The unmaking of the English working class

The English working class, whose origins were so memorably chronicled by E.P Thompson in 1963, is the oldest in the world, forged in tandem with the landscape of the first industrial revolution with its mills and mines and steelworks and grimy brick streets of back-to-back houses. Although many of its features were unique to particular times and places, its forms of organisation, so carefully documented by Marx and Engels, in many ways provided models for other labour movements around the world.

It is this same working class, now many generations away from the rural folk who formed its origins, which, in its despair and anger and anomie, voted two days ago for Brexit.  Is this how it ends? Are we witnessing the beginning of the end of the phase of capitalism associated with the British Empire, not in a glorious revolution but in a hopeless spasm of self-destruction, on the very sites where it was first created?

I  have never had time to do systematic research on this and what follows is grossly over-generalised,  but sometimes I think that it is only possible to imagine an alternative way of living if you have some first-hand experience of it. The first generation of industrial workers comes from the countryside, typically from subsistence agriculture. Young people, without children, whose elders are taken care of in the village have only to earn enough to provide their own food and lodging. The literature abounds with descriptions of how simultaneous liberating and frightening this can be (18th century English mill girls and 21st century Sri Lankan clothing workers, seen as too rebellious to be marriageable; new migrants straight off the ship in early 20th century New York). This first generation works hard and obediently, wanting its children to learn the language and assimilate and do better than themselves. It is the second generation, at home in the city, that starts to organise, to feel entitled, to refuse to kow-tow unquestioningly to the boss. Between worlds, having heard from parents and grandparents stories, perhaps romanticised in nostalgic memory, of how life used to be in the village, with its clean air and seasonal rhythms, these workers know that there are alternatives to the machine-paced life of the factory. Accounts of worker militancy, whether in St Lawrence in 1912, Coventry in the 1960s, Sao Paolo in the 1970s or the Pearl River Delta in the 2010s, always seem to involve workers who are no more than a couple of generations from the land and know that other ways of living are possible. And being able to imagine this alternative future gives focus to the struggle and motivation to seek change.

But when even your great, great, great, great grandparents worked in industry, what kind of alternative can you imagine? It seems likely that your aspirations turn simply to a better version of what you already know, made comfortable by the shared cultures and solidarities of your class: the same dull daily routine, but with more security, more consumer goods, nicer holidays; in short the life that was achieved by many (though never all) in developed Western economies in the third quarter of the 20th century. Such aspirations may well still seem achievable in many parts of the world. Look at the growth of the new middle classes in India, China and Brazil. And, to judge by their promises, many politicians still believe in them in Europe. But if there is anything to be learned from the last couple of weeks it is that these hopes have died in industrial Britain, replaced by a kind of nihilistic rage against those very politicians and all they seem to stand for.

The question that confronts us engaged intellectuals now, in the aftermath of that vote, is how it might be possible to contribute to the development of alternative positive visions that are credible enough, and rooted well enough in their own hopes and dreams to lift these cheated people out of their depression and give them something worth fighting for. If I am right in thinking that alternatives cannot be imagined out of thin air but must relate in some way to actual experience then this is a huge challenge. I rack my brains. Perhaps, I think, we should start with the children: give them love and stories and music and first-hand contact with nature and with interesting people who have lived alternative lives (all the things that Michael Gove has been driving out of the once-great British primary school system). But that seems like a very wishy-washy hippy fantasy in these grim times. And patronising. And it would take ages.

What is the alternative? To watch and document, in all its horror, the final unravelling of the English working class: a tragedy directed by clowns with lemmings as actors?

Or to find some way to act now, quickly. Whatever we do, it has to be done with open ears. The cry of pain that, I still believe, that ‘out’ vote represented, has to be recognised for what it is, and, with all humility, we have to listen to those who have uttered it, understand what they are telling us and try, jointly, to envisage some collective future alternative.

(In writing this blog post I discovered that WordPress has redesigned itself in such a way that early drafts are no longer automatically saved separately. One clumsy press on the mouse – which i am still having to operate with my left hand – wiped out all of the first version except the sentence in the ‘excerpt’ and this is a hasty reconstruction: shorter; perhaps less purple in its prose; probably more trite. Who knows?)

 

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