What's happening to the working class?

It has become fashionable among contemporary bourgeois historians and sociologists to belittle the role of the working class by claiming that it has been diminished in size and influence. Some even venture as far as declaring that the working class no longer exists. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mick Brooks answered these points in an article that was originally published in November 1996 in the British Socialist Appeal.

It has become fashionable among contemporary bourgeois historians and sociologists to belittle the role of the working class by claiming that it has been diminished in size and influence. Some even venture as far as declaring that the working class no longer exists. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mick Brooks answered these points in an article that was originally published in November 1996 in the British Socialist Appeal.

What is the working class? According to the ‘Communist Manifesto,’ the founding document of the Marxist movement, it is ‘the class of modern wage-labourers, who having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour power in order to live.’

Class is therefore defined by your relation to the means of production. The capitalist class makes its living by owning. The working class makes its living by earning. Workers in the public sector are certainly working class, though they are not directly exploited by a boss.

Workers such as electricians may move easily from public to private sector contracts. Others may find themselves in the private sector while doing exactly the same work as before because of privatisation, such as contract cleaners or coal miners.

Because the dividing lines between the classes inevitably have blurred edges, academics have experimented with alternative definitions to the Marxist one. Some sociologists have been tempted to use lifestyles as the basis. Now lifestyles are important. We socialists know that miners are working class. More important, miners are well aware that they are working class. Even the people sitting in offices trying to sell miners a new brand of washing powder know they're working class. For the most part they live in traditional working class communities.

The post war sociologists, however, got things upside down. They knew the traditional working class lived in working class communities. When they saw new sections of the class, such as car workers in Luton, moving out of what were seen as traditional working class communities, they decided that these workers were becoming middle class. In fact car workers have been one of the most militant and conscious sections of the workforce since the Second World War


A common sense definition of class would suggest that it’s about how much money you've got. But what we’re really interested in is not so much how much money you get but where you get your money from. There are quite wide differentials in pay levels between different sections of the working class, though nobody ever got rich through hard work, and your ‘decent wages’ are peanuts to a capitalist. Often the more well-to-do workers are the most militant - that’s how they managed to build up a relatively decent standard of living.

Another definition of class is by occupation. This is how the Registrar General divides us into C1s, C2s and whatever. This definition is also shot through with holes. For instance ‘skilled manual workers’ includes both employed and the self-employed.

Manufacturing is certainly the heartland of surplus value production for capitalism. But the manufacturing sector, which employed over 8 million in the 1970s now has employment figures dipping below 5 million.

This is ‘deindustrialisation.’ What does it mean for the strength and cohesion of the modern working class? As we shall see, the working class, which is a product of capitalism, is continually changing along with the system that produces it.

Deindustrialisation is a complex phenomenon which appears to be going on in all the advanced capitalist countries - but much faster in Britain. There are three possible explanations for deindustrialisation. The first is that we all want to spend much more of our money on services. This was the basis for the Tory claim ten years ago that ‘manufacturing doesn't matter’ (a convenient theory in view of the fact that British industry was nuked under the stewardship of the Tories). Services were to be the wave of the future, and by deindustrialising faster than anyone else we were staking our claim in the sun! As we've pointed out elsewhere there’s no evidence that a big country like Britain can exist without manufacturing. In addition services is a non-definition, and services can’t be separated out from other sectors. A holiday abroad counts as selling a service but depends critically on the aerospace industry and the construction industry at the other end to make it a reality. In any case the fact is we don’t spend any less on manufactures than we did in 1979.

The second explanation is that we’re getting better and better at producing manufactures, so less people can produce all we need. It is certainly true that manufacturing is the sector of the economy where productivity is rising fastest. Between 1979 and 1989 labour productivity in manufacturing rose by 4.7% a year. As a result at the end of the decade each worker was producing 50% more than at the beginning. But no more manufactured goods were produced in Britain. All that happened was that less workers produced about the same amount as in 1979 - jobless growth. Now it’s worth thinking about that for a moment - there are certainly less workers in manufacturing industry these days. But they haven’t lost any of their power. Manufacturing workers, despite their declining numbers, are still just as important to the capitalist system.

