Class Identity

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Class Identity

I come from a working class background in industrial Saint John, N.B. My father did not complete high school. He had many jobs prior to his mid-thirties working at MRAs, as an upholstetrer's assistant and in factories. After that he spent most of his time working as a security guard and had a few stints as a local union president. We lived in a working class neighbourhood in Saint John, known as Indiantown then and now more often referred to as the Old North End. The former appelation referred to the fact that the Saint John River was a great aboriginal highway and that natives had settled at the confluence of the Saint John River and the bay of Fundy where Bridge Street is today. But I digress. We were working class; we never considered ourselves middle class. Middle class kids were bussed into our neighbourhood to attend junior high school. Believe me ther was class conflict in the school between the two groups beginning with  resetment all of the advantages they had accrued in live so far.

My father in law grew up in rural New Brunswick achieved a grade 8 education (common at the time) and worked for over 40 years  for CN, starting by shovelling snow in the train yard and retiring as a train engineer. My wife group up in a working class family. Money was tight in the early years. They did not consider themselves middle class.

My wife and I had the opportunity to attend university that our fathers did not and achieved post-graduate degrees. By almost anyone's definition we are members of the middle class. Yet, it is hard to shake the working class dirt from one's boots and I for one don't want to. I I am very much a product of my working class upbringing.

There are many ways to look at class. Michael Katz in his studies of the class in 19th c. Hamilton used a static model , one in which you could take a snap shot of what class soneone was a member of at any one time. This can be contrasted with E.P. Thompson's more fluid and historical approach to class in The Making of the English Working Class. The verb is the key to his approach.

Consciousness is very important to class. If individuals who from an objective Marxian perspective are working class and perceive themselves as members of the middle class what is the consequences of this false consciousness? I would suggest that the msm, the capitalist class and the mainstream parties benefit from this situation.

I certainly don't want to turn this into an NDP bashing thread. I do want to note that the above goes a long way to explaining why I dislike the campaign the NDP are running in the NB provincial  election and will be holding my nose when I cast my ballot for them.


These days there are some ins and outs to class. There are class divides within families, say between the adult kids. A husband maybe a well paid tradesman or professional while the wife if she returns to work maybe relegated to minimum wage in retail. Downward mobility is common these days, with middleclass offspring not doing as well as their parents. Tradesman and union workers are middle class these days, that was the point of that whole exercise. Lots of working class people don't really see themselves as working class. There remains a blind eye to the actual low wage worker, some people consider well paid tradesmen and unionized workers as the working class, the bottom. Lots of commentary here on Babble about working class consciousness but politically the solidarity of the people comes from this situation of class cutting across family.

My Grandfather brought up two kids in the Depression as a Grand Truck train engineer. He had a house, a stay a home wife, a model T and he put two kids through uninversity. He retired to a pension. I used to wonder how he did that as a blue collar worker. The thing of it is big company train engineers were paid well. Today CN pays and engineer $100,000. Back in the depression such workers as my grandfather were paid better than other workers although maybe not $100g's. 


N.Beltov N.Beltov's picture

Caissa, I think it is not only E. P. Thompson who treated class as a "verb" or a relationship. This is the classic approach of Marx as well. The working class was created in the process of capitalist development, yadda yadda. We could talk about the current develoment of the Chinese working class, make predictions about future class conflict in that country, and so on.

The objective thing IS class as a relationship. It's critical to understand this in my view. The subjective thing is the presence, or absence, of class consciousness. That's the Marxist approach anyway, as I understand it, and I really have my doubts that anyone has improved upon it. Only the Marxists talk about class formation, class origin, etc., and locate such discussions in objective social history. Early capitalism needed a working class and capital formation and develoment insured that the class was reproduced. This talk about "middle class" as Bruce eloquently points out, is a crock.

On the subjective side it seems to me that a useful point is that we can talk about class origin and distinguish/contrast that with class orientation/partisanship. It's important. Marx and his buddy Fred Engels were hardly working class guys; Ilich Ulyanov (Lenin) was well off enough to study law in the late 19th century in Russia. Their class origins were NOT working class. However, they were partisan as all hell FOR the working class. In fact, they were, arguably, the most PRO working class thinkers in history.

