Nicholas Comfort, Surrender: How British Industry Gave Up the Ghost, 1952–2012 (2012).
Owen Jones, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class (2011).
In this review, Insurgent Notes continues its examination of world capitalist production and the class struggle within it. We are concerned with the reproduction of labor power and expanded social reproduction, and/or their absence, and their significance for the real movement of communism in the present; furthermore, we feel we are one of the few existing publications to raise these questions. We are skeptical, to say the least, of the sweeping generalizations of the communizers about the “immediate establishment of communist social relations.” We know very well that the existing productive forces, both labor power and technology, necessary for the rapid establishment of a communist society have existed for a long time, and that time-worn ideas from the past about a “transition period” to “build socialism” usually masked the tasks of capitalism in suitably red productivist guise. A lot of the theorization coming from the quarters of the communizers and similar currents, interestingly most at home in graduate schools and marginalized sub-cultures remote from ordinary working people, strikes us as magical thinking, a more sophisticated update in fancy Marxist jargon of late 1960s hippie/counter-culture ideas such as “We Want Everything and We Want It Now.” We happily leave to such milieus the idea that problems such as environmental destruction, contemporary social and cultural retrogression, neglected infrastructure, the decay of cities through suburbia and exurbia, the care of the very old and the very young, the redeployment of the vast populations of unproductive consumers in socially useful activity to radically shorten the working day, or the reorganization of production and reproduction for use beyond the “law of value,” will be accomplished from one day to the next. We are as curious about retrogression in the contemporary world as much as we are about this world’s potential, once the huge impediments of capitalist social relations are removed. We remember well Marx’s remark that “rot is the laboratory of life.” We are, however, concerned with contemporary theorizing that sometimes seems to see rot as the new world. Readers will correct us where we are wrong. The following two, very different portraits of British capitalism in the postwar, and above all post-1973 period provide further material with which to make some of these distinctions.
All quotes are from Comfort’s and Jones’s books unless otherwise indicated.
“Strikes at Speke over the flimsiest pretexts were rife; the workers fed cats on the shop floor from their lunch boxes, then walked out when Liverpool was playing at home claiming those same cats had fleas, and again when Everton were playing because the management had had the cats put down…”
Putting these two books back-to-back, we arrive at a rather thorough picture of British working-class history since World War II, and particularly since the coming of Margaret Thatcher and the “neo-liberal” era in 1979. Nicolas Comfort’s book makes no bones about being unashamedly pro-capitalist, though few pro-capitalist figures come off very well in his book. Owen Jones, on the other hand, comes across as a left critic of the British Labour Party, but cannot resist at times viewing Labour as it was before the Thatcherite deluge through rose-tinted lenses, even as he recognizes the impossibility of going back to such politics, and has no perspective to offer for the future, as we will see. It is hardly surprising to find that Comfort’s horizon does not extend beyond capitalism; it is only a little more surprising, when we get to the end of Jones’s often-insightful book about the impact of the post-1980 world on British working-class life, that he winds up with an eclectic program of a reformed capitalism. Neither Comfort nor Jones, despite important nods in the direction of an international analysis, see beyond the framework of Britain for a solution. We will therefore take what we can from these two books, and attempt to reformulate their rich material in an internationalist, revolutionary perspective, and see where such an attempt leads us.
Economic journalist and consultant Nicholas Comfort writes from the perspective of a rather indignant bourgeois observer of Britain’s post-World War II economic decline. He is no unreconstructed Thatcherite, and Thatcher’s years in power (1979–1990) come in for some of the hardest knocks for destroying Britain’s industrial base, though he doesn’t have a clue what deeper laws of motion were at work in her policies. What Comfort lacks in theory beyond off-the-cuff prejudices about entrepreneurial spirits, he makes up in detailed empirical analyses of sector upon sector of the British economy and the political-economic conjunctures of their fall. He has a global perspective, but it only intrudes on an essentially national one; a book as detailed as his, written about the world economy, would be a formidable undertaking. We, as communists, can find in it a lot to think about, starting with the decades of working-class history he, wittingly or unwittingly, provides as the troublesome “underside” of the British economy. Comfort is innocent of any idea of forces of production in thrall to superannuated relations of production. He does not understand that capital, to be capital, must simultaneously expel living labor through gains in productivity and embrace living labor as its sole means of sustenance. Nonetheless he presents a panorama in which others—such as ourselves—can find such tendencies at work.
Long-Term British Decline
Marx long ago wrote that Britain holds up the mirror of its future to the world. At the time, he of course meant that Britain was tracing out an industrial path which other countries must necessarily follow (a linear view he later discarded), but even today, decades (to be charitable, post-1973) into a crisis of capitalist retrogression on a world scale, Britain holds up to the world the mirror of “post-industrial” devolution and decline, as it once held up the mirror of dynamism.
British decline is of course, in and of itself, a very old story, going back to ca. 1870 when German and US competition began to undermine Britain’s long-unchallenged standing as the workshop of the world. As with the global role of dollar-denominated finance and the United States today, the world financial position of the City of London concealed decline to some extent, even in the crisis-wracked decades between the world wars, and even as a stark contradiction emerged between the international role of the pound and capital-starved British domestic industry. During and after World War II, Britain was forced to sell off significant foreign assets to pay its wartime debts to the United States; the brutal 1947 devaluation of sterling required a further massive American loan, and, country by country, starting with India, over the next fifteen years Britain lost most of its colonial empire and its great power status. And yet: in the postwar Bretton Woods system, the pound was still a world reserve currency second only to the United States dollar until 1967, and British industry, into the early 1950s, was still at the global cutting edge in aerospace, nuclear energy and computers, and had 25.4 percent of global manufactured exports.
Comfort places his story of decline in the six decades of the hyped “New Elizabethan Age” from the queen’s coronation in 1952 until the 60th diamond anniversary spectacle of 2012. There is, as noted, nothing radical whatsoever in Comfort’s viewpoint, yet the empirical richness of his material, cataloging the disappearance or downsizing of one industry after another, makes the book (in this writer’s opinion) more valuable than many an abstract Marxist treatise on the falling rate of profit or long dissertation on value theory, and hence worthy of review in Insurgent Notes. Further, Comfort’s book is, as indicated, not mere economic history, but also (necessarily) narrates a good part of the postwar story of the militant British working class, in counterpoint, as the island’s industrial base was dismantled from underneath it. Whether he intended to do so or not, Comfort has made another contribution to ripping away the ideological façade of the “post-industrial” “service” economy where Britain’s ideologues (most recently the Labour Party’s “third way” of Anthony Giddens, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown) during the long fictitious boom from the mid-1990s to 2008, could claim that its perennial massive balance-of-trade deficits did not matter because they were more than offset by the income generated from the City of London’s financial and insurance activities and by North Sea oil. (One only wishes a book of comparable detail were written about the United States, along similar lines.)
First Phase of the Postwar Boom
As Comfort’s narrative opens in 1952, “one half of the working population was employed in manufacturing, from massive plants to tiny workshops.” Sixty years later, “entire sectors of British industry have vanished. Household names from the 1950s…have gone, and most that remain are a shadow of their former selves or under foreign ownership—or both.” Auto makers have disappeared, replaced by Japanese mass production in the United Kingdom itself, and with Rolls Royce and Jaguar foreign-owned. “We invented television, but Britain’s last (Japanese-owned) television factory closed in 2009.” Labour Party Chancellor of the Exchequer and later Prime Minister Gordon Brown assured everyone that Britain’s “well-regulated financial services sector” was the future… until 2008–2009. Ideologues insist that “Britain no longer needs to be a manufacturing nation because other countries can do it cheaper and better; in short, we have moved on and should be thankful.” (Interestingly, even before World War II, textile and toy production had already moved to developing countries.)
Aging capital plant, relative to other major countries, as well as the crippling burden of the City of London and the 1945–1967 reserve currency status of the pound (even though Comfort is well aware of both), do not weigh sufficiently in Comfort’s book. For him, seemingly comparable European nations have not followed the same path as Britain. “How is it that Germany retains a Siemens and France an Alstrom, but there is no longer a British General Electric Company?…Why are there booming shipyards in Italy, but not in Britain? Why have Austin, Morris, Standard, Triumph, Hillman…disappeared while Renault and Volkswagen have survived?…How…has France managed to thwart foreign bids for the likes of Danone while Cadbury dropped into Kraft’s hands like a ripe fruit?” And this is merely the European and American competition, not to mention inroads from Japanese, Chinese, Korean and increasingly Indian firms. “[By] 2012, the British consumer would be hard pressed to find any household articles produced in the United Kingdom. The Coronation souvenirs of 1952 were almost entirely British-made, but the vast majority of those for the Diamond Jubilee have been manufactured in China.”
No one in the 1950s foresaw the staggering increase in the role of finance fifty and sixty years later. “There was no hint of the role that investment banks and other institutions would play in making gargantuan sums of money to be pocketed by their most speculative employees, with manufacturing firms—and jobs—treated as casino chips.” Then, manufacturing “featured largely in unexciting columns reflecting steady returns for shareholders…Nowadays manufacturing features almost solely as a takeover target or because of the announcement of closures—or, less frequently, investment—by an owner based overseas.” In 1952, the Financial Times 30 index “was a roll call of the companies driving the British economy,” with 26 manufacturers among the top 30. Only two of the companies listed in the top 30 in 1952 are still there in 2012. The 2012 list is dominated by utilities and service companies, with manufacturing accounting for only 10 out of 30. Seen internationally, companies may come and go, says Comfort, but “Britain’s graveyard is by far the largest.”
Comfort cites, and affirms, some of the main 1950s and 1960s arguments for “Britain’s relative—and absolute—industrial decline”: “fuddy-duddy management, failure to invest, outdated working practices and head-in-the-sand trade unions, the loss of guaranteed markets in the Commonwealth and the success of Germany and Japan in rebuilding their industrial bases.” To these he adds his own long litany of further factors, and devotes the book to unpacking them.
What is perhaps most interesting in Comfort’s book, and most useful from our viewpoint, is, as indicated, his concrete industry-by-industry approach. It could of course use a conceptual division of the total product into productively consumed goods (variable capital, or V), producer goods (constant capital, or C) and “capitalist consumption,” or the unproductive consumption of the capitalist class and its hangers-on, which include, in addition to the consumption of the bourgeoisie itself, the military, defense production, the repressive forces both public (police, prisons, intelligence services) and private (security guards), state civil servants, corporate bureaucrats, and employees of the FIRE sector (finance–insurance–real estate), in short, a huge portion of the “active population” which consumes surplus value and does not produce it. But this division will be part of our task.
Comfort begins with a 1952–1964 period of “confidence and complacency,” in which signs of trouble are already emerging. Britain’s foremost industry was probably aerospace. (He acknowledges the role of wartime research in a number of areas, aerospace obviously being one of them.) This featured the DeHavilland Comet, “the world’s first jetliner.” The Korean War also increased orders for military aircraft (and was in fact a major development in ending post–World War II economic instability globally). The Comet unfortunately twice disintegrated in mid-air and forced a four-year delay in production while the defect was corrected, during which US aerospace took over Britain’s lead. America “cornered the market for long-haul airliners until the advent of Airbus,” and from then on Britain only produced such planes in collaboration with other European countries (the Concorde with France, Airbus with several EU partners). Nonetheless British aerospace through the 1950s continued to innovate important new aircraft.
Another thread running through Surrender is the importance of military production of all types, which Comfort tends to treat (unlike a Marxist view of social reproduction) like any other production. British aerospace was buoyed by large-scale orders from the Royal Air Force. However, with Britain’s general retreat from global commitments, and increasing US sales in the Commonwealth countries, consolidation and mergers of competing firms were the order of the day. France under DeGaulle was following the same path to “project itself as a global force—and would succeed as Britain hesitated.” Another setback was the failure of missile development, forcing Britain to “adopt America’s Polaris submarine-launched nuclear deterrent.” With this evolution, Britain became “a junior partner in the European Space Agency.”
Britain also began the early 1950s as a leading innovator in nuclear power (whatever one wishes to say about that as an energy source). In 1956, it opened the “first nuclear power station in the world to deliver electricity in commercial quantities.” In computers, with research at Cambridge and Manchester Universities, the United Kingdom was “not far behind America in striving to produce a serious mainframe.” The broader electronics industry was also dynamic, and produced the first British transistor radio in 1956. In a class by itself was GEC (General Electric Company), which within a couple of decades became “arguably Britain’s most successful and solidly based company,” including as a major producer of television sets. Footwear and confectionery were also strong sectors.
