The destruction of working class communities

An abridged extract from ‘Working class first: the working class and anti-capitalism’ by Jacob Pugh, 2000

Social solidarity within communities has been radically eroded in Britain since the war. Ties between the members of extended families have also weakened. Lives that were previously dominated by the values and expectations of our community and family are now dominated by the obsessive quest for personal ‘space’ and individual fulfilment.

In the old working class communities the bulk of people’s stimulation came from their social interaction with their families and others in the community. People tended to live nearby to their extended family and visiting was far more frequent. People would routinely chat with other members of the local community in the street or in the pub.

In the modern world such a way of life is largely gone. People live some distance away from most of their relatives. People find it harder to meet those in their own communities and need to seek friends and acquaintances elsewhere.

A powerful illustration of this process is provided by the experience of working class people from London’s East End who moved to London suburbs in the 1950s.

In Bethnal Green people’s time outside work was taken up by an endless social round with their relatives, friends and acquaintances. This took place in the street, the market and the pub. This was all made possible by their physical closeness to people they knew. Visits to relatives were easy to make and frequent.

This means that: “Bethnal Greeners are not lonely people: whenever they go for a walk in the street, for a drink in the pub, or for a row on the lake in Victoria Park, they know the faces in the crowd.” (Family and Kinship in East London, Young and Willmott 1962, p.116)

Life in the suburb of Greenleigh was very different: “Instead of the sociable squash of people and houses, workshops and lorries, there are the drawn-out roads and spacious open ground of the usual low-density estate.” (ibid, p.122)

People had far less contact with neighbours in Greenleigh than in Bethnal Green. One reason for this was the absence of places to meet neighbours. Shops in Bethnal Green were scattered in converted houses throughout the streets people lived. People tended to do their shopping daily in their own street. Shops in the suburbs in which Greenleigh was situated were grouped in specialised centres and people lived some distance from them. The shops were used by people from all over the estate and women were less likely to meet someone they knew while doing their shopping.

Yet though Young and Willmott ascribe the decline of community mainly to the lower density housing and lack of community meeting points in the suburbs it is likely that deeper forces were at work. Community ties were cemented not just by proximity but by the fact that people did the same kind of jobs, in the same area and often in the same workplace. The fact that the main breadwinner of each family in an area had the same kind of job as all the other breadwinners would have meant that families shared something in common beyond just living in the same place. Families shared similar trades and occupations and hence similar significant life experiences and values.

In the suburbs this was completely different. In many suburbs working class people were moving into communities that had originally been lower middle class and were therefore mixing with people with a different outlook to their own. Residents in the same street would be doing all sorts of different jobs, in different areas. They were unlikely to be able to meet their workmates in the street or in the pub.

We can also see that the loss of common work experiences eroded community life among those left in the inner cities. Here it was the move of the productive process away from manufacturing and towards service industries that destroyed community life. The collapse of manufacturing employment during the Thatcher period virtually destroyed the potential of the unskilled and semi-skilled to find employment on a living wage. All that remains for this section of the working class is employment on or near the minimum wage in service industries such as care work, security work and retail. Frankly speaking, if they need full-time work to support a family most of them are better off on the dole.

Unemployment brought with it an explosion of drug use and crime among the urban poor. The impossibility of living on current meagre benefit levels has criminalised millions of British people as they seek to supplement their income with benefit fraud, working on the black economy and petty crime. This is not to say that no community life exists at all in the inner city. However it is a community life that is constantly under threat from mutual suspicion engendered by the social breakdown created by 20 years of Thatcherite economic and social policies under both the Tories and ‘New Labour’.

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