Wednesday 21 June 2017

Corbynism and the Middle Class

You have your hot takes, and you have your duff takes. There's little doubt which category Daniel Allington's latest lazy missive on Corbynism and the Labour Party falls into. His piece looks at the some features of Labour's electoral performance that should be a cause of concern: that ethnically homogeneous (white) working class voters with few formal qualifications are less likely to vote Labour than was previously the case, and that this has accelerated between 2015 and 2017. He also notes that if a Labour-held constituency voted leave in the EU referendum, there was a swing toward the Conservatives and vice versa if it voted Remain. To use the old management speak cliche, it's one thing to bring me problems but I want to hear solutions. Otherwise, what is the point?

Alas, it quickly becomes clear this is a polemic without one. First things first, it's interesting that ethnicity, education, and "class" are the characteristics picked out to "prove" blue collar Toryism. Because if he had added age to the mix, a different story is told. Across all the so-called class categories, Labour was the preferred choice for young people, and here you found a class effect too. The lower down the grades you travel, the more youngsters turned out for Labour. Secondly, according to the same you found a less muted but nevertheless strong correlation between position on the scale and the 35-54s. Or, to you and me, the bulk of Britain's working population. The, for want of a better phrase, conservative worker effect primarily plays out on the over 55s. As these are more likely to vote than the rest of the population, it skews the figures for class in general, even though the bulk of this group do not work. Therefore, while there is much to be done addressing this issue, no one's interests are served by pretending the "working class problem" is bigger than it is - especially when, as noted by James Semple, the correlations on which Daniel's argument rests range from weak to the point of negligible.

Then there is the issue of class itself. As any half-decent sociologist will tell you, the social grades system used by the Office of National Statistics (your ABC1s and suchlike) carries two conceptual dangers. It is a static definition of class that maps occupation into discrete categories. As such it can only provide a snapshot of a process, for class is a set of fluid and dynamic relationships, at certain points in time. The second issue is a matter of definition. Because skill and knowledge are the defining characteristics, it falls well short of grasping the full complexity of class. For example, if I'm a computer programmer, am I in the AB group regardless of conditions of work, whether salaried, on a temporary or zero hours contract, or work for myself? Likewise, if I'm a manual labourer of some sort, a gardener, a window cleaner, a haulier, but work for myself where do I fit? The first example would see me in the top grades regardless, and the latter in the C2 or D bracket. Such a tick list approach distorts actual class relationships. This is fine for crunching numbers, but buyer beware if you want to do more with the scheme. It should be taken as an invitation for further, finer grained analysis. It definitely should not be used as the basis to draw political conclusions.

Unfortunately, these weaknesses are on show in Daniel's piece. He commits the basic scholastic error of confusing the things of logic with the logic of things, of treating class as if it really is a fixed, freeze dried phenomenon. I don't know if he claims to be a Marxist or thinks he's informed by materialist analysis, but his treatment of class leaves out a very basic property of social relationships: the law of tendency. That is, looked at at a certain level of abstraction, sets of relations tend to move and develop in particular directions. Daniel doesn't take the working class Tory vote and interrogate it in its movement, there is no sense of where it has come from (apart from Corbyn's bad mmmkay) or where it is going. I think that answer is pretty obvious, but Daniel doesn't ponder whether this is a trend or the high tide of the Tory vote. And because he can't get beyond a schematic view of the social world, he is blind to the wider processes that are reconfiguring society and redrawing class relations. I would contend the middle class/working class distinction is increasingly meaningless, especially when (outside of the professions) conditions of work are similar, cultural diversity has and is continually dissolving cultural barriers between the salaried and the waged, and that the nature of labour in advanced capitalist societies is increasingly immaterial. This is giving rise to a new proletarian mass of networked workers drawn from all socio-economic backgrounds. This is the law of tendency in action. Meanwhile, Daniel potters around an anachronistic approach to class and class division. All that's missing is t'cloth cap and whippet.