It's important to be clear about this stuff. We see babblers like Stockholm, e.g., ostensibly pro-NDP and presumably closer to working class perspectives/partisanship than to bourgeois perspectives ... yet ridiculing the very idea of class or its importance for a "working class" party like the NDP. Pointing out such facts is hardly NDP "bashing". It's only fair, however, that those who urinate on the very idea of social class get urinated upon themselves for doing this. And we should not apologize for doing so. One good piss deserves another.



For those from working class families, class among the grown up siblings is an interesting phenomena.

I suppose class among any siblings is interesting, but this is what I am familiar with.

In my case its not just my roots that remain working class. Thats where I have worked and lived most of my life. So I am the same that way as all 5 of my siblings. But I'm the only one with a lot of what you would call middle class sensibilities.

Not consumerist consumption sensibilities. But the more or less aspirational sensibilities, or broader lifestyle /cultural sensibilities, typical of the middle class.

remind remind's picture




remind remind's picture

Not  about your post, but the whole thread.


Maybe you would like to engage the topic that roll your eyes in a drive by, Remind.


I understand identification, affinity and loyalty. I understand people wanting to better their lives - and parents making sacrifices so that their children can climb out of their class. And also the resentment and hurt those parents feel when the children are ashamed of their origins.

What i wonder about is the definition of class in modern North America. What criteria are used and how objective are they? Do we go by income, education, heredity, associations or type of work? For example, where does a fisherman belong? If he's a hired hand, no problem. Suppose he owns his boat, but can only just make the bank payments? Suppose he has a Master's degree in Chinese Literature? What class is a prairie farmer who barely finished highschool, inherited 2000 acres and owns outright every big shiny agricultural machine ever made? What about an immigrant whose father was a lawyer back home and a janitor in Canada and the kid himself is a student with part-time jobs? 

It's a lot harder in the new world, in a fluid society, in a changeable economy, to choose up sides. Maybe that's why the NDP is confused in its identity?     


Maybe I should explain what I mean by "middle class sensibilities".

In the Marxist or other sense of class- what I would call "class location"- no matter how broadly or narrowly you define working class- I and my family are in it.

Ditto for class identity: what I do and what I choose to do, as well as where I'm from and what I identify with.

Here are some of what I would call middle class sensibilities:

- making a priority of travel. More than the 2 week holiday. Whenever and wherever you can. The 'big trips' even if it takes years to do it.

-  a strong commitment that your kids go to university, if they want it [and they probably will- even if they drop out]. More than the sense that its a good idea.

- valuing the idea of a "liberal arts education" in itself. [The job and career will follow- while the working class is far more likely to see education as steps you go through. Not that you dont value the education in its own right. But there is a difference.]

Those are some examples- best or not. Or each one arguable or not.

We have a lot of friends of working class background and still have the class identity, but who are middle class in terms of the jobs and careers.

And thats who we do the greatest amount of our non-family socializing with. We think more like them than the more unambiguously working class people we know, including our slew of siblings who we are close to.


The NDP isnt really confused in its identity, at least as its meant here.

Pretty simple, the working class is not a big enough tent. Nor has it been since well before the NDP was around.


You can define it as a big enough tent. Or better. to remove the unintended taint that such definitions are done for their outcomes: the way you define working class it may well be a big enough tent.

Thats true of the most 'classical' Marxist theory. And you can nuance it with things like acknowledging that a lot of people have "ambiguous class locations;" but after such allowances are made, the working class is still 'majoritarian' even as its numbers decline over time.

Yes or no or maybe on that is not a road I care to go down. But I acknowledge it exists.


If you want to generalize over time, I think it would be most accurate to say that the CCF as well as the NDP were conceived of as parties of and for "the popular classes."

Which as much practical meaning as popular classes had, was always an inherently loose thing.


When lefties see the NDP "reaching out to business" they understandably but mistakenly take this as looking for votes among businesspeople.

Its not. If you get a few of them, fine. But the very limited number of them open arent worth the trouble it takes to attract them.

