Monday, February 22, 2010

Reformism and the working class


In a previous post, I gave a terse, tart account of some of the Eurocommunist arguments against left-wing challenges to Labour. You might ask why anyone would take electoral advice from Eurocommunists, since their movement saw two of Europe's largest communist parties in the post-war period, the Italian and French parties, suffer precipitous declines. But these arguments were made when the Socialist Alliance was launched, and repeated when Respect was set up. They continue to have some traction in parts of the Left. I was drawing mainly on the arguments of Eric Hobsbawm against the Communist Party left in the 1980s. Hobsbawm was more nuanced than most of his co-ideologues in that he rejected accounts of the 'new middle class' which claimed that the working class was in a minority. These arguments, as E M Wood has suggested, involved "nothing less than a redefinition of class itself", and thus a revision of the whole marxist conceptual apparatus.

Nonetheless, though Hobsbawm was careful not to entertain this wholesale revision, he did share with the Eurocommunists the contention that the working class alone was not a sufficient social basis for socialism to advance, and that an alliance with progressive sectors of the middle class was necessary. This was because that sector of the working class which was ready to support socialism was too small. The working class, even if it formed a majority, was too conservative in the main to swing behind a more radical alternative, so any attempt to create one amounted to dangerous adventurism. All sorts of left-wing theories have been devised to account for the supposed conservatism of the British working class, but it has been assumed to be real enough. Thus, for example, Perry Anderson maintains that the conservatism of British workers has to do with the mediocrity of its bourgeois revolution, which failed to destroy many of the lineaments of feudalism, the emergence of a proletariat before mature socialist theory emerged to guide its practise, which left it vulnerable to combined aristocratic and bourgeois reaction, and the impact of imperialism on the organised left. Without wishing to demur entirely from the latter point, I wish to establish that two sorts of arguments used to bolster reformism - 'middle class majority' and 'conservative working class' - are in error. The former, I maintain, rests on a conflation of class with status, while the latter makes illegitimate inferences from the outcomes of class struggles to establish the supposed conservatism of workers.

First of all, attempts to establish the contours of class in Britain today are obscured by an over-reliance on income data, life-style indicators, and status indicators. Measurements of class tend to treat classes as objects that can be arithmetically counted if enough appropriate indicators are taken into consideration. For example, the government's annual Labour Force Survey (LFS) breaks down occupation by 'employment status'. This is one of the measurements occasionally cited in the press to discuss class. But employment status does not correspond to class. For example, nurses enjoy 'associate professional' status in the government's classification scheme. This is a compliment to nurses and the prestige in which they are held. However, it is not a class designation. Most nurses exercise no power over other workers, and are themselves subordinate to their employers without sharing in any of their supervisory or coordinating functons, and without exercising mental labour in a way that gives them any control over other workers. They are therefore workers, with only a minority being properly middle class.

Increasingly, this can be said of the teaching profession, also listed under 'associate professional' status. Teachers have in the past had a certain amount of autonomy, a space for creative mental labour, and a real level of social power in socializing children for their coming engagement with the labour market. All of these advantages have been under attack as governments try to routinize what happens in the class room, de-skill and de-professionalise teaching, and subject it to increasing surveillance the better to discipline it. Scheduling is no longer controlled by individual teachers, and the curriculum is centrally dictated. Meanwhile, important school functions are being delegated to casualised teaching assistants. Of course, this varies - teachers in upper crust institutions are less subject to proletarianization, as they are entrusted with the delicate task of socializing the children of the rich. But the majority of teaching staff can't realistically be called middle class these days. And while a number of old professions are being proletarianized, new occupations classed as 'white collar' were de-skilled and subject to more or less intrusive surveillance and supervision from the start. Thus, the temptation to read class categories into 'employment status' categories must be resisted. However, the detailed data on occupations will, with some hefty caveats, be used later to get a rough idea of the relative proportions of the working and middle classes.

NRS social grades are even more frequently used as an index of class in the newspapers, but these are actually even less to do with class than 'employment status'. Category C1, which is taken as a measurement of the 'lower middle class', places clerical workers with no power over other workers alongside junior managers and supervisors, who act as the surveillance and disciplinary limbs of capital. Using this measurement, a middle class majority is usually obtained. Moreover, the data-gathering for such categories is often biased toward the higher end of the 'social class' and income scale, because they gather data only for the 'chief income earner' in each household. If this method is used, then a household which contains more than one adult will only be questioned about its highest income earner. For example, see this breakdown by Ipsos-Mori. By its estimate, the total number of people people aged over 15 years belonging to social grade 'E' (on the lowest salaries and least skilled jobs, on unemployment benefit, on disability benefit, on the state pension, etc.), would be approximately 4m (8% of approx. 50m = 4m). In the year that this breakdown was taken, close to 5m people relied on job-seekers and disability benefit alone. The government had a further 3.25m working in 'elementary' (unskilled) occupations. And a further 1.3m people lived on the state pension alone. In short, in Ipsos-Mori's breakdown, less than half of these who would be classified as social grade 'E' (approx. 9m) were actually detected.

