Working Class? . . . What Working Class?

Working Class? . . . What Working Class?

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.[1]

I make no apology for deploying this well-known quotation from the Communist Manifesto because I think that it does no harm to remind ourselves that the working class is the creation of capital, not of its own consciousness, nor of its myriad forms of cultural expression, nor of its transient sociological forms. Whether the working class can be the gravedigger of the relations and forces, which perpetually bring it into existence remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that defensive attempts to fix or freeze the working class at some specific point, or in a given historical moment, are doomed to failure.

E. P. Thompson’s brilliant book, The Making of the English Working Class[2] discusses the formation and culture of the working class in the opening decades of the first industrial revolution. His account ends at the time of the great reform act of 1832. Within thirty years of Thompson’s end point everything had changed yet again. Craft trade unionism and the prospect of wider manhood suffrage had opened up an entirely different picture. Twenty years after that, by the 1880s, capital had vastly increased the size of the working class and transformed its life – pulling it into new and unprecedented shapes – giving rise to industrial trade unionism, fish and chip shops, and the payment of wages to footballers. Throughout these phases different forms of workplace arrangement gave rise to different forms of organization amongst workers, different modes of life, different kinds of housing and neighbourhoods, different forms of cultural expression.

For a time it seemed that heavy engineering, coal mining, steel making, and the lives and communities associated with these activities, would define the working class in some permanent sense. But the completion of the national electricity grid by the late nineteen twenties, the location of many new points of production away from coal fields and the ‘traditional’ centres of manufacturing, begun to erode the proletarian world that had come into existence during the last two decades of Queen Victoria’s reign. The development of electric railway systems in tandem with the spread of the suburban semi gave rise to widespread home ownership among better off workers and the lower middle class. In the immediate post war years Labour and Tory councils brought the suburban semi to the working class in the form of enormous council estates, which subsequently formed the core of Margaret Thatcher’s mass extension of mortgages and home ownership.

Well before that, during the late nineteen fifties and early sixties, socialist observers were dismayed by the manner in which mass consumption appeared to be eroding the homogeneous character of working class communities, gradually replacing a tradition of solidarity and “common sharing” with social differentiation and a spirit of individuation.[3]  The working class was once again on the move, out of mines and mills and into retail shops, warehouses, and offices, using computer controlled lathes, and manufacturing microchips in clean rooms, on the move this time with bank accounts and monthly pay, towards higher living standards, two-wage households and credit on ‘easy terms’, towards further and higher education, moving inexorably towards temping, part-time jobs, ‘self-employment’, and in the fullness of time, towards the political oblivion with which we are now all too familiar.

At every stage of this development working people have responded to the changes imposed upon them with attempts to preserve an existing way of life whatever it was, and existing industries and working patterns however onerous and unrewarding. Fearing the disruption or even the disappearance of their mode of life wrought by technical innovation or the reorganization of the labour process workers have more or less spontaneously resisted the havoc wrought by the competitive need of that capital has to replace older ways of doing things with the latest machines, newfangled processes, and entirely novel branches of industry and commerce.

However, throughout the last three centuries labouring people have time and time again failed to stop the march of capitalist innovation. Indeed, as Marx and Engels noted long ago perpetual upheaval is the very lifeblood of capital – capitalism needs the “uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions”, it must create “everlasting uncertainty and agitation” or pass out of existence. From the Luddites in 1810 to the final destruction of the British coalmining industryby the early 1990s, particular trades with their associated skills have come into existence and passed away, taking with them ways of life, domestic circumstances, and cultural assumptions. Entire branches of industry and commerce have come and gone. Who now remembers the commercial lending library, the shop that recharged accumulator batteries, photomechanical typesetting, or comptometer operators? Union dues collectors, vibrant trades councils, and tumultuous public meetings, have gone the same way as the tallyman and the doorstep delivery of milk, passing out of existence as technology and novel social arrangements have recreated the working class, rearranged family life, sexual and gender relations, and necessitated new ways of living.

