Friday, 11 March 2011

Why do journalists and politicians care so much about the 'plight of the white working class'?

In recent years, journalists and politicians have drawn attention to what they describe as the "plight of the white working class." According to Leo McKinstry, for example,

“Anti-racism has become the central theme of today's political culture, yet the obsessive concern for racial sensitivities rarely seems to be applied to the white working class. This is the one ethnic group that it is perfectly acceptable to insult and ignore.

Once regarded as the backbone of Britain, the people who saved our country in two world wars, the indigenous, less affluent, sector of the population is now treated with contempt by liberal elitists, who sneer at the supposed idleness, vulgarity, xenophobia and ignorance of so-called "chavs" or "white trash”.

Hazel Blears added: “White working-class people living on estates sometimes just don't feel anyone is listening or speaking up for them"

On surface these concerns seem legitimate. The term 'white working class’, however, is actually an oxymoron.  That is to say, it is primarily used to blame immigrants and ethnic minorities for the social and economic problems that are caused by the inequalities which exist within the 'indigenous' white population. Poor people from different ethnic groups do experience oppression quantitatively and qualitatively in different ways, but we need to understand how these forms of oppression function within the overarching system of class exploitation.

What is class exploitation? To answer this question we need to draw on the work of Karl Marx. Marx explained that one's class position was defined by how one stood in relation to the means of production. In every society (except the most primitive) those who own and control the means of production (farms, mines, factories tools etc.) are the ruling class and those who do not own them are exploited because they have no choice but to produce food, housing, clothing and so on for those who do.

For Marx, the conflict between workers and a small, wealthy class of non-producers was the driving force of human history and the conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie would be the culmination of this struggle. The proletariat that Marx was writing about has obviously become more heterogeneous over the last few decades as more and more of us now work in offices and the service industry.

Therefore, argues Professor Michael Bray (2008, in 'The Office and Philosophy', p.120), "the clear dualism that underlay Marx's reading of modern society - the antagonism between the capitalists, who own the means of production, and the working class, which owns nothing but it's labo(u)r - seems to vanish into a mass of workers of different grades, positions and powers". It is fair to say that Bray is guilty of hyperbole. Changes in the world of work have tended to neutralise 'class for itself', but 'class in itself' remains intact. Certainly, in the West at least, the revolution that Marx prophesied does seem to be a long way off but if we focus on trying to erode the root cause of social and economic problems - i.e. the huge gap between the rich and the poor - we remain within the framework of class conflict.

However, when we talk about the 'white working class' the exact opposite becomes true. The term 'white working class' allows people to deny that they possess the state of mind which psychologists have called 'ethnocentric'. Journalists and politicians claim that they are not racist, but when they focus on the reasons why it so difficult for poor white people to find decent jobs and affordable housing they, deliberately or otherwise, stay silent about class conflict and thrust race and immigration to the centre of the stage. This is the main reason why there is a huge gap between prejudice and reality. A recent Populus survey revealed that 48% of us would consider supporting a new anti-immigration party. This is shocking, but xenophobia in Britain has a long history.  A hundred years ago, for instance, it was just as ubiquitous as it is today. Robert Tressell explained why in his classic novel, 'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists':

"The papers they read were filled with vague and alarming accounts (about) the enormous number of aliens constantly arriving, and their destitute conditions, how they lived, the crimes they committed, and the injury they did to British trade. These were the seeds which, cunningly sewn in their minds, caused to grow up within them a bitter undiscriminating hatred of foreigners"(1993 [1914], p. 23).

The 'aliens' who were being used as scapegoats back then are our ancestors, and those are who are inveighed against in today's papers are the relatives of future generations. The question we need to ask ourselves then is, will we continue to let the seeds of bitterness and hatred grow in our minds or will we see our common bond as workers facing those who are really responsible for the problems we care about?

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