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Julie Waterson

Lost and found

(April 1996)

From Socialist Review 196, April 1996.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Talking Work: An Oral History
Trevor Blackwell and Jeremy Seabrook
Faber and Faber £15.99

The changing nature of the workforce, the workplace and its implications for the wider transformation of society are arguments which socialists face daily, alongside those about the death of the working class both numerically and as a social force for change.

Blackwell and Seabrook’s book revolves around a series of interviews with workers, their experiences of work, unionisation and home life. These partly reflect the changes in the workforce. They start with a shoe and boot worker, a coachman, a miner and steel workers. These are dynamic and energetic. Moreover, their stories are both interesting and informative.

But they are pessimistic too. Len, a shoemaker for 49 years, says, ‘What’s gone out of life is the quality of things you buy. I think it stems from the root cause that people have no pride in their work.’ Robert, a steel worker from the age of 15 in 1942, thinks that, ‘Young people take no interest in work now ... They have the wrong attitude today. Discipline is nil. They don’t work, they only go for the money.’

Particularly in comparison with later interviews, these workers convey an image of a lost tradition, that of the manual working class, skilled and organised, and which is now gone forever to be replaced by workers who are identified by their fragmentation and instability.

But has all this working class tradition been lost? True, there have been fundamental changes, especially the decline of manufacturing and the growth in the service industries. However, these changes do not negate the actual organisation of workers or their potential strength. It is not, as Blackwell and Seabrook claim, that ‘the working class has been, as it were, evicted from history ... a working class which emerged from, and defined itself against, the lower orders, appears to have lost itself again.’

There are around 20 million workers in Britain – a third of them trade unionists represented by some 300,000 shop stewards. And, just like yesteryear, there still exists brutal exploitation by a class which constantly squeezes workers to pay for their crisis. Over 5 million workers earn less than £4.15 an hour.

Talking Work fails to grasp that the fundamental character of the working class remains the same. This becomes more apparent in the later interviews. Women workers are portrayed as peripheral and no voices are heard from the many women employed in the financial sector or those working in the big superstores.

Women, already 44 percent of the workforce, are expected to be the majority of Britain’s workers by the end of the century. A third of women workers are in trade unions and the majority of women in employment are full time.

Blackwell and Seabrook ignore all of this to push their theory of the domination of an underclass. They state that ‘with this complete attachment of the working class to capitalism other, older fissures and fragmentings have become more obvious, particularly those which once divided the “respectable” working class from the “rough” working class. These two elements, a cleavage once scarcely visible to the outsider, have gone their different ways. The split has become magnified, as a majority of the working class has gone upward and a minority downward. The majority migrated to the middle class, whilst the minority sink to the underclass.’

Talking Work is a politically edited series of snapshots which leave you feeling empty and disorientated.

At heart the authors are pessimistic, viewing workers as self interested and motivated only by personal greed. Their opinion is that ‘there is now no disharmony between the interests of rich and poor, united in their common commitment to more.’

The ‘solidarity and values’ of the working class – by which they mean western workers – have disappeared. ‘They live on, particularly in the Third World.’ And here’s the crux of their argument: that western workers have created the problem of Third World poverty by their individual greed.

‘The resolution of the problem of the working class within western society has been achieved, as we have seen, only by having been externalised; that is to say, it has created the ecological crisis and intensified poverty in other parts of the world.’

No mention here of the IMF, the World Bank or the huge multinationals who hop the globe in search of a cheap source of labour, or, indeed, that Britain itself is becoming a low wage economy – far from the working class moving ahead leaving an underclass behind, poverty pervades the working class.

Every region of the UK, with the exception of the south east, has lower labour costs than southern Italy. And while the poor get poorer the world over, the rich are getting richer. But the reversal of power Blackwell and Seabrook demand is not from the rich to the poor, but from western workers to Third World workers, thus conveniently missing the source of the problem: worldwide class divisions.

Singled out for criticism are Marx and ‘revolutionaries ... still wedded to antique prophecies which would have put the working class at the centre of a project of redemption.’ There is no mention of the failure of Labour and trade union leaders to lead a fight on the minimum wage or in defence of workers’ basic rights, of jobs and services.

But Blackwell and Seabrook would probably view these struggles as movements of avarice!

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