Book Review: The Melancholia of Class by Cynthia Cruz

“Filled with the death drive, trapped in the realm between two deaths, the working-class subject is a specter, undead, haunting. The death drive drives the working-class subject further and further into death, which is also the origin. The death drive is moving toward a new beginning, while at the same time pushing us in the direction of death. Melancholia, too, is an unconscious desire to return to our origins, while simultaneously also revulsion, a parallel desire to stay away. We are without a home in the world and we are without a home in our psyche and body. A ghost within a ghost, dead but still living.” – Cynthia Cruz

Have you ever felt that your place of origin was embarrassing? Are you now a high-rising figure in your company, with the word “executive” or “manager” in your job title? Do you have a university education, and a piece of paper that confirms it, called a “degree”? Are you in a societal position that your parents could only dream about being in themselves? Do you feel in a, somewhat, “better” position than your peers back at school or in your family? … and yet, feel that you “lost something” along the way to that position? And, when you do so, find yourself imagining that place in your past kind of fondly …. before getting embarrassed by it again?

You are not alone. It’s a situation many people born in the “working-classes” who later “enter a higher class” in society find themselves experiencing. A form of “imposter syndrome.” A crisis of identity. Yes, I do make more money than my parents ever did. I can access and experience “better things” than I ever did back “home.” And yet “home” made me who I am. The struggle to survive taught me things more than any form of formal education could ever teach. But my current peers don’t understand that. They think my “home” is a horrible dystopian nightmare – a fiction of imagination. And yet its real – I checked and lived it. But each time I show some aspect of it I am mocked and shamed into hiding it. It’s like higher society wants to pretend the “working-classes” don’t exist, and everyone is “middle class” now. I may be “middle class” on the outside, but inside is a monster of rage, created by the limiting factors of being “working class.” A monster of energy that could be channeled into creative activities, but is mostly channeled into self-destruction through narcotics.

This is the Freudian psychological and anthropological situation Cynthia Cruz describes in The Melancholia of Class: A Manifesto for the Working Class. Using here own life and experiences as a granddaughter of Mexican immigrants who went to a mostly middle-class high school in Santa Cruz as a guide, she explores the inner turmoil a person experiences when they enter a different environment than the one they were bought up in.

She highlights her findings with anecdotes from the lives and works of artists, writers and musicians who took this trip – Paul Weller, Ian Curtis, Any Winehouse, Clarice Lispector, Barbara Loden, Jason Molina, to name a few.

As an autistic person, who had to learn the social cues kids learn naturally through osmosis the hard way in later life, I found this book fascinating. Cruz has successfully explained the drives and the reasons of the actions of many “working class” people, in a similar way Desmond Morris explained human behaviour in The Naked Ape.

But she also highlights something disturbing in modern English-speaking culture. Thanks to neoliberalist thinking, the “working class” is getting erased. Since 1990 it was said that “everyone is middle class now.” Everyone has the same life – a home, a car, a colour TV, a washing machine, a fridge, and summer holidays outside the UK. That’s what the world is like, according to TV. The only time they see slums, dirty homes, and starving children are outside the West, in “third-world countries,” not in the “East End.” That was in the past. Now, everyone can be a success. If you’re not it’s your own fault.

But it isn’t in the past. It’s here, alive and well, like an annoying weed in the neoliberalist garden of Eden. Those barriers that prevented many from becoming a success are still there. Except that now the barriers are more often cultural than political. To succeed you must wear this and speak like that. Asking for help is weakness. Confidence is everything. … sound familiar?

By erasing the “working class” physically (by bulldozing the slums), culturally (by shaming “improper” speech, written and verbal, censoring the language of words to describe it), and mentally (by collective amnesia), we lose the ability to see reality. A reality that shows the “working class” surviving the neoliberalist cleansing of society of those who don’t succeed. The people in the chasm between “the lowest of the low” and the “middle class” bubble that exist in the mainstream mindset.  

To an outside observer of this system (like old autistic me) it looks bleak. Why would one want to live like this? No wonder many self-destruct ….. eventually …. like Kurt Cobain.

The Melancholia of Class: A Manifesto for The Working Class is out now, published by Repeater Books – order as a paperback or e-book here.

Review by Gordon Wallace

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