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Why did ‘working-class culture’ disintegrate in the 1980s? A sort of reply to Paul Mason

We must recognise the vital role of the working class in shaping their own culture.


Paul Mason recently published an interesting column on the Guardian website. What follows is a response to it. It’s not intended as a set of criticisms, but as a set of reflections provoked by Mason’s very important argument.

Mason’s short piece is a response to the news that statistics show white working class students to be the worst-performing demographic in British schools. He offers an explanation which in part (at no point does he claim it be an exhaustive explanation) accounts for this situation in terms of the destruction of working class culture in the 1980s. The point he makes – powerfully, and accurately – is that the destruction of that culture has left white working-class youth without a ‘story’ to tell about themselves, and that such a story is necessary for young people to be able to make sense of their place in the world and to motivate them to subject themselves to the forms of self-discipline which any educational programme requires. He makes the crucial analytical point that the period of mass unemployment of the 1980s was not merely an unfortunate byproduct of Thatcher’s economic policy, but was the result of a deliberate policy designed to destroy the basic infrastructure of working class culture in Britain, and thus to politically disable the British working class, permanently.

The ‘Working Class’: victims or agents of Thatcherism?

A potential problem with this account is that is portrays the industrial the working class as hapless victims of Thatcherism, overlooking the extent to which they themselves had already rejected the culture which Thatcherism finally killed off. This story of the working class as political victims can, if not treated carefully, reproduce the idea that working-class people are basically passive and helpless, unable to determine their collective destinies and unlikely to start doing so any time soon. Now, it’s very clear from almost all of his substantial writing that Mason doesn’t see things like that. So what I am offering here should be understood as additions and clarifications in the spirit of Mason’s own analysis, rather than as some kind of critique.

Nonetheless, it would be very understandable if my claim here were to raise hackles in many quarters. The idea that ‘the working class’ basically wanted Thatcherism is a key element of both the Blairite and Tory stories of our recent history. According to this version of our recent history, the British working class simply weren’t interested in defending the tedious culture of traditional solidarity, or its grey old world of municipal socialism, bureaucratic welfare, and boring factory labour: instead, they embraced consumerism and individualism with open arms.

Let me be clear that this is not what I’m saying at all. And yet – this version of the story clearly expresses a certain truth. There is surely something significant in the fact that today, in a culture which is saturated by nostalgia, hardly anyone looks back to the epoch of full employment as one which seems remotely culturally attractive. We might entertain time-travel fantasies of visiting Harlem in the 20s, Haight-Ashbury in 1967, or Paris at various points in the 19th or 20th centuries – but who wishes they could spend a week in Surbiton, 1955? (okay – Maurice Glasman probably does). What this shows is that there is some kind of truth in the claims made by the Blairites – that the colourful, instantly-gratifying world of contemporary consumer culture is the world that people asked to live in, and which most of them still wouldn’t want to trade for the security and social equality of post-war industrial society, or some neo-Keynesian revivification of it.

However, there is clearly just as much truth in the story told by Mason, which points out the brutality and violence with which that old industrial culture was shattered in the first half of the 1980s1. So what I am saying, in fact, is that the only account which can really make sense of this history is one that can encompass both Mason’s version and the Blairite story, while incorporating a key element which is pointedly left out of both of them. That element is simply this: the role played by working-class resistance in actively destabilising that industrial culture, long before Thatcher and her cohorts set out to annihilate its last remnants.

Fordism and its aftermath

There are a few important points to make here. One is that the industrial culture which Mason celebrates arguably hadn’t existed for that long anyway. Sections of the industrial working class had practiced mutual aid, self-help, autonomous education, etc. since the early 19th century, but the less romantic of our social historians will always points out that those traditions were, for most of that period, mainly confined to the most privileged sections of the class and were as much an expression of their pursuit of respectability, in an attempt to define their cultural difference from their poorer neighbours and compatriots, as they were about class-consciousness, or even Christian socialism. In many places, they were as likely to find expression in support for the Conservative party as for the Liberals or Labour, for almost all of the intervening period. The generalisation of those practices and values beyond the ‘aristocracy of labour’ arguably only even began with the New Unionism of the 1890s (which Mason himself has written about brilliantly), and only really became normative across the industrial working class in the middle decades of the 20th century.

