By Yuri Prasad
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2911

Why Starmer fears talking about class

Keir Starmer was unable to define class when he was asked recently. The Labour Party relies on class sentiment while also denying its importance
Issue 2911
Keir Starmer, Labour Leader, in a class room

Keir Starmer needs a lesson in class politics (Picture: Flickr/Keir Starmer)

When the Labour Party  steamrollers the Tories into oblivion at the 4 July general election—as it is universally predicted to do—it will be the culmination of years of class rage. In their millions, working class people will vote with a gut hatred of everything the Tories stand for—their riches, their corruption and their arrogance.

They will contrast Rishi Sunak’s helicopter lifestyle with those of their own family and friends, including those seven million people languishing in pain while waiting for vital NHS treatment. They will think about how rising bills forced people like themselves into ever growing debt.

And they’ll be sickened by the knowledge that so many ordinary people are forced to depend on charity to survive. The vote on 4 July will partly reflect “them versus us” Britain.

In truth, every Labour victory is based on such class feelings. But don’t expect Keir Starmer to acknowledge the furious forces that will put him in Number 10.

Instead, the Labour leader will talk endlessly about the popularity of his party’s economic growth plans, its City of London-friendly policies and the appeal of Labour’s patriotism. When Starmer—who describes himself as working class—was asked by LBC radio this week to expand on his definition of class, he collapsed into a heap of meaningless phrases and muddled words.

The best he could come up with was that working class people were “families that work for their living and earn their money through going out to work every day”. “Working class families have the ordinary hope to get on in life,” he spluttered.

But the car-crash interview was not just the result of Starmer’s robot-like confusion. Rather, it reflects a paradox for Labour.

On the one hand the party relies on class sentiment for votes, and for its very existence. But on the other, it seeks to mollify, tame and deny class anger so as to stabilise the system.

Labour’s commitment to capital and nation has always trumped any appeal to class. Former Labour prime minister Tony Blair, the last Labour leader to win a general election, went further.

Two years after entering Downing Street, he declared, “The class war is over.” But by 2002 Blair was knee-deep in a bitter national fight with the firefighters, and many other strikes would soon follow to prove him wrong.

Starmer in his LBC panic may have been grappling towards the ideas of German sociologist Max Weber who defined class as a series of “life chances”. Weber’s starting point was the way people dress and speak, the character of the jobs that they do and the degree to which they are held in esteem or are forced to live in poverty.

But this way of categorising class is vague and stereotypical. For example, teachers were once regarded as professionals and part of the middle class, but few today think of them as members of a privileged caste.

In fact, many white collar workers that Weber would have added to his box marked, “middle class,” have been on picket lines in recent years. They include nurses, civil servants, social workers and junior doctors. Marxist theory provides a more objective way of defining class.

Its starting point is that the fundamental divide in society is between those who control the means of production—offices, factories, schools, hospitals and essential infrastructure—and those who work for them. There is a small minority of people who have enough wealth to live a life of leisure, and there is the vast majority that can only survive if they work for this minority.

Under this definition, around 75 percent of people in Britain are working class. All differences in lifestyle, dress, income, patterns of consumption and life chances flow from this division and are not its cause.

The fact that an office worker and the owner of a firm might both wear suits does not bridge the gap between them. A thin layer of people stands between the bosses and the working class—the middle class.

This isn’t well-off workers, but people who don’t themselves own the means of production yet act as intermediaries between the two main classes in society. The existence of this middle layer—which includes managers and supervisors, headmasters and also small business owners—is vital to capitalism for two reasons.

First, managers and their ilk dish out the routine discipline of hiring, firing and telling-off of workers that the system requires. Second, it serves to obscure that the central division in society is between the ruling class and the working class.

Though heavily overrepresented in popular culture, the middle class makes up only between 15 and 20 percent of society. This way of understanding class reveals it as a relationship to the means of production, rather than a vague category.

As the Marxist historian Geoffrey de Ste Croix put it, “Class (essentially a relationship) is the collective social expression of the fact of exploitation, the way in which exploitation is embodied in a social structure.” Marx says that the rich exploit the working class and that this process results in “surplus value”.

This, he explains, is the sole source of profit. “Profit rises to the extent that wages fall—it falls to the extent that wages rise…The interests of capital and the interests of wage labour are diametrically opposed,” he wrote in 1847.

Superficial understandings of the class system tend to see workers as perpetual victims, people driven towards poverty and rendered powerless. For them, class is just another form of oppression to be counted alongside ethnicity and gender.

But Marx saw things differently. He said that workers were the revolutionary class. He insisted they had enormous power because they are the sole source of profit, and that capitalism depends on profit for its existence.

Most of the time, a lot of workers are completely unaware of their power. The ruling class has a whole ideological apparatus—from schools and universities, to the mass media—that it uses to convince people that exploitation is a “natural” state of affairs.

Those institutions insist that resistance is futile, and most workers’ life experiences tend to back up the point. Sometimes, however, even relatively small struggles reveal capitalism’s weaknesses, and show how different aspects of the system are connected.

Strikes, protests and social movements show workers that collectively they have power—and can lessen the divisions that exist between them. As Marx wrote, “Every class struggle is a political struggle.”

And when one group of workers struggles successfully over pay, conditions, pensions and so on, millions of people watch and draw lessons for themselves. If those acts of resistance combine into what the revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg called a “mass strike,” a truly transformative process can begin.

Workers acting as a class, in the interests of that class, mark the arrival of a new political force in society. The mass strike is a way for workers to fuse economic and political power, while at the same time drawing in millions of other exploited people under their banner.

In 1906 Luxemburg wrote, “As if for the first time awoke class feeling and class consciousness in millions upon millions as if by an electric shock. The proletarian mass, counted by millions, quite suddenly and sharply came to realise how intolerable was that social and economic existence which they had patiently endured for decades in the chains of capitalism.

“Thereupon there began a spontaneous general shaking of and the tugging at these chains.” Understanding class as power turns workers from oppressed creatures into the authors of their own destiny.

It makes real Marx’s phrase from the Communist Manifesto, “The emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself.” The revolutionary implication of the class system continues to terrify Labour today.

Its leaders have always known that their main job is to harness and dissipate class anger. So, when Starmer fluffs his lines on the class question it is not merely a reflection of his vacuous personality and politics.

Rather it demonstrates the way class remains a contradiction at the heart of the party he leads.

  • Was Marx wrong about the working class? by Matt Vidal
  • Karl Marx and the politics of social classes by Hal Draper, £20
  • Classes by Erik Olin Wright, £14.99

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