[Marxism] The new class struggle
lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Jul 8 09:12:18 MDT 2006
The new class struggle
July 7, 2006 09:30 AM
Where does the contemporary language of invective against the afflicted
figure of the asylum-seeker, the migrant, the unbelonging, come from? How
have all the pleasant myths of our easy-going sympathy for the underdog,
our kindness and tolerance, mutated so readily into a sharp-eyed ability to
identify the scum of the earth, the chancers and scroungers, the cheats and
drug-dealers, the terrorists and the extremists who threaten to overwhelm
us with their alien ways, their loathing of our civilisation and their
conviction that we are an easy touch?
This is, in a suitably reconstructed and "modernised" form, the language of
class. It is a reflection of a class system remade in the image of
globalism. If history repeats itself, it often does so in a changed garb,
so that the familiar appears new, and old patterns of prejudice and
loathing take on the shimmering colours of the latest fashion.
Britain has, since the Thatcher era, been celebrating the end of class
warfare. The very creation of Tony Blair's New Labour was possible only in
the jubilation over the version of social peace established by the
elimination of class antagonisms - a conflict that had come to appear
sterile and without meaning in the modern world. In Britain, with the
extinction of the industrial base, it seemed the class which had been
called into existence to serve a system of manufacture only 200 years ago,
had been laid to rest. It would remain, as it were, buried in the shallow
graves of history, from where it could work no more harm.
This left, of course, a skeleton, the bare bones of those beached by the
closure of mines, factories and mills; people consigned to a new minority,
an "underclass", or, when the leaven of recent migrants and their
descendants is stripped out, in the contemptuous vocabulary of the US,
If the working class disappeared from Britain, this was not because it had
become dispensable, but because it was being reconstructed worldwide.
It is easy to identify the new working class: machinists in sweat-shops,
the cheapness of whose labour has brought us throwaway clothing, young
women from the countryside working up to 14 hours a day, subject to
stringent "disciplines", which often include beating, humiliation and rape.
When the doors are locked from the outside on the nightshift, they are
sometimes trapped by fire - as happened in Dhaka in May 2004, when 50 women
were trampled to death. The following year a factory simply collapsed
killing more than 80 people.
The new working class is made up of factory employees in Jakarta, Mexico
City and Chongqing, making shoes, trainers and toys in enclosures
surrounded by razor-wire, and watched as they work by CCTV, which also
serves as a hi-tech version of those individuals paid to spy on workers in
the early industrial revolution, known in less squeamish times as "the
shithouse cop"; gangs of construction workers in the livery of some
transnational entity on their way to stifling tin barracks on sites all
over Asia, the homeless providers of luxury apartments; the private army of
security guards, working 12 hours a day to defend suburbs of privilege from
the marauding have-nots; workers on orange plantations or the scentless
flowerfields of Colombia, slowly poisoned by pesticide, paying back their
meagre wage in lung and skin injuries to themselves and birth deformities
in their children; legions of the landless, bringing mutations of rural
poverty to city slums beside black, gassy canals clogged with debris; cycle
rickshaw drivers, stringy, used up and exhausted by the age of 40; petty
vendors selling their blackened bananas, mildewed oranges in the stony
wastes of Addis Abeba and the monumental railway termini of Chennai and
Kolkata; child labourers in the metal workshops of Dhaka, unprotected from
fountains of blue sparks, or standing ankle-deep in the ricefields of Java;
the captive sex workers on the peacock-blue cushions called upon to service
the inexhaustible reservoir of male desire; the tiny maidservants in the
carceral luxury of villas worldwide, up before dawn to prepare breakfast,
yawning as the last guests linger, allowed to sink on to a thin bedroll on
the verandah only after midnight.
Many of these are installed in what is euphemistically called 'the informal
sector', which makes it sound cosy, without ceremony. But it means they are
left to make their own private accommodation with global capital, isolated,
for the most part, outside networks of solidarity. If it sounds like the
beginnings of industrialism in Britain in the 1820s or 1830s, the
resemblances are indeed striking. But so are the differences: the dispersal
of the people, chains of subcontractors that make the original employer
difficult to trace, people working far from their home, and often outside
their own country, the prohibition on trade unions, the gulf of unknowing
that has been created between producers and consumers - the new global
working class is not yet fully able to name or recognise itself, or its
It is not, as we choose the believe, our own efforts and hard work that
have socially wafted upwards to the majority of people in western Europe,
but the successful export of the labour they once performed to remote sites
of desolation elsewhere in the world.