Postwar reconstruction had Britain’s factories running at full tilt. The Conservative government which took power in 1951 was building 300,000 new houses a year, also stimulating demand for furniture and appliances. Britain was producing enough farm equipment for export, as well as locomotives, buses, tramways and trucks, before mass car ownership took off. Britain was also the world leader in motorcycles in the 1950s (Triumph, Norton) but was already being squeezed by Japanese competition (Honda, Suzuki). In 1950, Britain built 1.3 million tons of new merchant ships, but shipyards “were still employing construction methods little changed from the years before 1914.” By 1958, “Japan and West Germany were building more tonnage than Britain.” For Comfort, shipbuilding was “not helped by its archaic working practices and abysmal industrial relations…when Germany and Japan had reorganized their key industries on the basis of consensus management.” (Comfort repeatedly expresses his preference for modernized unions capable of enforcing labor discipline.) Freer trade after the Korean War brought Japanese competition in textiles, and Commonwealth countries such as India, Pakistan and Hong Kong ramped up textile exports to the United Kingdom; “by the end of the decade, Britain was a net importer of cotton cloth for the first time since the Industrial Revolution….”
In automobile production, Britain in 1950 was second only to the United States, with 52 percent of world exports, and with almost no foreign competition in the domestic market. (No thought here to the social cost of individual transport in added travel time, fuel consumption, military expenditures to protect it, and real estate hustles in the growth of suburbia.) Ford’s Dagenham plant had 40,000 employees, and was “just the largest of 27 Ford plants around the country.” (The closing of Dagenham quite naturally turns up in Jones’s book, as does the 2006 breakthrough of the far-right British National Party on its ruins.) Ford was rivaled after 1953 by British Motor Company (BMC), and by 1960 British auto was producing 1.4 million cars a year, though German production had passed Britain’s in 1956. Slightly later, imports of the French Renault were the first sign of real foreign competition. Sales to the former empire hid the growing lag relative to the up-and-coming producers in Europe and Japan. By the 1990s, BMC calculated that its most successful car ever, the Mini (5 million sold) had produced a profit of only five pounds per vehicle. Modernized unions, again: “Countries rebuilding their motor industries after the war had the advantage of being able to adopt new production methods from the outset. Attempts to introduce them in Britain led to wildcat strikes…Germany, in particular, also benefited from the post-war reform of its trade union structure, ironically by the British, with workers organized on an industry rather than a craft basis and centralized pay bargaining. For the decade of the Wirtschaftswunder and beyond, each manufacturing company could reach binding agreements with one trade union—IG Metall—in the expectation that they would stick at all levels…Britain’s motor industry was plagued increasingly from the 1950s by strikes, most called not by national union leaders or across a company, but by shop stewards in individual plants or workshops.”
Class Struggle in the Upward Cycle—Part I
This situation—the balance of class forces—made industry-wide contracts academic. “Since the Taff Vale judgement of 1906, agreements between employers and trades unions had not been legally enforceable, and holding shop stewards to account through disciplinary action merely triggered more strikes.” In shipbuilding, any “strike anywhere in the industry, even by a relatively small number of workers, could cut off the flow of essential components and bring production to a halt, laying off thousands.” Comfort sees the rank-and-file undermining not merely the unions but also the (supposedly) militant Communist Party shop stewards themselves, but as he himself writes: “In most strikes at that time…bloody-mindedness was a far more powerful driving force than Communism, though the Party tried hard to maximize and boast of its influence in the unions; many Communist union officials spent long hours trying to persuade their striking members to go back.” (Interesting, here, to see a bourgeois commentator recognizing the role of the CPGB for what it was.)
“The most damaging strikes in the 1950s were on the railways, on London’s buses and in Fleet Street [the one-time center of Britain’s printing industry–F.F.], where powerful unions had a stranglehold. Also in the docks, where an archaic system of casual labour and rivalries between dockers and stevedores…led to near-anarchy. The total number of days lost through strikes was, at the peak of industrial unrest in 1957, barely one-third of what it would be in the early 1970s and 1980s—and consistently less than in Italy.” This wave of industrial unrest had the politicians on the run early on; “by 1959, unofficial strikes in the motor industry were prompting demands from Conservative MPs for legislation setting out the rights of employers and labor.” Harold Wilson had to “dissociate himself from unofficial strikes in his first broadcast after being elected party leader in 1963.” Tut, tut. In February 1960 three of the six major car manufacturers were hit by small, unrelated disputes. A strike of 55 electricians at BMC led to 32,000 layoffs. In response, the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions called “a national conference to discuss its widening effects and the loss of earnings by workers who were not involved.” Other examples are provided by Comfort, and these “were only the disputes that made the newspapers.”
Ford attempted a counter-offensive against shop floor militancy: “In 1957 it sacked Dagenham shop steward Johnny McClaughlin…who had led the five-year fight to exempt former Briggs Bodies workers from signing up to Ford’s national pay and conditions.” A Court of Inquiry under Lord Cameron found that “there had been 234 stoppages at Ford over this period—frequently without warning—and that the shop stewards operated as a ‘union within a union.’ ” Five years later, Ford ultimately fired 17 shop stewards.
An International Perspective, of Sorts
Comfort underscores (using, of course, different terminology) the running down of constant capital (C), but fails to see it systematically in international context, such as with Germany and Japan virtually starting over from scratch with the latest technologies, though he does recognize it episodically. A key issue at the time, he writes, was a widely perceived reluctance of industry to invest. (No falling rate of return on investment here, in Comfort’s view.) Many sectors were still operating with decades-old equipment, some even from prior to World War I. “As late as the 1970s some Sheffield engineering firms would still be using machine tools taken from the Germans as reparations after the Great War…Britain’s share of global machine tools exports fell steadily in the decade from 1955.” The Conservative government did pressure industry to invest, and offered incentives, especially for investment in high-unemployment regions, “but government initiative was followed by poor performance by plants at the end of elongated lines of supply and often lacking experienced or motivated workforces.” The regional investments “are now household names…largely because of the fuss surrounding the closure of most of them.”
The cycle of nationalizations and de-nationalizations is another target of Comfort’s analysis, though he does not, again, specifically link it to rises and falls in the rate of profit in the sectors affected. The Conservatives took power only one year (1951) after the nationalization of the Iron & Steel Corporation; it was re-privatized, “but under the supervision of an Iron and Steel Board which controlled prices and attempted to co-ordinate investment.” Steel managers estimated “that Britain’s steelworks were overmanned by a factor of two or three” after a visit to the United States; another problem was “the smallness of many British plants, and by the readiness of American steel craftsmen to multi-task; in Britain there were 14 separate craft unions, all religiously guarding their mysteries…too many workers for the job in hand was a widespread feature of British industry at the time.” Labor resistance to management strategies was a major factor; those who attempted them “often ended with a bloody nose. Attempts to speed up work or reduce manning to rational levels were met by a flat ‘No’ or an immediate walkout.” The backdrop to this was, between 1950 and 1966, a historic low in unemployment. Serious labor shortages began to develop.
In this context, primitive accumulation in the form of petty producers recruited from backward sectors of the world economy becomes the order of the day. In Comfort’s view, the lack of interest in new investment by industry and the resistance of the unions to modernization prompted the “importation of cheap labor from the Commonwealth.” These workers from the Caribbean and the subcontinent flocked into London Transport, the National Health Service, and textiles; in spite of wretched working and housing conditions, they were soon sending for their families, even as the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act attempted, and failed, to stem the flow. Somalis worked the worst jobs in steel, and southern Italians those in brick making. Such immigration “reduced the pressure on employers to grasp the nettles of over-manning and archaic working practices among white males.” Racist antagonism between these strata of the working class followed in short order.
The international context, and competition (particularly with most closely comparable countries such as France and Germany), is (necessarily) an important thread running through Comfort’s book. He cites France’s postwar “concertation” between industry and the state, which would “prove highly successful …in terms of advancing the interests of flagship French firms as if they were arms of the state….” “West Germany and Japan had emerged from the war with large parts of their productive capacities laid waste, but it did not take long for the organizing genius of both countries to start planning a recovery that would pose a long-term threat, not just to Britain’s traditional markets around the world, but to the home market and the UK manufacturing base.” Germany had been catching up with and passing Britain for decades before World War II, but had lost huge industrial capacity not merely from destruction but also through Soviet annexation in the east (estimated at one-fourth of German industry), Allied dismantling of its heavy industries, and French occupation of the Saar, with its coal and steel, until 1957. Modern unions, again: for Comfort, “the recovery in German manufacturing was abetted not only by British-inspired reforms to its trade unions and the adoption from 1952 of a degree of industrial democracy, but by the sizeable injections of American cash through the Marshall Plan.” (Britain did benefit from “sophisticated German equipment taken as reparations.”) “A further stimulus was the high regard in which the German educational system held manufacturing—in marked contrast to its British counterpart” as reflected in the training of “highly skilled industrial managers.” The Korean War forced Britain “to divert resources from civilian manufacturing into armaments” while Germany was still demilitarized. Comfort is a bit cavalier about German workers’ willingness “to work for low wages until productivity had risen,” ignoring the many forces brought to bear to induce this “willingness.” German production increased two and a half times in the 1950s, “to a far higher level than the output of the whole of pre-war Germany” including all the territories lost after 1945. When the Berlin Wall cut off a source of labor from the east, Turkish immigrants filled the vacuum (again, as with the depletion of Germany’s own agrarian population, showing the ongoing importance of incorporating petty producers—primitive accumulation—into the wage-labor work force).
Britain’s iron and steel industry was “hamstrung,” in contrast with Germany, “by the lengthy process of denationalization, without any rationalization having been made of the 80 companies and their plants that had been taken over.” Over the decade of the 1950s, British share of world steel exports fell from 15.1 to 7.9 percent, as Germany, France and Japan advanced rapidly, and the British steel industry’s return on capital declined.
Germany also began to conquer world markets with the VW bug, and later with Opel (owned by General Motors) and Mercedes.
Japanese industry, once again, like Germany, benefited from the Korean War. Japanese industrialists, helped by American sponsorship, were rehabilitated into the Cold War effort. Its Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) imposed a strategy that included development of the home market, protectionism, and targeting “imports of foreign technology that could be more effectively harnessed by Japanese industry” to make Japan a major industrial power by the mid-1960s, its penetration of world markets led (as previously mentioned) by the transistor radio.
Class Struggle As the Upward Cycle Sputters—Part II
Comfort, for all his concern about international competition, does not seem to notice the short but telling recessions in 1965–1967 in Japan, the United States and Germany, which marked the beginning of the end of the postwar boom, and which interacted with an upsurge in working-class militancy in an intricate “dialectic” which cannot be pursued here.
Harold Wilson brought Labour back to power in 1964, after thirteen years in the wilderness, opening the second (1964–1979) phase of Comfort’s story. “[Britain’s] people were increasingly prosperous, GDP growth at 3.1 per cent per annum was comfortable—if below that of key competitors—profits were rising, unemployment was modest and industrial relations were generally calm with days lost through strikes near a post-war low.” Wilson promised a Britain “forged in the white heat of technology.” But clouds were on the horizon. The pound was overvalued, the country’s share of world manufacture exports continued to fall, foreign competition was making inroads in the domestic market, and the balance of payments were deteriorating. “The 15 years that followed would see three changes of government—two of them precipitated by industrial unrest—the devaluation of sterling, the nationalization of key industries by Labour and Conservative governments alike, rocketing inflation and unemployment, an upsurge in shop floor militancy, increasing penetration of British markets by more efficient and enterprising competitors, and a loss of self-confidence to the point where a military coup was rumored…the ‘white heat of technology’ gave way to ‘the management of decline.’ ”
By the 1960s, worker unrest was openly acknowledged as a serious problem for British capital. Long-time Labour MP and subsequent member of Labour Party cabinets Barbara Castle, attempting to deal with the growing wave of wildcats, in 1969 published In Place of Strife, a trade union reform package making strike ballots compulsory and setting up an Industrial Board “to make settlements stick.” The proposal was actually defeated by conservative union leaders and Cabinet members close to James Callaghan. The Wilson government had also set up “a Royal Commission under Lord Donovan” on industrial relations, whose report in 1968 “rejected employers’ arguments that collective agreements should be legally binding,” pointed to the disconnect between national agreements and deals at the shop floor level, and recommended that “shop stewards be brought into the negotiating machinery,” while skirting direct discussion of wildcats.
Castle’s report was a reply to her perception of the shortcomings of the Donovan commission, but wildcat strikes, and how to put an end to them, haunted both perspectives. From then on, the unions (in reality, the workers–F.F.) “were able to bring governments to heel” into the early 1980s. In 1977, Jack Jones, leader of the Transport and General Workers’ Union “would be rated more influential than the Prime Minister in a 1977 Gallup Poll,” though Comfort neglects to mention that Jones, like the above-mentioned CP shop stewards, spent as much energy trying to cool off militancy as on occasion encouraging it.
“Resentment at successive governments’ prices and incomes policies, rank-and-file opposition to the Heath government’s Industrial Relations Act, the success of the work-in at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders and Heath’s defeat in the ‘Who Governs Britain’ election called early in 1974 with the miners on strike, brought the power of the unions to its height. There had been as many strikes during the 1960s as there were during the 1970s, but they involved far smaller numbers of workers and consequently did, in Comfort’s view, much less damage. Things quieted down somewhat during the new Wilson-Callaghan Labour government (1974–79), but in the 1978–79 “Winter of Discontent” “the number of days lost through strikes…peaked at a staggering 29,474,000…Margaret Thatcher came to power with a mandate to bring the unions to heel. By the time she had, Britain’s manufacturing base was a shadow of its former self.”
