We all have expectations and, despite efforts to remain objective, researchers are no exception. So when I recently undertook a critical analysis of the way social class is portrayed in the UK media during the ‘age of austerity’, I did so with some idea as to what I was going to find. This was especially so given that the study built upon a growing body of recent literature within the field, which points to one thing above all else; that whilst class is rarely discussed explicitly, it is often implied in moral terms. This moralisation, as has been noted elsewhere, often serves the purpose of legitimising and ‘explaining away’ class disadvantage.
If ‘moralised’ discourses of class obscure the problem of inequality, then it seemed reasonable to expect a degree of moralisation to occur within the media coverage of austerity. After all, austerity has had a disproportionate impact upon the poorest members of society, thereby exacerbating inequality.
After analysing the media coverage of six topics: emergency budget, welfare reform, workfare, bedroom tax, food banks, and zero-hour contracts, it became clear that moralising discourse did indeed play a significant role in terms of how class was portrayed. Taking a predominantly pro-austerity stance, the media drew upon various underclass tropes – the welfare scrounger, the feckless, etc. – to construct an exploitative ‘class’, one consisting of various ‘social undesirables’ united by their being a costly drain upon society. Interestingly, members of this ‘class’ were portrayed not merely as immoral, but as incapable of moral reasoning; flowing instead towards the path of least resistance.
The construction of this moralised other – who will live parasitically at our expense when allowed (or encouraged) to do so – gives austerity a purpose, namely that of ‘correcting’ these people, of teaching them a lesson, whether in the positive sense or otherwise. But clearly this ‘othering’ only tells half of the story. For there to be an ‘other’ there must be a ‘self’. Which raises the question, how are ‘we’ portrayed within the discourse. In other words, how is the moral in-group described and, importantly, what does this do? This is an important question, and one that has largely been ignored.
In the present context, the ingroup is, for the most part described in the vaguest of terms; terms such as ‘taxpayers’, the ‘squeezed’, and the ‘ordinary hardworking people’. This portrayal – of a group who are all dutifully tightening their belts and ‘taking the hit’ – has the effect of downplaying the different stakes members of this ‘group’ have in the austerity debate. Put another way, it masks economic differences and thus avoids the difficult truth that some people are less well positioned to take the hit.
But, as is often the case with social class, it is at the boundary where the real work is done – where the moralised other is contrasted with those who, economically, are most proximate; the working poor. If the other is predisposed to taking the easiest path regardless of morality, and of the cost to society, then the opposite attributes are hyper visualised in discussions of the working poor; so much so that they are cast as ‘economic martyrs’, as those who strive to contribute even where the tangible rewards for doing so are diminished:
On one side are the majority who often work long hours for little reward, pay taxes, try to save and look after their families. They believe you shouldn’t get something for nothing. And if they are unemployed they will do everything they can to get a job. On the other side are those who think that a life on benefits is a lifestyle choice we are all entitled to make. The Express (workfare, 22/02/12: 12).
It has been argued previously that, in the context of neoliberalism, the media have moved from a ‘salt of the earth rhetoric’ concerning the working class to a fixation with the apparent moral failings of the poorest members of society. Yet notions of ‘necessary austerity’ and inevitable belt tightening seem to have led to a partial re-hashing of an idealised ‘traditional’ working class identity.
I say partial because this re-hashing is extremely selective. Throughout the coverage emphasis is placed upon sacrifice, a selfless sense of duty, and the idea that, through hard work, one might ‘escape’. The idea of an identity defined by work, and thus the intrinsic ‘reward’ of doing low quality, undesirable jobs is evoked in a seeming attempt to sidestep critical questions regarding working conditions and, further, to make belonging to the moral in-group contingent upon recognising the ‘need’ to do more for less.
Indeed, in contrast to the emphasis on idealised struggle, any idea of a struggle for fair working conditions and pay is cast as problematic, not just for society, but for working people themselves; after all, during ‘difficult times’ businesses cannot ‘reach down’ to the people if they are saddled with the “worry of big ticket items such as long term sick leave, maternity leave or holiday pay” (The Sun, zero-hour contracts, 03/04/15: 11).
Put simply, the idealised worker is the person who recognises that they are better off with the scraps that are thrown down to them than with nothing at all! In essence, what this amounts to is the construction of a class against itself – a ‘class’ whose defining features work to normalise and legitimise the lowering of job security, working conditions, and pay during times of economic downturn.
To sum up, future research in the area of social class should pay close attention to the way the ‘classed self’ features within media discourse. This is perhaps more true now than ever; at a time when ‘key workers’ are lauded for their service, yet face increasingly poor working conditions, and when carers are ‘clapped for’, yet denied a fair pay rise, the question must be asked: is the idea of the ‘ordinary hardworking people’ at risk of being turned against these very people?