Who now remembers the world in which the rivers of every great city were choked with ocean going ships, rivers lined with literally miles of wharves, warehouses, and docks? Areas in which millions of men across the globe, from Hamburg, Rotterdam, London, Liverpool, Manchester, and New York, from San Francisco to Valparaiso, Shanghai and Sydney, lived with their wives and children in cramped tenements close by the shore in order to manhandle crates, sacks, and barrels, on and off merchant ships item by item. These were times when sailors would been in port for days and often weeks on end waiting for cargoes to be off-loaded and loaded before they could set sail again. Each separate item, a crate of oranges, a bolt of cloth, bundles of steel rods had to be manhandled off the ship and into the warehouse, each item counted and counted again at every stage of the process, in and out of the warehouse, on and off railway wagons or heavy-goods lorries.

For some, this remains an elegiac source of memory and inspiration:

Imagine the scene on Salford docks. The Manchester Ship Canal, a deep, wide, wide man-made waterway linking Manchester to the sea, 30 miles away; ships tied up along the quays as far as the eye can see; towering cranes forming an endlessly stretching picket, lining the edge of the water. Just behind the cranes, railway tracks and wagons being loaded or unloaded; behind the rail lines, a roadway with lorries moving and parked, loading and unloading; at the far side of the road, multi-storied warehouses stretching as far as the eye can see in a parallel line to the ships. Cranes dip delicately into the hatch-uncovered ships, lifting, or depositing heavy loads, moving from ship to warehouse and back again, high above the road and the rail line. Plying wrought steel hooks formed like question marks crossed at right angles on the base by a wooden handle, dockers move bags and crates, direct the movement on slings of long bars of steel, or motor cars, load and unload railway wagons; a barge here and there is being loaded in the water on the other side of a ship.[4]

This was a process in which dock labourers descended into the bowels of ships carrying hooks to grab sacks and goods bundled in nets ready to be carried shoulder high to pallets for the waiting cranes and hoists, or to be hauled by hand and muscle up ladders from the hold, and down over the side of the vessel to the dock or waiting barge. It was a dirty and dangerous way to earn a living:

Longshoremen had to be prepared to handle small cartons of delicate tropical fruit one day, tons of filthy carbon black the next. They labored sometimes in daylight, sometimes at night, in all weather conditions. Sweltering holds, icy docks, and rain slicked gangways were part of the job. The risk of tripping over a load of pipe or being knocked down by a draft on the hook was ever present. In Marseilles, forty-seven dockworkers were killed on the job between 1947 and 1957, while in Manchester, where dockers serviced oceangoing vessels that ascended a canal from the Irish Sea, one out of two longshoremen suffered an injury in 1950, and one out of six landed in the hospital. New York, with a lesser injury rate, reported 2,208 serious accidents in 1950.[5]

Each kind of cargo and product had a different handling price so there were thousands of different rates, which had to be calculated in order to determine the pay rate of each element of the dockers wages for each day or hour worked. It was, unsurprisingly, an immensely costly enterprise prone to perpetual strife as dockers and their unions attempted to secure high wages and better conditions.

Such circumstances prevailed well into the second half of the twentieth century and provoked prolonged and desperate battles between dockers, ship owners, government agencies, and transport companies.[6] However, this world began to unravel:

On April 26, 1956, a crane lifted fifty-eight aluminium truck bodies aboard an aging tanker ship moored in Newark, New Jersey. Five days later, the Ideal-X sailed into Houston, where fifty-eight trucks waited to take on the metal boxes and haul them to their destinations. Such was the beginning of a revolution.[7]

Although containers of different sizes and designs had been in existence since the 1930s, and possibly earlier, this shipment signalled the beginning of the end of dock labour as it had been known since the 1880s, and in many of its features, for centuries before that. Gradually, transport companies and manufacturers, opted for the use of containers over the shipping of loose cargoes. Containers could be packed at factories or warehouses – at source so to speak – well away from the docks, dockers and their truculent trade unions, well away from byzantine payment schedules, and interminable disputes concerning the precise nature of mixed cargoes, and specific freight and handling charges.

