Whatever Happened to the Working Class? The British Ideology

‘The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas; that is, the class that is the ruling material force in society is, at the same time, its ruling intellectual force. The class that has the means of material production at its disposal has control, at the same time, over the means of intellectual production; so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of intellectual production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships – the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; therefore of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one – in other words, the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess, among other things, consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self evident that they do this across its whole range; therefore, among other things, that they also rule as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and circulation of the ideas of their age. Thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of their time.’

– Karl Marx, The German Ideology (1846)

There was a time, back in the early 1990s, when I could barely write an essay without quoting this passage or something similar as an epigraph to my learned disquisition on this or that question of cultural and political theory. Marx’s teachings on the relation between ideology and class were revolutionary for his time, but 150 years later, coming out of a decade and more of Thatcherism, it seemed the lesson had finally been learned – if not actually turned into practice. But the ideas of the British ruling class have come to fruition over the past quarter of a century, and what was seemingly learned has been unlearned, what was taken as given has been taken back with interest, and what was once regarded as fundamental has been undermined. So today, when its effects have never been more hidden in plain sight, it has once again become necessary to return to the question of class.

1. Class and Ideology

The question, however, is a difficult one to answer. Not too long ago – say before the social revolutions of the 1960s and for some time afterwards – everyone in the UK knew what class was and to which class they belonged, and anyone saying otherwise would have been laughed at as a social climber or snob. But the past 50 years or so have seen a concerted effort in the UK to dismiss class as one of the primary structures of society. As the class with control over the means of intellectual production, it is the middle class that has been primarily responsible for producing and circulating this idea, which has redefined the working class as the sign of failure to embrace its values and partake of its material rewards through ‘aspiration’, ‘hard work’, ‘getting on’ – and other euphemisms for class mobility through capital accumulation.

This, of course – ‘of course’ to those who aren’t deaf and blind to what’s been happening in the UK over the past half century – is an ideology formed to accommodate our transition to a post-industrial economy that was initiated by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and continued by every government since, both Labour and Conservative. That doesn’t mean a large percentage of the UK population isn’t still working class, but its membership and functions since the 2000s, when Tony Blair changed legislation on UK immigration, have increasingly been constituted and taken over by immigrant workers. In 2017 foreign-born workers made up 46 per cent of UK workers in elementary process plant occupations (industry cleaning process occupation and packers, bottlers, canners and fillers); 41 per cent in food, drink and tobacco processing; 38 per cent of taxi and cab drivers and chauffeurs; 31 per cent of food products manufacturing; 27 per cent of security guards, shopkeepers and domestic personnel; 24 per cent of fork-lift truck drivers; 22 per cent of elementary storage occupations; and 20 per cent of metal working machine operatives. But it is not only the opening up of UK labour markets to foreign workers that has changed the working class of Britain. The deindustrialisation of the economy, the breaking of the unions, the reduction in real wages for all workers – both British and foreign, the substitution of skilled by unskilled labour, the privatisation of the functions of the welfare state, the cuts to benefits and public spending, the marketisation of social services, the normalisation of zero-hour contracts and the recent rise of the so-called ‘gig’ economy are all the result of political policies aimed at dismantling the forms of working class political and economic organisation in the UK. Here, as always, British ideology is both a response to and instrument of economic change, by turns accommodating and implementing its new relations of production.

As a result of this change, both economic and ideological, class today has been reduced by the intellectual productions of the middle class to a question of individual ‘identity’ – which is to say, to another expression of our dominant ideology of identity politics. According to this dominant idea – which is now the imposed orthodoxy in the media, academia, the cultural industry and our political life – class is no longer relevant to the relations of production and ownership, the social relations arising from them, their legal and cultural forms, or the resulting political changes. Class, instead, has become little more than the collective behavioural codes and cultural tastes of its members – as if the food we eat, the music we listen to, the clothes we wear or the accent in which we speak defines our class, rather than being the expression of it. Notwithstanding this orthodoxy – departure from which occasions the hounding of the apostate from public life – it has always seemed to me, and seems to me still, that none of the determining forces of society – by which our so-called ‘individual’ identities are formed – can be understood outside a concept of class.

