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19 September 2018

How the decline of the working class made Labour a party of the bourgeois left

Progressive politics in the 1990s turned away from class politics and solidarity in favour of group identities and self-realisation.

By Jonathan Rutherford

The future of British politics will be about the nation state of England, the union of our four nations, and their democratic and economic renewal. It will be about the renascence of the everyday life of work and family. Yet the problem for the left is its domination by an older political generation that lost faith in the idea of the nation, is sceptical about the future of work and doesn’t seem to believe in the family.

Throughout its history, the Labour Party has embodied the paradox of being both radical and conservative, and so it has played a vital role both in maintaining the traditions of the country and shaping its modernity. These dispositions are not party political. They are qualities of mind and character that are woven into the fabric of our English culture. In the words of John Stuart Mill, one demands the uprooting of existing institutions and creeds; the other demands that they be made a reality. One presses new ideas to their utmost consequences; the other reasserts the best meaning and purposes of the old. England’s paradoxical nature is embedded in our constitutional settlement.

Yet with the decline of the industrial working class and the growing influence of a professional middle class, Labour has lost its conservative disposition. Some will claim this is positive: the party is now more left-wing. But this misunderstands the nature of the change. Labour has become a more bourgeois liberal party, and it risks becoming a party in society but not of it.

A new class fraction

By the 1970s, Britain’s old model of mass industrial production was failing. Out of the subsequent economic crisis arose a new and invigorated global capitalism. Its extraordinary revival was underpinned by three factors. The first was the development of new information and communication technologies. The second was the utilisation of knowledge, information and culture as economic resources. And the third was the emergence during the 1960s of new, consumer-orientated values in the countercultures of a youthful and increasingly higher-educated middle class.

Within these anti-establishment countercultures, the imperatives of economic security gave way to the pursuit of pleasure and self-realisation. For the first generation to be raised on the new welfare state, the idea of progress combined millennial visions of the future with a more general expectation that productive forces would continue to expand indefinitely.

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A rebellious youth culture believed optimistically that the world could be redeemed progressively by its own power. The turbulent events of May 1968 in France mythologised this self-image. Yet by 1979 the sociologist Alvin Gouldner was defining a new class that was both “emancipatory and elitist”. Its “culture of critical discourse” was the inheritor of the Enlightenment legacy of universal civilising progress. As this new class fraction gained social influence, the right attacked it for its assault on “traditional values”.

The growth of the financial and service sectors, and the expansion of the media and public services accelerated the rise of a new managerial and professional class. A generation of journalists, school teachers, university lecturers, public relations experts, lawyers, media commentators and public sector professionals became an influential force in progressive and left-wing politics. They eventually achieved power with the Clinton Democrats and Tony Blair’s New Labour. More widely, they came to form a new and expanded cultural elite that was an economically subordinate class fraction within the dominant class.

Agent and victim

The children and grandchildren of the baby-boomer generation have come of age in a very different world. Millennials have not had the benefits of free higher education and a generous welfare state. The housing market is, without help from parents, beyond their reach and jobs have become more precarious. As knowledge is increasingly commodified and digitalised, and the public sector subjected to market-based reforms, the status of intellectuals has declined.

Younger middle-class graduates cannot expect the professional autonomy nor the economic security of their parents. The belief in progress based on ever-expanding productive forces is tarnished. While their education affords them cultural capital and prestige, they share a similar dilemma with the working class. How can they achieve an independent life, find fulfilling work and make a family and home of their own, when the means of achieving these have become scarce or captured by an affluent minority?

The political thinker Paolo Virno, in his book A Grammar of the Multitude, offers a compelling story about the fate of the contemporary intellectual class. He describes the productive potential of the post-industrial economy as being “the life of the mind”. He does not just mean cognition but also intuition, foresight and the symbolic world of the unconscious. Capitalism, he argues, utilises this economic potential in new forms of communicative labour that function as transmitters of information, meaning and learning.