Comfort does not place blame solely on the militancy of the working class for this situation. The City of London also comes under fire, which in the late 1970s was already developing practices that would characterize the “neo-liberal” decades that followed, such as hostile takeover bids and asset stripping (which became known as leveraged buyouts—LBOs). Britain had also joined the Common Market (later European Union) in 1973, which stiffened competition. “The ‘wasted years’ of 1952 to 1964 seem an era of progress and certainty when measured against the turbulence of the manufacturing sector in the subsequent 15 years…”
The auto industry presents these problems at their most “vivid.” There was record production up to the “oil crisis” of 1973, but problems were festering underneath. In 1964 Britain had BMC, Ford, Vauxhall, Leyland Motors, Jaguar and the Rootes group. But worker unrest only intensified. In 1966 a Labour MP “warned workers at a BMC…plant that unless they stopped striking and systematically sleeping on the night shift, they could say ‘Cheerio’ ” to their jobs.” In 1979, Chrysler Europe collapsed, and production of the Hillman Hunter was shipped to Iran where it was rebranded and produced until 2005. “Ford experienced growing disruption at its UK plants” after agreeing in 1969 to involve shop stewards in collective bargaining. Women machinists at Dagenham’s River plant walked out demanding pay parity with men; their wages were raised to 92 percent of parity. A three-month stoppage at Dagenham in 1971 “led Ford increasingly to supply its export markets from its German plants.” More and more industrial militancy prompted producers such as Ford to import from Germany and look to investments in Germany and Spain.
Labour Minister of Technology Tony Benn (in fact Britain’s foremost corporatist politician, but Comfort does not go into such treacherous territory), oversaw a merger creating British Leyland, at the outset “the fifth largest automotive company in the world and Britain’s largest exporter”; it turned out to be “a recipe for disaster.” The merger brought together incompatible corporate cultures, and BL lost market share at home and abroad; to cite one example, as Britain’s former African colonies became independent, the new elite acquired instead a taste for Mercedes. BL was hit hard by the world recession of 1973–75, at which time it was producing four cars per employee per annum, as against seven at Ford’s UK plants, and almost 23 for Honda and 36 for Toyota. Incompetence and foul-ups were rampant, and absenteeism “was the worst at any BL plant, up to 25 percent on Mondays and Fridays. Strikes at Speke over the flimsiest pretexts were rife; the workers fed cats on the shop floor from their lunch boxes, then walked out when Liverpool was playing at home claiming those same cats had fleas, and again when Everton were playing because the management had had the cats put down.”
When BL threatened closure, “the shop stewards—convinced BL was bluffing…—called a 17-week strike. Soon after, in 1978, the company pulled the plug in its first major plant closure; shop stewards tried to call a further strike against the compensation terms, but were voted down at a mass meeting.” Dunlop also shut its factory at Speke, blaming “overcapacity worldwide and the persistent failure of its Liverpool workforce to knuckle down to the job; the unions accused Dunlop of investing millions in new machinery overseas, including the Soviet Union, while expecting Speke to meet its targets with ‘new’ machinery which in one case had been written off in the accounts in 1936.” By 1974 BL and 100 other firms were seeking state assistance. BL went bankrupt in 1975 and was nationalized.
These developments brought to the fore “Red Robbo” (Derek Robinson), a shop steward who had apprenticed at 14, became a steward by the late 1940s and who was also a member of the Communist Party. Robinson took over as shop steward convenor at BL’s Longbridge plant in 1974, then employing 18,000 workers. Robinson ultimately influenced 42 factories, with “power divided between the Communists, centered on Longbridge, and the more militant Trotskyists” at the former Morris plant at Cowley, Oxford. Robinson was willing to go along with some changes, but BL proposed 25,000 layoffs and 13 plant closings. A wave of strikes began, “purportedly against ‘mismanagement.’ Night after night, the nation saw on the news mass meetings at factory gates and in car parks at which a decision to strike was taken on a show of hands—with a strong suspicion of intimidation, no checks on who was voting and sometimes with Robinson declaring a vote carried when more hands seemed to have been raised against.”
In 1977, “one sixth of [BL’s] car production was being lost through strikes…there had been 523 walk-outs at Longbridge alone in three years, cutting production by 62,000 cars and…costing 200 million pounds in lost revenue…” “Red Robbo” “had two stated aims: to halt the repeated walkouts by small groups of workers which brought the entire plant to a halt and hit thousands of wage packets, but create the climate for a strike right across BL that would compel the company and the government to guarantee the continuance of plants and jobs and give the shop stewards control over working methods and manning levels. He failed in both—though his efforts to persuade wildcat strikers to go back were rendered less credible by his extravagant rhetoric about the management, which trigged further walkouts.” The government, both under Labour (Callaghan) and then under Thatcher was determined “not to give an inch.” Intelligence services intrude: BL managed to fire Robinson in November 1979 for co-signing a pamphlet attacking management with wording close to the minutes of a meeting of 16 Longview shop stewards with the industrial organizer of the CP, minutes passed to management by MI5. Robinson’s own union gave him only lukewarm backing and delayed action for months. When the union did vote on the issue, the Manchester newspaper headlined “The choice is your job or Red Robbo”; the Longbridge workers voted 14,000 to 600 not to strike. “BL went on to sack Alan ‘The Mole’ Thornett, an equally disruptive Trotskyist shop steward at Cowley; stoppages at both plans sharply reduced.” BL’s production in 1979 was half of its total seven years earlier.
Corporatist Responses Prior to Thatcher
As this was happening, foreign cars, above all Japanese, were flooding the British market, while UK production of trucks, vans and buses held up, as did some specialty car makers (Lotus).
Motorcycles were another story: “decades of underinvestment and mismanagement were coming home to roost.” Once again Comfort points to “craft-based production methods, with inflated workforces and unions resisting new techniques.” A number of critics, however, ascribed “the industry’s collapse in the 1970s to its propensity for handing key management posts to executives who knew nothing about the industry and its products.”
The crisis of motorcycle production led, however, to another (corporatist–F.F.) experiment widely followed at the time. Triumph motorcycle workers proposed a co-operative to save their jobs, and were backed by Labour’s Industry Secretary Tony Benn. After a number of ups and downs, the co-operative received further backing from the Thatcher government, “but finally gave up the ghost in 1983. By then, three-quarters of the world’s motorcycles were made in Japan.” The cooperative model did spread, to the Fisher Bendix workers in a radiator plant (which then closed), to redundant Glasgow newspaper workers who briefly put out a Scottish Daily News before going bankrupt, and to Lucas Aerospace, where a senior design engineer, supported by industrial action, devised a “Lucas Plan” to “switch from armaments to socially useful products.” The plan was never adopted, and the engineer was fired in 1981.
Management’s loss of control of the workplace was the specter haunting all politics in these years. The failed cooperative experiments were in fact the tail end of the working-class militancy that had confronted and finally brought down the Conservative Heath government (1970–74), which had attempted to “reform industrial relations where Barbara Castle had failed,” and which passed the 1971 Industrial Relations Act, “intended to encourage responsible trade unionism [sic] and gave workers rights as well as new obligations, with the system policed by a National Industrial Relations Court.” The law was opposed by union bureaucrats as well as shop stewards; the Trade Union Congress (TUC) organized mass protests and 1.5 million members of the engineers’ union (AEG) struck for a day. Unions ignored the act and “employers generally thought better of invoking it,” and it ultimately “had little effect on manufacturing industry.” Comfort summarizes the famous (1972) upsurge around the Pentonville Five that shattered the law: “The stand-off that finally discredited it concerned five dockers jailed for illegally picketing a freight terminal, who were freed at the urging of the Official Solicitor to prevent a national dock strike and get the government off the hook. But its effect was to radicalize workers in almost every factory.”
In the same atmosphere, CP-influenced shop stewards at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) responded to a government-backed threat of closure with a “work-in,” where workers continued to work, while a nationwide campaign (ultimately involving even John Lennon) forced the Heath government to save the shipyards, two of which remain in production today. Nonetheless, “Britain had ceded leadership in world shipbuilding to Japan in the 1950s as its yards failed to modernize and to produce supertankers and bulk carriers”; by 1965 its share of world construction of merchant vessels was one-fourth Japan’s.” The QE2 was the last ocean liner built in Britain (1969); thereafter, French and Italian shipyards took over that line of production. The two Wilson Labour governments tried to promote economies of scale, again under Tony Benn, but in the 1973 crisis the price of oil tankers had collapsed. By 1976, when world production peaked, Britain’s share was 4.5 percent, and South Korea was already emerging as a competitor to Japan. The Labour government nationalized shipbuilding in 1977, and, in Comfort’s view, “the creation of British Shipbuilders was a desperate throw to come through the crisis with the nucleus of a viable industry.” By 1981, the workforce had fallen by a third to 21,000. The Labour government had pushed through an industry-wide pay agreement replacing 168 local arrangements, alienating the shop stewards but conceding no compulsory redundancies. North Sea oil (first struck in 1969) seemed to offer hope for the shipyards, but because of the initial slow response by British capital, the United States and Norway got many of the orders. The 1970s and 1980s slumps in auto and shipbuilding in turn impacted the long-suffering British steel industry.
The first Wilson government in 1964 planned to nationalize steel to push through a “long-overdue rationalization,” the real goal of such a “socialist” measure. The British Steel Corporation (BSC) came into existence in 1967, “taking over the 14 largest companies with 90 percent of the capacity.” Japan had just overtaken Britain and France to become second to Germany in world steel exports. The Conservatives returned to power under Heath (once again, 1970–74) but decided that “denationalizing steel again would be more trouble than it was worth” while slowing plans for expansion. The main steelworkers union was ready to go along with some plant closures, but “local protest groups fired up by the success of the UCS work-in began to mobilize, saving the Shelton works at Stoke-on-Kent; the plant “which as recently as 1964 had been the world’s first steelworks to introduce continuously cast production, would struggle until 2000 with a tiny fraction of its original 10,000 employees.”
1973: End of the Postwar Boom and Working-Class Response
The 1973 crisis—the end of the postwar boom—and a surge of steel imports following Britain’s entry into the Common Market deflated the optimism about the future of the industry. In March 1974 Labour returned to power (after the coal miners’ strike had destroyed the Heath government), “with Tony Benn, radicalized by UCS and the shop stewards’ new best friend” once again Industry Secretary. The outgoing Conservatives had claimed that the 37 million tons of steel Britain needed annually “could actually be produced by 50,000” workers. At the time, a BSC worker was producing 122 tons a year, compared to workers on the continent (ranging from 150 to 370 tons) and 520 per worker at Nippon Steel. British firms were not matching the “specialist machinery and more sophisticated products with numerical control, being developed by their German and Japanese counterparts.
The machine tool makers Alfred Herbert collapsed (“a modern firm and in the early 1960s the largest in the world”) after attempting a major expansion, losing market share to German and Japanese competition at home and abroad. In 1975 Herbert applied to Labour’s National Enterprise Board for 25 million pounds “to modernize and cut its borrowings.” It went into receivership in 1980 and closed in 1981.
Rolls-Royce is today still a leader in aircraft engine technology, after going through a different set of crises, starting with its near-collapse in 1971. In 1968 it had won a contract to provide Lockheed with 150 of its new turbofan engines (the RB-211). Technical problems and the doubling of the costs of an RB-211 required a cash infusion from the Heath government, and in February 1971 Rolls-Royce went into receivership. To save the deal with Lockheed, Heath nationalized Rolls-Royce, while the Nixon government in the United States guaranteed bank loans to Lockheed. Rolls Royce re-emerged from bankruptcy, rationalized, and delivered the engines. In subsequent years, the aircraft industry as a whole followed a similar path, with more and more contracts going to US producers and to joint ventures with France to produce the Concorde and with France and Germany to produce the Airbus, the European answer to Boeing. But even the Concorde became something of a white elephant, “carrying a relatively small number of passengers with heavy fuel consumption that offset the advantage of speed,” working only “on routes with a high concentration of premium-fare customers.” The Labour government in the late 1970s had created the British Aircraft Company (BAC) out of several firms; “the creation of British Shipbuilders under the same legislation may have been a counsel of desperation, but the aircraft industry was nationalized as a commanding height of the economy.” British Aerospace (BAe), another nationalization, “continued to operate from most of the plants it had inherited from Britain’s independent plane makers of the immediate postwar period.” “At no point during the four brief years of state ownership was a strategic review conducted of what could be achieved by concentrating production…Consequently the British aircraft industry failed to centralize its activities at just the point when France was concentrating most of its efforts on developing Toulouse into what became, after Seattle, the world’s largest center for aircraft manufacture.”
Some major employers—notably Ford—bought peace by agreeing a larger settlement with the unions, the government responding by threatening sanctions against the company which it then failed to get through Parliament because of its lack of a majority.
