Paul Demarty on the latest attempts by politicians to assert that 'We're all middle class now'
It is probably too much to ask of Ed Miliband to make up his mind. Is he a ‘blue Labour’ tribune of the small-c conservative working masses? Is he a Blairite triangulator, pitching to the vacillating middle class ‘swing voters’? Is he neither, or both, or something else?
I suppose the ‘one nation Labour’ tag allows him, after the Queen of Hearts, to believe six impossible things before breakfast. This week, apparently, he is in a Tony Blair kind of a mood. In a tiresomely calculated publicity stunt, Miliband took his bland, adenoidal pen - gasp! - behind enemy lines, to the comment pages of The Daily Telegraph.1 His purpose: to issue a lament for the declining fortunes of the “middle class”, and a promise that things would be better for them under Labour.
He obviously knows who he would like to talk to. The Torygraph is increasingly becoming the Ukipgraph, as its owners, the barmy Barclay brothers, attempt to reposition it as a physically unwieldy version of the Daily Mail. Yet there is a reason we put “middle class” in scare quotes - the meat of the matter is not in the object of Miliband’s appeal, but in how he wants those people to think of themselves.
“If there was a single, undisputed truth in Britain in the decades after the Second World War,” he writes, “it was that there was going to be a rising middle class.” At that time, “more people from different backgrounds went to university and most people expected to find a steady and well-paid job. Families saw that if they saved they would be able to buy a home in which to raise their children. And our parents could look forward to retiring in security with a decent pension.”
This is, to put it mildly, not a definition of the middle class he would share with his father, Ralph - the man who hated Britain. Nor, however, is it even the ‘traditional’ English (and more broadly European) view of the middle class - the upstart and insufficiently elegant bourgeoisie, as opposed to the old-money and especially landed aristocracy, sent up by writers from Balzac to Dickens to Proust (by whose time this ‘middle class’ had definitively won).
Rather, it is a view that can crudely be called American - where a middle class position has, according to that ruling class ideology called the ‘American dream’, always consisted in obtaining a level of material comfort through one’s own labour sufficient to assure a stable existence.
This is not purely an apology either. Arguments over the status of free labour as opposed to the slave society in the antebellum south played a significant role in the self-conception of both sides in the lead up to the civil war, the event which - more than anything else - represented the foundation of the modern United States. The ideologists of slavery argued that the free worker in the north was in a more degraded position than the slave in the south - their opponents argued that in free labour lay not so much any inherent dignity as the opportunity to better one’s lot in life.
It is unsurprising, then, that this ideology is not the sole preserve of professional politicians and ‘traditional intellectuals’ in contemporary USA. A striking example is furnished by the radical liberal loudmouth, Michael Moore, responding to the reported exclamation of then White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel: “Fuck the UAW!” - meaning the United Auto Workers union.
“Before there were unions, there was no middle class,” Moore responds (emphasis added). “Working people didn’t get to send their kids to college, few were able to own their own fucking home, nobody could take a fucking day off for a funeral or a sick day or they might lose their fucking job. Then working people organised themselves into unions. The bosses and the companies fucking hated that. In fact, they were often overheard to say, ‘Fuck the UAW!!!’”2
The result is a peculiar conception of society, which is divided into a ruling class (the rich, the ‘one percent’ or whatever), a middle class (presently getting screwed by the turn of events and public policy), and a growing underclass. Left - or at least leftish - representations of this abound in America, from Moore’s contrasting of “middle class” auto workers of former times to the present nigh-on apocalyptic condition of deindustrialised Michigan, to The Wire’s depiction of the collapse of industry in Baltimore against a backdrop of total social deprivation. Its British variant is competently documented in Owen Jones’s Chavs, which finds this view of society behind the contempt of establishment types - liberal or Tory alike - for the lowest of the lower orders.
For a Marxist, there is a sense in which this view is just empirically wrong-headed. The “middle class”, in this schema, is the obvious weak point. One can easily enough view the people at the very top as a distinct economic stratum with an obvious concentration of power in all social spheres. At the other end of the scale, mass unemployment and urban decay presents an apparently shared habitus among millions of the most dispossessed.
