Finding Uncommon ground : re-thinking  working class identity politics in post Brexit Britain 


Part One : Subtle Dialectics,Crude Thoughts

 ‘In order to save the Party we had to destroy it’ (with  acknowledgement to Bert  Brecht)

After the so called uprising of June 23/When  business and political leaders /had leaflets distributed /stating that the people/had forfeited their confidence/and could win it back only/by redoubled efforts  in another referendum /Would it not be easier in this case /for the government/to dissolve the people/and elect another?/Such a subtle dialectic/Trading places with  such crude thoughts.

After the  attempted  coup of June 28/when members of the PLP/had leaflets distributed/stating that their leader/had forfeited their confidence /and could only win it back/by giving up the ghost/would it not be easier in this case also /to dissolve the membership/and elect a committee of psycho-pomps/to lead the now non-existent party/to a new underworld ?/Such a crude thought/In search of  subtle dialectic.

I wrote this poem  because I was  invited to contribute to an event organised by Momentum in support of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for re-election as leader of the Labour Party. I somewhat reluctantly agreed because like many I had become disenchanted by the lack of strategic  grasp and sheer incompetence displayed by Team Corbyn. But   the request came from the son of long standing friend, a young man  who had suffered  an unusually protracted and disturbed adolescence but had now found in Momentum a  sense of fellowship and  a public platform on which he could perform with some confidence.

The event  was staged in a music pub frequented by students and hipster types  from Corbyn’s  Islington  constituency. When I pitched up, there were a small group of twenty somethings  huddled around the brightly lit stage, most of them, it turned out,   the performers  and their friends. In between the acts, which comprised some  awful doggerel protest poetry and some quite good, but apolitical  songs, the MC bellowed slogans   into an imaginary megaphone and encouraged the audience to respond as noisily as possible  to simulate a mass rally and attract punters in from the street. My friend`s son got up and made a  passionate yet considered speech, about how Corbyn`s agenda represented a principle of hope  and Momentum was the last chance to build a mass movement against the Tories austerity regime. The audience cheered and hooted their appreciation. At this point the thought of getting up and reading a poem  which referred back to  a political context and conjuncture beyond most of the audience’s ken  seemed suddenly too daunting. As a paid up member of the Groucho Marx tendency  ( motto: never join a club that would have you as a member) I was anyway hardly cheer leader material. I did’nt want to be a party pooper and    what, after all, did I, or my generation of 68ers have to offer these young people except a glimpse of a  political transformation that had seemed possible once upon a time, yet never happened?   ‘Les Evenements’  now seem little more than a fairy story for a ‘generation rent’ which  tends to regard post war baby boomers as the spoilt beneficiaries- if not the creators-  of hip  capitalism with our secure professional jobs and pensions, our over- valued houses  and our self  satisfied radicalism.

What I wrote was a deliberate plagiarism of a famous  poem  by Bertolt Brecht. The ironically titled ‘The Solution’ was written in 1953 in the immediate aftermath of a popular uprising  against the Stalinisation of the GDR regime, and in particular a decision by the central committee of the Socialist Unity Party to lower wages and increase work quotas. The uprising was started by construction workers and lead to mass meetings  and factory occupations. It was bloodily suppressed by Soviet tanks,  arrests and purges and extra -judicial murders. It led to the first large scale exodus of people from East to West Berlin, and thus contributed to the building of the Berlin Wall. Brecht’s poem satirises a so called socialist  government   that  erects walls around its own  people, ostensibly    to defend them against being corrupted by capitalism but in reality to  protect its own power. Unfortunately  there are still people today on the Left in Britain and elsewhere who think that socialism can be created in one caucus  by building walls to keep  the ideology pure and stop it being contaminated by democratic debate, whether inside or outside the party. Some of them are even in Momentum….

The refrain of ‘subtle dialectics, crude thoughts’  refers to a discussion during the 1930’s between Brecht and Walter Benjamin  who were close friends but also intellectual sparring partners. The argument between a playwright and polemicist who wrote  poetry  and a  philosopher who wrote poetic prose, was about the relation between two versions of  dialectical thinking within Marxism, Hegelian and materialist, and about  the (non)relation between revolutionary theory and practice in the arts. These conversations took place   against the background of the rise of right wing nationalism,populism and fascism in Europe as a response to the  Great Depression.  Brecht  admired  Benjamin’s ability to do elegant  headstands on the high wire of cultural theory, but argued that subtle dialectics was not enough, he  needed to get his feet more on the real ground of working class politics; Benjamin, for his part,   admired  Brecht’s didactic ability to cut through the ideological hype and  philosophical waffle and get to the nitty gritty of things, putting into plain words   ideas that were on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Crude thoughts- der plumpes denken- in this context  have nothing  to do  with  salacious gossip or blue jokes, nor are they  simply hand –me – down slogans. They are  ideas which crystallise through a process of  democratic  deliberation and are  then put into memorable words.

