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Still social class barriers

July 21, 2012

I recently read this article by Siobhan Courtney: The UK’s social mobility shame.  It recounted how difficult it was to escape your social class in Britain.  I immediately thought of George Orwell’s 1938 book “The Road to Wigan Pier”, which I had read recently.

Orwell identified two social classes clearly in his book.  He wanted to unify the two socialist groups in order to counter the rise of fascist parties in Europe at the time.  One was the working class socialists.  The other was the gentleman class socialists.  Both voted labour, socialist, or communist, but for quite different reasons.  I assume that the two groups have changed considerably since that time.

In the first half of the book, he described how he lived with working class people, mostly miners and their families in the north of England.  Some were working but many lived on the dole.  He described their working and living conditions in detail.  Both were quite shocking.  They voted for socialist parties as a way to improve their way of life.

In the second half, he described the gentleman socialists, often with harsh criticism.  Orwell himself was a member of this group.  He had some difficulty getting the book published because it was so critical.  This group voted for socialist parties for idealogical reasons.  They were in the lower tier of their social class in terms of income but spent their money to keep up appearances.  They wanted to rise in their class and could abandon their principles if the opportunity arose.  Some of them were quacks.  Orwell called them “bearded fruit juice drinkers”.  Members of this group expected to be leaders of the socialist movement, with working class people as followers.  This attitude is clearly paternalistic and anti-democratic.

In this book, the class distinctions were obvious, based on language, culture, education, and occupation.  Small things such as your accent, whether you called your noon meal `lunch’ or `dinner’, or whether you drank your soup quietly or noisily, made all the difference.  I’m hoping that social classes are not as rigid here in Canada, although I’m sure that they do exist.  I know that we do tend to classify people by their appearance or by our first impression.  To an extent, this is valid defensive behavior, but it shouldn’t prevent us from seeing people as distinct individuals as well.

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