Class Warfare, then and now

Like most Londoners, I am can’t look away from the awfulness of the Grenfell Tower fire and its aftermath. The death toll is at 30 and rising. Recriminations are flying.

Jonathan Freedland, writing in the Guardian, argues:

Grenfell Tower should mark a point of no return. No return to the frenzied deregulation, cost-cutting and rampant inequality of the last four decades. These are not new evils. They have been lurking for many years. But it took the light of a burning building for the whole nation to see them.

These are not new evils.

working classThis is point is fresh and urgent in light of my current reading, Friedrich Engels’ sociological classic The Condition of the Working Class in EnglandWritten in the 1840s, it reports with unsparing detail and more than a dash of bleak humour, on the mindless cruelties meted out on the poor.

Deregulation, cost-cutting and rampant inequality in the Industrial Era meant children in working in glass factories that were so hot the floor would burst into flames under their feet. It meant girls working 18 to 20 hour days in London sweatshops, sewing the elaborate dresses worn by their social superiors. It meant women giving birth and staggering back to the factory floor within days to slave for 12 or 14 hours at a stretch, bodies oozing milk and blood.

It also meant violence. At one point Engels defends the courage of the English working class by listing “Incendiarisms and attempted explosions.” In the course of a four months attempts were made to blow up three different factories in Sheffield, a knife and file works at nearby Shales Moor, and factories in Bury and Bolton. “Six cases in four months,” he notes, “all of which have their sole origin in the embitterment of the working-men against the employers. What sort of a social state it must be in which such things are possible I hardly need say.” (Italics mine)

It is the same sort of social state where dozens of people can die trapped in unimaginable horror because some bean-counter wanted to save a few quid. The same social state where corporations dodge billions of pounds in tax while the government merrily guts programmes that help the poor. It is the same sort of state as its Victorian equivalent that judges people’s worth based on capital.

Modern Tories, like the Victorian bourgeoisie, pay lip service to hard work. They tell us it is the path to dignity and fulfillment and social inclusion. That’s why you should do it for eight, 10, 12 hours per day, as many days a week as your employer sees fit. This is why you should accept zero hour contracts and hustle a second or third shift for Uber or Deliveroo (companies awash in unearned capital).

This is a lie, like everything else that seeps through their pursed lips. Capitalism, as an economic system, is not designed to reward work. If it were, cleaners would be making six-figures and braying public school boys would be on the dole. If it were the jobs that barely deliver a living wage in Britain, like social work, teaching, nursing, fire-fighting, caring, would make people rich.

veblenThe severing of the link between work and wealth is not an aberration of capitalism, it is the ideal. It isn’t a flaw; the system is working perfectly. Capitalism is designed to support the accumulation and concentration of capital. Concentration, by definition, means something that belongs to the few. A good starting point for understanding this is Thorsten Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class.

Britain remains in the grip of its old evils because industrial capitalism evolved with a ruthless self-protection mechanism. English children no longer dip pottery into buckets of lead glaze with their bare hands, or die of consumption after inhaling industrial grit their entire lives. We’re not barbarians after all. Now the bourgeoisie suffocates the proletariat with hell of meaningless, repetitive, sub-living wage jobs.

“Nothing is more terrible than being constrained to do some one thing every day from morning until night against one’s will,” Engels writes. “And the more a man the worker feels himself, the more hateful must his work be to him, because he feels the constraint, the aimlessness of it for himself. Why does he work? For a love of work?… Not at all! He works for money, for a thing which has nothing whatsoever to do with the work itself; and he works so long, moreover, and in such unbroken monotony, that this alone must make his work a torture.”

Tories, like the factory barons of the 19th century, believe this torture is the birthright of the non-privileged. If you arrive in the world with capital you can participate in it with their blessing, otherwise, you can work.

This callousness rarely spills into overt murder in the enlightened 21th century. When it does, as with Grenfell Tower, it is an unfortunate outcome of fiscal prudence. Saving a few thousands pounds while insulating a tower block is perfectly reasonable. After all, there are MPs expenses to pay, second homes to keep up, children to send to private schools. These exquisite capitalists are generous about their own needs but frugal when it is someone else’s life in the balance.

I would like to have some pithy words of advice to wrap this up. A five-point plan, maybe, or six tips for survival. I’m sorry to say, nothing springs to mind. I’m mired in this system just as much as you, they and we all are. klein

“Protest and Persist” by Rebecca Solnit offers powerful ideas. Naomi Klein’s new book No Is Not Enough might have some pointers. If you have any suggestions, thoughts, or have a story to share, jump into the comments or Tweet @CilaWarncke.