Reflections on the IWMD Zine

This article was originally published on the Community of Goods blog, thanks to the poet Danny Hayward for prompting these reflections.

…I’ve been involved in making leaflets for political demonstrations, but most recently the art collective I’m in produced a small zine for one. I’m going to try and explain why we did this. 

Our zine was titled International Workers Memorial Day 2023, and was distributed at May Day demonstrations in Glasgow and London. We found the subject matter lent itself to an approach that suited our art group’s communicative style, and we also wanted to seriously work through what would be an appropriate response to the theme of memorialisation. A community’s approach to mourning and celebrating life/death signals something important about the attractiveness of its character. How we do this matters. 

For better or worse, there is a cultural tendency to keep certain forms of politics apart from mourning. To make political work about memorialisation, we have to accept some different rules, have to meet grief on its own terms before we can do anything with it that doesn’t appear to rob it. To act politically in relation to memorialisation requires a different sensitivity to the material under consideration. 

The type of intervention we deemed appropriate is what our group understands as non-didactic, what I think of as demonstrating an oblique or diffuse political style. While our group has some definite points of agreement, there are some subjects where vaguely expressed attitudes that capture something of our place in an unfolding dialogue work better. Maybe this can be thought of as a dilemma between holding a ‘political line’ vs cultivating a structure of feeling/‘vibes-based politics’. 

In the case of this specific intervention, we were communicating with an audience composed of people who care enough about the labour movement to attend a May Day demonstration in the UK. It is hopefully understood from our work that we wanted to help people into a more internationalist view of class, and to reckon with the reality of a labour force with divergent needs and priorities. 

In our art, here, we don’t want to take a wholly argumentative or declarative textual approach because, as mentioned, we identify the subject matter as poorly suited to this manner. But additionally, we avoid this style because we believe in making the most from our total ability to communicate. There are people in our movement – or more often on its peripheries – with the skill and desire to communicate in unusual ways, and it’s our movement’s loss if we fail to figure how to include their energy in the struggle for a classless society.   

At the same time: I do believe in the need for a confluence of political and stylistic positioning – as in politics so in art – but this should be conjunctural. There’s an Asad Haider article about the Chinese Cultural Revolution that I think gets at this. Haider relates how a plurality of co-existing political experiments during this period of decline in Chinese working class power became strategically necessary (though not wholly sufficient in itself) to overcome counter-revolution. In the UK now, where the capitalist-aligned classes similarly appear to face no singular, leading mass movement coherent or capable enough to surpass them, where there is no mass organisational force and programme around which we must all evidently trend in the same direction, plurality is again the word. 

Probably the most recent situation in the UK that seemed to suggest a large-scale coherence of communist positioning was during the Labour Party’s Corbyn years. Please allow me to divert here into a very quick appraisal of this as a case in point for how politics and art were cohered round a mass movement. 

At its worst, the cultural output of Corbynism’s leading, nascent cultural institutions (The World Transformed, Tribune, Novara Media, Grime4Corbyn), was characterised by a sycophantic, idolising, forced enthusiasm. This may be the style that a closeness to bureaucratic power tends to bring forth. On the fringes, however, were lively experiments taking place amongst Twitter users – most notably, the array of ‘Trevor Bastard Extended Universe’ accounts, which developed a new style of parafiction uniquely suited to the participatory medium and shifts in the balance of political power. The former attempted to inculcate a collective projection into some future idyll of material abundance and comfortable self-governance, the latter focussed on criticising the movement’s antagonists. (I probably missed the best of the worst though, so would welcome hearing more about positive Corbyn-aligned artworks that didn’t end up falling heavily back onto the movement leadership’s icons and slogans.) How Corbynism might have institutionalised this latter cultural tendency had the political fortunes leading up to 2019 been different, is a question we can only dream of answering. I think to be fair this was a radically new situation for many of us, so it was understandable that some of us would try on things that didn’t really fit as part of finding out what would.

That said, it must be clear that developing a style from the fantasy of wielding big institutional power is a bad fit for those of us working through socially progressive organisations and campaigns in 2023. So what is this little zine? How is enough power amassed to realise its political and stylistic aims? Are we interested in power? Should we receive institutional support, from where? 

