Monday, September 03, 2012
The left is dead, long live the working class
Jogo recommended to me a well-written article by Michael Ledeen on why the left is dead.
I agree that the left is intellectually dead. He is correct that the left has embraced a politics of personal destruction, that it has no claim to moral superiority any more. Most of all, he is correct that the left has no movement any more.
But not for the reasons Ledeen says. Ledeen says the left is moribund because it lives in a world which no longer exists, a world in which the working class was a major force in the world.
It is true that large-scale survey research suggests that working class self-identification is declining. In Britain, the Independent’s Britain Thinks survey in 2011 found just 24% (which is still a substantial number) describe themselves as “working class”.
However, this was an on-line survey done by a market research company, not a random sample of households across the UK. (Working class people are, almost by definition, less likely to respond to an on-line survey than middle class people.) The poll also gave people five options, of which three were variants of “middle class (lower-middle, middle and upper-middle), and other surveys that use that approach tend to get higher middle numbers. On the other hand, polls that have multiple “working class” categories (such as YouGov, also an on-line survey from 2011, who included “upper middle”) you get higher working class numbers again (48%, compared to 42% middle class).
More robust polling data in the UK, such as the massive British Social Attitudes survey (BSA) or large surveys by Ipsos MORI, shows declining rates, but still significant: around 60%. In America, a poll for ABC News in 2010 asked if people were middle, working or upper; 48% said working class; the General Social Survey, with the same question but the additional option of “lower”, by the National Opinion Research Center say more or less the same: 47% working to 42% middle, with a further 8% lower class. The GSS, like the BSA, is technically properly representative in its sampling, and is done face-to-face not on-line.
Interestingly, the Britain Thinks survey found not a single person identifying themselves as “upper class”. But surely there are people who could be described as such. Nobody who reads the Daily Mail would ever describe David Cameron and George Osborne as “middle class”, for example.
And this raises the problem with “subjective” as opposed to “objective” class (class “for itself” versus class “in itself”, as Marx put it, in the Hegelian language Ledeen echoes). Is it not possible that there are people who might be “objectively” working class but not “subjectively” so?
For example, Michael Zweig, using socio-economic data, calculates the following proportions in the US: Zweig identifies three major classes: a working-class majority of around 63%; a middle class of professionals, managers, and small business owners making up about 35%; and a capitalist class of 2%. I am sure the UK is similar.
People self-define on a cultural basis. It is true that working class culture is declining. But the basic objective conditions that created the working class Marx described have not shifted too much. Fewer people in countries like the US and UK work in factories and mines than they used to, but most people still work for wages rather than owning the companies they work for – and that’s how Marx defined working class.
Early Marxists (and some Marxist dinosaurs today) picture a blue overalled horny-handed bloke when they said “the working class”. But that’s not how Marx meant it. His description is just as applicable to someone who works in McDonalds, an out of town shopping mall, or a call centre. His description is just as applicable to an airline stewardess, a hot-desking data cruncher, a janitor in a bank, a hospital orderly or an ambulance driver.
And all available data shows that, under the economic policies pursued by all parties in the US and UK since the 1980s but most rapidly during periods of Republican or Conservative administrations, this 63% has become relatively less well off and in every way less secure – and that since 2008 it had become absolutely less well off.
Ledeen talks about "the real world", and claims the likes of Romney and Ryan understand it. But in "the real world", the majority of us are dealing with issues Romney and Ryan have less than no understanding of: debts, foreclosure, inflation, redundancy, unemployment. The politics Romney and Ryan support can only make these problems worse.
And, for this reason, although no mainstream politicians in the US or UK are offering it, neither Romney and Ryan and Cameron and Osborne nor the Democrats and the Labour Party, there is a huge constituency for a politics that bases itself on the issues this 63% faces.
It is precisely this politics, however, which the left has abandoned, in its preference to wage a kulturkampf against cultural conservatism. The left is dead for the reason exactly the opposite of the one Ledeen sets out: because it no longer lives in the world of the working class majority.
While I'm here, this is an interesting short article on counting class in America. And here’s an interesting one on working class attitudes and voting in America: (a pdf). And here's an interesting blog on working class studies. And here's an article I read by Owen Jones after I wrote this, in which he says something quite similar to me.