There’s much talk, some sensible and some less so, that the Labour party has lost touch with the working class. Khalid Mahmood for example complains that the party is “doing better among rich urban liberals and young university graduates than it is amongst the most important part of its traditional electoral coalition, the working-class.” Of course, you can use words to mean whatever you want them to, but to those of us in the Marxian tradition, such a complaint makes no sense because of how we define “working class”. For us, being working class is not about your lifestyle or background but about economic relationships. If you don’t own (significant) means of production and must sell your labour-power, you are working class. By this definition, young graduates and people drinking fancy
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There’s much talk, some sensible and some less so, that the Labour party has lost touch with the working class. Khalid Mahmood for example complains that the party is “doing better among rich urban liberals and young university graduates than it is amongst the most important part of its traditional electoral coalition, the working-class.”
Of course, you can use words to mean whatever you want them to, but to those of us in the Marxian tradition, such a complaint makes no sense because of how we define “working class”.
For us, being working class is not about your lifestyle or background but about economic relationships. If you don’t own (significant) means of production and must sell your labour-power, you are working class. By this definition, young graduates and people drinking fancy coffees in That London are just as working class as an older manual worker in Hartlepool. Ponces are just as working class as racists.
Nor is class simply a matter of income. An employee on a high wage is working class whereas a self-employed person on a lower income is not: s/he is a petty bourgeois in Marx’s words.
Being a worker matters in capitalism because it is a source of unfreedom and alienation. The unfreedom might be merely (!) a matter of having to spend time doing something you’d rather not, or it could mean suffering tyranny and degradation. The alienation comes from the fact that our work is a way not of realizing our nature but rather is foreign to us.
On both counts, graduate jobs can be as bad as manual labour. One feature of recent years has been that professional jobs have seen more onerous hours, less autonomy and more precarity - which is one reason why such workers have become less likely to vote Tory . And bullshit jobs are experienced as pointless and alienating whilst some manual work can be a source of pride.
And on both counts, we can't really speak of retired people as working class. If they don't need to work (and increasing numbers of over-65s in recent years have had to) they are free from the unfreedom and alienation that is the plight of the working class.
Of course, members of the working class differ in their individual bargaining power and many can use this power to claim a share of profits. This does not alter the fact that they are working class: their share of the pie is conditional upon them selling their labour-power*.
From this perspective, the working class comprises much more than older, white less educated people. Migrants, ethnic minorities and LGBTQIA people are just as working class too. What matters is whether one must sell one’s labour power. This simple fact unites people with otherwise very different experiences and viewpoints.
There working class have never been an homogenous mass. Labour’s old Clause IV, written in 1917 by the Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb, spoke of “workers by hand or by brain” precisely because it saw a commonality between manual and non-manual work. That was right, just as today the working class can be in the material or immaterial economy.
Of course, Marxists have always known that class in this objective sense differs from how people feel. As Erik Olin Wright said, "it’s never been true that class, by itself, explains consciousness". It often takes redundancy or a bad boss for people to learn what class they are in. Ash Sarkar is right:
How people perceive their own class has little to do with the economic base. As the oft-quoted Stuart Hall once said, “politics does not reflect majorities, it constructs them.”
You might object that by this definition almost everybody is working class.
This isn’t quite true: I’m not as I can afford to live off my capital and am working only to retain optionality. Insofar as it is, however, this a feature not a bug.
For one thing, it vindicates Marx’s prediction that the working class would grow:
The lower strata of the middle class — the small tradespeople, shopkeepers, and retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and peasants — all these sink gradually into the proletariat…Thus the proletariat is recruited from all classes of the population.
And for another thing, the fact that so many people are working class means that class politics can be a source of unity and solidarity. As Janan Ganesh – no Marxist he – has written, the class divide:
feels less fraught than the rifts over race, gender and sexuality that make up what we know, for want of a better euphemism, as identity politics. It is a matter of numbers. A crude campaign against the one per cent would put, at least in theory, all other Americans on the same side.
Which brings us to the point. There are powerful reasons why the right and their quislings want to deny this perspective on class. They want to distract us from the fact that the economy and society is structured around ownership and that what you own determines what power you have. They also want to divide and rule. The more people are divided between towns and cities, graduates and non-graduates, leavers and remainers, black and white, trans and cis, and so on and on and on, the less likely they are to realize how much they have in common.
Of course, bourgeois politics has always been pulling these tricks, and one way of doing so has been to pretend that class is just another lifestyle rather than a manifestation of economic structure. What is remarkable is that such tricks are as successful today as they always have been.
* A more awkward type for Marxists is what Wright (whose work I commend) called “contradictory class locations (pdf).” Bosses and investment bankers, for example, are working class in the sense that they sell their labour, but are capitalist in that they get a chunk of the proceeds of others’ labour and so are exploiters. I’m not sure how this invalidates the Marxian scheme though: a taxonomy can be useful even if some people are members of more than one set.