Maybe life is bad, or is bad enough, or risky enough, or uncertain enough, or scary enough, or unknown enough to make procreation almost always wrong. Maybe the person who does not appreciate life, particularly her own, will be your child. Maybe making the most important and far reaching decision on behalf of another person is something we should not do, if we can help it…
Rivka Weinberg, ‘Is Procreation (Almost) Always Wrong?’ , in The Risk of a Lifetime: How, When, and Why Procreation May Be Permissible (Oxford: OUP, 2015), pp.120-152 (p.152).
Whilst antinatalism’s most prominent advocates and scholars can be accurately described as possessing a morbid or pessimistic mien which, understandably, upsets and drives away most audiences, I hope this article, in delineating several antinatalist stances and my own nuanced view, will move away from this. Nevertheless, I am acutely aware of both the sensitivities encompassing this subject and of offending those sensitivities which I am not. Consequently, I find that a brief apologia is in order. As William Godwin wrote, beautifully, in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (2015 ):
…ideas are to the mind nearly what atoms are to the body. The whole mass is in a perpetual flux: nothing is stable and permanent; after the lapse of a given period not a single particle probably remains the same. Who knows not that in the course of a human life the character of the individual frequently undergoes two or three revolutions of its fundamental stamina? (41)
This framing of what follows should not be mistaken for a lack of conviction. I cite Godwin simply to state that what I now write I write in the transience of the present moment as one cognizant of my forthcoming ‘revolutions’. Despite first discovering antinatalism five years ago, reflecting upon it frequently since then, and now believing it is a philosophy I will never abandon, I’m nevertheless aware that change is not only possible but an inevitability. As the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante (2018) said, ‘what we were at the beginning is only a vague patch of colour contemplated from the edge of what we have become’, and what I write now is exactly that: the product of a moment, driven to broaden and deepen both my own understanding and that of others with no intent to offend.
Antinatalism: What is it?
To some extent, antinatalism is self-evident. The OED defines the prefix ‘anti-‘ as ‘opposite, against, in exchange, instead’ and ‘natal’ as ‘of or relating to a person’s birth‘. Antinatalism, then, can be summarised as a position that advocates or personally adopts an opposition to procreation. The less immediately obvious facet of antinatalism is its moral locus: an understanding of existence wholly grounded in the conviction that procreation is a harmful act or, at the very least, a potentially harmful actthat renders procreation unconscionable. Procreation, from this perspective, is affixed an irrevocably negative moral value. To be born is a harmful event and entails immense suffering, which antinatalists find unconscionable enough to decide that procreation is morally wrong. From this relatively uniform starting position, however, divergences begin to emerge. For example, many antinatalists hold the attendant view that their own birth is a negative event, such as frontman of The Cure Robert Smith. Whilst not identifying explicitly as an antinatalist, it is difficult not to view Smith’s comments as either wholly sympathetic to antinatalism or, at least, existing in chirality:
I’ve never regretted not having children. My mindset in that regard has been constant. I objected to being born, and I refuse to impose life on someone else. Living, it’s awful for me. I can’t on one hand argue the futility of life and the pointlessness of existence and have a family. It doesn’t sit comfortably… I enjoy myself hugely… but you know, it’s despite myself, really. (Pattison 2011).
Something Smith’s (2011) self-reflexive account doesn’t touch upon is how antinatalism is predominately understood in opposition to the consequentialist, liberal philosophy of utilitarianism; that branch of philosophy created by Jeremy Bentham, and popularly espoused by his intellectual descendant John Stuart Mill, which was deeply concerned with social idealism. In short, utilitarianism insists that all possible actions a person undertakes must seek to maximise utility. What constitutes ‘utility’ has undergone various different definitions according to the philosopher discussing it. But antinatalism is often situated against a saliently Benthamite notion of utility, which is defined by the sum result of all possible pleasure that results from an action. That is to say, utilitarianism dictates that all our actions should be orientated towards ensuring the maximum amount of pleasure or happiness for the majorityof the population. Contradistinctively, antinatalists are often driven by what one may call a negative utilitarianism: the conviction that ameliorating and minimising the possible or real suffering of otherscarries greater moral importance than maximising their relative pleasure or happiness. It is this tenet that most attracts me to antinatalism, and one may already see why negative utilitarianism readily lends itself to antinatalism.
At this juncture, however, two observations are particularly striking. Firstly, as the words ‘pleasure’, ‘happiness’, and ‘suffering’ suggest, this is a deeply experiential and subjectively orientated area of philosophy that, as Rivka Weinberg (2015) observes, elicits ‘no authoritative answer’ (129). Secondly, as aforementioned, to those unfamiliar with the term, antinatalism may sound like a deeply pessimistic, ‘dark view’ of existence that places undue precedence on pain over pleasure (Weinberg 2015: 120). Refusing to have children will already appear to most as an outlandish suggestion, let alone the added, seemingly acerbic assertion that to procreate is a cruel, unconscionable attack. However, as I will argue, whilst antinatalism has certainly been adopted by a decidedly morbid minority, it is not a view universally espoused by the chronically angst-ridden, nor one in which pain’s place as the principle motor of one’s actions is merely intellectualised melodrama. Pain is important – but antinatalism is more than that. But to address this we must ask why anybody is an antinatalist in the first place.