Communicative labour is immaterial. It has no end product and so what counts as a measure of productivity is performance. In work and education, a competitive culture of capitalism rewards those who comply with market-directed criteria to measure, judge and discipline themselves. In the name of profit, or utility or function, the tools of social life – intuition, imagination, communication, relationships – are requisitioned. Early industrial capitalism commodified human labour and enclosed the commons of land. Today, capitalism is enclosing commonly owned information and knowledge, our shared biological resource and even the building blocks of life itself. Tech companies harvest big data made up of the intimate details of millions of individual lives. The human body and sexuality is commodified and consumer branding inveigles our deepest emotions.

In a world of permeable boundaries and continual change, states of anxiety, depression, insecurity and self-dislike become more commonplace in the young. The ubiquity of social media compounds the dilemma of human emotional connection.

The countercultural values of the 1968 generation helped to create a more tolerant and open society. But they also provided a crucial resource for these new kinds of capital accumulation, and a new consumer aesthetic of capitalism. The pursuit of transgression was assimilated by the market and commodified. Over the decades, progressive politics has believed in continuing social improvement and change without end. Its neglect of the human need for belonging – of the value of home and cultural familiarity, and of economic security and social stability – has created a bourgeois left that is deracinated. Its cosmopolitan liberalism and moral relativism have left it poorly equipped to address the questions now confronting its own children about the nature of adulthood, and the meaning and purpose of life, and how we can live it well.

Cosmopolitan liberalism

Cosmopolitans believe that their obligations to others should not be confined to fellow national citizens, but extended to include all of humanity. Yet in committing to everyone as part of a universal humanity, we commit to no one and nothing in particular.

Under the influence of this abstraction, progressive and left politics in the 1990s turned away from class politics and solidarity in favour of group identities and self-realisation. It rejected forms of membership that make a claim on people’s loyalty. The particularist loyalties of the nation state and inherited national customs and traditions divided individuals from their shared humanity. Among the more radical, this repudiation extended to their own white English ethnicity. A mix of white guilt and post-colonial politics delegitimised English culture as imperialist and racist, and by default those who value it.

The generation of 1968 created political movements around sexuality and gender and took up the issue of race, but the logic of cosmopolitan liberalism has turned identity politics into a competitive struggle of one group identity over another. In place of solidarities, there is a kind of Hobbesian war of all against all and a narcissistic preoccupation with the self. Everything is socially constructed, we are told, and so it can all be deconstructed and rebuilt in perfect order. In this utopian politics, the individual will is the guiding principle. Cosmopolitan liberalism has no account of what holds society together. Instead it reduces it to a collection of socially unattached individuals. Identity politics has become a modern-day substitute for the puritan’s conscience. Like Christian in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, a person can pursue “yonder shining light”, free of the constraints of human association and obligations to others.

After Marx

In the postwar years, the English translations of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks and Karl Marx’s 1844 manuscripts opened up possibilities of a humanist Marxism in opposition to Stalinist orthodoxy. Marxism experienced a resurgence in the wider culture and the academy. The theory of alienation – “capital is man wholly lost to himself” – was adapted to offer a bold critique of the failings of consumer capitalism.

Within the generation of 1968, Marxist sects with their clerisies, theoretical obsessions and Manichean outlook preached the destruction of an evil world and a passage to a perfect and just order. As its ties to the working class diminished, the left became increasingly bourgeois. It had two choices. It could retreat into a technocratic politics of managing capitalism, or reject reality and continue dreaming about revolution.

The political and intellectual failure of Marxism did not discourage later generations. In academia Marxism has been recovered not to promote the politics of class struggle, but for the secular millennialism it inherits from Hegel.

The attraction of a Marxism without class lies in its offering of the same redemptive trajectory through historical stages to a communist society. Marxism and post-Marxism inherit from Hegel the Christian apocalyptic tradition that moves human beings from a state of domination to the salvation of perfect community.

The modish theory of “accelerationism” is an example of this apocalyptic thinking. It originates in the work of Nick Land, a former academic who set up the Cybernetic Culture and Research Unit at the University of Warwick. He has since become a voice of the alt-right who takes libertarianism to its logical anti-democratic conclusion in what he calls the “Dark Enlightenment”. This is an anti-humanist manifesto that calls for the eugenic cultivation of a cybernetic elite.