This was the moment of ‘Fordism’, as described by Gramsci in the early 1930s, in what is still one of the most brilliant and prescient analyses in the history of modern radical thought. Gramsci recognised that the new industrialism being pioneered in Ford’s factories was not merely some continuation of previous forms of capitalism, but demanded the production of a ‘new type of man’ who would be both more disciplined in his habits, and less emotionally invested in the work process, than his predecessors amongst the unskilled and skilled working classes respectively. This new man, exhausted by assembly-line labour, would require the care and attention of a full-time housewife, resulting in a renewed intensification of the gendered division of social labour (although women had been exiting the industrial labour market in waves since the mid 19th century). At the same time Gramsci, predicted, these new industrial workers might be expected to demonstrate a militancy and a capacity for self-organisation which would be superior to that of their predecessors. He was right: this was the generation of industrial workers who won the most significant set of social reforms in history, across the capitalist world.

So the culture which disappeared at the beginning of the 1980s was not simply the organic legacy of generations of working-class self-organisation. It was the particular social form into which that tradition had crystallised under Fordist conditions. It was characterised by collectivism and a certain egalitarianism, but also by the highly conformist mentality which has meant that we still remember the 40s and 50s as an epoch of grey homogeneity to which few would wish to return. Perhaps more fundamentally, it was a culture which demanded a level of emotional repression – especially from men – which had precedents, but arguably few equals; which created arguably the worst social conditions in history for gay people; which expected from young people a level of deference to their elders which the apprentices and young working women even of previous generations would have found intolerable; and which above all depended on the subjugation of women at a time when other technological and social changes were making that condition seem increasingly anachronistic. Notoriously, the conformist culture of Fordism found various types of cultural difference extremely difficult to tolerate: in particular, the new immigrants from the Commonwealth were expected to assimilate to ‘British’ ways of living, or to expect social and economic rejection from all sides. At the same time, at the political level, the Fordist version of social democracy depended upon the abandonment of traditional socialist aspirations for the democratisation of industry and the ending of alienated labour – be it through the automation of industrial processes or the institution of new systems of workers’ control.

It was against these limitations and compromises that the radical movements of the 1960s and 70s (including a new wave of worker militancy) were ranged, and it was their demands for a democratic transformation of the culture which destabilised Fordist society before anything else. At the same time, large numbers of young workers, and most importantly women of all ages, found new forms of self-expression in the expanding consumer culture, which may have ended up finally being captured by neoliberal consumerism in the post-Thatcher era, but which were not inevitably destined to be so. The hope of the counterculture was that the search for a kind of cultural freedom expressed by the new hedonism need not lead only to a weakening of working-class solidarity, but might be naturally resonant with a new political utopianism. We’ve been taught for the past few decades that this was a hope that could never come to anything – but that’s not how the authorities in the early '70s saw it. Any study of elite discourse at the time makes clear the sheer panic which was gripping the capitalist and security elites at the time, as the threat posed by this convergence of demands and desires became clear.

The crucial point here is that the destabilisation of Fordist industrial culture was well under way long before Thatcher came on the scene in any significant way, and that that destabilisation was driven as much by the attempts of the most radical sections of the working class to to transcend its limitations as by any other factor. Everything Mason says about the ultimate outcomes of that history is true. But left thought and left politics are not served at all by any conception of this history which imagines that the Fordist world would have been sustainable if only it hadn’t been for Thatcher. Working people themselves had done with it long before 1979. The elements of the industrial working class who Thatcher assaulted in the early 80s were already residual, and their leaderships realised far too late what the New Left had been trying to tell them since the early 60s: that without a radical democratisation of their aims and their practices, without an embrace of feminism and cosmopolitanism, without an understanding of the technological revolutions which were already well under way - they would be doomed.

That nature of neoliberal hegemony

The other element of Mason’s argument in his column which I think needs a bit of revision or clarification is his assertion that the Right had only had to make this one singular assault on the working class, in the early 80s, in order to disable it forever. In a certain sense he is of course correct – the British working class, and with it the British Left, has still simply never recovered – organisationally, politically, culturally – from the hammer blow of 1984-5. However something significant is left out of that claim. It is not simply the case that working class culture had its industrial infrastructure undermined during that period, and has been left to languish ever since. Rather, every single year since 1984 has seen some new state initiative aimed more or less directly at preventing the re-emergence of any sense of social solidarity and collective potency among the working population. Neoliberal hegemony is dependent on constant work to make sure that popular media stay on-message with a culture of competitive individualism and political apathy, on constant harassment of and intervention in the public sector to prevent it from becoming a site at which ideas and practices of collective self-empowerment can re-emerge, on deliberate social engineering to make sure that working class communities do not re-discover their own capacities – which they threaten to do constantly.