I began this article by mentioning that the birthrate in England and Wales has fallen to its lowest level since records began over 80 years ago. Whilst the causes of this are manifold, such as declining fertility rates, Professor Ann Berrington (2019) does briefly touch on a far more interesting cause: the lack of affordable housing. This is an unsurprising comment, although it deserves far greater attention. A recent paper by Donald Hirsch (2017) and the Child Poverty Action Group offer a grim examination of Britain’s dire and increasing impoverishment, which is actively affecting birthrates. But, of course, we have been here before over a century ago, when a complete dirth of social security in regards to pensions, housing, education, and healthcare was believed to be the major cause of declining birthrates (Chris Renwick, 2018: Ch.4). People simply didn’t want to have children and, as Sidney Webb wrote in his Decline of the Birth-Rate (1907), it was absolutely essential for the country to restore the confidence of the population in the security of the future, in order for them to procreate and produce the social reformers that it would require. The differing responses from across the contemporary political spectrum led to legislators and the literati to, eventually and gradually, produce the welfare state we in the UK know today. Constructed from what Alfred Marshall would aptly call ‘mixed [political] parentage’, the welfare state acts as a holistic form of social security that is nevertheless in constant redefinition and reiteration, satisfying nobody, completely, and yet delivering ‘a level of national unity on social policy that had never been tried before – or, indeed, since’ (Renwick 2017: 264). It is unsurprising that, thereafter, a baby-boom blossomed.
Writing today, I wholeheartedly believe that the current socioeconomic climate is playing a much larger role in people’s decision not to have children (much like it did over a century ago). Yet, despite Professor Philip Alston’s recent UN report on the sheer scale of Britain’s widespread and debilitating poverty, willingly enacted by the Westminster political class, I remain quietly and persistently optimistic. As the apocrophal Mark Twain quote goes, ‘History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes’, and this significant decline in birthrates will ultimately lead to the state having to respond in some way amenable to procreation – which will mean concessions from the neoliberal status quo. Yet, this societal reticence towards having children cannot be considered tantamount to a rejection of the principle of procreation – that is to say, it isn’t self-consciously antinatalist. But it is indicative of an inherent anxiety and capacity in people to perceive human suffering in the future, despite all evidence to the contrary – with antinatalism itself not necessarily being an unthinkable position. It is a position and question that fully merits our attention here today, and one which the world would undoubtedly benefit from if it were adopted by a larger minority. However, whilst these material realities are certainly a factor in my own antinatalism, as aforementioned, I remain convinced that ‘the misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed’. Rather, it is the discussions within academia, and its explorations of the more abstruse, existential reasoning behind why some people are antinatalists that I have found especially compelling.
One answer to why some people are antinatalists is the subjective conviction that life is bad. As Rivka Weinberg’s (2015) essay begins, ‘If my gut is right, having children, is probably almost always wrong because, if life is bad, then we are putting people into a bad situation by creating them’ (120). But as Weinberg continues, we can’t make the binary distinction of a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ life on experiential grounds universally applicable, and it is this experiential ground that dominates in the formation of an antinatalist perception of life, rather than ‘many other sorts of value… moral, aesthetic, scientific and so on’ (121-22). Although, one may argue that it is unclear how the moral and the experiential are separable fields, let alone which would then be considered the greater impetus in a given person’s life.
Subsequently, Weinberg (2015) focuses on the suitable conditions of procreation from the predominantly experiential vantage point, before tackling another recurrent bugbear among antinatalists: gaining consent of the procreated. Weinberg (2015) identifies several conditions that must be satisfied for procreation to be permissible:
WE HAVE A VERY STRONG INTEREST TO DO SO: Parents have to be motivated to have children with the desire to create happy, fulfilled people, rather than driven by ‘manipulative, cruel, or disrespectful’ motivations. (132)
TO MITIGATE DAMAGES: Similar to 1., these new lives must be assisted in coming to terms with the predicament of existence, rendering them confident that life is not objectively ‘bad’ (132).
This evidently informs Weinberg’s (2015) argument that, if the above conditions are met, there is no consent violation when it comes to procreation. Consent violation is significant to antinatalists for fairly self-evident reasons, as Weinberg (2015) adumbrates:
Since procreation imposes the risks of life on a child… we must have actual consent to being procreated. Of course, they [parents/guardians] cannot get their childs actual consent to being procreated. And therein lies the problem. There is no solution” (138).
But Weinberg (2015) proffers a deceptively simple countervailing position: “children do not have autonomy or consent rights because they aren’t competent to exercise them… [they] are incompetent, they require our paternalistic care, and paternalists are allowed… to impose risks upon them for their own benefit, including for their ‘pure benefit'” (138). ‘Pure benefit’, here, is a coinage by Seana Shiffrin (1999) which refers to a benefit that is good but whose absence would not be considered a harm or a deprivation – something which, for Shiffrin, can only be imposed if actual consent is gained from the benefactor (124-126). We can consider birth and existence to be one of those ‘pure benefits’, as Weinberg does in her argumentation, as it isn’t necessary or required but can be good.
But this doesn’t clear up the consent question, nor can one definitively believe existence is good. A child cannot give consent to whether or not they want to be born, but the whole issue of consent is more complicated than that. For example, it is unclear in the prevailing, global socioeconomic system whether children are or are not autonomous beings capable of giving consent. It would prove interesting, for example, to investigate how much revenue children have generated in actively giving their consent to global businesses such as YouTube, and other app/tech companies, during this unprecedented era in which many of them in the Western world have a familiar relationship with tablets and other technological devices from a very early age. They are data factories, generating revenue for big business, and are treated as consenting individuals, a adults, who are willingly surrendering this information from a position of cognizance. If Weinberg is correct, however, and children can’t give consent, whether or not these companies can extract profit from them is another question (I would argue – they shouldn’t). Or are there different types of consent?
Hair-splitting tangents aside, and more pertinently, Weinberg’s (2015) argumentation does not convincingly deal with what I will call the delayed/eventual actualisation of finitude (D/EAF) and consent. By this, I refer to the moment or stage in which a child becomes conscious enough to discover their own mortality and position in the universe – their D/EAF. How does the issue of consent change when a child eventually realises that they exist, when they reach the delayed/eventual actualisation of their finitude and discover all the attendant conditions that entails? As aforementioned, according to Weinberg (2015), a parent can produce a child on the grounds of necessitated paternalism and the child’s inability to provide actual consent. But what about when they become adults and could give retroactive consent? When a child reaches their D/EAF, they may reach the conclusion that existence is not a burden worth bearing. Was assuming their consent, thus, a violation? Or is it only a violation in the act of actualisation? How are we supposed to maintain a clear conscience knowing all that they have endured is the result of our actions?
