[Marxism] The new class struggle

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Jul 8 09:12:18 MDT 2006

The new class struggle
Jeremy Seabrook

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, 
"white trash".

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 
potential power.

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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