Tuesday 7 December 2010

Cuts and the Middle Class

Reading Charlotte Metcalf's article on her "poverty-stricken" existence almost made me sick. In it she pines about "only" making £500/week (if she's lucky) and the dilemmas of what to buy her materialistically-inclined six year old for Christmas. As someone who comes from a poor background, has never known a good salary, and now just makes enough to get by, Metcalf's piece was crass and insensitive even by the Mail's execrable standards.

That said, I won't be going out my way to condemn her. Sure, plenty of others have mocked the downsizing of her affluent lifestyle. But I think it would be a mistake for activists to do this every time a hitherto privileged member of the metropolitan intelligentsia moans about how tough it is to manage on two holidays a year.

If the anti-cuts movement is to be successful, if the labour movement is to overcome the bulwark of animus that exists toward trade unions and working class politics, we need to address and win over the upper end of the "squeezed middle" too. This section of the class structure is populated by small business people, departmental heads, managers, property owners, and the like. Their social and cultural weight is such that they often drag so-called aspirational strata of the lower middle and the working class in their wake. If you take these together they constitute the Conservatives' core, the bedrock of their electoral dominance in the South East and rural England. So, just as the cuts to local authority budgets are partially designed to sow divisions between Labour-supporting trade unions and Labour councils, so we must in turn drive a wedge between the Tories and their relatively affluent voters.

This isn't a call to emulate New Labour's obsession with triangulation, applying it to social movement building instead of electoral strategy. It is not a prescription for toning down protests or curbing militancy so as not to frighten the London dinner party circuit. But it is a warning against going all out to piss take the discomfiture of the affluent: we want them to be with us, not against us. They still have resources, media presence, and an amorphous collective clout to make politicians - especially Tory politicians - take notice.

If they can be welcomed into the anti-cuts movement and find a place within it, then British politics is set to become very interesting indeed.


Nick Fredman said...

'In it she pines about "only" making £500/week (if she's lucky) and the dilemmas of what to buy her materialistically-inclined six year old for Christmas.'

Phil you make perfectly valid and good points about class alliances, with respect to the middle class defined (as you do) as small property owners and those on salaries with some power in the production process such as managers, but I think your points about income area bit bit wrong.

Professor Google informs me that 500 quid a week or 25K/year is a bit more than UK overall median income in 2007 (18.5K), but spot on median income for "associate professional and technical (e.g. nurses, police", and only marginally more than that for "skilled trades" (22K). I.e. fairly typical of the white collar and/or skilled working class (but on the whole pretty crap c.f. e.g. Australian incomes).

If one doesn't subscribe to mainstream sociological definitions of class based on categories of "status" or income, there's only a rough correlation between income and class vis a vis the proletariat and petty bourgeoisie: many of the latter have quite low incomes, and in Australia at least skilled blue collar workers who have a tradition of successful struggle for a bit more of the social surplus, such as miners, builders and dockers, can with a bit of overtime fairly easily earn the same as a senior lecturer.

This person is in fact self-employed, and in the past at least seemed to have income from property, so is middle class, though not by her current income. And her point is the precariousness of her position, apparently losing that property, and the fact that a comfortable position, and resultant discontent from losing such, is socially and historically defined, and relative.

And have you ever met a small child? They're all "materialistic", and having two kids as this person does makes a huge difference to disposable income c.f. the childless.

Anonymous said...

Please learn how to use English properly.

Boffy said...

"I agree with Nick!" I don't think £500 a week is a lot. Its what the Government says is the average wage. A few years ago, one of my son's was looking at becoming a train driver. The wages started at around £27,000 and rose to around £40,000. I was watching a programme on TV a few weeks back called something like "All Our Working Lives", and it was an up date from an earlier programme about Mining. One of the miners said that even after privatisation, and as a result of the increased productivity from higher investment in new machines, they were often earning around £1,000 a week, though I suspect that was with overtime.

