The Canon: The Hidden Injuries of Class by Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb

September 9, 2010

In the early 1970s, I spent some time trying to persuade low-income working-class families in a small Yorkshire town to claim the recently introduced rent benefits.

Perhaps it's not surprising that a rather naive postgraduate student on a borrowed motorbike was not very successful. Most of the people I spoke to were polite and welcoming, but made sure I understood that they just weren't the kind of people who got money from the council.

As the would-be author of a thesis on welfare rights, confident he knew all about means-tested benefits, take-up rates and the income distribution in West Yorkshire, I found this frustrating. Why didn't these tenants take more kindly to the idea of free money to help with the rent? After all, they were citizens in a welfare state.

The Hidden Injuries of Class deals with working-class experience in the US, not the UK, but it provides one answer to that question. Democratic welfare capitalism offers equality yet delivers grossly unequal life chances, and this is nowhere more obvious than to those at the bottom of the ladder.

The myth that legitimates class is that of equality of opportunity. That goes hand in hand with the idea of respect for ability. Those who fail to climb the ladder feel they've somehow failed. While they live in a world that is clearly unfair, there is an inner sense of individual guilt, yet they must maintain their dignity.

Often this is bound up with ideas of self-sacrifice, of providing for a family and a future for children. Perhaps the European Union, which in 2008 put "opportunities, access and solidarity" at the centre of its Renewed Social Agenda, should consider possible conflicts between these three ideals: if you believe that there is good access to equal opportunities, how can there be solidarity between those who distinguish themselves by success and by failure?

Sennett has written extensively on the way in which seemingly equal and open market-centred societies deny most workers the opportunity to value themselves through their labour. His work has attracted substantial respect from academics and broader reflective communities. It has drawn dissent from those who swallow whole the myth of the open society, those who focus entirely on material oppression and all those for whom the pain of corroded dignity is unimportant.

The book examines a small segment of the world of work. It deals almost entirely with men in full-time work, near but not at the bottom of the occupational scale. Academics now pay much more attention to the important role of women's waged and unwaged labour, and to the diverse factors contributing to self-identity.

However, Sennett and Cobb's insights help explain how it is that low-income working tenants can't believe that means-tested welfare is for them. Their self-worth centres on the ability to support a home without being the kind of person who accepts handouts from the council.

Perhaps I should have read the book before, rather than after, I did my interviews - and it's such a marvellous title.

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