Moreover, some of the warmer and fuzzier elements of the above arouse suspicion. Much like how Sidney Webb’s (1907) paper argues about the essential need for procreation to produce tomorrow’s socialists, Weinberg’s (2015) conditions for procreation are underpinned by the assumption that children are produced in order for adults ‘to engage in a mutually beneficial and respectful relationship with them’ (149). Both Webb and Weinberg presume that parents will have (and are driven towards) positive relationships with their children and, in addition, will be able to decidedly shape and inform their characters. This, I believe, is misguided. One of the central battles that will emerge within the filial/parental architecture, almost from day one, is between the child’s autonomy and their parent’s paternalism. Children almost always break away from and grow in opposition to the parental architecture in the development of their autonomy – they are the product of this dialectic, and the autonomy almost always succeeds in the end (after all, we all become adults eventually).
Whilst I am sure a parent can exert influence over a child’s formative years, in which the grip of paternalism is at its strongest, it is entirely possible (and is frequently the result) that a child will develop within this dialectic, responding to their environment and parents, in a way that is not predictable, and that cannot be channelled with exactness into a desired form. This is evident when one examines the nature of siblings: siblings will often prove to be very different people in their respective characters, motivations, affinities, disunities, and their perspectives on things as quotidian as whether or not to wear washing-up gloves at the sink, all the way up to their pondering of the ‘bigger’ questions. All of this can and does occur despite a shared environment for their formative development and despite a consistent parental presence, a testament to the unknowable autonomy of offspring even during the earlier stages of development. My point here being: we can’t know how a given life will unfold, and we don’t know when, and to what extent, a parent or guardian will influence their child’s subjective perception of life, and in what respect(s), and whether that will be conducive to what one may describe as a ‘good’ (or utilitarian) life.
It is this unknowability and the infinite potentiality that I find most disarming, and what drives me toward antinatalism. Perhaps Martin Amis gave the best illustration of this anxiety towards the expected-utility hypothesis in his novel Time’s Arrow (1991). Throughout this novel, the reader takes the narrative perspective of a Nazi doctor who is re-experiencing the course of his own life anti-chronologically, starting from his death in his garden in America and ending with his birth in Germany. Throughout the novel, during his sleep, the narrator has recurring nightmares about an anonymous infant, which is portrayed as this being of unparalleled power – representing all the potential actions that a baby is yet to and could invoke. One imagines this is the self-reflexive manifestation of the narrators own post-Holocaust guilt. But this image, in general terms, has had a profound impact on my already-existent antinatalist sympathies. Without wishing to be melodramatic or hyperbolic, I believe a clear and indisputable point emerges from Time’s Arrow (1991): we cannot know what will come materially after conception, nor what a child’s subjective experiences will be like, with any great certainty. It simply seems like too much, too much power and potential, and the possibility of pain endured or pain inflicted.
Furthermore, one is all too aware that parents, with the very best of intentions and with all the expected alacrity in their proactivity, will nevertheless be thwarted in trying to carve out a child that fits the model apropos of their own ideological convictions (sub-conscious or otherwise) about what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Moreover, whether or not this will be the respectful, mutually beneficial enterprise Weinberg (2015) envisions in a parent-child relationship is another, uncertain eventuality – all of which seems far too great a risk when considering how significant it is that we can create life. In addition, Weinberg’s musings represent an assumption that I believe is also widespread in society: the idea that people give procreation due thought and consideration, and reflect on their own motivations. Yet, in the year of my own birth, 31% of pregnancies in the United States were categorised as ‘unintended’ (Rachels 2014; Family Planner Perspective 1998). I was unable to find statistics for 1998 from the Office of National Statistics in the UK – but I certainly know what category I would have fallen into. But who knows if these statistics accurately reflect the true quantity of ‘unintended’ conceptions? I imagine their are far more.
I think my point is clear: we live in a society that has largely made procreation appear as inevitable and, consequently, it has become an under-discussed facet of our lives, in which due consideration isn’t countenanced deeply. Moreover, we naively assume that we can then direct these creations to our desired will – when we can’t with any certainty. As the above quote from Godwin ( 2015) evinces, people undergo numerous ‘revolutions’ in their character during their lifetime, and it is this lack of ability to know, in the face of something as enormous as creating life, that further drives me towards antinatalism. Life is simply too much, their are too many variables, too many possibilities and consequences. In what one may consider equally an optimistic and pessimistic conclusion, a child can change the world – but one cannot know how they’ll do so, nor whether or not they’ll conclude that they wished never to have been born at all. Thus, the assertions of Webb (1907) and Weinberg (2015) simply appear too unrealistic to me.
Moving away from the abstruse to the more actual, Stuart Rachels’s (2014) paper ‘The Immorality of Having Children’ expresses a wholeheartedly antinatalist position but through the examination of the cost of having a child. All of this is underpinned by the Famine Relief Argument (FRA) and a decidedly more material concern with resource allocation and finances than compared to the above. Prior to delineating the FRA, Rachels proffers three principle reasons why procreation is of enormous importance:
‘One’s procreative decisions have causal implications that ripple across one’s world’ (568). Even one child will have a marked environmental impact and an even bigger social impact. A study by Oregon State University (2009) found that the environmental impact of an extra child in the world is almost twenty times more important than a selection of other environmentally sensitive practices (for example, driving a high mileage car, recycling, or using energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs). Additionally, the average long-term carbon impact of a child born in America, along with all their descendants, is more than 160 times the impact of a child born in Bangaladesh. Interestingly, in another article by Rivka Weinberg (2017), discussing the climate emergency in relation to procreation, she states in a rather complacent fashion that we’ll likely sort it all out eventually and concludes: ‘If you want to have a baby, you’d better fix the world, baby. And, apparently, a lot faster than we thought’. The environmental argument is, perhaps, one of the most compelling if not the least easily refuted, and is evoked in a Malthusian, acerbic fervour by Doug Stanhope, here:
2. ‘being a parent entails drastically changing one’s lifestyle for at least 18 years. Parenting consumes vast sums of time, money, and energy’ (568).
