Classes in Britain in 2011

We Now Have a New Proletariat

By Gwydion M. Williams

No Briton is an island: we are connected with the global order that we largely created. This has also tended to include the Irish, with modern Ireland normally standing closer to the Anglosphere than to Continental Europe. The Irish several times came close to choosing differently, but so far have not. And if they did, it would not make that much difference to the dynamic of Britain as a whole. Nor would the subtraction of Scotland, except that it might give an example of an English-speaking nation successfully living by different values.

Britain was traditionally a fairly unified community, though suspicious of outsiders until they learned to adapt, and tending to view non-whites as always alien, tolerable only in small numbers. Reformers were too quick to take the unification for granted, rather than treating it as something organic that needed careful handling to be guided to a broader outlook on the world.

Racial intolerance and suspicion of everything foreign were just as much part of the organic British working-class culture as the solidarity and sense of fairness that left-wingers valued. This awkward truth was mostly not faced up to, though we in Bevin Society did note it and say that realistic left-wing politics had to accept that the society had a limited capacity to absorb outsiders. One might wish for people to be more tolerant, but acting as if such limits could be ignored or wished away was one of the things that damaged the labour and the trade union movement. Most of them got sold a version of the liberal-libertarian view of all humans as instances of The Individual, with each instance knowing how it ought to behave if told so with sufficient forcefulness.

There was a much worse infestation of libertarianism in the Tory Party, and to some degree among the Liberal Democrats, where the social realism of the original breakaway Social Democrats failed to survive a merger with the corrupt remnants of Britain’s Whig traditions.

The right-wing answer has not been to preserve these organic elements, the normal task of conservatives. The Thatcher-Reagan reform blamed the state for the weakening of social values that had been inherited from a past order where business people rated traditional middle-class decency as more important than money. They argued – and Thatcher at least would have believed – that removing state interference with the economy would fix both the moral and economic problems.

The very reverse has happened. Coming to power in what was still a relatively safe and unified society, Thatcherism has made it a snake-pit. Nor have the British or US economies got better: the new policies did successfully mess up France, West Germany, Italy and Japan, but now China and India are rising.

The Keynesian system that ran successfully from 1950-1975 worked in part because it appealed to conservative instincts. When it became clear that society was changing regardless, the consensus broke down. In part it was broken down by the increased power of Trade Unions. Wages-only militancy was futile, workers largely had as much as they could expect without radically restructuring the society. In that context, there was a very real hope that militancy could be transmuted into Workers Control. Ernest Bevin was useful in that context. But the bulk of the left had totally misread the situation and recalled Ernest Bevin as a bad example, if they remembered him at all.

The biggest influence and a profoundly hostile influence were the Trotskyists. They did for socialism what Al Capone did for Valentine’s Day, proving to be very bad at power politics when it got beyond the matter of organising people ideologically committed to socialism. But pro-Moscow elements like Arthur Scargill were little better. Incomes Policy and Workers Control without the prior overthrow of capitalism were not in their world-vision, so they were fiercely condemned as a capitalist trick to impoverish the working class.

What’s happened since has been a decay of the Trade Unions and of Labour politics, socialist politics in general. What was possible in the 1970s isn’t possible now: a further rethink is necessary. We do have plenty of out-of-print material that summarises what Bevin did and what was tried in the 1970s. I’m not sure that more would do much good: wider issues also need to be addressed. As I said earlier, no Briton is an island.

With any luck, New Labour will be discredited by failure in Iraq, Afghanistan and North Africa. And by the rise of East Asia, provided that it is recognised that all of those countries have much more in common with Europe in the Keynesian era than with the rights-of-money version of capitalism introduced by Thatcher and Reagan.

And it is worth asking, just what is the working class anyway? Was it maybe always ‘working classes’, fragmented by trade and skill and nationality, however much socialists tried to bridge those gaps?

***

Beginning in the late 18th century, radicals and socialists in Britain began organising the new strata of working peoples created by the Industrial Revolution. There was also a lot of self-organisation, but this naturally took its ideas from sympathisers who already had a developed and compatible vision of the world.

These new Working Classes were predominantly people doing manual labour in new or hugely expanded cities and working closely with machines in huge impersonal factories. A particular set of cultural values grew up around this new type of human. What was called the ‘working class’ was also a social stratum with its own accents, habits and customs. On this basis – shared culture – it often included small independent traders. It did not include what used to be called the Professional Classes – doctors, teachers, lawyers etc. It also did not include what were called white-collar workers, generally people doing routine tasks with pen-and-ink, who felt very strongly about the sharp distinction between themselves and the working classes.

Things changed after 1945. The Welfare State meant that life became less risky. Employment levels were high enough that anyone who wanted a job could get a job, unless they had some serious disability. Relatively high wages for the young encouraged a growth of individualism. Old ideas persisted – Britons under 40 find it hard to believe that it used to be unusual for couples to live together for a few months or years to see how they got on. For most people even in the 1960s and 1970s, the Wedding Night was a big event, or sadly sometimes a big shock or disappointment. The idea of getting the key to the door at 21 years of age was also still around, though I’m not sure how widely it was still applied. And the Soviet Union was still the pioneer of rights for women and jobs for women up until the 1980s.