Today more than ever we need subtle dialectics and crude thoughts to be combined as Stuart Hall did so brilliant in his conjunctural analyses. We need political activists  to serve as  organic intellectuals who can think on their feet and join in the dance of the mind triggered  by collective policy making. (NB  I am not thinking of Ed Balls here). And from the other side, we also need to learn from poets how to  put into clear and memorable words, what is in the hearts and minds of ordinary people, their hopes for a better, more fulfilled   life and their  desperation  about the lack of real opportunity to realise their more generous ambitions. Yet instead  of strategic  analysis we are all too often offered a vacuous pseudo- radical rhetoric in which  dialectical reason   is trapped within an iron cage of academic specialism, written in coded gobbledegook. Just flip through the pages    of most peer reviewed journals if you want to see what I mean. At the same time we have the spin doctors and social media gurus  who churn out ever more mindless memes  in the  hope of capturing an ever more evanescent zeitgeist.

The referendum debate and the subsequent post mortem analysis of the Brexit decision   is a good case in point. The Left commentariat went in for a good deal of  breast beating, fist shaking, finger wagging  and straw clutching, a difficult manoeuvre to do all at once, but which some, like Paul Mason and Jeremy Gilbert,  managed with great adroitness.  There was a general consensus that globalisation was the villain of the piece, and that New Labour had ignored the predicament of those communities who were the losers, who suffered most from de-industrialisation,  and who also experienced rapid demographic change with  the arrival of large number of  economic migrants from the EU. No wonder this erstwhile heartland of Labour support had deserted to UKIP, or in Scotland the SNP! In some accounts the responsibility for  this outcome was pitched wider: the political class as a whole, the metropolitan elite, the  liberal intelligentsia were all fingered as having retreated into their own cosy cultural bubbles, and shown disdain, indifference or  patronising regard for large sections of the lower middle and working classes  who did not share their privileged,  better educated and decidedly multicultural perspectives on our  inter-connected  world. At the same time the unholy  alliance of Telegraph, Daily Mail and Sun readers who had voted for Brexit  were accused ( along with the papers themselves) of  suffering from a bad  case of xenophobic, if not overtly racist, false consciousness  in so far as they blamed immigration, rather than the recession, austerity politics,  and neo-liberalism for their deteriorating circumstances.

However In the best of this commentary there was also an awareness that the Brexit vote was symptomatic of a fundamental shift in the tectonic plates of British class society,  a shift which had destabilised  major institutions in  civil  society as well  the boundaries of the nation state  and that this had created a general crisis of political representation which threatened the future, not only of the Labour party, and our disunited Queendom, but Social Democracy itself.  So what do we need to rethink about the nature of contemporary class relations in Britain, in the light of that debate and its outcome?

A Different Class  

She had a thirst for knowledge/She studied sculpture at Saint Martin’s College/That’s where I/Caught her eye/She told me that her Dad was loaded/I said “In that case I’ll have a rum and coca-cola”/She said “Fine”/And in thirty seconds time she said :

I want to live like common people
I want to do whatever common people do
I want to sleep with common people
I want to sleep with common people
Like you  …….

I said : You will never understand/How it feels to live your life/With no meaning or control/And with nowhere left to go/

You’ll never live like common people
You’ll never do what common people do
You’ll never fail like common people
You’ll never watch your life slide out of view
And then dance and drink and screw
Because there’s nothing else to do  –
Pulp  A Different Class

There was one uninvited guest to the Brexit debate, who took centre stage.  The ‘white working class ‘is a very recent invention, albeit one which claims a long established pedigree of entitlement. It first emerged in its current revanchist form through   a process of convergence  between moral panics on both the Left and the Right, starting in   the 1980’s but especially since 2007/8, about the advent  of a new dangerously dysfunctional underclass, left behind by and, excluded from the benefits of a globalised, knowledge and service based economy,  made  redundant by  the decline of manufacturing  and manual labour and  squeezed into ever tighter pockets of ever more intense  urban and rural poverty by gentrification. Whether ‘WWC’ is demonised  as a predatory  client of the welfare state, and a reason to roll it back (the Rightist standpoint)  or regarded as  easy prey for racist and populist demagogues who exploit its resentment and despair  to detach them  from their historical allegiance to the labour movement (the Leftist standpoint), it is regarded  by both sides  as a ‘race apart’, having decisively failed the test of modernity.

