Lessons from Marx

"The modern British workforce however, is of a distinctly different breed. We have seen the development of a workforce that is rife with insecurity and gripped by a severe lack of power. It is this insecurity that I wish to discuss at this moment. "

It is tempting to think that Marx’s conception of the proletariat has been proved false. Marx defined the proletariat as an industrial workforce, produced and controlled by a capitalist state, lacking in any legitimate political power. In the western world, with the increase in democratic systems, employment laws and social mobility, the conditions needed for a population to be considered ‘the proletariat’ appear to have vanished; workers can vote, become executives or start their own businesses. The worker no longer seems to be exploited or abused in the manner that Marx viewed the proletariat as being. 

This conclusion may not have been surprising to Marx, at least in terms of the British worker, as he viewed them as deeply anomalous. They were the aristocracy of the working class; a social group of speciality due to their unionism and political clout. They never appeared to be proletariat material.

The modern British workforce however, is of a distinctly different breed. We have seen the development of a workforce that is rife with insecurity and gripped by a severe lack of power. It is this insecurity that I wish to discuss at this moment.

The increases in low wages, exploitative contracts, the destruction of union rights or the rolling back of legal aid, among many privations, have led to an intense insecurity for many people. Low wages mean that people can’t begin to save for housing deposits; exploitative contracts prevent people from flourishing within companies or advance within organisations. The lack of union rights and legal representation prevent workers from challenging unfair working conditions and stops them from fighting for their jobs and livelihoods.

These privations make a mockery of the ideas of ‘settling down’ or ‘building a life’. They make the worker subject to the buffeting winds of British capitalism; always forced to surrender, capitulate and change per the whims of others. The British worker can no longer see employment as a route to a ‘secure’ life.

While some of this may not be new, what is new is the scope of such privation. Such instability has permeated areas such as journalism, teaching, and academics; careers and vocations that where once seen as stepping stones to a financially and socially secure life Such careers have now become for many, as precarious as working for Uber or Deliveroo.

Now the fact that such jobs have become insecure is in no way more serious than the instability we see in many service industry or manufacturing jobs. It is rather than we can see that the problem of insecurity affects the workforce in a way that bisects traditional class divisions or vocational stereotypes; anyone is at risk of being unable to create a stable life.

This is where we should return to Marx. The proletariat were defined, to a certain extent, in opposition to the bourgeoisie. The proletariat produce; the bourgeoisie exploit. The proletariat obey; the bourgeoisie command. The proletariat are many; the bourgeoisie are few. This dialectical relationship is key to understanding the modern workforce, in as much as the workforce becoming two extremes in opposition to one another; the division between the haves and have nots or the insecure and the insecure.

Such a division however is ripe for development. The division between the secure and the insecure provides a rare opportunity for the Labour party to expand its range. If the party can focus upon the huge section of the population who comprise the ‘have nots’ or ‘the unstable’, then the party can attract people outside of its typical demographics. This is because the scope of people who have been affected by the problems mentioned, eclipses class, race, ideology or age. Anyone and everyone is at risk of this economic insecurity. 

Angus Ryan is a Young Fabians member

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