Opinion

With the gutting and offshoring of Western industrial capitalism, the class order has been reversed. Knowledge production is at the centre of our economy and culture, and the industrial working class are, by contrast, multiply diminished. By Guy Rundle.

Guy Rundle
The class shift splitting labour parties

When you have a name such as Tristram Hunt, you’d think your chances of winning a working-class seat in the heart of the British midlands were slim to none. Not so.

Hunt, a rather plummy voiced Oxbridge-educated historian, won the seat of Stoke-on-Trent Central for Labour in 2010, and again in 2015. He may be the poshest Labour representative the constituency has ever had. He also came close to being the last. Hunt resigned in January, ostensibly because the job of being director of the Victoria and Albert Museum came along and was too good to resist. In reality, it was because, as a centrist figure in the party, he was under siege from left-wing supporters of Jeremy Corbyn after voicing his support for various forms of “charter” schooling, among other measures.

But the real reason was that good or bad, left or right, Hunt believed himself very likely to lose the seat for Labour at the next general election – and lose it badly. Hunt was a keen backer of the “Remain” campaign in the recent European Union referendum, and Stoke-on-Trent, centre of English pottery, near where George Eliot put Middlemarch, voted 70 per cent to leave, the highest “Leave” vote from a mid-size city in the country. The people of Stoke don’t want the EU, and to Hunt it seemed they might not want Labour anymore, with polling suggesting that the seat would be won in the February 23 byelection by Paul Nuttall, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party.

That this was even thinkable is a measure of the crisis Labour and social democratic parties find themselves in worldwide. Labour shouldn’t need to be fighting in the north, especially as it is under threat in many other former strongholds.

London aside, Labour has almost vanished from the south of England; in Scotland, it is now the third party, behind the Scottish National Party and the Tories, the former having taken its economic nationalism, the latter, under the leadership of Ruth Davidson, an “out” lesbian, much of its social message.

For nearly half a century Labour, like the Australian Labor Party, has managed to hold together a coalition of its old working-class base, whose core values remain nationalist, local and concrete in their affiliations, and the rising new class of knowledge and cultural producers, whose values are globalist, cosmopolitan and abstract. This worked because the working class remained numerically and economically dominant and the knowledge class remained committed to leftish, social democratic economics.

With the gutting and offshoring of Western industrial capitalism, the class order has been reversed. Knowledge production is at the centre of our economy and culture, and its producers in Australia have a party in the Greens that represents them explicitly.

The industrial working class, who have been at the centre of Western politics throughout the 20th century, are, by contrast, multiply diminished. The value of un- and semi-skilled physical labour is plummeting and their numbers are dwindling. The class is fracturing between property-owning, superannuation-holding winners and the steadily losing, precariously employed. And their culture is increasingly being assailed as sexist, racist and offensive.

The culture-producing class increasingly produce arts and culture for themselves. Where a small number of TV, music, filmmakers and so on once had to please a mass audience of perhaps 75 per cent of the population, they now produce niche products for their high-spending, advertiser-prized 25 per cent base, filled with the stories and obsessions of that class (at present, principally, tales of heroic journeys of self around gender identity and sexuality). You can see this transformation in miniature in the change in United States awards nights over the decades. What were once occasions that used glamour, fame and luxury as propaganda for the status quo are now tiresome festivals of liberal self-congratulation for moral superiority, a closed circle of audience and performers, an enforcement of class cultural power.

Still, all this could be held together as a political coalition while the going was good, and the West was enjoying a debt-fuelled consumer boom – borrowing from its future to plug the gap created by the erosion of production – and the steady decline of wage-purchasing power. But in 2008, with the GFC, that all came apart, and this grand postwar progressive coalition began its long divorce.

In the US and Britain, the decree nisi came a while back, and the decree absolute is on the horizon. The culture- and knowledge-producing classes – so dominated by progressive causes around gender and race that the term “progressive class” is easier – have become steadily less interested in a real transformation of a privatised, neoliberal economy. After all, they have done quite well out of it. They are less and less concerned with the steady degradation of working-class and lower-middle class conditions, community resources and social power over recent decades.

For the others, the implicit promise of the neoliberal revolution of the 1990s was that old jobs would be replaced by new jobs, retraining, shared hours, flexible leave and education. In northern Europe, it was. Everywhere else, especially Britain and the US, it was a raw deal. The much-vaunted “recovery” in the US has masked a change in employment from full-time to casual and short hours, and the departure of millions from employment altogether.

The discontent has been brewing for years. The Brexit referendum and the rise of Donald Trump gave it a focus that has effectively transformed class politics in the West. The political right are recomposing themselves to meet the challenge. UKIP was until recently led by Nigel Farage, a tweedy, braying toby jug of a man, a Thatcherite former city trader, who also turned out to be the most astute and successful insurgent politician in the past half-century. He has now departed the party on a high note, which has allowed it to change its image and personnel, increasingly drawing on former Labour voters in the north as candidates.