According to Marx’s understanding of the function of ideology in class relations, which is summarised in my epigraph, the recent and concerted efforts to erase class as anything other than individual identity is itself an example of class ideology. But behind, on the one hand, the more-working-class-than-thou virtue signalling of estuary-accented businessmen and, on the other hand, John Prescott’s famous declaration, upon the election of the New Labour government in 1997, that ‘we’re all middle class now’, the UK working class is alive and well and generally living outside West London. The Great British Class Survey of 2013 – even though its authors rejected the unity of a ‘working class’ for their newly-coined sub-categories of ‘new affluent workers’ (that make up 15 per cent of the UK population), the ‘traditional working-class’ (14 per cent), the ‘emergent service sector’ (19 per cent, and to which I apparently belong) and the ‘precariat’ (15 per cent) – concluded that some 63 per cent of the UK population is still working class. In reality, given who responded to the online survey – 22 per cent of whom were from what it rather obsequiously calls the ‘elite’ that make up 6 per cent of the population, and 45 per cent from the ‘established middle class’ that constitutes 25 per cent, with only 1 per cent from the ‘precariat’ – this figure is likely to be considerably higher. So where does this desire to erase the existence of the UK working class come from, and whom does this erasure serve?

2. Middle Class Hegemony

Despite the continuing refusal of the UK’s working class to join its ranks – as if all we’re waiting for in life is the chance to get on the middle-class hamster wheel – the middle classes have managed to colonise our economic, political and cultural institutions at almost every level. According to a report published in August 2014 by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, the 7 per cent of the population educated in the UK’s private schools provide 20 per cent of our university vice chancellors, 22 per cent of chief constables and FTSE 350 CEOs, 26 per cent of BBC executives, 33 per cent of Members of Parliament, 43 per cent of newspaper columnists, 44 per cent of people in television, film and music, 45 per cent of the chairs of public bodies, 50 per cent of members of the House of Lords, 53 per cent of diplomats, 55 per cent of permanent secretaries, 62 per cent of senior officers in the armed forces, and 71 per cent of senior judges. For the far less than 1 per cent of the population that went to Oxford or Cambridge the figures are even worse, with the two universities supplying 24 per cent of MPs, 33 per cent of BBC executives, 47 per cent of newspaper columnists, 57 per cent of permanent secretaries, and 75 per cent of senior judges. More important than this class identity, however, the ideology of the middle class – which as Marx says is the ideas of its class dominance – is hegemonic across our economic, political and cultural life. It’s from this hegemony that the current confusion about and misunderstanding of class derives, and according to Marx’s understanding of ideological formation it’s very deliberate.

Perhaps the most damaging form of this hegemony in the field in which ASH is engaged is the role of the Labour Party, which is middle class in political philosophy, policies, leadership and representatives, but still has the – albeit diminishing – support and membership of the working class. But then, that’s been its purpose from the day the Labour Party was founded, to which the long history of its betrayals of the working class should be sufficient testament. But the contradictions of that role are becoming more apparent now than they have ever been. Never before, perhaps, in the history of the UK has the working class been so lost in direction and divided against itself. Even when 90 per cent of the British lived as wage slaves in field, mine, factory or service, it still had a sense of itself as a class. Now, when maybe 70 per cent of the population is still working class, it doesn’t have even that. And in the face of its increasing alienation and immiseration – with average household incomes £8,000 for the ‘precariat’, £13,000 for the ‘traditional working class’, and £21,000 for the ‘emergent service sector’, all of which have low to non-existent savings – the sneering voices of the privately-educated, Oxbridge-alumni middle classes repeat the mantra with ever greater insistence: ‘Class doesn’t exist!’

With this denial of the very existence of the working class – which includes the erasure of the history of its struggles and the cultures it formed – has come the ever-changing euphemisms of the so-called ‘failure’ to become middle class from our political leaders: ‘the weak’ (Tony Blair), ‘the People’ (Alastair Campbell), ‘ordinary people’ (David Cameron), ‘hard-working families’ (George Osborne), ‘the just getting by’ (Theresa May), and, of course, ‘the many’ (Jeremy Corbyn) – not to mention the new divisions instigated by the Great British Class Survey. In all these circumlocutions there is the common refusal even to mention class as an economic relationship, let alone acknowledge the existence of a working class that might challenge the ruling idea of its non-existence. 150 years ago Karl Marx laid the heaviest burden of history on the working class when he wrote: ‘The working class is revolutionary or it is nothing.’ Unfortunately, unlike our French, or Russian, or German, or Spanish comrades, even the most rebellious manifestations of the British working class have never been revolutionary – too enthralled to our royal families, too stupefied by religion, too eager to take the king’s shilling, too ready to join the police, too dispossessed by the owners of our labour, too enslaved by our rulers, too brutalised by our lords and masters, too ready to lick the hand that steals from us. But for some time now, and certainly since the Miners Strike of 1984-85, the UK working class – as a class, which means: as a force capable of bringing about economic, political and social change – has been nothing.

