Home > General Politics, Labour Party News > Enough to make me want to beat my head against a wall

Enough to make me want to beat my head against a wall

The idea of ‘class war’ is every-bloody-where in the centre-left blogosphere. 

If you read this blog, you know where I’m talking about and broadly what people are saying.

They’re all bleedin’ well-intentionedly wrong, apart from me (and bizarrely, Tom Harris, though for totally the wrong reasons and probably without any of the good intentions).

So I will say this one more time in 2009………..

The reason the working class got called the working class is that it was the class defined by its economic role in capitalist society, and its relationship to the bourgeoisie.  The working class works and is exploited (or is part of the surplus army); the bourgeoisie owns.

There’s no middle class in that.

The ‘middle class’ is a social construct, the attachment to which was reinforced under Thatcher and by the telly and the existence of Mondeo cars and posh trainers, but which isn’t any more intrinsically valuable because of that.

Until the different between economic relationships and socio-cultural identification (and self-identification) is grasped properly by the Left, we’re not going to get that far. 

We’ll not get that far, whether or not the appropriate election-fighting language is adapted, though clearly it’s better that we do so in the short term, what with an election to fight quite soon.

As Sunny admits, this language-based electoral strategy may stop us losing too badly, but nothing more.  To that extent, Tom Bleeding Harris is right.  About everything else in the world, he is wrong.

The Left can do better.  It can even do better before the election.

Now go read my two proper less shouty posts on this, you total bastards.  Happy New Year.

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  1. Ian
    December 30, 2009 at 10:59 am

    The Conservatives are very clear its all class war.
    http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/7c21a60c-ec29-11de-8070-00144feab49a.html
    They also fear the Unions reclaiming Labour if you look into what Osborne is saying in the FT.

  2. December 30, 2009 at 12:33 pm

    “The ‘middle class’ is a social construct, the attachment to which was reinforced under Thatcher and by the telly and the existence of Mondeo cars and posh trainers, but which isn’t any more intrinsically valuable because of that.”

    It may be a social construct, but it’s one that you’ll need to disabuse a lot of people of before any headway with real Maxist “class war” is feasible.

  3. December 30, 2009 at 2:44 pm

    Yeah, what David said.

    And might we not think that the middle class is a very important and meaningful phenomenon precisely because it is a social construct

    Rather than thinking everybody has got it wrong, because the Marxian analysis no longer fits, maybe it’s worth looking at it the other way round and asking if, in fact, the Marxian analysis no longer fits because it no longer works.

  4. December 30, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    What David said, Paul, and what you said, is not necessarily inconsistent with Marxist analysis. What no longer fits and no longer works is the type of mechanistic analysis which pro-capitalist theorists used to caricature Marxism.

    I agree that the concept of the “middle class” is an important one, and we should ask IF it resonates quite so completely as the newspapers and certain politicians like to make out that it does. Having established that it does – and amongst what sort of people – we should ask why it resonates.

    What is certainly the case is that the rhetoric entailed upon it is not new.

    I would argue that the idea of the ‘middle class’ resonates at all precisely because the space previously occupied by a many layered, multi-faced socialist movement has been vacated. The central contention of the idea of the ‘middle class’ is one of individual vs state, individual vs collective, with the market as the best way for each individual to choose their own good.

    It is hardly much of a stretch to imagine that this type of theory will wax as a pro-working class activism wanes, and vice versa.

    The only question remaining in relation to class struggle, therefore, regards how we adjust socialist activism to fit the current globalised economy, so that we’re not outflanked in our demands by the international power of capital.

  5. December 30, 2009 at 3:41 pm

    David @2: I’m not arguing for ‘class war’, and I’ve not said anywhere that I am. As Paul Sagar said at his place, it’s not a useful term currently. I’m arguing for a new form of coalition around economic interest, and in my longer pieces I’m quite focused on electoral strategy.

