Beyond the fragments

As has happened before, the working class has fallen into a state of division and fragmentation. Don Flynn argues a socialist narrative centring on the crisis-ridden nature of capitalism will be needed to rebuild working class identity

A large part of Labour’s dilemma seems to come from the fact that it has lost the support of the ‘traditional’ working class but has not yet gained the endorsement of any ‘new’ proletariat.

What is behind this terminology of ‘traditional’ and ‘new’ working classes? A collaboration between the sociology departments of several universities produced the Great British Class Survey (GBCS) results in 2017 and came to the conclusion that the class structure of the UK can be boiled down to seven categories,* ranging from the elite to the precariat, with the “traditional working class” listed as a mere subset. Various categories of occupations are referenced as the jobs typical of each of the survey’s classes, but the most important element is the socioeconomic-cultural conditions of the class of worker, irrespective of the actual work they engaged in. The post of care worker, for example, appeared in three of the categories: traditional working class, emergent service worker and precariat.

So, what is doing the work of structuring these class relations if it is not the nature of the work itself? The GBCS saw the decisive factors as being the varieties of capital (cultural, economic) available to the workforce and the extent that this produced different outcomes in terms of advantage or disadvantage. Care workers included in the traditional working class category, for example, had that status because of their deemed poor economic capital, limited housing assets, few social contacts, and low highbrow and emerging cultural capital. Their counterparts among emergent service sector workers were distinguished by virtue of having relatively poor economic capital, but reasonable household income, moderate social contacts, high emerging (but low highbrow) cultural capital. Small differences you might think but producing bold assertions about a uniquely fragmented working class.

Claire Ainsley’s highly considered work for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation builds on the schema elaborated in the GBCS but attempts to innovate by gathering together the traditional working class, emergent service sector workers and the precariat, branding them as the new working class. Her argument is that these groups form a relatively clear segment of the population, “with a common economic experience” that has been “fractured by the changes of the past few decades”. These are broad categories to offer up as the defining characteristic of the new working class and at some points seem to mean not much more than their subjective feeling that ‘things are getting worse’.

A defeated class

The logic of this approach is to lock the ideas of defeat, disempowerment and disadvantage into the very idea of the working class which Labour is bound to depend on as its social and political base. Added to this is the emphasis that the social survey analysts place on the atomised, disparate, fractured character of this class formation, made up of people with multiple social identities and a correspondingly weak capacity for collective action. Labour, it seems, has pledged itself to society’s losers and even then, has failed to get any significant endorsement for its policies from their ranks.

Ainsley’s answer is to continue the approach that the liberal and social democratic left has been following for the last century, requiring detailed social and economic analysis of all aspects of the life of all the fragments of the working class and from this proposing sets of policies which they hope might prove popular enough to attract votes in elections. Whilst it would be wrong to disparage the value of the analysis and development of detailed policy it is also very difficult to see how it might, on its own, conjure up a newly united working class ready to endorse a radical reforming Labour government.

History has a great deal to tell us how progress is made in forging both unity of identity and also of purpose among the class of society. E. P. Thompson’s classic account of the making of the English working class explains how groups that would have been every bit as disparate as those represented in modern class surveys acquired a consciousness of collective identity. The earliest working class is depicted as being made up of field labourers, artisans and weavers who experienced emerging capitalism in different ways. What kept them in correspondence across their social fragmentation was, firstly, the ‘moral machinery’ of a brand of Christianity which generated the idea of a standard of justice to which all should aspire.

Secondly, at iconic moments in the history of this class the attempts to suppress ‘combination’, of the order of Tolpuddle martyrdom and the Peterloo Massacre, provided an understanding of the nature of ruling class power which fuelled the militancy of the early working class movement. The second half of the 19th century provided more examples of heroic resistance to capitalist power which was sustained in institutional form by the emergence of the modern trade union movement and, eventually, the Labour Party.

History will not go down precisely that same path again. Whether a new working class identity rises over and above its current state of fragmentation depends in the first instance on the narration of experiences which are common to wage earners even when they range across social groups that can, at the moment, be represented as ‘affluent workers’ right through to the precariat.

Absence of crisis

The class survey approach has little to say about the nature of a capitalist system which periodically throws up the turmoil of class reconfiguration, generating new sets of winners and losers among the wage-earning groups. Its view of change hinges on technological developments which make some occupations redundant and others in great demand. The impact of dramatic political events, like the imposition of new social policies of the order of the hike in university tuition fees, the rapid deterioration of the NHS and the closure of the possibility of home ownership for younger workers, hardly figures at all in this type of analysis. The fact that the larger social and economic system itself might be subject to further shocks of the order of the 2008 recession, with all the implications this has had for wage stagnation and prolonged austerity, is left out of consideration whenever talk switches to the types of policies that might prove popular when the next election comes along.

If the instability and recurrent crisis forms the backdrop to politics and the way classes react to new and various situations then Labour needs to do better in providing a popular narrative of how all the fragments of the working class stand in relation to post-industrial capitalism. It will be an account of the way in which some groups will be able, for a time, to draw on assets that are not available to others and maintain the delusion that they stand above the turmoil. Others have already lost the access they once had to social resources that kept their heads above the water and now have to live as best they can on a day-to-day basis. This narrative will track the policies that Johnson and his government improvise as they attempt to plot post-Brexit pathways in a world that shows us all what a small country the UK has now become.

The 2019 election manifesto was harshly criticised as being a ‘wish list’ of all the good things that a Labour government would conjure up in a socialist la-la-land. Centrists and Fabian policy wonks complained that the party had forgotten that politics is about priorities, and when everything from the Green New Deal through to free broadband is a priority then nothing is a priority.

A more accurate criticism is that the manifesto failed to provide a convincing account of the pressing reasons why many new deals of several sorts are needed, and why the state had to take on leading responsibility for investment in an industrial economy which would be democratically accountable to citizens. No fantasy wish-listing here, but an account that is rooted in the failure of a forty-year experiment in free market capitalism and a narrative that links with the insecurity and experience of exploitation which millions of people will recognise as being true.

Knowledge is power, to use a hackneyed phrase. But the purpose of a socialist narrative is not to tell ordinary people how abject and miserable they are in the manner of a social science survey, but how power is within their grasp if only they were to acknowledge the potential of their collective strength. The working class ought still to have the end goal of becoming the class which rules society by democratic means within its sights, and Labour should be doing better, offering the mapped-out route which will get it there.

*Listed as the elite, the established middle class, the technical middle class, new affluent workers, the traditional working class, emergent service sector workers, and the precariat.

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