‘Networked individuals’ have replaced the industrial working class as the key agent for overhauling capitalism in the digital age. To win power, Labour must represent their values, culture, aspirations and political priorities.
Paul Mason is a writer and broadcaster on economics and social justice.
Cross-posted from Open Democracy
In the spring of 1888, a sociologist called Beatrice Potter went undercover in the East End of London to research conditions in the garment industry – publishing the findings as Pages of A Workgirl’s Diary not long after. One finding, however, proved too scandalous to publish:
“The fact that some of my workmates, young girls in no way mentally defective… could chaff each other about having babies by their fathers and brothers, was a gruesome example of the effect of debased social environment … The violation of little children was another not infrequent result…”
Potter saw the unskilled working class as helpless and degraded, incapable of rising out their ignorance and self-oppression without intervention from above. This was a consistent trope in 19th century sociology – reinforced by skilled, self-educated workers themselves as they clawed their way out of poverty and expressed scorn at those they left behind.
The popular assumption was that middle class women like Beatrice Potter had agency; the workgirls of Limehouse did not.
Within 12 months the entire assumption was blown away. In July 1888 the “match girls” famously went on strike at the Bryant & May factory; then in 1889 the dockers – whose lives Potter had described as a mixture of “bestial content and hopeless discontent” – shut down the Port of London through mass, spontaneous strike action. Then much of London joined them, led by union organisers who could quote Marx because Karl’s own daughter had been educating them.
The London Dock Strike of 1889 was not just a British event. It was part of a global moment in which the unskilled and migrant working class of the late 19th century found collective agency. Potter’s memoir of that year is entitled “How I became a socialist”, though by now she had also become Beatrice Webb.
It took 12 years from the formation of mass trade unions in 1889 to the formation of the Labour party in 1901, under the tutelage of Webb and the Fabian socialist movement she helped create. Between then and the outbreak of the war, progressive social movements hit the British establishment like a meteor shower. The Suffragette agitation and the mass strike agitation, which reached a peak in 1911-1913, had the greatest impact. But Robert Blatchford’s The Clarion newspaper and the emergence of working class voices via the new repertory theatre movement show that a wider popular radicalisation was also under way.
By 1914 nobody could dispute the facts: a labour-movement consciousness was widely and spontaneously shared by millions of working people; it was rooted in the technological and social realities of early 20th century capitalism; and it was allied to demands for wider democracy and social justice – even if it took until 1924 for the word ‘socialist’ to appear in a Labour party manifesto.
Labour’s challenge today is to repeat this process with a whole different set of people. It’s not going to be easy and, as with the Fabians, the Suffragettes and the syndicalists of the Edwardian era, it will take time.
Neoliberalism is the first form of capitalism since the 1830s in which capital is needed to atomise the working class instead of regimenting it. The sheer social strength of organised labour in the early 1970s, combined with the unworkability of the economic model that had allowed that strength to accumulate, required a break from paternalism and incorporation.
We live with the results. It’s not just that trade unions are weak and the old, fixed working class communities are destroyed. The bargaining power of the individual worker is weakened by globalisation, by precarious work and by a culture of individualism that would have been obnoxious even to the dockers of Limehouse fighting over halfpennies on the streets in 1889. The radical culture and lifestyle once known in France as “la vie ouvriere” (the working life) has been vapourised.
As a result, the most fundamental question facing the modern social democratic left is: who do we represent?
From 1945 until around 1989 you could say that the left’s problem in many countries was the decline in voting by class identification. After 1989 it became much more serious: the actual demographic basis of social democracy was dissolving, while the electoral base of the right – the middle class, people dependent on financial investment and the repressive state – was actually hardening up.
This demographic challenge was compounded by a political one after the 2008 crisis, when most centre-left politicians refused to see how badly the system was broken. They chose to implement austerity and to double down on support for globalisation, free market economics and the coercive imposition of competitive behaviour that required.
As a result there began a conscious switch among some – mainly white – working class voters towards authoritarian, xenophobic nationalist parties. Meanwhile the educated salariat were also drifting away, towards cosmopolitan nationalisms in places like Catalonia or Scotland; or towards Green or radical left parties, as in Spain, Greece and the Netherlands.
For the technocrats in charge of social democracy, this presented a sudden and insoluble problem. Their strategy had always been – as with Blair and Clinton – to take the manual working class vote for granted and to create an electoral alliance with the educated, urban middle class through policies differentially positive for the latter. These included support for the consumer against the “producer interest”; suppression of union rights; deference to the agenda of social liberalism; and the introduction of market mechanisms into public services, which the better educated were able to game to their advantage.