    Nor am I arguing that we all go on and back on doors and tell the people that open them they’re not ‘middle class’ really. In my longer piece I make quite clear that an appropriate ‘register’ is needed, which will largely leave out terminology around class, to create the new kind of solidaristic voting I’d like to see win elections for a party moving steadily leftwards in terms of its substantive policy. As Dave S says in his comment, class-focused/conscious solidarity can grow as activism (within Labour and around) grows.

    Paul S @3: I didn’t say the social construct of the middle class is meaningless – in my longer piece I make it quite clear that it’s a valid reflection of changing socio-culutural norms (largely but not solely associated with growing post-war material prosperity). What I said was that it need not be seen as having instrinsically greater value than, say, the notion of the working class, simply because it has become an important part of the election-winning discourse of Conservatism/New Labourism.

    As with my comment to David, my focus in the two longer pieces is not Marxian analysis, but about creating a form of electoral coalition, with a recognition that the discourse of what it is to be culuturally middle class is actually antagonistic to that coalition formation, and that a new reason for coalition – common economic interest related to current exploitation of labour whether this is in so-called working class occupation, ‘professional’ ones, or being excluded from work altogether – is needed if leftist parties are to be elected.

    My frustration is that Sunny’s proposed ‘core vote’ strategy remains limited in its appeal to electorally disadvantageous categories of the voting public. As for your pieces, you make a number of good points about the need to get the language right to appeal to voters, but you don’t identify who those voters might be.

    Dave S @4: I’m aware that ‘middle class’ is not a new construct (see comment to Paul S above).

  6. December 30, 2009 at 4:23 pm

    No of course I wasn’t suggesting that you thought it was. I was pointing that out in response to the “outdated Marxism” idea implicit in what Paul Sagar was saying; the idea of the middle class has been around since this country was the workshop of the world. Just as things like New Unionism marked a departure in working class tactics, so the adaptation and evolution of the idea of a “middle class” is simply a part of ruling class tactics. Rather than prove that Marxism is outdated, the idea of the middle class easily finds a Marxist interpretation that can explain that evolution.

  7. December 30, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    I’m afraid that if people see themselves as middle-class, and want to be seen as middle-class: then there’s very little chance of you trying to convince them otherwise. We can stick to outdated terminology but it won’t shift much. The social tectonic plates have moved irreversibly.

    Surely better to take the situation as it is, and then figure out what you want and how to get there.

  8. December 30, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    My frustration is that Sunny’s proposed ‘core vote’ strategy remains limited in its appeal to electorally disadvantageous categories of the voting public.

    My strategy isn’t core vote – it is popular vote!

  9. December 30, 2009 at 7:34 pm

    Sunny, that’s a whole lot of assertion and not a whole lot to back it up.

    1. If people have been persuaded they are middle class, then it follows that they can be unpersuaded.

    2. Just calling terminology outdated doesn’t mean it is; I’ve yet to see anyone in this debate advance language less problematic than the idea of a working class.

    3. We are taking the situation as it is, but there’s a difference between understanding where we are and trying to get to where we want to be, and wholly capitulating on where we want to be simply because we can’t see how to get there from where we are now.

    3a. It’s not myself and Paul who can’t see how to get there from where we are now; it’s the people advocating the supremacy of a discursively constructed “middle class” and those calling the idea of a working class outdated.

  10. Barney Stannard
    December 30, 2009 at 11:56 pm

    Not my argument to engage in, but on point of logic, it does not follow from the fact that you can persaude people they are middle class that they can be unpersauded. Can you uncook a beef steak?

    As to whether it is psychologically possible – who knows?

  11. December 31, 2009 at 4:14 am

    1. If people have been persuaded they are middle class, then it follows that they can be unpersuaded.

    It’s not persuasion – it’s aspiration. Technically they may be working class, but they want to feel middle class and upwardly mobile. Which is why they rarely class themselves as working class. The polls back me up. I’m not making it up.

    How do you plan this mass persuasion strategy?

    2. Just calling terminology outdated doesn’t mean it is;

    It is, if it refers to a situation most people don’t see themselves in. What I’m saying is you can call everyone WC if you wish, but if they don’t see themselves as such then your starting point is flawed.