Dockers responded to this threat to their jobs and way of life by fighting tooth and nail against containerisation, at times refusing to handle containers altogether, and even demanding that containers be unpacked on the dockside and restuffed by unionised dock labour. They were, as we know roundly defeated during the course of protracted and bitter strikes and struggles, not just in Liverpool and London, but in New York and San Francisco, in Sydney, Hong Kong, and Valparaiso. Everywhere, the freight and shipping companies introduced the new system, designing and building new cranes and derricks,[8] and new port facilities to handle purpose-built container ships, which have, since the advent of computerisation, grown in size and sophistication. On the Manchester Ship Canal the docks, now organizationally integrated with the Port of Liverpool, were moved from Salford to a number of different container terminals along the route of the Canal. Now, the docks at Salford are lined with upscale apartments, and have become the site for a variety of different recreational, cultural, retail, and commercial uses. Docklands in all the great cities of the world have experienced the same process of redevelopment as modern freight terminals have been built well away from city centres to take advantage of road and rail networks and of new facilities that can load and unload vast ships in a matter of hours between tides.

The life of merchant seamen, waiting days and sometimes weeks for ships to be unloaded have been transformed as the stopover in port has shrunk to a few hours at most. Enormous ships and freight terminals are staffed with tiny crews and very small numbers of dockside workers. Where once ships required scores of seaman, and ports many hundreds of dock labourers, crews of less than a dozen are not uncommon, and ports are run by small groups of men operating automated loading and storage machinery all coordinated in pace with logistics systems which extend from factory to factory, and from factory to retail outlets, without interruption across the world.

This new freight system which began to come fully into existence during the course of the 1970s has transformed not only dock labour and freight handling, but has also made ‘just-in-time’ delivery and manufacturing possible, reducing the inventory which has to be held by companies, and making the global distribution of component manufacturing eminently practical – shifting production to the most efficient and profitable sites across the world – as freight movements have become timely and reliable, and the cost of shipping everything from knitwear to iron ore has tumbled year-on-year. So, containerisation has been a key component in the process of globalisation, and the relocation of jobs to take advantage of the economies offered by brand new points of production, and non-unionised labour.

In this way, containerisation has played a key role, along with digitalisation, and the invention of new materials and machines, in the reorganisation of the entire working class.

The political significance of this is that modes of revolutionary thought and organisation have not in any sense kept pace with the social and cultural transformations wrought by capital. Most of our thinking and certainly most of our organizations belong to the world as it was before 1965 the world of the first and second industrial revolutions – indeed this accounts for the love affair which the British left has with the Labour Government of 1945; it is fondly remembered as if it in some manner represented the wave of the future, rather than the desire of liberal politicians to stabilise society after the most destructive war in history. 1945, and the years which followed it, were years of austerity in which free healthcare, public housing, and educational reform, were introduced on the cheap, by an embattled Labour Government determined to maintain ‘Britain’s place in the world’ by waging colonial wars and developing a atomic bomb of its own.

Indeed, things did not begin to look up for the working class until the process of economic recovery, which coincided with the return of the Tories to power in 1951. It was then that the fairly lengthy process in which, rising prosperity, mass consumption, and commercial and industrial reorganization, began to alter the outlook and perspectives of many workers, unravelling and rearranging the working class into entirely new and bewildering configurations. The process, well advanced by the mid-sixties, had really taken hold by the late seventies, enabling subsequent wholesale assaults upon industrial trade unionism, which completely transformed the milieu in which left wing and revolutionary political activity took place.

