Sunday, 26 June 2011

Divided Nation

Re-building the pyramid that inters social justice

Society’s social-structure was once said to have become diamond shaped, as most of us clustered in the so-called middle class, writes Mark Cantrell, but now it seems the traditional pyramid-form of class and wealth is making a come back – that’s if it ever truly went away


IN the boom years before the economy crashed, it became fashionable in the UK to declare that the class war was effectively won – we were all middle class.

Tony Blair made it a part of his feel-good ‘post-class’ New Labour Government from 1997, hi-jacking the D:Ream song ‘Things can only get better’ to theme tune his message that the nasty Tories were out, and for middle people everywhere – who was everyone who mattered – the good times were on a roll.

Of course, the Labour Party was back in power after some 18 years on the Opposition benches, so they were pretty chuffed about that too. And as the later expenses scandals that emerged towards the end of the party's tenure demonstrated, it turned out some of them (as with many of their fellow MPs in other parties) were most definitely on a roll.

Here was a party born in the days of that dreary, old-fashioned class war era. By now, however, it had come to be staffed by those middle class, university-educated people who benefited from the dreary old-fashioned class war battles of their forebears. They benefited from the efforts to raise the living standards and opportunities of working class people. And by their very existence, it no doubt said to them – at least in some respects – that by their presence had the war been won. 

The supervisor's job at last…

FOR them, the boom years must have seemed a godsend. They could ditch the lip service to the working class along with the rest of the trappings – Clause 4, the Red Flag party anthem, the grotty working class accents – and concentrate on fulfilling the dream. No more of that saurian class war tub-thumping of those 1980s 'throwbacks' in the Thatcher era; no, to the victors the spoils.

At last, the Labour Party was finally in a position to play the responsible role of manager of British capitalism: utilising its position within the State to manage capitalism for its own good, and the good of the middle class, and conduct itself as the proper coterie of political technocrats that late-20th century/ early 21st century capitalism demanded.

And on a cursory examination, it really did seem as if the old boss/worker divide was evaporating under the unifying trends of consumerism’s boom years, as old industries were increasingly shipped overseas, leaving behind the ‘brain workers’ of the knowledge economy, sucking us all into the ranks of the middle class. There was no need for a Labour Party of old in this brave new era of prosperity.

So, that left behind a recalcitrant residue of the old class structure: dirt poor ‘benefit scroungers’ lingering on from the bad old days, but they could be dealt with by the civilised virtues and practices of this middle class society that had arisen. And in any case, every society needs its demons to remind the virtuous of the price of sin.

Thus did the working class find itself erased from the social picture. Any notion that a changing economy was simply altering the outward appearance of the working class was brushed aside. There was no time for suggestions that perhaps many of these ‘middle class’ people were as working class as their cloth-capped forebears, but shaped by the gains of the past and modern consumerism, they had shed the old trappings; no, the political narrative demanded they were indeed part of the ‘classless’ middle class society.

Well, it made for a convenient political narrative. If the ‘class war’ had been won, by advancing growth in a managed capitalist economy rather than the old soapbox rabble-rousing, then it provided the perfect opportunity to become, in the words of Peter Mandelson, relaxed about people becoming filthy rich. Finally, it justified Labour stepping back from its lip service to social justice and find itself invited to all the best rich men’s parties.

Of course, since the housing bubble popped and sent shock-waves throughout the economy, not to mention the banking crash that was averted only by giving them billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, something of the old narratives have returned with a vengeance.

All together now, except for…

BEHIND all the current political language of ‘squeezed middle’, the working class is starting to show through the peeling air-brushed paint of the boom-time years. Suddenly, we’re not all middle class, but still the language lingers.

Ironically, the ‘we’re all middle class’ mantra of New Labour, is the forerunner of Osborne’s ‘we’re all in it together’ – it strives to create a false sense of unity. Both are of the same ilk, intended to encourage our self-subordination to the interests of a distant network of elites.

The terminology, the need for us all to be middle class, remains even as suggestions arise that recovery may leave many people behind. More traditional patterns of income disparity are returning; the diamond-shaped society is cracking and the pyramid is re-emerging as the ‘middle class’ reveals its true self by shedding the working class it had once hidden behind its ideological skirts.

Reports and studies, all them claiming a certain degree of ‘objectivity’ are part of the ideological battleground, the very same ideological battleground that not every political party and player is entering with equal gusto, but for all that a battle is beginning to seize the initiatives to shape our perceptions of the new future.

Like any battle, we can expect collateral damage, and according to one such report, many of us – the working class blended into the so-called middle class – look set to be the victims: the 'squeezed middle' as the current description goes.

It's a middle that appears to encompass everyone who isn't on benefits at one end and high earning chief execs, those enjoying fabulous levels of inherited wealth, tax haven stalwarts, and for a little colourful opulence those highly paid celebrities and footballers at the other extreme. Everyone else, cram in tighter please, we're the middle. Funny that.

