Structures of Feeling: Resentment, Class and Nation

Thus, resentment endures because the ‘net’ of social conditions which engender resentment persists over long periods of time, and these conditions bear down on particular regions and social spaces and on particu?lar classes. In these classes and social spaces, expectations are created, as are views of the world and of how ‘society’ works. As people’s hopes are unfulfilled, their familiar world is endangered, their sense of security is lost and they lose simultaneously what they had gained in social regard; thus resentful sentiments begin to form. These ways of conceptualising peoples’ sentiments as both cognitive and affective are akin to what Raymond Williams (1977: 128 ff.) described as ‘structures of feeling’. In an analysis of fairness and resentment Hoggett et al. refer to structures of feeling as ‘a kind of affective complement to discourse’ (2013: 571). This concept of structures of feeling has been applied to class, nation and memory by Williamson in his account of post-war Britain. In his analysis of what he calls ‘memories, vision and hope’, he captures much of this idea of socially embedded sentiments. He applies Raymond Williams’ concept and expands it as being

a complex reaction to change in which powerful feelings are involved. And although they are experienced by individuals, they are part of a wider movement in feeling and sentiment and are bound up with how society itself is changing and being changed. (Williamson 1998: 161)

Williamson’s phrase ‘a wider movement in feeling and sentiment’ captures very nicely this sense of the social and historical foundations of commonly expressed sentiments. In the specific historical case of postwar Britain, the memories are of experiences which were more than usually collective. People had not been able to avoid doing things together in wartime and thus absorbed the moral lessons of what was needed when the country was under threat. Williamson describes the ‘interconnected issues’ of the period:

People in this country made sense of their experience of war and came to an understanding of what those qualities were which they came to believe pulled them through to victory...how they conceived of the future role of their society in the affairs of the post-war world and what hopes they attached to the way in which that world should be re-built. Both concerns are part of the generic question of national identity.and the prevailing sense of what it means and feels to be British. (p. 162)

So in this rebuilding, Williamson argued, there is the issue of citizenship, the welfare state and the obligations people felt towards one another. He describes one of those ‘structures of feeling’ that arose out of the war as an ‘expectation that post-war reconstruction would be on the basis of planning, of welfare and of greater equality’. The programme of reconstruction, as the policy of the newly elected Labour Party, was supported by many, but working-class people saw these measures as a mode of incorporation in a way that had not been seen before. Most intriguingly, for our purposes here, the post-war reshaping of British society had a bearing on ‘national identity’, as Williamson suggests. In short, British social change was such that British working people had a sense of inclusion, of greater welfare and security, bolstered by the state, in which great business enterprises, state and private, for which men and women worked, bestowed pride and conferred status. It was a mode of engagement in work and society which provided a sense of national identity.

If this gained the support of the working classes, other classes were less enthusiastic. We know that there was considerable opposition to nationalisation, and even to the National Health Service, by vested interests and by those who felt that their professional prerogatives were being diminished. Some middle-class people felt that their traditional values of selfreliance, individual aspiration and less tangible matters of social taste and distinction were being transgressed. Indeed, by the 1970s a number of sociologists were claiming that many middle-class people saw the middle- class way of life and ways of reproducing themselves and protecting their livelihoods and values as being under serious threat. They pointed to national associations, lobbies and pressure groups which were urgently trying to restate the ‘middle class view of the world’ (Bechhofer et al. 1978: 29:4). Some of this was, of course, a prelude to the Conservative victory in 1979, and the projection of an entirely different view of the nation. We shall see echoes of both sets of sentiments, one centred on fairness or justice and welfare, the other on self-reliance, decency and individualism, reflected in the views of nation expressed by respondents in our interviews.

We have briefly made reference to the memories, vision and hopes of people in the decades following the Second World War. The subsequent decline of the older industrial working class in the 1980s was experienced most acutely by older workers and within the frame of the memories and expectations of the earlier period. In Bourdieu’s account of M. Blondel, whose source of industrial employment has continually diminished, Blondel and his neighbours are described as ‘survivors of an immense collective disaster’ (1999: 6). The long established sentiments about welfare and employment, combined with a sense of recognition, set the tone for how people viewed the subsequent decline. Older and retired workers interviewed in our study described in a tone of resentment the way they viewed Britain and England today (Fenton 2012), in their anxieties about loss of industry, declining neighbourhoods, and the way they felt they were ‘not allowed to be English’. Their experiences are also associated with particular places—the sites of decline in the older industrial areas of England. The sense of resentment and neglect we encountered has been found in similar studies before and after ours and is reported in the work of Garner (2011), Rhodes (2010), Smith (2012) and Hoggett et al. (2013). Garner’s work and that of Hoggett and colleagues were based on the excellent research they did in working-class areas of Bristol and Garner’s second tranche of work in Birmingham, Milton Keynes, Thetford and Runcorn-Widnes. Rhodes studied British National Party voters in Burnley Lancashire. In our own work, the area in which the most ‘resentful nationalist’ attitudes were expressed was just outside Bristol in a ward whose population had previously depended on large local industries, now with a much reduced workforce. Smith’s research was carried out it an area of North Manchester, which again had seen a decline in industrial employment (Smith 2012). Most of these areas could be said to have experienced a measure of ‘community decline’.

 
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