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Peterloo: 200 years on Nothing more than class envy?

LISA MACKENZIE takes aim at the obstacles placed in the way of working-class students and the dismissal of their legitimate grievances

IN THE  week when we remember the massacre at St Peter’s Field in Manchester 200 years ago, I would like to use this article to reflect on the continuing class struggle, rather than pick apart history or valorising or demonising one group or another.

Class inequality is still responsible for lives lost and people’s hopes crushed. Generations of working-class people have lived their lives never being able to reach their potential and watching on, as others who had the fortune, and the unfair resources, to flourish.

Whenever we (working-class people) point out these undeserved advantages that the class system awards to some, while simultaneously leaving others with equal and unfair disadvantages, we are told that this is nothing more than class envy, a form of jealousy that the working class have for those who are “their betters.”

In this week where we remember the Peterloo massacre, we must draw those threads to the class struggle today otherwise our brothers and sisters at St Peter’s Field in Manchester, or the Luddites that were hanged from Nottingham castle, or those brutalised at Orgreave, or died in Grenfell Tower will have been in vain.

So let me start to connect those threads, this week as we remember Peterloo thousands of young people will think about their future as they collect their A-level results and plan to go off to university.

Mistakenly we have always seen a university education as the great leveller, the way that we tackle social immobility, every year whichever politician needs to say it says the mandatory “and more students than ever from poorer backgrounds are going to university” — yet still class inequality exists and as deeply and as sharply as ever before.

British higher education is world class — it’s also big business now attracting students from all over the world trying to exchange some of their economic capital for the social and cultural and symbolic capital that some of our universities offer.

Having worked in British universities for almost 20 years being a working-class academic I have just about come to grips with the university system and what those cultural, social and symbolic capitals are and can mean to those who are able to ingest them.

At the start of this argument I noted that a higher education is seen as a leveller and assisting in a more just and fairer society. The very last thing that the British university system is is fair — we have a two-tier higher system, perhaps even three tier. The university system (industry) traces the British class system, it works alongside of it, and it supports it, reinvigorates it, reproduces it and legitimises it.

There is an endless amount of research done by academics usually in elite institutions which shows this. The London School of Economics (LSU) recently published a report showing that LSE students are the most likely to earn the most money as graduates. Dr Sam Freidman and Dr Daniel Laurison, former colleagues of mine, recently published their research “The Class Ceiling” again showing that even when working-class people reach the giddy heights of an elite profession the cost they will pay for this struggle is that they will be paid less and will suffer anxieties and the stress of “not fitting.”

The elite universities Oxbridge, the London School of Economics, St Andrews, Edinburgh, Durham, Warwick, London Imperial and so on may take credit for their graduates’ success, but the truth is these elite institutions cannot take credit for their students’ earnings and success in exactly the same way that other universities, mostly non-Russell Group, that were once polytechnics, local arts and drama schools, teaching colleges, and nursing schools that amalgamated to create what we now call post-92s meaning they became universities then.

Post-1992 graduates will be paid about 45 per cent less than students from the Russell Group universities.

Let’s just go back — I mentioned something earlier about social, cultural, symbolic and economic capital so I’ll explain.

As a working-class academic I am unusual in that I argue that a university education cannot change your class position. I also use this term “working-class academic” as a political point, in that working-class people can get a higher education and still be working class.

The assumption that once someone has a degree they are no longer working class needs challenging.

Working-class people can read and write and understand French social theorists, as I will demonstrate.

I use the work of Pierre Bourdieu in my research to explain the internal workings of the class system. I am also an ethnographer and teach through narrative. These things make me a popular choice when student unions are organising debates and talks. I have spoken and debated at universities all over the UK, I enjoy it, and I feel a duty and responsible as a working-class woman to go into spaces that my mother and my grandmother’s generation would have been denied.

I have debated on the floors of Oxford and Cambridge Unions, so let me explain to those of you that don’t know what this means — and why should you, neither did I until I did it.

The Oxford and Cambridge Unions are central to the reproduction of our class system, and are the oldest debating societies in the world. Cambridge started in 1815 with Oxford following in 1823 — the great and the good, the angry and the entertaining, have all paced those parquet floors from Michael Jackson to Michelle Obama, Malcolm X and Winston Churchill, and me. An invite to don the floor at these institutions is seldom turned down no matter whether you are a former president of the United States or a Labour Party frontbencher.

There is a whole ritual that goes alongside the actual 90-minute debate. It’s black tie — you need to dress up to acknowledge the importance of the ceremony, you are assigned and met by a chaperone (lower ranking student of the union,) your chaperone is there to tend to your needs throughout the evening, and they do, they are charming and helpful and eager, perhaps a future president of the union — after all there are great benefits to being part of the debating societies past, and notable presidents have been our current Prime Minister Boris Johnson, former PMs Edward Heath, William Gladstone, Asquith and Macmillan, Theresa May’s husband Philip May, Michael Howard. They are not exclusively Tories. There have been Labour frontbenchers Roy Jenkins, Anthony Crossland, Michael Foot, John Maynard Keynes and even the communist Tariq Ali donned the Big Important Chair.

Before the debate you are invited and must attend a formal dinner, where there are toasts to the queen and speeches by the current president welcoming the guests, the debaters and members of the union, the guests are placed amongst students for the entirety of the dinner where bright young things use this opportunity to become networked with some of the most influential people in the world, and this happens every week through term time.

The debate itself appears to be an exact replica of the House of Commons. There are rules to follow, and motions to argue, there are interjections from the “floor” – the people that are there to witness the debate, they can interject by standing up for “a point of order” to which the speaker can “give way” if they wish.

I find this performance — and it is a performance — fascinating and addictive. Having such a platform and being listened to as a person of knowledge grabs you. You can see why so many of the union’s members go on and into the House of Commons and then the Lords, it’s like a seamless conveyor belt of privilege and advantage.

This is the training for our elites, it is where they use their cultural capital (education, and institutional elite culture) their social capital (being in the right influential circles) their symbolic capital (the symbols of the elites) and their economic capital (their wealth) to procure even more. They cannot fail.

The universities themselves may want credit for the seemingly talented and successful students that leave their halls but the truth is that the British class system takes the credit. Students that already have good and excessive amounts of social, cultural, symbolic, and economic capital will choose a university that has a student body that matches or exceeds their own class position, and the same goes for the students that choose a post-92 University.

The consequences of this is that universities, like everywhere in Britain, are classed. That does not mean that working-class students are not found in these elite institutions, but when they are — they are as rare as rocking horse shit. Equally it does not mean that middle class students cannot be found in the post-92s although the middle class usually search for an accessible Russell Group University before they will apply for a post-92.

None of this is really news, we all know that education is the biggest determinate for social mobility or for no mobility at all and reproducing the status quo.

In a week when we remember those that have fought and lost, we must be honest about this. The class war is still raging against us, our people are suffering through the removal of welfare support, the humiliations of working-class people needing food banks, mortality rates for us are dropping, homelessness is the shame of our nation and our children are being sorted like beads into valued and non-valued as the social mobility scam cherry-picks a few and discards the many. The class system still churns, unfairly advantaging some to the cost of working-class people.


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