Claire Tomalin’s outstanding biography of Thomas Hardy has revived the reading of his novels of which I am a fan. His themes include love, crime and death. Interwoven is the sub-plot of social class.
Hardy (1840-1928) was of lowly origin. His first submission was rejected because of its overt attack on the class system. He adapted by revealing the power of class in the experiences of his characters.
This class system still prevails. In his The State We’re In, Will Hutton argues that Britain is divided into a top 20 per cent with high salaries, much wealth, expensive homes and powerful posts: the middle 30 per cent with modest incomes and cheaper homes: and the bottom 30 per cent which includes the low-paid and unemployed.
Opinions differ as to the composition of each class. But radicals agree that the inequalities inherent in the system are a major cause of the deprivations suffered by those at the bottom.
However powerful the class system, those who benefit rarely discuss it. The erudite speeches by the top people in the world of welfare ignore it. Yet the British Attitudes Survey showed that 94 per cent of people identify with a class. Anyone who lives in a deprived area knows that residents are aware that a class system oppresses them.
A misconception is that small improvements are the solution. The government boasts that it has taken thousands of children out of poverty. In fact, it has lifted them just above a meagre poverty level. Social divisions have not been touched.
Some national charities question government policies against specific groups such as asylum seekers and children in care. But they do not attack the system of class and its accompanying capitalism which promote the very problems their agencies attempt to tackle. Indeed, the excessive salaries of some high managers in the voluntary sector, their distance from poor people, their pursuit of honours, mean that they too support the dominant class.
A strong but unacknowledged system poses difficulties for social workers and social care staff. If they attribute family malfunctioning to social class in their reports then, like the young Hardy, they will be scorned as dangerous and irrelevant. Like him, they have to adopt other ways of challenging power.
So how do we do this? Firstly, I have been a social worker and know that some parents mistreat children, some are irresponsible, some teenagers are violent. At times, I had to remove children. Yet this should not stop us putting users in the context of the class hierarchy and how it undermines individual behaviour.
Secondly, we can convey that we recognise that inequality has contributed to their plight. This will involve helping them to maximise benefits, obtain the minimum wage, tackle debts, obtain better accommodation. This does not mean ceasing to counsel, guide and protect. In addition, we can encourage users to act collectively with others in their position.
Third, staff can affirm their opposition to the class system by meeting with those of like mind. The Social Work Manifesto Group is an emerging movement of radicals.
Fourth, my vision is of a large voluntary society which decides that no employee should earn more than three times that of other members and that its managing body should be elected by staff and users. Imagine a multi-million pound agency with its agenda set not by the great and the good but by those with experience of life at the hard end. I dream.
Sadly, Thomas Hardy rejected his early radicalism as he grew prosperous. Over 40 years, I have seen some former radicals settle for comfortable, affluent lives. I do not pretend to have a strategy for a classless society. But I believe that we can hang on to the values which condemn capitalism, pursue lifestyles which do not reinforce inequality, and promote an analysis centred on the evils of a class system.
Bob Holman is a community worker associated with the Easterhouse area of Glasgow.
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This article appeared in the 5 April issue under the headline “Lessons of hardy are a call to radicalism”