Monday, 19 August 2013

Gentrification, class and the Left - a contribution to debate

I read 'The Gentrification of the Left' - a New Left Project article by Mike Wayne and Deirdre O'Neill - with considerable interest. The title is provocative (no bad thing) and I am currently researching issues around class, especially the working class, for a future writing project.
I have great respect for the writers: I've recently read (and very much liked) Mike Wayne's 'Das Kapital for Beginners' and I've heard excellent things about the 'Condition of the Working Class' project which the co-authors have developed (the sort of thing I'd love to see much more of). And the article appears on a website I admire with high standards of left-wing writing.

But I found the article disappointing as well as thought-provoking and in places insightful. The first half is a very strong critique of a number of social and political trends. The second half - which is really the main substance of the polemic, reflected in the title - is frustrating after reading the perceptive and sound comments in the article's first half. I think this topic is worthy of further investigation and the article is, I'm pleased to say, pointing in the direction of something that needs exploring (but very rarely is).

The article engages with three highly contested concepts: 'working class', 'the Left' and 'gentrification'. None of these concepts have a settled meaning or universally accepted definition - they are instead interpreted in hugely different ways by different people. It's therefore necessary to define the terms or - as unfortunately happens in the article I'm discussing - the argument is seriously weakened.
This reluctance to define terms is accentuated by a surprising shortage of evidence to support the assertions made in the second half (unlike the earlier parts of the article where some concrete examples are offered). To be fair to the authors, this lack of specificity may be a polite reluctance to name names of those being discussed - to avoid causing offence - but I think it is an error.

The central argument of the article seems to be that 'the Left' (however that is defined) has been 'gentrified' as a consequence of no longer being dominated by members of the 'working class' (however that is defined). One problem here is the lack of definition, but there's also the issue of identifying the relationship between different elements: it's one thing to point out a number of different phenomena, but quite another to substantiate claims of cause-and-effect.

Let's run through the 3 contentious concepts in turn.


The authors criticise the allegedly widespread idea among 'marxists' idea that everyone other than employers and senior managers can be defined as 'working class'. I don't know of anyone who claims this and it would be useful to have a citation here. My analysis of the middle class is going to be horribly over-simplified here for reasons of space, but roughly speaking it comprises three elements: the 'small business middle class' (Marx's petty bourgeois), the 'professional middle class' (lawyers, doctors, architects etc) and the 'managerial middle class' (managers in both public sector and private sector). This adds up to probably 25% of the population, with the other three quarters working class (the ruling class is tiny - maybe 1% of the population).

The first group is made up of small-scale owners of capital, who employ others (often a tiny number of others), and are therefore clearly not working class, but neither can they seriously be regarded part of the ruling class. The second group is those who continue to have a fair degree of autonomy at work, are generally well-paid, and are not directly exploited. The third group is those who manage others at work on behalf of the employers or government, and who tend to identify themselves and their interests with the status quo - with the fortunes of their own bosses, and with advancement through career promotion, rather than in any kind of shared collective interest with those below them.

This is a broad social definition, not a matter of putting individuals in boxes - fretting about whether a particular person is in a sufficiently managerial role to count as middle class rather than working class is of secondary importance. There are of course grey areas involving any number of junior managers and professionals. It's also true that some occupations once considered middle class have been pushed into the working class. The key thing is to recognise the nature of the contemporary middle class and its complex relationship to the antagonistic classes (ruling class and working class).

This way of viewing the middle class also means grasping that some 'professions' - e.g. teachers, lecturers, social workers - often thought of as middle class are nothing of the sort. They are employees - often of large organisations - and subject to a range of attacks by government and frequently their own senior managements. They have experienced a long term process of 'proletarianisation' which has drastically weakened autonomy and vastly increased the weight of senior managers, employers and external agencies, as well as ramping up processes of inspection and surveillance.

This is not to fall into the trap of assuming that anyone working in a school or college, for example, is working class. Senior managers are part of the middle class - they are in some ways connected to the experiences and interests of frontline staff, but are nonetheless responsible for management and all the potential for antagonism with staff that comes with it.

