Initial ruminations – Blue Labour and working class identity

redlabourI had been meaning to do some posting about Blue Labour and its core text for a while. It is definitely worth reading and getting a flavour of (particularly if this post is to make any sense).

I have been having a bit of a twitter debate with The Old Politics, and largely agree with Helen Goodman on the issue. But I have to say, my view on the topic is ambiguous, because I feel that Blue Labour has made some innovations and contributions that are definitely worth us listening to, and I cannot argue that it has not started a debate. I also think that the debate tells us some important things about Britain’s contemporary working class, and should be seen alongside Owen Jones’s five star rated contribution to that particular debate (which it is better to buy from here).

I think Blue Labour poses questions which are both narrow (about Labour and where our political formations go) and wide (where is society, and what needs to happen to it). Both might be stood as starting with an analytical approach, and then implying a prescriptive one.

What these prescriptions actually are seem to be the main topic of debate between those in the party behind Blue Labour (who, for all the talk of James Purnell and David Miliband, seem mostly to be slightly left of the party centre), and those such as myself from the more established soft and hard lefts who are more comfortable with ‘progressive’ notions of cosmopolitanism and certain types of social fluidity (for example, liberalism on immigration). Last night’s Twitter debate seemed light on conclusions as to what Glasman, Cruddas and Rutherford are actually saying. But it seemed even lighter on what they actually prescribe as a remedy for the ills they diagnose.

I am keen to agree with them on questions of institutions and organisation, and I do essentially agree with their perception of the reasons for working class disconnect with politics generally, and with Labour.

But for people with a Gramscian heritage, it seems to me that where some seedling of a hegemonic project is in the offing, there is a total lack of analysis in Blue Labour thinking about issues of consciousness, and how  that overlays with perception. Let us consider for a moment stereotypical workerist views on immigration. What about the benefit passed to working class communities by immigration? Because that is not as evidently quantifiable, we end up with a bizarre situation whereby immigrants contentribute £8BN to the economy nationally, feeding job creation and running public services that working class people disproportionately rely on – but those who disproportionately rely on them fear them for it!

In this sense, working class people are happy to consider their own role as taxpayers or employees, absorbing the media narrative (as Gramsci might have it, ‘the common sense’) on immigration and the damage it does to them.

Competition in wages is cited, along with over-straining of local services. Of course, in many circumstances this might be real. But the fact that the positive effects are not taken into account in the mind of the disillusioned working class is symptomatic of a natural gap in perception filled by one-sided messages from the news narrative.

The identity of these perceivers as people reliant on public services (and thereby immigrant labour) via the state no longer exists. As Owen Jones might postulate, should he allow me to slot a few words in on his behalf, their self-identification as members of a certain class is dulled. The experiences many have of working with immigrants, such as my own time working in kitchens, are disconnected from a politics which has nothing to say about our daily similarities as members of the same economic class.

So as well as being in a situation where the facts behind the resentments developed are unbalanced and without effective solution, any accurate perception of the self and how one is affected is also being chipped away at. It’s what we on the analytical left tend to call ‘false consciousness’.

The challenge of all stripes of the left is often in navigating it without doing too much damage.

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Yesterday a friend pasted this article describing working class decline/anger on facebook, and asked me what I thought of it.

I responded as follows:

I think it’s very jumbled up. People who are working class increasingly don’t identify as such. This is a trend in itself that has been going on for around 25 years, with a similar track of political de-alignment and disengagement…

The ‘common sense’ (i.e. pervasive ideology) has been changing since 1979. There seems now to be no common acceptance that being largely dependent on the proceeds of wages makes you working class.

At the same, time, the amount of people who do has actually increased as wealth has centralise, fewer people own housing capital, etc. etc.

The working class is growing, but one of the unspoken rules of our public debate is that we’re not allowed to admit that it is there, or that by virtue of being part of a class that depends wholly on selling our own work, we are part of it. You might be poor, you might depend on nightshifts, and your job might be precarious – but you can only be working class if you wear unfashionable tracksuit bottoms or have convictions.

Negative stereotyping *is* allowed.

Final thing, but in my view, the lack of class identity in an economic sense means that working class people tend also to believe that one cannot be both working class and Polish (see the piece).

This lies behind some chunk of contemporary xenophobia, and ideological formations seeking to accommodate and catch up (such as ‘Blue Labour’, as it has been clumsily termed).

For me, the death of class consciousness is the death of social solidarity.

Working class political identity has long been on a track towards divisive infighting and a socially atomised politics of personal resentment (against working class immigrants, perceived yet largely fictional hordes of benefits cheats, etc. etc.).

The sad thing is that I think the only way out of this is the rebuilding of community institutions in a contemporary form, to replace those destroyed by Thatcher.

We are on the wrong track, and getting on the right one will be a lot of hard work.

