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29 January 2020updated 25 Jul 2021 3:59pm

Working-class well-being has been assaulted by the free market right and the liberal bourgeois

The right-wing attack on the well-being of the working class is well documented. Less has been said, though, about the parallel cultural assault from the left.

By Mary Harrington

Civil society is, increasingly, a luxury good. A recent report by New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) shows that charities are up to nine times more prevalent in wealthy areas. According to NPC, the national average in England for charities per 1,000 people is 1.8. In Blackpool, the local authority that topped the English Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) in 2019, it is a mere 0.6. By contrast, the wealthy Cotswolds (IMD rank 272) has 5.5 charities per 1,000 people.

“There is no such thing as society,” Margaret Thatcher said in an interview in 1987. Charities are, of course, not all of civil society; but, more than 30 years on from Thatcher’s notorious remark, it seems to be increasingly accurate the further down the socio-economic scale you look.

It was not always thus. In the industrial era, a major form of UK working-class civil society took the form of “friendly societies”. According to the Association of Financial Mutuals, by the late 19th century the UK held some 27,000 friendlies, which supported contributors and their families at times of crisis in exchange for small regular financial contributions.

After a few brief decades of postwar social democracy, the right-wing assault on working-class well-being under Thatcher is well documented. Trade unionism was defanged, while a process of deindustrialisation blighted working-class communities nationwide. Less has been said, though, about the parallel cultural assault on working-class civil society from the left. 

We celebrate the establishment by the Labour Party of a national welfare state after the Second World War. But the truth is that it came at the expense of earlier forms of mutualist working-class support. By the 1940s, some 14 million people were members of friendlies, but – unsurprisingly – membership began to plummet after the establishment of a national welfare state.

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The death knell of the mutualist welfare model came, fittingly, via Thatcher’s bonfire of financial regulations. Numerous friendlies demutualised, transforming from partnership structures into shareholdings. Gnawed away by the welfare state from the left, and financial deregulation from the right, today the total number of friendly societies is around 200.

Demutualisation of the former building societies did not go well, beyond delivering a one-time windfall for those members lucky enough to benefit. The venerable building society Halifax was, for example, a widely respected and stable institution when it demutualised in 1997. Less than ten years later it was a casino-banking basket case requiring £30bn of government bailouts to survive the financial crisis.

When the welfare state replaced friendlies it left a gap in working-class civil society that charities do not adequately fill. Given that the charity model presupposes an abundance of skilled individuals who can afford to work unpaid, it is unsurprising that, according to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, in wealthy areas 19 per cent of people volunteer, but in poor areas this falls to 11 per cent.

How many low-wage families, with adults perhaps working multiple jobs, can perform hours of voluntary work as well?

If the arrival of the welfare state cut off working-class mutualism at the knees, the social upheavals of the 1960s did much the same for another civil society institution: marriage. But again, this effect has been unevenly distributed across social classes. Marriage rates today are climbing among the wealthiest, according to the ONS, while between 2001 and 2012 the proportion of people from working-class families who married fell from 52 to 44 per cent.

The lopsided liberalisation of social relations has come at a price. Instability hurts family finances: one 2005 US study showed married couples experience a net-worth increase of 77 per cent over their single peers. Children also suffer in unstable families.

Judged on its actions, the British middle class is small-c conservative: committed to civil society institutions such as marriage and voluntary work. But the same middle class is just as committed, in word if not in deed, to a liberal insistence that we should not sit in judgement on others’ life choices.

Considering the stifling social climate of even the recent past, the liberal-left desire for a less morally prescriptive world is doubtless well-intentioned. But the disjunction between bourgeois theory and bourgeois behaviour has had the effect of hoarding social capital for the better-off. Social structures that support flourishing families are undermined or obfuscated in the interests of being “non-judgemental”, while their continued benefits are retained as a kind of bourgeois trade secret.

For the poorest, mutualist civil society has been on the back foot for decades. It is harried on one side by a market fundamentalism that hollows out working-class communities, and on the other by a welfare state stripped of ethical content, underwriting a public doctrine of asocial individualism preached – but not practised – by the middle classes.

For the middle class, meanwhile, civil society struggles on as a buffer against these forces, much as Thatcher hoped would be the case in her widely quoted 1987 interview. “It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours,” she said.

But for those with less social or economic capital, the logical end point of our present trajectory is grim: a value-free social wasteland where absolute, aimless freedom is both enabled and micromanaged by an authoritarian state. To avoid this unpleasant fate, we must confront the necessary limits – both social and economic – to the dream of limitless autonomy. 

Mary Harrington is a columnist for “Unherd”

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This article appears in the 29 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Over and out