Class consciousness. Its why the Labour Party lost the 2019 election.
25th December 2019
I am from a small political group based in Boston Lincolnshire. Although we all hold slightly different political views, we are all united in the belief that the political system is undemocratic and is holding Britain back. I personally write about these issues from a Classical Marxist perspective usually for a centre-right audience. In view of the recent Tory Party General Election success, I thought you might like to consider our broad view on their success and Labour’s failure to connect with the electorate – particularly their traditional electoral strongholds in the Midlands and North.
To understand the Tory Party success in the 2019 General Election it is necessary to grasp the concept of voter consciousness and to view this through the prism of classical Marxism. At Blue Revolution, we offer a twenty-first-century Marxist analysis which we hope will inform debates across the whole political spectrum and which we hope will contribute to the development of radical and progressive policies. The aim of these policies would be the continued empowerment of ordinary working people; the modern working class.
Until the late twentieth century, working-class militancy was driven by fury at the perception of burning economic and social injustices. These injustices were linked by the British left-wing, to the illegitimate use of economic elitism, unfairness and class-based status. The Tory Party became to many on the left and remains for some, the enduring political symbol of these injustices. However, there is a growing awareness among working people that the situation is more complicated than this simple political trope suggests. Working people have enjoyed growing political sophistication explained in Marxist terms as raised consciousness. People can see through political simplicities.
The consciousness of the working class is, according to Marx, formed by a complex set of significant economic and social factors. There was the industrial reality of the nineteenth century that demanded worker co-operation in the production of goods and services, yet simultaneously alienated them from the working environment. Alienation is a feeling of being disconnected from the process of production – being in effect simply a cog in a wheel.
Another significant factor in the development of worker consciousness was ‘exploitation’. Whilst workers created wealth, they saw no benefit from having done so. Only the bourgeoisie aka capitalists got rich on the wealth created by workers’ labour-power. In Marx’s day ordinary workers worked long unregulated hours, they were ill-educated, unhealthy and poor with no political rights.
Capitalism in its creation had struggled out from under the ‘yoke’ of feudalism by developing revolutionary legal principles; most relevantly, contract, choice and consent. In the 1840s these principles, of course, were only enjoyed by the capitalists, but in theory, as opposed to eighteenth and nineteenth-century practice they could legally apply to the working class too. The fact they didn’t was due to the capitalists preventing working people from enjoying these principles to maintain their ‘class advantage’.
Whilst the capitalist system was good for capitalists and the political elite who maintained this ‘bourgeois’ political system and economy for them, it was bad for workers. In Marxist terms, it had within it the ‘the seeds of its own destruction’. These seeds were growing resentment at the poor treatment of workers, coupled to rising worker consciousness of the capitalist systems legal principles of contract, choice and consent. Over time workers become aware of how these legal principles were being used illegitimately to promote elitism and unfairness. The upshot according to Marx would be a revolution.
To overcome their enforced alienation, exploitation and denial of the rights to ‘freely’ contract, choose and consent, workers had to overcome false consciousness. Religion, the concept of a capitalist ‘fair wage’ and exclusion from political power, all helped to reinforced worker false consciousness or acceptance of the status quo. Having acquired collective raised consciousness i.e. being able to see disadvantage and being unwilling to accept it, a revolution would ensue.
After the revolution, the workers would acquire for themselves the rights associated with the bourgeoisie. Had an actual Marxist revolution ever taken place the working class would not only have assumed control of the means of production – thus ending alienation and exploitation – but they would take control of the state too, thus providing for themselves an education, welfare and healthcare. The Russian revolution failed to deliver ‘justice’ because the people were denied power by Lenin and then Stalin’s autocratic state.
As a result of progressive social policies in Britain, the circumstances for modern working people do not resemble those of the nineteenth-century proletariat. Working people have acquired many of the economic freedoms and social benefits denied to us in Marx’s mid-nineteenth century. We have thus had our collective demands fulfilled by evolution rather than revolution. This has removed the anger which fuelled the urge for revolution amongst our forebears. Our collective consciousness no longer demands, but now expects worker’s rights to be upheld, universal education, healthcare and a fair welfare system. The working class has moved on. Sadly, our political system hasn’t moved on with us.
Where the bourgeois system continues to alienate the working class is now not so much in economic as political terms. Parliament itself stands as a proud symbol of bourgeois status, class and elitism, denying the working class the political power a properly Marxist revolution would have delivered.
Working-class consciousness is now shaped by contract, choice and consent, the enlightenment principles underpinning the free market. People might not routinely articulate these principles, but as Marx would have said that’s because as principles they have taken on ‘social character’. People don’t need to articulate them, but they feel it when these principles are breached against their class interests. These principles more than the burning social and economic injustices of the nineteenth century define the collective consciousness of the twenty-first century working class.
