It's time to empower individuals, not class war. Photo: Flickr/vmiramontes
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Are the middle classes doomed?

The personalisation of our modern struggle belies the revolutionary fervour envisaged by past socialist thinkers.

In a recent Radio 4 programme, Clinging on: The Decline of the Middle Classes, David Boyle, assisted by a team of academics, explored this issue while hardly touching on the underlying causes or far-reaching consequences of this decline. While the tectonic plates of society are being shifted to a revolutionary degree, it is remarkable that the process has not become a question of intense political debate, or given rise to widely expressed social discontent.

Changes far less consequential have caused a storm in society or even upturned the social order. The difference now is that this is not a clash of interests between clearly identifiable classes or economic interest groups, being the usual sources of social turmoil, but a generational split across the entire spectrum of the population – omitting only that lucky 2.5 per cent at the very apex of the community.

Generational differences do not easily make for class conflict – although there is the occasional horror story of children who kill their parents to seize their assets. More usually there is a closing of ranks as parents and grandparents do their utmost to help their offspring. But in the longer term this is often in vain, as the majority cannot hope to assist effectively their nearest and dearest in obtaining affordable housing, or in the alleviation of student debt.

If those are the greatest difficulties the younger generations need to contend with, there are others that are hardly less worrying, such as increasing unemployment among many sectors of the highly-qualified, and job insecurity on a scale that never existed before.

All this has given rise to a feeling of helplessness and stoical fatalism rather than desperation and anger, and the reason for this is clear. There is no identifiable sector of society to be angry with, as there may have been in the past in the face of financial difficulty. All are equally disadvantaged in a quite classless fashion. If there is a source for blame it is usually traceable to such nebulous factors as Britain’s alleged “inevitable decline” or rising competition from China or other parts of southeast Asia. Our politicians are in this way “exonerated” since it is assumed they are powerless to resolve such issues.

The only rational interpretation of this situation is to admit that democracy has ground to a halt. Our politicians or parliament no longer represent the electorate in any real sense. Instead, they strive to keep alive the old debate between left and right which is no longer valid in promoting progress or resolving the socio-economic problems of the present day. They are knowingly trapped in a time warp of the past from which they cannot easily escape.

The negative characteristics of the confrontational party political system drive each in a backwards direction in reinforcing the more traditional values of the past. As politics becomes increasingly heated in an electoral environment it relies ever more on the expression of critical as opposed to positive opinion, and this is an unhealthy tendency, as it is not a fertile soil for the creativity needed for well-thought-out policy in meeting the needs of the future.

In the realisation of this, politicians have increasingly resorted to the short-termism of a pragmatic approach to each policy question as it arises. In this way the long-termism of principle, which acts as a glue or guiding light in uniting the aims of the electorate with their representatives, is pushed aside. There is, of course a contradiction between the pragmatic and principled approach to policy-making, but our politicians are prepared to live with this, and the consequences are dire for democracy and good government.

The practical outcome of this has led increasingly to the absorption of democratic power by the unrepresentative forces of vested interests, eg. that of powerful transnational corporations, and this results in sacrificing elected people power. All this may be blamed on Britain’s contraction as a global power, or it falling victim to a new type of financial imperialism, rather than on the failings of our own politicians.

Irrespective of where blame may be cast, the outcome of political decision-making over the past few decades has been disadvantageous to the majority. And that new undefined majority – as it exists today – is not represented by democracy because its presence or reality is unrecognised by government. The age-old clash between the working and middle classes no longer exists as a socio-economic fact, although the illusion is still kept alive by the dualism of our political system.

Perhaps the title of this article should more correctly be expressed in the affirmative than the inquisitive. The actuality is that the middle class with its package of bourgeois values and aspirations, as it was known 60 years ago, is no longer with us – or is fast disintegrating. The same may be said of the working class or the proletariat. Living standards have been raised for all to unprecedented levels, and in certain important respects, we are now far more egalitarian and democratic than in the Fifties or Sixties.

In place of the poverty of grime, cold, and hunger (which many still remember) other social ills have taken their place, and these latter are often more inextricable, and hence threatening, than those that went before. This is partly due to the fact that these new social ills have struck so suddenly and unexpectedly that they are not yet properly recognised or understood. We have become so accustomed to ever-rising living standards that the idea of progress as a permanent state of existence is deeply embedded in our minds. Despite our assumed egalitarianism it should also be borne in mind that the acceleration between top and bottom earners is now greater than it has ever been – and it is the middling ranks of society that have been the major economic losers.

The new class that is now emerging may best be described as the 90 per cent middle-middle majority, with 2.5 per cent comprising the super-rich, and 7.5 per cent an underclass, the latter not comparable to an “oppressed” proletariat of a hundred years ago, but rather a mix of unfortunates from all sectors of the community who through a variety of circumstances have fallen on hard times. The middle-middle majority comprise a heterogeneous mass of those who have risen or fallen from the opposite poles of the social spectrum. On the superficial level they are indistinguishable in their dress, or in their minimal expectations of material existence, but in their attitudes, political or other opinions, they may be found in every conceivable variation.

The reality, however, is that this 90 per cent majority is only sketchily aware of its existing position or future potential in relation to the financial-industrial establishment within which it is obliged to live and work, and this explains the political alienation of so many from either party political affiliation or the option to cast a vote. As the world is young for this new majority it has not had time to develop a political consciousness, but events will bring this about. The definition of class in any society is to be found in its economic relations with the business and government of a country, and it is this that is the core subject matter of political life.