If we treat class as a relationship, not a thing, we won't proceed on the basis of lifestyle or prestige indicators. The starting point for understanding class has to be production, and the relations we enter into when we become part of the labour process. Certainly, the first place you encounter class directly is usually in the workplace. To say 'direct' is not to say 'up close and personal'. One rarely meets a personal entity called 'the boss' these days. Authority is delegated through supervisors, human resources departments, ergonomics experts, IT managers, etc. It is, notwithstanding the occasional run-in with a particularly inept or annoying supervisor, highly impersonal. Most of the people who have some control over your labour, whether in devising your tasks, arranging your working day, or organising the space you work in and the equipment used in it, will never meet you. But nonetheless, the experience of capitalist power is unmistakeable. The people who exert direct power over you, though not themselves owners of capital, share in and exert power on behalf of capital, and their role - as they know very well - is to extract the most from you in order to boost the firm's profits. They identify with capitalist interests.

This layer of supervisors, junior and middle managers, and other overseers of the work process, has grown quite dramatically through the 20th century, and is a direct consequence of efforts by capital to discipline labour and contain militancy. Some have tried to account for their role by revising marxist notions of exploitation, so that - as per E O Wright - supervisors and managers, while not possessing alienable assets, in some sense exploit workers by means of their control over skills and the organisational assets of the firm. This means that exploitation is no longer rooted in the control of productive resources. I see no need to take this step. Supervisors do not directly exploit workers, but they do coerce workers and they have an interest in enhancing the exploitative process for their bosses. For this, they may receive a small share of the surplus, but in that case the exploitation they are engaging in is simply a subsidiary form of classical economic exploitation. This group, which Wright says occupy 'contradictory' class positions, form the greater part of the 'new' middle class, as distinct from the 'old' middle class of independent traders, farmers, smallholding producers etc, which has shrunk considerably over the years and would appear to constitute less than 10% of the working labour force based on LFS data.

What distinguishes the 'new middle class' from the working class is their power over other workers, their ability to exercise mental labour that gives them either direct control of the labour of others or important social power, and their role in enhancing surplus extraction. As a result of the foregoing, they have interests opposed to those of workers and thus can be said to belong to a different class, even though they are employed by capital. My very rough and ready estimate based on the LFS's employment data, bearing in mind we can't subject these to independent scrutiny, suggests that the 'new middle class' constitutes about 30% of the working labour force. Note that I say 'working labour force'. This doesn't include the unemployed, or state pensioners, or those who rely on disability benefits. Of those actually working, a clear majority, certainly more than half and probably close to two thirds, must be counted among the working class. Of the total adult population, including the reserve army of labour, the figure would obviously be higher.

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What of the reputed conservatism of the British working class which, even at its most militant peaks in the 20th Century, did not break with Labourism? Does this betoken an abiding faith in Britain's parliamentary democracy? Does it suggest a class more at ease with gradual reform and class bargaining than with direct conflict with capitalism? Certainly today's working class does not look like a revolutionary subject, even as Labourism seems at its lowest ebb, parliament is in poor regard, and the gains of social democracy are being rapidly eroded. But the facts of Labour's long hegemony, the failure to establish a viable socialist alternative, and the relative timidity of the working class today, are outcomes that themselves require explanation. Reeve Vanneman and Lynn Cannon's classic study, The American Perception of Class, makes this point with respect to the apparent lack of class consciousness of American workers. The authors point out, based on an examination of past studies, oral labour histories by Terkel et al, and their own data, that American workers are highly conscious that classes exist and are acutely aware of the content of class distinctions. They show that while polls can be devised so that the majority identify themselves as 'middle class', not all polls will show this, and even where they do, people are still far more likely to self-identify as middle class if their position in the labour process does in fact give them authority, autonomy and an interest in enhancing profit accumulation. They also point out that a great deal of the funding and effort that went into creating the doctrinal basis for the 'middle class majority' so beloved of capitalist ideology, viz. a continuous ladder of occupational status and prestige suggestive of constant social mobility, came directly from the American state. Moreover, they indicate that a simple and logically sufficient reason for the failure of socialism to take hold in the American working class is the cohesion and power of the American ruling class. It has the ability to physically overwhelm radical challenges to the existing property order, as demonstrated in its history of violent suppression of the labour movement. It has the ability, which follows from being a ruling class, to organisationally overwhelm political challenges that lack money, ideological clout (newspapers, think-tanks, etc), and political and legal expertise, as most radical and revolutionary challengers do. Quite rationally, therefore, workers responded by putting their weight behind the less radical and more collaborationist unions, and supporting liberal rather than radical political candidates.