That leaves explanation number three. True, all the major countries are deindustrialising, but not as fast as Britain. The reason is British capitalists’ manufacturing failure. People are still buying as many manufactures as before - only they're not British manufactures.


Enough has been said to show that widespread occupational shifts are a normal and inevitable feature of working class life - and the process is speeding up. But what of the middle class? We have divided society into those that own and those that earn. In Marx’s time the petty bourgeoisie was a class that both owned its own means of production and worked upon them for a living - and they were by far the most numerous class in all continental countries. They made their way as small craftsmen or independent peasants. Smallholders in both industry and agriculture are wiped out by capitalist progress. It may have been possible to own a few tools and set up as a shoemaker a hundred years ago. These days a volume car plant is likely to cost £700 millions!

Even as late as the 1950s when the common market was set up 20% of the population of Europe was making a living from their own small farms. That figure is now 2-3% in all the main Western countries. Farming is now big business.

Is there a new middle class based among white collar workers? As capital got bigger, it needed more organising. As it became more high tech, it required more technicians. There has been an explosive growth of the so-called service sector throughout the twentieth century.

The mushrooming of the white collar area of employment has meant that the divide in status has in many cases been completely eroded and is constantly under attack. The vast majority of white collar jobs that have opened up offer their occupants no privileges. They are some of the most low paid and insecure going. The people who take them are for the most part daughters and sons of industrial workers who know there are no longer factory jobs for them to go to. These people are working class, and more and more they know it.

The analysis of the changing world of work in terms of disappearing factory jobs and an ever-expanding undifferentiated service sector therefore conceals as much as it reveals. There have been historically two different types of white collar occupation - the white collar proletariat and the so-called professional middle class.

Now both of these are actually working class but their experience of work in the past has been different. This is not a new feature of capitalist life. In the nineteenth century there was a clear divide between craft workers and the unskilled. Characteristically there may have been a pay differential of 2:1 between workers with a five year apprenticeship and the rest. As we shall see, for much of the latter half of the nineteenth century craft workers kept trade union traditions alive in this country. In fact skilled engineering workers came increasingly under attack at the turn of the century with the introduction of new technology and management techniques (sound familiar?). Skilled engineering workers spearheaded many of the enormous waves of class struggle that swept the country around the First World War and made up a disproportionate number of the industrial militants that went on to found the British Communist Party.

The difference with craft workers was that they had a monopoly of their own skill. Nobody could tell them to work faster - they could control the pace of their own work. For capital, relentlessly trying to raise the rate of exploitation, that is bad news. That is why there is a tendency for capitalism to attempt to displace skills. The problem is that the trend to deskilling tends to cause skills to pop up elsewhere. They can replace skilled workers on the assembly line with robots - but somebody has to write the computer programme for it to happen.

For decades the professional ‘middle class’ could kid themselves that they weren't workers. Like the craft workers nobody could tell them what to do at work. They could work at their own pace. Now the very mechanisms that destroyed craft ‘privilege’ are being deployed against the professionals.

Assembly line

Teachers are no longer dealing with kids - they are handling inputs, outputs and value added. This grotesque misuse of the English language has its uses. It brings teachers into the world of the assembly line, subject to Ofsted just like factory time and motion people, with the equivalent of stop watches and clipboards. Librarians, doctors and social workers are routinely treated to annual productivity surveys as if they were banging out widgets. Together with negative equity in the housing market, and insecurity over jobs, capital is eroding its own social reserves and forcibly reminding those who really don’t want to hear ‘You are all working class now.’ Proletarianisation is the greatest social trend of the twentieth century.

The definition of class was important to Marx since it was the basic clue to the dynamics of political development and made possible revolutionary struggle for a new socialist form of society. Workers were bound to become conscious of their class interests. ‘It is not a question of what this or that proletarian or even the whole proletariat at any moment regards as its aim. It is a question of what the proletariat is and what in accordance with this being it will historically be compelled to do’. As we have seen the working class is not a homogeneous lump all at the same level of consciousness - it is a series of layers.

