Class acts

September 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

This little bit of doublethink, to be filed under #twilightofthecommentariat, that Ben draws our attention to, is interesting in that it gives us a good image of the nature of the liberal blindspot on unemployment & class. The first problem, as seems fairly obvious, is that it substitutes, for an objective view of class-positions, class as a kind of ‘identity’ except that this is not, as per usual in identity politics, a question of subjectivity (e.g. if one feels oneself to be identical with ‘the working-class’, then that is what one is). Rather, it is a question of whether one is judged to be identical with a cultural image of ‘the working-class’ – particular shared values, a shared political orientation & worldview, etc. The first position seems, of course, absurd: it divorces the notion of ‘the working-class’ from the very economic structures that call into existence class itself; there wouldn’t be a working-class if the economic system that constitutes our world weren’t one that introduces cleavages & divisions. Looked at from that point of view, it seems fairly obvious who the working-class is: everyone who doesn’t own capital, whose only possession is their labour-power, which they have to sell to the owners of the means of production in return for wages. Right now, that’s pretty much everyone: in their 1975 study Class in a Capitalist Society, John Westergaard & Henrietta Resler suggested that the vast majority of income was concentrated in the hands of a small minority – the top 1% had as large an income as the poorest 30% of society; 2 fifths of the income of that 1% came directly from ‘investment’ – from ownership of stocks & shares, outside of the vast salaries they drew, which were essentially indistinguishable from a direct appropriation of profit. That distribution has grown vastly more exaggerated in the ensuing decades.

The liberal position is a further twist on the first argument: if class is a question of perceived identity, it’s the middle-class that does the perception & judgement. There’s a peculiar circularity to Rajan’s logic: people are conscious of their class position, but since class consciousness no longer exists they can’t, by definition, be working-class. The model of ‘classless’ Britain posited by liberals – an undifferentiated middle-class (apart from the super-rich, who, after long seeking invisibility, have found it more difficult to hide in the last few years) with an “atomised poor” or “underclass” below them – is precisely designed to deny the antagonism whose disappearance Rajan laments; the rediscovery of inequality has to be compensated for by the removal of the political agency of its victims. It would be rather better to say that those who call themselves middle-class are “chasing phantoms”: 30 years of stagnant or declining real wages, attacks on the unions & the decimation of industry means that the gap between white-collar & blue-collar jobs (in terms of pay, perks, security, etc.), already minimal in the 70s, is non-existent. With dwindling opportunities for even the most basic employment for university graduates the proletarianisation of the middle-class is pretty far advanced.

This isn’t to deny the deleterious effects of deindustrialisation. Unemployment is, of course, immensely damaging, particularly long-term structural unemployment: on an individual level it demoralises people, cuts you off from the social world (unless you have very forgiving friends), strips you of the possibilities of everyday life that make the daily round of time bearable, subjects you to an process of largely fruitless effort (the endless round of applying, not-hearing-back, ridiculous interviews, etc.); it humiliates you. To say that being made redundant is not the devastating occurrence it was for past generations isn’t to posit the ease of slipping from one job to another so trumpeted by the cheerleaders of ‘flexibility’, but to point out that for most of our generation, being unemployed is the norm. What develops is not exactly stoicism, so much as the bitter recognition of a pattern, choked back for the sake of form, at least in the face of a potential employer. It does indeed “atomise” people. But it also alienates people from the forms of political representation developed for the working-class: if you’re unemployed, being a union member won’t do you any good (it may in fact make it more difficult to get work); with the neo-Thatcherite faction still in control of the party, being a Labour voter won’t do you any good (the spat of Labour councillors voting for cuts proved that); no body exists that, like the NUS & NCAFC for the student protests, will organise a protest for you to go on – & if they did, as the poorer students at Day X3 found out, you’d get beaten & kettled. This is precisely why riots happen: because people have no established means of registering dissent (& anyway, how do you organise a protest against an inequality built into capitalism itself?) To bemoan, on the one hand, the lassitude & impotency, & on the other the ‘disrespect for property’ that frequently results – surprise, surprise – from living in a hopeless situation for decades on end is, in the same gesture, to deny the political recognition that might allow a change in this situation – to stuff people back in the box of political impotency. Even if those on the orthodox left reject the absurd picture of a society where “we’re all middle-class now”, it’s possible for them to misrecognise the nature of the antagonisms that course through it, the qualitative differences created by the social-democratic oasis of the mid-20th century, & whose side they are ultimately on.

During the early – perhaps even the heroic – period of the working-class movement, workers did spend long periods of time dealing with unemployment, scarcity of work & precarity of work; the development of a conscious working-class movement, as embodied in its classic institutions (the trade union, the friendly society, the self-teaching group, the insurrectionary plot) was an action in the struggle against those conditions. There were periods – as during the slump of the 1880s – when large sections of the working-class were unemployed for substantial periods of time. In that last case, this resulted in the collaboration between the labour movement & the unemployed agitations organised by the main socialist groups, & the strengthening of ‘general’ unions for unskilled & semi-skilled workers, who were most at risk from unemployment & precarious employment. The ‘old values’ of working-class culture have themselves to be historically situated, rather than regarded as eternal. Self-reliance, community feeling, awkward pride & a sense of the dignity of labour: all these were useful for a) persisting day-to-day in conditions of unrelenting exploitation b) facilitating working-class self-organisation against those conditions. They were, in part, the means by which the proletariat constituted itself as a political subject & took practical action (strikes, sabotage, occupations, anti-fascist blockades as at Cable Street). They are only worth defending insofar as they facilitate those ends (which they do, as the collaboration between anti-austerity protesters & public-sector strikers during J30 attested). The other salient point is that solidarity & class consciousness are not a priori values, but are brought into being in practical action: all the testimonies of those who smashed chainstore windows & fought running battles with the police speak of the excitement of everyone being in the street together, giving the cops a taste of their own medicine. At a screening of Black Audio Film Collective’s Handsworth Songs I went to last month, John Okomfrah pointed out that no-one involved in the recent riots were around in 1981 or 1985, or were even children of those who were; none of them had direct experiences of positive militancy, & yet they reacted by making the streets ungovernable. Looked at from one perspective, these are early days: with a deepening of the slump on the horizon, the cuts yet to be implemented, QE3 no more likely to succeed than its predecessors (unless western leaders rein in the banks, an occurrence current economic structures makes unlikely) & the political leaders of western capitalism out of ideas, the crisis doesn’t look likely to end any time soon. It took more than 30 years between the first outbreaks of unrest among Russian peasants & the formation of a revolutionary working-class movement capable of seizing power. The claim that the rioters are ‘neoliberal’ & depoliticised would actually be plausible – 30 years of neoliberalism! 30 years of a racist police force getting off scott-free! No bloody wonder they can’t organise – except that it’s not right – not only because of the continued existence of older forms of self-organisation in the BME community, as the presence of Symeon Brown on BBC reports testified, but because the testimonies of the rioters themselves make it clear they knew what they were doing. The principle of solidarity doesn’t apply only to the class fraction you come from, or with which it’s traditionally associated, & won’t spontaneously generate itself if withheld from those whom the capitalist economy deems homo sacer. In a less long-term frame, a situation of outright war – between classes, between differing organisations of production & social wealth, & the potential forms of life that go with them – presents us with immediate questions – on what basis is solidarity predicated? Do we give it to those inside of our immediate social context whose suffering we can see all too easily? Is it the bond of a universal human subject? – that point towards the future terms of the conflict.

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