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November 02, 2006

The Slums of Manchester

For section yesterday, my students and I read a book that, in the words of our professor, is "flippin' brilliant": The Classic Slum by Robert Roberts. The Classic Slum is brilliant because it combines memoir and social history. Roberts, who has clearly been trained in historical methods, uses his own memories of growing up in Salford, a working-class "village" (slum) in Manchester, along with other primary sources -- including newspaper clippings, quotes from politicians, demographic and economic data, and records from his parents' Salford grocery store -- to create a compassionate yet critical microhistory of early-twentieth-century Salford. It is a fabulous example of the genre of microhistory because it contextualizes thick ethnographic description of a single village with national and world history.

Roberts also engages in historical debate, challenging the theories of Richard Hoggart and others who have romanticized pre-mass-consumption working-class life by saying, "I was there, and it wasn't like that." In that way, it reminded me of Carolyn Steedman's Landscape for a Good Woman (but without the feminist psychoanalysis) because both use their own experience to challenge the overly-general theories about the English working class propounded by the cultural studies crowd.

Beyond all this analysis, however, The Classic Slum is just a great read, and most of my students enjoyed it as much as I did. Roberts pokes fun at the conservatism of his Salford neighbors and describes the way in which they bought into the Victorian bourgeois ideology promoted by such figures as Samuel Smiles, thereby helping to secure the early-twentieth-century Tory hegemony.

What I found most surprising in this book was the profound change to working-class life effected by the Great War. It makes perfect sense, however. Pre-war working-class society was characterized by a very hierarchical social structure. From the "labour aristocracy" to the inmates of the workhouse, everyone knew his place; one showed deference to one's superiors and expected it from one's inferiors. Appearances were very carefully maintained, as everyone knew everyone else's business, and wearing the wrong outfit on Sunday could reduce one's status in this intricate hierarchy. This hierarchy preserved working-class oppression by giving everyone someone to whom he or she could feel superior. The distinction between skilled and unskilled workers formed a major division within the working class, and the unwillingness of skilled workers to band together with unskilled workers, either in trade unions or in politics, prevented the takeoff of either syndicalism or socialism in Great Britain. World War I, however, broke down many of these distinctions, first by providing more jobs and thus more money to more of the working class, and second by de-skilling labor through the introduction of new (American-made!) machines. Finally, the war provided a measure of autonomy to women; with many men away, they had more control over their wages and households. After the war, these changes in work provided a greater sense of equality within the working class, and the massive number of lives lost in the war gave the working class a new language in which to demand citizenship, which included the vote, unemployment insurance, national health care, and a pension scheme, all of which would be further expanded after the next major war.

Posted by eklanche at November 2, 2006 08:33 AM

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