wanting more than anything to be feminine, I had only and ever found my own femininity disgusting. This image, knitted together over time by questions and confirmations (Am I disgusting? Yes, you are), was one I was now prepared to sustain: I was poised to make the anorexic statement, to vanish, to let image and being finally become one.

But of course, no such thing occurs: there is no “letting”, no seamless transposition of the flesh. The anorexic body is held in the grip of will alone; its meaning is far from stable. What it says – notice me, feed me, mother me – is not what it means, for such attentions constitute an agonising test of that will, and also threaten to return the body to the dreaded “normality” it has been such ecstasy to escape.

For the first time since my teenage years I found myself tormented again by hunger: the monster had awoken from its slumber, bigger and more ferocious than ever. The route back to normality being blocked, I have had to devise other ways of getting there, or of seeming to. My occupational therapist acquaintance tells me that many of her patients are women of my age, women who have suddenly tried to slip the noose of their female flesh once its story – menstruation, lactation, childbirth – has been told in all its glory and shame.

When I relate this to my female friends they take it humorously, rolling their eyes and laughing, gallantly owning up – oh yes, they say, we know – to monsters of their own. Most of them haven’t delivered themselves into its jaws quite so thoroughly as I have; their dislike of their own bodies is a kind of low-level irritant, a necessary component of the female environment, but to think about it too much would spoil everyone’s fun.

I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun, either, though for now I have spoiled my own. It did seem, for a while, as though the death-state of physical denial might contain the possibility of transcendence, the chance to step out of my self-disgust and make true contact at last: contact of my “real”, my second, self with the outer world. That I felt this had always been denied me, that in the negotiation between being and image all, for me, had been lost, was a stark kind of truth to face up to. Passing other women in the street these days, I seem to hear their bodies speaking. A lot of what they say is unclear to me, or at the very least so foreign that it takes me a moment to translate it. For instance: I accept myself. Or: respect me. The ones I like best are the ones that say, trust me. What I will never be able to hear unequivocally, whether whispered or shrieked, is: desire me. Notice me, feed me, mother me. Passing by the anorexic girl, stepping lightly and silently in the shadows, I hear her message and in a way I salute her for it. Other bodies have other messages, but for this one I have ears.

Rachel Cusk is most recently the author of “Aftermath: on Marriage and Separation” (Faber & Faber, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

Grammar school in 1962. Getty
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What I learned about class after my twin brother and I were separated by the 11-plus

When my twin brother went into a secondary modern school, and I went to a grammar, something more than a private rift opened up: we were assigned to different social classes. 

The cultural schism exposed by Brexit in Britain and the election of Donald Trump in the United States has been a long time in the making. It goes deep, and for many it has been not only a bleak social ­phenomenon, but also a profound personal experience.

When my twin brother went into the C stream of a secondary modern school in the 1950s, and I passed the examination for Northampton Grammar School, something more than a private rift opened up: we were assigned to different social classes. Apprenticed to a carpenter at 15, he did national service, while I remained at school until I went up to Cambridge University. By this time, the breach had become irreparable. Our separate lives were emblematic of divisions in Britain which have only recently been officially acknowledged. My brother made a success of his life restoring historic buildings, but many others did not, consigned to failure at 11, or subsequently ejected from employment that they had imagined would last a lifetime – work scornfully dismissed now as “jobs for life”, as though heavy manual labour were an idle sinecure.

 

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Why do we recognise the true nature of the society we live in only when it is on the verge of dissolution? Perhaps its passing shows up its certainties for the brief, shadowy arrangements that they are. Yet while it remains, it is life itself, the only possible way for human beings to be. No society is exempt from the cycle of ascent, momentary stability and decay, and this is as true in Britain of the industrial era as it was of a declining agrarian society in the 18th century.

In An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), Thomas Malthus, echoing the French physiocrats, declared that manufacturing would never increase the wealth of the nation because food production was its primary economic purpose. The industrial worker “will have added nothing to the gross produce of the land: he has consumed a portion of this gross product, and has left a bit of lace in return; and though he may sell this bit of lace for three times the quantity of provisions he has consumed whilst he was making it . . . he cannot be considered as having added by his labour to any essential part of the riches of the state”.