In its way, a zine such as this can work as a connecting object between different points in a field of actors organising for progressive social causes. One of the most actually prominent, though least recognised, reasons for art’s existence is to serve as an alliance-forming entity that softens differences between factions. Part II in Larry Shiner’s The Invention of Art makes a case for recognising how in the Eighteenth century, art revolved around the “creation of a common arena of high culture and fine art in which the nobility, gentry, and educated middle class could share”. The coalescence of social power blocs into a ruling force can be facilitated by art. Shiner goes on to quote the view of Lord Kames, that “by uniting different ranks in the same elegant pleasures, they [The Fine Arts] promote benevolence; by cherishing love of order, they enforce submission to governance.” I want to tentatively say from this that the outlined social function of art can be applied from any point in the arena of class struggle, and on scales far smaller too.  

So what do we – the makers of this zine – want to coalesce our allies around specifically? As mentioned earlier, part of our intervention comes from a felt need to experiment with styles that are non-didactic, or developing on from this, approaches to communication that are non-analytical. 

We learn from reading artists’ statements and interviews, how art tends to hide the analytical thinking that goes into its making. 

In the case of Conceptual Art, this transposition of analysis into non-analysis is turned into a formal technique of display. The explanatory text is presented as a discrete but fundamentally co-constitutive part of the work. Take for example, Forbidden Colours, by Felix Gonzalez Torres (1988). The accompanying written text demonstrates an adept grasp of analytical language and thought that does not show up in the image he has presented. I’m using this example to quickly present a mechanism that can show up in some art – analysis goes to non-analysis. 

But I would like to suggest that we do not in all cases have to see analysis as some kind of proof that validates an artwork, since there are times when artists work from intuition. A work might legitimately move from non-analysis to non-analysis. Because some artists are more well-suited to working from intuition, they may not generally think or know how to communicate analytically. Analysis, with its basic assumptions about language, is an ill-fit for the style of thought belonging to the historically situated artist-type. (Though we should be careful not to fetishise or exoticise this!) 

My provocation here is that artists don’t find it easy – that to be good with words is an incredible gift. To hold a predisposition for cogent argumentation is like being born in a body that is white or male or holds any other quality that tends to confer social advantage. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why Hamja Ashan’s book Shy Radicals has been so popular in art circles? Because in speaking to a phenomenon of introversion, it highlights a widespread lack of faith in one’s own ability to speak in concert with the dominant analytical style. 

I believe that how we approach these differences should be a live question for our organisations. Is this difference something to which we should adapt our wider practices, or do we focus on training people into the style? I want to leave that open. 

To round off, I think Cut-Through Collective made this zine as part of a project to include different types of communication in the culture of political demonstration. We wanted to experiment with styles that would be appropriate to the subject matter of grief, to our political aims, and our real position in a balance of forces. Finally, we wanted to find and gently shape some points of convergence amidst the extra parliamentary political left.

Nature, whose Nature? Competing views of the Natural

This piece by Shiraz Hussain was first published in our pamphlet, Workers’ Inferno, on Halloween 2022.

Nature and human beings stand in an inescapably close relationship. Regardless of the power that our means of production may give us over our environment, we are still ourselves products of evolution, a process itself subject to parameters set by the laws of physics which govern the whole universe.

The emotional force of the human encounter with nature speaks to a deep understanding of our connection with the natural. Tending a garden or walking in a park comforts and restores. At the other end of the scale, untamed nature evokes feelings of awe. And the study of the living world reveals not only the intricacy and beauty of the forms but a complete disregard of human expectations – penguins who form same-sex relationships, clown fish (and many other fish species) who change from a sperm-producing to an egg-laying form to suit the needs of the school, rats who forego a reward which would cause suffering to another of their species.

Nature has its own mythos, its world of spirits that inhabit and protect trees, rivers, mountains and wild places. The earth itself is generally represented as a Mother, reflecting the common identification of the Natural with the Feminine. It is surely no coincidence that the Witch, the archetype of the empowered and challenging woman, with her symbols of the work of social reproduction – the broom and the cauldron – transformed into instruments of power, is represented as drawing her power from Nature and also protecting Nature.

These symbols express a message only too relevant to our times – Nature, the great Mother, the giver of life, needs our solidarity as never before.

