Class politics cannot be rebuilt, regenerated or rescued today
...so how can we set about changing society? Frank Füredi raises some new questions for our changed times.
Politics today has little in common with the passions and conflicts that have shaped people's commitments and hatreds over the past century. There is no longer room for either the ardent defender of the free market faith, or the robust advocate of revolutionary transformation.
The big issues of the past - the ownership and control of society's wealth, the production and allocation of resources - have been narrowed down to an occasional pleading for the homeless or the extremely frail pensioner. There is still concern about things like unemployment and poverty - but they are increasingly seen as painful facts of life, rather than social and economic problems susceptible to political solutions.
Surveys confirm that the problems which most concern people these days are usually to do with personal behaviour and threats to the individual, rather than broader questions of how society is organised and run. Crime, health and countless forms of abuse seem to exercise the contemporary imagination.
As a result, a mood of weariness informs political debate. Politicians are no longer interested in big ideas about society or socialism v capitalism, which risk causing controversy and division. Instead they tend to stick to the safe moralisms and banalities of the centre ground. Tony Blair articulated this trend during the general election campaign, when he argued that drug abuse was now as important a problem in Britain as poverty had been in the past.
Most attempts to make sense of the profound shifts in political life have proved hopelessly superficial. Instead of rigorous analysis of the underlying trends, too many commentators have chosen to react either by declaring that everything has changed, or by insisting that everything is as it was in the past.
Those who insist that everything has changed like to use terms like the 'End of History', 'post-capitalism', 'information society', to indicate that we live in a world that is fundamentally different to old-fashioned capitalism. These claims are usually backed up with statistical evidence of change. The spread of computers, the rise of the Internet, the increase in service employment, the decline of traditional manufacturing industries, the emergence of new patterns of consumption, have all been offered as proof that we live in a different world. This analytical approach is characterised by the tendency to exaggerate the importance of many new developments, by treating quantitative changes in technical matters as if they indicated a qualitative transformation of society.
The corollary of the tendency to exaggerate the changes taking place is to inflate the problems facing society. We live in an era of permanent panics. Commentators appear to revel in warning their readers about the numerous perils that threaten civilisation. From the water we drink to the most ordinary sexual encounter, it appears that hidden and invisible risks threaten human beings on all sides. This obsession with problems - nothing ever seems to go right - reveals the real meaning of the present day usage of the concept 'change'.
The changes that commentators highlight today are seen as the products of globalised forces beyond human intervention. In this context the inflation of change, and of the dangers involved, is actually a confession that society that has lost control over its direction. According to this model, the world is out of control and there is little that human beings can do to master these developments or influence their destiny. Instead we are surrounded by change in the way that one might be caught in the middle of a tornado. Deprived of choice and options, humanity is forced into a world-view which Margaret Thatcher aptly described as Tina - There Is No Alternative.
Unfortunately the intellectual riposte to Tina is extremely weak. Most of the old radical critics of the system have fallen into the trap of closing their eyes to the real world. As a result, left-wing commentators tend to do little more than repeat the refrain that nothing important has changed. They see the new mood as a temporary aberration that will soon revert to the patterns of the past. They almost seem to take a perverse pleasure in pointing out that there are still people who are poor, and that the capitalist system is still exploitative. Every time a group of workers takes industrial action, the rump of the old left perks up in the expectation that this anticipates the revival of the working class.
The arguments of the nothing-has-changed brigade boil down to the old adage that 'the poor are always with us', or at worst a repetition of the rhetorical question, 'what about the workers?'. This is an approach which implicitly seeks to reassure us that we still live in an unfair world. But its claims to be a radical criticism of the status quo actually obscure a profoundly conservative instinct. Like their more mainstream counterparts, radical thinkers now continually point to the mounting dangers facing human existence. Indeed they are often even more promiscuous in their doom-mongering than are conservative commentators. They revel in stories about X-files style cover-ups over poisoned food, lethal pollutants, new diseases and other threats to human health. The problem is, however, that when everything is treated as a cover-up brought about by secret conspirators, then nothing and nobody gets properly criticised.
It seems that, regardless of their point of departure, commentators of different shades of opinion are now likely to arrive at a strikingly similar conclusion: that the world is an increasingly dangerous, out-of-control place. The target of their concern may differ - some are more anxious about the rise of street crime, while others are obsessed by the variety of abuses that children face. However, such differences in emphasis are resolved through a common belief in the need to extend authoritarian controls. Conflicts of interpretation and ideological commitments do not stand in the way of a consensus that inflates the crisis of society. As a result, the entire spectrum of mainstream politics is devoted to extending the policing of everyday life. All sides share the view that human passions need to be controlled rather than encouraged.
