Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Does class still count? (1972)

From the October 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard

In the years following the second world war it was widely said that “the old class barriers'’ were being broken down. England, characterised as the most class-ridden country in the world, had at last given up its forelock-touching, its obsession with accents, its one-law-for-the-rich-and-one-for-the-poor, thank you kindly ma’am, and the rest. Marghanita Laski’s novel The Village, published in 1951, showed the breakdown of tradition-based assumptions of social superiority in a small community: gentility and “background” gagging on the discovery of their small weight in the modern world. The class assumptions were those of pre-war Punch and West-End stage jokes, in which low incomes meant male illiteracy and female idiocy, and a servile manner was de rigueur from both.

In those terms, it was commonplace also that relatively few people admitted to being working-class. The usual term was “lower middle class”. What strata lay above this mass has always been indistinct—whether there existed a central middle class to which this was the aspiring lower fringe and another the cake-icing, as it were, or whether the middle class was a two-layer affair of uppers and lowers only. But whatever the boundaries, the array of qualifications was formidable: the school one went to, one’s dress and speech, family connections, tastes and, of course, income. And these things, we were told, were fast losing their significance in the nineteen-fifties. Social progress and humane legislation had equalised us all, making Jack as good as his master and privilege an archaism.

Superior & Inferior
Talking of “class” like that does not mean class at all. What is meant is social groupings imbued with the idea of places in a hierarchy. Viewed from the top, they are simply a question of degrees of extravagance. Veblin in his Theory of the Leisure Class dwelt on fox-hunting as the acme of “conspicuous wasteful consumption”, an incredibly expensive and incompetent—but ostentatious—way of doing what a chicken-farmer achieves better with a shotgun: and the ability to afford it makes its own social demarcation. The same applies to the public schooling and the domestic splendour, down to the details of personal appearance and manner. Nobody who has read Daphne Du Maurier’s snob-romance Rebecca is likely to forget the description of the cad: the kind of man who did not wear a hat and who would appeal only to “girls who gave one programmes in a cinema”.

From below, the groupings are stages in presumed rising-above the familiar deprivations and humiliations of working-class life. The person who has escaped from run-down housing to a suburb with trees, become a car-owner and seen his children “doing well”, is strongly persuaded to think of it as superiority. Those left behind in seedy surroundings and dismal jobs, condemned to having their noses rubbed in the worst of capitalism’s dirt, are all in a boat he has got out of: and what he now has, he’ll hold. On the other side there are people with more advantages — better houses, bigger cars, ampler displays of status — who look down on him. Called “class distinction”, these are the views from different rungs of the ladder.

Welfare Culture
What was implied, then, in the claim to break down class barriers was the ending of inequalities between social groups. The biggest factor ironing-out the differences was held to be the Welfare State. Not only need no-one be thrown into destitution by sickness or unemployment; medical attention was available to all according to need, and such stigmas as the pauper funeral were abolished. The extension of the school-leaving age and the accessibility of grants for further education were parts of the same process. “Equality of opportunity” was the watchword.

But besides these legislative steamrollers, equality was claimed to be spreading through society from the sheer diffusion of commodities. In money terms the television set in working-class homes was less of a luxury than what it replaced, the family piano; but in cultural terms, the same programmes went into the houses of rich and poor alike. Newspapers, car travel, labour-saving domestic appliances were all seen as having the same equalising tendency. Even holidays abroad, once the exclusive prerogative of the very well-to-do, were now available to working people. “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate” had vanished as social symbols. Instead, both were believed to be seated in front of television sets, reading the same continental holiday brochures through National Health spectacles.

New Labels
If any of this had been true, a silent social revolution should have taken place in the past twenty years. What has happened? In fact, the crude semi-feudal tokens of privilege whose disappearance was being celebrated have been replaced by a complex of social groupings and distinctions. “Class” is as pervasive as ever.

The redevelopment of towns has, if anything, intensified their stratification. Any large city is, socially, a series of islands on which people live among their acknowledged kinds — white-collars, labouring population, art-and-craft, high prosperity, etc.: the next island may be only up the road, but it is a foreign land whose children may not play with one’s own. The growth of council-house estates and owner-occupation, to say nothing of immigrant districts, has multiplied the islands. Likewise in rural areas the two layers of village life, gentry and farmworkers, have given way to the varied social self-valuations of commuters, directors and retired shopkeepers. It is commonly complained in the country that these new populations from town ‘‘don’t mix”; that is, they bring with them their own social-group palisades.

