The Masses Against the Classes

As I have briefly touched on before, I am continually amazed by how many of my peers completely ignore or are completely ignorant of class. For my generation (and those that have followed) it is de rigueur to ascribe certain qualities of your personality or certain external events in your life to different aspects of your identity. Decades of misinformation (and downright propaganda) from our media (and larger culture) have rendered class invisible, a perceived irrelevance. It is not to be mentioned in polite company and speaking about it passionately and intelligently instantly marks you out as, at best, a naive relic (while it is not often verbalised, it’s clear that, at worse, mentioning class sees you painted as hopelessly bitter.) Even much of ‘the left’ will respond to its mention by trotting out that ever more meaningless insult, ‘Trot’.

Cultural theory, largely removed from any economic realm, is what’s fashionable these days. I use the phrase ‘fashionable’ deliberately as it is a grim irony that the worlds of media, marketing and fashion have been at the forefront of capitalist society’s efforts to strip the economic from the political and replace it with a post-modern sense that all is vanity. To speak to someone who works in these fields is typically to find someone who staggeringly believes that their work is beyond politics and their success is entirely down to their own qualities. Indeed, these industries thrive on pushing the notion that anyone can make it if they try. That we are the Kings and Queens of our own fates and our success or failure depends entirely on our personal efforts. There is, of course, absolutely no place for class in this narrative. No place for power, even for politics itself. Contact with the outside world will express itself as a series of fringe identity issues, for example ‘compassionate consumerism’ wherein ineffectual hand-wringing about sweatshops identifies you as someone who cares.

Mention of a ‘class war’ is, then, completely beyond the pale. It is no exaggeration that proposing this possibility generally results in your instant dismissal as a crazy person. A class war suggests one class using its power to protect or advance its position at the expense of another and how could this be in a world free of class?

Yet if we are to accept that class isn’t real we need different explanations as to why so much of our society is intrinsically linked to income (which plays a huge, but not solitary, role in class). As the first column linked to above indicates, educational attainment is still closely linked to class. This follows through into professional jobs, our legal system, our government, all areas where the higher income brackets are hopelessly over-represented. Lower income families account for a hugely out-of-proportion number of those in prison. A recent report linked the UK riots with deprivation. Obviously I am rattling through and simplifying here but the blunt links are there and undeniable. Social mobility is at a standstill and for every person who, against the odds, ‘escapes’ from their background there are countless more who do not, who cannot, who don’t even begin to think that they can.

So yes, I believe that class is real and, in a country where inequality is reaching levels worse than it has ever been it is more relevant than ever. Labour’s record on inequality wasn’t great by any means but, on the whole, it decreased poverty even while failing to tackle the rich becoming ever richer and ever more disconnected from society. Today we have a government which is actively redistributing wealth away from the poor to pay for more PFI (an expensive means of moving wealth from taxpayers into concentrated, private hands), ‘free schools’ and further subsidies for banks and businesses which are steadfastly failing to play their part in the coalition fantasy of the private sector rushing to the aid of the economy (after the state bailouts which prevented worldwide depression, you’d think they’d return the favour). This comes in seven days where the government announced its plans to tackle youth unemployment and the housing bubble by subsidising low wage employers and hawkish landlords. The Treasury’s own figures anticipate today’s policies pushing 100,000 further children into poverty. Unemployment is predicted to rise above the dreaded figure of 3 million, not seen since the dark days of Thatcher. Poverty in general is predicted to rise by millions in the next decade.

As you can see in this chart, a swift analysis of today’s measures saw the top income decile being affected most. However, this was largely due to Labour’s 50p tax rate which the government has several times indicated it wishes to scrap. Remove this from the picture and the changes are completely regressive, with the poorest being hit hardest (and, in any case, clearly a decline in net income of 1.5% affects the poorest far more than a decline of 2% affects the richest). Note that the curve rises upwards from the poorest so that the middle-classes are the least ‘hit’. This is classic class politics. The token gesture of hitting the richest by a few more fractions of a percentile enables the government to trumpet that everyone is ‘in it together’. Hitting the middle-class least protects their vote; even more so if the blame for it can be diverted to those who are being hit hardest. So it was that the government announced a headline benefits rise of over 5%. Cue many outraged comments that the feckless were being ‘rewarded’ for doing nothing while workers were being penalised. Of course the reality is that both groups are worse-off and those on benefits are hit harder in other ways, but many people won’t look beyond the headlines to realise this and their anger is directed away from those in power.

All of this is done under the guise of reducing a ‘deficit’ that was caused by a mendacious and greedy financial sector with the help of cowardly politicians (and anyone who still believes the lie that it was due to public spending should read this and this). Yet these people continue to accumulate wealth while public sector workers are given real term double-digit pay cuts and the government ‘consults’ on destroying further employment rights (the UK already suffers some of the worst employment rights in Europe). And the deficit is getting bigger! The political manipulation on display is breathtaking. 

