David Cameron’s accent, though less plummy than some of his Tory predecessors, fairly tinkles with the sound of silver spoons being removed from their mahogany cases. We Brits with our highly attuned class antennae know a toff when we hear one. So when considering how it is that this man’s government is preparing to unleash a programme of ‘welfare reforms’ that seems set to devastate the lives of thousands of working people, cynics observe: ‘How can you expect a man like Cameron to begin to understand the needs of ‘ordinary’ working people’ – many of whom, it is often said with real justification, live one payslip away from destitution.
There is some truth in the observation, but Cameron’s ignorance of working class lives is not the source of his government’s attack, because, underneath the superficialities of accent and dress, class exists as part of what a capitalist economy is, and plays a leading role in government policy.
Economic class is much simpler than the British, multi-tiered system of class identities. It’s an objective matter of wealth: if you don’t have sufficient wealth not to have to work for a living then you are member of the working class. It doesn’t matter whether you work in overalls or a business suit, on a building site or in front of a PC; if the only way you can support yourself or your family is to work for a wage or a salary, then economically you are working class. If you can derive a good income from the wealth you own through rent, interest and profit, then you are a capitalist.
Class defined in this way is not a doctrinaire attempt to stick labels onto people that may not want them. It is not a personal or arbitrary decision, but an observable matter of social conflict. The working and capitalist classes not only possess a different degree of wealth, but they use it in different ways: the worker uses it to live, the capitalist to extract more wealth from the worker. This sets their material interests on a direct collision course. Under threat of annihilation and bankruptcy in the capitalist marketplace the capitalist class is forced to reduce wages at every opportunity and to get more productivity out of its employees. The working class, to protect its standard of living, is forced to resist.
Crucially, class also determines access to government power. A capitalist government has no choice but to manage capitalism, and capitalism can only be managed in the interests of the capitalist class. The government, whatever form it takes, must always place the interests of the capitalist class first.
The shiny, immobile features of David Cameron and his exclusive Eton education may be markers of his class, and he may lack understanding of the lives of workers, but the class issues that determine his government’s policy-making are not personal attributes of politicians. In government, Cameron and his cabinet colleagues are representatives of the capitalist class, and it is in the objective interests of the capitalist class and not the working class that his government, or any government, must act.