3. Unlike marriage, ‘parenthood has no morally viable escape hatch. You can divorce your spouse, but you can’t divorce your kids – you can only neglect them’ (268).
Consequently, Rachels (2014) outlines the basis of the FRA: ‘a child costs hundreds of thousands of dollars; that money would be far better spent on famine relief; therefore conceiving and raising children is immoral’ (567). A child will cost, on average, $227,000 (or, by my calculations, at the time of publication: £205,878), which may be better used immunising, feeding, and clothing the already existent children in need across the world (Rachels 2014: 570-1). It is hard to refute this hard, statistical evidence – consanguineous vanity ought to cede to the greater moral good. The environmental damage is enormous, and the resources we possess could be used in far more ameliorative, negative utilitarian terms.
But Rachels (2014) isn’t averse to more distasteful lines of argumentation, such as considering children as ‘luxuries’, as they are ‘expensive’ and are not ‘necessary for the parents health or survival’ (573). Regardless of Kant’s argument about humans being treated as an end-in-themselves, some families, in some cultures, procreate in order to survive on farms or in peasant communities in which those extra hands are needed for work. And whilst this reproduces the infamous ‘poverty cycle’ coined by Seebohm Rowntree in his Poverty: A Study of Town Life (1901), this ought to be considered an attendant consequence of global capitalism, and not the failings of parents who are geographically outside of the ‘West’ but not the global rationality of a neoliberal agenda that necessitates their subsistence (Dardot & Laval 2017). Rachels (2014) also states that procreation may be inadvisable due to ‘the possibility of less welcome outcomes. For example, there’s around a 1-in-88 chance that a child today will be autistic’ (579). As one of those ‘less welcome outcomes‘, I’m dismayed by such a framing of autism, particularly since such asseverations circumscribe what autism is by enforcing the prototypical image of autism as something unequivocally negative.
Beyond these tamer discussions is the most vocal and well recognised antinatalist philosopher: David Benatar. His description of experiential asymmetry in his monograph, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm Of Coming Into Existence (2008), is his greatest contribution to the debates surrounding antinatalism. As Joseph Packer (2011) summarises, superbly:
‘the decision to create a new life cannot be evaluated in terms of whether that life would meet some acceptable ratio of good (pleasure) to bad (pain). Instead, the potential life needs to be compared to never coming into existence, which Benatar claims is always preferable to a life with any pain. The reason nonexistence is preferable to existence is because of an asymmetry between how one should evaluate the pain and pleasure of potential persons’ (226).
For Benatar (2008), there is a fundamental difference in how one gauges and understands pain and pleasure, with people inherently biased towards vaunting the latter as their only surety, when we suffer much more than we are willing to acknowledge. This is coupled with an attendant assumption that any human flourishing is pathetic when compared to what can be imagined or envisioned in the grander, macrocosmic scheme of the universe. This unflinching bleakness eventually leads Benatar to conclude that the best humanity can hope for is its own extinction, or speciecide (194-196). This conclusion, and remarks regarding human flourishing, are utterly antithetical to my own position – I view antinatalism as simultaneously deeply solipsistic and altruistic: it is a private, personal philosophy one cannot and should not enforce upon others, which also serves in the best interests of both oneself and the world around you.
A less extreme voice, Joseph Packer (2011), writes in direct response to this Benatarian antinatalism. With a similar thrust to Webb (1907) and a clear taxonomic affinity with Weinberg (2015), Packer (2011) attempts to provide a two-part test for permissible procreation:
‘ask if the creation of a child would increase the net utility in the world absent consideration of the child’s own happiness… In other words, would the parents be happier with the child and would the child not negatively impact the lives of others’ (230)
‘ask if the child would be likely to lead a life with more happiness than unhappiness’
Packer (2011) concludes that this test ‘ensures any procreation that occurs will always result in lives worth living, because every birth will be mutually advantageous to both the person born and people who already exist’ (233). But this, much like the convictions of Webb (1907) and Weinberg (2015), neglects the inherently labile property of human nature; of the great subjective revolutions they will endure; of the war between autonomy and paternalism and the often inevitable victory of the former; and the negative experiential consequences D/EAF entails. The creation of life is a gargantuan euphony of possibilities marred by the cacophony of its own concomitant miseries, with the thrust of the latter and its own possible dominance proving too much of a risk – particularly when one considers that being a parent can be achieved by other means that ought not to be considered the alternative: adoption. Interesting questions arise about how the adoption of a child can affect antinatalist philosophy – with work by Tina Rulli (2014), Joel Feinberg (1973); Oreskovic & Maskew (2008); Alain Badiou (2012); and Ijzendoorn, Van, & Juffer (2006) all having profound philosophical implications on this subject – implications I may try to broach at a later date.
In considering all the above, it is clear that antinatalism is a philosophy coloured by many differing shades of opinion, rooted in experiential, environmental, utilitarian, financial, and opportunity concerns, inter alia. Irrespective of these different angles of enquiry, all of these positions display a profound fixation on the moral question of future and potential suffering in relation to our position as creators and the created – something, regardless of our own respective conclusions, we should all give much greater consideration during our lives.
I don’t have a personal, definitive answer to whether it is better to have n/ever been born. Smith’s (2011) own reflection on his life and procreation, particularly his comment about ultimately enjoying lifein spite of himself, is one I think about often. To what extent are my feelings towards the world around me the product of an intrinsically motivated solipsism, rather than the product of any extrinsic faults? Or is that impossible – is there a self divisible from the social textum in which we, too, are weaved? Or is the self a well far deeper than any extremity and our only surety – one we should let envelop us fully? I am left with the same conclusion as Weinberg (2014): ‘There is no solution’ (135).