But the public sector and service industries endeavoured to hold the line, prompting a wave of strikes…which the Sun, in a rare allusion to Shakespeare, christened the “Winter of Discontent.” Long and bitter disputes followed, especially involving council manual workers, with rubbish piling up in Leicester Square and gravediggers in Liverpool refusing to bury the dead. But the impact on manufacturing, though noticeable, was limited; as its worst production was down by 10 per cent with 235,000 workers laid off. But given the starkness of the images on television every night, it was remarkable that the Conservatives’ majority in the June 1979 election was only 43…But despite the sacking of “Red Robbo” later that year, the disruption would continue; the pain of British manufacturing industry was only beginning.
Thatcher Intensifies the Capitalist Offensive
For Comfort, showing the limits of his understanding of capitalism, the “abrasively free-enterprise stance” of the Thatcher-Major years (1979–1997) “should have been a time of success for British manufacture.” Yet “the reverse was the case with the manufacturing industry suffering painful reductions in markets, capacity and employment; not only in the strife-ridden period before the defeat of the miners’ strike in 1985 but in the years after, when most trade unions belatedly realized that there were more of their members’ jobs to be saved by working with the grain than against it.”
De-industrialization tamed working-class militancy. In 1997, the 4.2 million people employed in manufacture were “less than two-thirds the number in 1979,” but “strikes had plummeted,” union membership dropped from 13.2 million to 8 million “as large factories where the unions could organize most easily, closed their gates.” Unions complained less and less about “day-to-day incompetence at the boardroom level—though more over catastrophic strategic decisions.” Thatcher “regarded heavy industry with suspicion, and nationalized industries with outright contempt.” The government brought down inflation, but “took no prisoners as export orders dried up and imports flooded in.” In contrast to Heath’s retreat when faced with worker militancy, Thatcher’s attitude was “U-turn if you want to—the lady’s not for turning.” When John Major replaced Thatcher in 1990, there was an attempt to attract foreign investment in devastated regions, but many such companies “would pull out even before their subsidized plants had opened.” Privatization “made formerly state-owned businesses more efficient” but was carried out in ways that “further weakened a number of strategic industries.” Unemployment “climbed steadily to over 3 million” but foreign investment, “often…by overseas companies who had driven their British competitors to the wall…could not make up for the loss of large-scale industrial employment.” Closing factories “brought casualties among their suppliers, and a serious loss of skills.” A number of CEOs, no longer having “any enthusiasm for manufacturing,” decamped for an “easier and better-rewarded life” in the United States. In 1984 the term “Industrial” was dropped from the Financial Times 30 index; the number of service companies increased by a fourth at the expense of industry. “[The] 1980s was the decade when the City discovered that concerns which had never been thought to have a marketable value could be floated, at a considerable profit to somebody. The wheel in the casino started to spin after the ‘Big Bang’ of 1986…One broking firm after another was taken over by American, Swiss, German or Japanese concerns, investment banks poured in from all over the world and while the City’s position as a global financial center was greatly reinforced, it soon became evident that almost every sector of the British economy was up for grabs.”
The “crunch came at loss-making British Steel.” BSC was trying to reduce capacity and the unions demanded a 20 percent wage increase. Two offers were rejected and on January 2, 1980, 103,000 of BSC’s 150,000 workers walked. The strike spread to private steel plants and lasted 14 weeks before an offer of 16 percent was tendered in exchange for “an agreement on working practices and local productivity deals.” “Mrs. Thatcher had warned the strikers they were in danger of pricing British produced steel out of the market; the dispute opened the door to a flood of exports, and the settlement was followed by a drastic program of plant closures: with 20,000 layoffs by the end of 1980.” The government put 4.5 billion pounds into steel between 1980 and 1985 as “specialized but strategically important facilities were hived off.” A new CEO imported from Lazard Freres (for a “hefty ‘transfer fee’ ”) took over a “slimmed down BSC” and oversaw a recovery, selling both to the auto industry and construction, as well as to firms on the continent. “By 1984, BSC was achieving better labor productivity than most continental steel makers, with a work force more than halved since nationalization 17 years before.”
Not unlike the United States under the Volcker Fed in the same years, high interest rates increased foreign imports and critics of the government accused it of having “the ‘de-industrialization’ of Britain” on its agenda, and as in the United States, “closures came thick and fast.” The Thatcher government maintained support for those workers’ co-operatives established under Tony Benn but “all of them collapsed over the next four years.” “[W]oolen mills in Yorkshire were closing at the rate of one a week.” An industrial zone in south London employed 1,000 people in 1980 and by 1999 was the site of a “Tesco superstore.”
British Leyland changed its name to BL in 1979 and continued to deal with intractable problems. It responded to pressure from Japanese imports by an alliance with Honda. BL exports to Europe dropped from 179,000 to 70,000 cars between 1977 and 1984, and it closed its Belgian plant. Jaguar was hived off.
The Miners’ Strike of 1984–1985 and Further Defeats
“Mrs. Thatcher’s government moved more slowly to tame the unions than Heath had done.” With memories of the “Winter of Discontent” still strong, it first banned secondary strikes and picketing, in Comfort’s view “the most indefensible excesses of union power.” In 1984 strike ballots were made compulsory, and in 1988 the closed shop was outlawed. Thatcher had also won a crushing re-election victory in 1983 (following the Falklands War). It was time to take on the miners.
The National Coal Board (NCB) was closing pits as demand from heavy industry declined. Miners’ strikes were averted in 1981 and 1982, “the former by a tactical government retreat and the latter when members of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) accepted a 5.2 percent offer against their leaders’ recommendation to strike.” Meanwhile, the NCB and the electricity industry were stockpiling coal. In March 1984, “the announcement of an accelerated pit closure plan” prompted the NUM’s leader Arthur Scargill to call a strike. The stockpiling meant that “the strike had far less impact on industrial output than had those of 1972 and 1974”; miners in less militant coalfields such as Nottinghamshire continued working; “attempts to spread the strike to the docks, the electricity and steel industries failed.” In July 1984 police stopped pickets “from shutting down a BSC coking plants near Sheffield” in the “Battle of Orgreave”; after a year, the NUM capitulated. “The irony was that had Scargill swallowed his arrogance and called for a ballot, he would probably have won it and the government would have had little choice but to capitulate. As it was, the pit closures resumed, not only devastating coalfield communities but dealing a serious blow to Britain’s sophisticated mining engineering and supply industries.” (Years later, even memoirs of Tory Ministers from 1984–85 attest to how close the miners came to winning.)
Next up was the printing industry. On Fleet Street, where half the industry was based, the unions had “blocked any advance on 19th-century printing methods…The logjam was broken by the arrival of impatient new proprietors who shared Mrs. Thatcher’s view that management was entitled to manage…[but] it was Rupert Murdoch who broke the unions in Fleet Street.” When Murdoch suddenly moved his newspapers to a new plant in Wapping, to begin production on a whole new basis with only selected staff, a strike broke out that lasted over a year, in the course of which 1,000 pickets were arrested and 400 cops injured in violent confrontations on the picket lines.
All in all, the developments of the 1980s “had reduced industrial workers’ appetite for militancy, and it was no accident that in the mid-1980s the Socialist Workers’ Party started infiltrating its troublemakers in public services like the NHS and London Underground, where they would wreak havoc for decades [sic].” Throughout Britain, only the “high-tech enclave” in the southeast had any skill shortages. The Conservative government pushed the line of “second careers” for redundant skilled workers and “unions realized that if they too did not change, their mass memberships would evaporate.” Membership fell from 13.2 million to 7.8 million between 1979 and 1997; many unions merged, and their numbers declined from 475 to 252. In Comfort’s view, the “less hidebound and militant” unions began “wooing employers with single-union agreements guaranteeing discipline on the shop floor.” A “final twitch of suicidal confrontation by shop stewards” (in Comfort’s words) was a six-month strike at Timex in Dundee, forcing the closing of the plant after 47 years.
Creation of an “Entrepreneurial Society” Masks A Global Leveraged Buyout
“The word ‘privatization’ did not exist when Margaret Thatcher came to power”; this developed over time through a “desire to get loss-making state industries off the books.” The government pushed the “right to buy” of council flats; sell-offs of nationalized industry also raised income for the Treasury. Ironically, underneath the rhetoric, the period saw “a shift in share ownership away from individuals to institutions like insurance companies and pension funds”; “between 1979 and 2009 the proportion of shares held by private individuals slumped from 50 percent to 8 percent.” Harold Macmillan called it “selling off the family silver.” Most privatizations took place in public services or utilities. But they affected manufacture “through the abandonment of centralized procurement” or “arrangements with a single supplier.” The strategic manufacturing industries in the public sector were also sold off, “either through a stock market flotation or by a trade sale.” The state-owned medical diagnostics company ultimately came under the control of America’s GE Healthcare. Shipbuilding was sold off “in a race to get the merchant shipbuilding industry out of the public sector before its total collapse.” Rolls-Royce, British Steel and Rover (the renamed car making side of BL) followed, often at prices below the previous public investment, as did British Rail. British Aerospace was still in the black when it was privatized, and was Britain’s largest exporter. Its BAe (British Aerospace) 146 airliner “was the last commercial airliner to be British-made.” Between 1985 and 2005 it sold massive military aircraft to Saudi Arabia, and collaborated with Germany on the Eurofighter. It was increasingly involved in collaborative projects with US and European firms, and became a conglomerate producing Rover automobiles. When the early 1990s world recession hit, BAe wrote off 1 billion pounds of assets (“the biggest corporate write-off in British history” up to that point) and laid off nearly half its 127,000 employees. By the time all this down-sizing was concluded, BAe was primarily a producer of military aircraft and missiles. In this it was joined by the privatized Rolls-Royce, which by 1998 “was providing 35 percent of military engine orders worldwide,” and in 1996 Airbus (the European joint-venture aircraft) chose Rolls-Royce’s Trent 900 engine for the A380.
In 1988, British Steel was floated on the stock exchange, when it still employed 154,000 people and had undergone the “rationalization” mentioned earlier. Demand for construction steel for projects such as Canary Wharf and North Sea oil kept it going. In 1989 it reported a pre-tax profit of 733 million pounds, but the early 1990s recession provoked a wave of plant closings. It returned to profit in 1994, and ranked second in Europe after Thyssen.
Shipbuilding had a different fate. Militancy fell off, “save for a six-month sit-in by Cammell Laird workers on a gas-accommodation rig in 1984 that led to 37 men being sent to prison.” After Thatcher’s re-election in 1983, British Shipbuilders sold off the warship yards, and the merchant yards sank deeper into crisis. In that year the unions agreed “to end the ‘craft control’ ” that had bedeviled efforts to modernize working practices. By 1986 Britain accounted for 2 percent of global tonnage in overall weak demand. One by one—a “virtual death sentence”—yards were sold off.
By 1988 employment in the auto industry as a whole had fallen to 264,000. By 1990 British drivers in their majority were buying foreign cars. Ford of England was more focused on Germany, Vauxhall “had so little British content that the government lodged a formal complaint” and a former Rootes plant was building Peugeots. Nissan, Toyota and Honda opened their own plants in Britain. The Nissan deal was opposed “not only from the Japanese trade unions but key figures in the company’s own hierarchy.” The 4,500 workers from Sunderland’s final shipyard closing took jobs at Nissan. The Thatcher government was keeping BL on life support with 1 billion pounds while giving Nissan 100 million pounds in grants. (The Thatcher strategy was to promote competitiveness at BL.) In classic 1980s fashion, the government wanted to hive off the profitable and “a few even world-beating” sections of BL with offers from Detroit that ultimately failed. In 1986 BL had renamed its Longbridge and Cowley plants the “Rover Group,” with a production range and strategy inspired by Honda. By 1993 “its reputation for poor quality behind and workers rising to management’s challenge to meet the production standards of its Japanese competitors” was Britain’s top car producer. But Asian competition continued to intensify, compounded with the entry of Korea’s Daewoo into the British market. Another achievement of the Thatcher years was “the near collapse of the once mighty truck and bus building industry through privatization and de-regulation.” Henceforth most buses were bought abroad. Similar trends overwhelmed production of commercial vehicles, and tractors. As these purchasers declined, so did makers of components. Only niche producers such as JCB and GKN were able to survive and flourish, the latter in the wake of 40,000 layoffs. In the late 1980s alone 20 British components firms were taken over by foreign investors. However, after all this downsizing, rationalization and adaptation to the methods of Asian competitors, by 1997 “Britain’s motor industry appeared stronger than at any time for a quarter of a century.” In 1994, BMW had taken over Rover, which had reduced its workforce to 33,000, adopted “just in time” delivery of parts, and adopted Japanese production methods. The head of BMW declared Britain to be “the most attractive location in Europe for car production.”
The construction of the Channel Tunnel (1987–1994) was “Europe’s largest post-war civil engineering project” but “many of the orders placed were the last of their kind.” Half the initial giant tunnel boring machines were British, but after that most of the equipment came from Japan and Germany; the Eurostar trains were built in France and Belgium. French unions prevented the use of “Tri-Bo” electric locomotives in France, and “for this sector of British industry, the opening of the Channel Tunnel was the end rather than the beginning of the story.”
