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Archive for the ‘Class’ Category

Gramsci and the tasks for the Left

Posted by Left Luggage on July 25, 2009

Antonio GramsciThe Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci is one of the most abused and also most useful of Marxist thinkers. His theories of ideology and hegemony are particularly vital tools for the Left today.

But they have also been appropriated and often stripped of their class content by the liberal academy which seem to forget Gramsci was a founder member and later leader of the communist party in Italy and that this was the context of his thought. In the 1970s and 1980s the so-called “Eurocommunists” used Gramsci to justify a retreat from social struggle. His work was latterly taken up by academics involved in “discourse analysis” who, although they found regrettable the “economistic residue” of privileging the role of class in his analysis, nevertheless took up his ideas now stripped of this archaic content.

This could happen partly due to the mystifying nature of his most important work, The Prison Notebooks, written in a coded style while his was imprisoned by Mussolini, but it is also due to the power of his thought. Yet precisely because Gramsci in his notebooks written between 1929 and 1935 is reflecting on a period of utter defeat for the Left, with the triumph of fascism and the destruction of the communist party, he is useful for us today. Clearly we are not in a period of defeat in any way comparable to the moment in which Gramsci was writing. But nevertheless, the Left in Britain finds itself at low ebb historically, with its political forces small, its influence low, and its ideas marginalized.

On Left Luggage we try to avoid straying into too theoretical territory, trying to stick to straightforward analysis, strategic questions and “common sense”. Therefore, we will only summarize a selection of key points that can be found in Gramsci’s thought, focusing on what we might effectively call counterhegemony i.e. the most urgent task from the Left’s point of view today.
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Posted in Class, Socialism, Strategy | 1 Comment »

Accounting for culture in class analysis

Posted by Left Luggage on July 18, 2009

It seems one of our recent posts about the social class composition of the Left has come in for some criticism in the blogosphere. One blogger who linked to our piece this week reveals his inclusion of us in the round-up “led to some criticism in [his] inbox for [his] endorsement of that kind of class analysis”. It is a pity these comments were confined to private emails as we very much welcome constructive (in the sense of comradely) discussion and criticism on all the articles on Left Luggage.

In the post in question we tried to delineate two definitions of class, one based on a structural economic analysis (a broad definition) an one based on social or cultural criteria (a narrow definition). The point seems obvious to us. However, we can understand that many on the Left will recoil at such an argument. I had a debate recently with a friend who argued university lecturers were very bit as working class as factory workers. True in one sense, as we admitted. Yet to be blinded to the very obvious differences between these two groups of workers is to be blinded by one’s own ideology.

At its heart this is a strategic point. It is obvious that those on the Left are constantly having to make decisions about what issues to take up, what tactics to adopt, who they attempt to reach and how. Much of this is automatic and, one might say, unconscious; poeple do what is “common sense”. Equally, much of this, particularly in the far-left parties, takes the form of commands from above. Regardless, the point still stands.

Obviously there are an infinite number of possible options facing Left activists in making these decisions. Even more obvious is the fact that some actions (and slogans, arguments, issues etc.) will resonate more with ordinary people than others, some will be better at mobilising, some will be more effective in their goals etc.

Our argument is essentially culture plays a central role in defining what is “common sense”  to different people. It would not be unfair to say that the Left pretty much has its own subculture that is reproduced by its members. It is also true to say that the social class demographic of the Left as a whole is not representative of either the population at large nor working class people.

If one takes account of culture and how ideas about what seems “natural” are formed, it becomes clear that an economic account of class is too crude a tool; even if the university lecturer and the factory worker have a similar position in the relations of production, this does not mean their ideas, experiences, culture etc. will be identical. Such an understanding, while valuable, needs to be supplemented by an understanding of social class and the role this plays in making choices. This affects the Left all the way down the line strategically.

Blogger Vengeance and Fashion makes the point well that the Left needs to engage the working class where it is, rather than where we wish it would be. He is referring the “ultra-Left” groups and the tendency to prioritise theory over action, and also the danger of action for action’s sake. But the point applies equally to the Left’s attitude towards “intervening” in struggles with its own ideas of the important issues facing working class people, rather than attempting the long hard task of understanding and building from where things stand:

More than anything, we need to open our ears and listen not just to other Leftists, but other workers, who often have a complex set of views that don’t fit into a box.  Once we’ve listened, then we can make our comments, dealing with their concerns and interests, and broadening it out to the big picture, hopefully setting them on the way to looking at the system itself as a problem.

Criticisms, comments and stinging ripostes are, as always, very welcome.

Posted in Class, Strategy, Working class | 9 Comments »

Leading the fight back?