At its most effective, as the Labour peer Maurice Glasman pointed out, technocratic centrism created a community of interest between the atomized urban poor and the salaried public servants employed to police, jail and rehouse them. This was not the intention of the original Third Way, which assumed all could rise out of poverty and dependency, but one of its byproducts. Centrist politicians were happy to go with the flow. They treated the urban poor and the elderly as clients; revived social democracy as the administrator of the client state; and told the traditional manual working class of the small-towns to adapt or die. As a consolation prize, what was left of the trade union movement in the defence, aerospace and supermarket sectors could have “partnership”, albeit usually on the terms of the corporations.
Once austerity replaced fiscal expansion, the assumptions and alliances that held New Labour together fell apart.
In Britain, the problem was compounded by the unresolved national question. The tribal alliance needed to put Labour in power was never just about class. For a majority Labour government you needed the working class of the north of England, Wales and Scotland; the city-dwelling workforce of all big cities; plus some swing voters from the salariat of small towns in Southern England.
But Labour’s support for unionism during the Scottish referendum saw them punished by the section of the Scottish working class that wanted independence, losing 40 seats. Labour’s support for carbon-heavy energy policy and for nuclear weapons were some of the reasons one million people voted Green in the 2015 election. Meanwhile, the 4.3 million votes for UKIP in the European election of 2014 was another signifier that the tribal alliance was no longer possible. UKIP – and later the Tories – would feed off an unaddressed English nationalism that Gordon Brown, with his “Britishness” ideology, barely understood.
Today the facts about Labour’s support, and its membership, are clear. Its half a million members are overwhelmingly drawn from the urban salariat, with more than 112,000 in London alone. It has lost maybe a fifth of its voters – typically white, unskilled manual workers in small towns – to right wing nationalism. The 2017 election showed that, for many of them, UKIP was a gateway drug to voting Conservative. And it has lost vast numbers of elderly people.
But in turn, vast numbers of educated, young, networked people have mobilised themselves to vote Labour.
To party strategists, this problem presents itself as: “how do we win?”. The persistent ability of Theresa May’s Tory party to poll around 40%, however badly they mess up, is not about competence or charisma. Instead it reflects a new political alliance involving a section of the “old” working class who are opposed to migration, globalism and social liberalism, with a layer of middle class people who are opposed to redistribution and social justice.
We can only move forward if we can answer the deeper question: who wants to change the world, and who has the agency to do it?
After reporting on the 2011 revolts, and observing the similarities between the people in the streets and squares of Cairo, Athens and New York City, I became convinced that a new kind of person had emerged, which sociologists labelled the “networked individual”.
Networked technology, combined with high levels of education and personal freedom have created a new historical subject across most countries and cultures which will supplant the industrial working class in the progressive project, just as they replaced the cottage weavers and artisans of the 18th century.
Orthodox Marxists are appalled by this proposal, and for good reason. If the classic proletariat, owning no substantial property and destined to spontaneously solidaristic ways of life, is not in fact destined to overthrow class society, then a key tenet of Marxism is disproved.
This, as I argued in ‘Postcapitalism’, is the inevitable conclusion we have to draw from 200+ years of working class history. The working class always wanted to go beyond the piecemeal reforms offered by parliamentary socialists like Beatrice Webb, but never – outside extreme circumstances – wanted to impose the proletarian dictatorship proposed by Marx. Nor during the rare times that workers’ council-type bodies gained power were the working class able to secure these institutions against the influence of outside parties and bureaucracies.
The actual 200 year record of the proletariat is heroic: it wanted control and cultural space within capitalism and would fight to the death for this, even against parties claiming to be communist. But it persistently refused to play the role of capitalism’s gravedigger.
However, all this is only a tragedy if you have never read the early Marx. In the so-called Paris Manuscripts of 1844, Marx argues that the ultimate goal is not communism; that humanity needs to overcome scarcity and to reconnect with its fundamentally social nature. Communism, says Marx, is only the initial form society will take once you abolish private property, but this itself is not the goal. Individual human freedom is the goal.
But since the individual human being created by mid-19th century capitalism cannot achieve it, there needs to be a collective subject to make it happen. The Marx of 1844 designated the working class the agent of human liberation because of the altruism, self-organisation and education he observed among the left wing workers of Paris.
If you see the networked individual of the early 21st century not as a degenerate offshoot from the proletariat but as an improvement on it, then it is possible to accept that Marx was wrong about the industrial working class while maintaining the belief human history has both an outcome (self-emancipation via the abolition of private property and the achievement of individual freedom) and a collective subject with the interest in achieving it.