It is one thing trying to return to working class voters. But we do need to analyse and take into account what material and psychological state that class is in. At the moment, it is subject to a conservative ideological project via the usual means of bourgeois ideological propagation – pumped full of resentment and artificial division as a means of making it pay for the ruinous excesses of investment banking and over-reliance on fossil fuels. It is now politically weakened and without leadership or the common institutions Glasman rightly praises. The result is a big porous sponge for divisive views. As intended, it is turning on itself.

So what do we do?

Resentments on topics such as immigration but also benefits and taxation being so evidently unbalanced when it comes to facts and perception, should a response accepting these precepts be taken up as a prescriptive recommendation for left or Labour politics? Do we ignore what is wrong with the new absorbed ideology (let us call it ‘workerist populism’)? Do we then triangulate towards it as New Labour triangulated directly towards the rich, whose interest it was in the first place to inculcate these prejudices?

That is populism, but it is not socialism.

It might even be electorally successful – if you are happy being restricted to winning elections on terms like that. But I am a socialist. And herein lies the conflict Blue Labour finds with the Labour left. It comes over as wanting to opportunistically cave in to elements of our own reactionism.

Blue Labour’s biggest weak points in debate with the socialist left is that it refuses to be clear on these matters, and in doing so, refuses to separate itself from the likes of Purnell. Let us be fair – Purnell’s shade of Labour is very much purple. In itself, Blue Labour’s debating behaviour is evasive at best, and at worst highly mistaken. It also leaves behind the best aspects of the Gramscian approach that had recently popped up as an element of social-democratic as well as revolutionary socialist thinking. Those aspects are correct.

Once again on working class identity, why does anyone let Maurice Glasman (bizarrely, a man who specialises in organising black churches) fetishize the white elements of the working class?

Once again, this element of thinking is a deliberate rhetorical spiel from some years hence designed to split the working class into racial sections, and carries within the implicit idea that the working class experience is different for white and non-white workers. I’m sure many things are different, but the reason is not that they share working classness!

This tool, in my view, should be recognised as a tool of deliberate division, and repeatedly exposed and de-constructed by left-of-centre politicians. Accommodating the notion simply reinforces the implicit division (and subsequent resentment) as an element of the dominant ideology – politics, Orwell style.

Unless we appreciate the  danger of a wholly ‘accept and adapt’ approach to workerist populism, in ten years, we will have something worse to accommodate to. My worry about Blue Labour is essentially this.

My final point is on the Glasman approach to class and institutions. I prefer promoting actual policies to indulging in PC hair splitting. Perhaps I am a bad Gramscian. However, it is unfortunate that The Politics of Paradox puts into gendered terms the ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ institutions of the labour movement.

Nevertheless, it claims that Dad has been under-emphasised, and I would certainly agree with that. I don’t think Labour’s 13 years in Government can be rightly characterised as some kind of Fabian renaissance based on earnestness and technocracy, but the hard-headed building institutions of the movement, in particular the unions, were left aside. There was no real organising effort for the left of centre within the political labour movement either.

But I think Glasman needs to understand that the ideology of ‘progress’ was as key to these movements as it was to ‘Mum’ institutions such as the think tanks. Much of the Trade Union movement at its most successful rested on the Communist Party, Syndicalists and other elements of the revolutionary left.

And to say that Co-operatives are practical rather than progressive is ridiculous. Like unions, they are both.

Labour should not be afraid of its institutional background being forward looking. Nor should it be afraid of shaping a society and policy framework as yet unseen. In fact, if it is to be a ‘democratic socialist party’, that is the point of it. Given that we have never lived in any kind of socialist paradise, it would be mad for socialists to limit the scope of their ambitions to protecting traditional institutions, particularly when new currents (such as UK uncut and Climate Camp) offer many exciting ideas for the broad left, organising and campaigning. Of course we should protect the strength of traditional institutions of the left, like Trade Unions. Firstly, though, those forces, even at their strongest, have never been enough. Secondly, they need their strength expanding, not just defending. Thirdly, there is no reason at all not to concentrate on new configurations such as some of the new activist groups.

Progress can sit alongside that which already exists, and successfully. And for the left, progress should be playing a part inside our traditional institutions in the first place. Imagine if unions had done no work from the 1960s onwards to involve women, LGBT or black members? As a certain manifesto once proclaimed, let us face the future.

I think socialists are right about women, gay people, immigration and a range of other touchy issues for people with a distorted worldview. I believe that the distortions are anti-working class, and I don’t care whether the people that hold them are working class or not – save for in the context of how they can be combated within the working class. In the meantime, and I agree with Blue Labour on this, I would suggest we move to tackle the neoliberalism and overarching ideology at the root of Labour’s malaise, and build forward looking institutions with which to build a truly working class common sense. Red Labour.

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance.

4 thoughts on “Initial ruminations – Blue Labour and working class identity

  1. I suspect that this will all be irritatingly disjointed and may even come across as random, but this is an interesting subject so, meh.