The working class is therefore a very broad and diverse class which encompasses the great majority of the population. It's important to grasp what members of the working class have in common and understand their shared interests, while also looking at the stratification within the working class.
I think the article is therefore wrong to present a picture of 'middle class' colonisation of the Left - it rests upon a faulty and narrow view of the working class while seeing the middle class as something that has expanded as the 'industrial' or 'manual' working class has declined. In fact the really interesting issues here are how the working class has evolved over time and - linked to this - the stratification within the working class, not working class v middle class (I'll return to this below).

The article sadly reinforces the myth that particular sections of the working class - manual and industrial - constitute the whole of the working class. Now more than ever, that doesn't fit the reality.

The Left

Everyone means something different when they talk about 'the Left'. In the article there's an implication that it's a Left so broad that it stretches all the way to Ed Miliband and the Labour leadership. There is a good assessment - and criticism - of how the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) has shifted in its class composition, and the way this makes it unrepresentative and detaches it from the trade union movement and the wider working class. This is useful and correct.

But as the article progresses it becomes unclear what 'Left' is being discussed. It seems to be a very different Left to Miliband and the dominant elements of the PLP. My impression is that the authors are - without spelling it out - shifting their attention further leftwards, but it's frustrating that literally no concrete examples are given: no named individuals, no named groups, nothing. It therefore risks being massively open to interpretation - all sorts of people are free to speculate about who is being critiqued.

I tend to regard the Left as not inclusive of those like Miliband on the right-wing of the labour movement, but rather as a broad political constituency which includes much of the Labour Party, elements of the union movement, the revolutionary left, the Green Party left, socialist activists involved in movements, and so on. So, what is it about this Left that justifies the article's correct critique of the Labour leadership's handling of the Falkirk controversy (and its attitudes to Unite) being extended to it also? It isn't clear.

The article refers to 'the left-wing career activist'. Who or what is a 'left-wing career activist'? How will I recognise one when I see one? Am I such a person myself? Without any clear definition, it seems to me closer to being a throwaway put-down than a useful concept.
We later find the term 'middle class career activist' being used. Is this the same thing as 'the left-wing career activist'? Is it something different? Could we draw a Venn Diagram in which some people are both 'left-wing career activists' and 'middle class career activists'?

Left-wing activists are mostly working class people who do politics in addition to other commitments, including work, and are passionately committed to their politics and to social change. Some are from middle class backgrounds but come to identify with the working class movement. A relatively small number are professionally involved in activism or organising and are typically not paid much for this commitment.

We are then told the problem of career activists is 'redoubled by the recent phenomenon of the celebrity media activist whose power and influence has been magnified by the development of the social media'. Who are these 'celebrity media activists'? No names are given.
Let's imagine that we are supposed to be thinking of such people as Owen Jones and Laurie Penny, as this is a best guess. Their high profile is generally an asset for the left, yet apparently 'the nexus between the social media and the establishment media reinforces a neo-liberal culture of individualistic entrepreneurialism where the celebrity self is being constantly promoted'.

Is there something about social media that means Owen Jones is trapped in a 'neo-liberal culture of individualistic entrepreneurialism' and continual celebrity self-promotion in a way that wasn't true for Nye Bevan, George Orwell or JB Priestly (to choose just three examples from an earlier era)? This seems to be sliding into technological determinism and an attempt to apply weak cultural studies to the politics of the contemporary Left.
There will always be the possibility that socialists who become established media figures - and earn good money on the back of it - will lose touch with the movement and the class, shifting rightwards in the process. (Think Christopher Hitchens, whose trajectory cannot be fully explained by his work, earnings and lifestyle, but they were surely a big part of it). But understanding that point is quite different to the claims made here, which over-emphasise the novelty of social media.  
As an aside, there also seem to be one or two 'straw man' points in the comments on 'celebrity activists'. I'm not aware of anyone, for example, who claims that what they write (or say in media appearances) is representative of some authentic working class. They speak for themselves and hope that lots of people reading/listening will agree with them. I am also not aware of anyone who hides their class origins, as seems to be implied.