In other words, the majority of the people of Britain have become part of
the global middle class. It isn't, of course, quite so schematic as that:
there are plenty of representatives of the hyper-rich - the fat cats,
stars, celebs and heroes of globalism. There is also the one-fifth (or is
it one-third?) of those who remain poor, the no-hopers, the written-off,
the non-voters, the dead souls of democracy.
But what JK Galbraith called (perhaps prematurely) "the culture of
contentment" has swept up most of us into the embrace of its unquiet
satisfactions. If the people of the West have largely become part of a
worldwide middle class, this places us in the same relation to the
humiliated and exploited of earth as those whose social position was above
ours, when most people in Britain toiled in the mines and factories at an
earlier stage of industrialism. Consciousness of our global position is
made more acute, both by the presence of refugees and the children of
former migrants within - those symbolic and often involuntary ambassadors
of the majority world - and by the insistent presence on our borders of the
starvelings of globalism, the people who have permitted us to turn the
noble concept of 'asylum-seeker' into a term of abuse worse than any
commonplace four-letter word.
Our relationship now to the global poor reflects that of the lower middle
class in Britain towards the great mass of the labourers of early
industrialism. Of course there are spectacular differences which help,
superficially, to conceal that relationship. After all, what have we in
common with the tortured refinement and strained gentility of those
rattling their china teacups behind the sooty laurels and stained glass of
the 19th-century suburb? There can surely be comparison between the stilted
elocution and decorous propriety of people on the salubrious periphery of
the old polluted cities with today's big spenders, the hedonistic makers of
hay, the throngs in the malls and airports, the seekers of fun and addicts
of perpetual enjoyment.
What can possibly connect those who peered back anxiously into the abyss of
poverty, into which one false move could easily plunge them once more, and
our heedless search for entertainment, distraction and happiness? We look
back incredulously upon the heroic frugalities and tormented affectations
which earned a defunct lower middle class their begrudged social standing.
Thank God, we don't have to trouble ourselves with any of that.
But we have more in common with the insecure tenants of hard won Victorian
respectability than we care to think, even though respectability is the
last thing we crave.
If there is continuity, it lies in the meannesses and petty hatreds now
directed against the global poor - migrants and refugees and all those set
in movement across the world by a system of which they were no more the
originators than the labouring poor were as they settled in the fetid slums
of Manchester or Lambeth described by Engels and Mayhew. We understand who
to look down on and how to do it; long familiar with the archaic language
of class, since we were for so long on the receiving end of it. It has
seared our psyche, and, like so many languages thought to have become
extinct, it is the object of eager revivalism today.
The stories are not now about the shirkers and the great unwashed; not of
coals-in-the-bath or the money they squander on drink or laudanum, not the
smell of the labouring poor, their spendthrift imprudence. Now it is a
question of the desperate efforts of victims of globalisation to storm the
citadels of our wellbeing, bringing with them drugs, crime and their
repressed and dangerous sexuality; seeking a way through the defences we
have erected, defying our prohibitions, swamping, in fact, the decidedly
un-genteel and unrespectable pleasure-gardens of our fortified privilege.
They threaten, not the Victorian values of our thrift and frugality, but on
the contrary, our epic excursions into selfishness, waste and debt.
Relationships remain constant. Only the circumstances change. What we are
seeking to protect remains the same. Naturally, the minced vowels and the
polite small talk, like the penurious penny-pinching that accompanied them,
have been swept away, replaced by sunny promises of a constantly rising
income and expanding horizons. But we still know who our enemies are; and
if race obscures class, there is still no cruel rumour, no vileness, no
horror-story we will not believe, in order to maintain our distance from
the hungry, predatory poor.
It isn't the press that dreams up these threats; these exist, deep in
memory, a dim recollection of the omnipresence of the dangerous and
perishing classes. A majority of the British people were, after all, once
thought to be members of them. And we will do whatever is necessary to
exclude them from the shores of our precarious and menaced privilege.
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