How do we assess the development of class consciousness? One measure - not the only one, but an important one for socialists - is the development of trade unionisation. Workers who have decided that they and their boss’s interests are bound to collide are on the way to thinking that the working class and the boss class have nothing in common. For forty years after the revolutionary Chartist period, from around 1850 to 1889, the only stable trade union organisations in this country were the craft unions. Sure, class consciousness was limited. The unions generally supported the Liberal Party. In many respects they operated as friendly societies in the absence of a welfare state, offering sickness and unemployment benefit. Remember when you get junk mail from your trade union offering car insurance, this is nothing new. It is actually a return to ancient traditions the movement outgrew before and will do so again. Since craft unions had a monopoly of their skill, they didn't need a picket line to get ‘the rate for the job.’ The union just passed the word round till the recalcitrant boss saw sense. Strikes were rare. There was one great certainty. It was impossible to organise the unskilled into unions because the unemployed would always be called upon to scab.

Then it happened. Around 1889 a new generation of generally socialist trained militants challenged this conventional wisdom. Picket lines and mass actions were the way to organise the unskilled.

How they cracked it has been dealt with in this issue of ‘Socialist Appeal.’ But the sequel is also instructive, though sobering. The gains of this monumental upheaval gradually eroded over the following decade. Trade union membership hardly grew at all during the1890s. Even where the gains hung on by a thread, the new general unions survived by offering friendly society services and more and more making a pitch at the craft workers within their ranks.

The American Federation of Labor was in a bad way in the 1920s, but it hung on in there among craft workers organised in small plants. Sidney Hillman's Amalgamated Clothing Workers was typical. The big new factories in industries such as cars and steel were regarded as unorganisable. They were run by a combination of paternalism and violence with hordes of company spies on the shop floor. Indeed Ford’s showcase River Rouge plant at Dearborn didn't fall to the United Auto Workers till 1941 for these reasons. Again a new generation of organisers had to try a new way. By the time of the Second World War millions of American workers had joined new industrial, not craft unions, that represented the bedrock of the movement.

After the War capitalism tapped in to its reserve army of women workers. From an old generation of male chauvinist trade unionists we heard speeches exactly like those of craft union leaders a hundred years before. ‘Women only work for pin money’ (whatever that is). ‘We’ll never get them in trade unions.’ Of course the very next surge of mass unionisation in the 1960s and 1970s turned to a new generation of white collar workers where female employment is heavily concentrated. This surge took the trade union movement to a historic peak of over twelve million members. In its time it was as significant as the big push in 1889, or the huge wave of strikes around the First World War, or the mass organisation of American workers into industrial unions in the late 1930s.


Once again we’re in a period of prolonged downswing for union membership. From a peak of over twelve million members in the 1970s TUC affiliations are now down to around seven million. The reason for this is to be sought in the end of the great post-War boom after 1973 and the intensification of class struggle on the shop floor as a result.

Take manufacturing. We pointed out earlier that 1979-89 was a decade of jobless growth, with the same output being wrung out of less and less workers. Productivity in manufacturing went up by 4.7% every year over the decade on average. Perhaps this was because of a much-needed retooling of the antiquated old junk that passes for investment equipment? No chance. Net (i.e. new, as against replacement) investment went up by only 0.6% a year over the same period, and was actually negative for 1981-84 inclusive. That’s not all. A recent article in the ‘Economic Journal’ reckons that net manufacturing investment over the decade was only one seventh of its pre-1973 average. Mass unemployment and the tearing up of workers’ protection laws under the Tories put workers under the hammer. There was an enormous intensification of labour - no new equipment, just making employees work harder with no legal redress and the threat of being cast on to the dole queues. Workers today are under the thumbscrews of management.

