By Mark L Thomas
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Unpopular capitalism! Neoliberalism & working class consciousness

This article is over 8 years, 8 months old
Has the neoliberal ideological offensive succeeded in winning the battle of ideas in society? Not according to recent surveys, writes Mark L Thomas. Two new polls suggest that the majority of workers reject the free market and firmly believe in social democratic values.
Issue 386

Last month Allister Heath, the editor of City Am, a pro free market newspaper aimed at the City of London, expressed a deep concern bordering on panic that support for crucial aspects of capitalism is fast eroding: “Slowly but surely, the public is turning its back on the free market economy and re-embracing an atavistic version of socialism… On some issues, the public is far more left wing than the Tories realise or that Labour can believe.”

Sounding the alarm, Heath declared, “Supporters of a market economy have a very big problem. Unless they address the concerns of the public, they will be annihilated.”

His unease was prompted by a survey from pollsters YouGov commissioned by the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (CLASS), the think tank established by Unite and other unions, about public attitudes to the economy.

The YouGov survey together with the most recent British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey provide a snapshot of popular attitudes and the broad contours of working class consciousness in Britain today.

There is a widespread assumption, even among sections of the left, that neoliberal ideology has triumphed among the majority of the working class. The argument runs that individualism now holds the upper hand over class identification and a belief in collective solutions to social problems.

Yet what surveys demonstrate is the limits of the success that the neoliberal offensive has had over the last three decades in reshaping workers’ ideas. Instead the evidence points to the resilience of a social democratic consciousness, with much fewer inroads by neoliberalism than often imagined.

Class endures
Despite the endless argument that class is supposedly no longer a salient feature of British society, the BSA survey shows 60 percent of people saw themselves as working class in 1983. Three decades later the figure stands at 61 percent.

Two thirds of people (66 percent) also said that a person’s class position does affect their opportunities in life “a great deal” or “quite a lot”. This proportion has not changed substantially since 1983 when 70 percent agreed that class affected opportunities.

For Marxists, class is an objective category based on people’s relationship to the means of production – “the way in which exploitation is reflected in a social structure”, as the great Marxist historian Geoffrey de Ste Croix succinctly put it.

It doesn’t depend on people being aware of their class position. But the resilience of class identification as a thing of the past is striking – despite the overall low level of class struggle and the shift right by the Labour Party and the constant refrain from politicians, the media and many academics.

Indeed the authors of the BSA report struggle with it, arguing that the stability of class identification remains, despite Britain becoming “objectively” more middle class.

The reason they give is the growth of white collar jobs and the decline of the number of manual occupations. Yet the vast majority of white collar jobs are just as subject to bullying managers, relentless pressures to work harder and exploitation as manual workers are. Clearly most workers have a much better grasp of such realities than some sociologists!

The state versus the market
The authors of the BSA survey also argue that class is declining in importance because it is less strongly linked to wider social and political attitudes. The evidence they offer for this is the decline in attachment to collective institutions such as organised religion and political parties, as well as a greater tolerance for other people’s relationships, especially towards homosexuality and sex outside marriage, than 30 years ago.

So because fewer people go to church, fewer people are bigoted and fewer workers see Labour as representing them, class has lost its wider relevance!

Yet there is clearly one area where there is evidence of a continuing link between people’s sense that we continue to live in a society divided by class and wider attitudes.

There remains continuing mass support for the notion that the state should intervene in the economy to regulate and curb its worst excesses. This flies in the face of the strictures of neoliberalism.

So the survey records that 96 percent say the government should provide a decent living for the old; and 97 percent agree that the government should provide healthcare for the sick. Around seven out of ten people (69 percent) also believe that the government should reduce income differences between the rich and the poor – exactly the same level of support expressed in the BSA survey in 1985.

According to the YouGov/CLASS poll, there are large majorities in favour of nationalising the rail industry (66 percent); the energy industry (68 percent); and returning the recently privatised post office to state ownership (67 percent). Remarkably, even a majority of Tory voters (52 percent) think both the rail companies and the energy firms should be nationalised.

Interestingly the poll also asks about support for government having the power to control prices rather than simply leaving it to private firms operating in the market. There are large majorities for state regulation of energy prices (74 percent); and public transport fares (72 percent).

YouGov also found that 45 percent of people back state regulation of private sector rents; and a third of the population back state control over the price of food and groceries (35 percent). In other words, a third of people believe that the state should dictate price limits to the likes of Tesco and Asda.

All of these figures, with the sole exception of support for the state regulating food prices, are higher than the current average polling level for the Labour Party (38 to 40 percent). On a range of crucial questions, the mass of the population is well to the left of Ed Miliband and the Labour Party.