In understanding that we are part of Nature, we come to understand that the sense of being human is the sense of being included – in humanity, in Nature, in the totality of everything. Once we have grasped this, we cannot but feel that the differences between human beings are much less important than our common humanity. We belong to Nature, and Nature belongs to all of us.

Sadly, Capitalism has a different take. Capitalism views everything through the reducing lens of the profit motive and sees Nature as it sees humans – as a means to the extraction and expropriation of value for the benefit of the wealthy. This point of view requires its own symbolism – Civilized Rational Man, in the image of God, stands outside Nature and masters Nature through intellect and will. He does not let emotion intrude into his relationship with Nature – that would be inappropriate.The world of the emotional and the natural is left to Woman, who, like Nature, is there to be mastered. Just to leave us in no doubt, the biblical narrative represents her, in a bizarre inversion of biological reality, as coming out of Man as a sort of afterthought. The last of the trio that stands in antithesis to the Civilized and the Rational is the Savage, an animalistic human being of low intelligence who is hypersexual, violent, impulsive and antisocial.This archetype was a crucial part of the Imperial toolkit and still plays a part in shaping attitudes towards ethnic minorities and troublesome members of the working class.

These are the representations of Nature that Capitalism uses in its waxing phase, the phase of expansion. But what of the inevitable waning phase of the trade cycle, the phase of contraction, when ordinary people, outside the charmed circle of big capital, have to pay all the costs of economic crisis? The present times show us the answer – the greatest danger to Capitalism is that ordinary people come to understand that the game is rigged against them. To avoid this the ruling classes seek means to fragment the people by blaming the ills of society on designated Others. Enter Populism, the sower of lies, dissension and hatred among the People.

Populism has a view of Nature shared with the Fascism of the 1930s. Nature is no longer represented as a mother, but as a cantankerous patriarchal tribal god whose function is to invest every sort of bigotry with the authority of Holy Writ. The beauty of Nature for all to enjoy? No! This land and everything on it is for Us and not Them! They shouldn’t be here! They’re not even like us! Gay? A lifestyle choice and not natural! Transgender? A denial of the basic facts of biology! You can’t change your birth sex! Disabled people? Useless mouths! Nature says they have no right to live! As for a woman who claims to be the equal of men and denies that she is defined by her ability to bear children, how unnatural is that?

Populism certainly does a fine job of fragmenting the people, but is ultimately not a friend to Capitalism. Chaos and destruction do not make for a stable economy. Once demons have wrought havoc as asked, they have a nasty habit of turning on the rash magician who has called them forth.

Capitalism presents us with a world of shadows, mystification and lies, where ever more wealth is concentrated in ever fewer hands, and where we are told that poverty and wretchedness are the fault of those that suffer them. The wealthy are credited with the magic power to create wealth seemingly out of nowhere. Obviously they have no such power – the wealth that workers create is taken from them to make the ruling classes wealthier, that is their trick, and the worker is often left with the means to make for themselves a bare-bones existence. The greater class is alienated from the enormous wealth that it produces.

The other form of alienation which Capitalism has to offer us is, of course, alienation from Nature. Even where the ordinary person can use their limited leisure and resources to enjoy contact with the natural world, they typically find themselves unable to intervene where the wealthy see an opportunity for profit in the destruction of an irreplaceable ecosystem. And we know only too well the global consequences of this power imbalance.

In the present global crisis we find ourselves called to action, not by a Deity standing outside existence, but by the voice of Nature which speaks to us from the depths of our embodied Being. Our human understanding has the power to dispel the shadows cast by the deceptions and mystifications of Capitalism. We can see with our human eyes that Humanity and Nature are not distinct and that an affront to one is an affront to both. We are as rooted in Nature as the forests. The sight of the sea reminds us that all life has its origin in the first oceans. The elements that make up our bodies and those of every living thing were forged in the death throes of long vanished stars. And the power to make a world where Humanity can attain its full flowering and where all the beauty and wonder that Nature has to offer us is preserved for us and our descendants – this power is within us. We do not need to wait for the Hero who will lead us – we are that Hero. We do not need to wait for the right time. The right time is now. 