The “middle class” of Moore and Miliband, however, is obviously an amalgam: from plumbers to programmers, brickies to priests, anyone with a stable blue- or white-collar job, or a small business, or a mortgage. Just as Justice Potter Stewart knew obscenity when he saw it, such people have a similar subjective view of the middle class.
On the Marxist view - that social classes are defined primarily by their relationship to the total social productive process - most of the people addressed by Miliband are straightforwardly working class. They are people who are defined by their reliance on the social wage fund, the only means of production they own being their ability to work. (This does not, of course, mean those currently in paid employment - the wage fund includes benefits, pensions and so on.)
The ‘actual’ middle class is included as well - the classic petty bourgeoisie, various (with some exceptions, shrinking) layers of salaried professionals, small-time landlords and so on; we might even throw in the special case of the Westminster party machines, through which Miliband himself got a practical education in studied banality. This is also, it is true, an amalgam: but for Marxists, that is kind of the point. The middle class is not a class in itself, but rather a series of social strata uneasily poised between the basic classes in society. It is the form in which classes in society are interpenetrated. Highly skilled workers find it easy to transition, for example, into a self-employed middle class existence - both in traditional trades and in newer ones, such as IT and software development. They may equally be put out of business and thrown back into the ranks of the proletariat by events.
Clearer still is the case of professions - teaching and nursing, for example - that previously were the preserve of privileged scions of the middle class (mainly unmarried women), but have increasingly become proletarianised wholesale. Long gone are the days when strikes of nurses and teachers were almost unthinkable - the National Union of Teachers has had some sort of leftwing leadership for many years.
The limit of this strictly ‘objective’ view of class is reached when we ask exactly what Miliband (or Moore, or even Abraham Lincoln) is trying to do here. It is hardly the case that he is simply incorrect, and if only he were able to grasp the Marxist method of economic analysis, he would cease appealing to this non-existent “middle class” of his. Class is also subjective. If we may expect defined social groups to act in society a certain way, exactly how they do act depends on how members of a class actually comprehend their own interests.
The invocation of “middle class” aspirations by northern propagandists in the 1850s and 60s had to do with a national project to eradicate a slave society, viewed (correctly) as reactionary, expansionist and incompatible with the rival free labour system. In Moore’s case, it is the traditional populist presentation of the people, with their own aspirations towards material comfort and cultural development, as opposed to the fat-cat parasites grinding them down (a distinct nationalist flavour, in fact, is present in Moore’s diatribe against Emanuel).
In Miliband’s case, the motives are - unsurprisingly - shabbier. The objective interests of the better-off layers of the working class are indissociably linked to their unfortunate brothers and sisters in the dole queue, but Miliband does not want them to believe that. He would rather they self-identified as a “middle class” together with all those other ‘hard-working people’ facing dire straits; he is prepared to encourage, or at least permit his more odious front-benchers to encourage, resentment of the ‘shirkers’ when he plays more broadly to the press gallery.
It is doubtful that Miliband will convince the more die-hard enragés who read the Telegraph and Mail. He might have a chance with the “middle class” layers of the working class, however, for his little contribution is simply the latest gambit in a deliberate.political project that has occupied both main parties for decades. Margaret Thatcher consciously enlisted layers of the working class in her assault on the post-war settlement - an effort symbolised by the ‘right to buy’ laws. Give some workers at least the semblance of a stake in bourgeois society, and dividing them at crucial moments is all the easier.
The counterweight to such efforts - hardly new - to incorporate layers of the working class has always been the collective organisations of the labour movement, and most importantly the historically significant political trends within it. That is why the Communist manifesto, even, talks of the difference between a “class in itself” and a “class for itself” - the possibility of the proletariat acting decisively to influence the course of history depends on its conscious comprehension of its nature and power. This consciousness has never arisen ‘automatically’ - it has to be won. If Miliband’s little rhetorical flourish succeeds, it is primarily because the workers’ movement is at a historic ebb. Thus the paradox: at a time of exceptionally sharp bifurcation of the basic classes in society, the ideology of the ‘squeezed middle’ appears, in spite of everything, stronger than ever.
1. The Daily Telegraph January 13.