By Jason Michael
We were all told that we live in a classless society, so it must come as a surprise to hear politicians rediscover the language of class-based social struggle. It is all a ruse, this reinvention of class identity is nothing but another form of class conflict.
Whether it’s the “squeezed middle” of modern British complaint or the “collapsing middle class” of the Bernie Sanders campaign the language of class distinction has returned to the political mainstream. After decades of listening to the establishment message of a “classless society” this is a welcome change, but its return has brought with it confusion. In 1991 when the then Prime Minister, John Major, first sold the notion of a classless society it was intended as a post-Thatcher era coup de grâce, quelling once and for all the UK’s class war by obliterating working class identity. Now with the reintroduction of class awareness in political discourse we notice that the working class has disappeared. Its identity has simply been subsumed into the middle class.
Listening to Bernie Sanders we get the impression that we are all middle class now. The mere fact of having a regular income and owning a home makes one a bona fide member of the Middle, but this is a far cry from any real definition of our socio-economic class system. For a better definition, even now, we are forced to revert to the classical Marxist concepts of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. It is true that to Marx belonging to the lowest rungs of the middle class – the petit bourgeoisie – required some degree of economic independence through ownership. The working class – or the proletariat – was and is constituted in its relationship to the means of production, in that as non-owners it exchanged its labour as a means of survival. Nothing of this has changed.
It is true that more of the working class are homeowners, but even this level of ownership does not qualify the working class homeowner for membership of the middle class. During the mid-nineteenth century the security of owning a home was a luxury simply not available to the industrial labour force, and it still isn’t. Working class people do not inherit their wealth, and thus ownership is subject to the rules and regulations of the middle class via lines of credit and mortgages from banking institutions.
Debt is a tool employed by the middle class to keep the working class in a position of social and economic dependence. People with debts to pay must continue to work. The genius of working class homeownership is that it acts to stifle the work of organised labour, as workers with mortgages to pay are less likely to agitate or walk out on strike. This puts the lie to the argument that the drop in union membership suggests a shrinking of the working class – all that it suggests is that the strength, not the number, of the working class has been reduced.
The middle class are owners. Everything from the slum landlord to the hedge fund manager, with inherited wealth and property from which its scions make more money, is the middle class. The middle class is most certainly not what Sanders is appealing to when he talks about workers’ incomes stagnating or falling, jobs going or people’s homes being repossessed. How can a homeowner’s home be repossessed unless his or her ownership is merely another word for rent? We can only assume that the language of class has returned only because it suits the purposes of the real middle class – the owners who are not renters. It remains a form of class war because it continues to ignore the proletariat.
Biography of the British Working Class
Author: Jason Michael (@Jeggit)