The target of "reaching out to business" is braodening in the NDP's core universe of supporters and potential supporters: the working class and the braoder 'popular classes'.

That is reaching out to the actual working class, not the working class of wishes and models. Some of the working class that is also at least somewhat oriented to the NDP actually sees 'business' generally favourably even if not really on their side. A lot more of the working class is not "pro-business" but doesnt like what looks 'anti-business' either. And thats how the NDP tends to look to them. Taking that out of the picture- which is a largely symbolic exercise- removes some important reservations about the NDP.

Its certainly arguable that isnt a good idea. But the purpose of making the point here is to demonstrate that it is about reading and appreciating class identity.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

remind your drive-by comment @4 is exactly the kind of comment that disrupts threads and leads them towards acrimony rather than positive discussion. In the future, if you have the urge to make that kind of negative comment which is not constructive in any way, please refrain. Thanks.

remind remind's picture

Actually going to edit that, silence smiley. And will state; did you actually read the OP and think about what was actually being discussed here?


The OP was not meant to be any type of class analysis, or commentary even.


Pure and simple,  first and foremost it was an issuance of credentials, to the reader, while trying to give props to a working class background for self and spouse, perhaps to try to validate an opinion that was just pure politics and nothing more.

In reality, it was a voice of privilege, as were the following posts, as really only the privileged are interested in stating what "class" they belong to and boasting what their credentials are.

Moreover,  as I woman, I understand that the measurement of "class" is a patriarchial imposition, indulged in by those who actually have the power and POSITION to do so. White men. That some women follow along is a given, but it does not make it correct that they do so.





Are you saying Remind that you dont see any validity in people talking about idenity?

Becasue that is what the opening post is about in general terms.

I think what you just said is that it is more about people establishing credentials. And its difficult to argue one way or the other if its really mostly about credentials.

But at a minimum: the discussion is at least also about identity- how we see ourselves.

In principle, in any case it could be more about establishing credentials. But it cant always be that way... or else there is no athentic discussion about how and who we identify with.

So where is the line? Or how do we find it or look for it? Or is there just no legitimate discussion of identity?

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

remind, of course you are welcome to object to the OP: its content, how it is phrased, any assumptions it may or may not be rooted in. All that is part of healthy and active discussion. However, if you simply post a snarky drive-by comment like you did @4, which engages in none of those objections, you are contributing to an acrimonious tone to the entire thread in a totally non-constructive way.

It would also help if you engaged the OP in good faith, and didn't try to uncover alterior motives within it--but I can't force you to do that. I can ask you to avoid drive-bys, though, which I have.

remind remind's picture

"how we see ourselves"


When coming from a position of privilege, in a colonialist country, that is currently practising aparthide type actions, to me, it is pure white male pendantry to espouse personal histories to create credentials  that straddle the fence, so to speak. To follow it all up by a pure political commen does not suggest any deep consideration of "class identity" from any perspective. Let alone allow for a discussion of such a thing from a non-white privileged male perspective.


remind remind's picture

actually catchfire, you are ascribing emotions to my roll eyes, in as much as you have accused me of ascribing motives, when  what the intent of the OP was plain to see.


In fact, my rolleyes, was one of tired sadness, leading to an unwillingness to go into 101 sexism and classism, yet again, here at babble.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

How would you suggest Caissa discuss his relationship to class, remind? He was invited to start this thread by Maysie. Everyone, even white males, have the right to explore their identity. You can challenge it, of course, but it would be helpful, and less disruptive, if you responded it more specifically, without broad, generalizing gestures to apartheid and colonialism. Maybe you'd like to talk about how class relates to patriarchy and colonialism?

ETA: That's the problem with drive-bys, remind. They are open signifiers, and do not add anything. In context, they are not constructive--particularly rolleyes. And they have to stop.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

To get back to the thread topic, my grandfather was an illiterate silver miner from Halifax, who moved to Timmins where my mother was born. My father was adopted into a working-class trades family. Both were the first members of their families to go to University, and both became school teachers and then principals. So I definitely understand the upwards trajectory Caissa's talking about: I'm certainly privileged, and school teachers everntually became members of the upper-middle class in my parents' lifetimes, but there is an undeniable working-class pride, at least in my parents' identity. But to me, now a privileged graduate student who benefited from this upward mobility, "working class" is not something I can identify directly with. I mean, I spent most of my twenties working for a living at shitty jobs, and some manual labour, but I can't deny that I had a middle-class privilege to fall back on.

So in that respect, I'm inclined to follow absentia's post: certain so-called working-class values have been instilled in me like loyalty, compassion and solidarity, but the real class consciousness, I think, escapes me. Capitalism works pretty hard at breaking down solidarity amongst the true "working classes," which should include the children of school teachers, for example. So I sympathize with Caissa's disappointment that our only aparty which occasionally espouses the principles of social democracy takes a completely different tack.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Good post, thanks Ken.


Not to mention we arent all white males.

And if only persons with no privileges have an authentic voice in discussing classism, where do white females fit in?

For that matter, the working class is riven with categorial differences in privilege. The number of female presons of colour would be by far the minority of the working class.

And privilege does not just divide us...  defining differences in privelege [not just having more or less] is absolutely part of the experience of being working class. And there were no 'good old days' of unity when it wasnt like that.


I started this thread to talk about class identity not  other forms of identity politics. The latter seems to trump the former on this site. That's fair enough but that isn't the subject of the thread, remind.

remind remind's picture

did not know he was invited by maysie to start this thread, perhaps a note of continued/branched from would be applicable in such cases?


other than that I will now stay out of this thread, as I am not too worried about white males and their long fought for identity politics


It was a general invitation by Maysie too start a thread on class identity. I chose to take her up on it.  I think it was in one of the NDP bashing threads. Thanks for deciding to respect this thread, remind.


So far its people with at least strong family links to the working class who have been speaking about class identity.

But thats not a prerequisite for joining the discussion.

George Victor

A "meritocracy" such as ours is based on competition, and schooling provides the main vehicle for social movement. 

Can discussion of "class" be relevant in such a setting except as nostalgia?



George Victor

By further refining the concept to meet new, historically determined conditions?  Smile



Neritocracy only changes the dynamic of class.

It doesnt blast it into space.

It has always been changing. One thing that has not changed for many decades at least:

Mobility in Canada nad the US is much greater than in Europe. But the vast majority of people who do move, move to a nearby 'rung' on the ladder.

And it has always been that way. The only thing that changed with the massive explosion of education, is that surprise, surprise... credentialing became a more formal part of the [same old movements]. Is that a meritocracy in the meaningful sense of the term? And/or any more so than what existed before the education system was such a central handmaiden?

Quick test for those who went to university in the 60s and 70s during the really big boom. You know the working class was underepresented in that. We had chances our parents did not have, but we were very underepresented.

Further, and here is the test: think about the people you knew at university who were working class. What proportion of them had parents who dug duitches, canned fish, or were farm labourers? And what proportion did relatively skilled work? Compare that ratio of one to the other to what existed then in the proportion in the general population.


George Victor wrote:

By further refining the concept to meet new, historically determined conditions?  Smile


Yes, that's kind of what i was after. Old white female, BTW. The reason i specifically mentioned immigrant parents is because that's my people. Middle-class European roots from way back, they both worked at scut jobs most of their adult lives, but associated with mainly other middle-class immigrants also working at scut jobs. The sensibilities, as Ken S points out, are not formed by one's income or work environment, but by education, culture and social life. So, even when poor, our cultural identity was always middle-class. But we didn't import our economic status and political identity: that was formed largely in the work-place and at school. The two (three?) identities can be quite different.


In the broader context, I can't imagine the ruling class being all that amused with the impromptu sharing of backgrounds and respective struggles between the traditional scapegoat communities and the relatively privileged beneficiaries of convenience within this system, be it along racial or gender based lines.  I can see the cross pollination of relative accounts under the same system becoming an eventual unpleasant distraction from the standard narrative we're supposed to follow along with.  Any awareness which extends beyond that which they unsparingly present to us would likely be of questionable value toward those moments when the diversionary ratcheting up of divisions, excuses and fear of one another are required.

remind remind's picture

Caissa wrote:
It was a general invitation by Maysie too start a thread on class identity. I chose to take her up on it.  I think it was in one of the NDP bashing threads. Thanks for deciding to respect this thread, remind.


-You are welcome, though i do not respect it in the least, in fact my decision to stay out was based on quite the opposite.


How is that working out?

remind remind's picture

Quite well actually, as there is a great deal, and I mean a great deal, that I have NOT written here, because of that decision. Thanks for asking though. Way too few female voices here these days, having left because of the classist identity politics at play here, for me not to at least acknowlege your interested questioning of me.

Anyhow, NO more digression on non-participation on my part, I have lint to pick out of my belly button, I am sure, as I saw others had some in theirs, whilst I was gazing around this thread.


I believe that if conducted within reason, I see nothing wrong with space being provided for anecdotal experiences, so long as the accounts are not intended as a mechanism of denial with respect to the favoritisms inherent within the prevailing society.

remind remind's picture

Aren't they always?


Oh well.

Interesting. Most of my family did regular jobs - my dad was a teacher and my mom a clerk, and further back were mechanics, salespeople, farmers, organizers, millworkers and mercenaries. And of course anyone who goes far enough back find presidents and royalty.  I have always been in the lowest tax bracket or below the line, but I would never consider myself working class because I am not. I have only rarely worked in situations in which I had a boss or did not have a good degree of freedom and control over my work environment.

Not to say I am not aware of the controlling and exploitative forces in our society, but when it comes to working to put food on my table I am not in a struggle with anyone.

Generally speaking, I think class is fluid - certainly moreso than gender and race. I have seen friends and family move up the ladder and down. I know there are a lot of people trapped by it, but not everyone is.

Also, I think we probably don't all have exactly the same idea in our heads when we think of "class identity".

Aalya Aalya's picture

I wasn't going to post until remind got going there but I'm not going to let that snark be the last word on feminism and class consciousness in this thread. Whatever happened to the feminist credo, "the personal is the political"? I for one choose to incorporate the awareness of class as part of my "identity politics" and some of the staunchest feminists I have known are socialists and unionists. Identity is not a zero-sum game.

As for ethnicity, well, the "upper-class" in me is all on the South Asian side, where my family is extremely privileged. They send their kids to school in the West, have lots of servants and live in gated compounds with armed guards. My mother's family is British working class. In 1960s racist England when my parents met, of course, that class position was reversed because my father was the "paki." It was a tremendous shock to me to go to Pakistan and see the abyss between rich and poor there, not least because my family was so relatively rich and the women in my family so privileged and feisty. And then, of course, the assumption over here is that I am oppressed by my family or that my family is struggling in some way because they are pakistani. It's really weird.

I grew up in England where you are "branded on the tongue" in terms of your class identity and for this reason, the theory of the acquisition of "cultural competence" has always really resonated with me as well.


It's amazing that people can be so oblivious to their own effect on a community, and continually blame women's lack of participation here on everyone but themselves.

Why don't you take a good look in the goddamned mirror.


Just a thought about the differences in class and wealth nowadays as opposed to times past.

My grandmother told me that in the 20s and during the depression work in the public service - the post office in particular - was relatively high-status work because of the job security. One of my uncles worked there. My grandmother and one of her sisters worked at HBC and Ashdowns. My great grandfather was a machinist. The impression I got was that they felt quite well-off because they were a large familly, and everyone brought in enough income that things were stable and they had enough food. There were plenty around who had no home and no jobs.

My grandfather on the other side spent much of the depression riding the rails. After he married my grandmother, he joined the army during the war not out of a sense of patriotic duty, but because it allowed him and my grandmother to buy one cow, which made them self-sufficient because they were able to sell milk and cream. They spent the war living in a sod house east of Winnipeg. I have seen pictures of it and it looks not much different than any modern mobile home. Fortunately he spent the war guarding German prisoners and never got sent over. Several of my uncles were not so lucky.

RevolutionPlease RevolutionPlease's picture

What a joke of a thread, thanks for the 101 remind, it's necessary here.


RevolutionPlease wrote:

What a joke of a thread, thanks for the 101 remind, it's necessary here.


