Saturday, May 24, 2014

Goodbye to the working class? (2003)

From the September 2003 issue of the Socialist Standard

Is the working class an anachronism? Is being working class a thing of the past? Isn't the "working class" a relic from the era of outside lavatories, balls of whitewash, men-only pubs, and six pennorth of chips? The traditional signs of the working class – apprenticeships, railwaymen with pride in their jobs, Sunday blancmange and bread and butter, and a political party which professed concern for the labouring classes even if it continued to support and administer the dominant social system – are no more. Except perhaps the latter. Surely, our credit cards, our foreign excursions, individual levels of debt previously only enjoyed by the aristocracy, and the popularity of television soaps offering a slice of (realistic?) life, all go to show that the "working class" is an anthropological, superseded social group best viewed through a nostalgic looking glass darkly, or revisited through a sociology course?

Are we not all middle class now? Where, after all, are the coalface, the car plant and the steel mill now? According to National Statistics Online, in 1981 one in ten jobs were in the financial/business services sector, now one in five are. Think how proud our working class born parents and grandparents must be that the aspirational goal of a "white collar" job, a clean job, a job with prospects, a job for life, a job with a pension, a "middle class" job, has now increased statistically.

In 1981 one in three males worked in manufacturing: today, one in five do. The decline in the number of women working in manufacturing is even more dramatic: down from one in five to one in ten. These sorts of job are dependent upon the vagaries of the capitalist system; when supply (overproduction) exceeds demand or changing markets determine that coal, steel or car production is either less profitable or can be carried out more cheaply elsewhere in the world, then comes the decline in jobs and the rise in unemployment. Capitalism's like that. When goods are produced for profit, not need, what do you expect?

What of the traditional defence mechanism of an exploited class: collective industrial solidarity? In the United Kingdom just over 7.6 million workers are trade union members, a drop of some 1.3 million over the last ten years. The decline was much more pronounced amongst men than women. Just over a quarter of workers now belong to a trade union. Public sector workers are either at a higher level of trade union consciousness than private sector workers – membership is three times higher than in the private sector (59 percent compared to 19 percent) – or perhaps they consider themselves more likely to be exploited by the executive committee of the ruling class.

The equality demanded by the feminist movement would seem to have arrived. At least, the statistics say so. Twenty years ago there were more than three million more men in work than women. Now there is practically equality with 24 million jobs spread almost evenly between the sexes. Feminists are still concerned that nearly half of the twelve million plus women's jobs are part-time ones and that, despite the few female high flyers (who increasingly seem to have to resort to legal means for redress against the dominant male culture permeating the financial sector), women still lose out in unequal wages, and unequal job opportunities. Not that equal pay and better job opportunities represent emancipation, only equal exploitation rights with men. Why not abolition of the wages system?

The suggestion that there is no longer a working class is an absurd one. Sociological definitions based upon cultural preferences, job types (professional, salaried or blue collar, waged), or number of holiday homes owned in Tuscany or Dorset, are more likely to reflect a false consciousness of one's actual class position. Whilst there are statistics, government statistics and politicians' proclamations, working class membership is easily defined. Membership of the working class is open to all regardless of race, colour or ethnic origin. Anyone with no other choice but to sell their physical or mental labour power in order to earn money which provides the means necessary to sustain living is, no matter what the difference in their salary/wages, job description/ responsibility, a member of the working class majority. This includes dependants, children, the elderly, and the unemployed.

Don't take our word for it. The Inland Revenue online figures for the share of wealth within the UK confirm that, as at year 2000, one per cent of the populace owns 22 percent of the wealth. The top 10 percent own 54 percent. The top 50 percent own 94 percent. If dwellings are removed from the calculations, the share of wealth of the top 10 per cent jumps to 72 percent and the top 50 percent jumps to 99 percent of total wealth. The value of this wealth is given as almost three thousand billion pounds (£2968 billion). Depending upon the calculation, half of the UK population own between them only 1 or 6 percent of the available wealth. But it's not only do the "bottom" half who have a vested interest in abolishing the social system which denies them better than decent housing, health care, education, and life opportunities. The whole of the working class will benefit from the transition from an exploitative class society to a classless one.