The more I think about it, the whole political spectrum is just totally unwilling to think about things in terms of economic class. Conservatives have spent their entire period in government trying to hide the issue completely, as a way of safeguarding austerity.
The first generation of Tories in government (with Lib Dems supportive and complicit) not only framed their entire programme in management terms (efficiency, necessity, big society), but actively saw things this way.
Both parties knew it was far more damaging to people on low incomes than either were prepared to admit, of course. But there are problems with this.
Seeing class in terms of incomes is significantly more advanced than most discourse in Britain, which frames class as cutural, a mixture of consumer choices (you can’t be working class and buy coffee) and racialised communitarianism (to be working class, one must be white and uncomfortable with diversity).
But even this doesn’t see class in ‘true’ terms, as a set of relationships to economic and political power. By way of example, less well off people being more damaged by austerity happened because lower earners depend more on services, yes. But it also damaged lower earners because it achieved its real purpose, lower public and private spending by enforced wage discipline.
As a side effect, it also gave relative benefit to the capitalist class in this country by forcing people to buy private sector alternatives that the state could provide more cheaply or perhaps even for free – striving for decades for a landlord when you could have had a Council house, paying through the nose for childcare when this would have been partly covered by SureStart, and so forth.
These things don’t just affect people because they are low earning, but specifically because we depend on a wage or salary for a living – a wage that will never allow us to get the capital we need to live independently. This is what class is about – income is only part of that.
When all of this politically failed and further austerity had exhausted public support, the Conservative Party transformed itself fundamentally at one level, purging its ‘moderate’ MPs. In other ways, the change was utterly cosmetic.
The swing from ‘liberal’ conservatism towards a more nationalist orientation functions mainly just to find new ways to ignore class, dividing working class communities along the lines of the 19th century; protectionism versus free trade. Anyone who has read the Ragged Trousered Philanthropist can tell you that whilst there are serious aspects to this for workers, again, making the whole of politics about it simply serves to distract from questions of class, power and distribution.
The so called ‘NatCons’ are keen to make hints about class where it helps to construct a cultural myth of workers as bigots and reactionaries, and will also make minor economic accommodations such as ‘levelling up’, though in practice even this turned into a pork barrelling exercise for Tory MPs in wealthy seats. Which should not surprise us, as about their only working class MP is Lee Anderson, who has been carefully selected from the working class for being its least intellectually advanced member.
The post-Johnson conservative orientation is just another way of not talking about class. As such, it actually has a lot in common with the Tory managerialists and their Lib Dem servants who came before.
And in some ways it’s actually worse. Despite its early rhetoric of Tory Keynsianism and soft protectionism, in praactice this government has played a large role in making sure that our whole economy is screwed, not just our public services.
Its only hope is finding new ways to make identity grievances salient for people who now can’t pay their bills.
Do the liberals offer us anything on class? Of course not.
As I’ve pointed out above, ‘official’ liberalism has been deeply complicit in austerity, and its local base runs from class as soon as building a council flat means felling a tree, or funding social care means swapping out a paving stone.
But there are probably two ‘flanking’ liberalisms that I can also identify, which I’m going to call progressive liberalism and centrist liberalism. They are quite different, so I’ll deal with them separately.
Centrist liberalism is best represented by the trend we might call Blairism, although Blairism had authoritarian instincts at time which I think perhaps make this label difficult. Perhaps a wider idea of New Labour works better.
Nevertheless, you can get an idea of what a centrist liberal looks and sounds like by looking at examples like Martin Kettle, or Ayesha Hazarika. Politically these people are a tiny minority, but one which is capable of winning mass support, on the condition that this support is shallow and precarious. A core part of their behaviour and analysis tends to be about not rocking the boat.
This does not mean they don’t do bad things; rather that they are afraid of challenging ideological consensus (‘common sense’) as they perceive it. They tend to have a conservative view about what that common sense is, and an even more conservative view about any potential for leading or changing it. This makes them excellent at meeting a wide range of people ‘where they are’, but terrible at making any of the shifts in power that political power basically exists for.
Being unwilling to challenge the common sense in a country that has historically been ruled by Conservatives (who also own its media and circles of influence) means that lots of well intentioned working class and middle class people get involved in centrism, but staying in it kind of means an acceptance that changes to normal people’s lives won’t ever be transformative, fundamental, or irreversible.
Staying here tends to be a marker of naivety, opportunism, a massive pay rise since your 20s, or any mixture of the above. Being out of touch with the injustices and wasted potential of the class system is just the burden you have to bear for being in touch with the consensus.
It is of course puzzling that if you’re aware of class injustice and invisibility that you might be happy to leave such a consensus in operation. Nevertheless, the centrist ethic is to put class beyond the bounds of polite conversation. Indeed, many liberal centrists are even reticent to talk about equality, let alone power relationships, preferring instead a kind of vision of social mobility which is apparently possible without any regard to people having an equal starting point or ability to influence politics and economics.
Make it make sense!
The typical result of all of this is that we get something like the Equalities Act – a rather brilliant piece of legislation to tackle discrimination and ‘formal inequality’ on an individual level, which at the same time entered force without its provisions on social and economic background in force, a circumstance that was somehow deemed acceptable to the centre left.