I think the problems with using the concept of gentrification in this context are equal to the problems with how working class and the Left are defined (or indeed not defined). It is useful for examining such things as the 'regeneration' of city spaces, but I don't see its usefulness for examining the composition of political organisations or movements.

The point about gentrification is surely that it's a social, economic and political project imposed by the ruling class, or at least particular ruling class institutions and the government: a project that has a material reality and tangible consequences. It isn't simply a word that means 'there are lots more middle class people than there used to be'. To use it in that way strips it of any political substance.

This is linked to another slippery and contentious term used in the article: 'colonisation'. Now the dangers of mis-using such a loaded word - one weighted with so much history - should be obvious. Palestinians, for example, might be forgiven for looking wistfully at working class members of the Labour Party and thinking 'Well, their colonisation doesn't look so bad'.
Even if we allow for the creativity of linguistic evolution, it really doesn't make sense to use this term in such a way. It implies that a group of people is taking over space which previously belonged to others by force. That doesn't apply here.

So, both these terms - 'gentrification' and 'colonisation' - become ways of linking the composition of 'the Left' with different (or broader) political phenomena, yet without any evidence that there is any connection. There is in fact no meaningful connection - nor is there any useful comparison between them.

It actually means divorcing any real changes which have taken place from the political developments which genuinely are relevant. For example: it may be true that the Labour Party has more middle class members than it did 30 years ago. If so, there needs to be a political explanation for that development: the shift rightwards in Labour policy, the attacks on working class people by 'New Labour' in office between 1997 and 2010, and so on. 'Gentrification' is a cop-out.  
Concluding comments
Having commented critically on various claims and problems in the article, we are left with an important question: is there anything of real substance in all this? Even if we dismiss the terms 'gentrification' and 'colonisation, reject the problematic categories ('middle class activists, 'career activists', 'celebrity activists'), adopt a somewhat different notion of what is meant by 'the Left', and above all have a substantially broader definition of the working class, is there something we should be worried about, analysing, and correcting in our practice as socialist activists?
Firstly, let's recall that the working class movement really does contain a layer of people whose social status and income moves them away from most working class people: the trade union bureaucracy. This is a contradictory layer and it has been with us for over a century. It has always played a contradictory role in the movement and an understanding of its weaknesses is vital to grasping why our movement has so often failed to use its power. Yet it is strangely absent from the Wayne/O'Neill article.
Secondly, I acknowledged above that high-profile socialists are vulnerable to the pressures on them and can move rightwards. The best counterweight to this is the power of a mass movement. If such individuals are part of, and relating closely to, a living movement that is going places then they are more likely to remain true to their radicalism - and to the experiences of those whose interests they seek to articulate.
Problems are more likely to arise when a movement declines and someone finds themselves isolated from real political forces. It's also worth stressing that vibrant democracy in organisations is more likely to hold prominent people to account than if there is an absence of such a democratic culture.
Thirdly, I mentioned above that we need to talk about 'stratification' in the working class. We do not all have identical experiences - far from it. This has always been an issue for socialists. Similarly, the Left has always involved - and voiced the experiences and opinions of - some elements of the working class more than others.
The starting point here is to recognise that this is the case and be aware that it brings problems with it. One issue here is that different groups of workers have radically different levels of union organisation and strength. Part of the Left's strategy for the coming period should be efforts to relate to - and help organise - groups of workers who are not traditionally organised or active. But that has to be part of a balanced strategy which also builds on the existing strengths we have.
Fourthly, where I have sympathy with Wayne and O'Neill is the call for creating vehicles that allow for a range of working class voices to be heard, for the full diversity of experiences and backgrounds to be reflected in what we do. This is essential. 
If the Left is to be relevant to people's lives we must be socially broad and ensure that the full range of working class people's experiences are taken seriously and inform what we write, what we say, and what we do. The Left can't simply be drawn from a section of the working class or speak for only a section of the working class.
This has all sorts of practical consequences, but I'll give just a couple of examples. I'd love to see much more writing about people's experiences of work being published through the left, for much of that material to be further developed into political analysis and theory, and indeed for it to be broadened out into documenting other aspects of working class life too. Additionally, other media (theatre, film etc) can be deployed in conveying and analysing contemporary working class life, as Wayne and O'Neill have commendably done themselves.
Despite all my criticisms, there is a sense in which the final paragraph of Wayne and O'Neill's article is one I can broadly endorse - and I therefore conclude this article with it:
'The task of the left should be to help develop what Gramsci called the organic intellectuals of the working class: the people who can articulate working class experiences and perspectives because they come from and remain connected to the working class.  This has to happen in politics, in the media, in education, and across culture generally. Can the subaltern speak? Yes, if they have the chance.'

