Working class consciousness and understandings

Note: All the publications in this section have been referred to in the preceding sections. Here I examine a theme of these publications.

A constant, major thread of my work has been the ideas, perceptions, understandings and projects of working class people (the 90%). This is, in part, because of a simple humanism: the importance and significance of social processes lies, in the end, in people’s experience and perceptions of them. It is also because the construction of a socialist society is wholly dependent on developing a socialist consciousness of the majority of humanity, in dialectic with collective action and struggle against capital (that is, praxis). By the same token, the crucial barrier to socialist advance is the partial and mystified ideas continuously generated by life in capitalist society.

Concern with working class ideas and their role in society is lacking in the majority of social science, whether of the left or right. This lacuna appears in two forms:-

(a) Working class consciousness and popular ideologies are left out completely

This is true, in particular, of mainstream economics (neo-classical, Keynesian, heterodox).  Institutionalist economics for example, which is dominant in human geography, maps arrangements between capital and the state in which the working class is entirely passive. This is also unfortunately true of much Marxist value theory, which analyses capitalist reproduction, and even crisis, without reference to working class consciousness. Popular ideologies play a significant role in sociology, but this remains within the sphere of social life detached, and theoretically isolated, from capital and capital-labour relations. One might think that cultural studies would be an exception. Since the radicalisation of cultural studies in the 1970s, cultural theorists have analysed popular ideologies of gender and race/ethnicity, but again almost wholly detached from capitalism and class relations. This is true also of the great majority of cultural geography, including psycho-geography. Postmodern cultural theory, in its philosophical idealism and refusal of ‘grand narratives’, fragments society down to self-creating individuals and renders any collective politics impossible.

(b) Popular ideology is included but is understood as coming from the top

A popular notion, across the political spectrum, is that people believe what they are told by dominant ideological institutions (education, the media, advertising, entertainments, politicians), then reinforced by people’s wish to conform to the ideas of the social groups they belong to. The left version of this is that these institutions, controlled by capital, teach bourgeois ideology, that is, ideas compatible with, and reinforcing, capitalism (a structural-functionalist view of capitalism). This top-down view of popular consciousness has been the dominant one in left intellectual-political circles since the Stalinisation of the Third International. Stalinism rejected self-organisation of the working class and socialist ideas as praxis in favour of a long march to ‘democracy’ controlled by the Communist Parties. This approach was codified in the structural-functionalist Marxism of Louis Althusser, in which poplar ideologies are produced by ‘ideological apparatuses’ controlled by capital. Althusser’s framework underlies Regulation Theory and its recent variant, the Strategic Relational approach (very influential in human geography): everything takes place in the external interactions between the economy and the state; everyday life, the ideas and praxis arising from it, play no part. The equally influential approach of Foucault sees ideology as produced by power-discourse which inveigles the individual in reproducing these disciplinary discourses (‘self-governance’), entirely abstracted from material everyday life. Meanwhile, mainstream political science pictures political parties and the media as selling views on policy and politics to the masses seen as passive consumer-voters.

Now, it is true that the ruling class uses a wide variety of methods to influence popular ideas. But people’s ideas are also, and in my view much more powerfully, developed in their everyday lives. Moreover, the purchase of ruling class interventions on people’s imaginations depends on their ideas developed in everyday life. In the internally-related spheres of wage work, households and social life, people are daily involved in social relations which are simultaneously material and mental; their ideas are a part of their daily praxis. If one calls these ideas ‘culture’, then it is culture in Raymond Williams’s sense: the structures (repeated practices) of everyday life.

Though these ideas are authentic, they are not necessarily progressive nor an accurate representation of reality: to the contrary. Since everyday life is conducted under the power of capital, people’s understandings largely accept the rules of the game. As capitalism constructs people as individuals, the rules of the game are unavoidable, and are therefore seen as natural. Thus people tend to accept: the right of capital to invest, organise production and direct labour as it pleases; the divisions of labour by manual/mental and skilled/ unskilled work, by gender and ‘race’, and by area; the gendering of domestic and care work; the competition of all against all for jobs; the solace of commodity consumption so that creativity takes the alienated form of consuming; and that if you fail to achieve your needs or desires, you have only yourself to blame.

This naturalisation of capitalism is reinforced by the reifying logics of value. Capitalism is the production by workers of value, socially-necessary labour time, realised by capital in the sale of the produced commodities, with the surplus value appropriated and accumulated by capital. Workers thus have to labour to make their employer profitable; capital has to achieve a certain rate of return, and has to grow or die; workers have to relate to others via the purchase of the commodities the latter have produced; housing has to be organised by a capitalist market; governments have to balance budgets. These things are required not because they meet human needs, nor because anyone has willed them, but because value operates that way; relations between people are mystified as the impersonal logic of money.