It’s been clear since 2011 that this is the role that the networked, educated and connected people of the 21st century will have to play. Work, the working class, its culture and trade unions are not abolished, but the place of each one of these things in the progressive project has to be rethought.
What’s become clear to me since 2011 is that, just like the 19th and 20th century working class, the networked individual group will have to undergo a process of political maturity analogous to the one the British working class went through between 1889 and 1914.
Marx is thought to have distinguished between a class “in itself” and a class “for itself”. This too is the change that has to happen with the networked individuals.
The first concept can be summarised by the idea that “we have a common way of life, a common interest and we hate the rich”. The second concept can be pithily summarised by the words used at Jeremy Corbyn’s famous Seder celebration: “fuck capitalism!”
However, Marx’s account of working class consciousness was more complex, and the more complex version has relevance to our political tasks today.
Marx never used the term “a class in itself”. Discussing the spontaneous tendency of workers to form organisations in ‘The Poverty of Philosophy’, Marx says they become “a class against capital but not yet for itself”. This makes a lot more sense, especially in the original French, where the first condition is described as “une classe vis-à-vis capital” – i.e. both opposed to and defined in relation to capital.
What would it mean for the networked individuals to define themselves “vis-à-vis” capital today? Once you understand how 21st century capital exploits us, it’s obvious.
Today capitalism exploits us at not just at work, but through financial transactions and via consumption. We are “pro-sumers” in many different ways: our fashion choices create the value of global brands. In addition, huge new corporations have adopted business models based on harvesting the positive network effects of our online behaviour. In addition to that, as with all previous generations, capital exploits us by invading and commoditizing our ordinary human behaviour.
In its current form – overshadowed by a global debt mountain four times the size of annual GDP – this mixture of broken financial capitalism and unregulated info-capitalism relies heavily on coercion: we are coerced off disability benefits, coerced into competitive behaviour patterns, coerced away from cash as a store of value.
In addition, as long as people stick by the rules of market behaviour they are allowed to form all kinds of destructive power hierarchies – from organized crime to the culture of workplace harassment that triggered the #MeToo movement.
Almost everything the networked generation has done can be interpreted within the framework of resistance and adaptation to these new forms in which capital exploits us.
The #MeToo movement is just the latest example. Consumer boycott movements against cheap labour in garment factories; the widespread sit-ins in banks and pharmacies in 2010-11 launched by UK Uncut; the Occupy movement and its political aftermath – which was the occupation of the Labour party by tens of thousands of active, educated, young networked people – can all be seen through this lens.
In the USA, Black Lives Matter was a product of the independent means of communication, access to the legal system and, above all, the emergence of a networked and educated generation who had actually studied at school and college the movements they would now emulate.
Even where issues of social oppression collide – as with the increasingly bitter “trans vs radical feminist” dispute in the English speaking left – you are dealing with two sets of network-empowered people fighting for the right to define their own oppression and set social norms to alleviate it.
When they first emerged among the tech workforces of the 1990s studied by Richard Sennett, the behaviour patterns of networked individuals seemed negative from the point of view of social justice movements. They cultivated weak ties, refused to form permanent organisations, framed all struggles in terms of the self not the collective, and seemed at home in the most alienating of modern environments – the newly gentrified inner city. The title of Sennet’s 1998 book sums up how the effects of networked technology looked then: “The Corrosion of Character”.
Since then, I think it is fair to say that this new demographic (I would not call them a class in the sense of 20th century sociology) have defined themselves fairly clearly “vis-à-vis capital”, as Marx put it.
They don’t like its effects. They fight its effects sporadically and in a framework centred on the individual. But they have no overarching concept of collective liberation, and their political project is poorly articulated. However, that too is changing.
When Marx used the term “a class for itself” he added that “the struggle of class against class is a political struggle”. The evidence that a social group recognizes its own interests and begins to fight for them as a positive concept comes through political action.
The Arab Spring was a political action. So was Occupy. So were the Corbyn and Sanders movements. But so also was the Yes campaign in Scotland’s big cities. So was Catalonia’s referendum on 1 October 2017. So was the camp at Gezi Park. So was the US women’s march of 21 January 2018. So was the anti-Orban demo in Hungary a few weeks ago. So is the Repeal the 8th movement in Ireland.
All over the world what appear to be the defence of “liberal” values against authoritarian, racist conservatism are in fact much more than this. They are the defence of a new concept of freedom, in the face of coercion from markets, states and kleptocratic elites.
But the ultimate, and most revolutionary form of political action that can be taken amid a neoliberal system in crisis is to put a party into government committed to the positive goals and values of this demographic group.
Above I said that the group I am talking about is not a “class” in the sense that the proletariat was from around 1820 to say 1989. But EP Thompson once made the point that the 18th century working class also had to be defined using different criteria.