Tackling informal aspects of inequality or building the collective power to fight it (for example via unions, democratic deepening, or workplace democracy) are absent, because we can talk about injustice if it’s about your race or maternity status, but again, class is out.
With our progressive liberals, we get something quite different. Like the liberal centrists they share a commitment to fighting formal equality, but they are also prepared to tackle economic injustice in their theory and analysis.
The progressive liberals are liberals who share an overlap with social democracy in this sense, and also with forms of thought that are developed in the academic left somewhere on the spectrum between left liberalism and anarchism. This means that there are progressive liberals who have sympathy for ideas which might support some kind of revolutionary programme (for example ‘defund the police’).
There are two problems with this way of thinking from a class perspective however. One is that struggles for liberation are again about formal equalities – defund the police springs from the struggle for racial justice against the summary executions carried out by US police. Likewise, this area of the political spectrum pioneers political ideas like trans and non-binary liberation and equality. But what is the class equivalent?
This are of politics is brimming with ideas, some good and some bad, about tackling injustices. And many of those injustices have strong class aspects. But in progressive liberalism, even when the rhetoric is radically ‘left wing’ or anarchist in tone, class will be absent from the discourse and framing of these struggles, and often plays little part in the answers.
The result is that when these ideas make contact with the mainstream, the conservative movement will happily promote them in order to build a culture war and split working class people. You’ll get an invite onto GB news pretty quickly, but will it help you create racial justice?
This brings me onto the second problem. Within the left and the labour movement, this kind of person becomes a mirror off the class reductionists who excuse bigotry or at the softer end seek to ‘back seat’ the politics of formal equality. What’s missing from both of these approaches is actually the intersectionality that ‘progressive liberals’ claim to espouse – recognising that injustice is complex, has a context, is underlaid by material economic injustice, and so forth.
The class reductionists are concentrated around workerist leftism in a wide range of settings; tankies, some Bennnites, some very active trade unionists. These people play the foil to the progressive liberals by also rejecting the importance of intersectionality. They will pass a pro-LGBT motion at their conference, but next week they’ll be at a demo next to a hezbollah flag and have nothing to say about it. If someone in their bits of the movement gets nicked for sexual assault, likewise they will disappear.
People will get excused for an offence against oppressed group X because they ‘have a great record of antiracism and fought the BNP’, in essence saying that they deserve a special pass because they are an important figure in the socialist or labour movements.
So whilst inclusive in theory, in practice this politics foregrounds a vision of class that does not actually care about workers from diverse backgrounds or less powerful groups, the worst version of this being the SWP’s hideous rape apologism, added to its egregious record of platforming and defending antisemites. Coming to a STWC rally near you!
The only parts of politics that are serious about class being fundamental are probably the genuine social democrats and democratic socialists, and the class reductionists. But the class reductionists end up frequently shilling for a politics that makes class unity impossible to establish.
We’re left with a very small number of people who are willing to talk about class and meet the challenge it presents. We have a consensus of class silence that is only ever breached briefly by a small minority, many of whom are inadequates who pit class against diversity and inclusion.
And I haven’t even started on the journalists or the shortcomings of the Labour Party yet.
As such, we’ve produced a national political culture in which class is rarely understood, barely ever platformed, and never acted upon or given leadership.
All of this being said, this only describes the current situation. This is something we can change. Conservatives can be challenged, and given their incoherency, centrist liberals are even more likely to be shown up if they don’t get serious about challenging class injustice. I am sure that it is also possible to take the progressive liberals and the class reductionists and bang their heads together until they mutually accept the importance of each other’s priorities and start to work towards solidarity rather than against it.
From the right all the way to parts of the centre left, and across the opinion forming spectrum, there is an often unwitting conspiracy of silence against class as a valid and important way of seeing the world. In parts of the left, there is a competition between class and personal forms of ‘background’ as to which we should apparently ignore, which itself helps prevent class from getting onto the agenda in more mainstream debate.
At a national (and perhaps Anglosphere) level, I believe that those in consensus against talking about class must lose ground, that this can only happen if it is led from the left. I believe that this demands a left that works towards solidarity and inclusion whatever the reason for a given injustice. This in turn requires much more understanding and empathy than we have within the left itself.
Only then can we get to the point where the left can pressure or persuade those who currently sit outside it.
The irony of this is that within the left itself, it will require ruthless criticism and organisation against those who can’t show their support for these aims.
To get class discussed along with the various protected characteristics, internally we need to keep internally asking ourselves one simple question: “does this build solidarity?”.
Externally, we need to make sure that we raise class wherever we can, and that we make sure it’s about power and the real world – not whether trades can drink lattes. The absence of class in how Conservatives and centrist liberals speak and deal with things has to be highlighted constantly.
The related nature of class with struggles about feminism, racial justice, gender, disability needs emphasising, and when faced with those who wish to keep class off the table, we need to emphasise that these are struggles we unite around, not things that divide us.
Get this done for a few years, and some of these ways of looking at things could actually become popular. If there’s praxis, there can be hope.