And this brings me on to the most hare brained of Daniel's innovations, the "socialism fans". Making a splash earlier in the year, his argument amounts to Labour getting taken over by virtue-signalling middle class lefties who aren't interested in changing the world but are in a narcissistic display of radical credentialism. It's a hobby for them, they don't need socialism, it's something jolly interesting for them to do when quinoa smuggling loses its shine. This argument isn't entirely a stranger to this blog - we were talking about lefty identity politics before virtue signalling became an insult of choice among hipster fascists and small-headed Tories. But in Daniel's case, it does fulfill two political objectives, whether he's aware of them or not. It allows for an out-of-hand dismissal of Corbynism, of not bothering to critique it seriously because it itself is unserious. And it circumvents the need to think, because grasping afresh what's happening can only raise serious questions about established politics. And for some, that is difficult bordering on the impossible - especially when it tells you everything you know is wrong.

The second point about the socialism fans argument is its historical ignorance. Just look at the state of the title, 'Does the working class need to ask for its Labour Party back?' It implies that the working class were in charge of the Labour Party prior to Jeremy Corbyn winning the leadership. That's right, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband, all of them horny handed sons of toil. In the real world, it's no coincidence they, and their army of Oxbridge spads-turned-frontbenchers came to the fore during a period in which the labour movement had been politically defeated, was in retreat, and barely asserted itself through the party. The second point is Labour wasn't founded as a "working class party", it was fundamentally a proletarian party. The distinction is important. It was and remains the party of people who have to sell their labour power in return for a wage or a salary, and that encompasses the overwhelming bulk of everyone who has to work. Nothing says this more clearly than the fact the Fabian Society is as much part of Labourism as the forerunners of today's affiliated unions, that the professional associations organised by the socialist societies were there from the start alongside the industrial worker. It has always been an alliance of "middling" and "working" strata because that's what the labouring class of 20th century Britain looked like. What is different now is as the 'old' working and middle classes makes way for the networked worker, so Labour is reflecting that change. It has to, otherwise it will die. Daniel's concept of the 'socialism fan' fails because it doesn't help understand any of this. Even worse, it actively hinders it.

When I write about political matters, which is nearly all the time these days, I always ask what am I trying to achieve. When it comes to the Tories and the right, it's checking and rechecking whether the decline thesis is being born out by events. When it's Labour it's getting to grips with its transformation and trying to offer words that might help it along. When Daniel sat down and wrote his piece, what was he trying to achieve? Without any suggestions of a solution, with a concept so flimsy it screams bad faith, we're left with a self-indulgent lament of narcissistic miserablism.


Dialectician1 said...

I dunno but I really think it is SO good to hear people talk about 'class' again. It went missing for a long time, particularly during the heyday of postmodernism, when Nietzschean perspectivalism took over most sociology departments. In that period, any sort of critical realism was junked and replaced by anti essentialism, social constructivism and an erotic array of cultural studies. As my daughter who took a sociology degree testifies, the subject quietly dropped its founding fathers: Marx, Durkheim & Weber. Instead, her teachers foregrounded 'difference' and 'power': Foucault instead of Marx; Giddens instead Althusser. 'Class' was mentioned in a derisory way and Marx was the Aunt Sally, like Corbyn: 'old school and out of touch'. But hey ho, a week's a long time in politics and I've stopped counting the number of times it's been mentioned since the election and the Grenfell tragedy. They're now regularly using the concept on mainstream TV evening news.

Fido #votelabour said...

If you're fecked if you lose your job you are working class. Doesn't matter how many degrees you have or whether you listen to Radio 4 (harder every day!) or Radio 5 or read The Guardian or Daily Mail, whether you are a manual worker or sit behind a desk. #moreincommon

I read the New Statesman article and was reduced to impotent rage at its self-reinforcing prophecies and half-truths. Thankfully, Phil is always there to translate our incoherent social media splutterings into a considered response.

GrahamBC said...