Review: Cow by Andrea Arnold

Cow, the new film by Andrea Arnold, is unlike her previous animal titles. ‘Dog’, ‘Wasp’ and Fish Tank featured animals as metaphor or plot point in a story focused on human characters who struggle with interpersonal relationships in a British council estate setting. Ostensibly, Cow bucks the trend with its focus on a single dairy cow. The film is billed as a documentary, which further distinguishes it from the narrative pattern of oppressed woman seeking solace in romance. However, looking closely at the construction of its scenes, it would appear that Cow merely follows this narrative structure on an anthropomorphic plane. What are the political implications of coercing these images of a cow into such familiar cinematic shapes?

To start, the film’s emphasis on a single hero’s journey can prevent the audience from looking at aspects of the hero’s wider context. The beginning of Cow is the most harrowing part, in which we see our dairy cow protagonist giving birth to a calf, from whom she is very soon separated. The cow licks her newborn calf clean, and the choice of focusing on an individual cow and calf here is a strength. While the excessive licking is somewhat alien, it remains a legible sign of maternal affection. There are close shots of their eyes, their heads. Then, the camera follows the mother cow as she is herded away, down a narrow metal passageway, to her next enclosure. For one long take, the cow stares at the cameraperson and moos. She pauses, and moos again. She is agitated, it seems like she is trying to express something. Coming direct after the separation from her calf, the overriding sense here is the cow’s voiceless impotence. When she joins other cows in the barn, rather than expressing how her oppression is shared across all her fellow cows, the camera remains very close to this one – marking her out as different and special.

A character partly exists in order to guide the audience through the situations with which they are asked to identify. Therefore, the character is always mediated, framed, condensed. Very early on, the viewer is gripped by the mechanised, industrial oppression of this cow and, secondarily, her calf. The cow is rendered ‘identifiable’ so that the audience can identify with her experience. While this is a sign of a domineering hand of characterisation, it is also a useful way to evoke pathos in the audience. Pathos evoked, the film is endowed with a responsibility to take that somewhere. 

Indignation at the situation carries through the first half of the film, where we see the calf’s nascent horns burned off its head, and the mother cow’s internment in a cold, mechanical milking apparatus. Then, however, the film veers into absurdly familiar territory. The cow is led to another enclosure. A song begins to play – ‘Tyrant’ by Kali Uchis ft. Jorja Smith. A bull is led in and starts smelling the cow. The cow walks away from the bull, to the closed gate. Not exactly embracing his advances, and yet the music becomes more exciting, and then, in a bizarre coincidence, we see fireworks outside in the background. While the cow studiously looks away from the bull, who licks her and then mounts her, we hear inserted sound effects of the fireworks whistle and spark, and Kali Uchis sings “I don’t wanna come down, keep spinning me round and round and round and round.” The film cuts to actual fireworks, until the song ends. The bull and cow stand together. Postcoital tenderness and telepathic pillow talk, surely. 

In 1938, Bertolt Brecht wrote: ‘The crude aesthetic thesis that emotions can only be stimulated by means of empathy is wrong.'[1]Bertolt Brecht, ‘Short Description of a New Technique of Acting that Produces a Verfremdung Effect’, 1940, in Silberman et. al, eds, Brecht on Theatre (Bloomsbury, 2015) This scene guides the audience from empathic outrage at the conditions of agribusiness to empathising with a farcical portrait of romantic and sexual fulfilment. The choice to use pseudo-diegetic sound, as if the music plays from a radio in the barn, as well as the cutaway to fireworks, portray this forced copulation as conforming to Western ideas of romance. The lack of a voiceover allows these editorial decisions to shape the audience’s understanding of events. The lyrics of ‘Tyrant’ ask ‘Wanna seize the throne? / but what would you do with all that control?’ The fact is, neither the bull nor the cow have a modicum of control in this situation. Every year, each cow must get impregnated and birth a calf, which can then be sold for a profit. Not a word of this context is breathed in the film. Instead, we are led to enjoy the weird ‘love life’ of our cow heroine. This anthropomorphic scene may be compensation for Arnold’s big ask: to identify with an animal for 90 minutes without human voiceover. However, it is at the expense of truthfully portraying the cow’s lack of choice in the matter. Through techniques used to evoke empathy, the audience’s emotions are stimulated into feeling for a falsehood of consent.