The idea of amenities as an equalitarian force is part of the old Fabian nonsense. In the early nineteen- twenties H. G. Wells informed Lenin and Trotsky that electric power would achieve more than the class struggle (“What a little bourgeois”, Lenin is supposed to have said afterwards). However, the divisive effects of piped and purchased amenities have grown as fast as they have spread. Every car carries its social label, the make and age connoting the owner’s income and status. The Fabians’ picture of ‘‘gas-and-water socialism” did not include House and Garden showing impossibly opulent kitchens and the Florentine statuary in Sir Wiliam’s loo. As for holidays abroad, "package” has become almost a contemptuous term implying bone-pared schedules of cheap hotels and sweaty droves pressed between famous buildings and souvenir shops. If a modern Robin Hood took that from the rich to give to the poor, he died laughing.

Dole, School, Colour
The Welfare State has, notoriously, gone sour on those who idealised it —not least in its promise to dissolve have-and-have-not differences. In general, what is provided by the State is the barest and most minimal; better has to be paid for, by those who can. The inevitable outcome has been the growth of private insurance schemes catering for the sizeable section who can’t quite afford to be cash patients but may, on an actuarial basis, keep their feet out of the water in which the poorest swim. In the everyday administration of “welfare”, the rise of the Claimants’ Unions owes directly to social-group attitudes to the Social Security system. So far from seeing themselves as part of the will of the community, officials have taken their task as a defensive action against undeserving layabouts and would-be tricksters. Indeed, the Welfare State has produced a saloon-bar mythology nearly as profuse as that of race. Its favourite character, heard-of everywhere, is the man who chooses unemployment because it pays him better: no-one seems to ask what appalling wage he gets in work, then.

The hope of educational equality has gone the same way. The replacement of selective separate schools by comprehensive ones was hailed as a great levelling movement: few people can have noticed that comprehensive education was called “true selection” in the 1958 Labour Party document on the subject. Apart from the grading principle on which comprehensive education is based, the schools themselves have quickly acquired their own status to be sought-after or not: the case of Holland Park as the “superior” comp is now being reproduced again and again. Nor does the admission of working-class boys and girls to universities go far to diminish the differences. Last month E. R. Braithwaite, the black West Indian writer, described on television his days at an English university where all students were equal before the subject at study — and his discovery later that this did not make them equal before the world.

Race has been one other field round which social groups have formed themselves. It is curious how the issue is always made that of colour when it is patently class. Anyone who doubts that should try fitting everything now said about coloured immigrants over what used to be said about the so-called lumpenproletariat — the poorest, most deprived sections of the working class — any time up to 1939. The fit is exact. Of inferior intelligence; lazy (of course); dirty; and disposed to violent crime. Moreover, they have huge families (living like animals), have rowdy parties every night, eat smelly food, and would ruin a decent neighbourhood if they were allowed in it. Enoch Powell might be interested to know that his story of excrement pushed through the letter-box was first heard by the writer from an industrial housing estate, all white, over twenty years ago.

Class and Capitalism
What is class, then, that will not be eradicated? The numerous groupings and divisions which persist and re-form continually in our society are, as has been said, not classes though they call themselves so. Classes are categories deriving from the basic organisation of society. If one looks at capitalism for its organic structure, there are two classes only: those who live by owning the means of production and distribution, and those who don’t. The position of the former is obvious enough. For the latter, the position would be also easy to see if it were not obscured — for many — by semantics and humbug. It is one of dependence on being employed and paid a wage. Regardless of accent, colour, education and high or low income, nine-tenths of the population everywhere are in this situation.

The supposed other classes are not sub-sections within that division. They are reflections of it, demonstrations of the way capitalism sets man against man. The fact that people are always hoping to get rid of these “class barriers”, and short-lived successes in doing so are claimed, shows their fluidity while the single great division remains. They are fluid because no-one is secure who depends on a wage. Last year publicity was given to the troubles of out-of-work executives. One, in a television programme, spoke angrily of the treatment at the Social Security office: if the clerk had not been a woman, he said, he would have smashed her face in. On the scrap-heap, the pretences of class are exchanged for the realities.

What is Classless Society?
One thing which is clear about “class” is that nobody likes it. Many people take it to be inevitable, but live in hopes of some lucky break which will take them to another rung of the ladder where, it is thought, things would be different. Everyone talks of “getting out of the rat race”.

