Whither class consciousness?

“The class war is over.” So declared former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1999. Of course, Blair was speaking from the perspective of a most zealous convert to centre-right neo-liberalism, but his words held a ring of truth. Over perhaps the last twenty years, and certainly the past decade, there has been a marked decline in the class consciousness of the working class.

This is not true everywhere. In much of the world, the conception of class and particularly class struggle has remained strong and perhaps even increased. This truth is most evident amongst the Zapatistas of Mexico, who have self-organised into free communes in the indigenous areas of the country, repelling the encroachment of the state and capital. It is also true in Greece, where anarchist and communist movements remain strong, and elsewhere impacted by the great struggle between labour and capital.

However, there are countries where a conception of class has all but died. In particular I would point to Britain and the United States, once the most vibrant and violent hotspots of the class war.

For the reasons why, we have to look at a number of factors, such as the propaganda model of the media, the use of nationalism and patriotism as a way to divide and conquer, and the growth of the “middle class” as a buffer for class conflict. Here, I will do exactly that, as well as looking at what can be done to reverse this trend and exploring the burgeoning movement of class struggle that survives today.

The economic and sociological dimensions of class

The Labour Party's image of class is defined more by social status than economic relation to capital

There are a variety of competing definitions of exactly what class is. Many of them are sociological, assigning people to class groups on the basis of cultural and behavioural attributes such as dress, speech, education levels, shopping habits, and employment sector. Such concepts are fallacious in that they reduce class to a matter of choice, taste, or luck when it is nothing of the sort.

Class, in the concept we are talking about it here, is a purely economic descriptor. There is, to use an old cliché, no accounting for taste. Whether you read the Sun or the Guardian, or whether you shop at Asda or at Waitrose, is entirely irrelevant. In the final analysis, what matters is your relation to capital.

In essence, there are two classes: the working class and the capitalist or ruling class. The working class are the vast majority of people on the planet, those who must sell their labour in order to earn a living and survive. The ruling class are, to use a rough figure, the top one-percent of society. They do not have to sell their labour or work, but instead are maintained by expropriating rent, interest, and profit from the working class who produce it. They are, in short, parasites.

There are other “classes,” but in reality they are nothing other than labels used as a means to distinguish (often for divisive purposes) between various elements of the working class. In particular, I dealt with such as the police and soldiers in Class war and the agents of the state.

The “underclass” or lumpenproletariat  are, in the words of Karl Marx, the “refuse of all classes” and include “swindlers, confidence tricksters, brothel-keepers, rag-and-bone merchants, beggars, and other flotsam of society.” The term is also used to refer to the long-term unemployed. Supposedly, this group will never attain class consciousness and are thus worthless in class struggle. However, Marx’s view appears out of touch with reality. Although, indeed, there is strong potential for the so-called “underclass” to be counter-revolutionary, this only becomes more likely as we dismiss them and contribute to their marginalisation. The organisation of unemployed workers’ unions shows the potential of this group, and education and engagement with the dispossessed is vital unless we wish to surrender them to the forces of reaction.

As a counterweight to the lumpenproletariat, we have the “middle class.”

The middle class as a buffer against class conflict

The middle class are, in reality, workers. They too have to sell their labour to a master in order to survive, and the fact that the wages of that labour may be more, or that the job may be “white collar” rather than “blue collar” is of no significance. However, as a sociological construct, it is an instructive term.

In 2006, the Times carried an article entitled “we’re all middle class now as social barriers fall away;”

THE working classes are in rapid decline, with the middle class poised to become the majority of the population by 2020, according to a report from the Future Foundation think-tank.

In the past 40 years the proportion of Britons who regard themselves as middle class has risen from 30 to 43 per cent.

Although the report predicts that this trend is set to continue, it notes that class distinctions are becoming increasingly blurred, with 36 per cent of builders classifying themselves as middle class and 29 per cent of bank managers saying they are working class.

This idea that “class difference is not so much about how much money we have, but what we do with it” and “the true mark of the middle classes is ‘hidden money’” is a common one. Essentially, the middle class serve as a buffer between those at the bottom and those at the top. Although of the working class in the sense that they largely rely on labour power to make a living, they have enough privilege and comfort as to dull any awareness of that, and the commonality of managerial or administrative positions amongst them makes them something of a “coordinating class,” implementing capitalism on behalf of the rulers.

Both this fact and the greater wages they command in relation to ordinary workers, also means that they can bear the brunt of class resentment. This also allows propagandists to use the more liberal elements of the middle class as foils when they promote patriotism, nationalism, and militarism.

Distraction and division wrapped up in flags

It has always been true that, in the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, “the best weapon against an enemy is another enemy.” Thus war, and the suspicion and hatred of an “other” are the most effective ways of drowning class conflict in the false virtue of patriotism. The class war does not stop, on the contrary it is redoubled whilst the workers are distracted by the external enemy, but those assailed by it do not fight back so vigorously.

A pertinent example of this is World War One when, as the History Learning Site puts it, “In a display of patriotism, Emmeline Pankhurst instructed the Suffragettes to stop their campaign of violence and support in every way the government and its war effort.” As if to cement the assumption touted by propagandists that patriotism is the highest of all virtues, it then connects the fact that “the work done by women in the First World War was to be vital for Britain’s war effort” with the result that “in 1918, the Representation of the People Act was passed by Parliament.” Of course, reality is not so convenient as this, and such basic concessions would not exist without often brutal struggle.