In the US, Steve Bannon, the hard-right svengali of Trump’s campaign, wants to push through a trillion-dollar public-funded infrastructure rebuilding program, one pretty identical to the infrastructure bank proposed by Barack Obama and denied him by a Republican congress. In the interests of power, that same congress may now accede to Bannon’s proposal. If so, this will see a relocation of large sections of the US working class to the right, in a way more decisive than the political shifts of the so-called Nixon Democrats and Reagan Democrats of the ’60s and ’80s. The postwar progressive coalition will be decisively ended.

As this occurs both classes may lose some of the degree of cultural crossover that occurred when they were allied in the labour movement. At its best that may mean a revival of localism and solidarity and a non-pernicious nationalism – it’s the enforcement of globalisation that is producing a great deal of the racism and xenophobia bubbling up at the moment. But the danger for the progressive class is that, finding themselves in the novel position of being revolted against, they will retreat into an outright and explicit elitism and disdain, and elevate that as a positive position.

The Australian feminist Clementine Ford, in writing a rather sick-making open letter to “Madame President Clinton” in the Fairfax papers, observed that many people had voted for Trump for reasons of alleged economic insecurity et cetera. Ford’s response: “F--- those people.” The sentiment at least has the virtues of honesty and succinctness. Since a clear majority – about 55 per cent – of non-college-educated women voters, white and non-white, voted for Trump, the intent of this invective is unmistakeable. The progressive class is all that matters; women Trump voters aren’t voting for their interests, perceived or real, they’re simply suffering from “internalised misogyny”. It’s emblematic of an attitude that will widen the divide between progressives and the working class.

Labour parties everywhere are caught in the middle of this messy process. Their leaderships may be economically left or right, but they are all globalist and cosmopolitan, simply with different emphases. The progressive class in Britain is riven by the fight between Jeremy Corbyn and the legacy of Tony Blair; much of its base sees them as similar on key issues such as a commitment to high immigration, multiculturalism and a borderless world, except that Blair looked like a leader and Corbyn looks like a mature-age student.

In Australia, the division between Labor’s elite and its base will crack wide open under the pressure of even a mild recession. Labor’s frontbench and tame intellectuals rail against the Greens because they know that much of the base perceive the Labor elite to be like the Greens, and, in personal style, predilection and social politics, many of them are. Labor is desperate to practise a bit of brand differentiation for the suburbs, while sucking up to would-be Greens voters in the inner-city seats they are petrified of losing forever. It’s an ungainly pose, which can’t be sustained for much longer. Greens voters will become more globalist with every passing year, even if many reject the neoliberal version of it. Labor will be fighting street by street against a nationalist right – the only reason they aren’t already is because our nationalist right appears to be the most shambolic and neurotic in the Western world.

Brexit will deliver nothing for the people of Stoke, except the loss of European markets for their boutique pottery industry, which survived there, in part, due to an EU regeneration grant. Trump, and Marine Le Pen, the highly possible next president of France, may well deliver some large-scale grassroots revival and a recentring on national culture that many people seek – and of course if Hillary Clinton had been elected, we would be fighting for our lives against a revived TPP trade deal, a job killer over there, and a missile aimed at affordable pharmaceuticals (among other things) over here. For many people on what were the left and right, there are no good options in mainstream politics at the moment.

Beyond all this? What is bearing down on everyone is the force that will render much of this politics the last act of a late era of modernity, and that is mass automation. It is already here, simply being held back by regulation and the fear of it by many in the commanding heights of capital. What they once welcomed as innovation, they can now see clearly will create a crisis of markets, circulation and demand for consumption goods. But sooner or later, it will break through. Fast food, transport, retail – all the sectors of large-scale employment are those most likely to be transformed by automation. It will, tsunami-like, sweep up labour parties, right-wing populism, the distinctive fusion of green politics and much more, and smash them down again, unrecognisable. No major political party or figure is even slightly ready to deal with the “exciting times” coming, least of all the irrelevant nonentity of our current prime minister.

Labour threw everything and the kitchen sink at the byelection and Stoke didn’t go to the “Kippers” – how delightful that UKIP is nicknamed after a British breakfast food no other culture would go near – but UKIP and a Eurosceptic Tory together gained more than 50 per cent of the vote. If Labour can’t relax here, they can’t relax anywhere. Labour and social democratic parties urgently need to reconstruct themselves, if they want to remain in the hunt.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 4, 2017 as "Loves labour’s lost". Subscribe here.

Guy Rundle
is an author and commentator. His most recent book is Trumped! Election ’16 and the Progressive Collapse.