Saturday, March 05, 2011
The starting point for this discussion appears to be the question of whether a surfeit of single issue campaigns over specific problems is adequate in itself, or whether these need to be integrated into a broader analytical and practical framework addressed to recognising, opposing and eventually surpassing capitalism. Further, it seems to ask if class can be the concept, or antagonism, around which all of these seemingly distinct struggles can be organised.
First of all, I’ll try to say a bit about what I think class is, and how it relates to capitalism, because I think there’s a real mess of confusing and intimidating conceptions of class out there in the media. These often take class as a kind of status, based on levels of education and the prestige of one’s occupation – this is the version of class that is embedded in ‘social class’ statistics used by most pollsters and market research agencies - or a caste like nobility, or a pseudo-ethnicity, hence the ‘white working class’, a tea-towel memory of the sorts of communities that once exists in some form in the East End and elsewhere. Nor is it improved much by simply talking of class in terms of income distribution. We’re used to the usual shocking statistics concerning income distribution. I’ll cite some here.
In 2009, there were 10 million ‘high net worth individuals’, owning at least $1m in liquid assets – not illiquid assets like housing or cars – which comprises about 0.014% of the population. In the same year, ultra-high net worth individuals, owning at least $30m in liquid wealth comprised 36,000 people, or about 0.0005% of the world’s population. The total wealth held by all high net work individuals was $39 trillion, equivalent to about two thirds of global GDP in the same year. Another way to look at this is that increase in wealth held by this layer between 2008 and 2009 was $6 trillion, equivalent to approximately 10% of world GDP in that year. Now, if we just stopped there, we wouldn’t necessarily have come to an understanding of class. This would tell us about the assets that different actors could bring to bear in the market, and the rewards that they could generate from doing so, but that doesn’t automatically conduce to an argument about class. Perhaps another method will be hinted if I point out that in the UK, between mid-2009 and early 2010, some 89% of all new income produced went to profits – of £27bn produced, £24bn went to profits, and only £2bn went to wages. Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, recently estimated that a combination of factors was producing a steep fall in the value of real wages, such that wages in 2011 would be at best no higher than in 2005. This was the first time since the 1920s that real wages had fallen over a six year period. So, that’s telling us something not only about the distribution of wealth, but about the distribution of wealth as a social product – ie as something that we all produce through our labour – as a result of the operations of a capitalist economy. In fact, one could go further: the share of GDP that goes to wages fell between 1974 and 2010 from 64% to 54%, a ten percent reduction.
Amid a revival of Marx in some quarters, I want to outline the approach that Marx offered to understanding how this works. For Marx, class was not best understood in a static way, by looking at hierarchies and income distributions. Rather, to find class, you had to look at the system as a whole and its evolution, or more particularly, its reproduction. And if you start by looking at how different actors contribute to the reproduction of the system, the existing relations of production as it were, you’ll understand the class system. Here’s a schematic way of approaching this. If you’re a wage labourer, you reproduce the system by selling your labour power as a commodity to a capitalist, someone who owns some means of production, and allowing them to extract a surplus from the exchange – a profit. Unless you subscribe to the ‘golden egg’ theory, a form of magical thinking integral to capitalism, the profit can come from nowhere other than your labour. If you’re a capitalist, you reproduce the system by purchasing capital assets, bringing them together with labour which you also purchase, and taking the commodities thereby produced to sell on the market. If you’re a successful capitalist, you’ll realise a greater share of the surplus produced than if you’re not. But if you just take the money you make, decline to invest it in new production, instead spend on having a good time, going bungee jumping and parachuting like some California teenager, you’re no longer a capitalist. You’re only a capitalist for as long as you’re putting your money into circulation as capital, in order to generate a surplus.
The conflict between these two groups, over the precise way in which surplus will be extracted, and the extent of that surplus, as opposed to wages, is the central conflict in capitalism which one might call ‘class struggle’.
But of course there are middling layers who perform various roughly equivalent roles in the reproduction of the system, who collectively comprise the middle class. You have middle and junior managers, professionals, small businessmen and lone traders. Together these comprise perhaps 20% of the total workforce – a controversial claim, perhaps, when we’re constantly told that we’re all middle class now, even though polls indicate that most of us don’t think of ourselves as such. The ‘old middle class’ mainly comprised small producers and professionals, but this has been in decline for some time, partly because of the concentration of capital, and partly because formerly professional occupations have been proletarianised; the ‘new middle class’ that arose in the mid-to-late twentieth century is just that apparatus of supervisors and managers who were basically built up to contain labour militancy and roll out greater discipline and productivity on the shop floor. They wield surrogate authority on behalf of the owners, just as professionals wield a broader authority in society, contributing to the reproduction of its dominant relations of production and divisions of labour. They’re not simply part of the capitalist class, and profits don’t make up the greater share of their income. But nor are their interests identical with workers, so in this sense they’re middle class and thus susceptible to varying alliances. In the past, professionals were overwhelmingly politically conservative; these days the majority are either Liberal or Labour. On the other hand, the lower middle class, small businessmen and so on, are overwhelmingly Conservative – this group formed the backbone of Thatcher’s electoral base in the 1980s, consistently giving her about 70% of their votes.