When the phrase “classless society” is used, it usually means the absence of unfairness and inequality among social groups. What must be seen is that these problems derive from and exist because of capitalism’s division into owners and non-owners. The classless society is one in which the means of living have become common property. Given that, the basis for any assumption of social superiority from race, sex or possessions disappears. The first step to making such a society, however, is for all those dependent on wages to recognise this as the only true factor of their class position now. "Class-consciousness” is commonly a term for snobbery. Correctly, it means understanding of the fact that everyone who has to work is — working-class.
Robert Barltrop

Some Definitions (1972)

From the October 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard

CAPITALISM is the sort of society you live in now. It is a system of wage-slavery in which a small minority owns most of the world, and (sometimes) employ the rest of us. In capitalism, most things are sold for a price—production is for profit rather than for use. The world is divided up by frontiers into warring factions known as “nations.” Symptoms of capitalism include war, hunger, boom-slump cycles, strikes, widespread loneliness and despair. 

Countries like Russia or China, whose governments claim to be “Socialist”, are of course capitalist like their western rivals.

COMMUNES (kibbutzim etc.) are attempts by a few to get some shelter from the capitalist rat race. Whilst they may benefit their members, from the standpoint of abolishing capitalism they are a waste of time. Socialism in one country is not possible, let alone Socialism in one farm. Socialism could, however, be described as a world-wide commune.

HUMAN NATURE is a most frequent objection to the idea of a Socialist society. It is supposed that human beings have some fixed patterns of social behaviour which are especially conducive to capitalism. In fact, what is normally termed “human nature” is the result of social conditioning. Private property, leadership, aggressiveness, monogamy, etc. are no more congenial to human beings than alternative forms. A knowledge of different societies, historically and geographically, is sufficient to knock the human nature myth on the head.

LABOUR PARTY is often called “Socialist” but in fact never has been. The Labour Party was formed to improve the conditions of workers by reforms within capitalism. It sought gradually to change capitalism; instead capitalism has gradually changed it. The Labour Party is now no more than an alternative team for the management of British capitalism.

PATRIOTISM is unscientific and runs counter to the interests of working-people. It is therefore opposed by Socialists, who do not offer “policies for Britain” etc, but demand a world community without frontiers.

POPULATION EXPLOSION is certainly a reality, but it is a myth that it is responsible for hunger, pollution or overcrowded living. The world can easily support many times its present population in comfort and plenty of room. Hysterical Malthusianism diverts attention from the real problem: production is geared to the market, rather than to the satisfaction of human needs.

REFORMS are basically attempts to solve problems within capitalism rather than by doing away with it. Capitalism never runs out of reforms. Socialists are not opposed to all reforms, but we don’t think it is our job to propose them or campaign for them. Reforms are usually of negligible value to the working-class, and often create new problems which require further reforms. Fundamental social problems are always untouched because these are rooted in capitalism.

RELIGION is opposed by all rational people, but especially by Socialists who see it as compensation for social misery, and a diversion from the urgent problems of the real world. Happily, religion is steadily ebbing away in the most advanced areas of capitalism.

REVOLUTION is the process of changing from one social system to another. It is not necessarily a matter of barricades and bloodbaths, but in the case of the Socialist revolution, requires mainly mass understanding and democratic organisation. It is part of the job of Socialists to hasten this revolution by spreading Socialist understanding.

SOCIALISM is the next stage in human social evolution—unless capitalism destroys us first by means of nuclear/chemical-biological war. or ecological collapse. Socialism will mean the abolition of private property, money and the wages system; the introduction of voluntary work and free access to necessary goods and services. Socialism is a world-wide society of voluntary co-operation. It will put an end to wars, poverty and unemployment, enabling our species to concentrate on less serious problems.

The Cynicism of Capitalism: 1. Come and exploit our Africans (1972)

From the October 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Socialist Party of Great Britain has always made clear that nationalism, whether in Africa, Israel, Ireland or wherever, is a snare and a delusion for the working class of the country concerned. National independence may well be a good thing for the native capitalist class who are naturally concerned at seeing the fruits of the exploitation of the local working class going into the pockets of the British Imperialists or whoever the alien ruling class might be. But for workers to risk imprisonment or even death in a struggle for independence which will ensure for them nothing more than the joy of being exploited by their very own capitalists instead of foreign ones is clearly the height of folly.