    Once you’ve convinced people to feel WC again, you can then call them that.

    and wholly capitulating on where we want to be simply because we can’t see how to get there from where we are now.

    What am I capitulating over? Terminology? I rarely care about that. I care about outcomes. If that outcome is better served by understanding how people see and classify themselves, then I prefer that strategy.

  12. December 31, 2009 at 9:02 am

    Barney, technically yes you can reverse cooking. All the chemical reactions which occur when you apply heat to food can be done in the opposite direction, but I take your point.

    Sunny, disingenuity with words “aspiration” or “persuasion” hardly makes a difference. You’re not willing to view this in historical context. Either this aspiration has been ‘created’, in which case it can be uncreated*. Or it is a byproduct of capitalism, has always been part of it, and is being manipulated, in which case we can put it to better use. It’s not some mystical force which we must simply accept.

    Secondly, I think you’re misusing the word “outdated” simply because you want Marxism itself to be outdated. Using language which people don’t always use about themselves is not necessarily a feature of outdated language, and does not make language outdated. It simply makes the language specialist. And plenty of disciplines, not just political economy, indulge in this. The ones from a hundred years ago, the ones from yesterday, the ones from tomorrow.

    Using this as a starting point isn’t flawed. Using “working class” like an identity to which we expect people would automatically lean towards is flawed. Unlike being “English”, “British” or any of a range of other identities which bear no ill-will towards capitalism, being working class is still a taboo subject, so naturally we have to fight to construct the ‘identity’ around the reality.

    How we do that, the mass persuasion strategy, is simple enough – it’s just not being done. Socialists intervene in their workplaces, in other workplaces and communities which are struggling with bosses or the government, and link the theory to the practice of class struggle. It’s a tried and tested tactic, and it works. As it did at Visteon, for example. This understanding of class and class struggle rarely comes independently of being pushed towards struggle by “market forces” or whatever you wish to call it when bosses cut wages and the government cuts public services.

    Accepting that there’s a fight to “re-construct” the working class ahead of us – and there is – doesn’t mean we have to abandon the term. Similar arguments have been made over abandoning terms like “socialist” in our party names, or “Marxist” in our programmes. This is dishonest and opportunistic, and is basically another version of what New Labour have done with management speak; hidden a regressive agenda inside all the progressive language they can muster.

    Hiding words like these usually doesn’t come on its own, however, it comes with programmatic differences between people attached to the word socialism or the phrase “working class” and those prepared to jettison them. And that’s where we should focus.

    *For example, bearing in mind the amount of personal debt our supposed middle class bears, this uncreation is hardly too difficult to imagine. The house ownership thing, for example, could be dramatically reversed – all of those council houses being bought back into state ownership as the State nationalises the debt used to purchase them. Rather than gratis payments to fulfill one’s mortgage, which is the current strategy. If coupled to half a dozen other measures, it may not be as unpopular as at first glance.

  13. January 3, 2010 at 1:47 am

    Accepting that there’s a fight to “re-construct” the working class ahead of us – and there is – doesn’t mean we have to abandon the term.

    Sorry Dave – I’m not buying it. I take your point about getting fellow workers to ‘reach out’ and educate others but its not really happening. It’s not going to happen given that trade union membership itself is falling. The metrics are moving against you.

    Now – I’m not trying to make Marxism outdated, it has become outdated by virtue of the fact that people cannot relate to it any more in the way that they relate to the iPod as a product of capitalism (and hence something they want to keep).

    My point is: I’m working with the situation as it is now because my immediate aim is to persuade people to move into a different direction. That is more a direction you’d also like to go in – so let’s at least agree on that.

    But you’re in a chicken an egg situation. You’d like people to be enlightened and accept your frame of the debate. But they’re not educated and you’re sticking to your frame – which makes it harder for you to communicate and thus educate…

    I don’t work like that. If a battle can still be won then I’m happy to stick to my frame. But if it’s way past that: then I think its time to recognise changed realities and figure out the best way to bring people back through their new way of understanding.