You can see it too in the pensions dispute. The government’s own report anticipated public sector pension costs peaking around 2026 and then declining. Even at its peak, the cost never hits 2% of GDP. There has already been significant reform of public sector pensions over the past 15 years which has reduced their cost. Yet the government pushes the myth of an out-of-control pension bill and an intransigent, greedy public sector determined to hold onto unfair, outdated arrangements. Again, they play ordinary workers off against each other – rather than ask why their own pensions are so derisory, private sector workers are led to believe that dinner ladies are looking forward to living it up at their expense. It’s a myth that falls apart very quickly but in the face of a media largely owned by billionaire oligarchs, it is one that is rarely challenged. No wonder when, as I’ve noted above, our society is so geared towards the supremacy of individual effort? The guy in marketing earning £30,000 a year, he earned it. If a nurse is seeing her pay cut in real terms it’s probably her fault for not finding another job, right?

It is difficult not to believe that we are seeing a class war. The government refuses to countenance a Tobin tax or anything other than mild reform of the financial sector. The interests of those who caused, and benefited from, the financial crisis continue to be protected. Today has been the clearest indicator yet that the government is not only failing the majority of the country but actively attacking them and their interests, all under the guise of tackling a deficit that they are actually increasing.

Tomorrow sees the biggest strike in the UK in several generations. Everyone who cares about this country, who believes that it should be a fairer place with a sense of justice, should support it. We need to recognise our common enemy, neatly encapsulated in recent months in the term ‘the 1%’. This government is ensuring that your class, and your children’s class, will matter more than ever when it comes to dictating their lives. We need to recognise this, which means accepting the reality of class and the logic of class interests. It means accepting that there is such a thing as society and it plays a part in where we all end up in our lives. It means accepting that our individual effort only goes so far and our common destiny is far more important. This is the only way we can begin to even move towards a world where class truly does not matter.

This perfectly exposes the fundamental problem of separating crimes, particularly violent crimes, by various traits shared by victims and by their presumed causes. Much of the rhetoric aggressively voiced by many gay activists (and indeed wider) could be (and is) portrayed as ‘anti-Catholic’. If you have a story like this, one ‘side’ will use it to bash the other. ‘Look! Look what your words lead to!’ And the other ‘side’ will take a story like this and say the same thing. It becomes a matter of various interest groups competing to be the most victimised and most able to spin a suitable narrative from that. The violence becomes lost in this – any common empathy and, most importantly, common response to it becomes all but impossible.

It also dehumanises the victims who increasingly cease to be seen as human beings and are instead reduced to an abstract ‘difference’: a ‘gay’, a ‘Catholic’. You could see this in the instant response to the murder of Stuart Walker . He immediately became ‘a gay man’ who had been murdered because of his sexuality. As that link shows, this interpretation spread worldwide very quickly (in a way in which it would not have had Stuart not been gay – I don’t imagine very many people outside of Scotland are aware of the case of Zoe Nelson, for example). Then, over the course of the evening, some possible ‘explanations’ (not justifications, of course) for the murder came out (some of them quite unsavory). As quickly as he had become ‘a gay’ martyr, Stuart was dropped. The column which Patrick Strudwick (yes, him again) had written within 24 hours of the discovery of Stuart’s body never appeared, and anyone familiar with his work will know why – it would have fixated on Stuart’s sexuality and used it to push a narrative of increasing ‘hate crimes’ against gay people. Now, Stuart is of no use and I doubt most of the people who expressed outrage at his death are even aware that someone was caught and charged with it (the Pink Paper did report Stuart’s funeral last week but they do tend to report on anything that happens to anyone gay, anywhere, ever).

I had a discussion about ‘hate crimes’ this year with a transexual woman. She agreed that they were a ridiculous and divisive concept. Yet she still wanted violence against transexuals to be classed as a ‘hate crime’ in legislation. Her (not unreasonable) reasoning was that, since hate crime legislation wasn’t going anywhere any time soon, her ‘community’ deserved that special recognition and protection too. In the frequently depressing discussion that recently sprung up about online abuse against females, I repeatedly saw people arguing that making this abuse a ‘hate crime’ was the way to deal with it. Where does it end and how many differences do we have to highlight before we step back and say ‘hold on…all murder (for example) is hateful and wrong, no matter who the victim is. No murder is ‘better’ than another. No murder is intrinsically more ‘tragic’ than another.’ That to me is real equality – expecting that I’ll be treated the same as anyone else, even if something dreadful happens to me. I don’t want to be reduced to my ‘difference’, thank you very much.

