Farewell to the middle classes - Matt Cole

Gini out the bottle baby

When the middle drops to the bottom, the bottom drops out.

The so-called ‘American Dream’ – that if individuals just work hard enough, somehow they’ll rise out of the immiserated masses (usually at their expense) and join the ranks of the many ‘middle class’ careerists with aspirations of homeownership, stock options, and capital gains – has been one of the most pervasive and persuasive myths of the twentieth century. This unwavering faith in ‘bootstrapping’ often leads to a sort of perverse entrepreneurialism. At it’s worst it looks like a try-hard pseudo-aristocratic libertarian sociopathy justified by a leaps of logic that would astound even Nietzsche. At it’s best, it’s a smarmy hagiography written by David Cameron about the entrepreneurs of ‘silicon roundabout’. As many of us are well aware, this new-age fidelity to self-reliance became quite fashionable in the UK circa 1980-Thatcher, and thanks to New ‘Labour’, the neoliberalisation of the state, economy, and society (sorry Maggie but yes it does exist) has continued right through to the present privatisation of the NHS.

After forty-odd years of market-liberalising fanfare, hostile shareholder takeovers, automation, and the orgy of globalisation, we face an increasingly polarised society. The UK now has one of the highest rates of inequality and lowest rates of class mobility in the developed world - and it’s only going to get worse.[1] Between 1960 and 2005, UK income inequality increased by a massive 32%.[2] And according to the Gini coefficient the UK saw a steady rise in inequality from a low of around 0.26 in 1977 to 0.36 in 2006-7.[3] Comparatively the United States, though historically more unequal, actually experienced a smaller increase in inequality at roughly 23% during the same period. Class polarisation is a global phenomenon, but the UK is finally at the vanguard once again. This numerical gap has widened over the past 30 years largely due to the top 1% of wage incomes. However, most national statistics offices decline to publish incomes above the 90th percentile, presumably as to avoid inciting ‘populism’, envy, riots, revolution and so on.[4] This underrepresentation of the top incomes, along with a consistent admission by economists of the difficulty of measuring the lowest ‘lumpen’ portions of the population, obviously causes problems for measurements of inequality, which can be underestimated by as much as 10 percentage points.[5]

One result of this rising inequality has been the polarisation of jobs into highly paid, professional positions (complete with Saatchi-esq aesthetic sensibilities for Brit art) and poorly paid shit jobs - from coffee shops to call centres.[6] The former group tend to compound the bloated housing market, as they need somewhere concrete to stash their liquidity, while the latter are a mash-up of those who started from the bottom and are still here, along with downwardly-mobile ‘graduates without a future’ Paul Mason and others talk about. These newly proletarianised have been sold the meritocratic dream (which Michael Young will agree, is as much a myth as the American Dream but lost out, since it hasn’t ever actually existed save for perhaps the ‘trente glorieuses’ of the mid-twentieth century. Despite what David Graeber thinks, the mid-level jobs typical of that period no longer exist. Polarisation and proletarianisation has also been catalysed through the financial crisis. Real-terms wage growth was negative across the board from 2008-2011 and continues to stagnate or fall due to the ‘inflation premium’ i.e. the fact that food, fuel and transport costs have risen much faster than inflation and inflation has risen faster than wages.[7]

Proletarianisation has accompanied nearly every restructuring of capitalist accumulation following a crisis, as capital must reassert it’s control over labour and grow through expanded reproduction. In Marxian terms, proletarianisation essentially describes the deepening of the fundamental antagonism between capitalists and workers. The former, who control the accumulation process, decide how the means to accumulate are used, and manage the labour that goes into it, rise even higher in the economic hierarchy. The latter, who are largely excluded from control over their own labour, the means of production, and accumulation, are pushed farther down. Sometimes they are forced out of work altogether, joining the so-called ‘reserve army of the unemployed’ or perhaps are exorcised entirely into the surplus population. When the middle drops to the bottom, the bottom drops out.

