“Can’t everybody see that there is nothing in the least bit admirable about idle remnants of the proletariat, that dwindling few with their hideous clothes, revolting food, trashy newspapers, filthy children, disgusting manners, vile wallpaper and violent and dishonest dispositions?”
(DAILY TELEGRAPH editorial)
Welcome to Blair’s Britain. We’re all middle class now – except for those of us too stupid to manage the transition.
The Office of National Statistics is about to abandon its current classification scheme for collecting data about occupation and class, to replace it with one where everyone from an operator in a call centre to the head of British Gas becomes “middle class.”
Meanwhile, Tony Blair announced to a conference called by the Institute for Public Policy Research his intention to create a “middle class that will include millions of people who traditionally see themselves as working class…” In a society where according to the Child Poverty Action Group, 23 live in poverty New Labour tells us we live in a “modern Britain” where “everyone has the chance to fulfil their potential.” Those who remain poor, therefore, have only themselves to blame. The right wing sociologist Charles Murray spins a folk tale from his Iowa childhood to tell us what conclusions this ought to lead us to draw:
“There were two kinds of poor people. One class of people was never even called “poor”. I came to understand that they simply lived on low incomes, as my own parents had done when they were young. There was another set of people…These poor people didn’t just lack money. They were defined by their behaviour. Their homes were littered and unkempt. The men in the family were unable to hold down a job for more than a few weeks at a time. Drunkenness was common. The children grew up ill-schooled and ill-behaved and contributed to a disproportionate share of the local juvenile delinquents. To Henry Mayhew…they were the “dishonest poor”
(C Murray-The Emerging British Underclass-IEA Publications)
So there’s the deal. Everyone has the chance to be middle class. Anyone who doesn’t make the grade has chosen a life of indolence, has opted to live at society’s expense. Some of this may sound familiar. In 1971, in a pamphlet”Down With The Poor” the Conservative MP Rhodes Boyson observed
“No one cares, no one bothers – why should they when the state spends all its energies taking money from the energetic, successful and thrifty to give to the idle,the failures and the feckless?”
Boyson went on to become a junior minister under Margaret Thatcher and help to push through the social security reforms of the 1980s.
The Child Poverty Action Group has described the ideological base of Thatcherism as being about “incentives and disincentives.” But they saw financial incentives operating very differently on the rich and on the poor. According to their arguments, if the rich were not working and investing it was because they were not receiving enough financial incentives to do so. It was therefore essential to provide them with added incentives (for example, through cuts in income tax and tax free investment schemes). But if the poor were not working it was because they were receiving too much money from the state and lacked the incentive to work. And so, they argued, the poor needed financial disincentives to claiming benefits, to spur them onto greater effort. (Dee Cook-Poverty, Crime and Punishment-CPAG)
The Thatcher/Major governments pursued a strategy of inequality, primarily through changes in taxation, designed to make the poor poorer. The changes included reductions in the higher rate of income tax for the rich from 60% to 40%, higher thresholds for inheritance tax for the rich, a shift from direct to indirect taxation (principally through VAT) which fell primarily on the poor, the introduction of the poll tax and the council tax.
By 1991, 52% of the tax cuts implemented since 1979 had gone to the top 10% of income earners. The incomes of the poorest tenth in 1991/92 were 17% lower in real terms than in 1979. The society inherited by the New Labour government was a society premised upon the deliberate maintenance of inequality. During the 1980s, income inequality grew faster in the UK than in any other developed country bar New Zealand. Since May 1997 enough has been said and done to alert us to the fact that Blair’s government is committed to the same strategy, and for the same reasons. As Trade Secretary Stephen Byers outlined, this is a government committed to “wealth creation” not “wealth redistribution” When the Bank of England’s head, Eddie George, said that an increase in unemployment in the north east may be a necessary price to pay for low inflation, he did no more than illustrate New Labour’s recognition that the preservation of a low wage economy in the interests of the rich requires a reserve army of labour to hold wages down. Labour’s coercive New Deal is designed to make sure that the unemployed do what they’re supposed todo-take up low paid work.
