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. 

***

Image credit: prole.info and wapiti.se, via Riding the Third Rail, based on the old Wobbly version. I was tempted to use this version, from Spunk, which has a Lenin-like dictator at the top and an anarchist toppling the pyramid over.

18 comments:

Flesh said...

He probably has a point about left wing vitriol being being due to being stuck and frustrated. I'll keep that in mind for next time.

Gorz's take on the end of the working class, which somebody told me and I hope I remembered right - in advanced capitalism the work gets so bad and so casualised that it's no fulfillment at all to identify yourself with it and it loses its ideological status - think of the stories of kids not turning up for work experience, British-based Polish employers say on Newsnight that British workers have no work ethic. The new proletariat is a non-working non-class of graduates who are casually employed in boring jobs they're over-qualified to do, and so they look for fulfillment outside work. If you're right wing they may sound like a good reason to drastically trim back higher education. If you're Gorz, they're the only revolutionary subjects left. Maybe the Hornsey College of Art uprising of '68 is an indication of how far this non working non class is from overthrowing the conditions of work, and also of its potential. I find the following very thought provoking. The first is a postcard sent to the students occupying Hornsey:

‘Why do not you two-a-penny, feather-bedded students get back to your hovels from whence you were pupped. We workers do not pay out huge sums of money from our pay to school useless spivs and drones. Clear out! And make way for decent citizens.’

The second is from the students (my emphases):

‘Daily work is a struggle, and few workers can possibly afford personal involvement; from the perspective of work imposed by society and absorbed by the worker himself it can only appear as a luxury, as the indecent attitude of a layabout. We protest against the protestant, clean, decent, self-denying, miserable glorification of work. I believe that this hope to work for one’s living by living in one’s work is a reason why many of us choose to go to art school. This is why we really kick when our hopes are frustrated and we find the same alienation forced upon us as upon our parents: the alienation from which we were trying to escape.’

(From the University of Brighton site.)

kellie said...

"A left" would make a bit more sense rather than "the left". Though I can see it suits Ledeen's partisan purpose to write of "the left" so he can include the not very left Obama administration in his singular dead left.

kellie said...

I really like that exchange, Flesh!

Waterloo Sunset said...

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).

I agree that this poll seems to have produced a lower result. Even more tellingly, the YOUGOV poll finds that 62% of those from the C2DEs sociological classification identify as working class. In other words, most people who are likely to be working class still identify as such. (There's some self-classification that would seem inaccurate, from both working class and middle class people, but that's always been the case).

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.

What's interesting about that is that I think it's a shift back towards the upper class. Under New Labour, it was very much a government made up, not a ruling one. Even Thatcher was from a middle class background (one of the reasons the Tory Party grandees despised her, despite her effectiveness as a class warrior for the upper class).

It is precisely this politics, however, which the left has abandoned, in its preference to wage a kulturkampf against cultural conservatism.

While these fights aren't enough without class politics, they're still important. (Especially in the context of the US where cultural conservatism is such a powerful political force). You're dangerously near to suggesting that gay rights should not become a shibboleth here...

Waterloo Sunset said...

To move onto some stuff in the original article.

Hegel would have well understood one of the most interesting contemporary developments: the old liberal establishment is shrinking, both in numbers and in confidence, and their political/ideological opponents are growing.

As Kellie has touched on, anyone that a) considers the Democrats meaningfully left wing or b) doesn't understand the difference between left and liberal, entirely loses their right to be taken seriously on this kind of issue.

veral smart people have noticed the extraordinary depth of the conservative political team, many of whose members were on display in Tampa this week. The Ryans and the Romneys

Now he just gets silly. Not even most conservatives consider Romney an impressive figure. If you're going to spin the fact for partisan reasons, you need to at least stay within the realms of plausibility.

It is reduced to fighting for political power alone, and its weapons are what we recently called “the politics of personal destruction.”

Coming from a Republican, this is kinda funny. And it shows how much this tactic rattles the right. The working class are not fucked over by impersonal market forces, although that's a factor. The working class is attacked by individuals, with faces and names. We should not shy from going for the jugular when we get the chance.

Besides, this is someone who says things like:

Change—above all violent change—is the essence of human history

and

the only way to achieve peace is through total war

Leeden has no problem with nihilism as a tactic, let alone aggressiveness. His real concern is that people might start throwing punches back.

