Book Review from the September 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard
Learning to labour: How working class kids get working class jobs, by Paul E. Willis, Saxon House, 1977, price £3.95, pp 199.
The title of this book is misleading. Its aim is not so much to examine why working class kids get working class jobs, but why certain working class kids go in for jobs involving manual labour. The paradox as seen by the author is that some working class kids (in this study male, white kids), actually choose manual labour as an occupation.
There is no obvious physical coercion and a degree of self direction. This is despite the inferior rewards for, undesirable social definition, and increasing intrinsic meaninglessness, of manual work: in a word its location at the bottom of a class society.
This “paradox” is explained by Willis in terms of a cultural rejection of the conventional views of the worth of education by a group of school-boys, the 'lads’, who together participate in and create a counter-school culture which decisively affects their attitude to school and to work.
In part one of the book Willis looks at the behaviour and views of the ‘lads’ both inside and outside their secondary modern school in the adult working class world the 'lads’ can hardly wait to enter. Interspread in this section of the book are fairly lengthy transcripts from group discussions and individual interviews with the author. We learn that the ‘lads’ deny the value of mental work, regarding it as ‘cissy’ and fit only for the ‘ear’oles’ (the conformists) and for girls; they reject the ideology of individualism, of working hard now to get certificates to make their way in the labour market, and they refuse to co-operate in the formal teaching of the school and flagrantly break its rules on every conceivable occasion. Resentful of the authority of the teachers, school has become for them a battle of wits against authority, where they do as little work as possible and entertain themselves at the expense of the teachers, the ‘ear’oles’ and sometimes, also at the expense of members of their own group. The ‘lads’ regard themselves as superior to the ‘ear’oles’ — sharper, more mature, more sexually experienced and generally more aware of the adult world outside where, they argue, wits count for more than certificates. The counter-school culture also includes a strong cult of machismo reflecting itself in a pride in physical toughness and ‘masculinity’, and a virulent sexism (women are inferior, women are to be sexually exploited although their ‘own’ women should be domesticated and motherly). Along with ‘ear’oles’ and women, immigrants are also regarded as inferior in some way. Their machismo includes racism as well as sexism.
Whereas the transcripts of the ‘lads” views make part one interesting to read, part two tries to present a theoretical analysis of the ‘lads’’ counterculture and here there is nothing to lighten the turgidity of the academic sociologist’s prose. Basically Willis argues in this section that the counterculture resolves his ‘paradox’ by providing a cultural explanation of why the ‘lads’ choose manual work. The counter-culture focuses on toughness and ‘masculinity’ and on immediate gratification. Manual work appears to possess these attributes and so the ‘lads’ choose manual work as an act of self-affirmation and in no way see it as socially or economically inferior.
Willis argues further that much of the counter-culture is more insightful than the official school culture into real working conditions under capitalism (for example that work is not intrinsically interesting — the point is to be tough and cheat the boss as much as possible, and that it provides a better preparation for working life than the school culture. Willis also tries to argue that its insightfulness (called penetrations) is potentially radical in some respects (he argues that their insistence that all work is the same and that the worker should yield as little to the boss as possible, is suggestive of an intuitive understanding of abstract labour under capitalism). Against this Willis also recognises the reactionary elements of their culture — its sexist and racist prejudices, and its acceptance of the authoritarian structure of society (their response to authority at work is to cheat the boss or beat up the boss’s son at a dance, rather than challenge authority itself). Thus Willis presents the counter-school culture as a mixture of “progressive” and “reactionary” elements, largely mirroring, in a creative process of self-affirmation, the wider culture of the manual section of the working class.
The main thesis that the acceptance of the counter-school culture constitutes the explanation for boys going into manual occupations is, however, not borne out by the material presented in the book. In addition, the work as a whole is shot through with the muddled thinking and prejudices of a ‘middle class’ sociology .What is the paradox anyway? Why does our sociologist consider manual work to be more ‘intrinsically meaningless’ than the so-called middle class work of pen-pushing or salesmanship? Certainly some non-manual occupations offer greater economic rewards and security, and these differences within the working class should not be overlooked, but the assumption that all forms of manual work are not intrinsically interesting reveals a degree of cultural snobbery on Willis’ part.
As a work of analysis on the cultural reaction of the working class to employment under capitalism, it is a pity that the work is marred by a misunderstanding of class relations. We are told on page 123 that the middle class is dominant. This is not correct. The capitalist class is dominant — the ‘middle class’ represents a group within the working class. The more interesting question than why some working class boys choose manual work, is why does the working class choose its domination by capitalist society?