UPDATE: Here is Mike and Deirdre's reply to this blog post, followed by my reply to their reply. These can both also be found on the comment thread of the New Left Project article.

Mike Wayne and Deirdre O'Neill write:

Alex criticizes us on his blog for not defining the key concept of class clearly enough. Alex defines the middle class as made up of the small business class (who we did not mention) and the managerial class (who we do). A third section of the middle class really is where we get to the nub of the problem: he says that they are: ‘the ‘professional middle class’ (lawyers, doctors, architects etc)’. He defines them as having a fair degree of autonomy at work. Later he argues that ‘some ‘professions’ - e.g. teachers, lecturers, social workers - often thought of as middle class are nothing of the sort.’ It is not quite clear to us why lawyers, doctors, architects etc are part of the professional middle class but teachers, lecturers, social workers are not.

As we note in our article, neo-liberal capitalism is definitely squeezing this layer of the population and their former autonomy is certainly being eroded, but there are a whole set of other factors that differentiate and stratify the working and middle classes, not just income, but education, qualifications, cultural capital, health and above all access to the means of representation. The fact that Alex thinks there is no substantive difference between a university graduate in a professional job and a single mum with three kids, working as a care worker for old people on  the minimum wage, is part of the problem.

When the Left looks around itself these days at the people in the room, listening to a talk, there is a great deal of homogenization going on in terms of who is there. Having stated that he does not know anyone who makes the classic Marxist argument that virtually everyone who earns a wage is working class, he pretty much makes exactly that claim by integrating ‘teachers, lecturers, social workers’ into the working class.

Now, we are not saying that the Marxist argument about class is wrong. What we are saying is that it is wrong to assume that just because you have a relationship to a large employer (capital or the state) that dissolves all the other differences that stratify working people. As we argue, it would take a political project to constitute a working class that included the middle class, one which changed their institutional position, especially vis-à-vis their position of controlling and monitoring the working class. The Marxist argument about a working class that unites different stratas has to be constructed (by a mass movement and by radical political change). If you assume it is an empirical fact in the here and now you are glossing over the very differences and inequalities that need to be addressed.

Nor did we state or imply, as Alex suggests, that the working class is defined by being a manual and industrial working class. We are well aware that neo liberal led de-industrialisation and the rise of the service sector has fundamentally reworked the working class. We are arguing that the experience of being working class (for example working on the check-out at a large supermarket) is different from being middle class (where people have careers for example) and it is that difference of experience that separates them.

But we are not just talking about work here – we are talking about a whole way of life, a whole way being – knowing you are powerless to change your situation, knowing that people look down on you because of the way you speak, dress, where you live, etc. We are talking about those stratas of working class people trapped on estates that are being run down in areas where there are little in the way of secure jobs, where the schools are crap, where there are problems with drug addiction, where there are lives lived in hopelessness and despair…the very difficulty Alex has in imagining what we are talking about when identifying a split between the middle and working class is itself exactly a symptom of what we are writing about.

Finally, Alex takes issue with our use of the terms gentrification and colonization. Here we are rather perplexed. Alex states:

The point about gentrification is surely that it’s a social, economic and political project imposed by the ruling class, or at least particular ruling class institutions and the government: a project that has a material reality and tangible consequences. It isn’t simply a word that means ‘there are lots more middle class people than there used to be’. To use it in that way strips it of any political substance.”

