Dr Lisa McKenzie is a working-class academic. She grew up in a coal-mining town in Nottinghamshire and became politicized through the 1984 miners’ strike with her family. At 31, she went to the University of Nottingham and did an undergraduate degree in sociology. Dr McKenzie lectures in sociology at the University of Durham and is the author of ‘Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain.’ She’s a political activist, writer and thinker. Follow her on Twitter @redrumlisa.
As we take our first baby steps out of lockdown, I feel more apprehensive and fearful now than I did eight weeks ago. Back then, the message was clear – stay at home, stay safe. It’s much much more opaque now.
I have been privileged in that I’ve been able to stay at home on full pay, and can do my job as a lecturer from there. I miss my students and my colleagues – and even the rough and tumble of the education process. But virtual academia is different. The normal process of having new ideas and being able to critically think through arguments with other people in person is totally lost online, where there is only ‘good and bad’, or ‘right and wrong’, and the grey areas of critical thinking are purposefully misrepresented as everything and nothing.
But my apprehension now is being caused by some critical thinking about our futures after our pandemic panic is finally over, whenever that will be. Am I able to make a case for things to go back to ‘normal’? Was life before Covid-19 really that good?
My normal, for most of my life, has been about struggle and hardship, working in crap jobs for exploitative bosses to pay off rent or a mortgage or a fictional national debt. This is the everyday, crappy experience for members of the working class. All most of us want is somewhere safe to live, that we can afford and can be comfortable in, and to do a decent day’s work for decent money.
What most of us crave is a full and creative life – with the time to be curious. We want safe communities, where there are no homeless people sleeping on our streets who we pass on our way to a job that we don’t want to do. Where we have to force ourselves not to see them, to not think about them, because those worries would pile on top of the fear of being late for work, and having the stress of some petty manager being ‘off’ with you all day because a daily target for a faceless business you don’t care about may not be met. And all of this so we can earn just enough, if we are lucky, to not end up on the street with the people we can’t bring ourselves to look at.
That is the reality of ‘normal’, where everything has been devalued to its lowest denominator – its cold, hard, economic value of cash. Yes, devalued – because our society demands that everything has only a cash figure. Therefore ‘normal’ is always framed by the middle classes, because they have power, and language, and education – and yes, money – which allows what appears normal to them to be considered normal for everyone. If you are working class, you don’t get to frame your interpretation of normal; normal sits in the middle and becomes mediocre, never radical or challenging. That ‘normal’ works for the middle classes because it’s theirs – most of them are living their lives today the same ways they were eight weeks ago, before Covid struck. Many are existing in even more comfortable contentedness than usual.
I hate this mediocre position. It speaks to me of having no aspirations to challenge, to think differently, to shake things up. It is the thought process, and actions, of the middle class – who see no benefit in change because they are doing okay.
For the working class, these narratives of ‘the middle’, of being mediocre, do not work for us, because we start from a position of disadvantage and our narrative around success starts with change. Because who we are is never good enough – we are instead told and taught to ‘aspire’ to join the ranks of the middle class and achieve the things its members take as theirs. Property. Profits. Expensive wine. Insider knowledge of which brand of jam makes them a better person.
The consequence of this superficial mediocrity is that we now have 30 brands of jam in Tesco and, like a test, only one variety means you are a good person with the right qualities to join the middle class. But obviously there’s a caveat, because the real mediocre knows that if you buy your jam from Tesco, you’ve got it all wrong in the first place. Waitrose is the supermarket du jour, darling.
Do we really want to go back to all that? I don’t. I don’t want to be constantly knackered in order to live a life I don’t even like – a life in which I am judged never to be good enough. Because I cannot, or do not want to, accrue enough economic value to qualify this week – or next year, or sometime never – as someone respectable enough to finally be a “useful member of society.” When I could celebrate being mediocre but even more bloody miserable – because unless you have a decent economic value, you will never be as good as the advertisers say you need to be.
We have had two months of slowness – or, as French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu put it, we have had space and time to think about what we want and who we are. Such periods of reflection are usually only reserved for the middle class, as they are further away from the constant stress and fear of falling off the edge and into homelessness, unemployment, universal credit, poverty, mental health breakdowns, loneliness, and generally sliding into the s**t.
Covid-19 has shown us VERY CLEARLY that it is the working class whose lives are in such precarity and who are always first in line to be killed or thrown onto the dole queues. It is the working class who suffer most from anything that is negative – whether it’s man-made, like a rotten economic system, or a health pandemic – and benefit least from anything positive.
As governments and bosses all over the world try to tempt us back into the “old normal” and whisper snake-oil encouragements such as “Don’t worry, it won’t all be the same… things will improve,” let us grab that message with both hands, our feet and our heads. Let’s appropriate it and tell them clearly: no, it bloody well won’t be the same. We don’t want that ‘normal’. As it was never normal for us – it was a living nightmare.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.