Rarely can such predictions have been so swiftly disconfirmed. Industry was already sweeping up people in its compulsions, as Oliver Goldsmith had lamented of a wasting rural life in his poem “The Deserted Village” (1770): “Far, far away, thy children leave the land.” Industry effaced the sensibility of country people and remade it in the image of the rigid discipline of manufacturing, mining and mill. A new kind of human being came into existence: the industrial worker, whose disposition, mutinous and refractory, was observed by the rich with suspicion, as they could not assess its potential for disaffection and tumult. Little was known of the “alien” mentality of the people; as little, perhaps, as that revealed to an astonished establishment by the unanticipated result of the EU referendum.

No wonder the working class became a central preoccupation of governments, reformers and politicians. There was controversy from the beginning over the “true” temper of the worker, then predominantly male, engaged in the making of things, useful and necessary to the prosperity of Britain. Did the workers want a fairer share of the wealth of the country? Did they seek to overthrow the established order? What was simmering in their mysterious, impenetrable communities of poverty?

Researchers ventured into darkest England – to places frequently likened to sites of imperial conquest – and returned with lurid tales of squalor and discontent; at the same time, trade unions and friendly and burial societies were growing, the co-operative movement evolved, and eventually a Labour party emerged which at last appeared to be a definitive expression of the psyche of the working class.

Strengthened as the 20th century dawned, but weakened by war and the Depression, Labour gained new vigour after the defeat of Nazism. With the coming of peace in 1945, both the spread of communism and the dissolution of the European empires made it timely, just and prudent for ruling elites to make concessions to the working class. Hence the marriage of unequals between capitalism and welfare, which at the time promised to be a permanent settlement.

What was regarded as the enduring sensibility of the industrial worker was doomed to follow its agricultural predecessor. It, too, became fully defined only when close to disintegration. When E P Thompson published his splendid Making of the English Working Class in 1963, signs of its decomposition were already detectable. Similarly, The Uses of Literacy, Richard Hoggart’s tender depiction of working-class culture (first published 60 years ago this year), was based on his experiences as a child in the 1920s and 1930s. The historians Eric Hobsbawm and Raymond Williams also framed what looked like a definitive version of the ­working class even as workers from the Caribbean and south Asia, recruited for a waning textile industry and transport and health systems, were transforming it.

Similarly, the consolation that the gritty north was the true source of Britain’s wealth, in contrast to a soft, self-indulgent south, left a long afterglow; it persisted long after the factories had collapsed in clouds of brick dust and splinters of glass and the south, with its financial services and advanced technologies, had become the principal generator of wealth.

 

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Social class was always inflected by individual circumstances. There were other elements involved in the separation from my twin. Our mother’s husband was diagnosed with tertiary syphilis in 1939; at the time, this was curable only by prolonged treatment with injections of arsenic and mercury. Our mother, who looked after the butcher’s shop that we lived above, realised that there would be no children in the marriage. A strong and resourceful woman, she met an engineer working on a construction site near the butcher’s shop she ran while her husband drove his lorry, carrying timber, bricks and glass all over the Midlands. He also carried more tender cargoes, with whom he spent nights in the back of the truck under a tarpaulin intended to protect merchandise from the rain. From one of these cargoes he contracted the disease, the sibilant syllables of which struck terror into those touched by it, much as HIV/Aids was to do half a century later.

Our mother became pregnant with my brother and me. Perhaps it was a fear that the two men in her life might gang up on her that impelled her to keep me and my brother apart, distributing roles that would ensure we never learned truly to know one another, even though we lived in the same house, with its frozen atmosphere, numb with secrets, for the first 18 years of our lives. My brother was practical and good-looking, docile and sweet-tempered; I was clever and fat, demanding and devious. Our schooling played a secondary role, but it did succeed in driving us further apart. Class was only one element in the hidden geometry of kinship.

 

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Even in the 1950s, when the effect of ­prosperity on the working class was discussed in The Affluent Society by John Kenneth Galbraith and The Status Seekers by Vance Packard, it was difficult to sustain belief in the existence of a homogeneous class. In 1959, after three consecutive Conservative electoral victories, even the Daily Mirror doubted whether a Labour party had a future.