Employment in textiles, at 850,000 in the 1950s, fell by 80 percent to 164,500 in 1988.
By 1995 “the UK was a net importer of both textiles and clothing,” and on many items, the sewing of the label “Made In England” was the only labor performed there, while production was transferred “wholesale to Morocco, and later to China.” Imports hit the shoe and furniture industries as well. Foreign companies took over the paper industry while “at the same time the industry had modernized and its capacity had vastly increased.”
Comfort argues that after 1989, British firms might have invested in eastern Europe, but it was instead Germany that reaped the benefits. “But this merely emphasized the extent to which British business had given up on manufacturing—even before the wholesale transfer of work and jobs from Britain to eastern Europe that would follow in the new century.”
Thatcher’s Greatest Achievement
Unlike all transfers of power over the previous century, the return of Labour (or New Labour, as it called itself, also identified by Thatcher as her “greatest achievement”–F.F.) to power in 1997 did not bring “any discernible change in stance toward the economy, business and industry.” Gordon Brown ran fiscal policy in total continuity with the Tories. “There were, at most, changes in mood: New Labour introduced a minimum wage and a right to trade union recognition, embraced the European Social Chapter and adopted a less confrontational stance to Europe generally.” The Bank of England was given “independence to set interest rates” while giving up its regulation of banks, but the Financial Services Authority that assumed the task did no better. Blair’s policy aimed at getting the same opportunities for British firms in France and Germany as their firms had in Britain with the Single Market. The slide in manufacturing employment continued, from 4.3 million in 1997 to 2.5 million in 2010, when Labour was driven from power.
“Financial and business services were seen in government as the way forward for Britain, with manufacturing recognized as globally competitive only in aerospace and pharmaceuticals.” 1.6 million mainly service jobs were created between 2000 and 2010, and 80 percent of them were filled by immigrants. Even before EU enlargement to eastern Europe in 2004, immigrants from those countries “flooded in.” “With a readiness to work harder for less and frequently with better qualifications, they were snapped up by employers frustrated at the output of a British educational system increasingly geared to getting 50 percent of its charges to university—regardless of what they would study there and its relevance to their prospects for employment—rather than ensuring that the rest could read, write and add up.” More and more production shifted to other locations in the EU, eastern Europe and the Far East. Manufacturers increasingly sought ways around paying taxes in Britain; foreign nationals working in the financial sector, after the crash of 2007–2008, threatened that, if taxed in Britain, “they would go off and wreck someone else’s economy instead.” As in the United States, the ratio of CEO pay to that of production workers skyrocketed. Golden parachutes, “reward for failure,” were given to executives as they were shown the door, and other executives voted themselves “gargantuan pension pots.” Unions continued to weaken. Overseas investment captured one British firm after another. “Britain’s corporate landscape changed faster and faster as the money-go-round accelerated, and what a firm produced increasingly played second fiddle to what it could be bought and sold for.” In this process came “the fall of two of the giants of the 20th century British economy—GEC and ICI—in circumstances the average coroner would record in the one case as suicide and in the other as willful self-neglect.” In the new millennium, the auto industry, despite its downsizing and rationalization through the ’80s and ’90s, also tanked. Foreign owners closed one plant after another and shifted production abroad; only Japanese-owned plants held on. By the Diamond Jubilee, “not a single British-owned maker of more than a few dozen cars a year remained.” Britain in 2012 accounted for 1.8 percent of global auto production. Top-end luxury cars (Rolls-Royce, Bentley and Aston Martin) did however increase production, selling to the new wealthy in Russia and China, to bonus-rich bankers and to soccer stars. “The decline in automotive production had an inevitable impact on the wider engineering industry.”
Of the three fields in which Britain had been a world leader in 1952—aerospace, computers and nuclear power—“only in the first did it remain a global competitor by 1997.” British Aerospace (BAe), after “Britain gave up the capacity to manufacture a civil airliner” changed from “a plane maker with strong European ties” into a defense contractor for the United States, “where its shareholders were by now prominently based.” Britain lost out on “a potentially dominant position within Airbus.”
Shortcomings of a Nation-Based Approach
The last part of Comfort’s book, “Selling Up and Selling Out,” completes this story, with the trend (hardly limited to Britain) “toward larger and less nation-based players” in both aerospace and steel, and the rise of Asia intruding more and more into any nation-focused view of the economy, particularly as the world financial meltdown hit in 2007–2008. By the end Chinese auto makers were moving into the remnants of the British auto industry, but Chinese firms were more interested in Germany and US firms still dominated foreign investment in the United Kingdom. Over the 60-year period surveyed by Comfort, industrial decline has continued through boom and bust, with factories closing during recessions and imports surging in during ostensible upturns. Britain has lagged virtually every international competitor during these decades. Governments have generally been “pragmatic” and only the Thatcher period “attempted consistently to impose its own economic theories on the nation—with success on the narrow measure of defeating inflation, but at the price of lasting damage to industry and, arguably, society.” Indeed—as we shall see momentarily in considering Owen Jones’s book. Thatcher’s government used salami tactics against the unions, “instead of all the union’s sacred cows being slaughtered at once.” The impact of the miners’ defeat in 1985 was “to knock the stuffing out of the unions as a whole…” Privatization no longer had the cyclical quality of the 1950s–1970s period, when industries passed in and out of government ownership, but was part and parcel of a neo-liberal sink-or-swim orientation. Privatization was accompanied by de-regulation, and in particularly the “Big Bang” that opened the City of London up to “globalization.” Foreign banks rushed in to take over old British merchant banks. Foreign industrial firms were encouraged to invest in the 1990s, but many did not stay long. The arrival of New Labour in 1997 changed little. Britain under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown took over the Thatcherite mantra about “financial services” as the viable successor to production of any kind. Universities increasingly merged with “spin-off” companies and high-tech firms. The Public-Private Partnership (PPP), established in the 1990s and taken over by New Labour to “modernize the Underground” collapsed “under the weight of its financial unwieldiness.” Education has been undergoing “dumbing-down” since the 1960s. Many immigrants from eastern Europe were hired for new jobs created in the United Kingdom, because “despite English not being their first language, they were better educated.” Comfort ends with a roll-call of “companies and brands that were once household names (which have) vanished as a result of takeovers, changes in public taste or straightforward corporate suicide,” the vast majority having been replaced by “multinationals and global brands.” While, in his view, British manufacturing industry in 2012 has “much to congratulate itself on,” from higher quality, “revolutionary new working methods” and “a virtual end to strikes,” it is a case of “too little, too late.” Even with “quality niche and branded products…in all too many cases only the label is British, with the product manufactured abroad.” Comfort sees progress in that “the debilitating ideological argument over nationalization that paralyzed key sectors of British industry is now at an end, and the trade unions no longer see their role as forcing major employers to the verge of collapse.”
With Owen Jones’s Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, we enter a seemingly different universe from Comfort’s, yet one entirely continuous with and complementary to it. For Comfort, the unruly, strike-prone postwar British working class was mainly one among several vexing obstacles to the modernization and rationalization of British industry, one which more or less disappeared from his narrative after the 1985 defeat of the miners’ strike, except as more cooperative unions of a largely spent force. With Jones, we come out the other end of Comfort’s six decades of decline to the reality of that force today. “Chavs” is the British slang term of opprobrium among the “better sort of people” for the an image of an uncouth, beer-swilling, down-at-heels, ill-mannered “lower class” or “underclass,” in short for the downsized working class that has emerged from the neo-liberal meat grinder which defeated the “old” working class after the “Winter of Discontent” in 1978–1979 and the miners’ strike of 1984–1985. It is freely used by upscale, well-heeled, “progressive minded” professional strata who would never dream of countenancing a racist or sexist remark in their polite company. In Britain, it fits nicely with the ideology which talks endlessly about race and ethnicity and never about equality (and therefore class). It is the uneasy verbal construct of a “post-industrial” myth of classlessness, the imaginary world (particularly prior to the 2008 meltdown) in which the working class of yore has supposedly disappeared.
“In large part,” writes Jones, “the demonization of the working class is the legacy of a concerted effort to shift public attitudes, which began under Thatcher, continued with New Labour and has gained further momentum under the coalition… Depressing stuff, but not surprising given the Thatcherite onslaught, New Labour’s refusal to challenge Conservative dogma on social problems, and the airbrushing in the media concealing the reality of poverty and unemployment.” This shift resulted in a psychologization of poverty in Britain: “Those at the bottom are supposedly there because they are stupid, lazy or otherwise morally questionable. Demonization is the ideological backbone of an unequal society.” The August 2011 riots were “once again used to reinforce the view that social problems were the consequences of individual failings.”
The large-scale disappearance of industrial jobs transformed much of the working class into “service” workers, but “such work is less well paid, lacks the same prestige, and is more likely to be hire-and-fire. Call centers and supermarkets do not form the basis of communities in the same way that the mine, factory or dock did.” Women are more numerous among this new working-class configuration. “We cannot understand class without gender; but that works the other way, too. Women’s liberation must address class: but the retreat from class has often stripped it from the agenda here as everywhere else.”
Another important theme for Jones is the transformation of the “white working class” in Britain into at best another ethnicity in the new beautiful mosaic of classlessness, albeit a suspect, backward one. “The problems of the ‘white working class’ were ascribed to their whiteness, rather than their class…Problems faced by working class people who are white—like the housing crisis, the lack of good jobs, poor rights at work, declining living standards, safe communities—are to do with class, not race. These are problems shared by working-class people of all ethnic backgrounds.” It would, at the same time, “be wrong to ignore the extra oppression suffered by minority groups.” The new, permissible way to talk about the “white working class” emerged in the new universe of ethnicity, along with the far-right populism of the British National Party, downplaying the social and economic insecurities the BNP articulated when New Labour turned away from them, and focusing on the fact that the BNP’s supporters were white.
Jones’s book had its origins in a joke at the expense of “chavs” told during a yuppie dinner party and well received by the “well-paid professionals” present, who would have gagged on a racist or sexist or homophobic joke. “How has hatred of working-class people become so socially acceptable?…It seems as though working-class people are the one group in society you can say practically anything about.” He cites the example of a fashionable workout club, Gymbox, offering classes in “chav fighting” to the same upscale professionals intimidated by the rigors of living in London, and advertised in unashamed class-bashing, for which the owner was unrepentant, exhibiting a “class hatred that has become an integral, respectable part of modern British culture.” One right-wing journalist talks about a “feral underclass,” and in an interview with Jones, argued that the “respectable working class” had “died out largely for good reason,” had gone on to university, and moved into the supposedly middle-class mainstream; “the term ‘chav’ ” Jones writes, “now encompasses any negative traits associated with working-class people—violence, laziness, teenage pregnancies, racism, drunkenness, and the rest.” Another notion equates them with the “white working class,” “backward looking, bigoted and obsessed with race.” This, for Jones, reflects the way in which the taboo concept of “class” as such has been racialized in the dominant ideology of ethnicity.
Putting it rather more strongly than Comfort, Jones writes: “[The] demonization of working-class people is the legacy of a very British class war. Margaret Thatcher’s assumption of power in 1979 marked the beginning of an all-out assault on the pillars of working-class Britain.” The kind of class hatred expressed in chav-baiting “caught on, in part, because of the eviction of working-class people from the world of the media and politics.” The old Labourite talk of “improving” the working class has given way to the idea of escaping the working class. This war continues with the current Cameron government and its “aggressive programme of cuts, unparalleled since the early 1920s,” “a wider attack on some of the most vulnerable working-class people in the country.”
Spectacular Media Deform Working-Class Reality
Jones tells the harrowing story of Shannon Matthews, a working-class girl from council housing in “an old industrial northern town.” Shannon disappeared nine months after another young girl, Madeleine McCann, disappeared from an upscale resort on the Portuguese Algarve coast. Jones contrasts the huge media outpouring of sympathy for Madeleine McCann and her well-to-do parents, in contrast to the little interest shown for Shannon Mathews. What happened to Madeleine McCann was not supposed to happen to “people like us,” in the sub-text of the ensuing media frenzy. Shannon Mathews, however, was ultimately found, “tethered with a rope tied to a roof beam, hidden in a divan bed and drugged to keep her quiet.” Even before it emerged that Shannon’s own mother, along with two men, had organized the kidnapping to collect the reward for her safe return, the press had a field day portraying her community as one composed of chavs, i.e., ostensibly permanently unemployed layabouts. The media, in a vast wave of Victorian retro, were flooded with calls for the sterilization of poor people with too many children. Once the true story came out, the episode became “like a flare, momentarily lighting up a world of class and prejudice in modern Britain.” An individual case was blown up to indict a whole class of people. The significant volunteer effort with multilingual leaflets for the local Islamic community during the weeks of Shannon’s disappearance was rarely mentioned. Nor was the media interested in Shannon’s neighbors who were “exemplary parents.” Yuppie journalists felt no restraint in portraying Shannon’s community as “good-for-nothing scroungers who have no morals,” constituting, once again a “feral underclass.” Were such journalists talking about blacks, or Jews, or even Scots, there would have been “the most almighty uproar.” The media claimed that “the whole affair was a revealing snapshot of British society and, in some ways, they had a point” but as Jones points out it “said a lot more about the people reporting it than about those they were targeting.” Welfare fraud costs the United Kingdom government a billion pounds a year in tax revenue, while 70 billion a year is lost in tax evasion, yet, as with 1980s Ronald Reagan–era mantras about “welfare queens,” it is the welfare fraud that gets all the scrutiny.
