Seomra prompted thoughts on class definition, community and exclusion

Dublin poor around 1910In my opinion one of the greatest ongoing weaknesses of any left discussion in Ireland is the confusing way class is talked about. One cause of this is that the smallness of the country and the huge range of accents that exist within it. This tends to promote a common sense 'I know it when I see it approach' at least a magnitude greater than anywhere else I have ever been. And because on the left 'class' is a term that is seldom explained this allows a tottering tower of misunderstanding and confusion to be built which results in normally sensible people offering up common sense platitudes as analysis. As with the Better Questions Seomra seminar whose audio I link to here this can happen even when the basis of discussion is intended to be quite theoretical.

Busy times can sometimes get in the way of political discussion, something that happened to me at the end of last week. A schedule of four meetings in three evenings and preparation for going to Paris for a conference over the weekend meant I had to bail out early from a discussion on 'Community Development Lessons for Social Movements' at Seomra Spraoi.  I’ve been editing the recording of the discussion and I found there are a whole load of points at which I wanted to intervene, mostly around the question of class and the way it was being discussed.  This post is my opportunity to do so.

I’ve increasingly moved away from a deterministic picture of class as an objective category whose boundaries can be sketched (if not precisely defined) and towards a view that it is more along the lines of class being best talked of as something that becomes visible to itself and observers in the course of conflict. This perhaps is another variation of the 'know it when I see it approach' but at least this time based on class as conflict rather than pure taxonomy. The audio I recorded a while of the WSM educational on Class classification and its limitations given by Paul is a pretty good introduction to this approach and the limitations of the taxanomic approaches.

There are however drawbacks to that approach which is why I think there is still a role for an attempted objective definition aimed at sketching out who the revolutionary subject is. That role is working out which groups of people in the course of a struggle and indeed 'the revolution' are more likely to take one side of the battlefield then the other.  The argument for why we would ask this question is clear even if the answer is going to be complex.

From that perspective I tend to argue that something like 80% of the population of Ireland are usefully described as working class. We follow a day to day routine in life that is determined by our need to work for others in other to live. Our avenues of escape from wage labour are limited, poverty on the dole, winning the lottery, being the 'stay at home' side of a relationship (an option that is increasingly economically difficult if not impossible). The capitalist class, perhaps less than 5%, are those for whom most of their income comes from others who work for them, either directly as employees or more commonly these days through large scale share or property ownership that sees the wealth created flow in through dividends or rents. These people might do work themselves but they don't need to.  Most of us never meet these people and are only aware of them from their access to TV, Radio and print media. All my Irish readers have heard Micheal O'Leary and know what he looks like but probably none of you have seen him in real life, never mind actually met him.

And then finally there is that group in between who don’t fit into either category, perhaps they work for themselves or perhaps they employ one or two others (often family members) or have small but significant investments. This last groups tends to be particularly transient, growing as it did during the boom years as some workers turned themselves into petty landlords on the back of property speculation (or perhaps share investments) and then crashing right back down as the crashes wiped them out. Unlike the bulk of the capitalist class they lacked the access to information that allowed many big investors to dump their holdings ahead of the crash. The Irish left (and the left elsewhere) tends to be obsessed with this 'middle class' but perhaps this is not so surprising as unlike the capitalist class these are people we know. In particular in the boom many of us had relations or friends or workmates that became petty landlords on the back of property speculation or shares (at least on paper). Working in I.T. there were even a couple of people in my extended circle who became paper millionaires during the boom until the crash turned their 'wealth' into useless paper.

It is impossible to see a successful anarchist revolution that is not based on the majority of the population. This in itself is why we need to steer clear of anything that tends to identify the working class as a minority because we see the working class as the revolutionary class, at least in urban, western terms, elsewhere the peasantry remain the other significant revolutionary class. It's actually quite hard to get any real data on class in Ireland but the CSO 2006 census has been used by Conor McCabe in a blog to try and do so.  A quick lot at his data reveals lots of groups that I don't think belong in the 'middle class' plus of course there is the old error of only having a middle class and working class (which leaves you wondering just what the middle class is middle relative to). But when you move teachers, technicians, chiefs (they are not all Gorden Ramsey) and programmers back into the working class you start to move towards the 80% - 15% - 5% divide that is found in many developed countries. I think at some point in the future I might return to these figures to attempt a proper argued breakdown.

While most of the left might on paper hold to definitions of class not that far removed from what I sketch above, at least in Ireland once the conversation flows this very often get dumped for notions that are entirely based around 'knowing it when I see it' approaches in which what accent someone speaks with, whether they prefer rugby, football or Gaelic, what bit of the city they live in, whether they wear Adidas tracksuits or American Apparel gear becomes all important. All these things are signifiers of divisions in Irish society, in most cases they have equivalents elsewhere, but they don’t equate to definitions of class that is in any way useful to the revolutionary project.

