Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/499/3075
Social class in Britain today
STATEMENTS SUCH as "the working class has disappeared" or "the barriers between the classes no longer exist" have been repeated for many years. This is often backed up by pointing to the de-industrialisation of Britain especially over the last two or three decades.
In fact there are still around four million workers in manufacturing industry in the UK. It is true that increased globalisation of the world economy has meant a large number of manufacturing jobs being transferred to areas such as Eastern Europe and China. But manufacturing jobs lost in the west have often been replaced by low-paid jobs in the service sector, for example in retail, finance and tourism. The fastest growing job sector in Britain is those who clean, shop, child-mind, garden etc for others.
In "white collar" jobs, measures such as performance related pay, imposed targets and casualisation have been increasingly introduced. Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) members in Revenue and Customs for example, have been fighting the introduction of 'lean processing' which breaks down tasks into small repetitive parts to create assembly line type work. Civil servants organised in the PCS have been one of the most militant sections of the working class in recent years and have elected a left union leadership.
New Labour politicians and academics tend to talk of the poor being the 'underclass' living off benefits on council estates, or about 'social exclusion', thereby trying to separate the unemployed off from the rest of the working class. Effectively they repeat the old Victorian idea of the 'undeserving poor' and want people to be 'encouraged' into work by the threat of benefit cuts, such as with Gordon Brown"s latest proposals for single parents.
It is a strange solution to poverty - to cut the income of the poorest! And by forcing people into low paid work, they do not eliminate poverty. Millions are now described as the 'working poor'.
Capitalist definitions of class confuse the issue. The term "middle class" is often used very broadly, from a white collar worker on low pay in local government or the civil service to a rich businessman.
Official classifications also obscure the real class divide. The highest category according to the Office for National Statistics is 'professional and managerial' which includes people such as teachers and nurses. These certainly do not constitute the ruling class!
Marxists however say that the main class divide in society is between the ruling class - big businessmen and financiers who own "the means of production" on the one hand, and those who have to work for a boss to earn a living and actually create the wealth (value) on the other.
In the past, the average worker sold their "labour power" in a factory. Today, in addition to the millions who still do this there are others working in different fields who also produce new value. Others again, such as many public sector workers, do not strictly fit into this category but are part of the working class because of their social outlook and economic situation. The working class is not homogenous; far from it, there are many sections and layers. There are also middle layers in between the working class and ruling (capitalist) class, what Marx called the petit-bourgeoisie, particularly the self-employed, including small farmers, shopkeepers etc - altogether a wide and varied range of people. Many of them however are in debt to the big banks and have much in common with "workers".
The wealth gap
THE LATEST survey by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation confirmed again what we already know about the growing gap between rich and poor. It says that it is now greater than it has been for the last 40 years. There has been an increase in the number they define as 'breadline poor' to around a quarter of all households.
Another survey conducted by Save the Children pointed out that 1.3 million children (10.5%) live in 'severe poverty'. They say: 'for a couple with a child that means living on an average of £7,000 a year, or less than £134 a week'. As a result, 'children are missing out on basic things like living in a warm house, having a proper diet or going on a school trip'.
By contrast the wealth of the richest in society has vastly increased. This year's Sunday Times 'rich list' shows that the increase in wealth of the top 1,000 people in Britain has been 20% in one year to around £360 billion. You have to have £70 million just to get on the bottom rung of that list.
Rich list compiler Philip Beresford said: 'The past decade of Labour government under Tony Blair has proved a golden age for the rich, rarely seen in modern British history'. This is no overstatement when you realise their wealth has more than tripled in a decade!
The same trend exists on a world scale with the total wealth of 'high-net worth' individuals rising 11.4% to £18.6 trillion in 2006. There are 94,970 people with assets worth more than £15 million. This layer in society with enormous wealth and power is a minute proportion of the total population.
Whilst socialists support the demand for increased taxes on the super rich, this alone would not end the vast inequalities in society, nor solve the problems caused by capitalism. The rich don't even pay the low levels of tax they are currently supposed to (see below).
Exploitation and inequality are built into the system. To get rid of them, capitalism needs to be removed and replaced with a socialist society. The multinational companies owned by the rich need to become publicly owned.
An end to the chaos of the market and the introduction of socialist planning would mean an overall increase in the real wealth of society, not just a redistribution of the wealth that already exists.
Working class struggle
IN THE last 20 years, there has been a relative lull in trade union struggle in Britain. In the wake of the collapse of Stalinism in the USSR and eastern Europe, there was a shift of former working-class based parties such as the Labour Party, towards being openly bosses" parties with a full acceptance of the market. This, together with the effects of a long period of modest economic growth, led to a drop in consciousness of socialist ideas.
