Thursday, 4 April 2013

If cleanliness is next to godliness ...

My friend Mary.
If cleanliness really is next to godliness, you could be excused for imagining that cleaners would be considered as valuable members of society.

Yet within our society, this is so far from the case that one could be forgiven for imagining that cleanliness actually isn't remotely important.

Cleaners are treated as something like the lowest of the low.

So even the John Lewis Partnership, which is, in so many ways, an exemplary employer, refuses to pay its cleaning staff the Living Wage.

It's as though cleaners are charity cases – as though, if nobody cleaned anything, it would go unnoticed.

John Lewis would continue to open all its stores and no customer would ever resent the lack of cleanliness and, thusly, stay away.

No restaurant would see a slip in trade if cleanliness slipped.

And as for hospitals ...

Well, we actually know the answers to that: when so-called 'soft services' were privatised, the numbers of hospital cleaners was halved – and the rate of infections like c-diff and MRSA leapt.

For a little amusement yesterday, I took the brief version of the new the 'what class are you?' test.

It seems that I am 'established middle class'. Well, on a social definition of class, of course I'm middle class. And do I have a problem with that? No. Not in the least.

But equally, I have no private income and have to 'sell the labour of my hand or brain' (to borrow from old Charlie Marx) in order to ensure that I keep a roof over my head and food in my belly. So in that sense – the political-economic – I am working class.

But oh God – how obsessed are we Brits with the social definitions!

Back to the test. If you're going to conflate the political-economic definition with the social version, then the section on cultural capital at least makes some sense.

However, I find the section on social capital deeply annoying.

What? You lose 'social capital' if you know a cleaner socially? This is based on nothing other than pure snobbery.

I do know a cleaner or two socially. I'm not going to claim to be 'proud' to, because that would be really rather patronising. I mean – 'look at me: I know a cleaner'. How naff would that be? Really?

I know some road sweepers too – and a window cleaner and a few removal men ... all socially.

I also know a teacher socially. And a lawyer or two. And an accountant. Or two (they're not half as boring as they're made out to be).

I know an artist.

And a musician. And a record producer.

And people who run their own businesses.

I know a few other people in the media (strange that).

Why on Earth do we bother with such divisions? Would it not be better to celebrate what unites us all rather than what divides us?

Class exists, essentially, on two levels.

One is an old-fashioned – and still entirely rational – Marxist definition of the relations of people with capital. The political-economic, in other words – as mentioned above.

The other is the social – the A, B, Cs, also as suggested above. It's the world of the 'keeping up with the Joneses' and of 'aspirationalism' and of 'scroungers' and 'skivers' and 'strivers'.

It's not difficult to see why this is also the world where plain, old-fashioned snobbery comes into play.

I like to think – and I hope it's true – that from a personal perspective, the fact that I have a wide range of social acquaintances is because I actually take people for who they are, and not on the basis of some label or other.

And equally, that is why, if I come out in support of a proper living wage for cleaners, for instance, it has nothing to do with 'envy', and everything to do with concepts of 'fairness' and ultimately, being a decent human being.

Gawd – why does it all sometimes feel like rocket science?

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