Historically, the US and the UK have not experienced these levels of income inequality since the early twentieth century. We might witness the return of something like the ‘Belle Époque’, though in the sense of the creation of a large underclass and a wealth of cheap labour rather than Bobos in Paradise. Many of the most intense class struggles in the late 19th century were waged by craft labourers and petit-bourgiouse resisting downward mobility and proletarianisation.[8] However, in the contemporary, post-whatever world, there seems to be either a confusion or an aversion to talking about what class really means, despite the obvious class polarisation happening before our rolling eyes. Most people’s conception of the ‘working class’ relies on some stereotype of a white male manual worker involved in the production of physical commodities for a private firm. This is mainly a nostalgic crypto-fascist fantasy of the right, or failure to understand the historical roles that gender, race, and colonialism have played in global capitalism by the left. Classes are neither mere positions in some abstract social structure, nor static cultural identities that one can inhabit. Rather, they are ever-changing relations that can transform social structures. They are in a perpetual process of organisation, dissolution, and reformation in relation to one another. The BBC’s ‘Great British Class Survey’ attempted to address this with a sociological taxonomy in 2013.[9] However, it obscured the profound class disparity that has developed over the past 30 years with hierarchies of taste. It largely ignored analysis of the ownership and control over capital accumulation while further contributing to the ‘demonization of the working class’ by reproducing archaic notions of ‘highbrow’ hegemony.

Unlike during the late 19th and early 20th century, the capitalism of today is more totalising and pervasive. As a social relation, it is beyond dominant – it is absolute. There is a hell of a lot up for sale -from health care to political activism, if you can dream it, you can probably monetise it. And why not? Both left and right political ideologies are awry parodies, simulacra of truths that weren’t even that true to begin with, and colonised by moralists singing malevolent arias. Capital and capitalists have never given a shit about workers or morals. Maybe it’s time to jettison the boomer delusions of self-making and focus on who and what is really the cause of our misery. It’s not us - it’s them; and it’s not even really them, but the whole system as such. Kiss the bourgeois dreams of upward mobility goodbye because it has been widely documented that increased income inequality correlates with a marked decrease in social mobility.[10] Class polarisation is here to stay and it will continue to make life harder for the vast majority of people, particularly for the younger generations. So since we are going to be stuck down here for a while, we might as well get organised and fight for the spoils of our labour, right? Recent waves of strikes from the 3 Cosas campaign to the Ritzy cinema workers’ fight for a living wage show that self-organisation works and direct action ‘gets the goods’. As Tomas Piketty, author of one of the largest historical macroeconomic studies to date, remarked in a recent interview “The reduction of inequality during the 20th century was largely the product of violent political upheavals, and not so much of peaceful electoral democracy.”[11] Perhaps both workers and capitalists should take note.

[1] http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/sites/default/files/research-digest-trends-measures-final.pdf & J
Blanden ‘How Much Can We Learn From International Comparisons of
Intergenerational Mobility?’, 2009, Centre for the Economics of Education. http://cee.lse.ac.uk/cee%20dps/ceedp111.pdf

[2] http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/sites/default/files/research-digest-trends-measures-final.pdf

[3] http://www.theworkfoundation.com/DownloadPublication/Report/334_Wage%20inequality%20and%20employment%20polarisation%20in%20British%20cities%20FINAL.pdf

[4] http://newleftreview.org/II/85/thomas-piketty-dynamics-of-inequality

[5] http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/sites/default/files/research-digest-trends-measures-final.pdf

[6] Goos, Maarten,
and Alan Manning. 2007.
“Lousy and Lovely Jobs: The Rising Polarization of Work in Britain.” Review
of Economics and Statistics
89 (1): 118–33.

[7] http://www.resolutionfoundation.org/media/media/downloads/Resolution-Foundation-Squeezed-Britain-2013_1.pdf

[8] Eric
Olin Wright, Class Crisis and the State.
Verso. 1993. p. 100

[9] http://soc.sagepub.com/content/47/2/219

[10] http://www.russellsage.org/blog/r-mascarenhas/reading-list-inequality-and-economic-mobility

[11] http://newleftreview.org/II/85/thomas-piketty-dynamics-of-inequality