The death of class?
According to this piece in the Wall Street Journal, 7 out of 10 people in Britain now think of themselves as middle-class. I am sure many on the left will see this as an example of rampaging ‘false consciousness’ however, I find that theory somewhat problematic and dictatorial in its implications. You can’t force people to call themselves working class (or even upper class) even if you happen to think they are and your wasting valuable time and energy trying to convince people otherwise. All that will happen is that you will get into a highly circular and actually very pointless debate.
In a wider sense, it tends to expose a certain materialist determinism. Yes its valuable to realise the material basis of ideas and their material dynamic but it’s profoundly silly to say this is the last word on these issues. Human consciousness is a much more complicated beast than this implies. Its ability and capacity to reach beyond the confines of its immediate environment and to smash the limitations of its immediate material basis is what gives it the power it has. Where would we be as a species without people capable of building castles in the sky, even if this is initially within the narrow confines of their own mind?
Rather than waste time and my typing fingers arguing the vast majority of these people are really working class and why can’t they just damn well accept that, I think its more productive to deal with some actual issues that arise from people seeing themselves this way. It does potentially mean that those who still self-identify as working class are likely to feel increasingly alienated from ‘mainstream society’ and this could have dangerous repercussions. Some working class communities are obviously starting to adopt a Millwall-type-attitude of ‘nobody likes us and we don’t care’. From there it is a relatively short, though by no means inevitable, step to voting for the British National Party or UKIP and marching with the English Defence League.
The austerity drive of this government will impoverish large sections of the middle-classes as well. Although I would seriously doubt this will suddenly awaken their inner-proletarian what it could do is convince them of the merits of an alliance with the suffering poor; not necessarily against capitalism itself but in a more worrying prospect against the rather tawdry and poorly functioning representative democracy we currently have and against the always feared and hated ‘other’ ie, immigrants, the EU, etc, etc. Given the fact that the left is a shambles this outcome is probably actually the odds-on favourite as things stand. Incidentally, this is why I resent Labour’s focus on the ‘squeezed middle’; it may resonate nicely with swing voters but we have to remember sometimes we are more than an electoral machine whose task is to simply grind out the right result. We are part of a wider movement and have an obligation to that too. The fascination with this one social strata is un-democratic, exclusionary and downright reckless and irresponsible.
In other regards this survey shows the co-option and absorption of intrinsically positive ideas and goals into the capitalist discourse. Personally, I am a socialist not because I lack aspiration but because I suffer from an overabundance. I think society can be much better than capitalism allows it to be and far from wanting everybody to be ‘levelled-down’, I want a major ‘levelling-up’. I feel that a socialist society where the level of provision is such that each individual is provided for by the framework of society will allow the individual more freedom than they could ever dream of having under this system. Finally, I don’t want everything to be controlled by the state, far from it, I want the state and everything it owns to be run democratically by us all.
It’s just a shame we can’t truly say this of the left. It’s a caricature but the Borg are a pretty accurate representation of how the left internally organises itself; publicly, rather than be free-thinking and plain-speaking individuals, we are all expected to behave as drones; not like human beings. If this is how we organise ourselves in the here and now then personally I have to say thinking about what kind of society we would create in power fills me with dread. One that would probably put Stalin to shame. It’s no wonder capitalist media is so successful in portraying the left as an enemy of democracy.
The D word is the answer to both the problems I have touched upon. Labour needs to put it right back at the heart of our discourse to reach out to those alienated by the ‘booming middle class’. And the left might have to swallow a bitter pill – in a world that is in some ways ‘post-class’ – it will have to realise its the only idea and concept that can unite all the different groups behind a programme that will truly challenge capitalism. Put bluntly, nobody with a sense of perspective worries much about a ‘red’ takeover nowadays. However, people truly empowering themselves…that’s an idea that is so powerful they take it for themselves and hollow it out of any real meaning. Now if only the left had the vision and conviction to give it meaning….then things would be different….