But, in any case I think Phil's main point is spot on. This fetish of attacking the petit-bourgeois and middle classes is something that really has only arisen on the Left since WWII, and reflects the fact that much of the left has got hung up with a reformist Fabian view. Its attachment to the Capitalist State means it has had to look to increasing levels of Tax to pay for the burgeoning Capitalist State, and unable to obtain that from Capital, the only place it could come from is the Middle Class, and increasingly better paid workers. It is a distraction from an effective strategy against Capital itself.

The Communist League as Engels sets out was almost entirely comprised of petit-bourgeois. The first Trades Unions were Craft Trades Unions whose members had much higher wages than the unskilled. Many of the members of the First International were petit-bourgeois like Ernest Jones, who marx saw as becoming the leader of the British workers but who was a Manchester Lawyer. The Second International had a clear strategy of trying to win over the Middle Classes, and Lenin advocated the Smytchka with the Peasants that most classic of Middle Classes.

In my blog, Who Are The Middle Classes, I've given some more detailed figures on income ranges that shows it makes little sense to lump even the people on the higher earnings levels of over £75,000 p.a. with those earning millions of pounds a year, let alone with the owners of Big Capital, the top .01% of the population who are worth billions, and whose income could be measured in tens and hundreds of millions of pounds a year.

Alex Dawson said...

I have to say I think one of the barriers facing most of the left sects is a failure to adequately explain or understand the changed class and wealth dynamics in the UK today.

It seems to me that for many parties, the term "working class" is romantically used to describe the increasingly narrowing section of skilled manual workers who can in many cases earn more than the UK average wage along with a band of public sector workers in a select number of trade unions, whilst other workers such as journalists earning in some cases £15,000 a year, are categorised as being part of the evil petit-bourgeois middle-class.

Class for many lefists is still, absurdly, based on your occupation rather than economic reality.

I know a good number of self-employed plumbers, painters, electricians etc who earn way more than the average wage each year and good luck to them I say. But at the same time, most journalists barely break through the average wage barrier.

The Marxist theory is pretty clear in my opinion - you are only truly middle class when you have substantial extra income coming in from property and investments and your work is effectively not your main source of income. The benchmark I understand is that if you cannot stay afloat if you miss a weekly or monthly pay packet, then you are part of the working class.

Yet in practice still many parties stick to outdated Leninist class distinctions that owe more to the social situation in pre-revolutionary Russia than the real situation now facing most workers.

John Major once said "we're all middle class now." I would say "we're all working class now".

Unfortunately there are many professional revolutionaries that do not understand the situation, and invent false and unnecessary class divisions where there are none.

It links in with the very prevalent idea on the left that someone cannot be a "proper" socialist unless they were born into struggle and have parents and ancestors who were class warriors...a bit like a North Korean dynastic succession or a monarchy, there are some that have a divine right to be leaders of the left...

Phil said...

Nick, I agree with your points.

Class is a slippery category and it can never be otherwise, given that it is defined by the *relationship* to the means of production. The particular grouping I had in mind were those at the upper end of the middle class, which Metcalf was previously, and the problem of the anti-cuts movement doing a bit of 'triangulation' ourselves.

There was something an old comrade of mine once said. It went like 'more unites the successful property developer and the self-employed hot dog seller than what exists between the developer and well paid skilled unionised worker, and the hot dog seller and minimum waged cleaner'. The petit bourgeois share a very similar outlook stamped on them by their economic conditions of existence - they can only rely on themselves to get on. This is why they hate the 'unfairness' of big capital's advantage (though of course they grow out of it if their business elevates them higher) and the collectivism of trade unions.

I know you're not arguing against it, but I still feel the socialist left as a whole downplays the social significance of this layer of the class structure. As the grey beards said on many occasions, they can swing one way or the other. As well as rebuilding the labour movement via anti-cuts activity, I think it's within the realm of possibility to utilise it to detach them from the Tories.

Boffy said...