The Attempt to Obliterate the Concept of Class
Jones portrays the Conservatives and their not-insignificant working-class support in different historical junctures as the party which, above and beyond the obvious defense of privilege, “wins elections by giving just enough to just enough other people…All politicians, no matter how reactionary, feel a need to rationalize their policies for a greater good…Sticks alone could not contain the working class in a democratic system: carrots had to be offered too.” But for the new period in which capital had only sticks to offer, Pinochet’s Chile showed the way in 1973 with its avowed attempt to “erase the working class as a concept.” (Thatcher once wrote to Pinochet lamenting the fact that “political considerations” made it impossible to implement his full program in Britain.) Thatcher, like Pinochet, wanted to eradicate the “Communist concept” of class, summed up in her “infamous” comment: “There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” Class as a concept was to be replaced by a world of atomized “entrepreneurial” individuals. The Tories used the specter of the “Winter of Discontent” (as described as well by Comfort) in their one-sided class warfare. Mass unemployment complemented propaganda to beat down resistance. Five years into the Thatcher era, “once thriving working-class communities lay in ruin.”
In an interview, Geoffrey Howe, Thatcher’s first Chancellor of the Exchequer (comparable to the United States Secretary of the Treasury) told Jones (echoing, again, Comfort) that “manufacturing has only itself to blame” for what happened, referring to the “suicide note of much of British industry at that time.” Howe sees Thatcher as “the Heath government given a second chance” after the latter’s 1974 humiliation by the miners, and Thatcher’s response was, with Heath’s experience very much in mind, “one of the most callous acts of revenge in British history,” as Jones puts it. Thatcher won her showdown with the miners in 1984–85, with the Labour Party under Neil Kinnock refusing to support them. Thatcher’s Housing Bill, as another offensive in the attempt to eradicate the concept of class, privatized a million council flats and was “undoubtedly popular with many working-class people.” Rents for those holdouts who refused to buy quadrupled, and the “policy also drove a wedge through working-class Britain, creating a divide between homeowners and council tenants.” During the 1980s, council estates got their bad name as “dilapidated, crime-ridden and deeply poor.” The tax burden was shifted “from the rich to everybody else…The real income of the poorest tenth collapsed by nearly a fifth after housing costs.” The ruling ideology was “get on your bike” and “look for work until you found it.” The welfare rolls in fact exploded under Thatcher as millions of jobs disappeared. Crime as well doubled over the 18 years the Conservatives were in power, and drug addiction surged in de-industrialized areas, increasing four-fold. Football hooliganism was played up by the tabloid press to taint yet another long-standing working-class pastime. The divide-and-conquer strategy toward workers did win Thatcher some working-class support (as in the privatization of council housing), but Jones points out that her government never won more than a third of those eligible to vote (similar to the Reagan and neo-conservative “landslides” of the 1980s and 1990s in the United States with only 50 percent of the population voting). The Labour Party under Neil Kinnock took over neo-liberal ideology even before officially proclaiming “New Labour” for its 1997 return to power. Thatcher (as previously mentioned in our discussion of Comfort), thought her greatest achievement was the transformation of the Labour Party.
Propaganda was another tool of transformation. Isolated cases of teenage murder or overblown statistics about teenage pregnancy cultivated “middle-class fears of rampaging hordes of state-subsidized barbarians just outside the gates.” The idea was floated of making pregnancy under the age of 14 illegal. Britain was “crawling with feckless, delinquent, violent and sexually debauched no hopers.” Council housing was “warehousing poverty.” Everything, for the dominant ideology shared by Conservatives and New Labour alike, was due to “family breakdown,” not de-industrialization and more general economic decline. With symptoms of social breakdown thus psychologized, reduction of welfare benefits for allegedly irredeemable populations was perfectly justified. Immigrant labor from e.g., Poland, had a “better work ethic” and poverty in any case appeared in the dominant ideology in this new light because people higher up the scale were getting wealthier, not because—it was intimated—anyone was getting poorer.
New Labour comes off scarcely better than the Tories in its contempt for its old working-class base. Labour’s housing minister in 2008 suggested that the unemployed in social housing might lose their homes. Such tenants were “freeloaders.” Neither the Conservatives nor New Labour in power built any new low-cost housing. Even a right-wing figure of “Old Labour” such as James Callaghan, 1960s cabinet member and Prime Minister during the “Winter of Discontent,” had been a “working-class politician whose power base was the trade unions” when Old Labour “still celebrated, or at least paid tribute to, working-class identity.” New Labour’s ideology, by contrast, is about escaping the working class. Its “aspirational” working class means getting out of the old working-class communities (whatever their sexist and racist limitations may have been), and joining an individualized, materially acquisitive middle-class “mainstream.” It meant turning one’s back on the “old socialist motto…‘rise with your class, not above it.’ ” New Labour joined in the stigmatization and demonization of poor, vulnerable working-class people left behind by economic decay. It floated the idea of workfare, forcing everyone to work for their benefits. It introduced “Anti-Social Behaviour Orders” (ASBOs) that could ban people involved in minor incidents from the street or from swearing, with the threat of a stiff prison sentence for repeat offenders. Jones points to the transformation of the word “meritocracy” (with Tony Blair announcing that “the new Britain is a meritocracy” upon taking office in 1997) from its former anti-elitist critical edge to a term of affirmation where an individual’s place is due not to inherited wealth or education but to personal discipline and merits. The new Britain does not abolish or even erode classes, but with “social mobility” supposedly makes “it easier for individuals to move between them.” The new ideology frowns “upon the supermarket checkout staff, the cleaners, the factory workers—slackers who failed to climb the ladder offered by social mobility.” New Labour rewrote national statistics to abolish any reference to class. “Social exclusion” replaced terms such as “poverty” and “poor,” becoming a euphemism for “underclass” and basically for “chavs.” The mythical mainstream from which such people were excluded was in fact a highly stratified and unequal world. A “very small tranche of wealthy voters” was increasingly portrayed as “Middle England.” New Labour even floated the idea of abolishing the inheritance tax to “win back” this constituency.
“Culture” and the “Left” Attack on the Concept of Class
In this new dispensation, “multiculturalism” came into its own. “The promotion of multiculturalism in an era when the concept of class was being abandoned became almost exclusively understood through the prism of race and ethnic identity.” The denial of the existence of a “multiracial working class” forced the white working class to think of itself “as a new ethnic group with their own distinctive culture…a racialized ‘white’ working class is not seen as having a place in this classless multiculturalism.” Even working class people of actual ethnic minorities lose out, “because the focus is on building up the ethnic minority middle class by ensuring diversity within the leading professions.” In the ethnicized concept of the “white working class,” “the problems of working-class communities are linked to their ethnic identity, rather than to their class.” This fed into the rise of the British Nationalist Party, as “the interests of white working-class people and of immigrants” (seemed) “pitted against each other.”
In fact, virtually all of New Labour’s MPs (Members of Parliament) are in the top 4 percent of the population, with only one in twenty coming from a blue-collar background. One in ten New Labour MPs had backgrounds in finance, after the 2008 crisis. Jones contrasts this to the 1945 Labour government that ousted Winston Churchill, where various key ministers were from solidly working-class backgrounds. One rare contemporary Labour MP from such a background is routinely mocked in parliamentary sessions for his “occasionally garbled English.” (Here, while by no means denying the one-time opportunities Labour offered working-class people to rise to the highest levels of British politics, it must be said in more than passing that Jones’s counterposition of New Labour with its post-1945 predecessor passes rather quickly over “Old” Labour’s role in stabilizing capitalism and pursuing anti-working class policies. In this sub-text, despite disclaimers, he echoes American critics such as Tom Frank, whose often incisive critiques of contemporary “neo-liberal” ideology, and attempts to restore some kind of class perspective, are marred by a rose-tinted view of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the 1930s–1940s New Deal. Jones calls Labour “the party created by working-class people to represent them in Parliament,” passing over in silence figures such as the Webbs and other technocratic, top-down figures who were present from the beginning.)
Jones argues that the post-war period marked the first time in which working-class people were present at all in novels and film. (One need only remember such phenomena as proletarian writer Walter Greenwood’s mid-1930s best selling novel Love on the Dole to raise an eyebrow at such assertions, but let it pass; there was no doubt a breakthrough of the working class into visibility in British national life after 1945.) Much of this consisted of romanticism and patronizing by “a small number of very influential intellectuals, people in the arts and education,” but as Jones puts it, with the new era after 1980, “there was a big leap from being patronized to being despised.” Websites such as “ChavScum” excel in promoting the previously mentioned stereotypes about those left behind by the “meritocratic” society. The Little Book of Chavs detailed chav occupations such as hairdresser, beautician, cleaner, barmaid, roofers, plumbers, or working at the supermarket checkout and fast-food restaurant. Chavs are to be spotted by “bling” and chav children are swamping middle-class kids in schools; “[R]ude working-class people [are] ruining the holidays of sensitive, superior people…” The middle class is joined by formerly working-class people who made it, and who “spit on those they have left behind.” “Liberal bigots,” in Jones’s formulation, “justify their hatred of white working-class people by focusing on their supposed racism and failure to assimilate into multicultural society,” thus making their own class snobbery socially acceptable. Unemployment and poverty and violence can be explained by objective conditions for ethnic minorities, but not for white working-class people. A BBC show in 2007 called White “simply boosted the image of white working-class people as a race-obsessed, BNP-voting rump.” Some immigrant media figures are happy to join in, saying, in the words of one journalist of immigrant origin who regards herself as a “writer of the left,” that “we are despised because we seize opportunities these slobs don’t want.” The idea that the “old, decent working class has died away” is another myth in this ideology. “Slum mums” didn’t know how to raise their children. “The journalists who have stirred up chav-hate are from a narrow, privileged background,” writes Jones. “Nothing of worth is seen to emanate from working-class Britain.” Privileged youth hold “chav bops” where they dress down to this “working-class caricature.” Once, middle-class, well-educated students “felt embarrassed about privilege.” Now, chav-bashing proliferates at venues such as Oxford, with YouTube videos proposing to send chavs to the moon, where “there’s no KFC, no McDonald’s.” The mothers of contemporary chavs are supposedly feckless teenage girls of the 1980s. “Those at the bottom of the pile in British society were presented as little more than animals.” Various shows on reality TV join in the chav-bashing. “The problem…is that [such shows] fail to address how the characters wound up in their situation, or what impact the destruction of industry has had on working-class communities such as Manchester. Class becomes a life-style choice, and poverty becomes a bit of a joke—not something that imprisons people and shatters their life chances.” The same is true in film and in soap operas. “What relationship is there [in such caricatural portrayals–F.F.] and the lives of millions of people working in shops, call centers and offices?” By contrast, TV shows proliferate about the wealthy, showing country mansions in rural Britain or “Britons fleeing to buy up in Greece or Crete,” as examples of “promotional spiel for the life-styles, desires and exclusive opportunities for the rich and powerful.”
Working-class rock groups such as the Beatles have faded away. Football has been gentrified beyond recognition. As late as the 1950s, players earned less per week than the average manual wage. Starting in the 1990s, “part of the new commercial ethos was to keep many working-class people out of the stadium…Between 1990 and 2008, the price of the average football ticket rose by 600 percent…” Stars earned 160,000 pounds per week. One manager, of working-class background himself, justified these increases as “likely to exclude the sort of people who were giving English football a bad name…Meanwhile, the huge amount of money sloshing around in the game has severed football teams from their local communities…Clubs have become the playthings of American asset-strippers and Russian oligarchs…A game that was at the centre of class identity for so long has been transformed into a middle-class consumer good controlled by billionaire carpetbaggers.”
How the Working Class Lives In the New Low-Wage “Service” Economy
Jones provides a socio-economic portrait of the working class today. Before the Thatcher era (as we saw in detail in Comfort’s book) the main working-class occupations were miners, dockers and auto workers. In today’s “information economy,” “four out of ten men are still manual workers” but Jones (without asking too many of the questions that preoccupy Comfort) agrees that there is an “obvious trend” away from such work. After the 2008 crash, twice the number of jobs was lost in manufacture as in finance and business services. Yet opinion polls find a higher percentage—over half the population—self-identifying as working class than in 1950. Decades of Thatcherite and Blairite propaganda have convinced many that “working class” means simply “poor.” Jones describes the old sense of rootedness in working-class areas, with family and friends, watching football at the pub, and the young generation moving “only a few blocks from where they grew up.” This, he writes, had been breaking down for a long time, centered as these communities were “around a particular factory, steelworks or mine,” across generations. Home ownership has broken up this kind of milieu, with millions of people going into debt to afford mortgages, to the extent that “over half the people living in poverty are homeowners.”