This characterisation has a long pre-history, of course; Victorian  commentators talked about the ‘dangerous and perishing classes’,  an ‘urban residuum’, or the’ lumpen proletariat’, and even though the prescriptions as what to do about them differed, there was general agreement across the ideological  spectrum, from  Marxists and municipal socialists,  to  liberal reformers and  Anglican Tory ‘civilising missionaries’ that  this population represented a threat  to whatever vision of progress they espoused. The backbone of the Imperial Nation or the Socialist State they would never be…..

This moral  topography, mapped out in London so vividly by Charles Booth,    made sense of a world in which there were clear cut demarcations in social status and life style within the working class city:  between the   labour aristocracy and  casual labourer or street trader, the skilled and the unskilled, the respectable and the rough; they lived in separate neighbourhoods or  streets, they did not socialise or inter- marry,  they  belonged to different clubs, churches and trade unions; and sometimes, in specific contexts and conjunctures,   these distinctions took on an ethnic or quasi racial dimension.

However the  landscape of contemporary British class society  is no longer like this.  Class relations are a site of fluid projections and introjections, still underpinned by structures of inequality, of course, but not only those  of wealth and power,  but of social, cultural, intellectual and bio-political capital. Class identities  have become radically  eccentric to themselves, in the sense of  being formed in relation to the Other within.  Inside every proletarian there is a bourgeois struggling to get out. Inside every meritocrat, an  aristocrat.  And vice versa. That is why those who live on the other side of the class tracks are such an ambivalent object of fear and fascination. Freud grasped this dynamic far better than Marx. In his essay on the family romance, he shows how poor or abandoned children create imaginary genealogies for themselves, inventing biographies in which they are   ‘in reality’ (i.e. in fantasy) offspring of the rich and famous, and have suffered  the misfortune of being   kidnapped by the poor utterly worthless  people who happen to be actually bringing them up. Equally those who actually occupy exalted positions in society often fantasise about the simpler and  more authentic lives  of  the ‘common people’ and engage in a variety of practices, from slumming to  social transvestism and trading places in order  to vicariously  experience  ‘how the other half lives’.

Of course you can dismiss all this as yet another example of false consciousness.  As in the Pulp song.  But I think it has less  to do with inverted  snobbery, or the politics of envy     than  a  form of  projective identification driven by a pervasive and restless sense that something essential is lacking in privileged standpoints, especially where these  have been  inherited.  However these games of trading places have been upset by  the fact that the places themselves have become destabilised  along with the communities of affiliation which hitherto gave them their anchorage in a moral anatomy of fixed distinction.

Under these conditions, class consciousness is   no longer dependent on the intervention of a class based ideology or party  to unify and  transform a class- in- itself (i.e. as defined by an objective place in the social division of labour ) into a class- for- itself. The very relationality of contemporary class identity undermines the classical Marxist model.  Today class  relations  are formed and re-formed  through  a trajectory  of positive and negative identifications  with their avatars.  Through  these proxies  a class- from- itself is reconfigured as a class –to – itself, and vice versa.

In the first, centrifugal moment   collective identities associated with becoming working class, via the various apprenticeships offered by  the family, school,  workplace or neighbourhood, are de-centred and dispersed into more or less transient assemblies of  individual citizens /workers /consumers /residents  pursuing  particular interests, desires, grievances or demands. The narratives of aspiration  which sustain these groups either tend to refer to social origins   as   an obstacle to  advancement, something that has to be overcome in order to transform bad beginnings into happy endings ( the triumph over adversity story)  or  more nostalgically, as a  locus of  lost solidarities  (  the ‘there goes the neighbourhood, story).

However, in a second and centripetal  moment, which often  occurs as the pursuit of particular quests or claims  hits up against the general  limits and conditions imposed by existing power  structures,  these groupings  either become atomised and disappear altogether or  regroup  as the sovereign representatives of  People and/or  Nation;  the sense of heritage, of enacting  a social destiny is  an important feature in this  narrative of aspiration, along with the drive to re-centre the demand for social justice within the body politic as a programme for its democratic transformation.