It is interesting to reflect that part of what is at stake here is, again, the issue of working-class agency. To put it very crudely – I tend to think that, left to its own devices, the contemporary working class – exploited, over-worked, indebted, but networked, online, able to communicate with itself by the millions at the touch of a button – would have risen up against its increasingly venal and shameless masters years ago (as even the Metropolitan Police predicted would happen after 2008), were it not for the enormous ideological work which is done on a daily basis to dissuade them from doing so, and to make doing so difficult. It’s true that post-Fordist conditions of work make traditional forms of labour organisation difficult to reproduce (it’s harder to organise a call-centre than a steel plant). But new organisational forms should be so easy to implement in the age of the internet (as Mason himself has sort of argued many times), that their failure to emerge cannot simply be explained as a consequence of the social defeats of 30 years ago.

The key thing, to put this much more simply, is to recognise that huge amounts of work are done all the time by elite agencies to ensure that new forms of class solidarity do not emerge. They don’t simply fail to emerge, but have to be actively prevented from doing so, because the potential for them and for real working-class agency is as real and as dangerous as it ever was.

Telling tales, building futures

Mason, of course, is absolutely right that the lack of stories that we can tell about ourselves is one of the key factors which disables and depoliticises working class class culture, and indeed our political culture as a whole. This is precisely why I think that the story of the radical upsurge which preceded and provoked the neoliberal assault is so important.

It is, on one level, a story of defeat: the radical democratic hopes of that 1965-75 moment were defeated, as the energies which motivated them were captured or dispersed by the privatising logic of neoliberal consumer culture, as well as by the fragmentation of the workforce and the dispersal of local communities. But a story of defeat is more empowering than a story of implacable inevitability, which is the one we usually get about the relationship between the 60s/70s and the 80s. I can’t count the number of times that some student or some audience-member at a talk I’ve been giving has parroted the cliché that ‘the 60s’ led inevitably to Thatcherism / consumerism / the 90s / etc. This is the single biggest and most important lie of our times, and it is the one which I think all would-be truth-tellers, be they journalists, academics, or anyone, else, have a certain duty to try to counter. It is the story which important works of popular history such as John Medhurst’s That Option No Longer Exists have been recently trying to overturn2 (see also Ben Little here on openDemocracy).

But more important than any of these issues is the key thing which Mason gets absolutely right in his account: the fundamental historical importance of knowledge-acquisition and self-education to cultures of working class organisation. Now, there’s an interesting point here. Even in Mason’s own account, it’s clear that there was always a certain tension between the this tradition of self-improvement and intellectual aspiration, and a culture which made the shared experience of routinised manual labour into the basis for social solidarity and community identification. That tradition drew both on radical socialism and on the conservative individualism of the Samuel Smiles ‘self-help’ tradition, as well as various other religious and political sources. In many cases it could simply motivate individuals to want to better themselves personally enough to leave the working-class behind. But it in its most radical manifestations, it was the basis for that current of utopian socialism which ran from the Owenites, through William Morris, to the radicalism of the early 70s, and which finds an echo in contemporary calls for a ‘post-work’ society. It was a culture which valued both tradition and an orientation to a better future, and which believed in the power of art and ideas. It was a culture which still had some life in it when an 80 year-old comrade at a Labour party branch meeting handed me a copy of Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, some time in 1989.

This culture was demolished not just by Thatcherism, but also by New Labour’s contempt for working class culture and its fetishisation of elitism, its dream of a technocracy governed by think tanks and PPE graduates, in which the ‘brightest and the best’ of the working class would have been trained to think like members of the elite from as early an age as possible, and everyone else could go get a job in a call-centre. Any attempt to rebuild the political left must seek also to build a new and comparable culture of radical knowledge and collective self-belief. The tools are all there for us – the architects of the Workers Education Association and the Left Book Club (pillars of radical self-education in there time) could barely have dreamed of what the internet, Youtube and podcasting might yet make possible in terms of rebuilding a culture of radical collective inquiry and shared learning. Projects like openDemocracy, Novara Media, Red Pepper, Brick Lane Debates, People’s PPE. Open School EaSt and various others are playing their part today in the UK and beyond. And few individuals in the public gaze embody the possibility of a popular left intellectualism better than Paul Mason. If we can build on these elements in the 21st century, then a future worthy of that past might still lie before us.

1 Indeed on this point I would go further than Mason - it wasn’t just unemployment that was used as a tool of social engineering at that time. Thatcher’s militarisation of the police, and the authorities’ violent deployment of them against urban black communities, trade unionists, and even festival-going hippies, was a key precondition for the enactment of her broader political project.

2 In a comment on my original FB post, Dave Boyle recommends Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive as a history of the same set of processes which we are discussing here in the United States.

About the author

Jeremy Gilbert is Professor of Cultural and Political Theory at the University of East London. His most recent book is Common Ground. See for more information, or follow @jemgilbert.

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