What’s being expressed here isn’t, of course, mass support for revolutionary socialism (whatever the fears of City AM’s Allister Heath). Rather it represents the endurance of a social democratic consciousness that sees the state as a bulwark against the power of private firms, and that individuals should not be left to fend for themselves on the market for a range of key services.

As the BSA survey notes, “Generally speaking, the last 30 years have not seen a shift to a less collectivist Britain”.

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci argued that under capitalism workers have a “contradictory consciousness” that combines ideas that reflect the experience of class, exploitation and solidarity together with ideas that reflect the experience of capitalism, competition and hierarchy and so on.

One leads to the acceptance of the system, the other to the rejection of at least elements of it. The balance between acceptance and rejection is not fixed and can shift, sometimes rapidly. But the overall shape of working class consciousness in Britain today has remained remarkably stable in many ways over decades.

At its heart lies a continued adherence to the broad framework of the post-war settlement enacted by the 1945 Labour government (though in many ways anticipated by measures adopted by the wartime coalition) that accepted capitalism but established the NHS; significantly extended the welfare state; took a wide swathe of industry into public ownership; and established a range of state controls over the economy.

Despite the dismantling of large parts of this settlement by both Tory and Labour governments over the last 30 years, the mass of the working class (and sections of the middle class) remain stubbornly attached to it.

Unemployed benefits
This doesn’t mean that nothing has changed in workers’ heads. The BSA survey offers some evidence for shifts in popular consciousness. One area of the welfare state where there has been a significant erosion of support is for unemployment benefits.

So in 1985 four out of five people (81 percent) responded positively to the question: “Does government have a responsibility to provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed?” In 2012 only three out of five agreed (59 percent), still a majority but a considerable fall in support.

The relentless scapegoating of the unemployed has had a real impact.

There are two further things to note about this. Firstly, the BSA suggests that the key period when support for unemployment benefits eroded was under the Labour governments after 1997. It is when Labour stopped making any defence of the unemployed that the real damage was done. New Labour legitimised the idea that those out of work were in some way responsible for their plight.

Secondly, there are some signs that this view is starting to reverse, with greater sympathy for the unemployed. The number of people who think that unemployed benefits are “too high and discourage work” fell sharply from 62 percent in 2011 to 51 percent in 2012, while agreement that cutting benefits “would damage too many people’s lives” has risen from 42 to 47 percent over the same period.

As the impact of the coalition government’s cuts to welfare spending grows, the clash between an abstract acceptance of scapegoating arguments and the actual lived reality, as you, your family, friends or former workmates experience the reality of miserable benefits and difficulties finding work, can shift attitudes.

The campaign against the bedroom tax has also seen a shift from a small majority expressing support for the ConDem tax to a majority opposing it. Indeed it has become a symbol of the brutality of the government’s cuts and may have helped shift wider attitudes to welfare spending.

More positively, the BSA survey also notes an erosion of some forms of prejudice, for example towards same-sex relationships. The number agreeing that “same-sex relationships are always wrong” has fallen from two thirds (64 percent) in 1987 to just over one on five (22 percent) now.

But though the most recent study doesn’t explore attitudes to immigration, we could expect that scapegoating against migrants (and Muslims) has also had a significant impact. There is a potential audience well to the left of Labour, but there is also a space for right wing populists like UKIP and for fascist forces to regroup. The right can give thanks to the relentless assault on immigration, multiculturalism and Muslims from both the Tories and Labour.

A crisis of ruling class institutions
What the BSA survey starkly reveals is a deep crisis of popular faith in key ruling class institutions. So trust in government to place the needs of the nation above the interests of their own political party either “just about always” or “most of the time”, which was never high (it was 38 percent in 1987), has slumped to just 18 percent.

But it’s not just the political system that has suffered a crisis of legitimacy. In the 1980s around 90 percent viewed banks as well run. Today this stands at 19 percent. The BSA notes that this is “probably the most dramatic change of attitude registered in 30 years of British Social Attitudes”.

Trust in the press has halved, from 53 percent in 1983 to 27 percent today, while confidence in the police has also eroded, if less dramatically, falling from 77 percent to 65 percent over the same period. Interestingly, confidence in unions has even grown slightly over the last 30 years – 29 percent agreed in 1983, and today 33 percent.

The continued popular commitment to much of the post-war social democratic settlement (while the ruling class has been seeking to restructure and dismantle that settlement) has led to an increasing detachment of masses of people from the political system, parties and a raft of other institutions.

As Gramsci might have expressed it, there are elements of a crisis of ruling class hegemony – an erosion of consent – in Britain today, even if this remains latent much of the time in the absence of sustained mass struggles. But the absence of struggle also strengthens the dangers that reactionary arguments around immigration and racism can provide the basis for political mobilisations that can shift politics in Britain to the right.

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