Playing back the audio recording of the talk as I edited it for publication I listened to it descend into a dialogue of the deaf. There are problems in the opening contributions, chiefly in setting up strawmen that can be argued against. But it is really only in the response to the Q&A that things really come apart. The two points of view expressed by Laurence and Mick at first seem quite opposed, and in many ways they are, but leaving to one side the visible debate what I found more frustrating were the shared assumptions about what the working class is and what the middle class is that they both based their arguments around.

This is probably a good point to provide links to the audio itself, which as usual I uploaded to  There are two files, the first which runs for nearly an hour consists of the introductions and the two speakers, Mick first and then Laurence.  Mick speaks first and argues that class is not longer relevant in terms of changing society in comparison with organising around community. Laurence concentrates on the gap between community activists and (academic) anti-capitalists. (Hopelessly brief summaries, go listen to the audio!) The second file is the about 40 minutes of discussion that followed the talk.  The discussion isn't great, with one (or perhaps two) exceptions people aren't addressing the substance of what is being said but rather the way the chairs are arranged in the room.  (This could perhaps be a metaphor for my problem with the whole seminar).

From this point of view its actually Laurence's approach that I found more problematic. Mick's argument for some sort of post class perspective based around a strawman argument of what the left calls class isn’t all that challenging. His claim in relation to the WSM that we "are all extremely solid working class struggle is the only way to transform society approaches to politics" only makes sense if you interpret this as meaning some sort of pre-1960's old left industrialism. I think anyone aware of our actual practice would know we share very little in common with that sort of left.  Because I've already explained that we see the working class as being 80% of society rather than limited to (white, male) industrial workers I don't think there is much point presenting a counter argument to that strawman.

In my opinion Mick's general argument in relation to the community has been effectively steamrolled into the ground in the last months by the government offensive that effortlessly demonstrated that a scattering of local groups defined around getting thing done on a local level could mount no meaningful resistance when the axe fell. This despite the fact that the community sector actually mobilised in its own defense on a stronger, united and more consistent level than any other sector. The very strength of the mobilization proved the limitations of mobilising from such a narrow base. Defeating the government requires building an alliance that is very much broader not only than the community sector but indeed then the public sector in general.  And if your not building that alliance based on a set of common class interests what can it be build around?

Laurence however in my opinion commits the much greater error of assuming a definition of working class that is limited to a particular and quite small section of some of the most marginalised in Irish society. I don’t think the general approach of his talk that seeks to contrast the 'middle class' anti-capitalist movement with the 'working class' communities of Ballymun or the North inner city is starting from anywhere useful. The observation that communication between these two groups may be difficult because of different life experiences may be true but this in itself does not make one the working class and the other the middle class. Yes the experience of an inner city male who had been raped with a police baton is not an experience of the leafy southern suburbs but it is also not a common experience in many other areas of the city. Rather the sort of policing and relationship between the community and the police it demonstrates is one typical of only a few districts, the districts where the poorest and most excluded sections of the working class are contained. Back in 1998 in an article on the Celtic Tiger I quoted Mountjoy prison governor John Lonergan who had revealed that of the prison population "56% come from six Dublin postal districts." There are 22 postal districts in Dublin.

I use the word 'contained' deliberately above as police strategy in such areas tends to be based around containing the population inside certain boundaries and controlling their behavior when they move outside these, something that is particularly visible in relation to the north inner city because of its proximity to the commercial and retail heart of the city. There are a scattering of similar areas across the city (and in most cities), they tend to be characterized by populations that are not so much working as unemployed (although this changed under the Celtic Tiger) with a significant minority making their living through illegal or semi-legal ways. They are often feared / reviled by surrounding communities of 'ordinary workers' and the policing that is experienced is often approved of as being necessary in order to keep 'them' in line.

The small estate I live on in the north east city for instance has a reputation as the source of crime in the greater area, one of my housemates on moving into another bit of the district was told to be careful as some bikes had just been robbed 'probably by people from X', she didn't inform her new neighbors that she had just moved from X. As with most such areas this fear is nine tenths prejudice, a handful of families are responsible for the estate's reputation. The district as a whole would be universally seen as working class except perhaps for one or two leafy streets so the communication gap here is very much within and between what would be considered the working class even under the sort of common sense definitions I've argued against above.

The working class is very much more divided and stratified than Laurence's assumed use of the term suggests even if you just restrict yourself to an inspection of the districts dominated by the lower paid manual workers. Once you bring these divisions into the picture then the divisions he builds his talk around can be seen as the extremes of a continuum rather than as the sharp, clear gulf he describes.  In other countries there is often a strong racial component to these divisions because the most marginalized sections of the working class are often from migrant or minority groups but this is not as yet the picture in Dublin because migration into Ireland is a minor and recent phenomenon.

