Whatever happened to the class struggle?
There are two things all progressives should demand in this era of recession: more freedom and more prosperity.
In this speech given at the ‘Ideas for Freedom’ conference in London at the end of November, Neil Davenport called on progressives to fight for two things today: more freedom and more prosperity.
For the past year or so, the headlines have been dominated by the crippling economic recession: bankruptcies, mass redundancies and wage cuts have come to haunt ordinary people once more. Unemployment in the UK is now above 2.4million for the first time in over a decade.
Of course, the working class has been hit by recession many times before, but the difference today is that there is little resistance to the threat of unemployment. Where are the big ‘Right To Work’ marches that characterised the 1980s? Indeed, last Saturday’s Youth March for Jobs only attracted around 400 people. So where are the mass protests, strikes and walkouts to put pressure on employers?
What is also distinctive about today’s reaction is how many ordinary people have been accepting savage wage cuts and reduced hours. Employees at British Telecom have even worked free for a month. Such a reaction reveals two things: firstly, unemployment and poverty have become naturalised, seen as one of life’s occasional hardships rather than a social problem with political solutions. This has generated a fatalistic outlook when dealing with basic workplace economics.
Secondly, it also reveals the erosion of even a basic class-identity today – of us and them – between employees and against employers. Today it’s more likely to be the case of us and them ‘working together’ through these difficult times. In 2009, it is less a case of class struggle and more of class cooperation. Given the complete absence of a vibrant, oppositional political culture in society today, this collaborative response is understandable.
Nevertheless, many left-leaning commentators believe that the mass expansion of the working class globally bodes well for a reconstituted working class as a potential political force. The spread of the market in China and India has created millions of workers who could potentially shape the future of humanity. The physical existence of the working class is not in doubt; billions of people around the world are locked into an exploitative, wage-labour/capital relationship. What’s new today is that there is a complete lack of a subjective sense of class, where people recognise their mutual interests and recognise that these are distinct from those of their employers.
A knock-on, even ironic, effect of this is that the ruling class doesn’t pursue its own interests in any meaningful way, either. It has, in many ways, ceased to rule. The systematic defeat of oppositional class politics also had the consequence of robbing the ruling class of their cohesion and purpose in society as well. The end of left-right, sectional politics had the character of a tug-of-war where the effect of one side collapsing is for the other side to collapse, too. Today’s ruling elites are more likely to outsource their authority and decision making, to judges, the European Union, quangos and the market, rather than to shape society in their own narrow interests. When it comes to even the most basic decision-making, their outlook is less one of ruling the world and more of ‘stop the world we want to get off’.
In place of a traditional struggle for power between the two major classes, we have the petty, narrow-minded, fearful prejudices of the liberal middle classes dominating all aspects of political culture today.
So this leads us to the question: is class struggle out of date? Well, the struggle of ordinary people shaping their own destiny, and in the process creating a more rational and democratic society, is still fundamental in furthering human progress and freedom. Objectively, that is still very important. But the question today is how we can go about making the case for more freedom, more prosperity and more democracy. A political culture that is peculiarly hostile to all three means any call for meaningful change is unlikely to get a hearing.
First of all, it’s important that progressives reclaim the banner of freedom as our own. After 15 years of liberal-leftists being at the forefront of demanding bans, restrictions and clampdowns on individual freedoms, the first major battle in society that needs to be won is on the issue of civil liberties. It’s ironic that 20 years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and the stifling Stalinist system that built it, individuals in British society have never been so heavily regulated, monitored and controlled as they are now. Everything from whether you smoke in pubs, drink in public parks, how you raise your children, what food you eat and what you say in public is open to an unparalleled degree of state intrusion and restriction.
The fact that such demands are often driven by liberals and leftists is particularly alarming. The cross-party consensus on state regulation means that ordinary people feel they need to prove themselves to the therapeutic state, by being good parents or by not appearing to harbour any ‘unacceptable’ views, in order to appear respectable and part of society. As one single mother interviewed on BBC Radio 4 said about parenting classes, she wanted to prove that she could be a good mother to the state. So long as ordinary people’s subjectivity and autonomy is reduced to responding to official diktat, there’s little sense that an agency-centred politics will begin to gather momentum.
The second key battle in society is over championing and demanding material prosperity. A year ago, some politicians and journalists were saying that the recession will be ‘good for us’ because it will force us to drink less, smoke less, go out less, spend more time at home with the family and reflect on the ‘important things in life’. Indeed, complaints about ordinary people’s consumerism – often dressed up in the language of ethical living and environmentalism – are at the cutting edge of anti-working class prejudices today. Progressives need to make an unapologetic case for a materialist worldview and to champion material betterment for all. This is definitely not something that should ever be seen as a passing political fad or out-of-date.
What this means is that we need to expose what I call the phoney anti-capitalism of environmentalists and anti-globalisationists. Their apparent hatred for the market is often based on how capitalism creates both a working class, which undermines their own position in the world, and a modern, urban society that they are utterly repelled by. Far from championing a social system that is superior to capitalism, these often privileged greens fantasise about everyone scratching a living off the land and making do with travelling on donkeys or ‘penny farthings’. They have a petit-bourgeois fantasy of the state protecting a peasant economy and a bizarre obsession with reversing the social division of labour so that we all grow our own vegetables and make our own clothes.
As progressives and modernists, we should have no truck with the backward sentiment that poverty and economic drudgery are worthwhile in pursuit of some dubious ‘ethical’ goal. Make no mistake, environmentalists are charlatans, and are potentially dangerous to ordinary people, in the West and especially in the developing world. Progressives have nothing in common with the retrograde, regressive ideas of green politics.
What all this means is that the traditional left-versus-right dividing line of the twentieth century has bitten the dust. In fact, the twenty-first century, in the absence of competing visions of society, is best characterised as a pre-political stage in human history. Whether we like or not, the lack of subjective agency anywhere in society creates unchartered territory for those upholding a belief in human emancipation. Even more worrying, when contemporary commentators seem hostile to the progressive aspects of modern society, and indeed the human subject acting on the world at all, making the case for human progress becomes that much more difficult.
The main task of progressives today is to make the case for liberty, prosperity and a human-centred morality. The development of such an outlook is essential before a class-based agency can begin to impact on the world stage.
Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell. This article is based on a speech given at the debate ‘Is class struggle out of date?’ at the Ideas for Freedom 2009 conference on Sunday 29 November.
Previously on spiked
Brendan O’Neill looked at why unemployment is no longer a political issue. Patrick Hayes reported on the Visteon factory occupation. Rob Lyons revealed the truth about the unemployment stats. Neil Davenport wondered why there are so many wannabe workers. Dave Hallsworth reflected on leading a major strike in 1982.Or read more at spiked issues British politics and Economy.
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