Identification with something is ‘to associate closely or completely’ with it. In the scene just described, Cow‘s audience is guided into identifying with passivity in the face of oppression. Given the focus on one cow, who was dead by the time Cow hit cinemas, the audience can only be passive in relation to the events onscreen. In scenes like this, the subjection of animals to the strictures of their pens is not unlike the subjection of cinema-goers to the pre-defined film they’ve paid to see. Our agency is temporarily eliminated, which can be part of the pleasure of cinema. It’s relaxing to sit back and trust in the silver screen, but this set-up does not encourage a critical attention to what it is we are led to relate with. (Of course, this doesn’t prohibit us paying attention to the film’s workings regardless.)

Both when audiences leave themselves to identify with a character, and when a character’s identity is partially captured by a film, things get lost. Adorno wrote that ‘objects do not go into their concepts without leaving a remainder,’ and films inevitably present a selective vision of their subject, albeit with varying degrees of complexity.[2]Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics (London: Routledge, 1973) p.5 With Cow‘s overt attempts to make a cow relatable, not only do we briefly lose our feelings of agency while watching the cow’s enforced passivity, but the cow loses the wider context of her life. Notwithstanding the range of perspectives which can be expressed in films of multiple characters, the direction a film takes with its protagonist reveals the aspect of the audience in which it seeks emotional resonance. This aspect is augmented by watching the film, leading the audience to feel it in ourselves more strongly. One aspect with which Cow seeks to resonate is sadness at a feeling of entrapment – a feeling which presumably bridges the gap between humans and animals.

When The Guardian asked Arnold why she made this film, she said ‘I wanted to show a non-human consciousness.’[3]Simon Hattenstone, ‘Interview: ‘I kept saying – don’t worry Luma, we see you’: Andrea Arnold on her four years filming a cow’ in The Guardian, 6.01.2022, … Continue reading The BFI  asked: ‘How does moulding a piece of nonfiction in your own vision compare to moulding a fiction film?’ Arnold’s response was: ‘It doesn’t feel massively different to me. You’re always trying to shape something and make sense of it.’[4]Brogan Morris, ‘Interview: Andrea Arnold on Cow’ in BFI, 12.01.2022, But sense is made of the nonhuman via familiar, fictional human shapes. By endowing the cow with a humanistic personality, Cow lets the audience empathise with the animal, rather than viewing her, for example, through her economic status as value-producing commodity. Despite this empathy, the film is silent on the socio-economic context that causes the cow to live as a value-producing commodity. Following Brecht’s conclusions on thinking feelings, a nod toward that context could lift us from dull pain at this cow’s pain, to more thoughtful emotions regarding her wider situation.

Cow contains no close ups on the faces of its human farmers, much less does it acknowledge any aspect of the capitalist infrastructure that necessitates turning cows into cashcows. It steers clear of the farmers’ labour conditions, and evades both the booming profits and environmental impact of dairy cows’ milk and progeny. In this way, Cow resembles the ‘nonhuman turn’ in academic philosophy, in which the most political statement is that we humans should de-center ourselves from our conception of the natural world. Although it is a human who shoots the cow near the film’s end, it is the cow’s corpse upon whom light flares, implying some kind of spiritual ascendance. A happy coincidence of the non-human turn is that its emphasis on the agency of non-humans absolves us trigger-happy humans of any primary responsibility. We are but equally weighted atoms amid the web of interconnected, desiring matter. We embody social relations between things.

A paradox occurs when this point is made, because to let the nonhuman speak for itself, requires the human to have extra-human receptivity to the unpredictable way in which it might speak. Thus, it ignores the extent to which the human’s potential receptivity is governed by the multiple ideologies contained within human culture. It risks misreading or, more often, inventing the wishes of other species – as seen in the imposition of fireworks into the cow’s romantic flight of fancy. As critics such as Andreas Malm and SunYoung Ahn have pointed out, it also shies away from the fact that most nonhuman matter is ushered into its present state due to human activity.[5]cf. Andreas Malm, The Progress of this Storm (Verso, 2020) and SunYoung Ahn, ‘Magic, Necromancy, and the Nonhuman Turn’ in Monthly Review, 1.02.2022, … Continue reading To de-emphasise the role of humans is to de-historicise the context of nonhumans. This renders their present state inexplicable.

