Whenever I hear people discussing poverty as a condition within Britain, I somewhat wince. Iain Duncan Smith recently suggested there should be less sky, less alcohol and fewer cigarettes in council homes and whilst I do not condone such condescension, he possibly had a point.1 There is a financial line which the government stipulate is needed in order to survive, which is currently £154 a week (as I was reliably informed by my local council office). Of course, I have no idea how that figure was arrived at. Where the money goes and what it is spent on obviously alters the cultural value and capital of the family involved.
None the less, poverty to me, is something external to this country. I, according to the http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22000973, am the lowest of the low. I have to say my own snobbery bulked at this revelation! The categories the article uses is in opposition to its suggestion that they ‘devised a new way of measuring class, which doesn’t define class just by the job that you do, but by the different kinds of economic, cultural and social resources or ‘capitals’ that people possess’.
I listen to classical music, I attend the theatre and I hold a higher degree. I do not however, own my own home (or use facebook. Fortunately). So, despite the calculator professing to take into account my cultural capital, it seems that a friend who plays on a wii, has no higher education, has a lower paid job than I do but does have her name on a mortgage is of a better class than me. So do I need to re-evaluate my own perceptions of class? Or more specifically my own categorisation of class? Is someone who uses facebook more culturally modern and fresh than someone who actively avoids it? Did the fact my friends identify a lecturer as their friend (even if it was me!) make them a marginally higher class than myself? How can these facts co-exist? How, by virtue of the BBCs definition, can I be highly educated yet belong to the precariat class? Is it because I had never heard of the word precariat?
Still there is some truth in the BBCs statement ‘The everyday lives of members of this class are precarious’. Some days certainly feel that way and my life is a series of decisions. What should we do with our weekly money? What can I justify? Can we justify going to the theatre a couple of times a year? Can I justify my recent trip to the Manet exhibition? The cultural capital I invest in with the small amount of money that we have, is what I believe is key to the elevation of the mind and spirit. My understanding and attempt to engage with activities I assign cultural value to is perhaps where my frustration lies as my economic class thwarts such aims. None the less, if I can occasionally make trips to London and the theatre surely others in my self same situation also could?
This precarious balancing act is one that I feel on a regular basis. I attempt to rise above my economic capabilities and in doing so put myself under undue stress, I am sure! Whilst our finances are SIGNIFICANTLY limited, I resent the implication that we are under the poverty line. I do not see myself as a member of the precariat. The only similarity I feel with the precariat is that they too had probably never heard of the word.
So, how can we define poverty? I do not have a television. I choose not to have a television (although this often confuses my son’s friends who have on more than one occasion loudly proclaimed that was due to not being able to afford a television). This choice does not make me poor, in my eyes this decision enriches me. It makes me selective over what I watch and when. When people ask what I do with my leisure time, I often cannot answer. But I know I spend quite portions of time frequenting the rooms of my own mind, as well as the pages of many books. My mind is richer for my decision not to have a television and so is my pocket. After all, what is one man’s rubbish is another man’s gold. And there are many television programmes which I consider to be rubbish.
These fluid, moving definitions of class are a desperate, grasping attempt to categorise and secure people in order to gain some sort of understanding. I defy the definitions (not anarchically or deliberately, I just do). So if I perceive that I do not entirely fit the definition of precariat why was I so annoyed when I read a comment today about Edward Burne-Jones. There seems to be a desire to suggest that he was of a poor background, that he too was once a precariat (at least in his early life). But how can we describe someone as poor when he travelled to Italy on more than one occasion (when he was still young and prior to becoming an established artist). How can we describe him as having a poor background when he also undertook a degree at Oxford University? Of course, art got in the way and he never completed his degree but surely a man who is born in a dour, glum, impoverished household was unlikely to make his way toward a university, let alone Oxford University?
So if Edward Burne-Jones was poor, then I am too. For I also made a trip to Italy 18 months ago (I would stress I ate cup a soup, in our hostel room, and market bought mozzarella during our daily outings). But surely, if either Burne-Jones or myself managed to travel to Italy at all then neither of us can be described as poor? Or is it the manner of our visit which proclaims our level of poverty? I didn’t pay entry for anything as I am a (working) student and on one trip Burne-Jones stayed with his aristocratic friend Spencer Stanhope (who I very much doubt asked for a contribution toward the chianti). But if I am of the same class as Burne-Jones where is my 18th century house in Fulham? I think therein lies the difference. Perhaps it suits our British sense of nostalgia to assume Burne-Jones rose high above his bleak beginnings. Perhaps he also made decisions about keeping warm, or buying the tools with which to do his chosen profession, perhaps he also relied upon friends to provide and backfill the gaps of his own capabilities. It certainly seems that without the good fortune of being friends with the likes of Morris that the work of Burne-Jones may never have come to exist. This is an accidental detail of the path of a man who overcame whatever his beginnings were to accept the title of baronet as bestowed by Queen Victoria. It certainly seems that the old adage ‘its who you know’ worked as well then, as it does now.
Despite their best intentions I suggest Burne-Jones and Morris failed in one of their ultimate goals, to rejuvenate the impoverished. That said, I also admire and respect them for even acknowledging that this gap was present and such an attempt was required. I also think that their socialist wisdom offers us much and we should pay great heed to provide Man education, beauty, morality and integrity. Art, after all, is a luxury and we need to empower people to make decisions to increase their cultural capital. Decisions which encourage a capacity to choose beyond the role of their pre-ordained destiny which they have been ascribed.
Even with an education, I do not believe that the opportunities that befell a man who attended Oxford University in the 19th century readily befall a single mother in the 21st century. However, I am determined to continue to remain outside of my Precariat definition.
1. I base this on my own experience of people on benefits, myself being one of them (although I do not have a television much less Sky and I do not smoke).