    It’s certainly true that ‘Blue Labour’ has not prescribed many practical solutions (not even in terms of electoral politics, let alone policy) and that this is regrettable. Trouble is, in that respect it isn’t much different to other little groups on the Left (however defined) that like to see themselves as intellectual movements. So I’m not sure if it makes much sense to use it as a specific criticism, even if it’s an important thing to keep in mind.

    As I read on I spot a term that… oh dear. Please no ‘false consciousness’. It’s just not intellectually credible. I’m sorry if this comes across as rude in any way, but if your analysis rests on the use of concepts as outdated as that one, then you probably shouldn’t think of yourself as being on ‘the analytical left’ (whatever that means).

    On a similar note, the extent to which you base much of what you write around ‘objective’ categories is also regrettable. You write about ‘the working class’ as if it is a thing, as a monolithic object that can be described and analysed as dispassionately as a particular type of rock (and described and understood as if it were totally alien, I note with further regret). Now that’s a serious problem, because you can’t actually do that. If you try then what you will end up doing (and indeed have done) is describe a particular idea of ‘the working class’ and then ascribe all of the dignity of ‘objective’ analysis to your (highly subjective) mental picture. Doing that does have its advantages, I suppose (certainly it makes it easier to justify any pre-existing ideas that you might have about how Labour, the Left or whatever ought to ‘connect’ (whatever that means) with ‘the working class’), but should be avoided if you want to understand the world as it is (and then use that knowledge to, you know, change it). The truth is that all collective groups are made up of individuals and that they are bound together by a combination of different factors (whether of experience, identity, some material factor or countless other possibilities and combinations), and that this is particularly true of class and is especially true of the working class in Britain.

    E.P. Thompson wrote*; ‘there were tailors here and weavers there, and together they made up the working class’. I would argue that if you want to write about the future of the Labour Party, of working class politics (however defined), then what you write about be greatly improved if you thought about society in that way, rather than it terms of these great monoliths that can be described and understood in objective terms. Yes, in the end you have to generalise (and it’s actually very important to, up to a point), but the moment that you lose sight of the fact that social structures are constructed from multiple identities, then you lose sight of the reality of society. And if you lose sight of that, how likely is it that your political ruminations are worth much?

    More in a minute, and probably being even more incoherent than the stream of consciousness (see what I did there) above.

    *I doubt that I’ve got that word for word, but the argument is reproduced accurately.

  2. Right then.

    “But we do need to analyse and take into account what material and psychological state that class is in.”

    I would dispute that you could ever do such a thing, but if you ever could you certainly can’t now. Or of any time after the early 1970s. That’s the way that capitalism and British society have developed since then; inconvenient (and downright tragic) but not something that can be waved away.

    “At the moment, it is subject to a conservative ideological project via the usual means of bourgeois ideological propagation – pumped full of resentment and artificial division as a means of making it pay for the ruinous excesses of investment banking and over-reliance on fossil fuels.”

    Nice rhetoric, but what does it actually mean?

    “It is now politically weakened and without leadership or the common institutions Glasman rightly praises.”

    Those common institutions were only ever common to parts of the working class (mostly in areas that were once – ah jargon – defined by some as ‘occupational communities’), and the failure to recognise that is one of the most obvious weaknesses of Glasman’s argument, fwiw.

    As for ‘leadership’… what does that even mean? Trade Union leadership? A working class Labour Party leader?

    “Unless we appreciate the danger of a wholly ‘accept and adapt’ approach to workerist populism, in ten years, we will have something worse to accommodate to. My worry about Blue Labour is essentially this.”

    So your worry about ‘Blue Labour’ is that it accepts and proposes to adopt an ideology that you believe that you can discern from random political comments made by ordinary people and (presumably) from opinion polls and other surveys? Mmm…

    “But I think Glasman needs to understand that the ideology of ‘progress’ was as key to these movements”

    Yeah, the idea of Progress was totally accepted (and appropriated) by working class organisations, socialist parties and so on everywhere; absolutely true. Trouble is, things change. We have been losing for over three decades now. What’s progress in that context? Glasman is wrong about a lot of things, but there’s a fundamental truth hiding under the odd arguments and tendency towards trolling. He wasn’t the first to point it out anyway; as I’m sure you’re aware the late Tony Judt made a similar case for social democracy as an essentially conservative movement shortly before he died.

    “Much of the Trade Union movement at its most successful rested on the Communist Party, Syndicalists and other elements of the revolutionary left.”

    Only if you define ‘successful’ as ‘inspirational’. In terms of making life better for their members I think you’d have to look elsewhere (with a couple of interesting exceptions, granted), but that’s a relatively minor quibble in this context.

    “particularly when new currents (such as UK uncut and Climate Camp) offer many exciting ideas for the broad left, organising and campaigning.”

    Maybe they do. But they don’t seem to have much to do with working class politics, however defined…

  3. Alun, lots to come back to there, in a good way. Will tryt to respond properly over the next few days.

    Tom

  4. They have nothing to do with working class i asked them about what they felt would be the best way forward for welfare, basically they agreed with welfare though people working, well I may as well vote Tory then.

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