Thompson taught us not to apply the concept of class that emerged alongside the 19th century workforce retrospectively onto the class struggles of the 18th century. The players then were the gentry, the monarchy, the respectable cottage artisan and the urban crowd. You could discern a class struggle within these blurred lines only by refusing to use the factory proletariat as the framework.
By the same token if my blasphemous proposal is correct, and the proletariat has been replaced as the historical subject by a more diffuse behaviourally-identified layer of people, not defined by their role in production but also by consumption, culture, attitude and ideas – then we can’t hope to describe them adequately in a framework based purely on people’s relationship to work.
The social explosion of 1889 didn’t happen by itself. Tom Mann, the organiser of the Dock Strike, had been an activist in the Marxist-led Social Democratic Federation, a member of the engineering union when it functioned more like a brotherhood, and worked in the USA at the time of the anarchist-inspired eight hours campaign.
But once it did happen, it posed left wing thinkers and strategists with a major question: are we going to provide this movement – mass, cultural and inchoate as it is – with a sharpened political tool or not? Are we going to leave parliamentary politics to the liberals or burst through into the power system with something of our own?
If you listen to Eleanor Marx on a soap box in Hyde Park on Mayday in 1890, she’s trying to answer the problem in the old way: enough of strikes, fight for socialism and the eight hour day, she tells the crowd.
If you listen to Beatrice Webb, however, there’s the beginnings of a new answer. Webb understood that the power of capital was too strong to be defeated and restrained by meagre things like co-operatives or garment workers’ unions. You had to enact the co-operative principle at the level of the state, she wrote.
Fabianism is often accused of belittling the agency of ordinary workers, but at its inception it was an attempt to focus that agency around achievable – and massive – political goals.
Mann himself, in the aftermath of the Dock Strike, contributes a different principle: that through self-organisation, self-improvement and the struggle for control, workers can create the beginnings of the new world through their everyday practice.
Here’s what I think that means for Labour in Britain now. As Brecht once wrote: those who will change the world are the people who don’t like it. Right now, what these people don’t like about it is, in no particular order:
- the coercive and invasive nature of markets;
- the unfairness and rising inequality;
- the lawlessness and tax evasion of the rich;
- the perennial resort of elites to wars of aggression;
- the persistence of racism, sexism and homophobia in a world where they’re supposed to have disappeared;
- the return of fascism, xenophobia and ethnic nationalism;
- the unaccountability of elites; and
- the precariousness and often pointlessness of work.
As they move from simply resisting these impacts of capital to a more political goal, the Labour party has to be the tent in which they gather. There has to be room in the tent for the modern Tom Mann, who wants to build the new society from below through defiant practice. There has to be room for the modern-day Eleanor Marx, who can’t forget the left wing orthodoxy of the previous century. And there needs to be a Beatrice Webb, to tie it all together into a long-term strategy at the level of the state.
Once you conceive Labour’s strategic task as representing and empowering networked individuals who want to change the world, the tactical problems don’t go away, but they can be placed in the right framework.
Labour has to represent the networked individual: their values, culture, aspirations and political priorities. Insofar as these things are represented by other parties – as in young urban Scotland or in Green voting parts of Bristol and Brighton – it must expect, and live with, the fact of other progressive parties.
Labour’s programme cannot be a mishmash of last-century demands with a few deferential nods to the agenda of the networked, precarious, individually-minded people who form the core of its support base and membership.
The radical thinking that has begun under Corbyn and McDonnell – the exploration of new forms of ownership, new business models, commitments to co-operatives and consideration of the basic income idea – has to gain pace and deepen. It took the Labour party from 1901 until 1924 to stop issuing manifestos that were simply appeals for more democracy and demands for higher wages and welfare benefits. We don’t have that long in which to overhaul the programme, culture and strategy of British social democracy in a radical direction.
Right now, the attention of many Labour activists and pro-Corbyn MPs is being sapped by the tawdry rearguard action of a few Blairite die-hards who seem determined to form a new party after they have trashed the reputation of the old one. When the break with them comes – and all the signals are there that it is coming – the danger is that it will empower “old-think” inside Labour. People will run towards comfort blanket of Keynesian state management, welfarism and corporate nationalisations.
Instead we need a new, expansive radicalism that enables everybody who wants to resist capitalism’s invasion of the self – via markets, coercion, authoritarianism, xenophobia and illiberalism – to identify Labour as the tool they will use to change the world.
That means, in turn, a Labour party that is both more like a social movement and part of a wider collection of social movements. It is to that organizational question I will turn to in a future essay.
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