Things were already shifting in the 1960s and 1970s. The strong distinction between white-collar and working-class (blue-collar in the USA) was eroding. Jobs that would have been classified as middle-class became more numerous and more open to people of working-class origin. Education, though unequal, did have a definite levelling and mixing effect. There was a development of individualism and also a comfortable living standard for all, combined with a desire for consumer goods.

Please remember also that the bulk of the working class were socially conservative outside of trade union matters. Radicals and socialists had organised them into trade unions and this was part of the culture. But among ordinary members there was a lack of belief in women’s equality, some hostility to the Irish among British workers and a very strong hostility to non-white immigrants when they started appearing in Britain in large numbers. Trade Unionists did manage to overcome these things, put down racism of the sort that London’s highly militant dockers showed in response to Powell’s speeches on immigration

In the 1960s and 1970s, immigration was adding to pressures on the working class and also people’s attitudes were still quite prejudiced. This was successfully dealt with, whereas the Tories were mostly irresponsible and tried fishing for the racist vote, much as the US Republicans did successfully win over racist voters in the US South who used to be solid Democrats. If we are to say more about history, why not include this irresponsible and anti-social line by the Tories and the successful Labour and Trade Union counter to it?

Powell had his clever moments, but he was broadly a fool. His later leadership of Ulster Unionists were inept: it seems he impressed them by ‘opening doors they didn’t even know existed’, but he failed to lead them into British politics, membership of the main UK parties, which they needed for long-term. And at the same time was a devout believer in ‘market forces’, failing to recognise them as the biggest possible threat to the Little England values he cherished, and which have been immensely damaged by the unleashing of those same forces under Thatcher. I don’t suppose either of them read the Communist Manifesto or picked up Marx’s observation of the nihilistic effects of market forces, which functional conservatives have traditionally been more aware of.

Socialists should be more assertive about our successes. The USA has seen integration largely fail: a culture of racism is still there and the communities live separate lives. In Britain racism and segregation were largely uprooted, which has been a permanent gain but also involved damage to working class culture, undermining the confidence and loyalty of those who had been solid on purely trade union and welfare matters.

***

The world has moved on, and part of what we have been stressing is that some long-standing left-wing demands have been met. Traditional middle-class morality has collapsed, and nothing much is replacing it. A huge and largely parasitic financial sector has grown, while manufacturing has been run down and the traditional areas of working-class militancy have been particularly badly hit. Coal is marginal, ship building has gone, the merchant navy has been hijacked by ‘flags of convenience. Steel and car-manufacturing are much reduced and mostly under foreign ownership. We can and should ridicule the Tories for making a lousy job of being conservatives.

Meantime there is a ‘new proletariat’ of people in new industries who have seen their personal freedoms enlarge quite a bit. In my own job as an IT Professional, I spent some 20 years obliged to wear a business suit, though at least it did not need to be black nor the shirt white. In my workplace this has now gone, we can dress casually and even wear jeans and patterned t-shirts on Fridays. We may also all be out of a job in 20 months time following a take-over, that is part of the new pattern of work.

Globalisation has made everyone replaceable. There is little point in striking if this can put your employer out of business and leave the strikers jobless. That’s a completely different situation from the 1970s. Also there is a Middle-Class Proletariat or Working Middle-Class, people who live on their labour and for whom whatever property they own is an expense, not a source of revenue. People who are also disinclined to draw a sharp distinction between themselves and the Skilled Working Class, which a lot of them come from. The former snobbery of the Professional Classes and White-Collar Workers has pretty much vanished.

I don’t care for the demoralising notion of ‘history gone wrong’. Everything takes longer and costs more: that is a general rule for business enterprises and it is unsurprising that it also applies to socialist efforts to reshape the world. Never the less, it does move. There have been a vast number of improvements since 1917. It has not been all one-way since 1979: Thatcher and Reagan wrecked the possibility of a functional conservatism. They have also built their New World around parasitic finance that will have to be curbed eventually.

The second half of the 20th century has also seen the collapse of both the authority of the various Christian churches and of the culture of the European bourgeois. That this hasn’t been replaced by ‘rationalism’ is down to a whole slew of irrational assumptions under the smooth-seeming surface of conventional rationalism, as I have discussed elsewhere. (Notably The Disagreement Between Everyone and Anyone, which sadly people seem to have taken no notice of.)

Note also the reduction of hierarchies and their replacement by networks. Modern bosses mostly don’t draw a huge social distinction between themselves and those they manage – though it also means they see no need to look after ‘their people’, expecting everyone to swim or sink in the same way they do. What basis then for loyalty within capitalist enterprises?

As socialists, we can also be cheered by the fact that there is no longer much in the way of functional conservatism in Britain. Thatcher destroyed it, while believing of course that she was saving it. The grocer’s daughter has helped create a world in which independent grocers and other small traders are a vanishing breed. So if the current culture of greed collapses, the right wing have nothing to fall back on. Meantime, socialists need to develop a rounded view of the world that could be passed on to large numbers of people if they should lose confidence in what they have now.

This is based on things I said in an e-mail discussion back in 2011, with personal references removed.  It has not previously been published

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