Working Class? … what working class?

Published on The Project – a socialist journal, by Don Miligan, July 3, 2014.

… I make no apology for deploying this well-known quotation from the Communist Manifesto because I think that it does no harm to remind ourselves that the working class is the creation of capital, not of its own consciousness, nor of its myriad forms of cultural expression, nor of its transient sociological forms. Whether the working class can be the gravedigger of the relations and forces, which perpetually bring it into existence remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that defensive attempts to fix or freeze the working class at some specific point, or in a given historical moment, are doomed to failure.  

E. P. Thompson’s brilliant book, The Making of the English Working Class[2] discusses the formation and culture of the working class in the opening decades of the first industrial revolution. His account ends at the time of the great reform act of 1832. Within thirty years of Thompson’s end point everything had changed yet again. Craft trade unionism and the prospect of wider manhood suffrage had opened up an entirely different picture. Twenty years after that, by the 1880s, capital had vastly increased the size of the working class and transformed its life – pulling it into new and unprecedented shapes – giving rise to industrial trade unionism, fish and chip shops, and the payment of wages to footballers. Throughout these phases different forms of workplace arrangement gave rise to different forms of organization amongst workers, different modes of life, different kinds of housing and neighbourhoods, different forms of cultural expression … //

… However, throughout the last three centuries labouring people have time and time again failed to stop the march of capitalist innovation. Indeed, as Marx and Engels noted long ago perpetual upheaval is the very lifeblood of capital – capitalism needs the “uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions”, it must create “everlasting uncertainty and agitation” or pass out of existence. From the Luddites in 1810 to the final destruction of the British coalmining industryby the early 1990s, particular trades with their associated skills have come into existence and passed away, taking with them ways of life, domestic circumstances, and cultural assumptions. Entire branches of industry and commerce have come and gone. Who now remembers the commercial lending library, the shop that recharged accumulator batteries, photomechanical typesetting, or comptometer operators? Union dues collectors, vibrant trades councils, and tumultuous public meetings, have gone the same way as the tallyman and the doorstep delivery of milk, passing out of existence as technology and novel social arrangements have recreated the working class, rearranged family life, sexual and gender relations, and necessitated new ways of living.

Who now remembers the world in which the rivers of every great city were choked with ocean going ships, rivers lined with literally miles of wharves, warehouses, and docks? Areas in which millions of men across the globe, from Hamburg, Rotterdam, London, Liverpool, Manchester, and New York, from San Francisco to Valparaiso, Shanghai and Sydney, lived with their wives and children in cramped tenements close by the shore in order to manhandle crates, sacks, and barrels, on and off merchant ships item by item. These were times when sailors would been in port for days and often weeks on end waiting for cargoes to be off-loaded and loaded before they could set sail again. Each separate item, a crate of oranges, a bolt of cloth, bundles of steel rods had to be manhandled off the ship and into the warehouse, each item counted and counted again at every stage of the process, in and out of the warehouse, on and off railway wagons or heavy-goods lorries.

For some, this remains an elegiac source of memory and inspiration: … //

… What can we do about it?

Stop obsessing about ourselves our modes of organisation, and our perennial concern with welfare and the public sector, and begin to start paying closer, more detailed attention, to the broader nature of the concerns and interests of the working class. The defence of welfare, public sector employment and services are of importance, but they are not ‘burning issues’ for a great many workers. Indeed many working people – even some of the poorest workers – have bought into the mainstream agenda on these issues. It is common within the working class to believe that foreigners and those dependent upon welfare are the source of many of our problems. These workers do not need lectures about liberal tolerance from us, but they do need to know exactly how socialist struggle and revolutionary politics are relevant to their circumstances. Maybe they work in small places with only a few other people, maybe they’re self-employed, Maybe they’re stuck at home with the kids or elderly relatives, or work on zero-hours contracts, maybe they’re broadly sympathetic to left-wing rhetoric, but at a loss to see how traditional trade unionism, or immigration or welfare campaigns relate to their circumstances, or to their general experience of the capitalist mode of life.