But life is a high-stakes game that makes no promises beyond its indefinite finitude and, importantly, it is a game that does not require players. In reflecting on the future beyond myself, I see my place clearly. Negative utilitarianism, that is, the belief that minimising potential suffering is of greater moral importance than securing maximum pleasure, is my guiding light. In the course of one’s life, I think it is paramount to do one’s utmost to ameliorate the suffering of those already here on Earth; to let altruism be the measure of our motions; and to refuse procreation: that creator of indefinite and unknowable suffering. My own existence is irreversible – I am here and I am here to stay. But how is one to know whether any future lives I create will share that conviction? Procreation, to me, is a risk too great for a prize so labile. Moreover, despite my political optimism, the climate emergency marches on and there is no certainty that the world is going to become any better than the current state it is in. With that in mind, it seems like an irrefutable argument that my efforts can be better expended helping those who are already here, already bearing the burden of existence, rather than creating indefinite future suffering.
Ijzendoorn, M., H. Van, and Juffer, F., ‘The Emanuel Miller Memorial Lecture 2006: Adoption as Intervention. Meta-analytic Evidence for Massive Catch-up and Plasticity in Physical, Socio-emotional, and Cognitive Development’, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 47:12, (2006), 1228-45.
‘Working-class stories are not always tales of the underprivileged and dispossessed’. In this anthology, Kit de Waal joins thirty-three writers in ruminating on what ‘working-class’ means in contemporary Britain.
For Barker, working-class writers ‘suddenly became old hat‘ after the brief but enormous popularity of kitchen sink realist writers Alan Sillitoe and John Braine. Of course, this assertion comes with the circumscribed assumption about what working-class writing is: gritty, industrial, post-war narratives from the gregarious outer-London (throw in some Bovril, supped from a tin-pail, and you’re on to a winner). Barker assumes that since those Angry Young days, working-class writing is no longer popular or fashionable, despite the publication of ‘classic’ contemporary working-class writers such as Janice Galloway and her The Trick is to Keep Breathing (1989); a solipsistic, claustrophobic narrative across time in which that ostensible fulcrum of working-class existence, the ‘kitchen sink’, becomes a protective but suffocating prison for a bereaved woman in Thatcher-era Scotland. Moreover, despite the halcian days of working-class fiction being supposedly long-dead, this didn’t prevent James Kelman from winning the Booker Prize for his How Late it Was, How Late (1994). Working-class writing has never stopped being needed, wanted, and radical.
Nevertheless, for Barker, the recent decision by the London-publishing-bubble to try and provide platforms for working-class and ‘regional’ voices could only be a ‘fashionable’ attempt at post-Referendum appeasement. One may argue, however, that it is far more likely that publishers are simply responding to the demands of the market: people want to read about lives which resonates with them. And, with almost one thousand backers, the successful, crowdfunded publication of Common People via Unbound illustrates that working-class writing is in demand, ‘fashionable’, and popular. It also shows that if the status quo don’t provide platforms for working-class voices to be heard, they’ll go elsewhere and they’ll be heard anyway. It is unsurprising, then, that publishers are initiating, albeit (too) slowly, a long overdue gear-shift via their diversity schemes.
People like me can write books. People like anyone can write books. You have to learn to like the sound of your own voice; you have to trust that your perspective is interesting because it is yours, that you are seeing the world through your own eyes and can use your own words to describe it.”
Cathy Rentzenbrink, ‘Darts’, in Common People, p.81.
Perhaps the principle appeal of Common People lies in the sheer variegation of its polyvocality. One may criticise the anthology for containing stories of such brevity – with so many contributors, the reflections embedded within are often less than ten pages in length. Yet this quality pointedly asserts one of the anthologies greatest strengths – its destabilisation of the prevailing, monocultural treatment of the working-class. In placing an array of eclectic reflections in close succession, de Waal delivers a collection motivated by agonistic pluralism – that is, a conflicting, contrary, but nevertheless unified whole: in Common People, divergent annals of the affectual and material experiences of being a member of the working-class abound.
Lisa McInerney’s delightfully acerbic ‘Working Class: An Escape Manual’, Katy Massey’s ‘Don’t Mention Class!’, and Chris McCrudden’s ‘Shy Bairns Get Nowt’ all proffer perceptive accounts of the labile and contested nature of what ‘working-class’ means, and the form and function of the status quo in keeping its foot firmly on the windpipe of workers’ self-identification. Contradistinctively, Stuart Maconie’s ‘Little Boxes’ offers a seductive paean to the streets which ‘made me’ (p.54). ‘Keats Avenue, Eliot Drive, Blake Close, Milton Grove… We lived among poets. We fought, drank, and snogged amongst literary giants’ (p.41). For Maconie, whilst conscious of the unjust privilege of the elites, growing up on a Wigan council estate ‘didn’t do me any harm’ (p.54) – rebuffing predominant narratives of a class wholly self-pitying and deprived; dissatisfied with their origins. Conversely, during the start of the anthology, Tony Walsh recapitulates the ever pertinent ‘us vs. them’ in his rousing call-to-arms ‘Tough’:
They don’t like it when our stories rise above the kitchen sink
They don’t like it when we learn, remember, organise or think
They don’t like it when we’ve knowledge so they price us out of college
But it’s tough, we’ve had enough and we are coming
Tony Walsh, ‘Tough’, in Common People, ll.7-11 (p.1)
Further adding to a sense of contrast and nuance, Adelle Stripe and Anita Sethi’s vignettes move away from the working class of England’s metropolises and depict experiences of rural life. Stripes rumination on the bleakness of the moors and the place of her father within it bears strong contrast to the liberating property of the Lake District for Sethi, otherwise imprisoned by the urban landscape of Manchester – revealing England’s pastures green as markers of both revelry and resignation.