The specificities of UK history are obviously different. Britain's working class made its advances much later than US workers did - on the franchise, on union rights, and on the 8-hour working day. On the other hand, Britain's history of labour struggles is not as violent as that of the US. Its ruling class did not stand confident and united after the Second World War as the US ruling class did. Its levels of Cold War repression didn't ever reach the pitch of McCarthyism. Nevertheless, the appeal of Labourism, firsts as a means to socialism and then as a means of attaining social democratic reforms, is fundamentally based on the position of workers with respect to the ruling class. As Vanneman and Cannon have suggested, its is peculiar that the attributes of the ruling class, especially its relative cohesion and power, are rarely factored into explanations of outcomes in class battles. The efforts of British capital to break radical opposition and accomodate limited reforms produced a calculus in which parliamentary pressure and moderate trade unionism stood a better chance of yielding results than outright confrontation. Internationally, the readiness of squabbling ruling classes to unite in opposition to the Russian revolution and crush its exports, contributing to the ultimate corruption and strangling of the revolution at the hands of a new ruling bureaucracy further operated to shut off revolutionary alternatives. This more readily explains the successes of Labourism than does any peculiarity in the development of the British working class and its social psychological expressions.

Alasdair Macintyre, writing in the Sixties, described the basis for reformist socialism, and its eclipse. The conditions necessary for its rise included: a relatively homogenous working class with widespread unemployment and poverty, in which socialist propaganda offered a credible explanation of, and response to, the problems of workers; a credible belief in the independence of the state from class struggle and; a ruling class sufficiently worried about challenges to its control of financial and economic power that it was willing to include the working class in parliamentary processes, the better to limit and contain its demands. In short, reformist socialism was appropriate to a particular phase of class struggle in which enough of the working class was confident enough to pursue socialist transformation, and the ruling class scared enough to offer some reforms. And the evidence is that the ruling class was right to be scared. Paul Mason's Live Working or Die Fighting describes the richness and depth of communist, syndicalist and revolutionary anarchist politics in the British working class movement prior to WWII. Because these were not usually expressed as serious electoral alternatives does not mean they were not a threat to the ruling class. True to form, the ruling class most readily offered reforms following periods of radicalisation and labour organisation, such as had taken place during WWII, during which the ruling class found it necessary to accomodate the left and permit the spread of union organisation, and after which the ruling class was severely weakened.

By the Sixties, the ruling class had recuperated much of its lost power. The working class was far more stratified, and the ruling class had ceased to see it as a potential revolutionary challenger. It had elaborated a set of institutions such as arbitration bodies to manage its transactions with workers outside of parliament. Labour had ceased to express a meaningful socialist commitment and its leadership had attempted, if unsuccessfully, to remove clause 4 from its constitution. Nationalisation, rather than being a baby-step toward sovietisation, had proved to be amenable to capitalist interests. Nationalised firms still operated on the basis of profitability, maintained the same labour discipline and often the same personnel in charge. Even so, Labourism continued to contain (in both senses) a militant socialist component that appeared to offer better chances to the working class than any of the revolutionary parties that emerged and grew during the militancy of the early 1970s. Trade union struggles and left-wing campaigns gained results. Labour proved able to move radically to the Left, and still win elections, even if the state and the ruling class was more than capable of frustrating its most radical promises. The revolutionary left could attract some of the most radicalised workers, but for the majority of workers reform and accomodation rather than outright class conflict was the better bet. And again, it was the proven strength of the ruling class in its ability to deal with workers' insurrections, that led to the Labour Left's ultimate eclipse, as well as the decreased space for revolutionaries. The milestone, or millstone, of the 1984-5 miners' strike and contemporaneous struggles and their outcome undoubtedly made the working class more submissive and timid than it would otherwise have been. The subsequent out-manoeuvering of the left both inside and outside the Labour Party left workers with little choice but to vie for reforms from a right-wing leadership more inspired by Victorian liberalism than by social democracy.

Reformism is not therefore the result of a failure of class consciousness, or an inbuilt conservatism, which would mistakenly infer social psychological attitudes from class outcomes. Nor does it result from the conservative influence of a middle class majority or even a 'labour aristocracy', neither of which entities appear to exist. The overriding factor is class struggle, and the relative strength of the working and ruling classes in a given interval. And the enduring strength of Labourism in its neoliberal phase reflects just such an unfavourable balance of power as to make radical challenges extremely difficult to sustain over a long period. This does not, I might add, entail that such challenges are useless - actually, for reasons I mentioned previously, they seem to be more urgently necessary precisely because New Labour has reached a crisis point in its relationship with the working class. But it does warn against adventurism, and it does direct our attention to the structural limitations within which we operate.