Discounting community, income or home ownership vs. renters as concise definitions of class, Jones quotes, somewhat sheepishly, former Labour leader and predecessor of New Labour Neil Kinnock: for the latter, the working class consists of those, as Marx put it, “who have no means of sustenance other than the sale of labour.” Setting aside Cambridge dons and similar types who must work for a living in very different and more comfortable circumstances, “a look at the statistics uncovers the working-class majority. Over eight million of us still have manual jobs, and another eight million are clerks, secretaries, sales assistants…” The “new service-sector working class” is a big part of this population. Supermarket employees and retail workers are more than one in ten workers. Almost two-thirds of those are women. They are bullied by managers and customers. The pay is low, and turnover is high. Call center workers, “as good a symbol of the working class as any” today, have it even worse. Electronic surveillance monitors everything. Workers have 4 percent of their time per month for bathroom breaks and getting a drink. Many of them are among the 1.5 million temp workers in Britain, recruited through agencies with “job insecurity and outrageous terms and conditions.” The post-2008 atmosphere promotes even more such “flexibilization.” One-fourth of the work force now works part-time, including the majority of those in new, post-crisis jobs. The “hourglass” economy emerges while old, decently paid working class jobs disappear. They are replaced by hairdressers (170,000), data input people, security guards, and receptionists. London alone used to have a million and a quarter manufacturing jobs; today it has 200,000. Well-paid jobs in utilities were wiped out by privatization. Union membership has dropped from thirteen million in 1979 to “just over seven million today.” Paralleling the United States, more than 50 percent of public sector workers are unionized, while only 15 percent of private-sector workers are. “The dog-eat-dog individualism unleashed by Thatcherism also undermined the collective spirit at the heart of trade unionism…it is more difficult for unions to put down roots in the transient service sector. Factories with hundreds of workers who were there for the long haul were simply easier to organize….After three decades of persecution, unions are no longer part of workplace culture…” Those unions that are left generally represent better-paid strata of the working class. Here, as with his rose-tinted view of the “Old” Labour Party, Jones shows a certain naiveté: “For men, the biggest turn-off was a sense that unions did not achieve anything.” He leaves totally unexamined the role of unions in the 1945–1979 period which Comfort, as well, describes, but with no distinction between “unions” and the working class as a whole. He, even less than Comfort, does not seem to recall that the Jack Joneses and CPGB shop stewards spent as much time getting people back to work as leading them in strikes, not to mention articulating a real perspective beyond capitalism.
Wages in Britain stagnated or fell in the boom years while profits soared. “The income of the bottom half flatlined after 2004; for the bottom third, it actually went into reverse.” “Following the crash in 2008, wage freezes became the norm as workers were left to pick up the tab for a crisis caused by the greed of wealthy bankers.” Comfort, whom no one would ever suspect of being pro–working class, at least has a multi-causal analysis of the crisis (without a clue about its deep structural nature on a world scale). But Jones, for all his sympathies for his subject and all the powerful material he provides on the condition of British workers from Thatcher onward (as previously in his assessment of the Labour Party historically and of the role of unions) shows himself to be part of a populist left that neither understands the real character of the crisis nor a possible way out of it. (To be fair, he does cite the hundreds of millions of new exploitable workers that became available to capital with the opening of the ex-Soviet bloc, China and India.) As in the United States, British workers went deeper and deeper into debt to compensate for falling wages. The status of the new service sector jobs was as low as the pay, by contrast with the skilled, better paid, unionized workers in manufacture during the postwar boom, workers who also took a certain pride in their skills. “Four out of ten middle-income workers felt that their occupation had a lower status than their father’s…” In fact, many of these jobs, such as those in waste recycling or health care, generate ten times their wage in “social value” whereas in one think tank’s estimate, the City’s financial minions destroyed 7 pounds of value for every pound they earned. By contrast with the old industrial and mining towns, the new service sector jobs do not generate much sense of community. With the new “flexible” work schedules, work at nights and on weekends, and constant rotation of shifts, work/life balance goes out the window. “The downward trend in working hours skidded to a halt in the 1980s” and went into reverse. “In the EU, only Romanian and Bulgarian workers put in longer hours” than British workers. One in five work more than the maximum 48 weekly hours specified by the “European Working Time Directive,” from which Britain opted out. Unpaid overtime averaging seven hours a week affected five million workers in 2009, leave time is low, and job-related stress rampant.
After the decimation of the wages and conditions of the postwar working class, right-wing propaganda (as in the United States) plays up the coddled position of public sector employees who are “overpaid, underworked and living it up at the expense of the taxpayer.” This propaganda makes the savage post-2008 cuts of the public sector seem more palatable since the workers involved were parasites anyway. Gordon Brown, while still Chancellor of the Exchequer in 2004, fired 100,000 civil servants. Such jobs “filled part of the vacuum left by the collapse of industry in many working-class communities.” New Labour did create 850,000 public sector jobs, the majority of them taken by women. Yet the widely held view that most of these jobs are well-paid or lead to generous pensions is a myth. After factoring out the “top mandarin” retirees, the average civil service pension is 4,000 pounds a year. Public sector workers also work 120 million hours of annual unpaid overtime.
Seen in the broader context of the work force as a whole, the state prior to the 2008 significantly contributed to the total income of over half the population. “Huge numbers of working-class people depend on having their income topped up by the state to make ends meet” in the form of tax credits, housing and child benefits. By contrast, executive pay merely between 2000 and 2008 increased from 47 times the average worker’s wage to 94 times, though not quite attaining US levels, where it is 400 times as high. One percent of the population takes 23 percent of GDP, whereas the wealth of the bottom half amounts to a mere 6 percent of the total. Taxes are regressive, and, again as in the United States, “with armies of lawyers and tax experts, the economic elite has become skilled at exploiting loopholes and shuffling money about to avoid paying a penny.”
The idea, writes Jones, “that the working class has withered away, with just a ‘chav’ rump left, is a politically convenient myth…A low-paid, part-time female shelf-stacker would certainly not be unrepresentative of the same class today. But this contemporary working-class is almost absent from our TV screens, the speeches of our politicians and the comments pages of our newspapers…The tragic irony is that the myth of the classless society gained ground just as society became more rigged in favor of the middle class.” (What, one wonders, is this “our” in Jones’s usage? As though there were in fact some truly shared social existence, instead of one riven by capitalist commodity logic and the irreparable divisions he describes elsewhere.)
“Middle Class” No Longer In the Middle
A widespread network of nepotism plays a key role in this rigging, with all the advantages and buffers that “middle class” and elite families can offer their offspring—social reproduction, in a word—in the form of education, after-school lessons, a comfortable place to live during sometimes years of internships without pay. Private schools are “the training grounds of the British ruling class.” Only minimal percentages of kids, on the other hand, leave public schools “with basic skills in reading, writing and arithmetic.” Social Darwinist explanations of “better genes” are frankly put forth by high-level educational figures to explain this gap. With the disappearance of decently-paid skilled industrial work, educational credentials become all the more important. Middle-class and elite kids are endowed with (the fraught term) “cultural capital” that is largely absent in working-class milieus. The “aspirational” ideology touted by Tory and New Labour governments and the media “misses the point: Aspire to what?…it is difficult to see what lies at the end of school—other than supermarkets or call centers.”
Meanwhile, more and more university graduates themselves have to take such jobs: “[If] you are unlikely to obtain a secure, well-paid job even after years of studying, why bother at all?” The hierarchy of private and public schools increasingly segregates education by social class. Middle-class parents arrange fake addresses in better school districts, or fake religiosity to get kids into better church-run schools. The Conservatives are setting up “free schools” with state funding, modeled on a Swedish program that had “disastrous consequences,” achieving nothing but more social segregation. But above and beyond schooling as such, it is the overall social milieu and its material resources that sets the life trajectories of working-class kids: “safe streets to play in, good schools and housing; supportive families…good local services; and a strong local economy with a wide range of decent working-class jobs. [I]n a class-divided society the school you attend is one factor among many. The decisive issue is class.” Parents’ networks and contacts get their kids into desirable jobs; “could a working-class kid from Liverpool or Glasgow even dream of this kind of leg-up?” Unpaid internships in different sectors, as indicated, are only viable for those whose families can support them.
No Future Except Revolution
Jones surveys the communities hit by mine and factory closings. In Ashington, one typical town where the pit closed after the miner’s defeat, one woman told him, “Loads and loads of men over forty-five never worked again, because they were too old.” Families fell apart. Divorces surged. Young people join the armed forces because, in this woman’s words, “There’s nothing!” Others are forced into Britain’s “burgeoning hire-and-fire, temporary workforce with its insecure terms and conditions.” “Maggie Thatcher,” continued the woman, “put the knife in and they just left us to bleed to death.” Then came Blair, who “didn’t do nothing for nobody.” In the economic and social vacuum that remains, drugs proliferate. But Jones adds: “It would be wrong of me to portray Ashlington as some sort of post-apocalyptic hellhole or as a society in total meltdown.” There is still a town center full of shops. “There’s a real community spirit in the air. [Such towns] were devastated by the whirlwind of de-industrialization unleashed by Thatcherism, but people do their best to adjust and get on with their lives, even in the toughest of circumstances.” No-future youth are of course hit the hardest, and act out accordingly.
Jones surveys some of the same terrain as Comfort: at the “Longbridge plant in Birmingham…once the biggest industrial complex in the world,” the closing of MG Rover threw 6,000 people out of work. Longbridge became, in the words of one local, “a community with its heart ripped out.” The local social clubs wilt or are literally reduced to rubble. Unemployed men tend children while their wives do cleaning jobs. MG Rover closed from one day to the next, without warning. Five years later, former workers take up dead-end retraining programs, wait for severance pay held up in legal wrangles, take lower-paid service work, and some commit suicide. Houses are repossessed. The Conservatives, meanwhile, tout the theme of “Broken Britain,” holding a distorting mirror up to these realities. According to Prime Minister David Cameron, all this happened “Because government got too big, did too much and undermined responsibility.” The concept of the “underclass” emerges from “lumping together those sections of the working class that took the brunt of the wrenching social and economic changes of the last three decades.” Britain offers some of the lowest unemployment benefits in western Europe. “Welfare scroungers,” in dominant parlance, include anyone who supplements such miserable payouts with a few hours of work off the books, as well as the 2.6 million people on “incapacity benefits” (similar to SSI or workman’s comp in the United States). Such benefits were used by governments to manipulate unemployment statistics, and are “concentrated in the old industrial areas of the North, Scotland and Wales.” Many claimants were laid-off workers in poor health from their previous occupations. Glasgow has more such claimants than anywhere else. A scandal erupted when over 20,000 of them were found “able to work,” including “terminally-ill patients, people with advanced forms of Parkinson’s disease…multiple sclerosis…mental illness…[those] awaiting open heart surgery.” The right-wing media, again, seize on the small minority of fraudulent claims.
Unemployment in reality hit the working class much harder than the middle class, including after the 2008 crisis. In professional occupations it was only 1.3 percent, while for skilled workers it was 8.1 percent, 10.5 percent for sales and customer service workers, and 13.7 percent for the unskilled. Poverty is defined as a “household with less than 60 percent of the nation’s median income after housing costs are deducted.” By this definition, one Briton in ten lived in poverty when Thatcher came to power, and the figure is one in five today. “The majority of people living in poverty actually have a job.” New Labour in power took aim at the situation of the working poor; its policies amounted to granting tax credits while forcing people into the lowest-paid work possible. A minimum-wage increase was introduced but it was “not wages that anyone could live on comfortably. The new minimum wage, worked out over a year for a 35-hour week, resulted in less income than the 14,400 pounds per year defined as the minimum acceptable standard of living for a single person.
All of a Piece: Gentrification, “Social Cleansing,” Multiculturalism and the Far Right
Low-cost housing construction has declined to scandalous levels. This failure “looks inexplicable to the point of madness. The number of houses built in 2010 was the lowest since 1922” (excepting World War II). Prior to Thatcher, “there were never fewer than 75,000 council dwellings built in any year…” In 1999, that number had dropped to 84. But—pace Jones—isn’t it exactly explicable in terms of the laws of urban ground rent? Total profit from finance and real estate passed total profit from industry in Britain long ago (and somewhat later in the United States); why, with “urban planning” basically an adjunct of the real estate industry, and the latter’s huge influence in the capitalist state, should anyone be surprised by the expulsion of industry from the city and its replacement by Canary Wharfs and (in the New York City context) Battery Parks?