Alongside these tales are too many superb entries to adequately do justice to here (buy the book!!): Paul Allen’s formative years on a libidinous building site; Cathy Rentzenbrink’s place as the dart-loving literati of Snaith; how Jill Dawson’s experience of Ted Hughes led her to becoming a writer-in-residence at comprehensive schools; Riley Rockford’s disorientating impostor’s syndrome during a formal dinner at a famous graduate school; and, by far my favourite contribution, Adam Sharp’s ‘Play’. Sharp’s musing – in a mere nine pages – proffers a compelling and affecting account of filial frustration towards a father who refuses to be exactly that. Sharp doesn’t make a pointed or self-conscious attempt to prove his working-class credentials. Rather, with indomitable sensitivity, he delivers a tale of searing honesty that ends with a satisfying – merited – fuck you. Similarly, Alex Wheatle’s letter to his younger self, ‘Dear Nobody’, personifies the various competing pressures within a tortured youth’s psyche, with a vulnerability that can’t fail to endear to all of us who look back in anger at how the working-class are indoctrinated into making an enemy of their futures; of failing to see their worth. And, with the poesy and acuity, but without the ornate and indulgent solipsism, of Elizabeth Smart, Julie Noble’s ‘Detail’ adumbrates the tentative ease in which love enraptures, does, and undoes, proving to be the perfect, intimate swansong for a collection crowded by the manifold pains and pleasures of common people.
My advice is to always, to any member of the working class, get smart, read as much as you can, and find out who’s using you. I did. What’s wrong with you?”
In a rare moment of lucidity and non-cringy candour, Lydon offers timeless and invaluable advice – advice which all of the contributors to Common People have followed. The anthology offers a variety of perspectives from an educated, often autodidactic class; a class as complex in its inner conflicts as it is in its outward resistance – thoroughly undercutting the assumed circumscriptions made by the likes of Pat Barker. One cannot help but feel a tentative excitement and curiousity about the stories that my own generation will pen – in which council houses have not proven to be such pervasive anchors for the proletariat experience – and how this will further complicate portraits of the working-class. And, in the digital epoch and gig economy, perhaps they will illustrate a class far more alienated, far more angry, and far more radical.
The collection closes with a sobering essay by Dave O’Brien, in which he unpicks publishing’s ‘serious class problem, as…one of the most socially exclusive of creative industries’ (p.278). The statistics are as incendiary as they are insightful: the ONS Labour Force Survey found that almost half (47%) of all authors, writers, and translators in Britain began from the most privileged rungs of the social ladder (p.278). Whereas, 12% are from the working-class (p.279). However, despite relative gender balance, the study omits consideration of who retains power within publishing. For, it is evident that women are often excluded from those prestigious roles within the creative professions – such as commissioning. Publishing, too, proves to be pointedly more white than other industries and, as O’Brien reminds us, these statistics don’t offer a holistic picture: who is being excluded from these calculations?
Understandably, then, Kit de Waal’s edited anthology, delivered by the crowd-funded people power of Unbound, proves a much needed breath of fresh air. It would be false and jejune to declare that, for Penguin et al., their days are numbered and they may soon find themselves overwhelmed by the power of outsider publishing – where there are platforms far more willing to provide opportunities for those voices that people most need – and want – to hear. Yet, edifying publications such as Common People are certainly a thorn in their side, and deliver a clear indication for why there needs to be change – a largely untapped, fecund pool of talent and experience lives within and amongst the working class. Yet, regardless of the future direction of publishing – and that of working-class literature – Common People stands tall as a hopeful beacon: that we willstand up, we willbe counted, and we willbe heard.
I had to develop my own ways of dealing with being different. By the time I had got to university I’d come up with a strategy, and the strategy was really simple: don’t interact with people of your own age, just turn up, get straight As, and I wouldn’t speak to anyone.”
Chris Packham in Asperger’s & Me
In his documentary Asperger’s & Me, Chris Packham, naturalist and broadcaster, discussed the difficulty of living with Asperger’s without a diagnosis, exploring the nature of the condition and the effect of his diagnosis later in life during the early 2000s. Conversely, and I think more fortunately, my (second) diagnosis came when I was sixteen.
Originally, my appointment at the Newland House NHS Trust in Northampton had been scheduled, after meetings with my GP, to discuss my severe depression and further treatment options. I was utterly miserable and unproductive, with the gauche isolation I wore with such ease constructing an ever growing chasm between myself and the world. I’d always been an odd, obstreperous child, who preferred to spend sunny days indoors with books and computers. But, in the penumbra of puberty, reticent, I thought I was going to appear mad trying to explain how I had been feeling beyond what seemed to me like trite recapitulations. Yet, after several hours of consultation and looking over previous medical notes (particularly my initial diagnosis of ADHD-ASD and subsequent ‘undiagnosis’ of ADHD as a small boy) the doctor concluded I was, in the eyes of biopolitics, autistic; that I had ‘high-functioning’ Asperger’s. This was, to her mind, the major source of my depression.
Blind to all else but the immediacy of this diagnosis, I watched the doctor print off a plethora of reading material for me, as she informed me there was no ‘cure’ for my condition, and I was escorted from Newland House with my quietly bemused Mum. How was I to know they were right? Labels had been switched out before, with much difficulty and testing. As if to cement this clarification, a few days later, I received a dense letter delineating the doctor’s findings and conclusion: Christopher is autistic. Understanding this ‘condition’ and gaining access to support services will ameliorate if not etiolate the depression.
I didn’t feel ‘liberated’ in the years immediately succeeding my diagnosis, and its been a comfort to find that I am not the only person who has felt a pronounced sense of shame alongside increased unease about my untouchable isolation. My already questionable self-esteem plummeted, compunded by winning a place at a university I adored despite not having the grades they said I would need. However, learning more about autism has made me feel assured in the diagnosis and more at ease with who I am – and, for the past two years, I’ve come to grow more familiar with myself and have been able to develop methods of coping with depression.
What is ASD?
Leaping up in public to do something wildly expressive and then quickly retreating back into my shell seemed, well, sort of normal to me. Maybe normal is the wrong word. A study in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 1994 by Felix Post claimed that 69% of the creative individuals he’d studied had mental disorders… I have become to believe that you can escape your demons and still tap the well
David Byrne, discussing his Asperger’s in How Music Works, pp.38-9.