Capitalism is not, however, a functional system but is riven by multiple contradictions. It systematically fails to meet human needs both material and mental. People therefore resist its logics. Individual resistance cannot shake capital, and is often destructive of the individual and others. But when resistance is collective, it can challenge the rule of value, and thus develop understanding of the reality hidden by the fetishes of value.

But how do people decide whether and how to resist? In evaluating people’s support for political projects, I draw on pragmatism: people judge political projects not simply in reference to their interests but by their apparent feasibility. (Conversely, ‘interests’ exist only in relation to feasible projects for meeting them.) Feasibility depends on the social and political context, but also the adequacy of political strategy and leadership. Thus in contrast to recent converts to pragmatism, I do not think that only tiny, local reforms are feasible, only that in a period of working class defeat they may appear to be the most feasible strategy. More radical strategies, and thus more radical understandings, are always possible through strong strategy and organisation. This theorisation is developed in ‘Workers’ strategies to secure jobs’. (See also the two articles by Charles Post in Against the Current, 2006).

Using this understanding of popular consciousness, I have written on three (overlapping) sites of its development:-

Cultures of work and social life

A central concern of Work, Locality and the Rhythms of Capital is workers’ consciousness derived from their activity in the workplace, its (gendered and racialised) relation to their social reproduction, and the workplace’s setting within the economy as a whole. I analyse varied cultures of work within different London industries, including the perception of skill. I explore how differences and similarities in workers’ labour are seen by them, and hence their ability to go beyond mutual competition and build collective resistance. In my theorisation of the capitalist space economy, ‘Workers’ competition, class relations and space’, I examine how workers’ consciousness is constructed by, and constructs, capitalist production and its spatiality. In ‘Socialism and the social economy’, an important theme is the experience of workers in social enterprises. In my writings on sexuality (see research theme ‘Gay and lesbian life, capitalism and liberation’) I am concerned with how people’s perceptions of their own and others’ sexuality arise from the practices of social life under capitalism. In a different register, some of my publications begin by analysing popular views of the subject, as a necessary starting point for analysing their realities and related political projects: see The Politics of Local Economic Policy, Part 1, and Spaces of Social Exclusion, Part 1 which explores popular understandings of the poor and poverty.

Perceptions of politics, strategies and policies

The key question of my writing on political ideologies, strategies and policies is how these appear to workers, arising from their everyday lives, the mystifications of value, as well as the putative demystifications of collective action. A number of my publications present and critique a wide range of strategies towards a subject - neoliberal, nationalist, corporatist, social democratic, associationalist, socialist (The Politics of Local Economic Policy, Spaces of Social Exclusion, Theorising the state in local economic governance’). In presenting each strategy, I examine its particular appeal to workers, how it latches on to their view of the world, and hence the specific promise it has for them. A corollary is that I take seriously the appeal of conservative and reactionary politics to workers. I have also written on ‘consensus strategies’, which appeal to popular aspirations and understandings and build support for them, while papering over large differences in how different political currents implement the policies. Workers’ strategies to secure jobs’ explores how workers construct different strategies, from right to left, as a function of their apparent feasibility and extent of collective organisation: labour geography as workers’ praxis. Similarly, in analysing particular political strategies I foreground their appeal to workers, whether this be well- or poorly-grounded in reality (for example ‘Local left strategy now’, ‘The construction of mainstream local economic initiatives’, ‘A brief history of the Right to the City’).

The primary aim of my recent writing on British politics is understanding popular consciousness. I analyse the effects on consciousness of fifty years of neoliberalism on both employment and social reproduction, which I argue have produced large differences by age and locality. ‘Brexit, xenophobia and left strategy now’ analyses how these changes played out in the 2006 EU referendum, particularly in the construction of views of immigration and the state. ‘Why Labour lost the 2019 general election’ examines how these shifts in consciousness were reflected in support for the Labour and Conservative Parties. Two unpublished papers, ‘Popular (mis)understanding of Labour’s economic programme’, and ‘Facts, understanding and EU membership’, examine popular (lack of) understanding of macro-economics (a subject grievously neglected by Marxists). I argue that this can be understood through examining people’s life worlds and the mystifications of value relations.

Perceptions of space

As a Marxist geographer, a primary concern of all my writing has been popular understandings of space (territory, distance and scale). These understandings are not of abstract space but of spatial-social relations. Much of my writing has been concerned with perceptions and ideologies of local scale social relations. For me this scale has a specificity and importance because it is the scale of people’s daily lives, both jobs and social life, and is (therefore) a major site for popular politics. Nevertheless, perceptions of the local are always in relation to, and often in tension with, perceptions of the national, continental and global scales. Much of my writing is concerned with how capital, labour and the state use space in their actions and projects by keying into popular understandings of space; see my writings on the construction of local economic policies and on Brexit. In some of my writing perceptions of space are explicit and to the fore, for example ‘Changing scale as changing class relations’ (perception of local/ national/ EU) and ‘The genesis and tensions of the English Regional Development Agencies’ (perceptions of region/ national).