3. Cultural Capital

So what – if it isn’t our tastes and accents – is class? Despite the evidence of the relation between a private education or attendance at Oxbridge and membership of the so-called ‘elite’ of British society, education on its own doesn’t separate the classes, with Old Etonians running the civil service, law courts and armed forces, the grammar school boys filling the seats in parliament, academia and the media, and the comprehensive kids doing all the dirty work. This in itself is a cherished idea of the middle classes, who place such value on their access to and possession of ‘an’ education. But while education can be one route to becoming, for example, middle class, in that it gives me what sociologists call ‘cultural capital’, to be middle class or working class or any other class in the UK today is an economic relation to capitalism, not a cultural or social one, which merely form our identity. I can use my acquired education to become, for example, an architect – which is to say, part of what the Great British Class Survey calls the ‘technical middle class’, with an average household income of £38,000 per annum, and to which an estimated 6 per cent of us belong. But in doing so I won’t earn more than, say, an account director who has a 1-year diploma in business studies from a former polytechnic, works for an IT firm in Slough and makes £45,000 per year, apparently making her a member of the ‘established middle class’. And my relation to my landlord –  who may have had no education further than GCSEs but started work in a car dealership at 18, set up in his own business at 25 and now, in his mid-30s, has invested his profits in a property portfolio –  is one of worker to capitalist, in that he extracts up to two-thirds of my income in rent on his investments, whereas I am dependent solely upon my labour to pay that rent.

Of course – ‘of course’ to those who have to earn the money to pay for the training to become one – because the pay is so low and housing costs are so high, most architects in the UK these days can only choose to become one because they’ve inherited a house or the money to buy one from their parents, or what the politicians call ‘the bank of mum and dad’; but this makes them middle class by inheritance, not through their education. Being able to decline Latin verbs or recognising Mozart on the radio and all those other supposed ‘signs’ of a middle-class education mean nothing when my landlord raises my rent or decides to sell the property for a profit. Class isn’t cultural or social ‘capital’, but an economic relation to the structure of a given society at a particular moment in history. My education may improve my ability to become a member of the technical middle class, and with the right accent and school tie and an MA from Oxbridge my children might become a member of the established middle class; but by themselves, without the capital accumulation required, this cultural accumulation won’t make myself or my children members of either.

This is what Marx meant when he said that the economic structure of a given society is the ultimate determinant of its political, legal and cultural forms, which condition our social, political and intellectual life. And while liberal sociologists at elite universities like to talk about the value of ‘cultural’ capital (but then they would, wouldn’t they, when academics have little else?), those of us who do not belong to their class, or enjoy their job security, or share their liberal fantasies, or subscribe to their identity politics, should be rigorous in applying Marx’s economic model to our understanding of the way the world actually works. To find out how much your cultural and social ‘capital’ is worth, try telling the landlord who’s about to evict you, or the boss who’s about to fire you, or the Jobseeker advisor who’s about to sanction your benefits, or anyone else with economic power over you, that you’ve read Pierre Bourdieu, or that the reason you’re late with your rent, your work or getting to your JobStart interview is because you were out the previous night making social contacts at a cultural gathering in Dalston.

When considering the descriptive purchase an idea has on reality, particularly when that idea has come out of the means of intellectual production belonging to the ruling class (the government, the media, academia, etc), it’s a good idea to begin by asking who and what it serves, and therefore what ideological function it has. It seems to me that only those who have turned their education and culture and social contacts into a means of class mobility, and are seeking to aggrandise it as something other than capital accumulation, could coin the concept of cultural and social ‘capital’. It’s the flip side to the Russian gangsters, Chinese industrialists and Arab oil sheikhs who invest in the UK culture industry describing their purchase of its commodities as ‘cultural’ capital. But in reality there is only one type of capital, and it’s the kind that pays your rent, purchases your food or – if you’re a Ukrainian oligarch – buys your name on the latest museum extension or academic building. Like the contemporary denial of class as a structure of the economic relations of society and its corresponding reduction to expressions of individual identity, the claim that class is determined by something other than economic relations is itself a product of middle-class ideology, one that can only serve to reduce further the already shattered unity of the working class while glossing the ruthless expropriation of its labour as ‘cultural’ capital. So what can the working class do in response?

4. The Burden of History

In The Communist Manifesto Marx described how the industrial revolution formed all the numerous social classes into two great hostile camps: the capitalist and the proletariat. The latter was a new urban class of skilled and semi-skilled workers entirely dependant upon their labour to live, with no means of production such as a workshop, no property such as a home, and no land to cultivate or raise animals on, but who were themselves bred for human labour, moved around to the means of production, housed in hastily thrown-up slums, periodically starved when not needed, and used and discarded like machines in the industry in which they laboured. E. P. Thompson, in his 1963 study The Making of the English Working Class, went on to describe how, by dispossessing tenant farmers and eradicating artisanal production and the skills that went with it, the industrial revolution between 1780 and 1830 created something called The Working Class; that is, a single class with a common experience of its exploitation within the economic relations of capitalist production. From this emerged a class consciousness and with it certain forms of working-class organisation, including trades unions, corresponding, friendly and reform societies, the radical press, the co-operative movement, the Luddites, the Chartists, working men’s clubs, various anarchist, socialist and communist federations, leagues and political parties, and, for our sins, the Labour Party, which from the beginning sought to contain and appropriate all these other – and more particularly revolutionary – organisations to its parliamentary aspirations.