Through a series of socio-economic changes with unanticipated consequences moving slowly – almost unseen, through every corner of society, the political establishment is suddenly made aware it no longer has a grip on the electorate, and it cannot understand the reason why. There is a tragic irony in the fact that so many of the benefits raising living standards in the post-war era were accountable to the hard won legislation of democratic government. Why, then, does the electorate show such ingratitude in the light of this? Why are Conservatives lost in a morass of contradictions, and why has Labour lost so many supporters and all the idealism of its socialist past?

The reason is that society and the world of work has been transformed out of all recognition and in ways that were unexpected because the future can seldom be predicted. Political theory, which is the basis for all practical change, has not kept apace with the actuality of events. Ideology has moved at a sluggish pace and then come to a sudden stop, to be replaced by so-called pragmatism.

The open discontent we do see expressed today is the drive towards devolution, not only in Scotland and Wales, but in many regions of England – and in addition, unhappiness with EU membership. But devolution alone will not begin to resolve the underlying issues of our time. As power (or democracy) has virtually been taken away from people on the national level, as a form of compensation, it is demanded in the regions and in our cities. Such a reaction is only natural, but in reality the drive towards devolution is a suppressed cry for nationality, or rather, the desire for the recovery of economic and national integrity.

We have awoken to the awareness of having mortgaged too many of our national assets, or sold too much of  “the family silver,” and if we are not too careful, we shall discover we no longer own ourselves. How many of our utility companies are already in foreign hands, and what controls do we have over their pricing or reliability? A glance at rural ownership patterns in Britain may startle the majority who falsely imagine we are an idyllic green land of family-owned farms, when the reality is that great swathes of our country are corporate or foreign-owned. The hyperinflation of land and urban property values is in great part due to the trickle-up effect of foreign investment buying resulting in exorbitant rental arrangements for native residents. These are not class-based political issues for they touch on the interests of those from every spectrum of society – of all those whose culture is deeply embedded in the country.

If the government of this country serves transnational interests, it is not because it was elected to do so, but because over a period of time power has slipped into the hands of powerful corporations and away from the electorate. Government may serve a variety of interests through the course of history, either overtly or covertly: eg. the church, military ambitions, international trading dominance, an oligarchic elite, the needs of national defence against a potential aggressor, or serve the interests of the majority population. In reality a wise government needs to serve a mix of interests, but in a modern industrialised democratic society the overriding interest should be the prosperity of the majority. And unfortunately, the latter has not been pursued by any of the established parties for several decades.

The emerging middle-middle majority which politically is neither proletarian nor bourgeois, as these terms were once understood, has turned its back in disgust on the ding-dong conflict of the left/right divide, as time-wasting and meaningless. The parliamentary knockabout has become more “show” than “substance,” whilst the problems of urgent concern to the majority are met with an attitude of denial. As the problems arising from the hyperinflation of land and property values; un-payable student debt; worthless pension payouts; and unprecedented private in addition to public debt, affect everyone across the social spectrum, these are issues which are awkward to bring to the forefront of political life effectively within a dualistic or polarised party system.

If the left/right pattern of politics is to be repudiated, it also follows that their economic or financial-industrial belief systems should also be brought into question in favour of another alternative. The middle-middle majority, due to the advance of technology and the huge call on additional brainpower, has acquired a knowledge base that no society in history has possessed hitherto. This means that skill and aptitude levels between those at the apex in the politico-economic control of society and those of the middling majority have been reduced to a narrower margin than ever existed before.

In view of this a Marxist interpretation may be given to the outcome of finance or rentier capitalism, ie. that dispossession has now reached a critical mass of the population in enabling a revolutionary situation. The difference, of course, is that this dispossession has not led to an impoverished proletariat on the verge of starvation, but rather to a financially powerless majority dependent on the attractions of unfulfilled promises and the clever maintenance of tolerable material standards.

This is an outcome that was never – and could never – have been anticipated by socialist-leaning thinkers in the past, and hence the failure of the left to respond effectively to the subtle deceptions and injustice of our time. Because of the actual transformation of society and the socio-economic system, the answer is not to be found in old-style collectivism, but rather in directly empowering the individual for the democratic takeover of financial power wherever it exists.

This offers an immense opportunity to this new majority for the democratisation of the financial-industrial system. It enables the possibility for corporations and financial power for the first time to be made accountable to the responsibility of democratic authority within the nation state. Such an achievement would not have been possible in the lesser-informed societies of an earlier era.

The practicable achievement for such socio-economic arrangements would be enabled through the personalisation of ownership as a legal right through changes in company law; a greater emphasis on deficit financing through commercial credit banks; and co-determination and employee share ownership. Policies for self-sustainability and import substitution, and the dissolution of conglomerates in forming smaller independent productive enterprises, would contribute rapidly to greater stability and the reduction of national debt.

If, therefore, the middle classes may correctly be described as doomed to eventual extinction, then in a phoenix-like fashion they may be reborn as a new majority with a strength and confidence their predecessors never enjoyed. It would also presage the realisation of a fully developed democracy in both its governmental system, and as a free and just society for all within the nation state.

Robert Corfe is a social thinker, political philosopher and author of multiple books, including Social Capitalism in Theory and Practice, published by Arena Books.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.