The Left is engaged in a futile attempt to redefine the term
Neither the British nor the Left are shy when it comes to class, so it is no surprise that a battle is raging on the British Left over what it means to be working class. Blue Labour’s Paul Embery is accused of romanticising an old-fashioned working class that no longer exists, while Novara Media’s Ash Sarkar suggests that perhaps the young graduate class living in places like Hackney are the new working class, with “nothing but their labour to sell.”
Until a few months ago, Hackney was my borough. If you’re under 40 in Hackney, you likely have no capital, no assets, and no permanent home in the world. 40% of your monthly income is spent on a bedroom in a cramped houseshare in Dalston and the landlord won’t fix the mould; it doesn’t matter what job you do (though most are bullshit anyway), any talk of ‘elite urban metropolitans’ will sound like foaming at the mouth. Mimicking Norman Tebbit by suggesting they ‘get on their bike’ and move to Barrow-in-Furness won’t cut it. These are the ‘graduates without a future’ I described last week and they are worth taking seriously.
What is less serious, however, is the suggestion that they are the new working class. Having given up on winning over the working class, the Left has chosen instead to redefine the term in its own image. What’s more, the new Left is afraid to analyse its own class faction and its relationship to what Barbara Ehrenreich called the professional-managerial class (PMC), who have long since usurped the propertied bourgeoisie as the dominant ruling class faction.
The astonishing over-representation of humanities and arts graduates from elite universities in the Left is often the subject of coy jokes, but never confronted for what it really means. It is true that most in their 20s and 30s are without assets, but many can fall back on the safety of their upbringing and the prospect of future inheritance. They live in cosmopolitan cities with well-funded services and a lively culture; and they work in upwardly mobile professions with some foothold in that culture. In short, when does the graduate without a future become a fully signed up member of the PMC? The ladder between the two is not without pitfalls, but much of the Left stands firmly on its upper rungs.
From a distance, it is hard to distinguish this activist-graduate class from the: “nearly hereditary professional caste of lawyers, journalists, publicists, and intellectuals, an increasingly hereditary caste of politicians, [and a] tight coteries of cultural movers-and-shakers richly sponsored by multinational corporations who constitute the PMC”.
Where do the charity workers, designers, producers, barista-cum-artists and think-tankers living four to a house in Peckham fit in? Perhaps, like the petit-bourgeois before them, they have a choice. But if so, then thus far they have chosen to bolster rather than challenge the hegemony of the PMC in their cultural commitments, and denigrate the dignity of work in favour of proposals for Universal Basic Income (the young are also singularly individualistic and tend to support low taxes).
This is why the young graduate class and the PMC become conflated, and why neither can, as Ross Douthat put it: “see that their vision of history’s arc bending inexorably away from tribe and creed and nation-state looks to outsiders like something familiar from eras past: a powerful caste’s self-serving explanation for why it alone deserves to rule the world.”
A genuine class politics would mean a reckoning with the PMC. The new Left and the class faction it represents show, as yet, no signs of being up for the fight.