Yet, strangely, our rhetoric, modes of analysis, forms of organization, styles of writing, and habits of thought, appear to have resisted all innovation and change. The internationalisation of our own working class continues to dismay us – despite all our banging on about racism and the fight against fascism, our organisations remain steadfastly white and Anglophone. It is true that we have eventually embraced the need for homosexual and gender equality at roughly the same pace as the bourgeoisie, we’ve embraced the ‘green agenda’ and moved the furniture around a little, again at roughly the same pace as the bourgeoisie, but in all essentials we still tend to talk and write about ‘the workers’ and ‘the working class’ as if these workers and this class were people with which we are familiar, as if we know what we’re talking about. The truth is that ‘the workers’ and ‘the working class’ are not the slightest bit interested in anything we have to say, even supposing ‘they’ do hear us from time to time.

How do I know this?

Well, I think our tiny numbers, and our inability to determine the nature and trajectory of cultural or political discourse are evidence enough. Despite mounting inequality, insecurity, and poverty, the left has made very little impact on the thinking of great swathes of the working class.

What can we do about it?

Stop obsessing about ourselves our modes of organisation, and our perennial concern with welfare and the public sector, and begin to start paying closer, more detailed attention, to the broader nature of the concerns and interests of the working class. The defence of welfare, public sector employment and services are of importance, but they are not ‘burning issues’ for a great many workers. Indeed many working people – even some of the poorest workers – have bought into the mainstream agenda on these issues. It is common within the working class to believe that foreigners and those dependent upon welfare are the source of many of our problems. These workers do not need lectures about liberal tolerance from us, but they do need to know exactly how socialist struggle and revolutionary politics are relevant to their circumstances. Maybe they work in small places with only a few other people, maybe they’re self-employed, Maybe they’re stuck at home with the kids or elderly relatives, or work on zero-hours contracts, maybe they’re broadly sympathetic to left-wing rhetoric, but at a loss to see how traditional trade unionism, or immigration or welfare campaigns relate to their circumstances, or to their general experience of the capitalist mode of life.

The disconnect between what has become the traditional left agenda – our traditional suite of concerns, and our ways of talking about them – on the one hand, and the working class on the other, is likely to get wider and more serious as time goes on. This, I think, has a lot to do with our being stuck in the past – there is a deep incoherence at the heart of our thinking about the working class – of course we know that a lot has changed since the early eighties – but we’re not sure what meaning these changes have for our political practice or our continued irrelevance to the outlook of most workers.

This is not about ‘catching up’ – the working class is constantly on the move responding to the changing demands of capital. The new waves of technical innovation and automation are going to forge the working class anew – they are going to alter the manner in which our consciousness is formed, what we imagine is possible, and what forms of organisation are plausible, both in the workplace and in the neighbourhoods where we live.

The lesson we need to learn from the history of the different waves of working class experience is that this experience itself is always fluid. Consequently, our rhetoric, our iconography, our forms of writing, speaking and organisation, can never be fixed at a given point and need always to set their face against conservative thinking in the struggle to establish what is going on in the working class, and exactly what needs to be done to strengthen a politics of social solidarity.



[1] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848), Translated by Samuel Moore, 1888, London: Penguin, 2002, pp.222-223.

[2]E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, published by Victor Gollancz in 1963 and by Pelican Books in 1968.

[3] See Stuart Hall’s discussion of the implications for socialists of rising levels of comfort and prosperity among the working class in his essay ‘The Supply of Demand’, in E. P. Thompson (ed.) Out of Apathy, London: Stevens, 1960.

[4] Sean Matgamna, ‘Militancy and Solidarity On the Docks in the 1960s: Remembering….’, Workers Liberty, 3 November, 2009 – 22:23:, last accessed May 1, 2014.

[5] Marc Levinson, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006, p.18.

[6] Bill Hunter, They Knew Why They Fought: Unofficial Struggles and Leadership on the Docks, 1945-1989, Index Books, 1994, passim.

[7] Marc Levinson, The Box, p.1.

[8] The first purpose-built cranes for handling containers were introduced at California’s Port of Alameda in 1959, Marc Levinson, The Box, p.65.

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