That said ordinary people have a growing awareness that these principles remain gifts to be granted to working people by those in power. They do not belong to us by right. The Brexit debacle proved that. Our bourgeois parliament controls our nation and is not under any obligation to us. A referendum is only ever advisory. It advises our bourgeois parliament, which is quite within its rights to ignore our views.
Bourgeois political systems across the western world continue to maintain political power structures based on eighteenth-century elitism in the face of working-class demands for greater contract and consent. There is a growing recognition that elitist political structures don’t justify the existence of political elites. The reality for working people ‘buffering’ against the old elitist structures has created a fractious political climate that the personality of Boris Johnson and his apparent stance on Brexit has been able to temporarily overcome. Hence his landslide victory.
There are many policy areas where people have been denied a voice by the Westminster political class; the policy of greater EU integration or the war in Iraq are two. However, we will look at Brexit and the continuing influence of ‘religion’ in politics. The aim is to illustrate the point that a new twenty-first-century radicalism is needed which is relevant to working people’s expectations and brings an end to political structures that neither reflect modern working-class consciousness nor promote progressive values but reinforce political elitism.
In 2016 the British had Project Fear unleashed on them by a Brussels-obsessed political elite. The elite promoted unfairness by failing to listen to ordinary people and by promoting themselves as an entitled and informed political class. The narrowness of the leave victory was a success for Project Fear. The triumph of a white, middle-class and remote parliamentary elite offended the class consciousness of Britain’s working people. The British working class with no ‘skin’ in the EU game recognised that the EU project was bureaucratic, unfathomable and unnecessary for the business of trade and friendship. The upshot of parliament supporting the EU was a miserable failure of the bourgeois left to make headway on this issue in the 2019 General Election. The left had stopped listening to working people and had consolidated around their London elite. The EU issue was also a failure of the political system to reflect working people’s expectations and highlighted how little real power we have. The success of Boris Johnson will be used to justify the current political system, which for growing numbers of working people is simply not good enough.
Our next issue being more about modern values than policy reflects the absence of a confident political maturity on the part of the political class compared to the maturity of Britain’s working people.
Most people in Britain have no time for religion and fewer than half believe in God. This is an important and progressive part of working-class collective consciousness. Of those who do believe in God, their God if Judaeo Christian or Islamic comes packaged as an ideology that Karl Marx said reflected various stages in the development of humanity’s evolving consciousness.
We have a working class that is perhaps mildly interested in cultural symbolism but is basically disinterested in God or religion. A bit culturally Christian but possessing an enlightened consciousness based on choice and consent underpinned not by God but by science. This large class has been forced to witness uncritical support for the faith of Islam, a faith that reveals doctrinally no grasp of the importance of choice and consent but which is regularly promoted and protected from criticism by a culturally-illiterate and largely (but not exclusively) left-wing elite.
By failing to understand the basic fact that the history of God is a history of class exploitation and gender discrimination of one sort or another, the left is failing to connect with working-class values of the twenty-first century.
If the left continues to promote religious ideologies of all types which are seen by working people to promote sectarianism, as well as divinely sanctioned discrimination, particularly against gay people and women, it will never be considered progressive. Moreover, it goes against the grain of classical Marxism, being a failure on the part of the left to liberate people from the remnants of global exploitation and oppression, which continues to be justified on the basis that it’s divinely ordained. Think Iran and Saudi Arabia.
In the twenty-first century the challenge for western politics is to reform our elite political systems so working people have more influence over the state and those who operate it on our behalf. Currently, the only option open to working people is to seek out political heroes and give them landslide majorities. The Labour Party hoped Corbyn would do this in 2017 and 2019. The process of a personality like Thatcher, Blair, Corbyn, Johnson or Trump tapping into working-class consciousness isn’t new. When it happens, it is a symptom that the political system is unwilling or incapable of giving real power to working people. Under such a system working people only have hero-worship to fall back on and that has, in the past, gone badly wrong! Sadly, as was seen during the 2019 General Election campaign having ‘outspoken’ working-class candidates supposedly representing working-class people isn’t the same as giving working-class people real political power.
So, what are the radicals who are prepared to break the system from the left or indeed right going to do? Well, we have some ideas which are intended to empower local authority council members to scrutinise parliamentary policy and in time acquire the right to become part of the legislature. This would run alongside scrapping the House of Lords. We hope you will do your bit to shift the debate about democracy away from making the current system look like its working and argue for changing the current system – because frankly, it doesn’t work and never really has worked for the many, just the few.
Mike Gilbert part of a Blue Revolution