“Class conflict has gradually been diluted by growing affluence. ” “The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle. ” This famous opening line from Marx Communist Manifesto refers to the struggle between the labouring, working classes and the bourgeoisie owners of the means of production. The proletariat are exploited by the capitalists for profit and are therefore forced to live in poverty and dire conditions. Marx predicted that eventually the proletariat would overthrow this capitalist system and replace it with a system which is often referred to as Communist – whereby the workers ave control.
Today, whenever the words ‘class’ or ‘class conflict’ are mentioned people usually turn to Marx definition and picture the poor worker fighting for better pay, better living and working conditions. The typical class conflict is typified as workers versus the owners, or bourgeoisie. In Britain this struggle did not develop in the way that Marx predicted — there has never been a genuine proletariat revolutionary threat. In its place has been a tradition of reformist socialism with the Labour Party and the Trades Unions being the main campaigners.
In Britain the raditional class conflict is often depicted as Labour Party versus Conservative Party. The Labour Party have fought for workers rights and have been supported at elections by the working class, whereas the Conservatives have drawn most of their support from the middle classes. It is argued that today this traditional class conflict, depicted in no better fashion than the Miners’ Strike of 1984, has been diluted by growing affluence. In otherwords the working class have become economically better off.
They were given the right to buy council houses, to own shares and have, it is argued, become more middle class. The working class today have a lot more to lose in a fierce class struggle and are therefore happy to uphold the system. The huge decline in the traditional industries, such as coal, has coincided with a rise in the size of the non-manual, service industry – the sphere in which the ‘middle classes’ tend to be employed. In 1964 50% of the workforce were employed in the manual sector, compared to 36% in 1992. These figures coincide with a 15% rise in the non-manual, ‘petty bourgeoisie’ jobs.
Whilst there may be some truth in this ‘embourgeoisement’ theory, there is also no doubting the fact that it is an exaggerated view. To say that ‘we are all middle class’ (Blair 1998) is an absurdity. Class conflict may have been subdued but not only because of growing affluence. The capitalists have managed to silence what was once a noisy class. They have succeeded in converting some workers into their own middle classes and at the same time have managed to push many out of the system all together. Those who do not have the luxury of being working class now have no voice.
The unemployed and the homeless have been completely alienated from the system. If the capitalist system had not advanced to the complex system it is now – whereby employers enjoy he luxury of a surplus of labour – then class conflict would still be prevalent. The dilution of traditional class conflict can in part be explained by growing affluence. The Thatcher reforms of the 1980s have enabled some individual members of the working class to better themselves. The selling of council houses gave people a stake in society for the first time.
The privatisation of many industries, such as British Telecom gave employees shares for the first time. Once people gained this stake they would be less inclined to ‘bay for revolutionary blood. ’ (This idea can also be found today under New Labours plans for a stake holder ociety and is directly mentioned in the new clause IV). Thatchers belief in ’self help’ and Classical Liberalism meant that individuals had to take greater responsibility for themselves. They had less state welfare and there was greater emphasis on self provision. As a result some became more affluent.
This individual affluence then meant that the traditional working class spirit of community and sticking together was eroded and with it the threat of unified discontent. The working classes were now pitted against each other not for each other. To credit the demise of class conflict to growing affluence alone is to iss other significant reasons, however. The 1980s saw an incredible ideological clash which saw the New Right come out on top. Thatcher despised socialism and the Trade Union ‘dinosaurs’ and waged a war against all that they stood for.
The defeat of the Miners in 1984 and the anti-Trade Union legislation which followed (e. g. the banning of secondary picketing) meant that even if people wanted to campaign for better conditions they could not. Affluence had nothing to do with this ideological clash. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR at the end of the 1980s served to dilute class conflict. Socialism, it appeared, had been defeated by the Western powers and this prompted the likes of Francis Fukoyama to declare the ‘End of History’.
Fukoyama argued that history in terms of class struggle was over and that a new liberal, social-democratic consensus had emerged. The New Labour party support this claim arguing that the only way forward is the ‘Third Way’, consisting of improving social conditions in the now global context. The emergence of New Labour, conceived with the new clause IV and born in 1997, may be, some have argued, the final nail in the coffin of class conflict. Those who had campaigned for a Labour government for the 18 years of Conservative rule now feel that they should be grateful with what was achieved in 1997.
Many now feel as if they should not ask for more as they owe ’so much’ to Blair. Blairs union of all the classes in the 1997 election,with many traditional Conservatives voting Labour, may be his reason for describing everyone as middle class. The apparent watering down of class conflict does have some validity but it must not be seen as the complete picture. Class conflict is far from extinction. The traditional elites still dominate our system, with ust under 80% of High Court judges coming out of public school and Oxbridge.
Very similar figures apply equally to the Civil Service and to the high ranking army officers. The idea of a huge, contented middle class is not much more than the latest concept designed to uphold the capitalist system. Capitalism as a system, it is argued, has a unique way of maintaining itself. To suggest that class conflict has been diluted is to say that everyone within the system has got what they want. What this does not include, however, is the existence of a new under class. A class even lower than he working class. A class which finds itself almost entirely excluded from the capitalist system.
The rise of the new lower middle classes in the 1980s has resulted in a group of people who are no longer offered a voice. Traditionally the Labour party, in standing up for the working class, has also, as a result stood up for the impoverished underclass as well. But now that Labour stands for the new middle classes there is no one standing up for the ones Thatcher left behind. There is no conflict today not because everyone is contented but because they have had their voice taken away. The causes of class conflict still exist. But they have been successfully silenced by the traditional elites.
By perpetuating the myth of everyone being content, middle class stakeholders those who are not feel inhibited. They are reluctant to speak out for fear of being outcast even further. The idea of greater affluence may also be exaggerated. In 1980, for example, 5% of households had no wage earners. In 1995 this had risen to 20%. The myth of share ownership and shared wealth can also be dispelled. In 1993 88% of shares rested in the hands of 4% of the population and 48% of the country’s wealth ested in the bank accounts of just 10% of the population.
This figures are conveniently ignored by those intent on subduing class conflict. In 1999 there is still poverty, still unemployment, still low wages and still exploitation. Capitalism has evolved and advanced to such a level that employers have almost total control. Conflict has been silenced by the surplus of labour, peoples fear of losing their jobs, by the exaggeration of the middle class myth and the ideological war that was waged some what successfully in the 1980s. The higher standards for the new middle class need to be maintained by he capitalist system if class conflict is to be subdued for good.
Marx theory of the capitalist cycle could still be said to apply today. The early 20th century saw the development of the labour movement as the economic boom and stability of Edwardian England broke down. History may repeat itself if the economy breaks down once again. The traditional ruling elites are also slowly being eroded through the policies like devolution and the reforms of the House of Lords. Recent proposals also include electing some judges. These changes coupled with an economic collapse may see class conflict rise again.