Well, the above is just an argument about how we can approach class and its wider relevance to social divisions and thus to politics, but we seem to need something else. Since we’re interested in questions of left-wing political formations, of how our campaigns can win wider support by being plugged into an overarching political framework, we have to find ways to concretely address the issue of how we relate to class antagonisms. There are different ways to operate on these, and you can see contrasting examples in the Labour Party. Phil Woolas, supported by the usual cortege of New Labour ideologues, thought that the best way to do this was to appeal to racism, social authoritarianism – his first election campaign was mounted on the basis of scaremongering about his Liberal opponent’s relaxed stance on drugs – and a politics of resentment, in which he claimed that the main form of racism in Oldham was anti-white racism. What he was trying to do was bring together socially conservative working class votes with economically liberal middle class votes, and build a coalition that way. It’s a microcosm of the New Labour approach which, though it lost 5 million votes between 1997 and 2010, mostly working class and mostly under Blair’s watch, the basic idea of electoral coalition building, mobilise fractions of different classes into a viable electoral constituency, is a basic component of any political strategy.
The basis on which one does so depends, however, on national, regional, local, ethnic and religious contexts. This recalls Marx’s conceptual distinction between the base and the superstructure – the base comprising the aggregate relations of production, and the superstructure comprising, ideological, political and legal relations which give shape to and organise the base. This is rather important – ideologies and identities and so on aren’t merely so much vapour that will be dispelled as soon as the real core of class antagonism asserts itself. Rather, they are formative, they determine to a large extent how class is experienced. I’ll give you an example. The monarchy sits at the apex of a caste of viscounts, military commanders, dames, duchesses, barons, baronesses, knights, clerics and so on. Its relation to the productive system itself is tentative – I mean, the royal family runs successful businesses, but that’s secondary to their role. What the royals do is uphold a caste within the capitalist class, a system based on ‘honour’ – and popular conceptions of ‘honour’ aren’t really important here, we’re talking about gradations within elites, within the ruling class. Now this caste is based to a considerable extent on the history of imperialism, and its relation to today’s Commonwealth, which gives ideological shape to the global position of British capitalism. And it upholds an idea of Britishness that, while a recent invention, has the appearance of longevity and stability. It says, there will be wars and recessions, turmoil and strife, but the firm lives on. Britain lives on. And no good bourgeois wants to go to his grave without having been admitted to that noble caste. Give a CBI member a knighthood, and he will consider himself to have truly lived.
For those of us who work for a living, there are all sorts of other divisions, gradations, and so on, based on occupation, region, religion, ‘race’, gender, sexuality and so on. These differences structure our life chances and our experiences. Now if you take a campaign like Unite Against Fascism, and its sister Love Music Hate Racism. These are single issue campaigns, but they somehow resonate beyond their borders. What they do is operate on a concrete lived experience of multiculture – people who are already living in a hybrid, inter-faith, inter-racial, even inter-national situation, whose life experiences don’t conform to those of a pure white Englishness or Britishness, whose idea of culture is of a dynamic process in which we’re all involved rather than a series of competing blocs. And it seeks to say that this is a far more valuable and vital form of life than the sterile integrationist models of culture in which we’re all supposed to have the same basic values as David Cameron, or Richard Desmond or Her Majesty. In doing so, it’s intervening largely in areas where there has been industrial decay, where there’s a breakdown in employment and trade union organisation and a widespread insecurity that is causing some layers of the population to hark back to a ‘respectable’, stable Britain in which culture seemed uncomplicated and innocent, in which there was public order and discipline in schools, and so on. Such campaigns help the Left by preventing the Right from using racism and insecurity to build a wider hegemonic bloc, preventing them from incorporating new layers of, say, working class voters into their traditional mobilising base. And it also says that there are real issues of social justice and class antagonisms that are being avoided when people talk about race and culture. You can argue about how successful it has been, and I would say it has acted as a retardant, but the point is that this single issue campaign has wider ramifications for where society is going.
So, there are two key ways to relate single issue campaigns to a wider social framework, and that is first to have some sort of analysis of the situation in which you’re working – even if you the campaign isn’t avowedly anticapitalist, it always helps I think to be aware of the ways in which capitalism is shaping the terrain in which these issues arise and often producing them very directly. I don’t think you can talk about the ecological death-trap intelligently without somehow broaching the subject of capitalism, and class. Secondly, one has to be aware of how class and its various lived modalities is shaping receptions of your campaign. Even if you’re not going to say ‘this is a working class campaign’, which in many cases wouldn’t be appropriate, you are trying to work within class divisions to assemble a potentially counter-hegemonic bloc. And you also lastly have to be aware of ruling class capacities. The capitalist class is not a conspiracy or a unified social layer – it’s deeply divided. There are fractions of capital, and within those fractions there will be daily disagreements over proper strategies, as well as conflicting interests. But the ruling class does have some advantages. First of all, it is more cohesive than other classes: the sociologist Michael Useem referred in the 1980s to an ‘interlocking directorate’ – different companies would send upwardly mobile executives to sit on the boards of other companies – which provided the basis for a certain class-wide perspective and for political mobilisation. And business political mobilisation is a huge problem for any left-wing campaign. But it also has the state. The state isn’t just an instrument for the ruling class. Obviously, divisions among the ruling class don’t produce any single use to which such an instrument would be put. But while there are many capitalists, there is only one state, and what the state does is provide a certain amount of unity and cohesion to that class, partly by allowing a segment of capital to acquire hegemony, consensual direction over other fractions of capital, and impregnating the state with its imperatives and motives, and partly by placing statesmen and intellectuals in a position to give ideological direction to the capitalist class. As such, you end up with a state that almost invariably maintains, and furthers, the dominant relations of production, meaning that the state will usually not be on your side if you want to somehow curtail capitalist interests.
Those are some of the ways in which capitalism and class should shape our appreciation of political campaigns.
As usual in these events, the discussion afterward was far better than the talks, ranging from Egypt to the cuts, Wisconsin, Ken Livingstone and the Olympics, the politics of climate change, the wage labour relation, and so on.