Sociologist, activist and writer LISA MCKENZIE talks to the Star about class politics, morality
and middle-class hypocrisy
Interview by Faye Lipson
DR LISA MCKENZIE is on the warpath. When we meet in her office at the London School of Economics (LSE), the class activist, writer and sociologist is freshly indignant from a morning encounter at Parliament — a forum on climate change.
As we make coffee she recalls the Nottingham tongue-lashing she bestowed on a fellow speaker who interrupted the debate to claim that all social issues paled in significance to climate change.
“There are people being made homeless in this city every single day,” she exclaims. “How dare you sit back in your nice big private house and say that all this suffering doesn’t matter?”
I point out, and she agrees, that working-class people are largely absent from activism on environmental damage — and that is striking, because climate change threatens people of all stripes. How does she explain it?
“It’s because they’re actively excluded from it, and here’s an example. Everywhere in Nottingham, residents got three bins, two of which are for recycling — apart from those living on St Ann’s estate, who have just one black bin for waste.
“They’ve got no recycling facilities because it’s believed they wouldn’t bother to do it anyway. Yet at school they teach climate change to the estate’s children through the idea of saving the penguin — saving (the film character) Happy Feet.
“A woman there told me her child came home absolutely in tears because he didn’t have a green bin and therefore couldn’t save Happy Feet.
“This is the reality for working-class people. On every single issue they are bashed on the head. They are always deficient. It’s their fault that our economy is bad. It’s their fault that we’ve got climate change.”
The exchange neatly underlines Mckenzie’s self-avowed sociological approach: “I talk in stories and all my work is about narratives.”
Her book Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain is the ample fruit of many years of conversation with the residents of St Ann’s, the Nottingham estate to which a young Mckenzie moved several decades ago with her mixed-race son in search of a racially diverse community.
Through her apt and careful grouping of residents’ stories, narratives emerge — from the integration of Jamaican migrants in white working-class society, to unique local value systems, strife with the city’s other estates and, somewhat surprisingly, the deep-seated feeling of safety and belonging which the high-crime estate affords its residents.
Traversing the road from factory worker to shop girl to mature student and academic, Mckenzie obtained a fellowship at LSE and moved to London, where her involvement in high-profile housing campaigns such as Focus E15, New Era and the poor doors pickets has attracted considerable press attention.
Consequently she has become a talking head on social justice topics, culminating in a February appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour — and in this new role she is typically forthright.
“People keep asking me what I think we should do. I used to say that perhaps we need housing or education. But no, we need to tackle capitalism. There’s got to be a revolution of ideas, followed by a revolution of system and structure. I can’t compromise anymore.”
But after five long years of the Con-Dems’ cruelty bonanza, it doesn’t feel like capitalism has made any compromises with fairness.
“Half of this book was written in the new Labour years,” she explains, “when the community centre at St Ann’s was buzzing all the time with various courses and classes. People said the money was working and I was always shouted down on this issue.
“Then 2010 came, the money disappeared, and nothing happened. No-one could use any of the skills they learnt or get a job.
“There are professional project bidders who know how to bid for money. They get the money and they don’t implement anything sustainable or long-lasting to create change. They put on a flower-arranging course, make sure everyone says nice things about them and then move on to the next estate.
“These so-called social enterprises are being run along capitalist lines and they are an absolute waste of time.
“This is what new Labour did,” she continues, “and it was absolutely Disney. They had all that money and they wasted it.
“Labour is Prozac for working-class people. People on council estates are already taking Prozac, and then the Labour Party is Prozac for politics. I don’t want my people taking Prozac in any form any more.”
Having waded through a well-heeled crowd of LSE students to reach Mckenzie’s faculty, I am curious to know how she, a daughter and granddaughter of Nottinghamshire miners, deals with the extreme privilege on display at LSE — so plainly at odds with her own background and expertise.
“With education, as with everything else, some people are taught to think of it as their right, whereas other groups of people think they are either not good enough to have it or have to earn it.