The buzzword for this assault is ‘labour market flexibility’. Viewed in textbook supply and demand terms unemployment is an excess supply of workers. The reason for excess supply is that workers are charging too much for their services. If the price of labour power goes down, employers will be able to afford to take more workers on. So ‘workers are pricing themselves out of jobs’ as Chancellor Lawson told us ten years ago.

The Tories have been kind enough to help us by making the labour market more flexible. Truth to tell, their list of ‘reforms’ is just one long attack on workers’ rights. They have emasculated the unions through anti-union laws. They have whittled away protection against unfair dismissal and abolished it altogether for millions of workers. They have abolished the Wages Councils, which provided minimal guarantees of pay rates for the lowest paid. They have torn up laws restricting the hours women and children can work. Maternity rights are the worst in Europe. They have relentlessly cut benefits to force people to find work, however ill-paid and unsuitable. All this ‘flexibility’ and we still have mass unemployment, which acts as a whip against the employed population. Tories trumpet Britain as the ‘enterprise centre of Europe’. In reality they want to change us from workshop of the world to sweatshop of the world.

How far have they got? The proportion of the working population in full time permanent employment has fallen from 56% to 36% over the past twenty years - just over a third. Nine million have lost their jobs since the 1992 election. True the majority have found other work, but not under the same conditions. Part time jobs and temporary contracts have proliferated, giving capital a whip hand against labour.


And it’s true. British workers do switch jobs more than, for instance, Germans. Does this mean they're more flexible? Not really. Germany has evolved a high wage, high productivity economy since the War. Because they have to pay decent wages, the capitalist class there has to make sure it gets productive work (not just sweated labour). So they provide training. Workers then stay with the firm because they can earn more than anywhere else.

Britain has a notoriously low level of skills training. So the British concept of labour market flexibility means you can move around and take any job - as long as it’s unskilled. It offers a future of ‘MacJobs’, flipping burgers. Is that the way British capitalism intends to compete in the next millennium?


Management are also putting the boot in to get more flexibility within the workplace. War has been declared on the old demarcation of jobs between production workers and maintenance. Here the buzzword is multi-skilling. Both assembly line workers and cleaners are productive workers in the Marxist sense, since both are part of the ‘collective worker’. In other words, if cleaners were not at work, the assembly line would have to keep stopping. Contrary to management mythology that lines of demarcation were imposed by over-mighty unions, it used to make a lot of sense to keep the two activities separate. Since craft workers were paid about twice as much as the unskilled in the Victorian era, it didn't make much sense for management to pay them to sweep the floor. Now that’s all out of the window.

Many of the changes taking place in the world of work are inspired by the undoubted success of Japanese capitalism since the War - a success which now has a huge question mark placed over it by the prolonged recession there of the 1990s. In fact most of the management techniques regarded as typically Japanese were pioneered in the USA. Just-in-time (JIT) production is one. It is usually contrasted to the old ‘just in case’ approach, where the factory stores held a multitude of spares. JIT was possible because the big Japanese companies leaned on their small suppliers and forced them to take up any slack in production, sometimes insisting on parts being delivered on the hour as requested. In addition British firms often carried enormous stocks of warehoused finished goods. We can see this as inefficient, as in effect a lot of money is sitting in a warehouse, but it did have its advantages for management. For instance in the old Wolf electric tools plant in Perivale any shop steward contemplating strike action had to weigh up the fact that the employers could live for months off the revenues from selling finished stocks without losing money. JIT on the other hand means that any halt in production is immediately generalised. It therefore hands quite small groups of workers enormous potential industrial muscle.

The Tories, who claim industrial policy is a dirty socialist trick, actually have a very clear industrial policy in one regard. Two fifths of all Japanese inward investment into Europe comes here. Surveys show this is because Japanese capitalists fear a fortress Europe putting up the tariff barriers to their goods in future. The Tories encourage this investment by bunging huge wads of money at these companies. In effect they hope to import Japanese style industrial relations with the investments, clustered in silicon glen, the north-east, south Wales and north Wales near Merseyside. Management intends to transform the relation between themselves and the workforce into one of master and slave by starting afresh on greenfield sites, and the Tories hope local capitalists will find the example catching.

