THE AGE OF SELF
They say the working class is dead, we're all consumers now
They say that we have moved ahead - we're all just people now
There's people doing frightfully well, there's others on the shelf
But never mind the second kind this is the age of self
- Robert Wyatt
The post-modernist / structuralist / political (we might even say anti-political) argument states that the dissection of society along class lines which Marx achieved in the nineteenth century is now impossible. The proletariat no longer exists, class boundaries are blurred, and we now define ourselves according to other criteria (race, gender, sexuality, religion etc). The old working class stereotypes (white, ill-educated family man, works in a factory or down the mines, nasty tendency to turn militant at the merest thing) aren’t reliable, manufacturing industry has disappeared from our shores and, y’know, we’re all pretty comfortable nowadays, give or take. You’ve got to keep with the times. Progressive change can only be achieved via liberal, democratic, identity politics. Class is no longer relevant.
Or so the theory goes.
Our ideas of class are distorted, because we largely base them on social factors – accents, education, where you live, who you vote for, which school you send your children to. These social definitions (which, at most, only indicate class, and at worst are pretexts for utter contempt) help to explain why we misconceive our situation. Capitalism was taught a valuable lesson in the first half of the twentieth century, and acted on it in the second: being conscious of one’s class threatens the capitalist system because it creates bonds of solidarity far greater than the system can handle. The neoliberal model disdains such solidarity – its ideal citizen is the individualist. But while our sense of class consciousness may have evaporated, society remains rivened along class lines.
Tom Lewis, responding to Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction of Marx and disavowal of class struggle during the 1990s, reminds us of the Marxist definition of class. That is, it is defined not by those social traits we mentioned above, but by economic relations. The working-class person is he or she who has nothing to bargain with except his or her labour power – the very labour power which will create profit for his employer. Let’s be absolutely clear: if labour is the only form of capital you have (if, in other words, you have no property or investments), and if you have no ultimate influence in deciding what you make or do when you work, you are by the Marxist definition a member of the working-class. This appears to be somewhat surprising. It includes, as Lewis states, “not only auto, steel, textile and trucking workers, therefore, but also nurses, schoolteachers, bank tellers, janitors, many engineers, clerical workers, most retail sales floor workers, fast-food workers, a variety of information producers and handlers, and many others – this is the contemporary working class.”
The postmodernists might argue that, for all Marx’s definition, conditions today are different. What is manufactured now is not so much material objects as information and media; commodities are not produced, but re-produced. But while this explains the dissipation of the working-class (along with the disorganisation that followed Thatcherite/Reaganite anti-union legislation and economic monetarism), it ignores the fact that the worldwide industrial workforce is today greater than ever. After all, the technology which enables such ephemeral business to be conducted must in the first place be built and constructed. “In all the industries that deal in information and representations,” writes Lewis, “the same processes of concentration and centralisation of capital occur as in any old ‘smokestack’ industry.” Trotsky’s statement – “in the beginning was the deed” – holds true: acts still precede ideas.
Why mention this now? Simply because we should not be phased by the dominant liberal-democratic argument that we are at the end of history – that revolutionary socialism is no longer possible or desirable. The Marxist analysis of capitalism is seen by many as outdated, but it remains fundamentally correct. As an aside, Lewis points out that Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy recalls Eduard Bernstein, who in 1899 suggested that improved standards of living would mean an end to crisis-driven militancy. Real wages had indeed been rising (not so for our modern-day working class), and the genesis of a German welfare system was underway (while ours is steadily eroding). But thirty years later, Germany had been brought to its knees. Capitalist dynamics show Fukuyama’s theory to be demonstrably incorrect (not to mention rather messianic). Radical change does not, I admit, seem very likely just at the moment, but we cannot say we have never been here before. We live in decidedly un-special times.