None of us should be surprised when the leftists accuse the righties of pushing old women off of cliffs, or murdering cancer-afflicted employees, or waging war on women,

I'm not sure what the first example refers to. (Perhaps one of your US readers can tell me?) But the other two are pretty much true. Nearly 45,000 people in the US die every year from lack of health insurance, from a system the Republicans are fighting tooth and nail to keep in place. The only really objection you could have there is semantic quibbling about whether it's murder. The second is even more inarguable. The Republican Vice Presidential candidate, who Leeden is a big fan of, voted for a bill that would not allow abortions, even if that led to the mother dying. Leeden's problem is that the Republicans are so far to the right on issues like these, it's near impossible for them to build up an actual straw man argument.

His wider argument doesn't work either. If class wasn't an issue, the Republicans wouldn't call "class war" whenever someone mentions Romney's background. And there certainly wouldn't have been the hysterically aggressive response to Occupy (who do have a vague class analysis, but frankly are pretty woolly) from the US right.

You don't react like that if you genuinely believe the people you're talking about to be irrelevant. It's the reaction of a right that is crying wolf, in the hope that people won't notice that the wolf is among the chickens.

Roland Dodds said...

"I'm not sure what the first example refers to. (Perhaps one of your US readers can tell me?)"

An ad targeting Paul Ryan, who is shown pushing an old woman over a cliff.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/16/paul-ryan-ad-wisconsin_n_1792380.html

TNC said...

Ledeen is pointing to something important but he is far too broad and thus fails to take some important distinctions into consideration (for example, between the US and Europe or between the Old and New Left).

The basic thesis concerns the impact of self-identification (or identity) on democratic politics. As fewer and fewer people identify as working-class, the Left will loose votes. As Ledeen states: “There aren’t working-class parties any more, since there aren’t enough voters who think of themselves that way.”

However, the point is a little too broad. As WS points out, sizable percentages of Europeans still identify as members of the working-class. Another thing to consider is the parties that considered organized labor as their base have largely transformed themselves into something different. Labor is still an element of the coalition that keeps them in office, but it is no longer the largest or most influential.

Ledeen also does not address the different emphases of the Old Left (working-class organizations and parties) and the New Left (organizing people of color and other “oppressed” people). In the United States, the New Left often viewed the white working-class with indignation. Part of this is justified as examples of discrimination against non-whites by members of the white working-class are fairly common in American history, including labor history. But the other reason the New Left hated the white working-class was political. The proletariat was supportive of the Cold War, including the war in Vietnam and against most of the social issues the New Left held dear.

The Leftists Ledeen describes may be “trapped in a world that does not exist” but that does not mean the Left is dying. I am not positive you can ever really kill this element of the Left. It is like a zombie. Even as socialism was collapsing in the eastern bloc you had people—primarily Western intellectuals—saying this would allow for the emergence of a “real” communism of brotherhood and humanity. They’ll say the same thing after the next collapse. And the next one.

As Revel notes in "Last Exit to Utopia":

“The Kingdom of Communism, in the eyes of its devotees, is essentially not of this world, and its failure here below is imputable to the world’s failure, not to the concept itself. Those who challenge the doctrine by citing mundane facts clearly have an ulterior motive: a secret hatred for Communism’s purported goal, the realization of social justice.”

And if you hate “social justice” you must be a “reactionary”. That is where we are at in the U.S. today. I am not one of those who thinks liberal = socialist and socialist = communist, but there is no denying the centrality of social justice to most of the elements of the Left.

Waterloo Sunset said...

I am not one of those who thinks liberal = socialist and socialist = communist, but there is no denying the centrality of social justice to most of the elements of the Left.

No, absolutely. (Somewhat ironic, considering the term was coined by a Jesuit).

What I think the difference between liberals and socialists (of whatever stripe, from anarchists to communists) is this. The former is at best wanting to mitigate the effects of inequality, the latter wants to abolish inequality.

And what we're seeing with sections of the left is that they abandoned the traditional left position that this is primarily an issue of class for 1960's style identity politics. That's where the crux lies, I think.

It's worth quoting Orwell on this, as what he describes is far more prevalent now:

. I am well aware that it is now the fashion to deny that Socialism has anything to do with equality. In every country in the world a huge tribe of party-hacks and sleek little professors are busy “proving” that Socialism means no more than a planned state-capitalism with the grab-motive left intact. But fortunately there also exists a vision of Socialism quite different from this. The thing that attracts ordinary men to Socialism and makes them willing to risk their skins for it, the “mystique” of Socialism, is the idea of equality; to the vast majority of people Socialism means a classless society, or it means nothing at all.

The fact that large swathes of the 'left' have decided it doesn't mean a classless society is why socialism currently means "nothing at all" in a practical sense.