I agree and disagree. The concept of class being determined by the "relationship to the means of production" is an idea that "Marxists" have developed, but which Marx and Engels themselves never said. In fact, in my blog linked to above I give the link to Engels letter to Bloch, where he quite clearly distances himself and Marx from such an economic determinist position. Letter To Bloch.

The relationship to the means of production can be used as a sort of shorthand, but as Engels makes clear individuals class affiliation and "Will" is determined by a whole host of life experiences, which have to be analysed in their concreteness. If that were not so neither he nor Marx would have affiliated to the Proletariat.

It is more important to know whether the Hot Dog seller was formerly a militant shop steward who was forced into self-employment because of being blacklisted to determine his/her class affiliation than to know that they are self-employed at that instant in time. As Engels says,

"According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase...

In the second place, however, history is made in such a way that the final result always arises from conflicts between many individual wills, of which each in turn has been made what it is by a host of particular conditions of life...

Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that the younger people sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to emphasise the main principle vis-à-vis our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to give their due to the other elements involved in the interaction. But when it came to presenting a section of history, that is, to making a practical application, it was a different matter and there no error was permissible. Unfortunately, however, it happens only too often that people think they have fully understood a new theory and can apply it without more ado from the moment they have assimilated its main principles, and even those not always correctly. And I cannot exempt many of the more recent "Marxists" from this reproach, for the most amazing rubbish has been produced in this quarter, too...."

As part of the determinant of which way those intermediate layers swing, is the political experiences they are subject to, and that is precisely where Marxist political activity is relevant. They do not swing to the Right simply for reasons outside our control.

Phil said...

Ta for the response Boffy. Sloppy language I'm afraid - writing 'defined by the relationship to the mean of production' can be read as 'determined' or 'conditioned'. I prefer the latter precisely because it's more open-ended and can lead to further elaboration from the standpoint of social theory. For example, your citation of Engels re: the whole of life experience has been very fruitfully explored in the work of Pierre Bourdieu - and one I utilised in my PhD.

What I was getting at here is there are 'ideal' class locations - analytical categories mapped out from detailed observation and study of different classes in economics, politics, culture, etc. In my reply to Nick I drew an extremely simplified sketch of what that location is like from an economic point of view. It enables us to see what directions different pushes and pulls come from, which in turn can be used to analyse "real" history - and be discarded if it has no purchase.

Boffy said...


I absolutely agree. I think the concept of "Ideal" class locations is spot on as I wrote in my blog on "Who Are The Middle Classes?". I think as I said there that the concept of class described in the "Manifesto" is more akin to the Weberian "Ideal Type" than to the mature Marxist view of class described by Engels, which ironically is more akin, in itself, to the Weberian notion of class, which encompasses other notions of status and so on.

Again, in the Grundrisse Marx sets out this "Ideal" type of class when he talks about Labour as "Not Capital", and Capital as "Not Labour". His discourse there on the difference between affluence and wealth is also illustrative i.e. you can be extremely affluent but not wealthy, indeed you can be affluent and yet "poor", because wealth and poverty he defines in terms of ownership of Capital. You can be extrmely affluent as a worker, and yet own no Capital, and in that sense you are poor. Lose your job, and it soon becomes apparent how poor.

But, his discourse there also illustrates how in reality these "ideal" types of class are an abstraction, they do not exist in these pure forms. So it is necessary to analyse the reality as it is in every concrete situation. As Engels says, that is what they did in relation to the events in France, for instance, where if you read the Eighteenth Brumaire Marx discusses a multiplicity of divisions within Society, and indeed within Capital itself. Lenin's analysis in "The Development of Capitalism In Russia" has some of those elements too. That's why Lenin was not averse to seeing the progressive role that Capitalism was playing in Russia as against the Tsarist regime, nor of making open alliances with Capitalist Parties on some issues without in any way compromising the independence of the working-class. Its a pity that most of those who claim to be Leninists today lack his clarity of thought, freedom from dogmatism, and flexibility of tactics.