I'm from a working class family. My parents and grandparents had working class jobs, as did (and does) my brother. My extended family - aunts, uncles, cousins - all were from the sort of stock politicians fall over themselves to flatter and patronise. Despite being confirmed non-labour movement people, we never had it very good. My family lived in a small, cramped house and we knew some very tough times. Class is never a neutral demographic category, it wounds deeply and I am one of millions who carry the scars. This is precisely why Marxism appealed. It explained class, its role throughout history, and why it and capitalism are inseparable. If the history taught at school was the collective biography of the haves, Marxism was the story and condensed experience of the have nots. And this was also why your pomo types, be it the more activist-oriented scholarship of Michel Foucault or the sit-back-and-enjoy-the-show fatalism Jean Baudrillard, left me cold. In the name of anti-essentialism and anti-totalisation, Marx and Marxism was utterly dismissed as mechanical and irredeemably authoritarian, as if forced labour camps and the NKVD could be found wrapped up in the analysis of commodity fetishism and the materialist conception of history. When Marx went, so did any kind of class analysis. In book after book, it was explained that radical politics could do no better than contingent alliances between oppressed groups in pursuit of strictly limited objectives. There was no place for the experience of class and the place it occupies in a set of abstract but nevertheless real and systematic power relationships. It was as if millions of people like you and me didn't matter or exist.
Simultaneously, while the postmodern social theory I read was doubting the relevance and social weight of millions, the neoliberal restructuring of the world economy was in full swing. The political common sense was that the state should regulate capital and actively intervene in economic matters to secure socially just objectives were pooh poohed. At best its role was officially relegated to making one's country an attractive and safe place for footloose global capital looking to turn a buck. This may have meant holding down higher rate taxes, deregulating whole industries, and providing an educated and mostly docile workforce. At its worst, the state raged relentless class war upon social democratic reforms and labour movements. Once Thatcher had given the miners a kicking, the floodgates of privatisation really opened up. A deluge of wealth and power drained away from people who sold their capacity to work as well as those dependent on social security support in some way. Those at the very top were swamped by more cash than they ever could spend. The balance between capital and labour was tilting and inequality accelerated. Class analysis, which is and will always be relevant for as long as capitalism exists, became even more urgent, and yet was largely absent.
Why was there this disconnect between real world events and academia? 10 years before entering HE, class analysis generally and Marxism particularly were in rude health. My old university library had a well-stocked Marx and Marxism section, but the titles tapered off after 1985/6. It was as if the miners' defeat saw an almost withering of interest in the topic. In its stead came not only the fashion for all things post-structuralist, but also a wider sociological turn toward studying consumption and identity. This isn't to say academic treatments of gender, race/ethnicity, and sexuality suddenly exploded. They did not as throughout the 1970s and 80s they steadily grew in importance. Unfortunately, as the latter decade wore on as academic Marxism withered away so the politics that imbued this radical sociology slowly bled out. The collapse of the Soviet bloc at the 80s' end presented as the logical culmination of socialism's effacement in British academia.
Is that all there is to it? As any student of social dynamics will tell you, x does not translate automatically into y. The path of causation from one phenomenon to another is never smooth. Yet there are no real coincidences in the evolution and development of societies. Albert Einstein doesn't get much of an outing here, but he keenly observed that the gravitational pull of one object exerts a pull on every other object everywhere. There is a link, small, infinitesimal, and overwritten by the intervening influence of planets and stars between my laptop and the galactic centre, but it's there nonetheless. Similarly, the dynamic always moving/always changing stuff of social relations are interconnected and mutually conditioning down to the most micro of levels. This interpenetration constitutes social relations everywhere and encompasses all that have ever existed. Hence the triumph of capital over labour and the looting of the social commons that followed it on the one hand, and the voguish hegemony of a set of theories and thinkers who decried class analysis and declared Marxism old hat in the academy cannot be coincidental. The former conditions but does not determine the latter.
Going back to the angry young man I was (alas, the only difference now is I'm older), I didn't catch or appreciate any of this. The postmodern erasure of class for me was a function of faddishness, selling out, and the cotton wool cocooning of the ivory tower. In the context of the UK academic left, all of those were true, but they in turn were made possible and constituted by the myriad dynamisms spiraling outwards from that most key of class battles. What is required is an analytics of defeat, to understand how the state was emboldened, how an independent working class culture was weakened, how it impacted subsequent struggles and the mindsets of activists, how it helped efface class from popular culture, official discourse, media reporting and, for the purposes of this particular bugbear, how the comings and goings of academic personnel, balances of forces within the academy, the rise of vocationalism and traducing of the humanities interweave themselves, the events of 1984-5, and other continuities and trends not apparently immediately related to it. Irony of ironies, postmodernism's disappearance of class can only be exhaustively investigated with the tools and theories it rejected.