This is all the more important to the employers, since the counter offensive against labour actually hasn't transformed attitudes on the shop floor yet. No doubt we have seen a big decline in union membership since the 1970s. But unlike the late 1920s and early 1930s this is not because workers have torn up their cards, or run for the cover of company unions. What has happened is that millions of workers with the union habit have lost their jobs in organised workplaces because of redundancies or closure. Most have got some sort of alternative employment, but in a non-unionised sector under worse conditions. It takes time for consciousness to catch up. Likewise in the existing downsized manufacturing plants management have not been able to steam in and create the servile multi-skilled workforce they want. An Income Data Services Report, for example, is entitled ‘The myth of the flexible firm’.


Why are we under attack now? Our answer is that capitalism is now in crisis, and it tries to unload the effects on to the working class. During the great post-War boom from about 1948 to 1973 living standards of workers and the amount of profit for capitalists all went up year on year - everyone was a winner. An alternative explanation is that we are now entering the age of ‘post-Fordist’ capitalism, or flexible specialisation in production as it is sometimes known. This new era is contrasted to the old ‘Fordist’ production methods which characterised the post-War boom. Fordism was defined by mass production and mass consumption. As is well known, Henry Ford didn't invent the motor car, but he was the first to apply assembly line methods to mass produce it. He was so determined to reap scale economies, that he wouldn't even allow cars to be sprayed different colours - all Model T Fords were painted black. Ford also realised that if he was going to sell all these cars, then somebody out there would have to have the money to buy them, and so he paid his own workers over the odds. (The truth is a bit more complex. The assembly line hell in Ford’s first factories created a huge labour turnover. He had to up wages to hold on to workers.)

What the advocates of post-Fordism are in effect saying is that the post-War boom was an unstable equilibrium. Because of relatively full employment, workers were able to improve their living standards each year. This was resented by the capitalist class, but they had no reason to pick a fight. Rising living standards provided a mass market for consumer durables such as cars, which for the first time came within the reach of millions of workers. Profits were very healthy, and the class struggle was moderated.

Now that’s all gone. The new age is characterised by segmented markets, and as a result production is done in batches in smaller plants. It’s true that new technology can give marketing people the ability to identify relatively small groups of customers and target them directly. These days cars come in all colours. Its easy to look at the production of cars and consumer electronics as typical of an age just past. Actually the work process of society doesn't divide up so neatly. When this country was the workshop of the world, the four great staple export industries were textiles, steel, shipbuilding and coal. Coal mining has always been prisoner to the geology of the individual pit. Textile mills in the last century would often specialise in sari materials or the production of African prints. Shipbuilding has always been one-off ‘batch’ production. Even steel, a classical mass production industry by its nature, was often attuned to particular customers such as shipbuilders or steam train rails. So was the Victorian age post-Fordist?

The construction industry has always basically produced custom built units, and the core technology has hardly changed for two hundred years. As a result employment has remained broadly stable at just over a million workers for the past quarter century - though not from week to week or year to year as any building worker will tell you. Manufacturing patterns can’t be fitted into the Fordist or post-Fordist straitjackets.

Are capitalist firms getting smaller, as the post-Fordist theory would suggest? One of the firmest conclusions of Marxist theory, and one most solidly backed up the developments of the past century is that ‘one capitalist kills many’. Competition between different capitalists leads to the concentration and centralisation of capital. The growth of big capital in turn leads to the supersession of competition and the era of monopoly capital. There is some evidence that plant sizes in this country have got smaller on average over the last twenty years. It was the biggest factories that went to the wall in the deep recessions of 1979-81 and 1990-92. It is also the case that the rapid productivity gains since the 1980s mean that plants are a lot less crowded with workers. In 1979 we produced about 12 million tons of steel with 200,000 workers. Now this country makes the same amount - but with less than 50,000.