This sort of 'working class' estate where  a significant amount of people don't work or at least don't work in the legal economy becomes a target for state intervention for obvious reasons. The most obvious aspect of that intervention is policing but intervention is also along the lines of funding. At least until recent times the state openly acknowledged the link between anti-social behavior and poverty & marginalisation, funding community projects was the carrot side of the containment strategy with the police wielding the stick. Funding of community groups but also inevitably funding of academic studies to unpick the strange anthropology of the people, to understand perhaps how they can be fixed (or contained) at minimum cost.

The approaches to class in the discussion is in my opinion based on a particular experience of an intersection between two quite extreme ends of the working class. On the one side professors and graduate students who are either well paid or hope to become so and of comparatively high status. They are also often self selected from the wealthier sections of society, particularly in the social sciences, because the decision to spend 10 years in 3rd level education for a role that does not seem immediately employable is a tough one to understand / make for those who haven’t grown up with exposure to academia and thus the realisation that actually, yes, it can be a career. For sure this includes many from the actual middle class, but it is no longer restricted to this in a country where over 50% of school leavers go on to some form of 3rd level education. 

On the other side those who through intergenerational unemployment, poverty and exclusion are trapped in conditions of poor education and where many of the few that break out of the trap chose to get the hell out. One side speaks a strange language of jargon that those they study have little chance of easily understanding even if they should happen to come across the papers where they are written about. The exceptions being those community activists who put themselves through the formal or informal education needed to pick up that language. It would be somewhat astounding if there wasn't a communication gap between the studied and studier in such a situation but in commenting on the gap it is a mistake to reduce it to a general signifier of class when it really isn't.

I suspect Laurence spends so much effort emphasizing that gap, and clearly placing himself on one side of it, out of a desire to counteract all the negative things that flow from this problem if it remains unchallenged. That pretty much does end up as anthropology, in particular when you add in specialized jargon (to be fair Mick does do a good job of explaining biopower near the start of his talk).  This is perhaps no more than a special case of a general complaint I have to make about academics and those they study, the irony in terms of this discussion is that I suspect the Better Questions seminar are aimed at overcoming that problem.

I think its a serious mistake to present this experience/culture/communication gap as somehow being the class structure of Irish society rather than as a product of the fragmentation and divisions within as well as between classes. In other words while its certainly possible that his 'anti-capitalist activist' is from a family of landlords, shopkeepers or doctors its also quite possible that they could face significant communication gaps with the 'community activist' but be from a family of shop workers or construction workers from a less excluded area, never mind bank or insurance clerks or teachers, nurses, programers etc.  The divisions within the working class are part of the terrain we have to operate on. Just about every estate will describe another estate up the road as being populated by scumbags and one down the road as being populated by snobs. The point is not to acknowledge and re-enforce these division but to overcome them.

More on Better Questions - (it meets every second Wedensday in the Seomra)

The two talks -
The discussion -



It is a true fact that 80% of

It is a true fact that 80% of the population of Ireland is usefully described as working class. But none of them come under high profile jobs. Most of them are not skilled workers and Beverly Diamonds hence the pay will be less.

Hi Andrew, Apologies for the

Hi Andrew,

Apologies for the slow reply - have only just had this pointed out to me.

I don't think I'd disagree with much of what you say about class at all. I tried when preparing the talk to avoid "working class" and "middle class" too much because clearly the NE inner city, Ballymun and Waterford, my 3 points of reference, are (a) quite different from each other and (b) quite distinct from other working class parts of Ireland, however broadly we extend the term (whether to 40% or 80%).

Mostly my interest was in contrasting two very different types of politics and asking how they can come closer to each other - I felt frustrated in that many of the comments (not sure about the audience as a whole) were unaware of their own class situation (in any sense) or denying the significance of class per se, so I had to bend the stick quite a bit in saying "look, there are real differences here and we need to work to overcome them".

There is also of course an everyday cultural sense in which it is very hard to get away from this language, and that is just sloppiness on my part.

Anyway, I suppose my main response would be that had I been trying to present the class structure of Irish society in any way I would have gone at it very differently. What I was looking at was the difference , and scope for relationship, between community development and other kinds of social movement. I suppose my summary would be "this is classed" (not necessarily of two different economic classes, but certainly of two very different class cultures) and that if we want to see that broader working class - the 80% - becoming more active in progressive ways one of the places we start from is the parts of that class which do express themselves politically and progressively - in this particular case, community activism and anti-capitalism.

In terms of class analysis I agree that we need to think in terms of conflict - and I would say a developmental approach, class as created and recreated in struggle etc. - which among other things is then in part a theory of potential, and in part a theory which implies distinctions between people's economic situation, their cultural self-understanding and their political articulation. Part of what we are trying to do, I think, is to bring those closer to each other.


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