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Labour and 21st century class politics

It’s taken me almost a week to write about Labour’s result, that’s how shocked I was. Just as that exit poll plunged millions of Labour supporters into gloomy depression in 2015, the one from last Thursday was an occasion of such jubilation that it will live on in the party’s collective memory forever. I know it’s been said, but it should always be said: we have not seen such an upset since 1945, we have never seen a turnaround of its like in such a short period of time, nor have we seen a politician with such abysmal ratings rise as quickly in the public’s estimation. Labour did not win the election, but that banal statement reminds us the formalities of official politics cannot grasp the significance of what has happened.

Among Jeremy Corbyn’s achievements are:

1. The destruction of the near-religious totem of the centre ground.
2. Providing proof that leading political opinion with a clear programme instead of kowtowing to it can lead to electoral success.
3. Linking with the above, showing that winning former Labour voters back from UKIP didn’t and doesn’t require making concessions to the right.
4. The ability to turn out large numbers of voters usually alienated from the electoral process – to Labour’s benefit.
5. Using the election to politicise millions of people.
6. Building a reach unparalleled in British politics, bring together an electoral coalition that saw safe Tory seats tumble, leafy Labour marginals strengthen, and winning the 18-24 demographic in Scotland away from the SNP and the dead end of nationalist politics.
7. Creating dozens of marginal seats that, with one more heave, could easily fall to Labour.
8. Destroying the austerity myth to the extent that the Tories are now openly discussing its abandonment.
9. Inflicting a defeat on the Tories so profound they may never recover without painful self-adjustment.
10. Positioning Labour as an obvious government-in-waiting with the polls now putting them ahead of the Tories.

And all this in two years. Remember, under Kinnock and John Smith it took just over nine years to build up the momentum to the point Labour looked a dead cert for government, and even then it took the Tories’ mishandling of Black Wednesday before winning was a foregone conclusion. Yes, undoubtedly the dementia tax debacle was very helpful, and May’s mishandling of the terror attacks didn’t rally the Tory vote like they were hoping, but had these not happened the same underlying dynamics would have been in play.

How to explain the success no one saw coming, and how did Corbyn manage to win over a varied demographic range? It all goes back to what happened these last two summers and what Corbynism, as a movement, is.

Readers may recall my why I voted for Jeremy Corbyn in the last leadership contest. Part of it had to do with a protest against the appalling behaviour of the Parliamentary Labour Party (nice to see a line get drawn under that with a standing ovation in the Commons today), and because what Corbynism represented. Basically, Corbynism is a movement of what I like to call the networked worker. What does this mean?

This is another way of describing what Italian Marxist and co-author of the celebrated Empire, Antonio Negri, calls the socialised worker (it also gets a look-in in Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism). In an argument he has made since the 1970s, proletarians (i.e. people who sell their labour power for a set time in return for a wage or salary) have been undergoing something of a recomposition – an idea that’s hardly news as far as this blog is concerned. However, rather than the banal observation that post-industrialism and the emergence of the knowledge economy doesn’t mean much beyond the physical or otherwise character of commodities, for Negri it is a profound development.

To precis his argument, Negri argues that the working class under capitalism has undergone three broad phases. The first, when Marx was writing, coincides with the infancy of heavy industry. Here, formerly independent artisans and peasants are compelled to enter the factories in large numbers under pain of starvation. Here, they submitted to the command of the employer in return for (often poor) wages and expected to undertake a number of tasks. This was the age of the ‘skilled worker’: they became skilled at the work they had to perform and through their interaction with the technique of the day were able to build up an overarching picture of the labour process at their work. Simultaneously, thrown together in such numbers and individuated by the wage the skilled worker came to understand they had collective interests in common, and its from this period they started working autonomously of capital and against it by building labour parties and labour movements to better their lot and advance their interests.

As it grew in strength and power, achieving a breakthrough in Russia and badly threatening the social order of Europe after the First World War, capitalist management struck back. The innovation of Henry Ford’s assembly line and Frederick Taylor’s scientific management worked at breaking the power of workers in the workplace by subordinating the labour process to tight control. Taylor’s time and motion studies were ostensibly about making work more efficient, but had the consequence of appropriating skill and knowledge about the work process and making it the property of management. This phase, the age of the ‘mass worker’ was a qualitative extension of the big enterprises into huge estates of factories, of an increase in scale and the full integration of industrial and finance capital. But it also meant labour was more alienating and simple. Capital had leverage over labour because the complexity of the division of labour was boiled down into a set of simple and repetitive tasks. In short, what Taylorism and Fordism managed was to make labour almost entirely abstract, to the point where any worker could be taken off any point of the assembly line and set to work on another with the minimum of training. Matching this extension of command down to the minutiae of work was, in the economic sphere, Keynes-inspired interventionist policies and, following the Second World War, the development of mass consumerism to complement mass production.