Yes, the middle class. The class that apparently has men like Lord Sugar, the Amstrad boss and The Apprentice stern-man lumped in with the lowliest data-entry operator or call centre worker down there on the 'front-line' or back office of those admin factories, as if the two really have more in common than did the old mill owner and his factory workers. Still, even in those days, there were arguments that proposed they did indeed share a common interest – if only the workers would could be sufficiently educated to see the sense of it.

Then, as now, 'every private soldier had a field marshal's baton in his knapsack': if the worker showed diligence, hard work, had the guts to make the most of opportunities, then social mobility was there for the taking. Yes, social mobility, aspiration, the buzzwords of the 'Noughties, are nothing new: and they hide a narrative of competing interests and class antagonisms.

Blindfolded with our backs to the wall… 

THE middle class has become a socio-economic/ideological equivalent of the Everyman: the idealised version of the three figures of the old comedy sketch merged into one curious whole: "I know my place," as Ronnie Corbett would say. 

By the same measure, the 'middle class' has come to encompass and mask within it, the same old class claptrap it's meant to have finally laid to rest. Well, that's social class in Britain; it's always been a curious, messed-up affair, that's never quite known what it's wanted to be.

Now, according to the Resolution Foundation – yes, another thinktank, but let’s not hold that against it – class was already beginning to rear its ugly head before the boom years turned to dust. The living standards of people on low to middle incomes were already falling prior to the recession, the organisation has said, and this may not see a recovery once the economy returns to health.

The organisation has released a report – Growth without gain? – that claims to show that even during boom years, people were losing out. Median wages flat-lined between 2003 and 2008, with disposable income per head falling in every English region outside of London, despite economic growth of some 11 per cent.

Since 2006, those on low to middle incomes have faced as much as a one per cent higher inflation rate on their cost of living, compared to those on higher incomes.

Housing costs hit people hard as one on three first-time buyers on a low to middle income relied on a 100 per cent mortgage in 2009 and the proportion of people under 35 renting trebled from 1988 to 2008. Housing cost remains a major problem for people, even post boom, since high costs linger and the increased pressure on rental is pushing rents up – soaking up precious disposable income that might be spent in other aspects of the economy.

The report goes on to question whether a return to growth in the economy will bring any real benefits to ordinary workers and suggests that the average pay in 2015 is set to be no higher than it was in 2001. The combined force of stagnating wages, high levels of personal debt, and a declining share of ‘middle skilled’ jobs are set to continue to bear down on living standards, alongside more immediate pressures including cuts to tax credits.

“We all know that the recession has hit living standards hard,” said James Plunkett, the report’s author. “But something deeper has changed in our economy – even during the so-called boom years, ordinary workers weren’t seeing their living standards rise. The big question now is what will happen when growth resumes – will ordinary workers reap any of the benefits? This report suggests that is far from certain.”

Professor Steve Machin, a member of the Resolution Foundation’s Commission on Living Standards, added: “Although our jobs market is still in recovery mode, it’s important we don’t forget about these longer-term trends. Low-skill, low-pay jobs were already increasing their share of employment prior to the recession, and middle-skill jobs have been in long-term decline. Given underlying changes in demand, this seems unlikely to stop when the economy returns to growth.”

Two nations, as Disreali once lamented, and Lenin cursed...

SUCH words paint a grim picture of a booming society still bitterly divided between rich and poor; one wonders whether the political overseers of this not-so-new society will attempt to resurrect the ‘we’re all middle class now’ language to paper-over the cracks, much as it did in the boom years of Blair’s time as Prime Minister, or if it will embrace the divide.

Curiously, as this Resolution Foundation report also exemplifies, the talk of low-to-middle income groups in the context of the ‘we’re all middle class’ debate continues. It reflects a common theme of reportage and commentary from the good days to the bad: the conflation of low to middle income into the middle class brackets.

Such was the effort to mask class in Britain, to strip away any inconvenient legacy of the division and inequality, replacing it instead with the diamond points of the super-rich on the one extreme and the opposing point of a ‘feckless underclass’ reliant on benefits. The rest, the cosy middle, were the stalwarts of a booming society that had – on paper – never had it so good.

Still, that was the purpose of such rhetoric: to dazzle the eyes, to hide the political sleights of hand, and prevent us from realising the simple truth that this homogenous middle was anything but. Far from it, this was very much the realm of class conflict, masked beneath inspirational trappings of consumerism, buried behind the rhetoric and the hype that said we were all as one.

Be wary of the ideological embalmers looking to mummify us once more in the wrappings and trappings of a middle class society that never truly was. With the age of austerity in full swing, the trappings are sloughing away, to reveal the bitter, graded divides of that old-fashioned pyramid waiting to inter the dreams and the vision of a better society for all.
  
Mark Cantrell,
Stoke-on-Trent,
12 June 2011 

Copyright © June 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Category: ESSAY

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