Working class identity politics thus takes a dual form. The class-from- itself moment  is created through  a process of allo-poesis,  drawing on diverse  ideological  elements external to it ( eg via   social movements  and virtual communities of interest)  ; in so far as it holds on  to  principles of solidarity and mutual aid, its avatar is  the  Multitude; in Robert Putnam’s  terms, the multitude provides a platform for  bridging capital  that enables it to behave pro-actively to minimise the costs and  maximise the benefits of globalisation, by building  opportunistic partnerships and diverse alliances which  reduce  the risk of permanent de-stabilisation by market forces.  In contrast,  the class-to-itself moment  reproduces  itself from itself through an  process of auto-poesis   that emphasises principles of self reliance and self sufficiency embodied in its own avatar- the Tribe.  This is a  reactive strategy  which develops  bonding capital, good for  building prides of place   and empowering collective memoryscapes for example  around street gangs, matrilocal kinship, community heritage projects or NIMBY urbanism as a defence against the  de-territorialisation of identity and  the disruption of  the life course  resulting from the chaotic synchronicity  of global capitalism.  At the same time it is a recipe for the  elaboration of a narcissism of minor difference, where to  live in the wrong street,  support the wrong football team, wear the wrong clothes, or  go to the wrong school is to find yourself  a pariah within what is notionally a working class community.

How does this  somewhat abstract  schema work concretely in forming class identifications? Here are a few examples from recent history. Let’s start with the petit bourgeoisie, specifically    family businesses and the shopocracy  – and remember Mrs Thatcher came from a line of grocers.  The family enterprise seeks to   reproduce itself from itself,  it perceives class relations as kinship relations, and vice versa. A line is drawn between black sheep ( the enemy within) and those groups to which there is a basic sense of kinship or family resemblance (our kind of people). Alliances  are developed on this ontological basis. The tribe becomes an agency of amoral familialism, blood is always thicker than elective affinities, and the multitude is made up of all the little people who are  excluded from the big Battalions of Capital and Labour.  Some other brief examples : The technocracy is constituted  from every class and thus considers itself ‘above class’;  its  project of social engineering seeks  to dissolve class relations into   administrative  ones, managed  through specific technologies of social control which it designs.   The traditional intelligentsia formed through the inheritance of intellectual and cultural capital, reads class relations through the prism of cultivated knowledge  and divides  the world into those who have good taste or intelligence  ( themselves and their patrons) and  the vulgar(  the bourgeois and the common people) who lack both. In contrast to this aristocracy of learning, the modern professional  is reproduced through extended scholarisation, and a meritocratic career structure, its perspective  maps class relations on pedagogic ones, making the central distinction between  the qualified expert/educator –the subject who knows-, and the untutored mass.     The landowning aristocracy uses its  patrimonial inheritance  as a paradigm of class relations, drawing the line  between those with breeding  and those who merely breed; the artisanate and labour aristocracy construct a magical consanguinity of labour  power, whose referential model is the patrimony of skills transmitted through closed apprenticeship   enabling  this class fraction to be both from and to itself.

These social  imaginaries  offer complimentary ways  of putting Humpty Dumpty back together again by creating a more or less stable  equilibrium between the centrifugal and centripetal drives of class  identification.   Neither  Multitude nor Tribe  heal the hidden injuries of class. The first deals with the anxiety of class influence through the incorporation and sometimes neutralisation of class  differences. The second  operates through their disavowal,  foreclosing  the opportunities opened up by  the loosening of the class template by re-iterating an aboriginal identity.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this process for understanding class in post Brexit  Britain is its relationship to modernity. Here we can distinguish between two trajectories,   the first  focused around a more or less techno-utopian future ( viz the Smart City agenda ), the other on  a more or less idealised past ( Building Jerusalem/Destroying Babylon). The first project involves  a kind of proto-modernism : modernity still imagined as a force of progress, in which the past gives way to the present as an open horizon of future possibility, without for all that enabling modernity to coincide with itself.  The second project  is retro-modernist, it treats  modernity as an unrealisable, if not undesirable dream, something which can only be grasped in retrospect, or is only available as a retro-fit. In this scenario the past is idealised and split off from  an abhorrent present and an unimaginable or dystopian  future.  Again neither version of modernity resolves the problematic which produced it.

To summarise the argument so far:  contemporary forms of class consciousness are not based on the expression or frustration of  some pre-existent ‘ rational class interest’ but emerge in and through  the oscillation between two  equally transient   moments of incipient class identification ,  which however remain embryonic, prototypes of some yet-to-be- realised ideal, whether regressive or progressive.  To extrapolate from this unstable matrix a solid social entity such as ‘the white working class’ or ‘the precariat’ and imbue it with a singular voice, a  common culture and concerted agency,  requires a strenuous effort of sociological imagination, if not wishful thinking,  on the part of  those dedicated  to the preservation of  the ancien regime of binary class politics .