The 2009 Lindsay Oil Refinery Strikes, with the slogan of "British Jobs for British Workers" risked giving way to a destructive nationalist sentiment

Although some, such as Pankhurst, did surrender to the demands of patriotism, others did not. As Howard Zinn recalls, in A People’s History of the United States, that during World War Two the US saw industrial disputes on a previously unprecedented scale;

Despite the overwhelming atmosphere of patriotism and total dedication to winning the war, despite the no-strike pledges of the AFL and CIO, many of the nation’s workers, frustrated by the freezing of wages while business profits rocketed skyward, went on strike. During the war, there were fourteen thousand strikes, involving 6,770,000 workers, more than in any comparable period in American history. In 1944 alone, a million workers were on strike, in the mines, in the steel mills, in the auto and transportation equipment industries.

When the war ended, the strikes continued in record numbers- 3 million on strike in the first half of 1946. According to Jeremy Brecher (Strike!), if not for the disciplinary hand of the unions there might have been “a general confrontation between the workers of a great many industries, and the government, supporting the employers.”

In Lowell, Massachusetts, for example, according to an unpublished manuscript by Marc Miller (“The Irony of Victory: Lowell During World War II”), there were as many strikes in 1943 and 1944 as in 1937. It may have been a “people’s war,” but here was dissatisfaction at the fact that the textile mill profits grew 600 percent from 1940 to 1946, while wage increases in cotton goods industries went up 36 percent.

However, this does not diminish the ability of patriotic and nationalist sentiments to divide the working class. War is one example, bigotry and inequality is another. It was, and remains, a tactic of employers and capitalists to use one element of the working class to undermine another based on easily identifiable differences. In the past, it was blacks, women, and immigrants. In the modern day, immigrants are still used, but so too are agency and casual workers, students, and even the unemployed.

Though it has become more subtle in an age of awareness of and opposition to sexism, racism, and other forms of bigotry, the tactic remains the same. The “different” or “outsider” group are used to undermine established rights, to undercut wages and working conditions, and to break strikes. Although those being used are victims themselves, ruthlessly exploited in order to undermine their fellows, it is much easier to blame them than to blame the class of people using them as a matter of course. Many workers recognise this, as well as the fact that the only way to effectively fight the trend is to unite all workers concerned (regardless of status) in order to combat both the exploitation and the roll-back of hard-won rights. However, for many others the appeal of such a scapegoat is too great and they join the frenzy of reaction. In the worst case scenario, through their lack of class consciousness leads them to that worst extreme of patriotism and nationalism – fascism.

Even without recourse to that extreme, the use of nationalistic slogans and sentiment in labour disputes can be damaging. As Mouvement Communiste wrote for LibCom on the 2009 Lindsay Oil Refinery strikes;

If nationalism has therefore not taken over amongst the strikers, on the other hand it has served as a crystallisation point for those (unemployed or not) who have participated in solidarity demonstrations, as is suggested both by the slogans and the flags. During this period of crisis, bosses are adjusting production capacities to the likely market demand (of today or tomorrow) and therefore they tend to bring back factories from “abroad” towards the “country” under the benevolent shelter of the state. On their part, workers experience a rise in unemployment, which “naturally” increases the weight of nationalism, and the rejection of foreigners, especially if they are considered as a potential competitor, real or imaginary, in a shrinking labour market.

In this context, the despair of workers facing a worsening of living conditions, especially because it cannot turn into a collective movement against capital, results in hostility against immigrants, in more or less violent racist reactions, in the rise of various extreme-right organisation during elections, more generally in the rise of nationalism.

The use of such sentiment in class struggle, then, must be rejected as it only serves to turn the working class in on itself. Worse even than the nullification of class consciousness, nationalism amounts to a perversion of it into a form that better suits the state and the bosses.

Reviving class consciousness

The biggest obstacle to reviving a genuine class consciousness against the division of nationalism and the buffer of the “middle class” is the media. Although not by deliberate design, the mass media fits into a propaganda model as sketched out by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in Manufacturing Consent. This allows for debate and dissent, but only within a set framework based on immutable assumptions. In relation to class, the main assumption is best summed up by the Blair quote I offered above – “the class war is over.”

For the media, more radical forms of worker organisation do not exist. Communism only crops up in relation to the student politics of a politician now firmly dedicated to the neo-liberal cause. Anarchist is a convenient label to throw at any “undesirable” current that becomes impossible to ignore, but which must still be marginalised. Only mainstream trade unions receive any significant coverage, full-time bureaucrats offering quotes on industrial disputes and editorials rubbishing the idea of workers’ rights and painting anybody who doesn’t know their place and accept their lot as an unruly rabble-rouser.

In the face of this, the idea of reviving class consciousness or raising the profile of radical politics must seem an impossible idea. However, this is not the case. Despite the line held by the media, most ordinary people do have something of an awareness of reality, as we are not too far removed from the struggles of the Thatcher era for that collective memory to have dissipated entirely. The point is to build upon this.

Education remains the most vital element of the class struggle. This goes doubly when such remains an alien idea to the wider populace. With the financial crisis of the past two years, the widening chasm between rich and poor, and the unrelenting pace of job losses through the “recovery,” people are awakening to the way the world is structured. We have seen a fightback emerge, and we need to build upon that. Only through organisation and education at a grassroots level can we fend off the politics of reaction and strengthen the movement against capital.

3 Responses to “Whither class consciousness?”
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  1. […] for tiny sects on the authoritarian left, but because it adds to the Blairite spin that “the class war is over.” Which, of course, leaves fascism as the only alternative to the status […]

  2. […] for tiny sects on the authoritarian left, but because it adds to the Blairite spin that “the class war is over.” Which, of course, leaves fascism as the only alternative to the status […]

  3. […] of the organised working class by eroding class consciousness. I examined this point more fully here, as well as the ways we can challenge it. But, thanks to Cameron’s all-out assault in the […]

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