The debate about the nature of the contemporary working class is critical for anyone who wants to see radical change. Elaine Graham-Leigh reviews two controversial books on the subject.

Guy Standing, The Precariat. The new dangerous class (Bloomsbury Academic 2011), viii, 198pp,
Owen Jones, Chavs. The demonization of the working class (Verso 2011), 298pp.

It is now fourteen years since New Labour proclaimed ‘We’re all middle class now’ on the grounds of the destruction of industrial jobs. However, as we face the most sustained attack on public services since the 1930s, the question of the condition of the working class is more important than ever. Both these books make a timely attempt to consider the shape of the working class today, but with markedly different conclusions.

At the core of both The Precariat and Chavs are the results of thirty years imposition of neoliberalism on the working class: the deliberate shift from what were once seen as quintessential working-class jobs in mining, car manufacturing or the docks, with strong trade unions and job security, to a world of insecure, poorly-paid, often un-unionised employment, or no employment at all. As Jones puts it: ‘A blue-uniformed male factory worker with a union card in his pocket might have been an appropriate symbol for the working class of the 1950s. A low-paid, part-time, female shelf-stacker would certainly not be unrepresentative of the same class today’ (p.167).

That the consequences of this go far beyond the effect on real wages (although that would be bad enough) is clear in both books, albeit with different emphases. Jones concentrates particularly on the effect on communities of the withdrawal of major industrial employers: the young people in Ashington, once the country’s biggest mining village, whose employment choices basically boil down to temp agencies or the Army, or the former Rover workers in Longbridge forced into supermarket work by the lack of other options. Standing, in contrast, presents a sharp analysis of how entry into the world of insecure employment can condemn people to a lifetime of lower earnings and/or unemployment, and of the toll it takes on individuals in terms of stress and even the sheer amount of time required to maintain these precarious jobs. From advice to job seekers to ‘spend 15 per cent of your time learning about fields adjacent to yours’ and ‘rewrite your CV every year’ (p.122) to the expectation of temp agencies and other employers that their temporary workers will be constantly ‘on call’, although not paid for it, precariousness is time-consuming.

When Tony Blair declared, with considerable disingenuousness, in 1999 that the class war was over, he was ignoring the ruling-class war against the working class. Both authors are clear that what they are describing are the fruits of that war. For Jones, the destruction of traditional working-class jobs, and particularly the assaults on trade unions, have meant that the ruling class no longer needs to fear us. In his view, the extent to which the popular cultural image of the working class has gone from respectable working man to ‘chav scum’ is not a cause but a result of the way in which working-class power no longer has to be accorded any respect.

Jones’ starting point is the idea that it is now permissible for middle-class people (the sort of people who live in ‘a gentrified part of East London’, p.1), rightly horrified by racism, sexism and homophobia, to make jokes about ‘chavs’. Detailing examples from ‘chav towns’ websites to the media treatment of Jade Goody, Jones is convincing in his depiction of this as a phenomenon – it does indeed seem that ‘it is possible to say practically anything about people from Jade’s background. They are fair game’ (p.126) – and that this is a relatively new development. When it is pointed out, the difference between, say, The Likely Lads, a 1960s sitcom starring working-class characters, and Harry Enfield’s Wayne and Waynetta Slob is pretty marked. It is possible, although Jones does not pursue this line, that what we are seeing is not just a lack of ruling-class fear of our class, but an example of a general rule that the subject of the greatest ruling-class vituperation will always be the group which they have most recently shafted; in the same way as old, poor women in seventeenth-century villages found themselves being targeted as witches by the richer villagers who had recently abandoned their previous social obligation to support them.

Standing, similarly, sees the position of the working class now as one of defeat, so much so that the structure of the class itself has been changed. The core of his argument is that insecure workers cannot be regarded as part of the proletariat, which he defines in relation to secure employment and trade-union rights, but represent a new class, the precariat, with particular dangers because they are difficult for traditional working-class organisation to reach and vulnerable to co-option by far right groups. Jones also notes this potential for channelling working-class discontent for parties like the BNP.

Reading these two books together provides a striking example of how writers can observe essentially the same phenomena and come to opposite conclusions about them. For Jones, the solution lies in a new working-class politics, including a response by trade unions to the new working conditions, since the decline of trade unions ‘lies at the heart of many of the problems of the working class’ (p.266), but which would go beyond workplace-based struggles to initiate, for example, a campaign for good jobs, incorporating many of the elements of the Green New Deal. For Standing, this sort of argument is part of the problem, as he reveals in a telling passage in the preface:

‘In the early stages of writing the book, a presentation of the themes was made to what turned out to be a largely ageing group of academics of a social democratic persuasion. Most greeted the ideas with scorn and said there was nothing new. For them, the answer today was the same as it was when they were young. More jobs were needed, more decent jobs. All I will say to those respected figures is that I think the precariat would have been unimpressed’ (p.vii).