Posted by Left Luggage on July 10, 2009

In the first of what we hope will be a series of profiles and interviews with groups and activists, we interviewed Ben Robinson of Youth Fight for Jobs about the campaign’s aims and tactics, as well as the challenges it will face. Ben is writing here in a personal capacity, and his opinions do not necessarily reflect those of YFfJ as a whole.

Please tell us the main aims of Youth Fight for Jobs and how it is seeking to achieve those aims?

The Youth Fight for Jobs campaign was launched in January 2009. As we saw it, youth unemployment was set to continue rising, with the situation of mass youth unemployment becoming the norm for a whole number of years. Not only that, but the main parliamentary parties were still committed to an agenda of privatising and attacks on the working class. Education privatisation and a lack of decent services were also set to be a feature of young peoples future. After a general election university fees will almost certainly be raised, cutting out many working class youth from education. So the campaign was launched, not only to combat youth unemployment, but also to fight for a future for young people. So the headline aims of the campaign are for the right to a decent job with a living wage, for apprenticeships with jobs at the end, and against university fees. There is also a broader set of demands that appear on the website and on the leaflets.

Those aims can only be achieved through mass action of young people and workers. Labour, the Tories or the Lib Dems will not introduce these measures if just asked for it. It will be a question of building a mass movement in order to make it clear that this is what the majority of people want. I think the example of the French youth movement against the CPE is the best recent example of how that strategy can win victories, but also the anti-poll tax campaign in the early nineties, the school student strikes in the mid eighties in Britain, but also in france and spain. These show very clearly that it is possible to fight and to win.

YFfJ seems to be a campaign with very ambitious goals. What would constitute a success for the campaign?

This campaign is going to be around as long as mass youth unemployment is! I think there are a number of battles which will take place over specific issues. In September, many universities and colleges face savage cuts in their budgets, with whole courses going in a lot of cases. In addition, tens of thousands of young people will be excluded from university because of a government miscalculation. In January, the government are introducing compulsory working for some unemployed young people – there will have to be a battle to ensure that young people are not used to drive down workers wages and conditions. There is clearly going to be a massive battle over pay in the public sector. I’ve already mentioned the prospect of university fees going up as well. I think that activists from the campaign will be involved in all of these struggles, and clearly a victory on any of them would be a success. Local groups are getting together and forming demands locally for the campaign on the question of youth unemployment and lack of opportunities in those areas as well. But those examples are defending young people and workers from attacks on our present conditions. The stated aim of the campaign is to win a decent future for young people, and we will fight until we achieve it.

There is also a question over whether capitalism can achieve our demands. From the point of view of those in power, the vastly wealthy ruling class, unemployment is good as competition for jobs can help drive down wages. The recent news that ‘bonuses are back’ shows just how little the rich have had to pay for the present crisis. But for a programme of socially useful job creation, to end unemployment and provide decent jobs and education for young people, and the population as a whole, would take a massive struggle. I think that some of the demands can be won under capitalism. After all, the NHS and other reforms were won on the basis of a mass movement. But I also think that there’s a fundamental divide in society between the interests of the tiny rich elite and of the mass of the population. If capitalism cannot afford to implement and maintain a decent future for young people, I think young people can’t afford capitalism.

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Posted in Class, Interviews / features, Recession, Strategy, Workers' struggles | 6 Comments »

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.
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Posted in Class, Strategy, Working class | 5 Comments »

Inequality and the battle of ideas

Posted by Left Luggage on June 25, 2009

Tuesday’s report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on public attitudes to inequality shed some light on the state of the battle of ideas that is underway between Right and Left.

The headline findings might be taken to support the suggestion that there is negligible support for the world view and policy proposals of the Left. This was certainly the conclusion of the Guardian, which chose to concentrate on the fact that 69% of respondents said they believed that there were plenty of opportunities for economic advancement, for those willing to take them. Other findings that many on the Left might find depressing include the widespread assumption that benefit claimants will not go on to make a positive contribution to society (p25) and the fatalistic attitude that inequalities are “inevitable in a market economy” (p47).

All of this underlines the challenges faced by the Left in attempting to convince the public of their position. David Osler made this point in a post on the JRF report:

All of this represents a major problem for any left that is actually interested in expanding it base. Capitalism – and the inequality it creates – continue to enjoy moral legitimacy in the eyes of an overwhelming majority.

While the unfolding recession has generated popular outrage aimed against those at the apex of the banking system, clearly general purpose ‘tax the rich’ fat cat-bashing will most of the time have little purchase.

I’m not suggesting any retreat whatsoever from the underlying principles involved. No socialism worthy of the name can be anything but redistributive in nature. But we need to come up with a more effective way of selling the message to the public, and sooner rather than later at that.

