Today I spoke at the Dangerous Times festival in London alongside Selina Todd, author of ‘The People: the rise and fall of the working class’. This article is based on the talk I gave
There is a strange paradox in contemporary politics. On the one hand inequality has grown over the last three decades or so, with spiralling wealth for the very richest in stark contrast to the reality of unemployment, food banks, zero hour contracts, insecurity and low pay for millions of people. On the other hand the subject of class is deeply unfashionable in mainstream politics and media, the working class rarely referred to in anything other than the past tense. Class is often seen as no longer relevant – a throwback to a lost era – but even when the concept is applied to contemporary society it is to suggest a declining or disappearing working class, perhaps replaced by a division between a burgeoning middle class and a smaller underclass.
Social conditions cry out for class analysis, therefore, yet politicians deny the existence of a working class and instead talk of a ‘squeezed middle’, the media demonise the poor, and academics and researchers of every stripe search for alternative categories to those of traditional class-based analysis. The Occupy movement skilfully drew attention to the chasm between the rich and the rest, with popular slogans juxtaposing the 1% to 99%, yet an awareness of growing inequality has not been matched by an understanding of how class relationships continue to shape society.
Still less is there any discussion of class struggle, of the clash between classes, despite the massive inequality being a consequence of a largely successful ruling class offensive against the working class for the last 35 years. After decades of either defeats for the organised working class or low levels of workplace resistance, the notion of class struggle by the working class is derided as an irrelevant throwback to the 1970s – while class struggle by the rich and powerful is treated as entirely natural and in the ‘national interest’.
The rich and the rest
The Sunday Times’ annual Rich List – begun in the Thatcher era as a celebration of apparent prosperity, but now an index of truly obscene levels of wealth – indicates that there are now 104 billionaires in the UK. 72 of them live in London – more than any other city in the world.
In 1979 the top 1% took 6% of the national income, but now it takes 14%. In 2012 the 100 top chief executives were awarded £425 million between them. This is at the same time as the majority experience a squeeze on living standards, shaped by a period of economic crisis since 2008 and the current government’s project of austerity since 2010. A long-term process of neoliberalism, stretching back to Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979, has been further accentuated by austerity policies that in the long term will impact disproportionately on the poorer sections of society.
Thomas Piketty’s much-discussed book ‘Capital in the Twenty First Century’ has focused attention on neoliberal capitalism’s trend of growing inequality, predicting a continuation of the trend. In ‘The Spirit Level’, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett demonstrated the disastrous social and human effects of inequality, showing that the most unequal societies are those with the most severe social problems, for example mental illness. Yet most people are actually quite unaware of how profoundly unequal our society is: surveys have shown a strong tendency to underestimate how massive the gulf is between the rich and the rest.
The growth in inequality is no accident, but a consequence of political choices imposed on us through an assertive ruling class offensive designed to increasingly concentrate wealth and power among those who already possess lots of those very things. This has been accompanied by an ideological struggle to marginalise and ridicule the very concept of class - and certainly the concept of a working class and of class struggle between the classes. The working class is tied, in many mainstream accounts, to particular workplaces or groups of workers – miners, factory workers, shipyard workers, etc – which have suffered sharp decline. It is frequently , in such accounts, limited exclusively to manual work.
Class: myth and reality
A common myth is that of a growing, and affluent (if now somewhat squeezed), middle class, with a smaller underclass, or rump working class, left behind. This underclass may be feral and feared or it may be weak and pitied; it may consist of ‘scroungers’ or the deserving poor. But it is invariably characterised as a minority and as something quite distinct from any traditional notion of the working class. Channel 4’s controversial ‘Benefits Street’ captures the stigmatisation of the modern poor, who are increasingly blamed for their own predicament and viewed as separate from the vast majority of society.
The truth about class remains the same as it has long been: it is a social relationship based on power. The working class consists of those who have to work in exchange for pay, subordinate to the power of employers (private or public), dependent on their own labour to survive. Class is about exploitation – the exploitation of the vast majority by a tiny, wealthy and powerful elite. Workers under capitalism are inherently exploited. Class is not a matter of lifestyle or identity; it is not limited to particular occupations or types of work.
Globally the working class has in fact got bigger and bigger, a process of class formation closely connected to urbanisation. In this country there continues to be little social mobility, with class background largely determining a whole set of experiences and outcomes for people. For all the academic, media or political attempts to reconceptualise thinking about class – from the ‘multitude’ to the ‘squeezed middle’ to the ‘precariat’ – the reality of a working class, constituted of the great majority of people, is unmistakeable.
This is not to say that nothing has changed. The economy has changed and the composition of the working class has changed with it. As well as the decline of some sectors and the growth of others, we can note the centrality of women workers to the economy more than ever before, the role of migrant workers, and the spread of casualization and precarity. In the last few years there has been a marked deterioration in pay and conditions for many groups of workers, with unemployment or the threat of unemployment often used as a method for disciplining those in work.
It is sometimes suggested that the working class has declined because working class identity and consciousness have largely disappeared. The reality is more complex. In fact surveys suggest large numbers of people still identifying themselves as working class, however unfashionable and supposedly irrelevant and outmoded this might be. And working class consciousness has always been mixed and contradictory, a constant tussle between identifying as part of a social collective and conservative ideas like racism and nationalism.
In the current context, the left urgently needs to reinstate class to political discourse and to articulate a set of class-based arguments, slogans and demands. We need to express powerful, class-based arguments against austerity. We face a government in thrall to bankers and the City of London, headed by a cabinet of millionaires led by an Old Etonian, reeking of privilege and the arrogance of those ‘born to rule’. The Tories and their media relentlessly stigmatise and attack those who require social security to keep their head above water, while allowing tax dodgers to evade serious scrutiny, ripping us off to the tune of tens of billions of pounds.
Trade unions have suffered a historic decline: shackled by anti-union laws, demoralised by defeats in the 1980s, weakened by successive periods of unemployment and the decline of old industries, shaped by a long period of low levels of strike action. Yet they retain millions of members and a capacity for action; we have had glimpses of the potential in mass mobilisations on street protests and in national strikes, sometimes co-ordinated across unions, in response to cuts. The more far-sighted union leaders and activists realise that ‘social movement unionism’ – forging links with communities and campaigning groups, fighting over a range of political issues, using protests and campaigning methods alongside strike action - while striving to recruit to the unions and develop new layers of activists can reinvigorate the movement. A number of disputes have indicated that groups previously unorganised, or viewed as precarious, can be active in trade union struggle.
At the same time, the People’s Assembly Against Austerity illustrates the scope for co-ordination and coalition-building to oppose cuts, while creating a space for left-wing renewal. A new class-based politics, reflecting and involving the contemporary working class in its diversity, can be developed through renewing the trade unions, building a more powerful People’s Assembly movement, and shaping a new left that is rooted in the various struggles and movements of the class.
Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.
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