Chris Harman

Dialectically speaking

A class of their own?

(May 1990)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.131, May 1990, p.11.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

FACED WITH upsurges of rebellion the ruling class always responds in two phases.

First it unleashes the popular yellow press (these days that includes all the Murdoch papers, including the Times) into a slanderous rant against all who took part. But then a couple of days later more reflective pieces appear in the posh papers, which attempt to focus on real causes of the revolt in the hope that the government will do something to prevent a recurrence.

So it was with the wave of successful industrial action in the early 1970s and with the riots of 1981 and 1985. So it was after the poll tax battle in Trafalgar Square.

The most frequent explanation was in terms of ‘an alienated underclass’. There is, we were told, a minority of the population which has missed out on the economic miracle of the Thatcher years.

This notion is not just to be found in ruling class attempts to explain what happened. It also crops up on the left, especially among the Marxism Today crowd.

It is a very convenient notion for such people to hold. For it enables them to locate an element of contradiction and conflict in present day society without having to abandon claims that working class politics belong to the past.

They can lament the fate of the underclass, even express sympathy at the suffering which leads it to occasional violence, without having to shift from their overall view that there is a consensus among the great majority of people against radical social change.

Unfortunately, however, the notion of an underclass also has fans among people who are harshly critical both of the ruling class and its new found Marxism Today friends. It features prominently, for instance, in a devastating attack on Marxism Today by A. Sivanandan in Race and Class.

Sivanandan evaluates both Thatcherism and the ‘underclass’ in a completely different way to the those he criticises. But he nevertheless accepts much of their picture of the social structure.

Neither version of the picture, however, corresponds to reality. Those who talk of an ‘underclass’ lump together many different groups of people, without seeing that most of them are an integral part of the employed working class.

Take the many millions of people dependent upon meagre welfare benefits for survival – single parents, for instance. These are rarely people who have dropped out of the employed working class permanently. Most will re-enter the workforce by the time their kids have entered junior school.

Then there are the very large numbers of people, mainly women, in part time work. They may well receive appallingly low wages. But it does not follow that they are cut off from the wider working class. Many will be working alongside full time workers in hospitals or local authorities, will be union members and will take part in strike activity.

And it’s a fallacy to believe that most of those who squat or who live in substandard council flats are outside the labour market. Very many have jobs, which is why they have moved to London from other parts of the country, but cannot find proper homes to go with them.

A central component of Sivanandan’s ‘underclass’ are the youth who fought the police during the riots in 1981 and 1985. But even in 1981 a third of those arrested had jobs. Since then hundreds of thousands of people have moved from the dole queues and YTS into full time employment, often into jobs, officially designated as ‘skilled’ – for instance as electricians, plumbers, plasterers, carpenters or telecom engineers.

If the underclass is defined simply as those living in poverty, then by far the biggest group are working class pensioners. They are out of the labour market for once and for all. But they have (literally!) organic links with employed workers – their sons and daughters. And it was not them who took on the police in Trafalgar Square.

Finally, there is a very small genuine underclass of people who have dropped out completely. But these have never acted as a single social group, fighting for its own clearly defined goals. The most that has happened is that some of them have been able to influence the attitudes of wider numbers of young people in certain working class communities.

The theory of the underclass falls apart the moment you look at it closely. Instead of a single ‘class’ what you find are a number of quite distinct – even if sometimes overlapping – groupings, most of which are clearly part of the employed working class.

These groupings can be more alienated from society than the majority of workers. But this should not be overstated. Even at the height of the Thatcher boom in 1987 half of all adults in Britain did not go away on a single holiday and two fifths of households did not have access to a car. Meanwhile, some of the biggest confrontations with the police during the Thatcher years have involved core groups of workers – the steel workers in 1980, the printworkers in 1983 and 1986-87, the miners in 1984-85.

What is true is that the majority of the working class was able, through the resilience of trade union organisation, to push up its living standards as the economy recovered from the recession of the early 1980s. But these gains have suddenly been put under enormous pressure by the rises in mortgage interest charges and rents. For many working class households the poll tax is the last straw.

In such a situation some sections of the class will react more angrily than others. The youth will be most likely to take to the streets, if only because they are not weighted down by family responsibilities and are less worried by the risks involved. And many will not yet see the relevance of union organisations such as trade unions to what they are doing.

But it would be a grave mistake to conclude from this that their anger and much, if not all, of their alienation is not shared by a great many older, more rooted workers.

Last updated on 29 May 2010