The subject of Social Class is an area where angels fear to tread, but in these times of deep fragmentation of the UK political Left, it is time to look at what the “Working Class” means to Socialists in the 21st Century. As I write, and the news about PM Boris Johnson’s planned prorogation of parliament breaks and develops, It becomes more urgent than ever that we find some common ground against, and co-ordinated opposition to the widening chasm of inequality and creeping fascism we are facing.
Recent events clearly confirm to anyone who wasn’t looking before, where the real power, wealth and connections lie. Furthermore, when all eyes turn momentarily towards the monarch to see whether she will endorse, or save us from Johnson’s ambitions, we see that, along with other tenacious institutions such as the Lords, and the controlling city of London markets, the power of the state is firmly rooted in tradition as well as privilege.
Marx identifies only two classes- the proletariat, who sell their labour, and the capitalist shareholders, who own the rights to others labour. Certainly for many of us who were politically engaged during Thatcher’s reign, it seemed that the divisions and battle lines were more easily drawn and recognised then, with her sweeping destruction of manufacturing infrastructure and traditional industries across the UK.
The Miner’s Strike and the wave of political unrest in the form of riots and strikes was clearly working class retaliation, and the ensuing restrictions to Trade Union powers, a clear signal of workers versus industrialist bosses. Faiza Shaheen, director of the Centre for Labour and Social Studies wrote; “It’s no coincidence that inequality grew rapidly when trade union membership declined – neoliberalism took apart the apparatus that brought workers together and gave them power. Imagine the language of “traditional working class” was binned, and instead we came to understand the working class as a diverse group of people at risk of being exploited by the elite”
Even then, let’s be aware that white collar workers joined forces with manual workers, particularly and regularly in larger organised institutions such as Local Authorities, to take action against diminishing wages, terms and conditions. We must be cautious, therefore about the willingness to categorise, condemn and therefore minimise the efforts and interest of everyone who is exploited by the ruling elites and the enduring capitalist system.
The political scene is awash with unhelpful division and terminology; “middle class”, “liberal”, “neo-liberal”, “capitalist supporting”. It may be directed at EU Remainers, white collar and other workers, who do not fit a certain mysteriously amorphous “working class”. This is not unusual, but not confined to the left. Another sinister undercurrent, injected with misogyny and white male entitlement, dismisses the climate change movement as middle class.
In his book Social Class in the 21st Century, Mike Savage acknowledges bitterly contested views about what classes are, and advises that we shake off the ideas of class a “…throwback to the old industrial era of blue collar factory workers, coal miners and farm labourers”. Let’s be clear therefore that Teachers and Ryanair pilots have as much of a claim to the tools of industrial action as the traditional industries when it comes to the erosion of wages in real terms. According to the Resolution Foundation, UK productivity is now 28% below its pre-crisis trend, and the average real wage is now lower than it was ten years ago. The “working poor” net has widened, albeit in relative terms, economically, given the ever increasing use of foodbanks..
Savage identifies the stratification of social class in the following terms; Economic (wealth and income), Cultural (tastes interests and activities) and Social (social networks friends and associations). This multi-dimensional model complicates, as well as loosens off our perceptions about class, when we go beyond economic definitions. It allows us to take background, self identification, and social mobility, for instance, into consideration. We can reconsider the traditional classification of land or property ownership as ruling or middle class, for instance, and start to ask whether the shopkeeper or the crofter or landlord or small business owner who works 12 hours a day, and may rely on the labour of others fits neatly into any particular class of our choosing. The connections, background, confidence and education of the particular entrepreneur will likely be the deciding factor of success, and therefore class. Especially so in the face of sudden financial hardship.
Any political party today, regardless of size, claiming to represent “The Working Class” makes a fraudulent or grandiose claim, unless it can truly address the many and varied complicating factors that make up our society today. Who will speak for the disenfranchised EU citizens, supporters of Scottish Independence, Remainers, Brexiteers, Lexiteers, the unemployed, the homeless, the increasingly poor pensioners, the struggling depressed youth, those on zero hours contracts, the non unionised worker, the asylum seeker, the small business owner? Do you still represent those who work against their class interest; the riot police, the racist, the bigot, or anyone else who has fallen victim to a “divide and rule” ploy?