Interesting article Phil. I grew up in a council house, my Dad had a few different jobs, mostly white collar office jobs, but also managing a bike shop, where one of his main jobs was bike Repairs. Very hard to pigeon hole. Me I am now a teacher, presumably considered middle class.

I think a better way of understanding class and the vote would be to consider self-identification.

Speedy said...

Class ranges from Christine Greening not getting a posh bank job because she asked for fish n' chips at an Italian (and still decided to become a Tory, the moron) to zero hours contracts.

Class is everything. Class is used in the UK to keep the elites elite even when they don't have the money or must compete against the non-elites.

Class in non-UK countries is cruder but still effective - it pays for better education, contacts etc.

Almost all of those who died in Grenfell were working class first, and Muslim, gay or whatever second. The bourgeois class has used this identity politics to divide and rule, not least abetted by the Left, many of whom spring from the same class and have a tribal instinct (anthropology again) to protect their class interest.

I have been banging on about this for as long as I've been commenting on this blog and variously called racist, bigotted and far right by self-identifying "Leftists".

jim mclean said...

Bit of a workerist so like the Wobbly definition, if you participate in the hiring or firing of a fellow worker you are not working class.

Anonymous said...

THanks Phil for this clear analysis and to James Semple for directing me to the coefficient of determination article. I think Phil's absolutely right about the limitations of seeing "class" as a static quality. I spent my first career in a job (mental nursing) that has moved from one class to another during my lifetime. I always laugh when the lazy-minded BBC journalists sample "working class opinion" by visiting a market and talking to the market traders. We had a family of market traders living in our street where I grew up in quite a posh neighbourhood of Croydon- they were loaded! Mind you their middle class neighbours did resent their presence, which shows that "class" does have some reality outside of economic definitions.

James Semple said...

As an immigrant I have always found the British class system strange: Phil now confirms its essential unreality. As a South African native I knew that race alone was a perfectly adequate classification to allow a powerful minority to oppress the majority. Constructing distinctions based on detailed occupational analysis was quite unnecessary, and so must be totally imaginary.

Class is a psychometric construct, like IQ. Constructs can be useful - atoms and electrons have facilitated enormous advances; but we must never forget they exist only as imperfect models of a complex reality.

Lidl_Janus said...

"their middle class neighbours did resent their presence, which shows that "class" does have some reality outside of economic definitions."

This'd be the old/new money divide. If you rise up the economic ladder but not the social one, then you're just not our sort, etc.

The weird thing about this is that you don't even have to go anywhere. Donald Trump is very much old money, but acts like the newest of new money (and like a complete and utter prick, too, but this might be less relevant to the conversation).

Blissex said...

«conservative worker effect primarily plays out on the over 55s.»

They don't regard themselves as "proletarian", they usually have (rapidly appreciating in the south) property and an entitlement to a pretty decent pension pot.
The exit polls from Lord Ashcroft and YouGov show pretty clearly that the most enthusiastic Conservatives voters are retired people, that is petty rentiers.

Blissex said...

«always found the British class system strange: Phil now confirms its essential unreality.»

It is very real indeed, and while it also manifests in educational and occupational ways, it is largely functional; even if the functions are largely ethnically based, and there are straighforward correlations with education and occupation.

«As a South African native I knew that race alone was a perfectly adequate classification to allow a powerful minority to oppress the majority.»

That's quite a different form of oppression, of a feudal age or even tribal age, rather than industrial age type.

«Constructing distinctions based on detailed occupational analysis»

The A, B, C1, C2, D "classes" are not classes, they are marketing groupings of people, based on their perceived consumption preferences.

Classes in the proper meaning used by political economists and sociologists are functional, as to the function performed in the process of production, that is what the source (rather than the size) of income is: property ownership and then managing property or working on property.
The same person can belong to different functional classes depending on the relative importance of their sources of income. For example a licensed lawyer is both middle and upper class (thus upper-middle class), because his professional license is property, but he works on behalf of those who derive their income fully from property ownership.