Most Scottish religious hate crimes ‘target Catholics’

This touches on something which I’ve been thinking about a lot recently – namely the reaffirming of liberal identity by the world around you. A few weeks ago I read a review of a play called ‘The Faith Machine’. It sounded like a subtle, complex piece which took standard liberal themes (such as the wickedness of religion and the superiority of First World attitudes to homosexuality) and turned them on their head, offering different viewpoints. Specifically, the review seemed to indicate that the play argued that humanity needs faith in something. Heck, even the Daily Mail raved about it, expressing much the same sentiments as the first review (which was from The Guardian).

So off I went, roping in my friend Matt. I’m not sure he has yet forgiven me. The play was absolutely nothing like I had imagined. It wasn’t complex in the slightest and instead was a one-note bore which served only to reaffirm the superiority of the liberal audience watching it. It offered up grotesque caricatures of Americans to laugh at and dismiss as they launched into idiotic diatribes about ‘terrorism’. It featured hysterically po-faced observations about ‘globalisation’ and religion which you would expect from the pen of a 16-year old particularly lacking in self-awareness. Worst of all, it featured a ‘heroine’ who was so smug, hectoring and caricatured (she reads LOTS OF LIBERAL NOVELS! She ADOPTS AFRICAN CHILDREN! She’s been HORRIFIED BY WHAT SHE SAW IN IRAQ!) that it was impossible not to root for the other characters, most of whom were imperfect but trying to do the right thing.

In short, it was utterly dreadful.

What really struck me, however, was the fact that everyone seemed to love it. I was sitting beside a couple of students who were whooping and clapping hysterically at the end. One of them even made a disparaging comment about me and Matt due to our less-than-enthusiastic reaction (okay, we may have laughed at a few ‘profound’ moments). We looked on Twitter afterwards and people writing about the play were universally raving about it and celebrating how it ‘really made (them) think’. I was dumbfounded. I don’t think there was any point in the play when anyone who fancied themselves as a liberal sort would have felt remotely uncomfortable, felt that something they believed in had been credibly challenged. Perhaps these people were all Daily Mail readers who were having dramatic conversions but I doubt it. Instead, like the films Ellen Jones writes about in this piece, they were people who were leaving having had their egos stroked and their worldviews confirmed.

I have been as guilty as buying into this as anyone but more and more I try to force myself to seek out views and opinions which challenge me. I am infuriated that there is an entire industry of columnists (Charlie Brooker, Caitlin Morin, Grace Dent, Barbara Ellen, Deborah Orr, Patrick Strudwick etc) who build careers on reaffirming the views of their readers (and some of them do it very well and are very entertaining). Can we imagine anyone reading anything by these people and feeling challenged anymore than we can imagine any of their audience reading Melanie Phillips and thinking ‘oh well she has a point there’? The high priest of this was of course Johann Hari and I’ve written enough about the response to his misdemeanours and how people seemed more interested in ‘agreeing’ with him than in any accuracy or integrity. Faith in your superiority has become an industry; a self-serving machine.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with enjoying things which present views you agree with, of course. ‘The West Wing’ built an entire series on doing this very well (though even then, it frequently offered shades of grey and a messy morality where sometimes good people did bad things for the right reasons etc). If, however, we wish to avoid descending into a comfortable, smug sense of superiority to the world around us we need to actively seek out new information and new opinions (and, again, I am speaking from experience here – I have certainly been comfortably smug). Ones which we will not feel comfortable with. We need to avoid celebrating bad works of art and bad journalism merely because we ‘agree’ with it. We need to engage critically with the world around us and avoid the attempt to shut this down by painting it as ‘being negative’. By keeping an intellectual hunger, a sense that we might be wrong about things and a belief that other people have valuable insights to offer us even if they are distant from our own, we keep ourselves grounded, aware and (I think) humane. Perhaps you do need faith in something more than yourself and your own rationality to aspire to this, I don’t know. I certainly would not have been caused to dwell on it after ‘The Faith Machine’.

The Faith Machine

Class inequality is not a side issue, but rather the main byproduct of exploitation, the driving force of the capitalist system. Class inequality is currently worsening by the minute, as the economy edges its way toward a deep recession. Yet the theory of identity politics barely acknowledges the importance of class inequality, which is usually reduced to a label known as “classism”—a problem of snobbery, or personal attitude. This, again, should be confronted when it occurs, but such confrontations do not change the system that relies upon class exploitation.

In contrast to the inconsistencies and contradictions of identity politics, a class analysis bases itself on materialism—a concrete and objective measure of systemic benefits derived from racism, sexism, and homophobia. In short, the ruling class has an objective interest in upholding the capitalist system, which is based upon both oppression and exploitation, while the working class has an objective interest in overthrowing it. For the special oppression of women, Blacks, Latinos, other racially oppressed populations, and the LGBT community actually serves to increase the level of exploitation and oppression of the working class as a whole.

The politics of identity