Writing In Pursuit of the English in 1960, Doris Lessing described her “search” for the working class as “a platonic image, a grail, a quintessence, and by definition, unattainable”. Having been assured in her native Southern Africa that black workers were “not working class in the true sense”, she came to Britain, where, after encounters with the Communist Party (“not typical”), miners and dockworkers (“very specialised” labour) and workers in a new town (“tainted by capitalism”), she was advised that the true working class could be discovered only somewhere like South Africa, where “the black masses are not yet corrupted by industrialism”.

The erosion of identity of the working class, as it existed between the mid-19th century and the end of the Second World War, went largely unrecognised by its defenders and representatives. It was certainly apparent in Blackburn in 1969, when, for my book City Close-Up, I recorded a torrent of racism and prejudice in working-class areas: this was the outrage of people who had never been consulted on the social and economic mutation of their world. Barbara Castle, the energetic and radical MP for the town, suggested I play down race, because “in a few years it will burn itself out”.

 

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Class itself was already in flux as a result of the unprecedented affluence of the time, and class consciousness was dissolving in the mild acid of consumerism. The differences between my twin and me appeared to be influenced by culture rather than class, because he was economically more successful than I was. This faltering of a sense of class was perhaps a symptom of the triumph of market-based relationships over those that are socially determined; and perceptions of the world had shifted in accordance with this reality.

 

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Distance grew between the way people actually were and an embalmed version of the working class which continued to animate the left. In 1977, I published What Went Wrong?, subtitled Working People and the Ideals of the Labour Movement. In the US the subtitle was presciently amended to Why Hasn’t Having More Made People Happier? – in that advanced country, ideals and the labour movement had become unintelligible concepts.

I interviewed hundreds of elderly Labour activists who, looking at a world changed beyond recognition, spoke of their younger selves with the sad detachment with which people usually speak of the dead; their tone bore the melancholy regret of In memoriam notices.

It was clear four decades ago that the northern industrial towns were “wanting in purpose, looking for the meaning they once derived from their role in producing goods”. In the 1970s the feeling was that immigrants from Asia had somehow usurped the people’s way of life: they lived in houses lately vacated by millworkers; they had a strong sense of family and neighbourhood, as well as powerful cultural and religious traditions – all characteristics supposed to “belong” to Lancashire.

During the economic restructuring in the 1980s, I compared (in my book Unemployment) the experience of being out of work in those days with that of the 1930s, with its poignant tales of officials from the ­Unemployment Assistance Board, sitting in the balcony at the Rialto Cinema to see who was in the stalls when they should have been pounding the pavement looking for work; or Means Test men compelling families to sell an upright piano or a wedding ring before they could receive a penny of state charity. In the 1930s, no one doubted work would return; in the 1980s, industrial work was vanishing.

It seemed the working class in Britain had attained quietus after the miners’ strike in 1984. High unemployment was said to be “frictional” as we moved between epochs, a “creative imbalance” that would one day make us all richer and happier, though not quite yet. The working class was eliminated from the very history that, in some versions of prophecy, was to have ensured its ultimate triumph. Had the working classes died and gone to a heaven shaped in the image of expropriated socialist utopias? Had they been drowned in prosperity or assimilated into an expanding middle class? Whatever their fate, they were no longer of any account in the version of society disseminated by the media. This was reinforced by the collapse of the USSR, and there ceased to be any interest in what might be happening to them. Their sometime heroic role had been unceremoniously annulled.

In the absence of the working class, the rich were transformed: employers no longer exploiters of labour, but philanthropic providers of work. Those amassing fortunes became authors of the doctrines of wealth creationism. The working class, far from the gravedigger of capitalism, was merely a transient irritant. The class reached its zenith, faltered and fell back; and the ­liberatory power once attributed to it was appropriated by the warriors of wealth, who assumed the mantle of destiny of those they had displaced.

The working class was fragmented and dispersed, like the migrants who now constituted such a significant segment of it. New generations grew, not as citizens of this or that town, with its place in a national division of labour, but as dependants of a global market. If “globalisation” is to the 21st century what industrialisation was to the 19th, its significance lies in its disarming of people, no longer able to answer basic needs in the places where they live, but compelled to buy in what they need from countries whose names are only a vague echo of forgotten geography lessons. As the market colonises society, we become subjects of a curiously dematerialising topography: Theresa May could not have expressed it better when she said that “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere” – although this was not her ­intended meaning.

