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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David Osland: “Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance”

The veteran Labour activist on the release of his new pamphlet, How to Select or Reselect Your MP, which lays out the current Labour party rules for reselecting an MP.

Veteran left-wing Labour activist David Osland, a member of the national committee of the Labour Representation Committee and a former news editor of left magazine Tribune, has written a pamphlet intended for Labour members, explaining how the process of selecting Labour MPs works.

Published by Spokesman Books next week (advance copies are available at Nottingham’s Five Leaves bookshop), the short guide, entitled “How to Select or Reselect Your MP”, is entertaining and well-written, and its introduction, which goes into reasoning for selecting a new MP and some strategy, as well as its historical appendix, make it interesting reading even for those who are not members of the Labour party. Although I am a constituency Labour party secretary (writing here in an expressly personal capacity), I am still learning the Party’s complex rulebook; I passed this new guide to a local rules-boffin member, who is an avowed Owen Smith supporter, to evaluate whether its description of procedures is accurate. “It’s actually quite a useful pamphlet,” he said, although he had a few minor quibbles.

Osland, who calls himself a “strong, but not uncritical” Corbyn supporter, carefully admonishes readers not to embark on a campaign of mass deselections, but to get involved and active in their local branches, and to think carefully about Labour’s election fortunes; safe seats might be better candidates for a reselection campaign than Labour marginals. After a weak performance by Owen Smith in last night’s Glasgow debate and a call for Jeremy Corbyn to toughen up against opponents by ex Norwich MP Ian Gibson, an old ally, this pamphlet – named after a 1981 work by ex-Tribune editor Chris Mullin, who would later go on to be a junior minister under Blai – seems incredibly timely.

I spoke to Osland on the telephone yesterday.

Why did you decide to put this pamphlet together now?

I think it’s certainly an idea that’s circulating in the Labour left, after the experience with Corbyn as leader, and the reaction of the right. It’s a debate that people have hinted at; people like Rhea Wolfson have said that we need to be having a conversation about it, and I’d like to kickstart that conversation here.

For me personally it’s been a lifelong fascination – I was politically formed in the early Eighties, when mandatory reselection was Bennite orthodoxy and I’ve never personally altered my belief in that. I accept that the situation has changed, so what the Labour left is calling for at the moment, so I see this as a sensible contribution to the debate.

I wonder why selection and reselection are such an important focus? One could ask, isn’t it better to meet with sitting MPs and see if one can persuade them?

I’m not calling for the “deselect this person, deselect that person” rhetoric that you sometimes see on Twitter; you shouldn’t deselect an MP purely because they disagree with Corbyn, in a fair-minded way, but it’s fair to ask what are guys who are found to be be beating their wives or crossing picket lines doing sitting as our MPs? Where Labour MPs publicly have threatened to leave the party, as some have been doing, perhaps they don’t value their Labour involvement.

So to you it’s very much not a broad tool, but a tool to be used a specific way, such as when an MP has engaged in misconduct?

I think you do have to take it case by case. It would be silly to deselect the lot, as some people argue.

In terms of bringing the party to the left, or reforming party democracy, what role do you think reselection plays?

It’s a basic matter of accountability, isn’t it? People are standing as Labour candidates – they should have the confidence and backing of their constituency parties.

Do you think what it means to be a Labour member has changed since Corbyn?

Of course the Labour party has changed in the past year, as anyone who was around in the Blair, Brown, Miliband era will tell you. It’s a completely transformed party.

Will there be a strong reaction to the release of this pamphlet from Corbyn’s opponents?

Because the main aim is to set out the rules as they stand, I don’t see how there can be – if you want to use the rules, this is how to go about it. I explicitly spelled out that it’s a level playing field – if your Corbyn supporting MP doesn’t meet the expectations of the constituency party, then she or he is just as subject to a challenge.

What do you think of the new spate of suspensions and exclusions of some people who have just joined the party, and of other people, including Ronnie Draper, the General Secretary of the Bakers’ Union, who have been around for many years?

It’s clear that the Labour party machinery is playing hardball in this election, right from the start, with the freeze date and in the way they set up the registered supporters scheme, with the £25 buy in – they’re doing everything they can to influence this election unfairly. Whether they will succeed is an open question – they will if they can get away with it.

I’ve been seeing comments on social media from people who seem quite disheartened on the Corbyn side, who feel that there’s a chance that Smith might win through a war of attrition.

Looks like a Corbyn win to me, but the gerrymandering is so extensive that a Smith win isn’t ruled out.

You’ve been in the party for quite a few years, do you think there are echoes of past events, like the push for Bennite candidates and the takeover from Foot by Kinnock?

I was around last time – it was dirty and nasty at times. Despite the narrative being put out by the Labour right that it was all about Militant bully boys and intimidation by the left, my experience as a young Bennite in Tower Hamlets Labour Party, a very old traditional right wing Labour party, the intimidation was going the other way. It was an ugly time – physical threats, people shaping up to each other at meetings. It was nasty. Its nasty in a different way now, in a social media way. Can you compare the two? Some foul things happened in that time – perhaps worse in terms of physical intimidation – but you didn’t have the social media.

There are people who say the Labour Party is poised for a split – here in Plymouth (where we don’t have a Labour MP), I’m seeing comments from both sides that emphasise that after this leadership election we need to unite to fight the Tories. What do you think will happen?

I really hope a split can be avoided, but we’re a long way down the road towards a split. The sheer extent of the bad blood – the fact that the right have been openly talking about it – a number of newspaper articles about them lining up backing from wealthy donors, operating separately as a parliamentary group, then they pretend that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, and that they’re not talking about a split. Of course they are. Can we stop the kamikazes from doing what they’re plotting to do? I don’t know, I hope so.

How would we stop them?

We can’t, can we? If they have the financial backing, if they lose this leadership contest, there’s no doubt that some will try. I’m old enough to remember the launch of the SDP, let’s not rule it out happening again.

We’ve talked mostly about the membership. But is Corbynism a strategy to win elections?

With the new electoral registration rules already introduced, the coming boundary changes, and the loss of Scotland thanks to decades of New Labour neglect, it will be uphill struggle for Labour to win in 2020 or whenever the next election is, under any leadership.

I still think Corbyn is Labour’s best chance. Any form of continuity leadership from the past would see the Midlands and north fall to Ukip in the same way Scotland fell to the SNP. Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.