    I hope that made some sense…

  14. January 3, 2010 at 10:43 am

    Actually trade union membership is fairly stationary. Indeed those Unions which most regularly go to bat for their members increase their membership – the RMT for example. Even if trades union membership were dropping radically, it’s simply not good enough to say “Oh well. Now what to do we do?” without bothering to query why it’s happening. I haven’t seen such a query from you, and those who have advanced theories involving “the death of the working class” I feel quite confident enough to refute.

    Nevertheless, your point is the right one. We do agree on that. We want people to go in different directions than is currently the case, but once again, you seem to view my engagement with voters, workers, people in their homes as only ever focused through the prism of the language I use on this blog. This blog has always been a conversation between activists about activism. The problems, the inabilities of the far Left, don’t stem from my language or, in the case of the key groups such as the LRC, the SP, the SWP etc, theirs.*

    So I don’t think the chicken and egg analogy works.

    There’s no question that in order to convince people, you have to talk to them where they’re at – so we agree on that too. But since neither I nor most socialists who have any degree of proportion or ability insist upon everyone knowing the writings of Marx and Lenin by rote before they work with them. We go into organisations like trades councils and talk about terms and conditions, about wages, about mobilising labour to support local community groups and protect public services. Ain’t any of that controversial, and it has the benefit of being precisely what people want to see.

    We’re not always successful, because organised labour is a quagmire of bureaucracy, petty obstructionism and laziness. This doesn’t mean we can simply abandon this particular fight, because ultimately the economic power wielded by workers (and all the corollaries of this) is the only tool that will be able to take on the legal, forceful and ideological powers of the state and capitalists.

    There are other aspects to our fight to change minds as well of course. And again, we address people where they’re at. When on anti-war marches, conscientious socialists will advance ideas about how the economic system causes the problems we’re protesting against. In terms of global social justice, we’ve actually already framed the debate – the problem is now one of accountability, of leaders promising and never delivering. And socialists were a key part of framing that debate, as part of the global justice / anti-capitalist movement.

    Whether or not terms like working class, or socialism, capitalism or other words are used is not itself important, but the concepts involved are the key to correcting problems like unaccountable leaders. The fact that these concepts are still under-discussed is connected to the continuing inability of our movement to better organise itself to secure accountability from its leaders. I’d also point out (in case you didn’t read Nick Davies’ Flat Earth) that the lack of discussion around these concepts is linked to the ‘victory’ of neo-liberal capitalism. If we’re to overturn that victory – and we must – then these concepts, however refashioned, are the only ones which describe our state of affairs accurately.

    (*No question though, I’m sure some sects are a bit nutty in how they approach workers – we are living in a world, after all, where some people are prepared to assert that UFO visits are really an example of a Galactic Soviet system. No, really. Check it out – they’re called Posadists).

  15. January 3, 2010 at 3:15 pm

    There’s no question that in order to convince people, you have to talk to them where they’re at – so we agree on that too.

    Well that’s fine then – we agree. My writings too have to be taken in their context. I’m not talking directly to people but talking in broad terms, which means my language will be different to what you’d like…

    If we’re to overturn that victory – and we must – then these concepts, however refashioned, are the only ones which describe our state of affairs accurately.

    So let’s re-fashion them. I don’t buy into modern frames necessarily either, but I do believe in re-fashioning terms to reflect new realities.

  16. Lee Delta
    January 3, 2010 at 8:26 pm

    Cheeky suggestion: the working classes are those that see themselves as having been ripped off by the political classes and their bankster bosses?

  17. January 3, 2010 at 8:27 pm

    As with anything, it depends on your definition of the terms used – in this case, working class. I disagree with your definition, which is close (if you draw it out a bit) to the post-Marxist idea that classes are discursively constructed rather than material realities with differing degrees of self-awareness.

  1. December 30, 2009 at 7:10 pm

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