Curing The English Disease

In 1976, the Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan declared that the "English disease" of indiscipline and labour militancy was undermining the profitability of UK capital. Curing the "English disease" became the raison d’etre of the ruling class.

Article on New Labour and plans for resistance from Black Flag #220 (2001)

Submitted by Fozzie on February 8, 2021

The "English disease" now takes an apparently different form — Euro 2000 allowing the redefinition of the plague — no longer the threat of working class militancy, now simply the "obnoxious taint of hooliganism". The forces of capital scored a strategic victory over the working class in the period following Callaghan's speech. We're all, we're told, middle class now. The war is won; we'd best bury our dead, and those of us with work keep our heads down and bring our sacrifices of less pay and longer hours to lay before the new God, Flexibility.

In an article in the Guardian on 3/7/00, David Sanders, a professor of politics at Essex University, declares that we are 'in a process of class “de-alignment' " He notes that "A distinctive feature of Labour's victory in 1997 was that it successfully appealed to all social classes. The party not only obtained a clear majority of working class votes. It also secured a proportionately higher share of middle class votes than it ever had before." He contends that "Labour has lost working class support since 1997.., [but] does not have very much to lose by failing to make a specific appeal to its traditional supporters in the north, on the estates and so on. To do well in the next election, Labour needs to convince enough voters across all social classes that it is meeting their concerns about the things that matter most to them."

So Labour is losing the allegiance of those working class voters who brought it to power in 1997 – but:
a) large numbers of the working classes don't vote and
b) the working class as a 'political reality" doesn't exist as a force to be appeased in the way that the middle and upper classes do.

Working class needs and interests can, therefore, be safely ignored. For those of us who believe that the presence of Labour as a social-democratic cut de sac for working class anger has saved the skin of capital far too often, such working class disaffection ought to represent an opportunity. The point, though, of examining Sanders' premise, is to show the extent to which the working class has moved from centre stage, for the likes of Callaghan, to the margins of the concerns of New Labour today.

With this marginalisation has come a deterioration in quality of life. A report by Francis Green, professor of economics at Kent University, demonstrates that the average British household with two adults works seven hours a week more now than in the early 1980s. On average the British working week has remained stable at around 37 hours for the last two decades, but within that average are hidden disparities. In 1981, one person in six worked over 48 hours per week. By the end of the 1990s, this number rose to one in five. Green attributes this directly to a decline in trade union power and to new technology, to organisational changes by management to speed up work tempo, and the development of a "call centre culture", where, for instance, time spent on refreshment breaks is deducted from pay, and where the introduction of emails and mobile phones has both intensified use of working time and extended out of hours work.

At the end of the 1960s, Ralph Milliband observed a "culture of desubordination" forming within the working class.

"Young workers did not remember the Depression or have any affinity with Cold War trade unionism. They had been raised in an acquisitive, affluent society in which, they were repeatedly assured, class barriers were being swept away. But the image of the "high mass consumption society" held up to them by television contrasted painfully with the reality of life on housing estates and the shop floor. To hope to live like the middle class, they had to act like militant workers: to go in for more militant collective bargaining the one sphere in which they had some real power," 1

Here, then, was Callaghan's English Disease.

The election of the Wilson government in 1964 in many ways mirrors that of Blair some 33 years on. Wilson, like Blair, committed himself to embrace the "white heat of technology" and railed against those working class 'forces of conservatism" who felt job security and higher pay were worth preserving against the "white heat" of ruling class prosperity. "We shall be frank in condemning all those who shirk from their duty as a nation" Wilson railed, targeting, particularly the “professional Tormentors of unofficial strikes."

The baton of anti working class politics seized so eagerly by Wilson was picked up by both Heath and Callaghan in the governments which followed. As Jeremy Seabrook and Trevor Blackwell put it,

”The public admission by a Labour government that the only thing wrong with Britain was its irresponsible working class set the tone for the 1970s and indeed furnished them with their leitmotif."2 .

As significant, though was the response of working class voters. In the 1970s a substantial section of the working class vote deserted Labour, with manual workers' support falling from 69% in 1966 to 50% in 1979, after a second experience of Labour government. Eric Hobsbawn argues that workers "lost faith and hope in the mass party of the working people."3 . That "loss of faith and Hope" took two forms; a loss of belief in class identity as having any bearing on politics at all (manifest in the size of the working class vote for Thatcher in 1979) and a rise in extra parliamentary militancy which led to an upsurge in community based politics which directly challenged the values and priorities of the status quo (squatters groups, the Irish Civil Rights Solidarity Campaign, prisoners’ rights, through to the extra parliamentary orientation of a large section of the labour movement, shown in the violence of the clashes with the state and destruction of property which characterised the 172 building workers strike, the mass picket of Saltley coke depot in February 1972 and the mass picket of Pentonville prison in support of the docks stewards jailed under the Industrial Relations Act.)