A rather lurid light on this subject has recently been displayed in an advertisement in The Guardian by the Nigerian Government:
People are earning
in Nigeria

Huge domestic market of 55 millions

Abundant manpower is available at a rate
as low as 7 U.S. cents an hour.
You can get your investment back in
less than 3 years.
It should be pointed out that the words Huge Profits are printed in gigantic capitals in the advert, and are repeated at the end — People are earning huge profits in Nigeria: why don’t YOU ! The word “people” is itself a misleading term beloved of capitalist propagandists. It made nice capital, for example, when Nigeria was part of the British Empire, for the national capitalists to appeal to the Nigerian workers: People of Nigeria, fight to throw out the British Imperialist Exploiters. But nobody can be deceived by the present rallying-cry in the advert. The “people” who are “earning” these huge profits are not the African workers. They are earning something less. 7 cents an hour, in fact.

So the Nigerian government is setting out to get British capitalists to come and exploit African workers. Which means, of course, that a lot of these workers are going to find themselves in the ironical position of once again being exploited by the same white capitalists from whom they had fought and won their alleged independence. It is not sure, what with devaluations of the pound and revaluations of the dollar, exactly what 7 cents is worth these days but a tanner (two-and-a-half new pence to younger readers) would be somewhere near it. “In less than three years” gives an effective rate of exploitation to show a net return on capital of between 30 and 40 per cent, per annum. That’s really mouth-watering exploitation — far better than you would find in England or America. Or far worse, of course. Depending on whether you are a worker or a capitalist. That makes all the difference. Black or white clearly makes none.

Naked and unashamed, the Nigerian capitalists are boasting to Guardian readers (those poor devils who are fed each day on a diet of anti-racialism as though that were the only cause that mattered and anti-South-Africanism as though the natives of that unhappy land were living on even less than a tanner an hour) about what shockingly low wages they are getting away with. These are the people that the other people, the Nigerian workers, have put in power. “Come and exploit our blacks. They are the cheapest wage-slaves you can get.” We are not saying that the wage-slaves were better off under British rule. It is clear that they could hardly have been worse off. Even the worst capitalists must pay wages sufficient to live on. And they could hardly live on less than 7 miserable U.S. cents. And it is doubtful if such brutally cynical advertising would have happened. British capitalists are a bit too sophisticated to advertise “Our workers are paid less than other wage-slaves”. It certainly adds insult to injury to know that your exploiters are actually boasting about your slavery in the columns of the world’s leading do-gooder paper, god help us.

One wonders what that old do-gooder, the Labour peer Lord Fenner Brockway, thinks of the result of his efforts on behalf of African nationalism. No-one was more scathing in days gone by about the Socialist Party’s contention that nationalism was nothing to do with Socialism and was a trap for the working class. Brockway and the other leading Labourites of those days were all great friends of people like Nkrumah, Banda and Kenyatta. All of whom, when in power, have treated the African workers to an adaptation of the Biblical phrase: the British rules you with whips, we will rule you with scorpions. Which of course did not stop Brockway and other lefties from supporting people like Nkrumah who could fairly be described as Black Hitlers in the making (and the last little phrase would be omitted by the victims of the Nkrumah dictatorship which Brockway upheld).

Only a couple of years ago, the Nigerian government which had achieved independence had a spot of bother. It seems that some of their fellow black capitalists who lived in a part of the country they called Biafra wanted independence from their own black capitalist brothers. There was a lot of oil in the Port Harcourt area where they came from and they didn’t see why they should share the swag with the other black capitalists in Lagos. So there was another little fracas which resulted in hundreds of thousands of Africans, Nigerians and Biafran workers and their wives and children, being caught in a most murderous bloodbath or starved to death. But it seems that this was independence that the Labourites didn’t approve of. You see, these were the days of the Wilson government, and the fake socialists who were then managing British capitalism preferred to pay ball with the Nigerian government because this was in the interests of British Business (as a searing article in, of all places, The Guardian made clear when it was all over). And now that Nigerian independence has been finally won and defended against black and white alike, the net result of all the suffering and carnage is that African workers get a tanner an hour.
L. E. Weidberg

The Cynicism of Capitalism: 2: Partners Wanted (1972)

From the October 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard

The company’s prospectus is a colourful document of orange, red, yellow and gold paper. Pages are perforated by cut-outs of hearts. If all this seems a bit unusual, the prospectus offering is more so, as The Guardian (17th January) revealed. It is an invitation to the West German public by Kohle Liengeschaften to purchase limited partnership in an operation currently consisting of brothels in Konstanz, a town on Germany’s Swiss border, and Kaiserslautern which is near Mannheim and a NATO base.
“The oldest profession in the world is also the solidest,” the Company says on the cover of the prospectus. And an accompanying letter to potential investors suggests that purchasing a partnership in the enterprise “is an investment worth while because Irma La Douce never has a recession.”
The profession may have been around for a long time but it is believed that the Kohle venture is the first time capital has been publicly — and legally — raised in West Germany for an enterprise of this kind. And the financial enticements are substantial since the company is guaranteeing a minimum annual return of 9 per cent. “This is a better investment than stock,” asserts Herr Kohle, founder and managing director.

