Socialist Worker

New developments bring old antagonisms

The final column in our series looks at the reality of class in Britain today

Issue No. 1957

Workers are still exploited

Workers are still exploited

Class polarisation in Britain is growing. The figures for the distribution of wealth in society fly in the face of the idea that most people are contented, while only a minority at the bottom face the harsh realities associated with being working class.

The share of wealth owned by the top 10 percent has grown from 50 percent to 57 percent over the last decade and half.

There has been a record increase in the number of billionaires in Britain under the eight years of New Labour government.

Far from the bulk of people moving a couple of rungs up the ladder into better paid secure jobs, large numbers have been pushed downwards.

Nothing symbolises this trend more dramatically than the fate of 6,000 car workers sacked from the Longbridge factory.

New Labour’s Margaret Hodge told them last week there were plenty of jobs at a new Tesco store in the West Midlands — a case of “let them stack shelves”.

That’s not to say manufacturing industry has disappeared in Britain.

Its share of overall employment has dropped more sharply than in virtually any other advanced industrialised country. But still one fifth of the workforce — six million people — are employed in industry.

The recent successful factory occupation by Rolls Royce workers in Bristol showed the power those workers have, a power that the trade unions failed to unleash when Longbridge’s closure was announced.

Most “service sector” jobs are low paid, low status and have a high manual element. About 30 percent of the workforce are employed in areas such as transport, distribution, communications and catering. They include over one million employed in supermarkets.

There has been a concentration of food production, distribution and sale in Britain.

About 80 percent of all food consumed is sold through just four major supermarket chains. The biggest, Tesco, takes £1 out of every £8 spent.

One in four of the lorries that are strangling our roads carries food.

It is an example of a trend Karl Marx saw as inherent within capitalism towards the concentration of production in the hands of a small number of capitalist enterprises.

One result is the squeezing out of smaller retailers. It also brings damaging environmental impact, obscene profits for the supermarket giants and two other things.

First, layers of people who were part of the old middle class of small businessmen are displaced.

Second, work that used to be done in a huge number of small workplaces, where it is more difficult to organise, is now done under factory-like conditions in a smaller number of big stores.

While employing a large number of part time or temporary workers, supermarkets have also invested in expensive systems and technology which mean they require a core of permanent, motivated workers.

These workers are in a position to organise, may have come from organised sectors previously, and face the kind of pressures that pushed new sections of the working class to do so in the past.

There is also a concentration of production in other, more glamorous industries.

Take computer programmers. Twenty years ago graduates with a degree in computer sciences could look forward to highly specialised, niche employment.

Only a few years ago there was an explosion in dotcom companies. Associated with them were the fairytale rags-to-riches stories that form a key part of capitalist ideology.

Now the vast majority of those companies have fallen by the wayside.

The internet is increasingly dominated by a small number of corporations, employing large numbers of people.

Most people with computing skills write bits of software which are strung together, production line fashion, into programmes, or they are pushed to keep machines running 24 hours a day.

So a new area of production arises, seemingly outside the old class structure. But more or less rapidly it polarises.

There emerges a tiny number of mega-rich individuals who increasingly direct the labour of others — in the case of mental production seizing control through patenting laws and copyright contracts.

Large numbers of people with the required skills are churned out. They are forced to compete for increasingly standardised roles.

Some (not necessarily the best qualified) may make it into a managerial position — most will not. The old class structure is re-established. With it comes the old class antagonisms.

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