There are many ways to silence those deemed dangerous and unruly by the political and economic elite. Silencing the working class happens through misrepresentation (think Gavin and Stacey, and the pervasiveness of the term Scroungers), and disciplinary mechanisms such as infringement of benefits, domestic impossibilities such as the bedroom tax, and the deregulation of an abundance of poorly paid, insecure labour contracts. A job for life. Not anymore.
As we have seen just a few days ago in the profound tragedy that is the loss of homes, lives and livelihoods at Grenfell Tower (14th June, 2017), the poor are not only silenced, but neglected by the state.
As I watch in horror and anguish the events unfolding in front of us, I have been thinking about how listening is the opposite of being silenced, and how the two exist beyond the utterances of words. Silencing can take many forms; and in the case of Grenfell Tower, it seems that people have been silenced through the cosmetic and unsafe refurbishment of their homes, for aesthetic purposes. I have been thinking about how listening, and propagating the stories of everyday struggle endured by many earning less than £18,000 year (what mumsnet deems to be low income based on a popularity poll) is a political act; one of changing the representations of the working poor, one that reveals poverty to be what it is; endless hard bloody work with little rest-bite or return. Listening is the verb we need to be incorporating into our day-to-day language. Listening is relational, and sits in a power matrix. Listening needs to be done to those who have been silenced, ignored and dismissed. There are many minority groups that suffer the fate of being silenced, through complex and dominant ideologies running toxic through Capitalist society.
Funny, that the group that has been systematically silenced overtly is not a minority group. In 2016, Geoffrey Evans and Jonathan Mellon of the University of Oxford, conducted a survey that showed 60% of Britons regard themselves as working class (Guardian, 2016). According to Ipsos Mori, 45.8% of household heads are in the manual worker or lower-paid social grade bracket known as C2DE (a broader definition of working-class). It seems we are a nation of workers, enduring, surviving and embodying the triumphs and tribulations that come with that territory. While working class identity is firmly established along side complex class identities, this version of events is a reality continuously ignored by Conservative and New Labour governments, who under the austerity drive have disregarded the day to day difficulties that go with being broke, and continued to issue austerity cuts, while selling off public services and goods to private investors. As a resident of an estate close to Grenfell Tower commented that the Grenfell Tower tragedy “symbolises the divide between the rich and the poor in this area. The council is busy selling off our libraries. They’ve sold Ladbroke Grove library to Notting Hill Prep and other private schools.” (Chanel Four News, 2017).
While it seems that many people identify with working class status, values, and identities, it is still a lived reality that is misunderstood, shamed and politically neglected. Building on the work of social reformers and researchers of the early 20th century Beales and Lamber, Charles Booth, Maud Pember Reed and Beatrice Webb, and more recent artists, academics and researchers involved with documenting the everyday experience of the working class such as Hana Walker Brown, Charles Parker, Euan MacColl, Richard Billingham and Andrea Zimmerman, it seems important now more than ever to give voice to the misrepresented and underserved.
Current documentations of citizen response to the disaster express anger and grief in double blows. As the grief of the residents of Grenfell Tower, alive and dead, missing and found, runs through the veins of every person that has any empathy, it seems self evident that the residents of Grenfell Tower, and anyone else who seeks the protection of the welfare state are in uproar. It is because they know, that through neglect of funding, basic maintenance of homes that makes them safe, low income individuals and households have been silenced. One resident commented in a Chanel Four news broadcast “They’re not talking to us. We are the community. They’re not talking to us. Where are they?” (Chanel Four News, 2017). The burning of Grenfell Tower and the tragic loss of lives, possession, histories, stories, memories and social bonds symbolises the sustained neglect and silencing of the voices and needs of the working classes; people who don’t have family savings. People who don’t have secure, well paid jobs (although we’re all poor now as the housing system is so broken that £26,500 won’t get you a mortgage for an averagely priced house), people who don’t have access to the £9k a year costs of securing a good education, people who are decent, kind, well educated, smart, compassionate and embedded in their community. Grenfell Tower is the symbol of many political shortcomings, but most of all it is the symbol of neglect, of enforced silencing on issues of class. The residents association wrote many letters, well put together and evidenced letter. As the Independent reports, in November 2016 residents wrote on the Grenfell Action Group website that they feared such a fire could break out and warned of the potential for a “major disaster”. Members of the action group at Grenfell Tower wrote that they believed the building posed a fire risk, and that “only a catastrophic event will expose” the issues after their concerns fell on “deaf ears“(Independent, 2017).
The silencing of the working class through systematic political neglect, shaming and social stigmatisation is not new. We can look back to 80 years ago, when dire straights compounded many working people in the UK to long term unemployment. In 1934, two researchers, H.L. Beales and R.S. Lambert published Memoirs of the Unemployed, a collection of testimonies and stories from men and women. While this study showed that the poor were not to blame for their circumstance, and every person struggling to secure an income had a backstory that illuminated struggles effecting their lives, outside of their own control (Todd, 2012). The Pilgrim’s Trust, the body responsible for publishing the work, that later became titled Men Without Work, concluded through such research that “in periods of depression, thousands of men are thrown out of work by conditions outside their own control” (Pilgrim Trust, DATE NEEDED, p.200). At the time this was an assertion that directly opposed the narrative promoted by the conservative press that “those drawing unemployment benefit were those who had never prudently saved, or paid into national insurance scheme” (Todd, 2012, p. 75). The idea of the undeserving poor was gaining traction, and political opinions of the poor included fecklessness, imprudence and laziness (Todd, 2012). While progress was made for the working poor through the 1911 introduction of the National Insurance Act, and later in 1920, the Unemployment Insurance Act, protecting people entering into unemployment from destitution, those suffering from poverty were still incarcerated by lack of more than basic support and the stigma of social shame. Unfortunately, sustained political neglect and social stigmatization are views espoused in much of today’s political and social thought.
“We watched them burn and die. We saw the fire envelop the flat they were in, and then we saw it rendered in ash. We have a friend who lived on the 15th floor, who managed to survive. He was falling over corpses, stepping over corpses. He eventually made it to the third floor, where he fainted, and was rescued by the fireman.”
Resident of Chelsea, Chanel Four News, 2017
“It didn’t have to happen, people didn’t have to die. We have corporations competing over the outsourcing of what should be functions of the council, and functions of the state. So what happens is they want to get the highest profit that they can, so they do jobs that are just not up to part. Neoliberalism is discredited, austerity is discredited. It is a matter of choice, it doesn’t have to be this way, and it is a matter of life or death.”
Kareem Dennis aka Lowkey, Double Down News, 2017
It doesn’t have to be like this.