Pandaemonium

THE WORKING CLASS, THEN AND NOW

Herman, Josef, 1911-2000; Miners

I am away for a couple of weeks, so am posting little new material on Pandaemonium. I am taking the opportunity to publish some of those shorter pieces from my Observer column that I don’t normally post on Pandaemonium.  This short piece was published in the Observer on 13 May 2018 under the headline ‘Our new working class needs help with new struggles’.


What is it to be working class? The conventional image is of the industrial worker, usually male and white. But, as Claire Ainsley, executive director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, shows in her book The New Working Class, such traditional workers make up less than a third of the actual working class. Four out of 10 workers are in the service industry, while 30% form the ‘precariat’ – lacking job security and benefits, often shifting from one short-term position to another. It’s a working class more precarious, less organised and comprising more women, migrants and minorities.

Ainsley’s aim is to explore the attitudes and aspirations of the new working class and define the policies that political parties need to pursue to connect with it.

But perhaps we need to take a step back. Attitudes and aspirations are given shape, at least in part, by the organisations that bind a group and the consciousness of belonging to a group. The old working class was often divided along sectional and regional lines and by race and gender. Nevertheless, there was a consciousness of being part of a cohesive class, buttressed by the power of labour organisations.

What defines the new working class is its fragmented character and lack of organisational power. Few, Ainsley observes, identify themselves as ‘working class’. So we need to think not just about policies that might appeal, but the organisations and struggles that might create political and social coherence. Cleaners striking for better conditions. Tenants battling to retain public housing. Unions, such as the IWGB, representing workers in precarious jobs.

These are the struggles and organisations shaping the new working class. Without them, it may be the very fragmentation that hones both its aspirations and the attitudes and policies towards it.

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The image is ‘Miners’ by Josef Herman.

2 comments

  1. steve roberts

    A very short essay but with the possibility of profound consequences for which direction society will take from the present malaise, no better expressed than in the elite’s reaction to the referendum result, a very clear statement from the wider demos, across class lines also,that a universality of political interest is possible.
    And that needs to be the defining character of the organisational form that the new working class, and others who accept the basic premise of it’s objectives, have as the fundamental building blocks upon which the solutions to problems can be resolved, and that is the political content as opposed to the old, and possibly new in the form of the IWGB , that was at it’s core “..divided along sectional and regional lines and by race and gender”
    This is a very large issue and i have some level of disagreement with Kenan “Nevertheless, there was a consciousness of being part of a cohesive class, buttressed by the power of labour organisations”
    On reflection i don’t think this has been the case, socially it was more obvious in the past that there was a very distinct divide between employees and employers, much like the members of the IWGB experience in an unmediated way today.
    But overall the mediating role of the unions and the Labour Party in particular always lessened this distinction, and crucially the contrast between the classes rarely reached the political arena, there was never a threat to the status quo emanating from restrictive and narrow trade unionism.
    In this sense i think it is incorrect to suggest there was a conscious sense of been part of a cohesive class, as the old saying goes “for itself”
    The transformative political ideas necessary to advance not only the working class but the whole of society along a more universalising ethos has always been missing, and it this lack of politically transformative ideology that needs addressing, so that any organisational form not only plays a defensive role at the level of wages and conditions but so much more at the level of macro economics and politics, democracy and political sovereignty of the demos.
    This is something for the IWGB and other organisations that may well spring up from the decrepit old need to be unequivocal about, they should not aspire to be part of the old restrictive trade union movement attached parasitically to the traitorous Labour Party, their energy and dynamism is exactly because they are the sharp end of social relations,their power and potential is not been mediated, dampened and absorbed, they should aspire very highly and way over the heads of the suits of the LP in their video, if they do not it will be their downfall and all the lessons of the past will not have been learned.

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