Arnold ‘wanted to show a non-human consciousness’, and perhaps this is why the film fails to deal with the wider historical causes of this cow’s internment – human capitalist activity. On the ‘non-human turn’, SunYoung Ahn writes: 

Discussions that overlook the reality of this economic and historical mediation obscure capitalist reality and cast a romantic hue over it, elevating the nonhuman into something wondrously agential and robust. The nonhuman turn allows the “whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy” to shroud human labor as well as disguise the nonhuman’s impoverished status with only the market price to explain itself.[6]Ahn, ‘Magic’

By romanticising the cow and masking her position in the market, Arnold allows the audience to empathise with her as a conventionally emoting, cinematic subject. However, this is not out of a posthuman respect for the cow’s difference – in fact it portrays her as an oppressed, romantic hero similar to the desperately lonely single mother in ‘Wasp’. The film’s nonhuman focus allows the audience to sink into the film even more completely, because there’s no ‘society’ in there, and no link to our own societal role. Arnold is good at recognising the emotional difficulty of situations, and she skilfully uses this to evoke empathy in the audience. However, she pursues empathy to the exclusion of systemic critique, and thus the situations we are led to feel for are reified as situations which we are powerless to change. 

The film ends on a shot of the calf, older now, no longer a calf, running down a road being herded by some humans back in the distance. What is at stake here is the audience’s emotional and intellectual state at the film’s close. The humans are small in the frame, the calf is in close up. The song is ‘Milk’ by Garbage, and as the credits start to roll, the song goes: 

I am weak
But I am strong
I can use my tears to
Bring you home

The final words of the film endorse the efficacy of emotions in making change happen. When the singing ‘I’ is identified with the calf, and, there being only two characters in the film, the ‘you’ is likely to be read as its mother, the paradox of the film’s emotive angle is explicit. The mother cow is dead now and there’s no bringing her home. The futility of the song’s sentimentality is there if you think about it, but it’s more likely that your tears prohibit your thinking. One could also read the ‘I’ as the voice of the film’s director, justifying her choice to bring us on this emotive journey. The film, without a voiceover, does not commit to any political point other than the emotional tugs of a lonely mother and calf, nor does it call into question why their situation is like this. Perhaps the filmmakers felt the context was obvious, and that sorrow is what’s needed in public attitudes to agribusiness.

When asked whether the unsustainability of the food industry was part of her motivation for making Cow, Arnold said: ‘the only way to change those things is for the real big decision-makers to change.’[7]Rory O’Connor, ‘Andrea Arnold on Capturing Cow, Bovine Beauty, and the Brutality of Nature’ in The Film Stage, 25.07.2021, … Continue reading However, because her lens never alights on these real big decision-makers, they are free to continue creating conditions of misery for animals. One wonders, if the director holds this viewpoint, whether her film even sought to change things. Regardless, the nonhuman consciousness can be enjoyed in its emotional journeyings, while the human culture which created it can look on without responsibility. For all its omissions, Cow remains a poignant story of loss and longing. I would add to its roster of losses a painful lack of contextual inquiry which could aid us in changing the system which created this sad cow.


1 Bertolt Brecht, ‘Short Description of a New Technique of Acting that Produces a Verfremdung Effect’, 1940, in Silberman et. al, eds, Brecht on Theatre (Bloomsbury, 2015)
2 Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics (London: Routledge, 1973) p.5
3 Simon Hattenstone, ‘Interview: ‘I kept saying – don’t worry Luma, we see you’: Andrea Arnold on her four years filming a cow’ in The Guardian, 6.01.2022,
4 Brogan Morris, ‘Interview: Andrea Arnold on Cow’ in BFI, 12.01.2022,
5 cf. Andreas Malm, The Progress of this Storm (Verso, 2020) and SunYoung Ahn, ‘Magic, Necromancy, and the Nonhuman Turn’ in Monthly Review, 1.02.2022,
6 Ahn, ‘Magic’
7 Rory O’Connor, ‘Andrea Arnold on Capturing Cow, Bovine Beauty, and the Brutality of Nature’ in The Film Stage, 25.07.2021,

Notes from the collective discussion on Representations of Class: The Working Class as a Minority?

Our recent discussion on how class is represented in art focussed on a feature-length film and accompanying article by the filmmakers and academics Mike Wayne and Deirdre O’Neill. We also prepared by watching an interview between art critic Morgan Quaintance and artist Andrea Luka Zimmerman.

