Breaking the vicious circle of irrelevance
Posted by Left Luggage on July 8, 2009
Regular readers of Left Luggage will know we regularly distinguish between working and middle class people in many of our analytical pieces. We largely take this distinction for granted and also stress its significance, unlike much of the Left which favours a more widely encompassing notion of working class.
To an extent we agree with this economically-based definition of class, which stresses workers’ place in the structure of the economy as being the crucial variant that both provides the material interest in and the strategic location for an overthrow of existing social relations. On the other hand, if we confine ourselves to an economic definition of class we exclude important elements of power and culture without which we can easily become strategically hamstrung.
We have argued previously that the Left in Britain is currently dominated by middle class people. What do we mean by this, why is is significant, and how?
One measure of the social class of the British Left would be to examine the social and occupational backgrounds of activists. Dealing with generalities is unavoidable here, but we would argue it is patently the case that middle class people (on this definition) predominate. While many on the Left baulk at the measure, the standard sociological grading of class – using the ABC1 C2DE system – provides a useful measure. It is obvious that for much of the Left, sets B and C1 are vastly over-represented. It is impossible not to generalise, but think of teachers, administrators in the public sector, university lecturers, and students from parents in such occupations. This is purely anecdotal, and many people may disagree. But studies have also shown that so-called “new social movements”, issue-based campaigns such as peace and environmental movements, are dominated by socially middle class people.
Why is this significant? Well, if we acknowledge there is more to people’s ideas and ideologies than simply their relationship to the means of production, we have to start to take account of culture as an important variable. On a simple level, the point is obvious: people with different life experiences will have a different conception of the world, different assumptions and expectations about what is normal, desirable, or possible. We would recognise this intuitively when comparing, say, someone educated at a public school with wealthy parents with someone from a comprehensive school with working class parents. But we fail to recognise less glaring differences between middle class and working class people. So social class creates gaps that are perfectly bridgeable, but nonetheless need to be recognised.
But social class affects priorities and interests, too. Large-scale studies in both France and Britain have shown a remarkably close relationship between social class and cultural taste, such that interests and likings pretty exactly track class. That is not to say this is predetermined, but over a wide field the differences are significant. And there’s the rub. One glance at the priorities of the Left (again, to generalise horribly), what is spoken and written about, demonstrates a remarkable bias towards issues and campaigns that are divorced from the everyday concerns of working class people in Britain.
As we have stated previously, there is an overwhelming emphasis on international movements and events. One needn’t spend time measuring column inches to acknowledge the amount of coverage of, for example, Palestine hugely dwarfs anything written about housing, crime or education. The enormous coverage of the recent protests in Iran compared to the scant focus on the Lindsey oil refinery strikes, which at their height had about 10,000 workers taking illegal solidarity action, is yet more evidence of this trend.
How to account for this? We would argue the overwhelming predominance of international issues (and the slant on national issues) on the Left’s agenda reflects the cultural interests of the Left’s socially middle class base. This is self-reinforcing in that a lot of Left recruitment is targeted at students, who are more likely to be from middle class backgrounds (although this has decreased slightly in recent years) and are also more likely (perhaps even more likely than socially middle class workers) to be interested in such issues.
It is true the Left should be internationalist. It should also be strong and deeply-rooted in working class communities. Unfortunately the latter two precede the former and at present it is neither. It seems like the Left is currently in a vicious circle, with a middle class base producing middle class priorities and maintaining the gulf with the vast majority of working class people. How to bridge this gulf is the real question.
The main hope must be for a turn by the Left towards the politics of everyday life to address those concerns that carry meaning for people beyond the Left milieu. There have been some promising initiatives in recent years from a variety of small groups such as the Independent Working Class Association and Liberty & Solidarity, among others. There has also been a wellspring of locally-focussed, sometimes slightly apolitical, community groups addressing such issues. Perhaps the energy can come from these quarters to break the vicious circle of Left irrelevance.