New Labour’s “Decent Society” will continue where Thatcher and Major left off. As Labour’s former Social Security Minister Frank Field said on coming into office, “We are most grateful for what the last government did, but its the beginning of the story, not the end.” (The Times 9/5/97)
So why are we being sold the myth of an expanding middle class, when clearly, poverty and insecurity are on the rise? Why is even the notion of self identification as working class greeted with a mixture of amusement and derision? Britain remains, as George Orwell described it “The most class ridden country under the sun”, yet the working class as a class appears only as a hate figure in the popular press, the “layabouts and sluts whose progeny are two legged beasts” Spectator editor Bruce Anderson so frequently rails against.
In truth Tony Blair is shit-scared of the working class. Margaret Thatcher once observed that “Class is a communist concept…The more you talk about class-the more you fix the idea in peoples’ minds.” What Blair dreads is that ordinary people stop buying his middle class pipe dreams. and begin to act in their own interests. Journalists Andrew Adonis and Stephen Pollard note that
“Far from diminishing, class divisions are intensifying as the distance between the top and bottom widens and the classes at both extremes grow in size and identity. This should be obvious to all. Indeed, we contend it is obvious to almost all in today’s Britain-except, crucially for much of the nation’s elite, which for reasons of fear and self-interest is struggling to eliminate class from the realms of respectable debate. It is doing so by two sleights of mind. The first is the use of the term “underclass” to denote a minority isolated from the mainstream majority. The second is the transformation of this mainstream into a “classless society”, defined by consumerism, mobility and meritocracy, operating on that quintessential British arena; the level playing field. This is myth and distortion in equal measure.”
(A Adonis and S Pollard-A Class Act -Hamish Hamilton Ltd).
Meanwhile, in 1996, the British Social Attitudes Survey found that 87% thought that the gap between those with high and low incomes was “too large” ,66% agreed that “there is one law for the rich and one for the poor”. A 1995 Gallup survey found 81% answered “yes” to the question “Do you think there is a class struggle in this country or not?”. Enough to cause a few sleepless nights in Knightsbridge and Holland Park.
It is nevertheless the case that, by any usual indicator, the level of class struggle in the UK is at a low point – whether determined by work days lost to strike action, support for politics outside the status quo, or numbers on demonstrations. So what prevents a recognition of class inequality manifesting itself as a recognition of the need for working class people to act in their own interests? This article proposes that the main block to working class self recognition and self emancipation-the working class acting as a class “for itself” – is something which the “left” in the UK has seen as again for working people – the welfare state.
Marx in Capital volume one, quotes from Bernard De Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees wherein we are told that “those that get their living by their daily labour…have nothing to stir them up to be serviceable but their wants,which it is prudence to relieve, but folly to cure.” It is this ethos which guides the provision of minimal welfare by the state. The working class are kept from starvation and revolt, but not to such degree that they lose all incentive to labour. “The foundations of property are made more secure when no real grievance is felt by the poor against the rich”, as Joseph Chamberlain noted in 1892.
Provision of state welfare means that working class people recognise themselves as poor, or as working class, or as part of some “underclass” not in relation to each other, but only in relation to the satisfaction of their basic needs by the state. In his 1985 essay “Beyond Social Democracy”, Ralph Milliband observed that
“For most social democratic politicians, capitalist society (in so far as the existence of capitalism is acknowledged at all) is not a battlefield on which opposed classes are engaged in a permanent conflict, now more acute, now less, and in which they are firmly on one side, but a community, no doubt quarrelsome, but a community none the less, in which varied groups – be they employers, workers, public employees – make selfish and damaging demands which it is the task of government to resist for the good of all.”
We need to go further than this. If the modern welfare state is the crowning glory of social democracy it is also the precise means by which the working class is reduced from a class for-itself to just one more interest group. When the New Right talk about dependency culture, their main concern is to seek means by which the cost of welfare provision can be transferred onto the shoulders of the working class. The fact that those with least to gain from capital’s survival are wedded to the state concerns them not at all. It should, though, concern us.
Prior to the introduction of the Liberal reforms which were the precursors of the modern welfare state, there was considerable debate within workers’organisations as to whether welfare proposals should be supported, or seen simply as means of evading just demands for higher wages and regular work. As the historian Pat Thane observed, (Historical Journal vol 7,no 4 1984)
“…the employers supported social reform because it was cheaper than increasing wages, the more so because “welfare” would be paid for by the working class themselves.”