If we look at the report in a little more detail, however, we might find more reasons to be hopeful than either The Guardian or Osler. It is certainly true that the report found high levels of support for the concept of “fair inequality” – that differences in wealth were justified as long as those who had more deserved their wealth. There was only minority support, the report found, for “abstract notions of equality” (p43).

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Posted in Class, Ideology, Morality, Socialism, Strategy | 2 Comments »

Amateur psephology and the rise of the far-right

Posted by Left Luggage on June 13, 2009

There have been a number of attempts to downplay the scale of the British National Party’s success in the Euro elections last week. One of the main arguments which has been put forward is that while the BNP won two Euro seats, it’s number of votes actually dropped, proving that people are not turning to the far-right.

There’s a possiblity here of reading the results for the narrative we hope find, rather than facing the true extent of the challenge for the Left and the shape of likely developments to come. It’s correct we need to avoid hysteria, but at the same time we need good analysis to form effective strategies. Despite the risk of engaging in amateur psephology, and the danger of getting some of our calculations wrong, we want to try to break down some of the figures to find out if BNP support is static or if the party is still on the march. So, let’s look at the two seats where the BNP won.

First, the North West. In 2004, the BNP won 134,958 votes (6.4%) out of 2,115,163 votes cast. This time around, the BNP attained 132,094 votes (8%) out of 1,651,825. So here we have a 1.6% increase in vote percentage but a slight drop in support of 2,864 votes between the two elections. However, this must be set against a decline in turnout of more than 21%! In this context, the BNP’s total number of votes dropped about 2%.

Second, Yorkshire and the Humber. In 2004, the BNP won 126,538 votes (8%) out of 1,573,201 votes cast. This time around, the BNP attained 120,139 votes (9.8%) out of 1,226,180. Here we have a similar picture. The BNP’s share of the vote is up 1.8% but its absolute number of votes is down by 6,399. But again the turnout fell by more than 22% while the BNP’s total number of votes fell by just over 5%. -Keep reading>

Posted in Anti-fascism, Class, European Union | 3 Comments »

What Left?

Posted by Left Luggage on June 7, 2009

I had an interesting discussion with a friend of mine recently, in which he questioned Left Luggage’s strategy. He asked why we direct our arguments towards the section of the Left populated by groups whose names contain the word “Socialist…” or “Workers’…”, rather than towards much larger groups involved in global justice, human rights or environmental campaigns. He acknowledged that the latter groups were not explicitly socialist (or often even left wing) in orientation, but argued that they were preferable to the groups we currently address in a number of ways.

Firstly, he argued that these groups had far more members and supporters than the openly socialist groups, even if most of those members were middle class. This, he said, gave the “soft Left” a greater reach than the “hard Left”, and a greater potential for influence.

The second argument was that the soft Left was far more internally democratic than the hard Left, and less attached to the kinds of symbols, slogans and dogma that might put ordinary people off. These two advantages make the soft Left better able to launch creative campaigns that capture the attention of the public, he claimed.

My friend felt that the involvement of the soft Left in environmental and global justice campaigns was proof of their progressive values, and suggested that it might be a strategic error to ignore such a numerically significant and (potentially) influential demographic.
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Posted in Class, Environmentalism, Left Luggage, Socialism, Working class | 4 Comments »

Rebuilding working class consciousness

Posted by Left Luggage on May 21, 2009

Some arguments just seem to keep on reappearing, no matter how many times their contentions are shown to be folly. Such is the case with the “search for a revolutionary subject” by the Left, or “why has the working class failed us”. Over time this has seen various sections of the Left transferring their revolutionary aspirations to, variously, anti-colonial movements, students, peasants, the lumpen-proletariat, and international movements of a number of shades.

The concern over the working class as revolutionary subject was raised on the UK Left Network discussion group this week. As usual in such forums, the level of debate was variable at best. On poster argues “the working class no longer exists” and that the key is to oppose illegal wars, imperialism and privatisation. The writer goes on: “Once they have a good pay they will only be concerned when their own jobs are at risk. In the meantime they are engaged in a rat race, not realizing that they are losing in the end”. Another poster suggets the decline of manufacturing has put paid to the working class in the “Western imperialist countries” and argues that this class was identified as:

the agent of change not because it was the most oppressed class historically but because of the circumstances of its creation, it was able to effect change. That clearly isn’t the case today.

Another highly optimistic poster argues regarding the increasing support for the BNP, that:

To most workers nationalism is a bit of a joke- at best. barring a real socialist alternative they may vote for it but without any real enthusiasm.