In truth we all have our focus, though few as focused as The Brexit party, which crosses class boundaries for a single, specific outcome, but with no specified, or rather, an unspoken darkly sinister purpose.
In Scotland, I would argue strongly that an independence agenda is an essential precursor to the establishment of a fairer, more equal society. One that really benefits the working class by any definition.
The SNP with its Social Democratic, left leaning tag and nod to Universalism in delivering public services, delivers a message which amounts to more than “Pro Independence” for its own sake. However, the party now appears to be struggling to pull the Growth Commission and EU blankets over the population, at the risk of leaving more vulnerable groups exposed. They may need to give serious consideration to the third of their membership who voted Leave. Are many still looking for the same route out of poverty as when they voted Yes in 2014? A “pro EU” stance has given the party, to a point the country, but more specifically the First Minister a certain gravitas and profile in international politics, but what will it do to reduce inequality?
It pains me to consider and contrast the poor confused, stumbling Labour Party north and south of the border in the same vein. Party wide, neither they nor the electorate have anything like a clear idea who they represent, and at best, as the great Socialist hope, they are riddled with fragility. But they know that they hate the SNP.
Neither party can attack inequality while appeasing the wealthy landowners and business interests. Maybe we need to look at the as yet unrealised potential of the Scottish Greens, who, with the environment and Land Value tax at the heart of their being, could kick off the real and enduring changes that could start to offer a future to our young. Furthermore, despite their pro independence message, they appear to be less toxic to supporters of the Union
Meanwhile inequality is growing, despite the limited tax powers available to the Scottish government, and an ability to mitigate the worst excesses of Tory destruction, such as the Bedroom Tax. UK wide social policy is designed to be palatable to significant parts of the electorate at the expense of others.
The Old Etonian elite may represent the top echelons of wealth, power and control in the UK, but generally speaking, we cannot ignore the existence and significance of the Middle Classes. Whether they are the useful idiots; say, the establishment lawyers who prop up the hierarchical legal system, or the successful private medics, accountants or traders, they perpetuate the system at an alarming rate.
At another level, the Middle Classes may be self-identifying via background and culture, despite periods of financial difficulty, but they are also the consumers of the private sector; schools, additional tuition, hospitals, accountants and any contact or institution that will oil the wheels of their passage through life. If they are the winners, or at least have the opportunities, the advice, the confidence and the entitlement, who are the losers and how does it feel?
Darren McGarvey, whose starkly contrasting working, or “underclass” background is laid bare in his book “Poverty Safari” had a box office hit in the Edinburgh Fringe for the second year running with his new spoken word show “Scotland Today”. He eschews terminology like “keeping you head above water”, and opts for “quicksand”(just don’t struggle!) to describe the almost annihilating inertia caused by poverty, at the more extreme end of the scale. In one sketch he illustrates how his newly acquired middle class credentials could come crashing down with one crushing Inland Revenue invoice, without the contacts and social networks as a safety net.
There are extensive and impressive academic works available both to analyse and categorise social class in our times, or to illustrate lived experience. What we need beyond anything, is to take our knowledge, and find a way to move forward with compassion for real people in the here and now, not some abstract notion of 19th Century Proletariat.
On 31st October, if PM Johnson has his way, Freedom of Movement ends. We don’t yet know exactly what that means for our three million EU citizens in the UK. It may mean fear and uncertainty, or much worse. Terrifyingly, it’s unlikely that Johnson, Patel, or any of the architects of this abuse of valued workers and citizens knows either. Nor do they care. It’s just a phase in the plan.
Already excluded from the original 2016 vote, we see them thrown under the proverbial Brexit bus. The phrase “first they came for the Jews…” resonates. Only, in many ways they’ve already come for the most vulnerable members of our society. People are dying at alarming rates under this regime.
The big Pro Democracy rallies kicked off in our major cities on 31st August. In Glasgow’s George Square it was colourful, noisy, friendly, and we were treated to a range of cheeky, cheery placards. There were actually two rallies running simultaneously. Different political perspectives. I haven’t yet assimilated this. Should we try harder to find even more common ground, or is this fine; a realistic reflection of our divisions, but a positive one? Answers on a placard please!