For Negri, the late 1960s saw this settlement start to fray. Whereas the mass strike was the weapon of choice for the skilled worker, to this repertoire the mass worker added occupations, symbolic acts of resistance, and, most crucially, the refusal to work. Despite the alienation at work, nevertheless the simultaneous positioning of workers as consumers deepened the individuating effects of the wage. Living standards grew, expectations grew, and the sophistication of the workers grew and increasingly sat uneasily with the top-down planning of Keynesian capitalism. Small wonder that as the 60s came to a close, movements from outside the institutionalised patterns of class compromise and conflict emerged and re-emerged in this period.

The abstraction of labour and the struggles of the 60s and early 70s for Negri revealed another truth about society: that capital had fully subsumed the social. While in Britain we tend to associate this with the penetration of ever greater areas of social life by market relationships, Negri argued that his native Italy and other Western countries were basically ‘social factories’ in which every facet of life contributed to capital accumulation in some way. There was no “outside” to capitalism: the social was permeated by capital and the logics of capital (hence why Pierre Bourdieu is so useful). Negri argued that under these circumstances, the nature of work shifted away from the production of (material) commodities to the business of reproducing the relationships underpinning the social factory. For instance, consider the millions of jobs in advanced countries tied to the public sector, of educating, surveilling, managing, healing, caring. These provide essential infrastructure that no complex society can manage without. Capital has also made a good fist out of directly profiting from this shift through the selling of professional services. For Negri, this signals the coming of the ‘socialised worker’ for whom the production of social relations is the object of their labour. In addition, this labour is immaterial; it cannot be appropriated directly as per the preceding generations of workers. The instrument of work here is the brain. Its use can be rented out, but suddenly the relationship between capital and labour shows up what has been the case all along: that the former is utterly dependent on the latter.

There’s more bad news for capital, according to Negri. Immaterial, intellectual labour produces social relations and information. It means as a whole, as brains are set to work on particular projects the skills and knowledge acquired doesn’t stay under lock and key. It’s inseparable from those brains and effectively becomes part of a general intellect. As the collective knowledge of living labour grows, the relation between capital and labour becomes ever more stark. The former appears more parasitic, swooping in, trying to throw up fences around information and generally acting as a fetter on the free development of human culture. In this context, attempts to colonise the minds and imaginations of people through institutions and culture make sense. Ideas have always been a battleground in the class struggle, but in the age of the socialised worker the new front takes in the very components of consciousness. However, Negri is clear (and why his Marxism is so resolutely optimistic): the balance is shifting toward living labour and capitalism is becoming increasingly obviously superfluous. It’s only a matter of time before the overwhelming mass of people realise it.

What has this got to do with what has happened to the Labour Party and its fortunes? In my view, the coalescing of the socialised worker is speeding up. It’s condensing thanks to the invention of social media. The coming of the internet illustrates perfectly what Negri has written about. Software houses, IT firms, and social media monopolies do not train their key workers – they appropriate knowledges programmers (for instance) have acquired outside the sphere of work, through formal education and their own self-directed adventures in programming languages. Effectively, they’re poncing off the general intellect. Social media has elevated this even further by capturing and storing your behaviour, amalgamating them into big data sets, and using your online comings and goings as a force or production, as a means of selling advertising space. Yes, capital and the internet reinforces Negri’s observations about its parasitism. However, the internet and social media has another consequence: it’s multiplying lines of contact between people, bringing more coherence to the general intellect as information is freely shared back and forth in defiance of propriety rights. It is driving forward the notion that work should be something you enjoy and “find yourself” in. It’s effectively secularising the ethos and expectations of the socialised worker and extending it to those in occupations that retain skilled and mass worker characteristics. Employers often complain about not finding young people enough who’ll work minimum wage in warehouse jobs or grubbing in fields for strawberries. This cultural shift and transformation of expectations is one reason why.