As the (welfare) state shrank, the market dilated, invasive and predatory. Our lives are so penetrated by its “values” that these now appear in our most intimate relationships – we speak of emotional investment and interrogate our deepest attachments, asking what returns we will get; should we cut our losses; what are our best assets; are we in the market for a new relationship; shall we take a gamble; what is to be gained out of profitless attachments; will it pay dividends; what will it yield? Just as “human nature” serves as a cover for the nature of capitalism, so society provides an alibi for market-induced disorders – obesity and pathologies around eating, unquiet addictions to alcohol, drugs, gambling, celebrity, sex, food; all facilitated by what money, in its own right the most addictive substance known to humanity, can buy.

No wonder this age is characterised by nostalgia for coherence and purpose. It focuses on the recent manufacturing era, even if this was shadowed by grim institutions of factory, chapel, pub, workhouse, cinema and cemetery and the oppression of women and children – just as the Industrial Age directed its yearnings towards a past of sunlit field and flower-filled hedgerow, despite the omnipresence then of overseer, magistrate, bailiff and parish pay-table.

 

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Despite a sense of continuous change, the wounds of social class continued to influence even those to whom it no longer appeared as a force in their lives. My twin brother paid for his early membership of the working class with his death 12 years ago from mesothelioma: his early construction work had exposed him to the baleful effects of asbestos.

 

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The disorientation is profound: demolition of the old workplaces also suppressed the way of life and sensibility that accompanied them. Progressives, no less alarmed by these developments than the reactionaries, applauded them, turning to the growing diversity and pluralism of the labour force. They welcomed the shifting composition of the working population, in which women, ethnic minorities and LGBT people were moulded into a fragile coalition for social progress. That such an alliance contained factions and some incompatible objectives (say, respect for same-sex relationships, at odds with many Muslims and evangelical black churches) was not its greatest failing. This lay in the elevation of social equalities over economic equality, which continued to get worse, even for most of those in the groups favoured by progressives. Moreover, “mobility” was interpreted as a one-way street; few considered the downwardly mobile, many of whom proudly acknowledged their working-class roots. Poverty, too, was redefined: no longer concerned with unanswered need, it was now measured against unattainable wealth.

 

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Personal relationships – which for most people are now more powerful than any sense of social influence – also help to conceal patterns of class and what in 1993 Richard Sennett called its “hidden injuries”. Our mother revealed to my brother and me the secret of our paternity only when both men were dead. This also exposed unsuspected inherited features: my brother had acquired from our biological father his love of restoring buildings, while I had the questionable gift of his radicalism. He had been a member of the Communist Party in the 1930s.

 

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The fluid nature of class complicates the re-emergence of a working class in its new, emancipatory alliance with the super-wealthy – Trump and the funders of Brexit. Its sudden resurrection is attended not by the solidarities of belonging, but by those of a graveyard ideology of hatreds thought to have been conquered. This is a gift to demagogues and “strongmen”, as it enables them to perceive once more the “true” nature of a class whose heart still beats to rhythms of imperial nostalgia and aggressive nationalism.

Perhaps, following the precedents of agrarian and industrial cultures, the cult of the market is finally being acknowledged, just as it, too, is on the point of eclipse. Beneath the chaos of a culture where even truth has become a kind of consumer choice, new patterns of resistance are forming: commitment to a more just distribution of the goods of the Earth and respect for a planet ransacked by an omnivorous market; a rejection of robotics displacing humanity; a rediscovery of our capacity to do and make things freely for ourselves and each other.

But the savage regressions of our time may be not just a momentary disturbance, any more than agrarian and industrial society were. The cycle may have to play itself out, in who knows what ugly and distressing scenes, before the time for remorse comes round once more; then, appalled by our destructiveness, we shall repeat the constantly broken resolution: Never Again.

The great Spanish humanist Juan Luis Vives, whose influence helped shape the Elizabethan poor law, wrote, in On Assistance to the Poor (1526): “. . . the poor are cast out of the churches and wander over the land; they do not receive the sacraments and they hear no sermons. We do not know by what law they live, nor what [are] their practices and beliefs.” After five centuries of upheaval and driven change, and in a radically altered context, his words still have a haunting, prophetic relevance.

Jeremy Seabrook’s most recent book is “The Song of the Shirt”, published in India by Navayana and in the UK by Hurst

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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