Whilst I disagree with Byrne about whether autism (ASD) is a mental disorder, or a source of ‘demons’, he remains a powerful influence on my life as an autistic artist. His lyricism, elucidating that ‘Martian’ or ‘alien’ perspective of love, human relationships, and being-in-the-world, resonates deeply with me. But what exactly is autism?
Around 700,000 people have Asperger’s Syndrome in the United Kingdom – that’s roughly 1 in 100 – most of whom are males, though it affects women too. Research pushes on – but the exact etiology of autism remains unknown. No two autistic people are exactly the same – further separating the condition from more overt, uniform physical disabilities. The way I see, hear, process, and feel the world around me differs markedly from non-autistic or ‘neurotypical’ people – but autists don’t, as the National Autism Society observes, ‘look’ disabled or immediately different. It all lies largely in our conduct – hence why some (usually not self-advocates) refer to autism as a ‘hidden disability’ (it’s not hidden for us – let me assure you!)
Whilst certain difficulties are shared amongst those with autism, the way in which these difficulties affect each person, and to what extent, differ. The major difficulties encompass the social fulcrum in which life pivots upon, that is, the ability to understand other people’s intentions, purposes, and what they mean communciatively. Partaking in the diurnal machinations of family, school, and work life can be – and is for me – utterly exhausting. Chris Packham, David Byrne, Jack Monroe, and Gary Numan are some of the popular figures that have given me great support through their discussions of living as ‘high-functioning’ autists, and they continue to give me hope as a man with what feel like quasi-Faustian aspirations.
In my case, I have a high-tactile sensitivity which has often caused significant difficulties – I hate and lash out against certain physical pressures, typically when being touched; hand-dryers in bathrooms drive me to tears (though now I just bite my tongue – hard – or avoid them entirely and try to find a bathroom with paper towels); I’m easily transfixed into solipsism by certain lights, colours, and sounds. Not too long ago, leaving my university library near midnight, I saw the low-humming, yellow pallor of a street lamp and that was it – I parked my bike, found a bench, and spent an inordinate amount of time just staring at it, indifferent to the cold. I frequently stim – that means, repetitive self-stimulating behaviours – often making certain noises and replicating certain frequencies I like, as well as moving my arms and legs in repetitive motions. I also like to watch the same film/show repeatedly, or listen to a music track, repeatedly, often for days or weeks. I could go on, but there are some things I don’t even feel comfortable sharing here. And it would be nice to think, someone, somewhere, would hold something back…
Though I do remember during my first year of university, I was eating an apple at home and just got lost in the texture. It was just a solid 20-30 minutes. I’m not even sure I could put it into words. It was an indescribable joy – one that made me late to one of my seminars. I fell through the door to my Academic Community meeting, late, stating ‘Sorry I’m late – I was eating an apple and got lost in the moment’. I was perfectly serious, and was met with laughter, which, in hindsight, is understandable and probably the best I could hope for… I realise now that the deadpan delivery and absurdity coalesced into comedic effect. But I was trying to be serious… I’ve often been told by people that they can’t tell if I’m serious or being sarcastic. It’s an interesting thought, being concealed or unknowable in the eyes of others. But then, how are we able to know ourselves if not through the perceptions and reflections of others?… It’s not like we get to decide.
I find it difficult to understand what people say and what people mean, via facial expression, tone of voice, and knowing when they are joking (the parasocial); I avoid loud or busy places due to the sensory bombardment in which my sense of control feels compromised; I struggle to physically stay still and often have to move about to stay comfortable when sedentary; I have repetitive behavioural patterns and cling to my routines (such as eating the exact same thing, everyday, for every meal); and I often use long, unusual, or complicated lexis in daily conversation – because that just feels normal to me. I can be very silent for a long time, when I’m gestating and processing everything around me, and will then burst into locquacious animation. Everyday I wake up with pillows flung from the bed and the duvet on the floor, because I move excessively in my sleep – I often wake up with bruises. I hope to get a weighted duvet.
Being autistic has led to me receiving a lot of labels: arrogant, distant, difficult, unemotional, quirky, unusual, inter alia. It has also resulted in a lot of bullying during that oh-so-delightful period of my life as a teenager. Perhaps my most memorable experience with Asperger’s was during my first year at university, in which somebody posted a note under the front door of my student flat peppered with vitriol, spouting on about how everyone on my course thought I was this stuck-up robot.
I thought about that a lot. Subsequently, I intensified my use of that strategy that, unbeknownst to me, Packham had also pursued decades earlier whilst he was at university: stay away from your contemporaries, work hard, and leave. I often feel sad about the fact that I’ve never really experienced the ‘social’ aspect of university. I like my own company. I like me. But making that overlap with university has been hard.
My time at university
Now I have just finished my undergraduate degree, the epigraph of this essay has a profound, validating property. I’ve spent most of the past three years sequestered away in my bedroom or, in the last year, studying in the library, nose to the grindstone. The opportunities to go out and to be included did present themselves in the beginning, but I rejected them – it felt like the only way I could exist without feeling like I was going to be scrutinised. As long as I was alone, I was content. Or, at least, safe. Being around my peers made me feel utterly alienated by their ease, their speed of recognition, their ability to conform, fit in, and turn on.
I didn’t want to party, or go to clubs and pubs; I didn’t want to drink; I didn’t want to make small talk; I didn’t want to be part of an extracurricular society; and I couldn’t understand why other people cared or would want to either, or why or how I should care in turn; all I wanted to do was indulge my interest: namely talking and writing about music, literature, and philosophy. I didn’t want people to think that there was nothing else beyond that, however true that may be, and peg me as some one-track mind freak. In short, I didn’t feel the need to seek comfort from other people, nor their validation or company, and the only time I ever saw or spoke to anybody was when I saw the very few people who I knew in a lecture, or if I spoke to my academics.
