Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Condition of the Working Class (2013)

Film Review from the August 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

The SERTUC Film Club at TUC Congress House in London recently screened The Condition of the Working Class, a new documentary film by Michael Wayne and Deirdre O'Neill who had previously worked together on the 2009 documentary film Listen to Venezuela. Over a period of eight weeks, the film follows a group of actors and non-professionals in The Ragged Collective (a homage to Robert Tressell) in Salford and Manchester as they work to put on a theatrical project based on their own working class experiences, and the Friedrich Engels book The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844.

The actors tell of working class life in Manchester in the age of austerity economics in capitalism where 'working class people are hurt by the cuts, there are attacks on collectivity, the bourgeoisie use divide and rule tactics, and people who have nothing want change'. Engels wrote 'the social war, the war of each against all, is here openly declared. People regard each other only as useful objects; each exploits the other, and the end of it all is that the stronger treads the weaker under foot; and that the powerful few, the capitalists, seize everything for themselves, while to the weak many, the poor, scarcely a bare existence remains'.

Like in Ken Loach's film Spirit of 45, some of the people in this film feel that Thatcher is to blame for everything, as if capitalism was only invented in 1979 but the reality is that she presided over the operation of capitalism during the worst part of the slump phase of its economic cycle, and was the head of an openly pro-capitalist government.

There are many differences between life today in Manchester and life at the time of the Engels book but fundamentally there is no change as the capitalist mode of production grinds relentlessly on. The film participants state that a person has to 'sell my labour or starve' (the working class sell their labour power to the capitalist), that 'society is divided into a bourgeois ruling class and a working class', the BBC is referred to as 'the Bourgeois Broadcasting Corporation', and 'the bourgeoisie are riddled with class prejudice, oppress the working class, and use the power of wealth and the state so that the rich look after the rich'. A reference is made to the gentrification of parts of Manchester such as the Docks where it is pointed out 'the working class built Salford Quays' which recalls Brecht's poem A Worker Reads History: 'who built the seven gates of Thebes?/the books are filled with names of kings/was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?'

The film demonstrates what Engels wrote, that 'the humanity of the workers is constantly manifesting itself pleasantly. They have experienced hard times themselves, and can therefore feel for those in trouble, whence they are more approachable, friendlier, and less greedy for money, though they need it far more than the property-holding class'.

Film International commented 'this is not a film, it's a rehearsal for revolution' which is true in a sense, but unfortunately no one mentions the word 'socialism'.
Steve Clayton

The Decline of Manufacturing - Good or Bad? (2013)

The Cooking the Books column from the August 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

In June the Office for National Statistics published an analysis, entitled 170 Years of Industrial Change across England and Wales, of how people’s occupations have changed between the 1841 census and the latest one in 2011. One of the key points it drew attention to was:

‘Manufacturing was the most dominant industry in 1841 accounting for 36% of the workforce, followed closely by services at 33%. The expansion of services and decline in manufacturing meant that in 2011, 9% worked in manufacturing and 81% in services.’

The remaining 10 per cent was made up of agriculture 1 per cent (down from 22 per cent in 1841), energy and water (including mining) 1 per cent, and construction 8 per cent.

Services had already overtaken manufacturing as far back as 1881 but it was only from 1961 that the gap between the two began to widen. Until then each accounted for more or less 40 per cent.

Marx pointed to the results of the 1861 census to back up his statement in Capital (chapter 15, section 6) that:

‘the extraordinary productiveness of modern industry, accompanied as it is by both a more extensive and a more intense exploitation of labour-power in all other spheres of production, allows of the unproductive employment of a larger and larger part of the working-class.’

After deducting the young, the old, the sick, housewives, rentiers and those he called ‘the ‘ideological’ classes, such as government officials, priests, lawyers, soldiers, &c.’, out of a total England and Wales population of 20 million he arrived at a figure of 8 million in work, of which he listed:

  • Agriculture - 1,098,261


  • Textiles - 642,607


  • Mining - 565,835


  • Metalworking - 396,998


  • ‘The servant class’ - 1, 208,648




And he commented:

‘All the persons employed in textile factories and in mines, taken together, number 1,208,442; those employed in textile factories and metal industries, taken together, number 1,039,605; in both cases less than the number of modern domestic slaves. What a splendid result of the capitalist exploitation of machinery!’

The ONS analysis confirms that ‘in 1841, almost one in five working people (18%) were employed in domestic offices and personal services, roughly half of everyone working in service industries.’

Since Marx’s day ‘the extraordinary productiveness of modern industry’ has still made possible an increasing proportion of the workforce in services, though more in those Marx called ‘the ‘ideological’ classes’, especially people working in national and local government rather than in ‘the servant class.’ Perhaps surprisingly, the largest service group today is ‘wholesale and retail trade, repair of motor vehicles and motor cycles, with 4.2 million people, 16% of the working population and about one fifth of everyone working in service industries.’

What exactly Marx meant by ‘unproductive employment’ has been widely debated. The ONS defines a ‘service industry’ as ‘where services are provided rather than a good being produced’, which implies that production involves turning out some tangible, material product. Marx himself didn’t go that far as he regarded the work of transporting and storing goods as productive.

We could argue over how much of the ONS service ‘industries’ amount to ‘unproductive employment’ in Marx’s sense, but the overall situation is clear. Increasing productivity has meant that, just as fewer and fewer people are needed to produce the food we eat so fewer and fewer people are needed to produce the material things society needs. It makes the case for production directly for use (to ‘serve’ people’s needs), which socialism will allow, even more relevant.