Just who do you think we are?

Tom asked:

Just spent the morning listening to a couple of folks who were labour activists in the 40s and 50s. Now wondering how we organise politically under the sociological conditions of late modernity. If the class structure isn’t there to support the traditional labour movement (in the same way), what can we build instead?

An important and tricky question, no doubt; in the following I may only succeeded in rewording it…

What is it about the traditional class structure that has changed? Partly it has become much more globally dispersed, and so it is harder, though by no means impossible, to see. But the change is also about the unwillingness of people (in the rich world at least) to identify with class as a way of understanding their social position.

Marxist class analysis was so powerful partly because it offered an identity that allowed people to make sense of themselves and their political opponents, to work out what their collective interests were, and to feel solidarity with others like them. And it made sense as an identity because it also fit the material conditions of everyday life. A similar story can be told about black civil rights movements, nationalist movements, women’s movements and so on. Collective identity is always a social construction, and in movements defining that identity typically involves saying not just who ‘we’ are, but also who ‘they’ are, and how we can stop them oppressing us. Reading The Communist Manifesto is still an excellent lesson in making these kinds of claims in an evocative and powerful manner. So, while class and identity movements are often seen as different kinds of thing (especially by those who see identity movements as a distraction from class struggle), class is really just another type of identity movement, albeit one that is very directly tied to the production and distribution of stuff.

One of the conditions of late modernity, so we’re told, is the instability of identities in a world where people have much more choice about how they identify themselves and what groups they align with. In earlier stages of capitalism religion, social position and vocation were perhaps the key foci of identity, although most of that sat within a broader sense of national identity. Socialism (and, indeed, sociology) succeeded in pushing class to the centre of identity discourses. However, that was an identity that functioned most clearly worked best for the male industrial worker, excluding those outside traditional employment. Today, all of those identity discourses may remain options, but perhaps the most common (rich world) focus of identity is lifestyle as expressed through consumption. We can identify ‘chavs’, ‘hippies’, ‘geeks’, ‘eco-warriors’ and a million other tribes through what they choose to buy (or not to buy) and we typically have knowledge of a bunch of stereotypes about their behaviour and morality. Marketing and branding have successfully aligned brands with values, encouraging people to express their values through consumption choices. As an aside, I seem to have had various conversations with people about dating websites recently, which, of course, match people on the basis of ‘shared interests’. Such interests may most often be gauged through consumption choices: favourite films or music, hobbies (and their inevitable consumer paraphernalia), fashion tastes and so on are all routinely used as proxies for deeper values.

So, organising on the basis of class or vocation have become difficult because for many, a role in economically and socially useful production is only important insofar as it enables the maintenance of a particular, consumption-based identity. Or, in less sociologically convoluted terms: most people only work to buy stuff. Obvious? Perhaps. But its also a radical hollowing-out of the meaning of work compared with earlier stages of capitalism. In the late 1800s the French working classes were doing 60-hour weeks but during the regular crises of over-production their bosses would lock them out of the factories while dumping unsold luxury fabrics in the river until prices recovered. The workers would march to demand the right to work (and Marx’s nephew, Paul Lafargue, ridiculed them on the grounds that they should be demanding more leisure time). Today, perhaps we’re more likely to hear demands for ‘more stuff’ not ‘more work’ and, as we’ve seen, some would rather loot the high street than confront the capitalist state.

All this is to say that while people’s life experiences are undoubtedly determined in a large part by a global class structure, class (as economic location) no longer provides a compelling focus for identity. Warren Buffet hadn’t read the script when he proclaimed ‘There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.’ [1] But for most people, to mangle a phrase: the greatest trick capital ever pulled was convincing the world class didn’t exist.

So, under these conditions, what can we build? The easier route might be consumer movements for better stuff. Everton football fans marched last Saturday demanding more investment in players and an interview with one of the organisers focused on the need to develop Everton as a ‘global brand’ in order to attract ‘inward investment’. A trivial example, of course, that Barry Glendenning described as ‘a march from a pub they were meeting at anyway to a football match they already had tickets for’. But demands for better stuff can at least include less environmentally destructive production and better labour conditions and the fair trade movement shows some progress can be made in this way. But that is hardly going to convince labour activists of the ’40s that there is a generation of political organisers ready to make a radically equal world. In going with the flow of consumerist identity one inevitably gives ground to those who profit most from consumption.

Finally, its worth noting that while the shift from class to consumer identities is a significant historical shift, they are both premised on the centrality of economic behaviour in defining a political collective for political action. It may seem perverse given the context of economic crises and blatant redistribution of wealth from poor to rich, but perhaps our political organising needs something other than an economic base. Could a wholehearted and honest return to ideology unite people from a range of class backgrounds in struggle for a fairer society? After all, Buffet’s comments on class war came not from stupidity but from a recognition that something ought to be done, and there is now a burgeoning ‘tax me harder‘ movement from the ranks of Europe’s elite. What would a truly radical liberal movement look like? And could there be a compelling story of collective identity that cast off the traditional ties to nation, religion or economic position?

So here’s a different question to the one we had before, just who do you think we are?



[1] Quoted in

Carroll, William K. 2010. The Making of a Transnational Capitalist Class: Corporate Power in the 21st Century. Zed Books. P.1.