Where is this legendary proletariat?

By Phil Hall

Let’s start off by asking who we are. Who are you? Who am I? I’d better check my privileges. As for my family and me, we are middle class. I don’t fall into the category of working class. My parents and a lot of my family have lived by writing, or else they were salesman, or else they were scientists, actors, London tailors, a policeman, a barber.

My wife’s family, from another country, are shopkeepers, teachers, landowners, businessmen, agronomists and politicians. My wife is a development expert who used to be an information scientist. I am a teacher who has become an even more experienced teacher. One brother is a photographer, and his wife is a teacher. Another is a pilot, and his wife helps special needs children study.

My grown up children angle for training contracts: in management, in law, in medicine. Two of them earn not much over the minimum wage. Almost everyone in my extended family is working at a job where they are of some use. Some of us are even déclassé and almost everyone is socially progressive. In this country we all vote Labour and vote Labour left.

Are we middle class scum?

According to Marx, we, the professional middle-class deserve to be expunged from society as part of a future revolution. Our values are bourgeois and worthless and they should be swept away in a future cultural revolution.

But is it only by failing to get an education and working in tandem with other people on a car production line that we, as humans, are allowed to consider ourselves as true inheritors of the Marxist tradition and so, permitted to dream of building a better future? To beg the question: are we, the educated and socially concerned, lower-middle and middle-middle classes, human detritus on the wrong side of history? Do we really always side with the oppressor while the so-called working class always fights the oppressor?

Odd thought, that, isn’t it? Especially when you consider that so many people who claim to be working class in the north sided with the Tories. In contrast, it was mainly the ‘Londonistas‘ – many of them the educated young – who voted left Labour in 2017 and 2019.

it was mainly the ‘Londonistas’ – many of them the educated young – who voted left Labour in 2017 and 2019

Look at the people who say they are white working class in the north. What are their relations to production? Are they all employed? Perhaps not. Are they all working in factories of some kind? No, most of them aren’t. The material conditions have changed. In fact many people with strong working-class roots, and some who maintain and cultivate that identity, are strongly aspirational. They are doing alright-Jack, thank you. They have gone up in the world. They aren’t wearing flatcaps and working in factories any more, they are small businessmen and businesswomen and hire accountants.

Not good enough! Did they buy their council house? Do they have a few shares? Off to the Gulags with them too, hinney.

Off to the Gulags with them too, hinney.

If you look at the real working class today in Marxist terms, a fair proportion of them are actually immigrants. They are the ones fixing the roads and working in factories, now; first and second generation. Many of them don’t have British accents at all. Some barely speak English. Some of them – shock horror – don’t even have British passports.

It is nonsense to analyse the current conjuncture of Britain’s social, economic and political conditions in terms of a mythical collective called ‘the working class’ and define that class in terms of relations to production. It will not wash.

In the Gig economy, many workers work outside unions. In the unions, they take care of their own and no one else and most of their members are in full-time employment. First and foremost, unions defend the rights of workers, usually government workers who are in full-time employment. They do very little of any use for the workers in outsourced companies who are paid by the hour, or the people on insecure short-term contracts. Where is the evidence of a proletarian class consciousness in the behaviour of the Unions? Of course, Unison is an honourable exception. Look all around you. The Gig economy grows and grows.

In the unions, they take care of their own and no one else and most of their members are in full-time employment.

Then, in this age of advanced automation, when robots are organised into robotic ballets to make cars and other goods, where are the workers and THEIR robotic ballets? It is the experience of being in concert and sharing an awareness of being oppressed and of being able to act in unison that gives the proletariat its identity, its class consciousness and its strength of arms. But when buses drive themselves and factories run themselves, where is your proletariat then? What material relations to production makes them organise and become aware of how their labour value is extracted unfairly, makes them decide to take over?

Marx was a 19th century pioneer in understanding the workings of 19th century capitalism. Many aspects of his explanations about labour value and the accumulation of surplus as mechanisms of capitalism still hold water. You can mine Marx successfully for all sorts of useful insight. However, his idea of the proletariat coming together collectively as a class to overthrow capitalism is tosh. There is no such monolithic proletariat capable of becoming suddenly politically self aware and then deciding to set up Soviets (or even cooperatives) in the UK in 2022.

when buses drive themselves and factories run themselves, where is your proletariat?

Lenin took Marx’s ideas further – extending their shelf life. While Marx borrowed ideas from Ricardo about Labour value, Lenin borrowed ideas from Hobson about Imperialism. It was an important new insight; a 20th century insight. Lenin explained how, at capitalism’s centres key skilled workers were bought off. They weren’t going to lead any revolutions because they were beginning to benefit from imperialism.

The incoming flow of profit from the colonies allowed a labour aristocracy to form, whereby life in places like London in Edwardian times was marginally better than it was in many other places in the world. More and more workers saw benefits come in from the profits extracted by force from the colonies. Perhaps these benefits were immediate. Maybe people were given land in South Africa, Australia, or Canada. Tea, sugar and coffee were cheap enough. There were railways. There was hygiene and infrastructure. Medicine advanced. There were concrete benefits to be gained from going along with the ruling class.

They weren’t going to lead any revolutions because they were beginning to benefit from imperialism

Perhaps less well off British people were employed as civil servants, carpenters, soldiers, or mechanics in the British army. In British road and railway building. In the companies that extracted wealth from Chile and South Africa. From all over the globe. In the spirit of Rawls, the key sources of potential rebellion, disruption and revolutionary change were diverted by surplus from empire. Enough people had enough invested in the status quo in order to keep it going; not the scullery maids, perhaps, but the butlers and housekeepers and governesses and the head gardeners.

Who was it who voted for Jeremy Corbyn, a socialist, in 2017 and then 2019? This is the first socialist that has escaped all the barriers put in the way of socialists becoming party leader since Tony Benn had half a shot in 1981. Who was it? It was me and my family. It was you and yours.

How did the proletariat vote? Well, to discover that, first find your proletariat!

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