Millions spend years on waiting lists, and the state housing benefit of 21 billion pounds a year winds up mainly as a subsidy to landlords. New Labour in power had little interest in the housing question. After the Conservatives returned in 2010, they cut “liftetime council tenancy agreements,” replacing them with five or ten-year agreements. If their financial conditions improved, they could be evicted onto the private housing market, making council housing, in Jones’s words “nothing more than transit camps for the deprived.” They also cut housing benefits across the board. This amounted to “social cleansing,” aimed at making London more like Paris, with “the poor living on the periphery.” Even a Conservative minister saw these plans as comparable to “the late eighteenth-century evictions of small farmers from the Scottish Highlands” and mercurial Conservative London mayor Boris Johnson “said he would not accept ‘Kosovo-style social cleansing’ of the capital.”
The free-market remaking of urban as well as small town space has closed down a significant part of the old locales of working-class sociability, from pubs to sports and social clubs, not to mention basic institutions such as post offices, swimming pools and public libraries, restricting the space for the “street corner” culture of previous generations. Conservatives, on the other hand, following the logic of turning all social problems into psychological ones, above all “bad parenting,” call for locking up the parents of underage criminals. New Labour played its part with the (previously mentioned) Anti-Social Behavior Orders, and “there are more young people behind bars in England and Wales than anywhere else in Western Europe.” Tony Blair came in with a slogan “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime,” but once in power New Labour’s policy turned into “tough on crime, tough on criminals.” The prison population doubled between 1993 and 2010, and did so even as crime rates were falling. Hard drug use meanwhile proliferated in the devastated former mining communities. With all the social decay and no-future hopelessness produced by decades of de-industrialization and a one-sided class war, whether under Conservatives or New Labour, it “is not surprising that so many working-class people felt alienated from Labour. They felt it was no longer fighting on their side. Some succumbed to apathy—but not all. Deprived of a narrative to explain what was happening to their lives, some began to grope for other logics. It was not the wealthy victors of Thatcher’s class war who found themselves on the sharp end. The frustrations and anger of millions of working-class people were channeled into a backlash against immigrants.”
Jones quotes a militant of the British National Party (BNP), pointing out that Labour’s “cardinal betrayal” of the working classes is “obvious to all.” But, he continues, “the really good news is that the radical left have all but vanished from defending the working classes,” besotted as much of it has become with identity politics, as Jones will shortly elaborate. In 1999, the BNP had won 100,000 votes in the European elections; ten years later, it was almost a million. Two BNP members sit in the European Parliament. By 2010, it was also, with 564,000 votes in the national election, the fifth largest party in Britain. At the same time, polls record a massive drop in racism or opposition to mixed marriage. “Britain has become less racist at the same time as it is faced with the most electorally successful racist party in British history…The BNP has thrived in traditionally white working-class areas with a long history of returning Labour candidates,” reinforcing the general views of the white working class as “a beer-bellied skinhead on a council estate, moaning about hordes of immigrants ‘coming in and taking our jobs.’ ” The BNP, in fact, “does well in certain overwhelmingly white areas that have seen a recent influx of new, ethnic minority residents.” Jones points, however, to the London neighborhood of Hackney, where the old 1970s National Front was getting 5 percent of the vote based on a similar anti-immigrant backlash, but where in 2010, with many more immigrants present, the BNP got almost no votes. The BNP did best in areas “where mass immigration is a new phenomenon” or “where there is very little immigration but a tremendous fear of it.” In short, areas in “transition” seem to be most susceptible. Jones rightly indicts liberal multiculturalism for its part, since it “has understood inequality purely through the prism of race, disregarding that of class…this encouraged white working-class people to develop similar notions of ethnic pride, and to build an identity based on race so as to gain acceptance in multicultural society. The BNP has made the most of this disastrous redefinition of white working-class people as, effectively, another marginalized ethnic minority.”
The BNP’s breakthrough to national prominence took place in 2006 in two former Labour bastions in East London, where it elected 11 candidates to the local council. Long-term working class people in these locales saw immigrants getting benefits and housing their own children could not get. One of these areas was Dagenham, which we previously encountered in Comfort: a Ford factory employing 40,000 people had closed in the area. Locals see the housing shortage, resulting from three decades of no low-cost housing construction, as the number one issue stoking support for the BNP, as well as the fallout from deindustrialization. It is the BNP, not New Labour, that talks about these issues, with its anti-immigrant spin. The “BNP has wrapped itself in Labour’s clothes,” writes Jones…” BNP literature describes the organization as “the Labour Party your grandfather voted for.” In reality, the BNP’s real program—like those of many far-right movements on the European continent—is extreme neo-liberalism, with policies “beloved of extreme right-wing libertarian economists.” At the same time, the BNP’s militants throw themselves into community politics, clearing rubbish or helping in pensioners’ gardens. Even more than its former Labour supporters, the BNP turned out large numbers of people who had never voted before. Jones blames the demonization of the working class as having played into the BNP’s hands. “Pride in being working class has been ground down over the past three decades. Being working class has become increasingly regarded as an identity to leave behind…When this pride was stripped away, it left a vacuum that the waking beast of English nationalism has partly filled.” Islamophobia since 9/11 and British involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan helps fill that vacuum. But most significant, perhaps, is the BNP’s skillful recasting of multiculturalism “with its focus on inequality as an issue of race. BNP propaganda has tapped into this recasting of white working-class people as an oppressed ethnic minority, allowing it to appropriate anti-racist language.” But this cynical manipulation of the categories developed by the multiculturalists “is one of the consequences of eliminating class from our understanding of inequality—because a group like the BNP can simply argue that it is defending the rights of whites in a multicultural society, just as others might defend the rights of Muslims or black people.”
As with previous media-spawned visions of barbarians at the gates, Jones points out that a similar caricature of these areas where the BNP made inroads is equally false, and that there are “many who are disgusted with the BNP and have gone out of their way to welcome immigrants…” A perception of real incompetence (one which has similarly undermined support for the far right in France, Germany and elsewhere in Europe) helped reverse support for the BNP, and in the 2010 elections the Labour Party won back all the seats they had lost in these areas, even while it was being trounced nationally. But this hardly offers a solution, as Jones acknowledges: “the grievances that spurred on the BNP upsurge are greater than ever.” It is “just the tip of the iceberg of the great anti-immigrant backlash of the early twenty-first century.” Anti-immigrant sentiment increases the lower one goes in the class hierarchy.
An illustrative episode of media distortion occurred in January 2009 when workers at the Lindsey oil refinery struck in January 2009, supported by sympathy strikes in half a dozen other towns. “This was not supposed to happen in twenty-first century Britain.” The media seized on some signs calling for “British jobs for British workers,” a slogan that had initially been dropped by none other than Gordon Brown at Labour’s 2007 party conference. But in reality “the demands of the strike committee included the unionization of immigrant labour, trade union assistance for immigrant workers and the building of links with construction workers on the continent. This was the opposite of a racist strike.” Jones takes apart the official statistics to show that it is not true that “immigrants are taking other people’s jobs.” Despite the steady erosion of traditional, skilled jobs, “no mainstream voice [has] put this in the context of globalization and a lack of government support for manufacturing.” (And, given the portrait Jones has developed in other contexts, why would such a voice emerge in the mainstream?) The slight impact of immigration on wages ironically most affected “former immigrants, because they would be competing for jobs that did not require ‘language fluency, cultural knowledge, or local experience.’ ” “Wages have been stagnating or declining for millions of workers, even before the recession hit. Immigration is a long way down the list of reasons why…But the ‘race to the bottom’ at the heart of modern globalization and the lack of trade union rights are not issues that politicians have any interest in addressing…This backlash against immigration has led many to conclude that the ‘white working class’ in racist. In reality, the working class is far more ethnically mixed than the rest of the population.”
Identity Politics Rooted in the “Eternalization” of the Status Quo
“The class politics of the wealthy has proved extraordinarily effective at demolishing its opponents,” Jones concludes, with both parties brandishing the Thatcherite slogan “There is no alternative.” New Labour manhandled the declining unions in its ranks, and, especially with Tony Blair’s ascendancy in 1994, was able “to impose the Thatcherite settlement” on the party. Thatcher herself said (as we have noted previously, but it bears repeating) “when asked what her greatest achievement was…without hesitation: ‘Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds.’ ” The collapse of the ex-Soviet bloc in 1989–1991 played its role as well. One former Labour Cabinet minister said “[s]omehow, post-1989, a whole bunch of things were defined as, if not insane, then at least slightly far-fetched…” Labour calculated that working-class people, hostile as they may be to New Labour and its changes, “would have nowhere else to go.” But in reality the lower strata of the working class simply sat on its hands, put an “X” on its ballots, or voted for nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales. Labour has, all in all, lost five million votes. Whatever bones New Labour in power threw to working people were funded with “cash flowing from the City.”
But currents to the left of Labour, “even remnants of revolutionary socialism,” have shifted “from class politics to identity politics over the last thirty years…Identity politics still felt radical and had achievable aims: history actually seemed to be on the side of those fighting for the emancipation of women, gays and ethnic minorities. New Labour co-opted these issues, to the extent they ever resisted such co-optation. New Labour pursued the “laudable goal” of increasing the number of women candidates standing for Parliament, but the result was “promoting middle-class women with professional backgrounds rather than candidates sharing the backgrounds of working-class women: in low-paid, part-time, service sector jobs.” George Galloway’s Respect Party came out strongly against Islamophobia after 2001, but it “did not pitch to working-class people as a whole…class politics was abandoned for communalist politics.” The left turned to international politics like opposing wars in the Middle East because it, like New Labour forces to its right, had lost touch with working-class issues at home.
A Failure of Imagination
“Yet as a government of millionaires led by an Old Etonian prepares to further demolish the living standards of millions of working-class people, the time has rarely been so ripe for a new wave of class politics…the biggest issue in British politics today is the crisis of working-class representation…” This, for Jones, cannot be a return to the politics of the 1970s; “the old smokestack factory skyline has gone…A new movement has to speak to a more fragmented, largely non-unionized workforce marked by job insecurity and growing numbers of part-time and temporary workers.” Exclusive focus on the workplace has to be combined with community organizing as well, something the BNP, “in its own perverse way” understood.
Jones’s book, despite much material illuminating the “dark underside,” in both objective and subjective terms, in working class life of the mainly economic process described by Comfort, ends with a thud, revealing his lack of understanding of the full dimensions of the crisis he—again like Comfort—portrays in many ways empirically. Jones’s “program” hardly goes beyond a warmed-over renewal of social democracy, let alone calling for the abolition of the capitalist mode of production. He asks what a new class-based politics would look like today, and points to a redefinition of “aspiration,” “improving people’s communities and bettering the conditions of the working class as a whole…” He even points to Barack Obama’s 2008 electoral strategy of the “extension of the electorate” as a model to be followed, “regardless of how this movement was then squandered” (!). A renewed class-based movement should get beyond a problematic workplace focus and “establish roots in communities as well,” as if the workplace focus of the pre-Thatcherite left and far-left was not limited and wrong-headed even then. A further demand “must surely be for decent, skilled, secure, well-paid jobs.” For 150 years, pace Jones, the abolition of the wage system has been on the agenda of any working-class movement worthy of the name, not to mention “the radical reduction of the working day” which Marx made front and center part of the revolutionary program, a reduction all the more possible today with the tens of millions of unproductive workers created by contemporary capitalism. Affordable housing construction linked to an environmental perspective: who can be against that? But with the capitalist laws of ground rent in place, and the environmental destruction that flows directly from the imperatives of accumulation, how is this to come about, except as a capitalism with a green veneer? For Jones, this is “class politics with a green tinge.”
Jones points out that the disappearance of “cleaners, rubbish collectors, bus drivers, supermarket checkout staff and secretaries” would bring society to a halt, whereas society would be a lot better off with the disappearance of “highly paid advertising executives, management consultants and private equity directors.” And yet how many assumptions about true social necessity are packed into virtually every working-class job Jones cites? The call to give “workers genuine control and power in the workplace” and “genuine democracy” in the economy, hardly deals with the imperative of the vast transformation of social activity and the abolition of much of what the contemporary world calls “work” once labor power ceases to be a commodity. Jones calls for a “redistribution of wealth” without asking for a moment what this “wealth” is or could be, as in Marx’s formulation that free time is the true human wealth. He calls for a renewal of the unions, which will presumably be negotiating the price of labor power in the new dispensation, as they always have in the past, “be wages high or low,” even if, as Jones advocates, they link up with workers in countries such as India and China.
In sum, what Marx said of Proudhon could equally apply to Jones: he sees in poverty only poverty, not the “dark underside” that subverts existing conditions. Jones is quite right, in a blinkered way, that a renewal of the project of the “left” is a crying imperative today, but that requires, among other things, drawing a balance sheet of the crimes of that “left,” Communist, Socialist, Labourite, New Deal Democrat, and the “far left” (Trotskyist, Maoist et al.) which has given such movements “critical support” at crucial junctures. It means understanding, as neither Jones nor Comfort, in their very different problematics, do not, that this crisis is a global crisis, it is a crisis of the inability of the world capitalist system to materially reproduce humanity. Further, it will only be resolved by a world revolution which abolishes the very foundations of capitalism, or else by an intensification of the four-decade onslaught of capital to restore its profitability, whatever the dire consequences for the material reproduction of the world.