Class as ethnicity

Image from the Dave's Part blog

At Prime Minister’s Questions this week, Gordon Brown delivered a particularly resonant line, claiming that Tory inheritance tax policy had been “dreamed up on the playing fields of Eton.” This has produced a howl of disgust from sections of the commentariat — tellingly, the Grauniad and the BBC at the forefront. We’re told that this is some palaeolithic regression to ‘class war’ and the ‘politics of envy’. And besides, voters don’t like it, so why dredge it up, since “it makes us almost as uncomfortable as the secrets of our sex lives.” (Henry Porter in today’s Guardian) We wouldn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable, would we?

Obviously, there is something hypocritical about the rallying to these class-laden terms. For example, Blair went to Fettes, the ‘Eton of the North’, and Harriet Harman was a pupil at the exclusive St. Paul’s Girl’s (not to mention her being the niece of the Earl of Longford). In other words, Labour MPs are hardly all organic representatives of council estates and back-to-backs across the land. So, even if the composition of the shadow cabinet takes things to an extreme, you might think the backgrounds of many in the Labour party makes any masses-against-the-classes rhetoric look somewhat awkward. True as this might be, this response alone fails to engage with any of the most important dimensions of discussions of class.

The most powerful and all-too-common temptation today is to think of class as a quasi-ethnic category, inherited from one’s relatives and indelibly imprinted by the circumstances of one’s childhood. Absurd as ideas like good ‘breeding’ sound — which revealingly distill the notions of biological and social formation — these categories persist in different forms at both ends of the social strata. I think John Prescott’s conception of class presents a version of this. For him, the experience of being a cruise-ship waiter confronted him with the sneering, unthinking arrogance of an aristocracy with an epic sense of entitlement. This was a glimpse of another world, where economic injustice was gilded with a particular aesthetic — accented and dressed, with time only for their own Oxbridge or titled elite. This, rightly, sparked resentment in him. But for a nominal socialist this seems curiously depoliticised, despite his calls for educational reform. Undoubtedly, education still matters in the reproduction of class distinctions, from the persistence of the old-boys-style networks of contacts and connections, to the creation of that distinctive public school confidence (on this see the discussions sparked off by Nina at Infinite Thought). But for Prescott, it feels like the passions fuelling his political invocation of class are the feelings of inadequacy which his failing the 11-plus brought on, alongside his disgust at the attitudes and sensibility of the upper-classes. These ought not to be brushed aside, but nor do they have seemed to have brought the structural analysis of class into constant focus. That is, his dysphoria was not properly put to work. Rather, class remained a matter of ‘roots’, and fundamentally a fidelity to the manners and milieu you found yourself growing up around. Economics seems only a peripheral aspect of all this — one more factor in making up your social life-world.

When class is discussed at all today, this kind of ethnological understanding is never far from the surface. Most people identify with the class they take their parents to have been, regardless of their current circumstances (something borne out by social attitudes studies, if I recall correctly). Here, we have seemed to have regressed beyond even the crude distinctions between the working class as manual or menial labourers and the middle classes as merchant, manager or professional. Instead, it’s your ‘breeding’ that counts: whether you grew up in a detached house, whether your parents went to the theatre or the dogs, how ‘regional’ your pronunciation. If class is this sort of inherited aesthetic-cultural mélange, hardened by a schooling to match, it is not necessarily an entirely worthless category. The issues around confidence and connections remain, for instance. However, something much more important is occluded, as can be seen when we adopt other class-based categories.

The classical Marxist understanding of class is not primarily cultural but economic. The proletariat are those who must sell their labour power, in virtue of lacking ownership of means of production. Conversely, the bourgeoisie own the means of production, and are able to hire workers, purchasing their labour-power, and appropriating the surplus value produced. These categories allow a structural analysis of society, whereby it becomes apparent that class struggle is a motor force of historical change.

This sense of class is obviously not orthogonal to the quasi-ethnic one to which most people seem to cling. Toffs tend to be stinking rich; and those filthy oiks tend to be poor. But what is harder to discern is the nature of the relationship between those facts. Conservatives often think that the cream has risen, that the industrious and thereby deserving can and do make it to the top. But the relationship between social structure and the abilities and character of individuals is far more complex than this, since it has a dialectical nature, insofar as people are not ready-formed but partly produced by the very social structures that they then find themselves confronted with. Insisting on the politico-economic conception of class, instead of the pseudo-ethnicised one, provides the analytic basis for opening up these questions. In doing so, it makes sense of an inherently political dimension to class, as part of its demonstrating that economics must always give way to political economy.

This classical Marxist approach to class is important, but it can be enriched by introducing further categories. Michael Albert makes a distinction between workers and the ‘co-ordinator class.’ Both are subordinate to capital, but members of the co-ordinator class, such as lawyers, doctors, academics and managers, have a significantly larger degree of control over their labour in the workplace than other workers. Albert claims those in this class “accrue information, skills, confidence, energy and influence on daily outcomes sufficient to largely control their own tasks and those of workers below.”

This is a significant addition to the distinction between proletarian and bourgeoisie, and allows us to articulate further class issues. Within the co-ordinator class, stratification is taking place: professional judgement is being replaced by an increasing managerialism, pursued through a subjection to endless assessment criteria — an idiotic culture of distorting targets and self-justification. But just as unionised French workers cannot simply cling to Fordism, the co-ordinator class cannot simply repel attacks on their status. Again, Albert puts this well in his attempts to rearticulate socialism:

“Out with the old boss, in with the new boss” is not a strategy that ends bosses. To retain the distinction between the coordinator class and the working class would ensure coordinator class rule. Our movements and projects must eliminate the monopoly of capitalists on productive property but also the monopoly of coordinators on empowering work. Indeed, this is what reimagining socialism is primarily about.

Mark Fisher — aka k-punk — has recently underlined this need for an anti-managerialist front in his Capitalist Realism as part of a project of ensuring worker autonomy (see also his blog posts about class). So, again, we should not shy away from a class-based politics, so long as we’re employing the right sorts of class categories.

Update:  Guardian Daily episode: The return of class war — including some level-headed analysis by Madeline Bunting, insisting on the continued relevance of class in politics.