The notion that insecure employment and precarious living conditions could be relieved by secure employment is here revealed to be, most damningly, old-fashioned. The concept of the precariat has its origins in Italian autonomist thinking in the 1990s, and is very much in opposition to what is seen as the traditional left’s doomed attempts to turn the clock back to mid-twentieth century, Fordist employment patterns. Rather, the solution here to the consequences of insecure employment is to replace employment as the source of security. Standing, in common with other proponents of the existence of a precariat class, calls for a basic guaranteed income, paid to everyone regardless of behaviour, supplying stability to the class who currently have none.

A common criticism of the basic income as an idea is that it would be ameliorating the effects of capitalism, rather than attacking the problem at the source. In the same way that working tax credits are a state subsidy for companies’ decisions to increase their profits by paying low wages, so in paying a basic income, the state would be picking up the tab for globalised labour policies, and freeing up companies to continue the requirement that their workers assume more and more of the costs of reproducing their labour themselves. Standing would clearly not agree with a suggestion that he is capitulating to capitalism; indeed, in his view, restoring security to the precariat is on a level with seizing control of the means of production.

For Standing, the key struggle in every era is over the ‘key assets’, which do not have to be the means of production themselves. They were in industrial capitalism, when the struggle was over control of ‘factories, estates and mines’. Now, however, in ‘today’s tertiary society’, the progressive struggle will be over ‘economic security, time, quality space, knowledge and financial capital’ (p.171). By supplying economic security, time and the opportunity to gain the other elements, the basic income in Standing’s view would be a major step forward in the class struggle: for him it is a revolutionary idea.

There are, nevertheless, considerable problems with it. While it might be a tempting idea that all we need to do is get a greater share of security for us as individuals, it is difficult to see how a revolution could succeed without seizing control of the means of production, however antediluvian a concept that might appear. Standing could be read here to be arguing that the decline of industrial production in the West has ushered in a post-capitalist age of immaterial production, to which none of the previous rules apply. This is certainly the implication of his used of the term ‘tertiary’, presumably to differentiate us from the ‘primary’, agricultural, and ‘secondary’, industrial ages. It seems a little odd, to say the least, that at the time at which confident proclamations from the ruling class of the new frictionless, weightless economy, immune from the previous problems of capitalism, have been shown to be so much hot air, that Standing appears to be embracing them. Is this really what he means? It is not entirely clear, which highlights a major difficulty of this work: that it discusses, and takes issue with, some of the central concepts of Marxism, without admitting that that is what it is doing, or addressing them explicitly.

The idea that the proletariat has been superseded by the precariat is similarly problematic. Standing appears to view the proletariat as the collective embodiment of the ‘Fordist’ era of full, secure, unionised employment; a rather eccentric definition, since trade unions were hardly widespread when Marx wrote and precarious working conditions have been the reality for most of the proletariat for most of its history. In Marxist terms, there is no reason why we should have to define insecurely employed, or indeed unemployed workers as no longer proletarian: the flat-capped factory-working proletarian is a stereotype, not a definition. That more and more working-class people have to endure precarious working and living conditions is clearly a reality, but Standing does not present a convincing argument for why this means we should regard them as no longer proletarian. The existence of the precariat as a separate class is more assumed than established here, and it is not a safe assumption.

This is more than an argument about terminology, because of the historic nature of the proletariat as the revolutionary class. It is not clear whether Standing thinks that the precariat is now the revolutionary class, or whether for him a concomitant of his view that large numbers of people have fallen out of the proletariat is indeed that the ability to build the revolution has fallen with them. The precariat certainly appears in this book as the class at the centre of struggle, but given the strong identification here of working-class organisation with the outmoded proletariat, it is certainly a possible reading that revolutionary organisation is similarly supposed to be so-last-century. It is indisputable that the reality of insecure employment patterns, in the private sector often in non-union workplaces, presents a challenge for a trade-union model of organisation based exclusively on workplace struggle, but the conclusion that these factors represent the formation of a new class seems neither convincing nor helpful in building the resistance to the effects of the economic crisis.

Jones’ Chavs is also not without its problems. In particular, the decision to hang a book about the working class today around the prevalence of the ‘chav’ insult has the effect of limiting the discussion to the UK, while the denigration of the working class in popular culture is a much more widespread phenomenon, as anyone who has had the misfortune to happen upon the People of Walmart website could attest. It also makes the argument about the white working class only, since ‘chav’ is usually understood to be an insult applicable to poor white people specifically. There are indeed worrying indications in places that Jones views ethnic-minority communities and working-class communities as somehow separate. The rather odd comment that Respect was an attempt to replace working-class with communitarian politics is an example of this, as if the Muslim community in East London or Birmingham could not be Muslim and working-class.

This is an unfortunate acquiescence with the separation which the ruling class tries to impose on working-class communities, and which is a key task of the fight back to overcome. In general, however, Jones’ book is a valuable addition to thinking about the working class, if only because it insists on the class’ continued existence. While The Precariat gives too much ground to the arguments of right-wing politicians that we are all either middle-class or underclass, Jones is right that we proletarians have to rediscover how numerous we are, and rediscover our strength. As Robb Johnson sang in 1986 in response to Thatcher’s attacks on us: ‘Printers, teachers, me and you / There isn’t any difference, we are the working class’.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press. 

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