In Germany prostitution is considered a social necessity. The administration generally approves the existence of bordellos on the ground that they keep prostitutes off the streets (brothel bedrooms are officially referred to as places of work). So accepted is the profession in fact that there is even a slickly-written travel guide to West German brothels and red-light districts that lists each house and its location on a city-by-city basis and rates the house according to parking facilities, prices, service and amenities.

Prostitution is not a new venture for Kohle Liengeschaften. The real estate operation currently derives its income from renting small apartments to prostitutes and from concessionaires such as the night-club operators at the Kaiserslautern facility. The company, Herr Kohle emphasises, receives no direct part of any prostitutes earnings. Herr Kohle says that there are currently forty-seven “lady tenants” at Kaiserslautern and thirty-five at Konstanz. Generally, he says, a girl stays for three or four years. How long she stays usually depends upon whether she is making money and whether she feels secure.

The brothels are advantageously situated. The Kaiserslautern operation is the only one of its kind near the NATO base, while the Konstanz operation is near a casino and just across the border from Switzerland, where prostitution is illegal. The brothels’ “lady tenants” are checked by the management for police records, among other things. "We don’t take all the girls who apply,” Herr Kohle says. “For example, we don’t want wild women.” The girls, he adds, come from all over Europe. In return, the girls sign rental contracts for an indefinite period. In addition to protection, Herr Kohle says the company also provides apartments at Kaiserslautern where the girls’ relatives can stay when they visit. He adds that the company is also considering construction of a separate facility next year at Kaiserslautern for children of the prostitutes. These features, Herr Kohle says, offer the girls some security and "take some of the harshness out of the profession”.

Herr Kohle’s “new style” operations have borne financial fruit. So far nearly £600,000 in limited partnerships has been purchased by 120 to 130 investors. The limited partnerships are sold in £5,500 units. However, to attract the small investor and to provide anonymity, several investors may each put up £550 and pool their investments to make the minimum for a partnership unit. According to its prospectus, Kohle Liengeschaften is currently offering equity capital equivalent to £1 million or about £150,000 less than the estimated market value of the two properties. By the end of 1973 the company hopes to have eight brothels in Germany and Austria. To reach this goal he says about £4.5 million will have to be raised.

The company is advertising in newspapers and is selling partnerships through investment consultants and through its own sales office, which includes some former IOS Mutual Fund salesmen. Herr Kohle is a 43-year- old entrepreneur who is also in the construction and investment business and says that he put together Kohle Liengeschaften because "there was still room for adventure” in his life. He says he is optimistic about the future of the venture. “Prostitution has weathered all the storms over the past 2,000 years without a crisis and I don’t see one now unless the human race changes,” he says.

Here we have an example of the mentality that views all things as commodities, including the female sexual capacity. The brothel in this case is the market place, the buyers desirous males. Herr Kohle need fear no change in the human race, but he has left out of his calculation the fact that a section of the human race — the working-class section — will change conditions and, as a consequence, will change the behaviour of the human race. This is a change that will remove the commodity status from society and thus eliminate all forms of prostitution — and prevent the likes of him from exploiting women.
R. Ambridge

50 Years Ago: The Way of Peace (1972)

The 50 Years Ago column from the October 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard

It may be useful to remember that during the great war of 1914-1918, the workers who were drawn into that bloody orgie wanted nothing more than to be allowed to remain in their native land, and to be provided with a constant means of obtaining a living by the sale of their labour power to the master-class. That is the high watermark of their intelligence, which socialists so much deplore; but to say nations are torn with suspicions of each other, or secretly preparing war-like plans of self-aggrandisement, etc., is a travesty of facts, or the result of lamentable ignorance. It is not the nations, but the greedy capitalist class whose sectional interests compel them to regard each other suspiciously and who are secretly preparing to commit another terrible crime against humanity. The great mass of the world’s workers know nothing of these plans, and instead of suspicion there is an ever-growing sympathy springing up between them : a sympathy born of the knowledge that there is only one enemy they have to face the wide world over :—the capitalist class who alone are responsible for the present economic chaos, and the sum of human misery and suffering entailed thereby.

(From an article "The Way of Peace" by W. W. F. in the Socialist Standard October 1922).

SPGB Meetings (1972)

Party News from the October 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard