A Waterford Whispers article bears the headline ‘Leo Varadkar Becomes Ireland’s First Openly Classist Leader‘. The joke is that all previous holders of the office of Taoiseach were of the same disposition, but just kept it in the closet.
It’s worth thinking about what ‘classism’ really is. To me at least, it seems to mean prejudice towards members of an identified social class, or towards that class on the whole. No doubt that such attitudes really do exist, with real effects on how people are treated. Certain accents or clothing that reflect class background are felt as synonymous with stupidity or laziness, for example. Other accents may be heard on occasion as bearing hallmarks of privilege and class condescension that have little to do with the speaker.
But it’s possible to have a system of class domination and exploitation without any outward signs of classism. One example is the State.
The liberal State proclaims a society without classes by separating the political realm from the economic realm. Everyone is proclaimed equal before the law, and a relation of explotation and domination -having to produce a profit for someone else in order to live- is made appear a contract freely entered, a matter of choice and an expression of freedom. Thus the ruling ideology across many capitalist societies proposes that we live in a ‘classless society’, or that ‘we are all middle-class now’.
Here lies the danger of considering class as an ‘identity’: a person from a working class background may arrive to a position of power and influence, and still consider themselves proud to be working class, even if they live off the rents that come from being a slum landlord, or from hosting a radio show that defends established power at every turn.
A more typical experience would be for someone from a working class background, who, on reaching a point of material satisfaction and status, disregards the network of social supports that allowed them to reach this point, and considers that they must be in possession of something special that the system has recognised. An example of this would be working class children who are selected at an early age to go to grammar school, and then, upon reaching a middle class profession as adults, look upon the system of selection as something that must be good, since it recognised them as worthy.
When ‘working class’ appears as nothing but an identity proclaimed by an individual and is happily greeted as such, rather than the expression of a class consciousness with the abolition of class society at its heart, we might well be free from ‘classism’, but certainly not from class exploitation and its effects.