I suppose it might be rude to speculate as to what first-year class was being offered, eh?

good night.



RevolutionPlease wrote:

What a joke of a thread, thanks for the 101 remind, it's necessary here.

I honestly don't get the antagonism this thread seems to be stirring up - do I need to backtrack to some former thread and a longrunning dispute I'm not party to? Otherwise I think its an interesting exercise to analyse our personal histories from a class pov, patterns certainly emerge.

Can you let me in on the joke?


I don't know about the atagonism here. I do not that issues of class identity and class consciousness do not receive the same respect on Babble, IMHO, that other forms of identity politics do.

George Victor

My Marxist sociology profs took great delight in their newfound "freedom" from the class constraints that they grew up with in England. I was amazed that they had not yet discovered the subtler - yet more blatant - class forms of Canada and the U.S., based on income and conspicuous consumption...all hidden away in the name of merit.    :)


You read in too much George. Of course people like feeling the day to day liberation from the stiffling all pervasive dead hand of class in 60s England. That, and pretty much the same thing across the Channel, is why I never thought I could live across the pond, as much as liked so many aspects of life there.

Appreciating differences does not mean people think they are free.

In fact, its painfully obvious that North Americans are literally enthralled with the idea of how different they are.


At least a couple people have mentioned living different class identities.

I grew up in an entirely working class environment, and was absolutely clueless of what the other classes were like. Just a couple years out of that sheltered life, I laughed remembering the people we called "rich kids."

When I was 16 I got a dishwasher job in a private country club. I worked months full time just seeing the glitterati through the doors. The bus boys were all related to the members. But they were just guys with nicer cars for all I noticed.

Then they needed another bus boy. I guess that there werentt enough rich brats who wanted the job. And the chef didnt like me [mutual]. So I was roped into being a bus boy.

This was cool. Paid to do a lot of standing around.

But now I was on the other side of the door, which meant watching these people at close quarters. Or them waving me over and making jokes completely lost on me. Rapid education.

And it was from there to Berkeley. Not as intense, but I recognised the common themes even among my fellow non-student agitators. But for a couple years- long time in that intense and intensely youthful world- I only knew that that they were different from me. 

I didnt do any significant de-coding of the differences until a perceptive friend- himself from a privileged background- noticed that I never said much when I wasnt with people I didnt know well. I hadnt noticed. When he started pushing me, I started figuring out the differences that suddenly looked so obvious.




The flashy badges of big incomes and conspicuous consumption dont buy that cultural competence.

The ease and entitlement of ruling.

Aalya Aalya's picture

I wish more of us could talk in this way about class identity. It's definitely the "c" word: decades of neoCon Horatio Alger bootstrap claptrap have convinced so many that class is dead, at least in North America. I miss that type of consciousness in the UK and more rigidly class-delineated societies, where you have people like Raymond Williams and British cultural studies, for example, who bring class very much to the forefront and who aren't afraid to discuss its role in perpetuating systemic inequality, just like the Americans have a vibrant ongoing discussion around racism because it's more overt in the U.S.. It's like we all participate in this mass delusion in Canadia that there has been some kind of revolution and that we are all ostensibly equal in that way. And yet, my mother's British accent (I lost mine after we moved here) still firmly establishes her somewhere in the class hierarchy "above", much as the Scottish friend mentioned upthread found the reno/deco work.

Another way that class strikes me forcibly in this country is in the differences between the cities and the rural municipalities in terms of the sensibilities that KenS was discussing upthread. My partner's family is from working-class Southern Ontario and it's like a different world to me, both in terms of their homogenous ethnicity, so different from the diverse city, and in terms of the aspirations, expectations and values that they hold.

On the other hand, back to those sensibilities, I had a roommate from a working-class background who was on full scholarship in university, who accused me of having a silver spoon in my mouth, while I was working three jobs to get through. I don't hold with the idea of privilege as something that is fixed and unchangeable. As others have observed upthread, identity shifts depending on where you are. Standpoint theory 101, perhaps?

Snert Snert's picture

Can you let me in on the joke?


I think it's one of those Zen things that can't be explained, but can only be felt and understood by true "allies".


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