When it was unilaterally decided to de-industrialise the UK economy in the 1970s a decision had to be made about what to do with these forms of working-class organisation and political representation. The history of the UK from, lets say, 1979 to now is the history of this economic revolution and the ideological forms to emerge from, accommodate and impose it. This revolution wasn’t unique to the UK, but its ideological forms are particular to the class structure of this country. Today, 40 years later, the Polish labourer digging up your road; the Brazilian cleaner who takes two night buses into a West End hotel from her flat in Romford; the Bangladeshi waiter pitching for your custom outside a Brick Lane restaurant; the Russian stripper passing round a pint mug in a Shoreditch pub; the Spanish nanny looking after the kids of Islington housewives; the Sheffield call-centre telephonist whose dad lost his job in the steelworks in the 1980s and never worked again; the Lithuanian single mother strapped to a wrist-monitor during 18-hour shifts in an Amazon warehouse on the M1; the Scouse kid who came down to London to find work and now cycles round London for Deliveroo on a zero-hours contract without health care or union representation; the door-to-door salesman from Yorkshire who is only paid when he exceeds his sales targets; the Essex boy who works for a car dealership in Chingford and voted for Iain Duncan Smith; the secretary who catches the 5am train from Kent to work in the City for Goldman Sachs; the second generation Jamaican mechanic whose garage is threatened with demolition by Hackney council because they want to build a fashion hub under the arches; the Welsh Port Talbot steel worker who has seen his pension vanish into a hedge fund because the Indian owners faced competition from China; the Pakistani postman in Hounslow who was fired at 40 when the government privatised Royal Mail; the Margate fish & chip shop owner who had to sell his business to a Chinese investor when the council doubled his business rates; the Irish builder who put his life’s savings into a house that two years later was worth 25 per cent of what he paid for it; and, of course, the Lambeth resident who enacted her Right to Buy in 1982 and was looking forward to a retirement in financial security but is now facing a compulsory purchase order by the council because it wants to demolish her home and replace it with a property that will go on sale for £600,000 – all these individuals are working class, but they wouldn’t recognise each other as sharing a world view, a common background, a collective goal, similar values, the same class interests, as having the same class enemies, or even as belonging to the same class. And it suits the class exploiting them to have them think and act that way.

The history of the UK within my lifetime has been about the destruction of the working class as a class and its replacement with this fractured, infighting, alienated, easily manipulated, stigmatised, depoliticised, unorganised, scared, bullied, demonised and increasingly impoverished demographic, which doesn’t even deserve the titled of a class anymore. And how has the so-called ‘radical’ middle class responded? With multiculturalism as the ideology of multi-national capitalism. With identity politics as the opium of the liberal. With (no doubt) denouncing my characterisation of these workers in the paragraph above as ‘racist’. With the Premier League and Who Wants to be a Millionaire? With dotcom millionaires and business startups. With demanding equality of bonuses for female hedge-fund managers. With tooled-up cops and the perpetual War on Terror. With deserving ‘strivers’ and undeserving ‘shirkers’. With ASBOs for council-estate kids and PSPOs for beggars. With anti-homeless benches and £100 fines for rough sleeping. With poverty porn TV and Strictly Come Dancing. With ethically sourced coffee for hipsters and ‘trans’ rights for Goldsmiths students. With accusations of racism against Brexiteers and Oxbridge graduates at the Guardian denouncing the ‘white working class’. With universal credit and ‘affordable’ housing. With Glastonbury and Momentum. With Oh Jeremy Corbyn . . .

I can’t speak for all of us who still insist on using the term ‘working class’ rather than the euphemisms for our ‘failure’ to leave it, but when I do it’s to remind us that there is a common experience of exploitation within the class relations of capitalism and – if we could organise ourselves as a class – a common goal too. And that this goal, and the organisation that alone will ever have a chance of bringing it about, has to begin with the assertion of the existence of the working class as a class. The burden of history is as heavy now as it was 150 years ago. The working class is revolutionary or it is nothing.

Simon Elmer
Architects for Social Housing

4 thoughts on “Whatever Happened to the Working Class? The British Ideology

  1. Sums up nicely what’s been happening since 1979….now a labour leader who understands this & can put this in layman’s terms would walk the next election methinks!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s