The disconnect between what has become the traditional left agenda – our traditional suite of concerns, and our ways of talking about them – on the one hand, and the working class on the other, is likely to get wider and more serious as time goes on. This, I think, has a lot to do with our being stuck in the past – there is a deep incoherence at the heart of our thinking about the working class – of course we know that a lot has changed since the early eighties – but we’re not sure what meaning these changes have for our political practice or our continued irrelevance to the outlook of most workers.

This is not about ‘catching up’ – the working class is constantly on the move responding to the changing demands of capital. The new waves of technical innovation and automation are going to forge the working class anew – they are going to alter the manner in which our consciousness is formed, what we imagine is possible, and what forms of organisation are plausible, both in the workplace and in the neighbourhoods where we live.

The lesson we need to learn from the history of the different waves of working class experience is that this experience itself is always fluid. Consequently, our rhetoric, our iconography, our forms of writing, speaking and organisation, can never be fixed at a given point and need always to set their face against conservative thinking in the struggle to establish what is going on in the working class, and exactly what needs to be done to strengthen a politics of social solidarity.

(full long text, notes, comment).

Related Links:

Why do white working class pupils fail in school? on BBCnews, by Sean Coughlan, June 18, 2014: MPs on the education select committee delivered the verdict that they are “consistently the lowest performing group in the country” …;

Working-class fiction has been written out of publishing, on The Guardian, by Kevin Duffy, June 17, 2014: Everyone is the poorer for publishers’ widespread assumption that nobody wants to read about this part of society

Labour’s electorate: The new working class, on The Econmist, June 16, 2014;

Lessons for Labour, on Prospect, by John Mann, June 12, 2014: We cannot form a government without white working class Britain behind us …;

THE SYSTEM IS OBSOLETE – STOP TRYING TO FIX IT, on The Project, by Nick Wrack, April 30, 2014: Nick Wrack argues that it is time to talk about ending the profit system and time to do something about it;

Working class:

ETHICAL CONUNDRUMSHow should we define working class, middle class and upper class? on The Guardian /notes and queries, not dated:

- by Eric Robbie:

  • PAID by the week, rent your house = working class,
  • Paid by the month, own your own house = middle class,
  • Don’t have to work, inherited your house, plus estate = upper class;

- by J Nieman, Muswell Hill, London N10 – THE difference between the classes is in their relationship with society’s institutions:

  • The working classes do what the system sets out for them,
  • The middle classes invent, operate and belong to the system,
  • The upper classes tolerate the system but know the right people to speak to if they feel the need to bypass any part of it …;

- by Big P, Hertford England:

  • If you buy the biggest television you can possibly afford, despite the size of your living room, you are working class,
  • If you buy an adequate television, you are middle class,
  • Im not sure what sort of television an upper class person has, possibly it is inherited at some point;

- etc. etc. …;

Other Links: – E-Learning and Blended Learning: HREA offers self-directed e-courses, tutored e-learning courses and training workshops for human rights defenders and educators, development and humanitarian workers, staff members of social justice organisations, international and inter-governmental organisations, law enforcement officials and legal and media professionals:

ISIS jihadists demolish mosques, shrines in northern Iraq (PHOTOS), on Russia Today RT, July 5, 2014: … At least four shrines to Sunni Arab or Sufi figures have been destroyed by the bulldozers, according to AFP. The structures had been built around graves of Muslim saints. Six Shiite mosques have also been destroyed using explosives …;

Die Diktatur der Dummen verhindern, KOPP online, von Janne Jörg Kipp, 1. Juli 2014: … (zeigt) die wahren Strukturen in unserem Land auf und zeigt, wie unsere Gesellschaft verblödet, weil die Klügeren immer nachgeben; das Buch;

Revealed: How governments can take control of smartphones, on Russia Today RT, June 25, 2014;

à propos du 6 juin 1944, dans Jacques Tourtaux;

Un “septième continent” de plastique dans l’Atlantique, dans Environnement, par l’, le 2 juin 2014;

… an this:

KIDS REACT TO OLD COMPUTERS, 7.41 min, uploaded by TheFineBros, May 25, 2014 … and more in autoplay.

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