The Forester’s Miscellany, journal of the Ancient Order of Foresters, the second largest “friendly society” in 1899, with 666,000 members, carried the following editorial comment,
“The aim of the working class ought to be to bring about economic conditions in which there should be no need of distribution of state alms. The establishment of a great scheme of state pensions would legalise and stamp as a permanent feature of our social life the chronic poverty of the age.”
In 1899, the AOF recognised that the purpose of state welfare would be the administration of poverty, not its abolition!
The abolition of feudalism which inspired the peasant revolts of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries cut the peasantry adrift from the land, so that “freedom” became only the freedom to work or starve. As Marx put it
“When… the great English landowners dismissed their retainers who had, with them, consumed the surplus product of the land; when, further their tenants chased off the smaller cottagers …then… a mass of living labour power was thrown onto the labour market, a mass which was free in a double sense; free from the old relations of clientship, bondage and servitude, and secondly free of all belongings and possessions, and of every objective, material form of being, free of all property; dependent on the sale of its labour capacity or on begging, vagabondage and robbery as its only source of income.”
(Karl Marx-Capital Volume 1)
The refusal of the dispossessed to accept their fate as a limitless supply of exploitable labour is the source of all state regulation of poverty. The first of the Poor Laws, the 1349 Statute of Labourers, was introduced because of a perceived “great scarcity of servants” and the fact that “some will not serve unless they may receive excessive wages, and some rather willing to be in idleness than by labour to get their living.” In ordering that “every man and woman of our realm of England…not living in merchandise, nor exercising any craft nor having of his own whereof he may live, no proper land…and not serving any other…shall be bounden to serve him which so shall him require.” In neither language nor coercive intent is there any real difference between the law of 1349 and the New Deal strategy of Labour today.
In the 1920s, faced with rising unemployment and economic slump, the government of the day introduced the Genuinely Seeking Work Test to ensure that the restructuring of capital took place with access to a pool of cheap labour secured. (Fear of working class militancy leads to concessions from capital as surely as working class docility is exploited. Following the 1886 Trafalgar Square riots, donations to the Mansion House Fund for charitable relief of destitution suddenly increased!).
The 1906 Liberal government is seen by many, not least among them Tony Blair, as one of the great reforming governments. It is clear though that whatever concessions it made to labour were predicated upon an attempt to contain working class self organisation (principally manifested through the formation of the Labour Representation Committee and the election of 29 MPs on a Labour platform in the 1906 election.) The formation of the Labour Party gave little real cause for alarm, however, as the pro Liberal journal, the Independent Review noted;
“We heartily welcome the new Labour Party which is now to make its first bow to the House Of Commons…We cannot suppress a smile when noticing the alarm caused in a section of our press by the victory of the workers. The latter are asserting that the rich are now confronted with a grave peril…We hold a different opinion. Probably no less than 23 of the 29 new MPs will call themselves socialists. But their socialism is rather an ideal, a point of view, than a programme of action.”
(We should pause though, at the fact that the “restructuring” of the welfare state by New Labour is taking place at a time when even the “ideal”, the”point of view” of a self-organised working class is absent from political life.)
The Liberals determined that the existing system of poor relief, while serving to regulate the necessary supply of cheap labour fostered also too great a degree of discontent. One commentator reflected
“It is not enough for the social thinker in this country to meet the socialist with a negative. The English progressive will be wise if, in this at any rate, he takes a leaf from the book of Bismark, who dealt the heaviest blow against German socialism not by his laws of oppression…but by that great system of State insurance which now safeguards the German worker at almost every point in his industrial career.”
The Liberals’ assimilation of the socialist agenda was supported by the Labour Party itself and the state socialist Fabian Society. Within the wider working class movement, hostility to the state and stateprovision of welfare, remained alive, despite the eager surrender of the Labour Party to the seductions of Parliament. George Holyoake, a leading member of the co-operative movement, observed “State socialism means the promise of a dinner, and a bullet when you clamour for it.”
The Liberal reforms were driven by fear of working class militancy. By 1908 unemployment had reached 8%. Violence broke out in several major cities. Anti-government demonstrations attracted massive support. On October 10th 1908 20 separate hunger strikes converged on London. When Parliament was forced to convene two days later it met surrounded by a cordon of 2500 police.
“That same year …saw the beginnings, in a strike and subsequent lock out in the textile industry, of a wave of industrial action that was to develop through many key industries into a movement of revolutionary syndicalism,rejecting Parliamentary politics and advocating direct workers’ control.”