“I hear this justification all the time from students: ‘My family worked really hard to pay my school fees, and I worked really hard to get here.’ And I say to them, ‘Be honest. Without your private schooling and private tutoring, could you really have got here?’”
I point out that under that view, Mckenzie herself could constitute a figure of admiration for breaking into the elite of the rarified academic world.
“My academic work is only a small part of what I do. I get really pissed off with people who say: ‘Haven’t you done well, look how far you came,’ as if I only became a real person when I went to university, or handed in my PhD, or moved to London.
“This, this (she points to herself) is before all that. It predates that and had nothing to do with being in the LSE or an academic. This was always in there.”
Why then is she so uncomfortable with being seen solely as an academic?
“Because at universities there’s no value placed on working-class people just being us, or the knowledge, values and experience that we have. We should be able to go into universities and have these attributes respected, but it’s not in the academic discourse, business or anywhere else.”
After a moment’s reflection she continues: “Neoliberalism works because it’s just uncomplicated. Our class is also cast as too emotional for politics, too irrational. But it’s about time we did put our emotion into politics. Every atrocity arises from people saying: ‘I have no choice.’ Any state of affairs can be normalised in this way. Max Weber writes about this — the dangers of rational bureaucracy.
“Nobody is putting the moral into politics. So we have to not make the rational argument, not make the economic argument. We have got to make the moral argument — this is just wrong. Morally it’s wrong.”
It’s a critique which Mckenzie believes should extend far beyond domestic politics, and she is, like the vast majority of people, dumbfounded by the murky workings of international finance.
“A few weeks ago the European Central Bank printed trillions of euros. Who can even imagine what €5 trillion looks like? It’s just silly.
“And why five, not 4.5 or six? Nobody seems to know. The very idea that you can have trillions made up out of nothing, and they go straight into a bank but somehow can’t go into a hospital … well it’s madness. We’re living in a crazy world.
“I don’t understand, and nobody does. That is why some of these arguments, these moral arguments, will be incredibly simple. Explain that then, why this made-up money can’t go into a hospital?”
I admit I also find it baffling that some individuals and institutions have the power to invent vast sums of money — none of which will never reach ordinary people’s pockets. Who, I wonder, ever voted for that?
“They’re just blagging us. It’s the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes,” Mckenzie elaborates.
“They print trillions. Everyone lines up to say: ‘Ooh you look lovely.’ Then there are a few mad people like us screaming: ‘There’s nothing there!’
“People have been given shit but they’re seeing Chanel. But if more of us start speaking up, hopefully more of us will start shouting,” she laughs.
Class analysis is at the core of Mckenzie’s being, and she finds enormous value in using the label “working-class” as a tool to build solidarity and pinpoint privilege.
I ask her whether it’s an identity that non-working people — the many who are unemployed, ill, disabled or carers — can still rally around.
“‘Working class’ is a political term and if you remove that from a certain section of people who need it, it’s very easy to divide them,” she counters.
“We are remedying that problem at the LSE. Class has always been applied sociologically according to employment and earnings, but here me and fellow academic Mike Savage are looking at how class can also be cultural.
“Within our class schemas we are looking at including cultural and social capital — which social connections we have — within our definitions. Over a lifetime you’ll see people of equal abilities with different levels of cultural capital end up in very different places. If you went to Oxford, your connections will be other people like you.”
So Oxbridge-educated commentators like Polly Toynbee, Laurie Penny and Owen Jones are still utilising an unfair advantage despite their left-wing views?
“I’m sure Polly Toynbee is a lovely person, but it’s time for Toynbee and co to move over,” she fires back. “I and other working-class people can do what they do, but with an authentic voice. I have no apologies about this, and if they don’t move over we’ll take it anyway. As a class, we need to say: ‘Stop writing about us, stop writing at us.
Put down the sharp elbows because we have got our own people.’
“This is my challenge to Polly Toynbee: Why are you still talking? Your voice is redundant. If you mean what you say, step over and give me your column.”
Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain, published by Policy Press, costs £14.99 and is available from www.policypress.co.uk.