Well,  yes and no. Yes it is both a conscious social, political and economic project in which the ruling class are key agents – but the people who populate areas formerly lived in by the working class, are not usually the ruling class – but the middle and often the upper middle class. Once again, the middle class tends to disappear from the analysis if you say this is just about the ruling class. Yes this process does have consequences – we did actually identify them. We did not say anything so anodyne as to say that it means ‘there are lots more middle class people than there used to be’.

Alex also does not like our use of the word colonization. He states that it is inappropriate because: ‘It implies that a group of people is taking over space which previously belonged to others by force. That doesn’t apply here.’ Well, in terms of geography, that is exactly what is happening with gentrification – and force can take a number of different forms – local governments moving people out of their estates for example, as has happened at the Elephant and Castle in London. Then there is the violence of economic force, etc. Yes, of course we were using the term colonization a little liberally to underscore a point – but in a metaphorical sense, the last 20-30 years has seen the working class pushed out of the public spaces they used to have in all sorts of ways.

The collapse of the Labour Party as a organ for expressing working class interests (even if contained within the framework of capitalism) and the continuing bureaucratization of the trade unions, has not been counter-balanced by any other set of organisations. What it has been replaced by are the middle class political activists that form the bedrock of the new social movements. To overcome this problem we have to start recognizing that there is a problem.

My reply to Mike and Deirdre's comment:

A few responses and clarifications to the comment above.

1. The professions. The idea that teachers and lecturers are mostly part of the working class is linked to a wider understanding that white collar workers are part of the working class (not the middle class) - that the working class is something much bigger and broader than if we rely on narrower conceptions of it often to be found in academia, the media and mainstream politics. This is not normally a controversial argument in left-wing, certainly Marxist, circles, even if it is an unfashionable idea in the mainstream.

If Mike and Deirdre are rejecting this analysis of class - specifically of the composition of the middle class - the onus is on them to explain why such groups are in their view part of the middle class. This has important political implications and can't just be asserted. I did - in my blog post - actually indicate a number of elements which make those groups part of the working class, and won't repeat that here.

2. Stratification. I specifically argued that the working class is stratified, and suggested that a problem in the original article was a failure to discuss that (instead asserting that relatively better off elements of the working class are in fact part of the middle class). This stratification is obvious.

But a key question is this: is there also a shared, common interest - and thus potential for unity in struggle - as well as the diversity and stratification? That's what goes AWOL in Mike and Deirdre's account. For all sorts of reasons, yes there is a shared interest. That stems from the nature of capitalism. We need to remember both sides of the coin here: the common interest and the stratification, what we have in common and what differences there are.

3. Gentrification and colonisation. As I noted in my post, I don't take issue with the *general* account of gentrification in society. But I do think it is untenable to apply that to the political Left. Teachers and lecturers joining socialist organisations is not part of the same social trend as the knocking down of council estates to make way for luxury flats.

As for 'colonisation', I don't object to the concept's use as part of a wider analysis of gentrification in society (that is a separate issue and not the focus of my response). But it really doesn't make sense to talk about people from allegedly middle-class backgrounds having a role in left-wing politics as 'colonisation'. Talk about imbalances or unevenness in the composition of the Left - that's fine. But 'colonisation' - however flexibly we use the word - is extremely negative and surely implies some sort of conscious political project, not to mention a degree of force/violence.

4. The new left. It is in the final paragraph of the authors' comment above where we perhaps get to the nub of the issue. They argue: 'The collapse of the Labour Party as a organ for expressing working class interests (even if contained within the framework of capitalism) and the continuing bureaucratization of the trade unions, has not been counter-balanced by any other set of organisations. What it has been replaced by are the middle class political activists that form the bedrock of the new social movements. To overcome this problem we have to start recognizing that there is a problem.'

I think this is a bleak and inaccurate picture that does a disservice to the thousands of working class activists involved in what are termed here 'the new social movements'. It also overlooks the fact that there are still thousands of working class socialists active in either the Labour Party or the unions (or both) - whatever the weaknesses of those organisations may be. The coupling of alleged working class organisations' collapse and the supposed rise of a middle class Left leads to the conclusion that there is no working class Left today. That's wrong and unjustifiably pessimistic.


No comments:

Post a Comment