(Tony Novak-Poverty and the State)
The setting up of a national system of labour exchanges and a National Insurance scheme to enable provision of non-means tested benefit were intended to head off the revolutionary impetus of the working class movement. In Churchill’s words
“The idea is to increase the stability of our institutions by giving the mass of industrial workers a direct interest in maintaining them. With a stake in the country in the form of insurance against evil days, these workers will pay no attention to the vague promises of revolutionary socialism…It will make him a better citizen, a more efficient worker, and a happier man.”
In providing a “stake”, however, the government ensured also the preservation of the machinery of the regulation of labour supply which was the hallmark of the poor laws, and remains the unstated agenda of state welfare today:
“The scheme should avoid encouraging unemployment, and for this purpose it is essential that the rate of unemployment benefit should be relatively low.”
It was Charles Booth who said that “our modern system of industry will not work without some unemployed margin, some reserve of labour”. The purported “architect of the welfare state” William Beveridge, in 1909 explained that the establishment of a system of centralised welfare “is in essentials a problem of business organisation – that of providing a reserve of labour power to meet fluctuations in such a way as to not involve distress.”
The end result of a social-democratised left’s consistently uncritical support for state welfare is a working class that, politically, exists now only as a “reserve of labour power” and not as a class with political weight, a class for-itself. As Joseph Lane had it
“It is possible that the governing classes will make a show of legislating in the direction of palliatives; their doing so would certainly put off the revolution which we aim at. True Socialists, therefore,should not take up such cries.”
So where do we go from here? With Labour determined to dismantle all but the entirely coercive aspects of the welfare state, and with so many now accustomed to having to seek the support of the state to survive, we cannot simply wish away the chains of welfare. Our task has to be to re-establish the concept of working class independence through practical interventions – establishing claimant unions to rebuild working class confidence and self identity in dealing with the welfare state, occupying community based projects when they are under threat of closure so that buildings, services etc are not withdrawn by the state but maintained under community control.
The Black Panther Party used to run breakfast clubs so that poor families had access to decent food, and to re-establish the notion of solidarity – of people taking care of each other instead of looking simply to the State for support. During the First World War, Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers’ Socialist Federation established a cost-price restaurant and co-operative workshop in East London:
“Dinner cost 2d,or just 1d. for children, but those who could not afford that ate free. Around 400 people were served every day…Awareness of the conditions of maternity was stimulated by infant and maternity welfare centres such as Sylvia Pankhurst’s Mothers’ Arms, set up in an old pub called the Gunmakers’ Arms. It included a baby clinic giving out milk and advice along with a day nursery using Montessori play methods of education.”
(Sheila Rowbotham-A Century of Women)
The last words written by Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness are “Exterminate All the Brutes.” Conrad’s friend, the Scottish socialist R.B Cunningham Graham in 1897 published a parody entitled “Bloody Niggers!”,which described the “lower orders” as a kind of “European nigger”-“the vilest of our vile, more vile than beasts.” A century later the attitudes mocked by Graham are commonplace in the editorials of the highbrow press and made policy by politicians like Jack Straw. If those of us who call ourselves class struggle anarchists are to resist the cultural extermination of our class, we have to go back to basics, recover an earlier tradition of solidarity and working class self emancipation and apply it with due vigour today. The contempt for our class manifest in the media is a reflection of the extent to which our class as a class for-itself has faded from view If we want to respond to this agenda, we would do well to seize for our own ends a slogan used by the Spanish fascist Falange; “Let them hate so long as they fear!”
The cultural studies theorist, and former Marxism Today writer, Stuart Halll once wrote that the “statist oriented brand of socialism” had rewritten history to appoint itself sole keeper of a flame for which it
“had to contend with many other currents, including, of course the strong syndicalist currents before and after World War l, and the ILP’s ethical Marxism later with their deep antipathy to Labour’s top-downwards, statist-orientation.. One of the many tricks which the retrospective construction of tradition on the left has performed is to make the triumph of Labourism over these other socialist currents – the result of a massive political struggle in which the ruling classes played a key role-appear as an act of natural and inevitable succession.”
(Sheila Rowbotham-Threads Through Time-Penguin)
In recovering our history we can recover our identity as a class.