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Book Review The tyranny of the middle-class worldview

CHRIS MOSS recommends a perceptive analysis of the dichotomy between working-class identity and its repudiation by contemporary society

The Melancholia of Class
by Cynthia Cruz
Repeater Books £10.99

 

ASPIRATION, assimilation, alienation and class are knottily intertwined in contemporary Western societies. Success is deemed to be synonymous with moving up assorted ladders – social, property, career – and, by default, leaving behind whatever defined your parents’ reality.

As Cynthia Cruz argues in her highly original polemic, which comes with the subtitle A Manifesto for the Working Class, the middle class disappear the working class in different ways: by assuming all the “typical” working-class jobs have gone to China; by thinking of the working class in anachronistic and gendered terms, as white, male and employed at a factory; and by seeing non-whites, who make up the bulk of shop assistants, drivers, nannies and construction workers in the US and in many areas of Britain, as a class apart, as something else. They insist there is no such thing as class, and that everyone can prosper, while simultaneously ensuring the vast majority of those born poor stay there.

Cruz’s thesis, that this disappearance results in a profound, multi-faceted melancholia, is made more persuasive by her grounding it in her experiences as a young woman growing up in Santa Cruz, California, where she was viewed and labelled as “white trash” and “trailer trash” by middle-class peers.

Citing theorists including Freud, Marx, Pierre Bourdieu and Mark Fisher but also film-makers, musicians and singers, she posits that melancholia is a “reduction of the sense of self” and that the working classes, in “experiencing a symbolic death,” of their class, live in a perpetual zombie or ghost mode, hopeless and stricken by a dark energy.

Lacan is invoked and the concept of the “death drive” to suggest the doubled-edged power of melancholia, which can turn inwards to self-abnegation or outwards into aggression, collectivism and activism.

This is a bracing, daring book and if the above sounds highbrow, it is to Cruz’s immense credit that she renders it in a manner that is flowing and penetrable; the author is a poet as well as a critical theorist, and the book’s rhythm never lags. She also hangs as much of her argument on her eclectic artistic passions – The Jam, mod fashions, West Coast punk, Clarice Lispector  – as on the big textbooks.

She is especially incisive on assumptions so widespread they are assumed to be “normal” or rational” – for instance, that feminists should somehow side with powerful women such as Hillary Clinton to challenge male hegemony – an example, Cruz illustrates of “vertical solidarity,” which emerged in the 1980s and replaced the infinitely more valid “horizontal solidarity” of the working class of yore.

It is, she points out, impossible for a working-class person to escape being defined and pigeonholed by the middle or ruling class (Cruz uses these terms and “bourgeois” interchangeably).

The success of an artist or academic born into the working class – Shane Meadows, Zadie Smith, Amy Winehouse, Cruz herself – is measured by her/his incorporation into institutions founded and largely directed by the middle classes: Faber books, Oxbridge colleges, BBC and ITV, any periodical or newspaper.

Cruz argues there were once working-class artists and writers but “this is largely no longer the case,” so absolute is the tyranny of the middle-class worldview. She suggests that most portrayals of the working class are for the middle class.

While many of the books references are to US culture, British readers will find this manifesto-laced-with-memoir totally relatable. Great swathes of Britain’s population inhabit an inter-class, a no woman’s or man’s land between what they think they remember about their ancestors and what society wants them to be.

Much of what is reported as a “mental health crisis” stems from an existential despair allied to economic hardship; but, even when a working-class person turns a corner and secures a job, income and home, they will drift, unmoored, or fall through a chasmal psychological gap.

Our melancholia will either grind us down, or compel us to revolt. Cruz’s theory is the political equivalent of radical therapy; read it and weep, and then go out and smash something.

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