Socialist Worker

Rise with the class, not from the class

Our series continues with a look at the myth that we’re all middle class now

Issue No. 2270

Labour leader Ed Miliband blamed the party’s failure to win the last election on having lost touch with the “squeezed middle”. This is a new version of Tony Blair’s argument from 2005 that “we’re all middle class now”.

It is a convenient myth for the ruling class because if there is no working class, then there is no moving forward together.

We must then abandon collective remedies, like building programmes to get us all decently housed.

Instead, we are left with individual solutions—families trying to buy a house and then keep it over their heads.

But the real problem for working class people now is not too much individual choice, but that inequality has grown massively and the financial crisis is speeding it up.

Through the long boom from the Second World War to the 1970s, parents expected their children to be better off, better educated and healthier than they had been.

But these improvements have been clawed back—particularly after the defeats Margaret Thatcher imposed on the unions in the 1980s. Now most of us don’t earn more than our parents did.

In some areas relatively well-paid and well‑organised industrial jobs have been replaced by work in supermarkets and call centres. These jobs have low wages, long hours and often miserable conditions.

The shape of Britain’s workforce has changed—though this shouldn’t be exaggerated. The country remains the world’s sixth largest industrial power.

People toiling in new industries are joining the working class, not replacing it.

In any case, modern capitalism cannot run without call centres for banks, utility companies, airlines or the NHS.

This means new workers have as much economic muscle as any factory worker or miner who ever brought down a government.

Supermarket workers could bring towns to a standstill—just a few hours of strikes would leave the shelves empty.

Many people have accepted the argument that changes in their lifestyle meant they were no longer working class. But a survey in 2007 showed that 57 percent of people think of themselves as working class.

This is heartening, but your class isn’t defined by what you think you are. As I explained last week, it’s down to a practical consideration—do you own the company or work for it?

“White collar” work covers an enormous range of jobs which have little in common—from company executives, through senior civil servants, teachers and nurses to call centre workers. They are not all middle class.

In the 19th century, being a clerk was regarded as a privileged position, aligned with management.

But as capitalism evolves it tends to push people towards one of the two contending classes—bosses or workers.

Bosses always try to increase the level of exploitation of workers. So in the early 20th century clerks became secretaries and were no longer seen as privileged.

Most teachers or civil servants saw themselves as middle class as recently as the 1970s. But as the level of exploitation and regimentation increased, they found that the only way to defend their conditions was to join unions and fight back collectively.

And that combined strength is the only way to defend against the government’s savage cuts.

Millions of workers are set to strike for the first time on 30 November. Among them will be relatively well-paid office staff who believe they are middle class because they make their morning coffee in a cafetiere.

They will be on picket lines alongside people who work in oily overalls.

The realisation that they are all working class and that they have the ability to fight collectively is a powerful weapon they share.

Politicians try to deny the existence of this combined force.

They only mention the working class in terms of the “white working class” whose collective experience has fragmented and identity lost. They talk about “listening” to this class even if they don’t like its racist bigotry.

For them, if we’re not pushing to be part of the middle classes, then we’re embittered racists or “chavs”.

The reality is that there is no such thing as a separate “white working class”. The working class in Britain is multicultural.

Next week I will look at whether being working class is just another form of oppression, and why Karl Marx argued that only the working class can end oppression of all forms.

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Tue 20 Sep 2011, 18:04 BST
Issue No. 2270
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