That is why I talk about the networked worker as opposed to just the socialised worker because everyone, regardless of the character of their work, are wirelessly wiring up and being drawn into the general intellect, of a social life increasingly distant to and alienated from the increasingly petulant demands capital makes. Class still matters, but it is being redefined and conflict is playing out in diffuse and multiple ways across axes of relationships within and extending beyond workplaces and immediate employer/employee relations. Hyper-individuated, the networked worker nevertheless is coming round to the view that they hold interests in common. And this is where the realm of theory touches down in political reality. The austerity and market fundamentalist policies the Tories have overseen, combined with scapegoating scaremongering is build up a head of grievance which, above all, cuts against the emerging consensus of what the good life is: freedom to be your own invention, and freedom from the economics, the housing crisis, the debt, the hate and xenophobia, of all the artificial social ills that threaten this.

The pull of Jeremy Corbyn at the start of his leadership campaign was, put plainly, someone who stood against all that. Largely unknown up until that point, his anti-austerity politics may have been decades old but they were absolutely of the moment. Because they were relevant and attractive, despite being forged in the class struggles of the 1970s the conjuncture – of decomposing Blairism, anaemic social democracy, and a seemingly triumphant neoliberalism – ensured his was the most modern politics. Corbyn was a lightning rod, a strange (and unlikely) attractor around which hitherto unorganised and raw layers of networked workers gathered over the course of his first year as leader and remaking the Labour Party in the process so it better reflected the realities of 21st century class politics. And then when the general election itself was called, the same process repeated itself on a far grander scale. This time it wasn’t a couple of hundred thousand drawn to Jeremy Corbyn and Labour, it was millions, aided by the waging of the electoral battle across the peer-to-peer circuits social media enables. Corbyn, despite what the naysayers said, has saved the Labour Party and virtually guaranteed it the next general election because his simple anti-cuts politics, his authenticity and utter absence of cynicism swims with the stream of the general intellect. Rebooted Labourism with its social media savvy sensibility, its inclusivity, its message of hope and optimism bedded around a positive class politics of the overwhelming majority explains how networked workers from the cleaner and shelf stacker to the lifestyle consultant and marketing manager were pulled into its train. And what is more, the overt politicisation of the general intellect means Labour’s vote can only but grow. The young are being born into and coming of age within this culture, this new politics of class. And its points of multiplication are reaching out to Tory supporters and bringing them in, corroding and challenging the irrationalisms and unthought assumptions underpinning that politics.

What is happening to Labour is the future. Britain, as the world’s first industrial nation showed the rest of the globe its destiny. With the linkage between a transforming Labour Party and the networked worker accomplished, it’s quite possible this little island could be about to do the same for politics.


  1. Tony says:

    1. I can hardly wait to hear Lord Windbag give Corbyn some advice on how he could have done the election better.

    2. Corbyn must make a renewed effort to drop the ridiculous support for Trident replacement. He did his best but it is a stupid policy.

    3. It is a worthwhile exercise to see the election from the perspective of a Tory candidate in a target seat.

  2. JohnP says:

    Is it just me or does this article read to everyone like cobbled together drivel ?

  3. Robin Edwards says:

    How May `Lost’ It

    1. There was a clear alternative;
    2. Fox hunting – totally out of touch;
    3. Proposed a vicious extension and deepening of austerity that began to effect their own core vote;
    4. Stupid Brexit. Whilst claiming they were going to do trade deals with all and sundry they nonetheless made it clear they were prepared to walk away from our biggest trading partners with no deal.

    Why Labour `Won’ It

    They offered a clear anti-austerity alternative and a Hard or Sensible Brexit that included leaving the ESM and then negotiating access on terms that protect jobs, workers’ rights, small business, the environment and sovereignty including democratic control over immigration.

    Why the Lib Dems Were Irrelevant

    Their previous record of enabling Tory austerity and their Soft or Non Brexit that arrogantly ignored the democratic will of the people not just in the referendum but in this election. They characterised the EU referendum as racist and divisive and then campaigned for a second one.

    Corbyn needs to stick to his symmetry busting campaign and in fact sharpen it considerably. Don’t invite right wingers into the Shadow Cabinet and turn a Big Bang into a damp squib.

    Next Wednesday he needs to put forward his own Queen’s Speech to include anti-austerity and a Proper Socialist Brexit which promises to leave the ESM and Custom’s Union and then to negotiate access on terms that protects jobs, workers’ rights, the environment, trading standards, small business, democracy and sovereignty. He can dare Tory MPs to vote for his Queens Speech and make him PM and if not demand a new general election.

    Don’t imagine for one moment that May is in discussions only with the DUP. This Queens’s Speech will have been discussed with the Lib Dems and the Labour Coup plotters to ensure a Government of National Austerity that can endure for the next five years not the next five minutes which a May/DUP alliance would be lucky to last for.

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