Chris Harman


The anxious class

(July 1994)

Thinking It Through, Socialist Review, No.177, July/August 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

‘The official figures ... do not take into account any deterioration in people’s lives that results from longer working hours or more stressful jobs’

‘You’ve never had it so good’ was the memorable slogan which won the Tories the 1959 election. It summed up for a whole generation what seemed to be the difference between post-war and pre-war capitalism. Life was getting better, not just for a minority of the rich, but for the great mass of people. And they began to take it for granted that their children would have better lives.

This was the time when innumerable books were written expressing concern about how people would spend their long hours of leisure 30 years hence when the 20 hour week was universal. No radio talk or college lecture on Marxism was complete unless it included jokes about Marx’s alleged claim that capitalism offered people only ‘absolute immiseration’.

The mood of the 1990s is very different. Even apologists for capitalism do not promise the mass of people unbelievable riches and ever more leisure. Instead, they preach about a ‘trade off between wages and jobs (unless most people accept lower pay, then there will be a growing number of unemployed), the necessity of ‘flexible labour markets’ (greater job insecurity) and ‘flexible working hours’ (less guaranteed leisure).

Samuel Brittan of the Financial Times can write:

‘The pressures that have come to the surface in Europe in unemployment have expressed themselves in the US in pay stagnation and downward absolute movements among the lowest 20 to 30 percent of wage earners ... To create more jobs in Britain average real wages would not merely have to be “restrained” but to fall’.

With equal pessimism, US labour secretary Robert Reich speaks of two thirds of the American population as ‘the anxious class’. ‘They used to be called the “middle class” but had earned the new title because they were no longer economically secure ... Millions of American families are taking three jobs instead of two to make ends meet’.

Such widespread feelings that the quality of life is deteriorating contradict official figures for economic growth which indicate that, despite the recession, more wealth per head is being created on a world scale than five years ago. This has led to various attempts to formulate different measures of economic growth, which take into account the ‘quality of life’.

There is ample reason for such efforts. The official figures measure the value of marketed goods and services only – not those which households provide for themselves (if they cook their own meals, paint their own homes or look after their own kids rather than paying someone else to do these things). And they do not take into account any deterioration in people’s lives that results from longer working hours or more stressful jobs.

So if people are pressurised into working longer and more inconvenient hours and, as a result, have to buy nutritionally inadequate fast foods rather than cooking healthy meals at home, this is measured as a rise in living standards, even though it might involve a decline in human well being. Similarly, if people have to work further from home, and so spend more time and money each day travelling, the official figures show the growth in output in the transport sector, not the increased tiredness and stress of the rush hour travellers.

So it is quite conceivable to have a society where people are compelled to work harder to earn extra money to try to pay for increased travel, increased fast food meals, increased child care – and increased medicines, alcohol and illicit drugs to cope with increased illness, tiredness and stress. Even then statistics will show a massive improvement.

The point is important because the last 20 years have seen such changes taking place right across the world. The slogan for ruling classes everywhere has become ‘flexibility’ – making the rest of us bend our lives to fit in with the ups and down of capitalist accumulation.

The New Economics Foundation has issued a report, Measuring Sustainable Economic Welfare, which attempts to recalculate figures for economic growth taking into account such factors, as well as the impact of environmental deterioration. Unfortunately, the methods they use are often dubious. They give figures which purport to measure the ‘value’ of ‘services’ from consumer goods over time – as if you can measure the value got from watching a colour rather than a black and white television or listening to a CD rather than a vinyl record.

They estimate the value of housework by multiplying the total hours involved in it with the commercial wage for domestic labour – with the result that any rise in wages in this sector comes across as showing us as better off every time we change a nappy or hoover a carpet. And they count all capital accumulations as adding to our well being – even if it is capital accumulation in the arms industry.

And instead of giving measures of real welfare for different classes, they simply add all classes together and then give greater weighting to the poorer section of the population. Such failings flow from the attempt to measure welfare using the concept of ‘utility’ on which established academic economics is based. But ‘utility’, personal satisfaction, is not measurable, either for individuals or for society as a whole.

What can be measured are objective factors – levels of stress, hours doing paid work, domestic work and travelling, any income left over or ‘luxuries’ after spending on the food, clothes, travel and refreshment that is necessary to enable you to do a day’s work. Unfortunately, the report does not do more than hint at any of these things.

Yet its conclusions will strike a chord with many people. It suggests that people’s welfare rose from the 1950s through to the 1970s and then, after stagnating for a number of years, began to fall. This provides a better rough and ready picture of what happened to most working class families than do official figures showing ever rising ‘real per capita incomes’ for society as a whole. And it gives us a glimmer of how people’s lives are skewed by what the system counts as ‘economic growth’, of how, as Marx put it in Capital: ‘The labourer exists to satisfy the need of self expansion of existing values, instead of, on the contrary, material wealth existing to satisfy the needs of development on the part of the labourer.’

Last updated on 18 December 2009