That isn’t to say that university hasn’t been an alienating and isolating experience, nor that I am some unemotional machine (another stereotype!) I feel things incredibly deeply, with levels of attachment and resonance unmatched by others – when a poem, play, novel, or a song breaks through I latch on to it with every sinew of my being – a feeling I don’t think I could have with a person. Rather, being around other people actualises my alterity, breaks the hermetic seal I have built, and often creates an enormous amount of stress: navigating conversations, knowing what is and isn’t okay to say, parsing body language. Practising eye contact duration and gestures in the mirror at home has helped, I think.
But autism is not a lodestone, and my ‘condition’ does not pose obstacles nearly as burdensome as my non-verbal counterparts. My autism is the source of all the qualities that make me good at what I do: namely, reading and writing critically about literature. As it turns out, people with Asperger’s tend to be rather bright! My mind is frenetic, constantly making connections in and across the books I am reading and have read, enabling me to weave complex arguments and exegeses often sui generis within my cohort.
I don’t mean to reinforce sterotypes but, in my experience, I’m able to sit down and read and write constantly with a level of unrivalled concentration, and feel a sense of joy and motivation I find indescribable. I have heaps and heaps of writing, journals, notebooks, and chicken scratchings from my typewriter – I write just for the sake of it, just to get it out of me – it is the ultimate satisfaction. I have often heard people talk about struggling to feel motivated or waking up in the morning and not wanting to do anything: I have never felt this way with literature, reading, and writing. My studies, reading, and writing – they are my raison d’être.
I haven’t felt able to talk to anyone about this. Apart from with one friend, off-hand, in a throwaway kind of way, and it wasn’t followed up or questioned. So I didn’t take it further. I just don’t think most (young) people are equipped. Though, I never told my academics either, largely because I was afraid of facing prejudice or misunderstanding. People would start putting me in boxes they’ve built about something they don’t know about and/or they would begin acting like they are walking on eggshells. When it came to my writing, I was regarded as bright and committed – unusually so, producing ‘unusual’ work, as I was repeatedly told – but they weren’t antsy about me and my work, not like I thought they would be if ‘autistic’ and ‘Asperger’s’ struck upon the lexicon. Forrest Dunbar had a much different experience studying English. But I never said anything. Fear overwhelms faith, everytime. I was doing well academically though struggling, immensely, socially. In thinking about broaching my struggle with staff, I had seen ‘the moment of my greatness flicker… and in short, I was afraid’.
It’s summer now. The final year is over. My academic pursuits remain what primarily give me security and value in a world where my own value is measured in a completely different, social currency – where it cannot be gauged and accessed easily and I find it hard to reciprocate those who try. But I don’t feel ashamed of my brain. I wouldn’t ever want to ‘give up’ being autistic (I’m looking at you, Elizabeth Moon). Not for a moment. Yes, it means, socially, I am an island that few can or would even want to tread upon…
…But being autistic is also part of how I won my scholarship and will begin postgraduate study at one of the most prestigious universities in the world later this year – achieved because of and not in spite of my autism. It is part of what makes me unique. I wouldn’t change how I spent my time as an undergraduate. As, whilst I spent most of it alone for my own security and wellbeing, I also spent it making triumphs and achievements both personal and academic (although, these are one and the same). I got to study in Canada, a dream I have held since I was fourteen; I won several academic awards and grants; I became the ‘best’ UG student in my university department; I helped a lot of people through the volunteering I did outside of university, teaching in schools and working in a food bank; and I raised a considerable amount of money for charity with my half-marathon, inter alia.
So though I ‘um’ and ‘ah’ at the Janus of great change, I close here with Max Ehrmann in my mind:
Be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here… And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul… Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
In penning an apologia, it would appear that I’m on the backfoot before this blog has even begun. And, yet, it feels inexplicably neccessary. Whilst lacking the theological tensions, intentions, and pretensions of John Henry Newman, it feels important – in a veritable ocean of bloggers more articulate than I – to adumbrate what this blog is for; what does it intend to achieve; why; and how?
This blog, in part, is my attempt to ensure I avoid the ahedonic lassitude and objectlessness I think will come to the fore now I’ve finished my English BA. I suppose its analogous to long-distance running: if you suddenly stop working at the rate in which you have, immediately, after traversing a great distance (or so one hopes), you can severely damage your health – in more ways than one. And, so far, every time I finish an academic year, or am between semesters, I have inevitably crashed, fallen ill, and have had to build myself back up again due to suddenly stopping for a breather. Ergo, in making this my project for the forseeable future, then, I hope to move myself into a calmer though still industrious state of mind!
All men who have turned out worth anything have had the chief hand in their own education” – Sir Walter Scott
But what is the purview of this ostentatiously dubbed ‘project’? Well, now I have a marked degree more autonomy, I can throw myself into reading and re-reading books that have drawn my eye before, during, and after my formal studies, but that have sadly had to take a backseat in the face of more pressing demands. Scott’s quote articulates my sentiment succinctly and, as an adept truant yet continuously bookish, back-bedroom casualty, I feel like reading and writing about all that ensnares me should prove a pursuit easily motivated.
There are reams of Modern and Contemporary prose, poetry, plays, and philosophy (all the p words!) I want to provide critical exegeses of – here – in order to keep myself challenged and occupied during this interstice between UG and PG study. Having this space will enable me to run the gambut of them, hopefully providing a sui generis analysis of the political and contemporary valences of an array of (largely) twentieth and twenty-first century texts, music, and art. Who knows? Perhaps this may, in turn, spark some reciprocal and contrasting responses. Moreover, I hope to share opinion pieces reflective of my experiences and pertinent to academia and current affairs. Regardless of what is to come, I don’t intend to broach this with too rigorous a schedule; nor to proclaim any lofty intentions beyond having fun and challenging myself in my ability to think and write critically.
In a word, welcome; welcome to my self-indulgent, self-care project/warehouse/blog! Hopefully you’ll find something of interest here in the not too distant future.