The prompt for this discussion was an article on the International Viewpoint website. Now, I hadn’t come across IV before, but apparently this is the magazine of the reunified Trotskyist Fourth International, linked to the organisation Socialist Resistance. (Apologies to those readers who are more au fait with small far-left sects.) The article, in which Phil Hearse asks whether working class consciousness is dead, actually covers some very interesting ground although it reaches some worrying conclusions. -Keep reading>

Posted in Class, Socialism, Strategy, Unions, Workers' struggles | 1 Comment »

Thatcher’s children

Posted by Left Luggage on May 12, 2009

News of students occupying universities across the UK in protest at Israeli atrocities prompted some on the Left to proclaim young people as a new revolutionary force in Britain. This assessment is in part wishful thinking, since if it was accurate, the disproportionate amount of time the Left spends on recruiting and organising students would have some justification.

It is undoubtedly true that there has been an upsurge in student activism around international issues. Many of the school students who walked out of classes in opposition to the 2003 Iraq War are now at university, and their radicalism has not diminished. Any conclusions about a general left-wards shift on the part of the young should be resisted, however. There are no signs that the Gaza campaign will develop into a broader progressive movement. Indeed, research from 2008 shows that students are more likely to express support for the Conservatives than for Labour. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, since due to Britain’s inegalitarian education system, university students are disproportionately middle class.

Therein lies the rub. All the talk on the Left about the radicalism of the young is really about the limited radicalism of young, middle class students. What of the working class young people who do not end up going to university, or who are among the 22% of students who fail to complete their university courses? Almost all the articles on working class young people from the Socialist Worker newspaper focus on media demonisation of youth, and the failure of government to meet young people’s needs on education and crime. The following passage, from an article about youth crime, is typical:

Poor education, poverty, inequality, poor life prospects and decimation of local services – these are the conditions in which many of our young people are living and which create the conditions for some to turn to crime and violence.

Working class young people are cast as passive victims without agency. The political views of working class youth, and the way they see themselves and their society, are neglected. If the Left is to have any hope of building support for its politics in the future, it needs to get to grips with the worldview of young people growing up in communities devastated by Thatcherism.

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Posted in Class, Community, Strategy, Youth | 12 Comments »

Snapshots of a divided society

Posted by Left Luggage on April 18, 2009

One of the sillier responses to Left Luggage since we launched three weeks ago, has been the argument that class is a redundant category. A poster on our opening article about the Left, argued that “working class” was a redundant category, basically suggesting that it had no structural reality in society.

Of course, the fact that 53% of British people self-identify as working class gives us some indication that it is a relevent political category. And two new pieces of research published this week further underlined the point. The first, in a paper presented by Dr Will Atkinson, of Bristol University’s Department of Sociology, showed that the class in Britain is alive and well. In the study:

He found that those whose parents had a limited amount of money, education and social connections had had a much narrower choice during their lives.

He found that the working-class people he interviewed were disadvantaged in getting into higher education because their parents had had less money to spend on private education or supplementary tutoring for them, and were less able to cover their university fees.

This was consistent with the fact that although the expansion in university places over the past 20 years had allowed the number of working-class people at university to rise, they were under-represented as a proportion of those attending.

Dr Atkinson said his findings help explain why only 13 per cent of those from working-class backgrounds go to university, whereas 44 per cent of those from middle-class backgrounds do. He said: “The precise characteristics of the classes in terms of occupations, educational experiences and work life experiences has shifted with the social changes of the late 20th century. But the fact that some are better educated, with more choice in their lives and with more money still persists, and this maintains class differences that are as wide as they were in the 1970s.”

The fact that this system of entrenched privilege, far from disappearing, is stronger than ever was shown by a Cabinet Office report released on Tuesday showing that jobs in elite professions have become more socially exclusive.

The report suggested that privately educated people took the lion’s share of jobs in some professions, despite accounting for only 7 per cent of the population. Three-quarters of judges, 70 per cent of finance directors and 45 per cent of top civil servants went to independent schools, for example.

The middle-and upper-class domination has increased in recent decades, the report suggests. For example, lawyers born in 1970 grew up in families with an income 64 per cent above the national average, compared with a gap of 43 per cent for lawyers born in 1958. For top journalists, the trend is even more marked, with the 1970 generation coming from families with incomes 42 per cent above the national average, as against a 6 per cent gap for those born in 1958.

Class-based differences in aspiration, as well as educational attainment, affect recruitment patterns for the professions, the report suggests. More than four out of 10 – 41 per cent – of young people from the AB socioeconomic groups aspire to be a professional, against only 13 per cent of young DEs.

The report includes this illuminating graph, which shows how the privately-educated dominate the elite sectors of society to a remarkable degree given they constitute only 7 per cent of the population as a whole:

This graph shows how the proportion of those in different elite professions that were privately-educated. The top bar, in yellow, shows the percentage of the population as a whole that has a private education, 7%.

This graph shows how the privately-educated (top bar, 7 per cent) dominate the elite sectors of British society.

Posted in Class, Education, Social mobility | 2 Comments »