Wayne and O’Neill’s film, The Condition of the Working Class, follows the production process of an amateur theatre performance. While Wayne and O’Neill did not script any of the performances, they devised the open call for specifically working class participants and facilitated political education, writing workshops, and rehearsals alongside the theatre director they selected. 

The film’s genre could be interpreted variously: as a practical guide for recreating the workshops, a reality-tv programme about the people involved in the workshops, a documentary about the coming together of a ‘practice-based research project’, or an experimentally produced docu-fiction about working class life in Salford. What is most remarkable about this film is how the subjects are active agents in writing and stylizing their own performances, so let’s consider it as primarily the latter. What kind of working class life does it depict? 

The experiences that the film’s subjects choose to represent, as exemplary of working class life, are characterized almost wholly by oppression. The primary affect they create is anger, indignation. But something is up. We find that the subjects in this film express their anger with a clarity that is, in an important sense, not representative of the working class. 

As the working class is, in the majority, ideologically captured by the ruling class, the explanations it gives to itself about the causes of its anger are largely dissimulated by this ideology that is hostile to their class interests. In large part, the working class is quicker to blame other sections of itself than to see  the causes of its anger in the structural inequities of class society as a whole. To suggest that the working class is different to this seems inaccurate and harmful to the task of confronting class domination. The film’s omission of ideologically problematised subjects gives it the flat appearance of propaganda, work that only the already-initiated could ever love. 

While the film implicitly claims to represent a real or authentic working class collective subject, it would be more realistic to say that it represents a vanguard fraction of that class. There is a problem when culturally foreign Marxist intellectuals/organisers represent – in terms of actual thought – a minority, while claiming to represent – in terms of material interests – a majority. To be clear, this contradiction is not the fault of Wayne and O’Neill, but they might have done more to mitigate some confusions arising from it by signposting their position.  

Though it might have been detrimental to the emotional pull of its empowerment narrative, the directors could have taken advantage of the documentary format to critique their position as intellectuals, or organisers, within the conditions of the film’s production. We see from the credits that the film is linked, in an unclear way, to Brunel University. A Friedrich Engels text is presented as foundational but why it was chosen above other Marxist classics is ambiguous. The particulars of the film’s distribution – radical film festivals, universities, community art centres – presumably not entirely an afterthought within the process of making, are passed over as topics for the audience to consider independently of the film. 

Via their paper, ‘The Condition of the Working Class: Representation and Praxis’ published in Working USA: The Journal of Labour and Society, the directors do critically represent their part in the act, explicitly attempting to address the dilemma of accurately representing the working class. They note that a coherent working class collective subject is problematised by other aspects of identity, and that their open-call casting process only attracted white, university educated subjects. However, the open acknowledgement of this representational lack is not enough to explain the incomplete view of class society that the film gives. I.e. a fragment of the working class with a heightened perception of its own position in class struggle. 

A similar longing for, let’s call it a militant self-awareness, is expressed by Morgan Quaintance. His recent Art Monthly article, ‘Closed Loop’, argues that the ‘heterogeneity’ and ‘rich and multifarious state of existence’ of the working class places it beyond description in terms of legalistic categories imposed by bourgeois institutions. In particular, he criticizes how equalities monitoring forms have been expanded to secure greater working class representation in the professional field of art. He identifies this as a bureaucratic force that coerces working class subjects into understanding class position by way of lack, of not having wealth, rather than potential. 

Like Wayne and O’Neill, the working class subject constructed by Quaintance is one that exhibits a vanguard consciousness, a ‘critical awareness’, or ‘sensibility’. Andrea Luka Zimmerman describes it more poetically as ‘a sense of the possible’. To say that this is the case is comforting, but perhaps misleading since it disavows the fact that many working class people are powerfully coerced into identifying positively with ruling class ways of thinking. 

This fragmentation and co-option is why representing the working class as a collective subject is bound to be fraught. Not because of natural differences between people, but because of sustained exposure to ideological attacks based on class interest. This condition of the working class cannot be resolved through imagining a coherent collective subject in place of a broken one. The most accurate representations of class show complex social fractures and oppositions that are given their character through class struggle, by work and institutions of the state. 

To move our discussion forward from this, it may be useful to look at the state and its institutions: how they shape workers into repressive relationships through ideology. For this, it might be helpful to look beyond the sphere of cultural production, e.g. the police, social services, legal firms, healthcare, local councils, etc.