While plants may be getting smaller, firms are still getting bigger and bigger. Ownership of production is becoming more concentrated, even if the production process itself doesn't need bigger factories. A few weeks ago the headlines proclaimed ‘358 billionaires own more assets than nearly (the poorer) half of the world’s people’. A glance at the financial pages of any paper sees the news dominated by takeovers and mergers, breaking new records every year.

The post-Fordist theory puts it all down to technology - new technology to identify the market segments and smart technology to customise the production process. The changes that have undoubtedly taken place in the workplace are not triggered by information technology. As we showed earlier, British capitalists are not investing huge amounts on IT, whether to torment us at work or for any other reason. Obviously the ubiquitous computer is one of the most obvious changes to have happened in the workplace. Technology is an enabler. For the most part computers have been deployed to do pretty menial filing of information. One of its great advantages for management is that it can supply data on output and monitor the productivity of the worker using it. The fact remains - productivity and investment in the economy as a whole went ahead much faster during the great post-War boom than it has done since. As the Keynesian economist Solow says, ‘I see information technology everywhere - except in the productivity figures.’

Deindustrialisaton and the switch to the service sector has meant the creation of millions of new jobs, though not enough to get rid of mass unemployment. But what sort of jobs? Most of the new jobs have been created in the service sector (a phrase we’re lumbered with) and these white collar jobs pay an average 25% less than the manufacturing jobs they’ve replaced. Full time permanent jobs, mainly for men have been replaced with part time temporary jobs, very often for women. The ever-present threat of the sack and the existence of millions on the dole has given management their big chance. 44% of temps say they're temping because they couldn't get a permanent proper job. The same with part time working. The majority of part time male workers want a full time job. But most part timers are women and say they want to work part time. They say so because they know child care and nursery facilities in this country are some of the most diabolical in Europe. Some of these contracts, such as those offered by Burtons, are zero hours - in other words don’t call us, hang by the phone till we call you. The beauty of temporary and part time working for management is that employment rights are out of the window. We have also seen a rush to turn permanent posts into temporary contracts. Some people have been working temporarily for our local council for the last ten years. But they still have no pension rights, no holiday entitlement, and no sick pay. Another way to put workers under the hammer is compulsory competitive tendering (CCT) and contracting out. Very often this strategy applies to low tech or no tech sectors such as hospital cleaning or bus driving. The only gain is that existing contracts are torn up and new terms imposed. No real efficiency gains are yielded - privatised bus drivers can still only drive one bus.

Worst in the EU

Point for point, working conditions in Britain are the most ‘flexible’ - that is the most insecure and the worst in the EU. The UK is the only country in Western Europe with no statutory provision for a daily rest period, no daily restriction on maximum working hours per day, and no enforceable weekly rest period. Average working hours per week in Europe are 39 - in Britain it’s 44. 16% of British workers regularly put in more than 48 hours. In the Netherlands it’s 1.7%. One in four British workers does regular or occasional night work. The next highest percentage - 17% - is in Greece, the common market’s poorest member. In Germany just 9% work nights. Nearly two thirds of British manufacturing workers do shift work - another European record. The next highest is Italy at 46%. In Germany it’s 22%. Only Britain and Italy have no statutory paid holiday.

The inevitable response of a capitalist firm or a capitalist country which has fallen behind its rivals is to blame and crack down on its own working class. It may be an inevitable response, but it’s not an answer. Even if ‘Britain plc’ could claw back market share (and there’s no sign of that happening), that could only be at the expense of its capitalist rivals. They in turn will lash out at their national working class. There’s no end to this game, and no winner either. The strategy of the ruling class is actually a blind alley.

Capital in Britain and the other advanced countries should spell out how low they expect us to go. The world benchmark seems to be China - where hundreds of millions are prepared to work a 14 hour day for £1. It is a simple fact that we cannot compete with that - even if we wanted to. The only way advanced countries can pay their way in the world is by going upstream, by using our accumulated skills and technology to produce things that poor countries can’t. No doubt about it - British industry is in desperate need of modernisation. But only a socialist plan can accomplish it.