Further, "throughout the late 1960s it was common to see reports of branches voting to disaffiliate from the Party because of the actions of the Labour government"4 . The most significant examples took place among the railway, miners, textile and sheet metal workers unions. Increasing numbers of individuals also opted out of the political levy portion of their union dues.

The purpose of the neo-liberal policies pursued by those governments which followed on from Wilson and culminating in the Thatcher government's decisive clash with the miners in 1984-85, was precisely to re-discipline the working class, to ensure that the tenors of Saltley and Pentonville were never repeated. It is to the shame therefore of the left that their response for the most part to the extra parliamentary militancy which characterised the "English disease" of the Late 60s and early 70s was to seek to direct it towards a campaign to transform the Labour Party.

The re-habituation of the working class has been facilitated in part through an increase in surveillance of the working class (and the awareness of surveillance as a conditioning effect in and of itself.) To access benefits, individuals are required to provide far more information than back in 1979. Visits by DSS staff as part of the benefit review process are now routine. In June 1999 the Home Office announced a three year £153 million CCTV programme - a significant increase on the expenditure of previous governments. Responses from the left ranged from concern about the "'misuse of CCTV data to the "prejudices" of those employed in "target surveillance." But it is not the nature of, but the fact of surveillance, which embodies the repressive potential of CCTV. We change the way we live our lives because we are being watched: CCTV denies space to the possibility of collective, community-based relations. CCTV is symbolic violence at its most effective.

"Curing the English disease" required a re-tooling of the state to ensure the potential power of working class self-organisation could always be outgunned. A massive rise in police numbers in England and Wales was combined with increased militarisation of policing. The introduction of the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act significantly increased the coercive capacities of the police through the extension of powers of stop, search, entry, arrest and detention. The 1986 Public Order Act added to the armoury of police powers and created a battery of new offences.

This increase in policing of daily life has continued under New Labour. At first glance, this continued "re-tooling" makes no sense; there is little in the way of organised working class resistance, and certainly nothing on the scale that would justify the extension of the Prevention of Terrorism provisions in the terms proposed. It is the lack of organised resistance, though, that is the point. The speculative turn taken by finance capital post 79, in response to the crisis of profitability engendered by working class resistance post 68, represented a gamble against future profitability. Capital may wish to present itself as "globalised" and "flexible" but the uncashed cheques of financial speculation mean it is more vulnerable and over stretched than it initially appears. The future acquiescence of the working class has to be ensured through its enclosure in a network of real and symbolic violence.

The point of the PTA is to head off any future threat now and should therefore be considered alongside the legislation proposed to curb the freedom of movement of football supporters, close pubs where "drunken or rowdy" behaviour takes place etc. The Blairite vision of social control is one where the potential for the working class to recover its identity as political subject is choked by the presence of the state, by policing every aspect of life — from having a drink to considering strike action. The "English disease" the new proposals aim to combat, remains as it was in 1976. The point, for Jack Straw and Tony Blair, is to prevent the possibility of any such outbreak in the future.

The fears of capital, for Blair, Richard Branson and the like are timeless - for Thomas Hobbes, when he wrote Leviathan in 1651 it was "a dissolute condition of masterlesse men, without subjection to Lawes, and a coercive Power to tye their hands." The spectre of working class revolt has led capital to a permanent state of emergency such that the extension of the PTA is set in place now as a safeguard not against a real, contemporary threat, but a virtual threat —the future resistance of the working class.

The working class hasn't gone away. While the slumming middle classes might have succumbed to the temptations of the anti-Utopic pragmatism of the various post-modernist thinkers, or the specious pseudo-Utopias of primitivism or Buddhism, the fastest growing section of the [about market, belongs to those who clean, shop, child mind or garden for the professional classes who lack the time or inclination to do such tasks themselves. Further, despite the constant assertion that the knowledge based economy has brought the concept of a career to an end, and "most people must expect more jabs in a lifetime or have to switch vocation", permanent employees represented 817% of the workforce in 1999. The proportion of people who have held the same job for more than 10 years remains around 30% of the workforce. The imposition of "flexibility” across the board remains, propaganda to the contrary, a battle yet to be won. The majority of us are still employed hi "routine occupations" -working class blue or white collar jobs. Moreover, both trade union membership and trade union militancy are on the rise. TUC figures show that unions carried out 983 ballots for industrial action in the year from June 1999, compared with 464 the previous year, 95% producing votes for strike action. 155 led to actual strike action and the remainder led to improved deals as a result of the ballot alone. The Communications Workers Union (CWU) conference at Bournemouth voted to refuse to increase funding to the Labour Party on the basis that such an increase "would effectively endorse the 75p a week rise in pensions and £1,000 tuition fees." I think we've been here before.

For those of us who remain committed to a project of working class autonomy and self-realisation, the question remains; how to resurrect the "English disease."5

What follows are provisional suggestions as to the way forward, in the hope of raising a debate that leads to useful action.

The starting point has to be the recognition that it is not possible to build an anti-capitalist movement apart from the daily needs and interests of everyday working class life. A movement against capital that is not made up of those exploited by capital is both meaningless and useless.

