In contemporary society, the significance of class is often overlooked, yet it remains an essential factor in understanding social dynamics and addressing inequalities. Works by Didier Eribon, Édouard Louis, and Richard Sennett shed light on the enduring relevance of class, its intersections with other social factors, and the need to confront class-based disparities.
Unraveling the Intricate Web of Class and Identity
French sociologist and author Didier Eribon, in his memoir “Returning to Reims,” (I have the Left Book Club to thank for introducing me to this wonderful text) delves into the intersectionality of class and sexuality, revealing how these two factors intertwine to shape an individual’s identity and experiences. Eribon revisited his hometown of Reims after decades of estrangement, seeking to understand the roots of his working class upbringing and the experiences that led him to become a leading intellectual. He discovered that his family, once staunch supporters of the Communist Party, had shifted their allegiance to far right (Le Pen’s Front National now renamed Rassemblement National), political movements, which he attributed to the Left’s abandonment of the working class. As Eribon notes, “The way I experienced my social class is very much linked to my homosexuality – my class and my sexuality were mixed together.” He also critiques the Left for abandoning the working class, which has led to the rise of right-wing populism: “The Left has given up on the idea of the working class, and that’s one of the reasons for the rise of the far right. It’s a failure of the Left.” It is a disheartening truth that the working class, once embraced by the Left, has become a term tainted with disdain and perceived as a breeding ground for hate; this abandonment has left a void filled by the far right, exposing the Left’s own failure to uphold the values of solidarity and inclusivity it once championed.
Similarly, Édouard Louis, another French author, in his work explores the effects of political decisions on everyday lives and emphasises the importance of political action. In an interview with New Statesman, Louis states, “Politics is about transforming society, and transforming the material conditions of existence.” He highlights the struggles faced by the working class and other marginalised groups, noting, “The people I come from, the people I write about, the working class, the poor, the victims of racism, the victims of homophobia, they are the first ones to be targeted by the violence of the world.” Louis advocates for a rekindled commitment to the transformative potential of politics in order to improve the material conditions and experiences of those who have been left behind.
The experiences of the two French writers, provide a unique perspective on the impact of class on individuals’ lives over time. Eribon, being much older than Louis, uses the passage of time as a lens through which to explore his working class roots and the intersections of class and sexuality. His return to Reims after decades of estrangement allowed him to examine the changes that have taken place in his family and community, as well as reflect on his own evolving identity. In contrast, Louis’ works are grounded in recent experiences, giving readers a more immediate understanding of the challenges faced by the working class and other marginalised communities in today’s society.
This difference in perspective raises the question: can we ever truly leave our class, or is it indelibly imprinted on our psyche, shaping who we are and how we navigate the world? Both Eribon and Louis demonstrate that, despite the passage of time or personal growth, our class origins continue to influence our lives in profound ways. Like a homing pigeon returning to its roots, our working-class backgrounds can be an inescapable part of our identity, and our experiences and memories of these roots remain with us, no matter how far we travel or how much we change. The personal narratives of Didier Eribon and Édouard Louis serve as vivid illustrations of Richard Sennett’s exploration of the “hidden injuries of class,” emphasising the deep and lasting impact of class on individuals’ lives and self-perceptions across different generations and cultural contexts.
The concept of the “hidden injuries of class” was introduced by Sennett in his 1972 book (with a new edition just released by Verso Books), co-authored with Jonathan Cobb, titled “The Hidden Injuries of Class.” The book delves into the psychological impact of class on individuals, focusing on the self-perceptions, aspirations, and sense of identity among working-class people in the United States. Through a series of in-depth interviews, Sennett and Cobb explore the emotional and psychological dimensions of social class, revealing how class-based inequalities affect people’s lives beyond material circumstances. One of the strengths of Sennett and Cobb’s research in “The Hidden Injuries of Class” was their focus on personal narratives and experiences, which allowed people to share their stories in their own words, and not simply through the lens of predetermined survey questions or preconceptions. In a Verso Books blog post written by Sennett himself, he reflects on the book’s legacy and the continued relevance of the hidden injuries of class in contemporary society. He quotes his own work, stating that “people who are born poor are expected to stay poor, and this expectation has increasingly become a matter of self-image.” This demonstrates the ongoing psychological impact of class on individuals’ self-perception and life opportunities. Despite nearly fifty years passing since the publication of “The Hidden Injuries of Class,” the insidious and destructive nature of class-based inequalities continues to be a formidable obstacle in creating a more just and equitable society.
Rekindling Collective Strength and Embracing Our Roots
Embracing our working class identity does not have to be a destructive force in our lives; rather, it can be an empowering source of resilience, solidarity, and strength. The notion that working class roots are a burden or a limitation is a product of societal conditioning that perpetuates stereotypes and stigmatises those from humble beginnings. By challenging these negative assumptions and recognising the value of our diverse experiences, we can transform our working class identity into a powerful catalyst for positive change, both individually and collectively.
These three authors’ works collectively highlight the critical role class continues to play in shaping individual lives, experiences, and social dynamics. By examining the intersectionality of class with other factors such as sexuality and politics, they reveal the complex web of influences that contribute to perpetuating inequalities. As society moves forward, it is essential to confront and address class-based disparities in order to create a more just and equitable world. As Sennett concludes in his Verso Books blog post, “As we move forward in the 21st century, the task of understanding and healing the hidden injuries of class is more important than ever.”
Drawing from the insights in the works by Eribon, Louis, and Sennett, it becomes clear that the issue of class remains a central concern in contemporary societies. By acknowledging the role of class in shaping individual experiences and understanding the intersectionality of class with other social factors, we can begin to address the deep-rooted inequalities that continue to persist.
It is crucial that we engage in meaningful conversations about our class instead of constantly running away from it. We embody diverse identities as men, women, transgender, gay, straight, black, white, and much more; yet, but more importantly, we are also united in our shared working class heritage – a proud testament to our resilience and strength, with no reason for shame.
As we reclaim and honour our working class heritage and culture, we must also rekindle the spirit of mass political movements that once formed the bedrock of our collective strength. United in our shared experiences, we once worked, played, lived, and died together; however, those in power relentlessly sought to dismantle this bond, recognising that our collective strength was a threat to their control, and that fragmenting us would render us weaker, more vulnerable, and easier to manipulate. This can be our past, present and future, but only if we let it. Together, we can once again stand against this neoliberal erosion of our class, forging a future where our voices are heard, our rights are protected, and our identities, all of our identities, are celebrated, unapologetically and powerfully, forever.
For those seeking a deeper understanding of the complexities of class and its intersectionality with other social factors, the works of Didier Eribon, Édouard Louis, and Richard Sennett offer a rich and illuminating starting point.
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