However this figuration   of  WWC is not nearly as stable as it is made rhetorically to seem; it comprises  less a phalanx of angry citizens on  the march  than  an army of  zombies, trapped  between two  equally untenable embodiments as a class from and to itself; in fact  WWC   bears  an uncanny resemblance to Doctor  Frankenstein’s ‘monster’, stitched together from a body- politic- in – pieces ( all  that  remains of  a once mighty labour movement),  and attaining some semblance of indivisibility only through  the colour of its skin.

Under the imprimatur of  Brexit we have seen  what we might now call the DoubleYouDoubleYouSee re-composed into a unitary being, native to these Disenchanted Isles,   by being placed in  juxtaposition to its Other Scene, inhabited  not just by people of colour, but by all  who come to these shores  without  a cultural  passport to enter its   promised heartland.   Within this framing the now aboriginal  working class get to play  Tribe (at last at  home in and for itself), while Johnny Foreigner  is cast as a to- and- fro-ing Multitude. An exact inversion/ transposition of  class into more or less racialised ethnic relations. This  move is  facilitated   by the familiar  device of setting up a zero sum game, in which one side’s gain (in jobs, housing, education and social amenity), is always the other’s loss  and at their expense  The rules of the game are, of course,  rigged, thanks to conspiracy theory,  so that  Multitude always  trumps Tribe, the ‘indigenous’ always lose out and so  end up as proverbial ’strangers in their own country’, in a paradoxically predictable switcheroo.

The rival memes of the Remain and Leave Campaigns  dramatised  the splitting apart of working class identity politics I have   been discussing.  ‘Better Together’  evoked unconsciously and in a suitably displaced form the lost solidarities of the labourhood, now better enunciated by urban multicultures;  ‘Take Back Control’  carried  a residual echo of working class syndicalism and its now hollowed out forms of territoriality,  but transposed into a cartography of exclusion drawn around the fault lines of religion  and race and  inscribed onto the physical geography of anglo-ilishness.

Yet we still have to ask why and  how far did the groups interpellated by  this stratagem  actually recognise themselves in the phantasmagoric figuration of themselves offered by the  two campaigns? How come a ‘silent majority’ suddenly find their collective voice as a ventriloquist’s dummy operated by a counter elite?  Equally how much was  Remain  crippled by it fear and sometimes loathing of its  own formulation of  the WWC, whereas the Brexiteers could mobilise it as the authentic voice of People/ Nation  and use it to  haunt the corridors of afflicted  power with the threat of eviction from  privileged office?

To answer these questions we have to understand more about  back story of class relations in Britain. In the second of these articles I will try to show  how  living labour power  has been split at the root,  being variously constituted as the Promethean backbone of the nation and as an abject race apart. I will look at how  this duality  shaped the emergence of manual  labourism from a home grown culture  of blackface, featuring miners, mummers and sweeps  in Victorian times,  until finally, with de-industrialisation and  the decline of this culture in the second half of the  20th century, a space  of representation opened up  in which   populism and communitarianism   could compete and  find common ground  in a project to  rip   off the black mask and reveal  the white skin beneath.  Can we nevertheless detect in this trajectory   some uncommon ground  on  which what is left of the British Left could  remake its  relationship  to the working classes in a more positive way?


Indicative Reading

Anthony Barnett  Blimey! It Could be Brexit  Open Democracy 2016

Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello  The New Spirit of Capitalism   Verso 2015

Phil Cohen  ‘Labouring Under Whiteness’ in Displacing Whiteness (edited Ruth Frankenberg ) Duke University Press 1997

Klaus Eder The New Politics of Class :Social movements and cultural dynamics in Advanced Society  Sage 1993

Geoffrey Evans and James Tilley   The New Politics of Class : The Political Exclusion of the British Working Class Oxford University press 2017

Justin Gest  The New Minority :white working class politics in an age of immigration and uncertainty   Oxford University Press 2016

Bruno  Gulli The Labour of Fire : the Ontology of Labour between economy and culture Temple University Press  2005

Michael Hardt and Toni Negri  Multitude: War and democracy in the Age of Empire Penguin Books 2004

Martijn Konings The emotional logic of capitalism : what progressives forget  Stanford University Press 2015

Michel Maffesoli  The time of the tribe : the decline of individualism in mass society  Sage 1996

Robert Putnam Democracy in Flux:the evolution of social capital in contemporary society Simon and Schuster 2015

Ben Rogaly and Becky Taylor  Moving Histories of Class and Community  Palgrave 2009

Mike Savage   Social Class in the 21st century  Penguin Books 2015

Richard Sennett and Jonathon Cobb  The  Hidden injuries of Class  Faber 1972

Kjartan Sveinsson Who cares about the White Working Class? Runnymede Trust2009

Erik Olin Wright Understanding Class  Verso 2015