Another commenter says “If you're fecked if you lose your job you are working class”, but more precisely that is “proletarian” instead of “working class”: the proletarians are divided into two subclasses (which are not classes properly speaking), "middle class" (managers, professionals, foremen...) which is workers who run/supervise/advise the process of production for the owners, with a limited degree of autonomy, and "working class" who just do what they are told.

The biggest problem of the Labour party is that nearly all the "middle class" proletarians and a significant part of "working class" proletarians have become (in their middle and old age usually) property owners and property gives them a large chunk of their income, or its entirety if they are retired, and they vote as upper class people.

Blissex said...

«the British class system strange: Phil now confirms its essential unreality»

Class in the functional sense is very real: either income comes from property, or from work, and is an important way of looking at things. Then there groupings that are not classes, like upper/middle/lower income, upper/middle/lower education or upper/middle/lower consumption styles, etc., which correlate with functional class, but only approximately.

A peculiarity of the english class system is that it still retains a lot of the aspects of when it was not functional in the same sense as today, but in the feudal age it used to be personal, that is class depended on status, on personal position in a defined social hierarchy (founded on military power rather than production), while in other countries it was supplanted more radically by the industrial age.

Baden said...

I think what you discuss ties in with something I encounter very often.

For example I read a piece in The Times today talking about Labours mosaic and hence unstable support.

Referenced was the 18-24 group vote, which he stated needs to grow substantially. Also referenced was the apparent 12% lead by the conservatives among skilled/unskilled workers.

The fundamental error of the piece is a sledgehammer approach to class that ignores the exposure to propaganda,the role and functioning of nationalism within certain, sectors/professions and many other factors.

Only qualitative analysis will gauge to what extent this is support of X, rejection of Y, other external factors etc.

And this (external factors) are the key point. Like in economics there were bogus theories like 'The efficient market hypothesis' which has abstract validity IF time, space, costs, social relations etc are ignored.

It is this lazy glibness combined with a bogus focus group approach that literally cannot account for, and does not understand changes in opinions and attitude over time, precisely because they are fundamentally abstract and top down analysis's.

Either 'they' truly don't understand the growing appeal of Corbyn or they are doing their best to ignore it.

Dialectician1 said...

Class isn't a thing, it's a historical process. Attempts to pin it down to ahistorical occupational groups have come and gone. The latest serious attempt in the U.K. is by sociologist Mike Savage, "Social Class in the 21st Century". However, his work is more nuanced and is heavily influenced by Bourdieu, who shows how class percolates through all facets of our social lives. Class is so big and so fully integrated into our everyday interactions, we often don't see it. Sometimes, however, events like the Grenfell tragedy expose the subterranean nature of class. Ruptures like this bring class to the surface and expose a long history of class based political actions.

Phil said...

This by Phil Beaumont from the Facebook:

Good read. Particularly liked the bit about Labour not being created as the party of the working class, but as the party of the proletariat. The marketing team need to work with that. A party of the people, ALL the people, even "sharp elbowed middle class people" like me, has a much broader appeal. That hasn't come across up to now.

Bizarrely, my political "safe place" in times of tough decisions has always been the Green Party, who are in many ways as socialist as the Labour Party (and arguably in some cases more so). But they don't scare me the way Labour do, (probably because they are irrelevant) 😆

I will never be a Tory. And you know that. I don't do self-interest (well not that extent any way).

I will be one of the ones who gets his hands in his pockets to fund the tax hikes which are needed to end austerity. And it's right that I should. What I earn compared to public sector workers like Claire and Ian is wrong. So I don't mind paying more, even though I already pay a lot. I'd be lying if I said I was happy about it, but I accept it as necessary. I want to live in a society which cares about people.

But Labour still isn't talking to or for me. And frankly I wish it would / could. Because to win, the Labour Party needs the people who pay for the state on board, as well as the people who (through no fault of their own) need to receive from that state.

Maybe it COULD, if it's message was more about being a party of ALL the people ...