Despised. Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class. Paul Embery, (Polity, 2021)
This is a relatively short book but halfway through it I wondered if I could bear reading any more. Why? Well, it’s certainly not badly written or hard going. In fact it’s written in a congenially informal style that makes it easy to read and understand. But the trouble (or one of its troubles) is that it’s endlessly repetitive, simply going over the same ground time and time again, repeating the same polemic and even using the same words to express it.
What does it actually argue? Basically that the Labour Party is finished if it doesn’t manage to bring back to its fold the so-called ‘red wall’ of voters who deserted it in the Brexit referendum and in the 2019 General Election. These are the voters the author identifies as the ‘working class’ (defined as those who do ‘physical labour or work in blue-collar industries, factories, call centres, retail or frontline public services’) who have traditionally been the backbone of Labour’s support in urban Britain and from which background, as he frequently reminds us, he himself comes.
These people, Embery contends, have moved away from Labour because it has become a Party dominated by a middle-class elite hostile to traditional working-class values and favourable to globalisation, mass immigration and identity politics. According to the author, it needs to move back to embrace and represent those working-class values and only by so doing will it win back that core of traditional support and again become an electoral force. The words he uses to describe those ‘values’ are among those repeated over and over again throughout, giving this book its tiresomely repetitive feel: patriotism, tradition, custom, order, stability, flag, family, faith, identity, community, belonging.
Almost equally countless are his repetitions of a particular set of tired, hackneyed terms often used by those on the right of the capitalist political spectrum to seek to vilify their opponents: liberal wokedom, virtue signalling, identity politics, woke left, cosmopolitan elite, progressivism – or more or less any combination of these words. These are the terms he uses to denote forces he sees as standing in the way of those traditional working-class values.
Yet this book is a funny mixture. Its writer is ‘a firefighter and trade union activist’ and an adherent of so-called ‘blue Labour’. He proclaims himself ‘left-wing’ and makes it clear that he is on the side of the workers in their endeavours to improve pay and conditions. So it can be said that he recognises the struggle for a bigger share of the cake that the capitalist system creates between those who own most of the wealth and those who own little but their ability to work. But his solution is for workers to be represented by a Party, a reformed Labour Party, that tilts things in their direction and opposes the encroachments of global capital on their economic wellbeing. He proclaims himself fiercely pro-Brexit, seeing that vote as an indication that the working class (in his definition) was fed up with the ‘shackles of the EU’, with the ‘woke’ culture of Labour’s political elite, with the Party’s failure to respect workers’ traditional culture and values (patriotism, etc.) and with its embrace of ‘progressivism’, globalisation and ‘neo-liberal’ economic policies.
Some of this could be seen as well meaning, but it asks all the wrong questions and buys into a whole range of myths about class, race, the nature of government and much else. Above all it entirely misses the point about the struggle between workers and capitalists. It makes no sense to qualify as working class only those who do manual work or are in lower paid jobs. The reality, as even at one point the author comes close to recognising (but then dismisses), is that all those who sell their energies for a wage or salary are workers. They are all in the same basic position vis-à-vis their employer and all susceptible to losing their employment and so their means of living if the market determines it. No government, left, right or centre, can do much about that even if they would like to, for in the final analysis governments exist to administer the buying and selling system on behalf of the owners of capital and, even if they are able to take over some aspects of it (as suggested by Embery), they cannot control it, as has been shown time and time again by the continuous ups and downs brought about by what Marx called ‘the anarchy of the market’.
So though the author calls himself ‘a democratic socialist’ and says he wants ‘to address the injustices of the world’, his conception of how society should be run is a contradictory mishmash. He advocates a ‘strengthening of the nation state’, state control of utilities and such like, a government policy of ‘jobs for everyone’ and economic protectionism, yet at the same time he calls for internationalism, for a ‘flourishing private sector’ and insists that markets are ‘essential to the functioning of a free and democratic society’.
The author proclaims himself a socialist but would do better to look at a more meaningful conception of socialism, one that aims for a world without the market system, without buying and selling, without money or wages, and based on voluntary work, common ownership and democratic control. In such a society the narrow ‘cultural’ and class differences he sees as fundamental between people of one kind of background and another, between people of one country of origin or another, will disappear and give way to positive cultural diversity and real economic equality based on a system of from each according to ability, to each according to need.