“The first step always remains the regaining of an irreducible workers' partiality against the entire social system of capital. Nothing will take place without class hatred; neither the elaboration of theory, nor practical organisation... Any attempt to assume the general interest, every temptation to stop at the level of social science, will only serve to better inscribe the working class within the development of capital."6

The rebuilding of autonomous working class organisation ought, therefore, to cohere around identifiable areas of struggle, proposed as follows:

The defence of working class communities:
The distinction between class in-itself and far-itself is often abandoned by the left, in favour of a sociological conception of class. The problem with this is that the working class exists under such circumstances not as a class defined through recognition of common interests against another class, but only as a class defined by that other class, for the purpose of exploitation. To organise around the defence of working class communities means, then, to organise within those communities for them to define themselves and their interests against the class which opposes them i.e., as council tenants against the state. It means identifying how our interests are threatened and how we might organise as a counter-power in our own defence. There must be commitment to physical action against an enemy as part of the process of regaining our awareness of our strength as a class. Community-based organisations could be formed along the same lines as the anti-poll tax unions, but around a wider set of self-defined interests (i.e. against debt enforcement) and employ direct action methods such as were developed in the anti-poll tax struggle and against, say, Hillgrove7 . These groups could challenge bailiff firms, solicitors firms which undertake possession proceedings, county courts which enforce possession proceedings etc - through direct action to prevent their operation in and against working class communities.

Building a Rank and File Movement:
While trade union numbers are rising, more and more of the most exploited members of our class are in those sections of industry least accessible to organisation by the labour movement. The leadership of the labour movement is also more supine now than ever; consigning itself to begging for increases in the minimum wage which do nothing more than raise the ceiling of poverty for those in work. Whist we should not, and cannot ignore workplace organisation, we should put aside fantasies of building an alternative 'perfect" labour movement. apart from that which already exists, as a way of avoiding the political battles necessary within the movement that exists in fact. The workplace is the primary site of exploitation for the majority of us under capital. Our organisation there is a question not of choice but necessity. A reforged rank and file movement should seek to link up workplaces with the wider working class community to organise the unorganised, to build links across workplaces and across industries, and rebuild basic workplace organisation. A reforged rank and file movement would be loyal to working class democracy and working class self interests, not to the particular sectional interests of the trade union bureaucracy. Such a movement's purpose would be practical - not ideological, in that while it would, of necessity in the course of workplace struggles, contest and expose this bureaucracy, its purpose would be to defend working class living standards, health and safety. The basis for a new rank and file movement would be, simply, to fight against closures and cuts, for more pay and less workload, shorter hours and more jobs - and to seek to organise in support of struggles within the workplace and within the working class community.

Organising the Unemployed:
The Workfare schemes of New Labour are designed to conscript the unemployed into the battle to force down wages. The only response capable of meeting both the interests of the unemployed and those in work is organisation of the unemployed through Claimants Unions fighting for a social wage (equivalent to the average working wage), to defend working class living standards across the board, and subvert New Labour's attempts to employ the minimum wage as a drag anchor on wages in general.

Against Racism:
Racism remains a key ideological weapon for the ruling class. When the Tories came into office in 1979 they introduced new immigration controls to move towards the creation of a "guestworker” system. New Labour have deployed the race card with a voracity that appears almost desperate. Working class anti-racism though, has two obligations; while it must move to defend minority communities from racist attack, its primary purpose has to be ideological. Rather than falling prey to the politics of difference, the multiculturalism which sets white against black in pursuit not of cultural difference, but funds for each groups' sectional interests, a multicultural logic employed as easily by the BNP as by liberal anti-racists, we have to set loyalty to class against loyalty to race.

Against the post-modern tyranny that says there are no longer any bottom lines, the bottom line of all the above is that the key to resurrecting the "English disease" has to be, not abstract speculation and theoretical jousting, but the rebuilding of organisations committed to working class autonomy within the communities of the class. As Murray Bookchin8 has it:

”It is the height of self-deception to suppose we can substitute personal "militancy" for organisation, or personal "insurrection" for a consistent revolutionary practice."

  • 1L Panitch and C Leys-The End Of Socialism-verso 1997.
  • 2A World Still To Win, Gollancz 1985
  • 3The Forward March of Labour Halted -Verso 1981
  • 4Panitch and Leys op cit
  • 5 Although Callaghan refers to the 'English' Disease, he means the combativity of the working class throughout Britain. In this article although we use his quote / words we do not seek to differentiate between workers along national lines.
  • 6Mario Tronti, Social Capital, in Telos 17. 1973)
  • 7Libcom note. Hill Grove Farm near Witney in Oxfordshire was the last commercial breeder of cats for laboratories in the United Kingdom. Eight hundred cats were removed by the RSPCA on August 10, 1999, when the farm closed after a successful two-year campaign.
  • 8Anarchism, Marxism and the Future of the Left