Against this background, the conclusion of almost every discussion is that people are not trustworthy and cannot be expected to live their lives responsibly. The tendency to treat adults as children informs the action of the entire political class. Many of today's major political 'debates' are really an exchange of different proposals about the most effective way to limit human aspirations. Individuals are no longer presented as the 'political man' and still less as members of the 'revolutionary class' of former days. Instead, according to today's political vocabulary, we have the victim, the bullied, the client, the end user, the consumer or the stakeholder. The more passive and restricted role assigned to the client shows how far we have come from the days when the individual was at least rhetorically considered to be a 'political man'.
But what about class?
Class conflict has played a crucial role in the evolution of world politics. Most distinctively modern ideologies have had a strong foundation in the experience and aspirations of a particular class. So it is not surprising that those who remain committed to some form of fundamental social transformation are concerned about the decline of class politics.
Those who are waiting and hoping for a revival of class politics or class solidarity have missed the fundamental changes at work. The past two decades have been marked by the decomposition of class institutions.
Working class institutions like the trade unions have been exposed as empty shells, while important political institutions of the ruling classes, from the monarchy to parliament, have been similarly discredited. The full explanation for this development lies outside the scope of this essay, but the defeat of former political experiments, the exhaustion of political traditions and the erosion of old solidarities have all taken their toll. As a result, individual experiences are now rarely mediated through wider institutions of solidarity. People still live and work near each other, and obviously empathise with one another, but they lack the institutional means to give any meaning to that which binds them together.
The insignificance that people attach to class in a political sense is not the consequence of media manipulation in the way that some on the old left claim. For example, the long-running Liverpool dockers' strike has received little attention from the British media. No doubt national newspaper editors and television producers are not particularly sympathetic to the fate of striking workers. But then, nobody else cares much about them either. The reason why this industrial action is not news is partly because a lot of working people cannot, at this point in time, relate to this experience.
Inevitably, classes still exist in a divided society. But the institutions of solidarity which could give those classes a clear identity and meaning are weak if not non-existent. There are still a few strikes and people do take action in pursuit of their interests. But in the absence of clearly defined arrangements of solidarity, such actions acquire a meaning that falls outside the traditional vocabulary of class. Take the recent example of industrial action by auto workers in Europe. Here were workers of different nationalities, marching alongside each other in Brussels in a display of solidarity. However, their aim was to get support from the EU bureaucracy as much as each other; the coherence of the Brussels business machine probably appeared more useful and relevant to them than their own outmoded organisations.
If you want to see an extreme example of the weakening of old institutional arrangements and solidarities, look to the chaos in Albania. The recent unrest there began with an outburst of anger and resentment against the consequences of free market economics. The people involved were unquestionably working class. Yet in the absence of any institutional or ideological loyalties, the protests turned into a bad case of 'every person for themselves'. It was a mass outburst, but one which developed in a brutally privatised and individuated form. This was not some Balkan mystery, but an illustration in an extreme case of how social conflict can proceed in a situation of dissipated solidarities.
In today's circumstances class politics cannot be reinvented, rebuilt, reinvigorated or rescued. Why? Because any dynamic political outlook needs to exist in an interaction with existing individual consciousness. And contemporary forms of consciousness in our atomised societies cannot be used as the foundation for a more developed politics of solidarity. What most commentators have missed is that it has not only been a class outlook that has declined. The decline of class has been paralleled by a far more important and fundamental process - the decline of subjectivity. A mood has been created which discourages any idea that people can, by interacting with each other and their circumstances, shape their own destinies. Instead of acting as a history-making subject, humanity has effectively been recast in the role of object to which things happen that are beyond all control.
The increasing fragmentation of social experience has had a major impact on people's lives, helping to normalise a more privatised and individuated way of living. Many commentators claim that this more privatised existence has encouraged the development of a thrusting individual consciousness, of the kind they now associate with the 'greedy eighties'.
But they could not be more wrong. Without known points of contact and a reliable system of support, individuation will only encourage a sense of powerlessness. The sense of being on your own and of having to rely on individual solutions has led to a heightened consciousness of isolation. It has had the effect of altering the way that people see their relationship with the world, helping to induce an exaggerated sense of weakness and a fatalistic outlook. The numerous surveys which claim that people expect that the future will be worse than today is symptomatic of this trend. So is the powerful tendency continually to emphasise the negative side of every development. The disappearance of the elusive 'feelgood factor' is but an expression of a mood in which the anticipation of the worst possible outcome has become routine.
