The Culture of the “Proles”

The Culture of the “Proles”

One advantage of living in a nation like Britain is that it occasionally produces a point of view that has not occurred to Americans. The current discussion in America on mass culture has been concerned mainly with its effect on the psyche of the distraught middle class and its unfortunate offspring. But the British have been wondering about another aspect of the problem: What is the effect of mass culture on the working class and its particular way of life? Evidently giving up the middle class as lost, and trained to a keen sense of differences in class behavior, some of the British are concerned about what is happening to the worker in the age of the big screen, the big prize, and the big boom. A recent book, Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy, has focused attention on the problem by attempting to show that the values embodied in British working-class culture are now under sustained attack. If it is a book with many flaws, at least it releases one from the tyranny of middle-class Narcissism.

British working-class life, as Hoggart describes it, is characterized by a sense of place. Men live in and belong to a particular locality, usually no more than a very small number of streets. “Life centres on the groups of known streets, on their complex and active group life .. . [It is] an extremely Iocal life in which everything is remarkably near… [The worker] is more likely to change his place of work than his place of living: he belongs to a district more than to one works.” The sense of place and of knowing where you are—is this not the very reverse of subtopia?

Then there is the opposition the British workers have traditionally felt between “Them and Us.” Distrust of the outside world is combined with a sense of uniqueness to create and maintain an atmosphere of exclusiveness. The outside world—which includes not only, say, the Bank of England but also the motor bus which goes past their known streets— is the unknown and strange; assumed to be hostile, it is best left alone. Withdrawing into “Us” therefore becomes not only an instinctive act but the means of drawing the bonds even closer. Hoggart maintains that this traditional working-class culture is not so much a matter of community as it is a “sense of group warmth” that is not to be found outside the working class. The “Them-Us” antithesis is simply a generalized expression of this feeling. As a result, efforts to step outside the group way of behavior are heavily paid for. Being sent to Coventry is still probably the most terrifying weapon a trade union can use against a recalcitrant worker, and its roots lie not in an administrative fiat from Transport House but in the feeling that if you are not one of Us you are one of Them. Conformity beyond the extent of middle-class conformity lies at the heart of this culture: “There may be little of the competitive urge to keep up with th...

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