Slightly mischievously, let's contrast that with Nick Cohen in FrontPage:

No one on the Left apart from Communists believes in a classless society and there are hardly any Communists left.

I will leave it to the reader to decide whether Orwell would have seen Cohen as a party hack or as a sleek little professor.

bob said...

I feel a little like I've been a bit of a hit and run blogger since before the summer - in this case posting something mildly provocative and then absenting myself for the discussion, being too busy to join in. Apologies, and thanks for the really interesting, thoughtful, engaged responses.

Three very important points. First, as a couple of people have said, there are many lefts not one, and talk of "the left" is problematic for this reason; "a left" is clearly better.

Any left that includes Bob Avakian, say, and a left that includes Barack Obama have as much in common as David Duke and Condi Rice. Just as leftists ought to acknowledge the huge gap between a Condi Rice and a David Duke, so the right needs to acknowledge the gap between an Avakian and an Obama.

Second: While these fights aren't enough without class politics, they're still important. (Especially in the context of the US where cultural conservatism is such a powerful political force). You're dangerously near to suggesting that gay rights should not become a shibboleth here...

This is absolutely right. I knew when I posted it I ought to qualify what I said. Many of the issues the new left have taken a stand on were and remain important: most importantly the basic entitlement to equal rights for black people, women, gay people and others denied the full enjoyment of these rights, but also some degree of recognition of different cultural identities. The left has been remarkably successful in this struggle, if you compare the Britain or America of 1960 with that of today. Being gay, being a woman or being black now is by almost any measure incomparably better than it was. However, persistent exclusions stubbornly remain in place, and cultural conservatism has gained back some of the ground it has lost.

However, my feeling is that the identities have become an end in themselves for large sections of the post-new left; much of the left has basically given up on the working class, and the agenda is represents.

I also feel that some of the battles for recognition that are fought hard by the cultural left are relatively trivial, while others are even negative. And the cultural left's mode of battle is often strident and contemptuous, in a way that alienates the open-minded majority who don't want to take sides in the kulturkampf, driving them into conservative arms.

bob said...

The third important thing relates to Flesh's comment. A politics based in the needs and desires of working class people, which is what I'm calling for, should never be confused with a working class identity politics. I don't want to glorify working class as an identity; I don't want to treat it the way the identity politics I'm dismissing has treated ethnic and other identities. And above all, I don't want to preach attachment to the forms of work that used to define the working class, or the forms of working we're doing now. The view that work is inherently dignifying or uplifting or noble is a religious rather than political idea, which obviously comes from the leisured classes. The refusal of work is a better working class response than the "right [sic] to work" that the Socialist Workers [sic] Party demand.

bob said...

TNC -

I get your rejection of the ideology packaged under the term "social justice" by much of the wackier edge of the US left, both liberal and socialist. An awful lot of shit is fed out in its name.

I also think the concept is very nebulous, and can mean almost anything to anyone. What other people call "social justice" is equally likely to sound to me like totalitarian social control or bureaucratic collectivism, like mild technocratic reform, or like feral libertine anarchy as it is to sound like anything Orwell would have recognised as socialism.

But do you have a problem with social justice itself? If so, what?

kellie said...

The context of the Nick Cohen quote cited by WS above is perhaps interesting to revisit, as it was in response to an earlier attempt to conflate all left of centre politics with Stalinism, that time by David Horowitz.

TNC said...

Bob:

“And above all, I don't want to preach attachment to the forms of work that used to define the working class, or the forms of working we're doing now. The view that work is inherently dignifying or uplifting or noble is a religious rather than political idea, which obviously comes from the leisured classes.”

Uplifting? Probably. But dignifying? Not so sure. The idea of “free” and “productive” labor is an idea of the artisan classes of the nineteenth century if not earlier. Take a look at William Manning’s “The Key of Liberty” (1798) for one articulation of the mechanics’ take on productive labor. Productive labor, for those who used the term, was dignified. It was different than earning your keep through rent or speculation.

Understanding the importance of working-class identity does not equate to agreeing with “identity politics”. I was just trying to point out the role of self-identity at the ballot box. Of course class for Marxists is not about self-identity. It used to have to do with concepts like Historical Materialism and Dialectical Materialism. But those have largely been forgotten. One important aspect of class that we should never forget, perhaps its essence, is labor (who does what) and by extension production. Leftists used to be concerned about who controls the means of production.

On Social Justice: We’ve had this conversation before. Let’s just say I am skeptical.
WS: well-aware of the Jesuit linkage. I think the term was popularized here in the U.S. by Father Coughlin’s periodical. He was not a Jesuit.