The left version of accelerationism argues that capitalism holds back progress because it suppresses as well as unleashes technological development. Theories of “post-capitalism” adopt a similar logic. Historical determinism, with its Hegelian undertones, is dismissed only to return through the back door in the form of the Russian economist Nikolai Kondratiev’s “waves” of technological and financial innovation. Long surges of economic growth lasting 40-60 years lead into one another in an unfolding historical progress. The turning point of each wave coincides with major structural change and conflict.

According to this theory, we are living through the fifth wave of an information technological revolution, but it has stalled. The long-wave cycle of economic development has been broken and this, so the argument goes, will bring about the end of capitalism.

The logic of this reasoning can be found in an esoteric section of Marx’s Grundrisse, which has been called “The Fragment on Machines”. It explains in mechanistic fashion how social knowledge becomes a “direct force of production”, and so makes workers redundant. Added to which is the post-capitalist argument that in an economy based on information, products tend towards zero cost and so undermine Marx’s labour theory of value and a fundamental law of capitalism.

For Marx, the gravedigger of capitalism was to be the industrial proletariat. In post-capitalism, the interests of organised labour in defending the role of human labour in production make it an accomplice. The new revolutionary subject is the “universal educated person” of urban, higher-educated and networked youth.

In the absence of alternatives these theories gain prominence on the left. Their outcome, however, will not be “fully automated luxury communism”, as some commentators have described it. This misunderstands Land’s original Nietzschean conception of accelerationism, in which “accelerate the process” has no final purpose or goal. Left-wing accelerationism, in its attempt to avoid nihilism, is reduced to Auguste Comte’s positivism and the altruism of his religion of humanity.

Its English version is a technocratic Benthamism in the Fabian tradition. The working class has become a social problem, not a social agent. The future of society belongs to a higher-educated caste of intellectual workers. Their taxes will pay for a universal basic income to support a dependent, workless working class. History will move rapidly towards human perfection by computer powers and the mastery of the new historical subject.

Life after Marx: post-capitalism imagines a society of “fully automated luxury communism”

A new humanist left

Cosmopolitan liberalism and accelerationism share in common the uprooting of individuals from their inherited national political community: one in the name of humanity, the other by technology. As Hannah Arendt argued, without a political community to guarantee their rights, individuals can only appeal to the “abstract nakedness of being nothing but human”.

European history has taught us that in this realm of “mere life”, power and murderous violence take precedence over moral and legal obligations. Neither the abstract ideal of humanity, nor “laws of history”, nor technology, nor millennial system-building alternatives to capitalism, offer a political community capable of guaranteeing a democratic order.

Cosmopolitan liberalism is the culture of the elites and is deeply divisive. Identity politics, in its libertarian pursuit of self-realisation and its judging and dividing into victim status hierarchies, is corrosive of society. The post-Marxism of the accelerationists and the promise of “luxury communism” is for Twitter. As things stand, a new radical gentrified politics fills the vacuum in a Labour Party that lacks a project of political and intellectual renewal, despite the rhetoric of Corbynism.

Labour needs to make changes that are deep and far-reaching. It has to break out of its socially liberal heartlands in the public sector and metropolitan areas. It needs to bridge the faultlines dividing both the country and Labour’s own electoral coalition – social liberals vs social conservatives, towns and country vs cities, young vs old, north vs south, England vs Scotland.

There is an understanding of the problems, but not yet a new public political philosophy. Is the party capable of such renewal? The place to start is not with policy prescriptions where Labour, faced with the need to think, too often begins and ends, but with a humanist socialism that has deep moral foundations in our national common culture, and so is capable of the long and difficult task of renewing the country. It must stand for the dignity of work, of family and mutual obligation to others.

The good life, or social justice, or the common good, whatever one chooses to call it, is not to be found in some utopian order, nor in an authority beyond ordinary life. It is to be found in everyday existence, and is made by men and women in the practice of democracy. And fundamental to this is an understanding of human social being, which begins not in abstractions or ideologies but in the love and relationships of family and home, in culture, and in economic relations. It extends into society in the life we make for ourselves and in our obligations to others, and then out beyond into the country we belong to and the humanity we share.

Jonathan Rutherford is a writer and a co-founder of Blue Labour

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This article appears in the 19 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next war