The heightened sense of individual insecurity that prevails today cannot be radicalised or harnessed to some kind of emancipatory project. This kind of consciousness can only fluctuate between passivity and a sporadic outburst of fear, of the kind that characterises public reaction to Dunblane or to Aids or to BSE. The coincidence of social passivity with outbursts of anxiety has helped to endow political action with a peculiarly conservative bias. Today's causes tend to be about the politics of survival - ban guns, save the trees, control population. It is ironic that at a time of so-called information revolutions and technological advances, so much of society's imagination seems fixed on the most basic aim of survival for its own sake. The view that little can be taken for granted informs a consciousness that does not trust itself.
The politics of self limitation
Probably the most significant development in the past two decades has been the alteration in the relationship between the individual and society. Individual attitudes are mediated through a complex of institutions and relations; classes are one important relation through which individuals make sense of the world. During the past two centuries, the dynamic of capitalist development and the resistance to it has served to widen people's horizons. Among other developments, it helped to forge a sense of human agency. The development of individual ambition and of a class-based vision of social change often expressed contradictory aspirations. But what such responses had in common was a perception of future possibilities, and the belief that human action could make an important difference.
Today, this human-centred view of the world has been replaced by one in which the range of possible options has been severely narrowed. This is most clearly expressed in the field of politics where, as the general election campaign has made clear, debate has become dull and technical. Politics matters less to people for the very simple reason that what people can do does not matter. This sense of impotence often takes on the form of attacking politics itself. Anti-politics, the cynical dismissal of the elected politician and the obsession with sleaze and corruption, expresses a deeply reactionary view of the human experience. It renounces the
history-making potential of people on the grounds that trying to do something either makes no difference or makes matters worse. If this was simply a case of saying that there is no point voting for any of today's major parties, it would be fair enough. But the current cynicism goes way beyond that. The conviction that we cannot trust politics is ultimately a roundabout way of saying that we cannot trust anybody - including ourselves.
Instead of striving to achieve new goals, society now encourages the politics of self limitation. Contemporary culture pours scorn on those with 'excessive' ambition. Those who try to determine the outcome of significant aspects of their lives are dismissed as control freaks. People who refuse to publicise their weaknesses are said to be 'in denial'. Risk takers are denounced for putting others at risk. Heroism is no longer about going beyond the limits, but about being able to suffer and survive. Putting up with adversity is now described as bravery. And truly heroic acts are dismissed as the macho posturing of Don Quixotes. Human exploration, whether in space or in the scientific laboratory, is represented as a colossal waste of money or as positively dangerous to the planet. In schools, competitive sports are under attack and many teachers now believe that failing students is wrong because it undermines their self-esteem.
The overall effect of the culture of self limitation is to reinforce the sense of individuation. Isolation and the experience of insecurity provide fertile terrain for the culture of limits. People who feel that they are on their own can easily develop a sense of paralysis which seems consistent with the prevailing culture of the diminished subject. It is not surprising that people accommodate to this degraded state of affairs at a time when those who suffer the most innocuous set-back are offered counselling. Indeed society positively encourages us to revel in our weakness. Ordinary interpersonal tensions are today often labelled as bullying or as an act of abuse that will scar the victims for life. In such a climate, the most elementary relationships become highly ambiguous, and an individual's responsibility for his or her own actions becomes obscured. We can trust nobody, and expect to do no more with our lives than survive in some kind of a permanent state of therapy.
The diminished human subject is underpinned by a highly conservative world-view, one that requires the denial of the essence of humanism. Traditional politics is indeed irrelevant in this environment. For the key issue today is not this or that policy, but the more basic struggle against the culture of limits. In this situation concepts like class politics or socialism are abstractions that remain external to an environment where the very belief in the human potential faces scorn and cynicism.
For a while at least, politics with a big P is indeed irrelevant. Those of us who want to do something face a more fundamental problem: how to strengthen the conviction that we have the potential for changing our circumstances. Whether this is done through appealing to self-interest or idealism or a belief in some higher purpose than survival is neither here nor there. There is a need to regroup all those who understand that when human beings cease to play for high stakes, to explore and to take risks or try to transform their circumstances, the world becomes a sad and dangerous place.
Reproduced from LM issue 100, May 1997