Flesh said...

TNC, thanks for the Mannings pointer - sounds like a defining text for the producerist movement. I hope I manage to read it.

Bob, in support of what you say about not preaching attachment to work as it currently is - I also think that if we don't have work which we can strongly and positively identify with (or, yes, be attached to) then that's a problem for the left and for society in general. To clarify - I don't want to attribute that to any failure of commitment on the part of individual workers. But the fact is we spend too much of life at work for work not to be envisioned as a place of community and commitment. If workers don't insist on that, employers - whatever the economic regime, capital or communist - certainly won't. Then you're left with more than a third of your life wishing you weren't doing it.

That said, 'communities of practice' theory cautions not to romanticise any such community, that members of a workplace juggle multi-membership of other communities, and non-participation is a legitimate expression of perhaps identity, or perhaps practicality at the time. I just mean that there should be something warm and vibrant for you at work, if you want it.

AllanR said...

"Since the rise of capitalism, the working class has grown in many ways. It has grown in numbers until it includes almost everybody." IWW pamphlet. In a real sense all of us who never hired or fired and who had to sell our labour, my ancestors in coal mines in Central Scotland, myself in schools in London, are working class. We are all marginalised and exploited by the tiny few who have control of society and their hangers on.

TNC said...

" In a real sense all of us who never hired or fired and who had to sell our labour, my ancestors in coal mines in Central Scotland, myself in schools in London, are working class."

The potential problem with this broad of a conception of class is it does not explain much in terms of behavior, belief, etc. Sort of like the idea that we are all members of the human race, that racial differences are socially constructed and therefore not important. Yes, they are socially constructed but also yes, racial difference is incredibly important if you want to begin to understand living, breathing, human beings.

We might think the common fact of working for a wage has the potential to create a community of shared interests but there is very little evidence in U.S. history that this alone is strong enough to fashion a sense of solidarity. It does happen on occasion (see Liz Cohen's "Making a New Deal") but it is fairly rare.

Ross Wolfe said...

"The Left is dead! Long live the Left!"

Surprised there has been no mention of Platypus here, though perhaps that's a bit narcissistic to expect. I think it's because we tend to get so much shit for it that I expect it to be brought up whenever I hear either part of this refrain.

Either way: The Left is dead. The revolutionary international workers' movement is dead. The two deaths are related.

Obviously, one can speak of the proletariat at an objective, sociological level. Proletarians are defined by wage-labor, and their relation to the means of production.

It's less obvious whether one can still speak of the proletariat at a subjective, political level. Marx once wrote that "The proletariat is revolutionary or it is nothing."

At this moment, we must face up to the fact that it is nothing. But it is because it could be everything that the hopes of all humanity rest on its politicization.

bob said...

Stirring words, Ross.

I don't see Platypus as particularly original in this claim. There is a long critique of ortho-Marxism going back at least to the 1960s along similar lines. (Gorz was mentioned above; more radical versions come from the autonomist tradition on the one hand and Moishe Postone on the other. I guess Platypus is original perhaps in retaining the class perspective of the autonomists and the critique of class from the Postone/Kurz current.)

Here is a good summary of the core critique from Mike Rooke in the 1990s:

"The orthodox Marxism of the 2nd/3rd Internationals (and this included the Trotskyist 4th) represented an interpretation and application of Marx’s ideas based on the struggles and aspirations of the working class movement in the period 1870-1950. This period saw the emergence of what Marx referred to as the first real working class organisations. Its social base consisted largely of skilled workers and artisans, and its preoccupation was achieving a just reward for and recognition of the importance of productive labour. It sought inclusion of the labouring class (or privileged sections of it) as a class in the bourgeois order. The lifespan of orthodox Marxism mirrored the rise of this industrial working class in Europe and North America. The critique of the bourgeois order produced by this class reflected its exclusion from bourgeois politics, the parasitism of unproductive capital, and the erosion of its position in the work process. It was a claim for inclusive status on behalf of industrial labour as industrial labour, but not a critique of capital, as the value form of this industrial labour. The Marxism that rested on and drew sustenance from this new industrial working class and its struggle, was a critique of capital, but from the standpoint of a class protective of its status as a class. The spontaneous socialism of the working class movement produced a Marxism limited to the sovereignty of industrial labour in the bourgeois order."
http://www.whatnextjournal.co.uk/Pages/Back/Wnext30/Rooke.html

More on this topic later, including very helpful comments TNC emailed me, which I've been meaning to post and comment on for some time.