Despite this, there is still clear recognition of the existence of classes. Surveys have consistently shown that the majority of people in Britain describe themselves as working class. The latest British Social Attitudes survey shows 57% of people consider themselves working class.
The report authors call this 'remarkable' considering that only 31% of the workforce is in traditional "blue collar" sectors. In reality it gives the lie to the idea that class politics is no longer relevant. How much more sharpened will class-consciousness be in the future when big workers' struggles take place and when economic downturn has an impact on millions of people?
Even those who see themselves as middle class, or who are on relatively comfortable incomes, have plenty of reasons to oppose the capitalist system, run for the benefit of big business.
Many problems created by capitalism affect them. The rising cost of university tuition fees for example, or the cutbacks in public services such as the NHS. For the vast majority of people who have private health insurance, it is very limited, only covering routine things.
The state of Britain's infrastructure affects all layers in society; for example the impact of inadequate investment in drainage and flood protection in the recent floods.
The statisticians claim that a growing layer of people are 'asset wealthy' because the value of their homes has risen. But many can't fully realise that potential since if they sell, they still have to buy another house at high prices. Many have borrowed money against the value of their home, contributing to the consumer boom based on credit. But what happens when the house-price boom ends?
In the past the nightmare of negative equity was widespread when, in many cases, house prices fell to a lower level than the amount owed in mortgages. Economic downturn and job losses will in the future affect many homeowners drastically. Even now, an estimated 14,000 properties were repossessed in the first six months of this year, a 30% increase on the same period last year.
For socialists it is not just that the working class is exploited under capitalism and therefore has good reason to end it, but also that it has the power to do it. Through struggles to defend and extend their own livelihoods, working-class people develop a greater class-consciousness. On a mass scale this can go together with a growth in socialist ideas.
But in particular, workers have the power to change things because of their role in society - their position in relation to the functioning of the economy and the "means of production". Even small groups of workers taking strike action, especially in an era of high technology, can have a massive effect. This power will be decisive when the working class moves together.
The removal of capitalism, led by the working class and with the support of most of the middle layers of society, can create the beginnings of conditions for a genuinely classless society.
This would be a socialist society where, for example, you would not have a higher chance of dying early simply because of where you were born, and where the resources of society would be democratically planned and used for the benefit of all.
Profiting from sweatshop labour
BILLIONAIRE RETAIL tycoon Sir Philip Green is profiting from sweatshop labour. Factories in Mauritius produce clothes for his firm, Arcadia, which owns Topshop, Topman, Burton, Dorothy Perkins and Miss Selfridge.
His Topshop stores are selling the latest brand of Kate Moss clothing made by Asian migrant workers who labour up to 12 hours a day, six days a week, for as little as 20p to 40p an hour. Kate Moss range T-shirts are sold in Topshop for £12.
Green - Britain's seventh richest person who received a knighthood from Tony Blair - gave Arcadia shareholders a £1.3 billion dividend in 2005 and as he and his wife own 92% of the group, they got £1.17 billion. That's the biggest amount ever paid out effectively to one person in British corporate history and he paid no tax on it, as his family lives in Monaco part-time with a £20 million yacht and a £16 million private jet.
Two weeks ago he told a reporter, while holidaying off Turkey aboard his luxury yacht, he was "having a marvellous time". Indeed, this would appear to be the case any time. Earlier this year he spent an estimated £5 million flying 100 friends to his 55th birthday party in the Maldives where they were reportedly entertained by George Michael and Jennifer Lopez.
- Since 1997 when Blair came to power, the 1,000 richest people in Britain have increased their wealth by 263%.
- There are 68 billionaires in Britain, treble the number of four years ago.
- The wealthiest 100 people have £192 billion between them.
At least 400 UK-based individuals earn, or are capable of making, £10m a year. But only 65 paid income tax (Evening Standard 21 June 2007). For example, British citizen, Sir Philip Green, (7th in the Sunday Times rich list, worth about £4,900 million) spends just 90 days a year in the country and uses 'non-resident status' to avoid tax.
Many of those at the top of the rich list are 'non-domicile status', i.e. they live here but are not British citizens, to avoid paying tax.
They include steel boss Lakshmi Mittal, number one on the list with £19,250 million, Roman Abramovich (number two, £10,800 million), the Hinduja brothers (number four, £6,000 million) and the list goes on.
The rich list includes many political donors and "lenders":
- Top Tory donor, Robert Edminston, donated £2.1 million.
- Top Tory lender, Lord Ashcroft, loaned £3.6 million.
- Top Labour donor Nigel Doughty, donated £505,000.
- Top Labour lender Sir David Garrard, loaned £2.3 million.
In The Socialist 30 August 2007:
Socialist Party Marxist analysis
Socialist Party review
Socialist Party editorial
Socialist Party NHS campaign
Socialist Party news