by Tobias Phibbs
Wednesday, 25
November 2020
Reaction
16:43

No, urban graduates are not the new working class

The Left is engaged in a futile attempt to redefine the term
by Tobias Phibbs
From a distance, it is hard to distinguish this activist-graduate class from the PMC

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.

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Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
2 years ago

Good article, and it’s useful to have the PMC acronym (I hadn’t seen it before) to hand when pointing much that is wrong with our society. This is evidenced by the fact that white, male members of the PMC were the only group whose support for Trump fell, in percentage terms, between 2016 and 2020.

As for these urban graduates, I will refer to them as the ‘working class’ when they are working in distribution or call centres, or clearing out the sewers beneath Hackney, or driving buses, or working as builders, or doing some of the useful things that the working classes generally do.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
2 years ago

I realize it’s fantasy, but it would be nice if the left could stop with the class divisions and the endless identity politics that turn individuals into nothing more than members of specific groups with no agency.

Anna Tanneberger
Anna Tanneberger
2 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

And turn groups of people against each other.

Starry Gordon
Starry Gordon
1 year ago

If there is inequality, then to some extent groups of people are already against one another. So if the (original) Left was the collection of those in favor of peace, freedom, and equality, as opposed to the Right of authority, social status, private wealth, and the military virtues, then it’s the Left’s job to note class and other fault lines in the social order, complain about them, and try to organize to do something about them.

However, the PMC is not a ruling class. I have only a vague idea how the classes are configured in the UK, but in the US the PMC — the 10% — are the r.c.’s servitors and supporters, not their peers or rulers. The rulers are the 1% or maybe the 0.01% — plutocrats, basically. I should know: I spent about 50 years in the PMC as a computer programmer, systems analyst, lower-end manager, and so forth. The class position of the PMC is exactly like that of skilled craftsmen, ‘professionals’, middle managers, and so forth in previous versions of capitalism. They are told what to do, and do it, or they’re fired (unless they know somebody at a higher level who protects them.) The divisions between the classes are not sharp, impermeable, or entirely hereditary, but there is certainly a profound difference in the way they live and work.

I don’t know how you want to define ‘working class’. I would define it as anyone who has to work for a living, or thinks they have to work (in the sense of be employed), or who is directly dependent on such a person. The older kind of working class — people in overalls standing in front of machines in a gigantic factory — hardly exists any more, at least not around where I live. But some else may have a better idea.

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
2 years ago

Once when looking for a house to buy in a bad neighborhood a very savvy realtor I consulted me told me, ‘Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop’ and people unemployed, especially young men, will turn anti social activity, or self destructive ways if they have no job to burn their energy on. She told me to look at the houses around the one I may want and note which cars are there on a Sunday, and then return during working hours and see if the cars are gone. That if many are there all week do not buy.

I learned a great deal from this bit of advice. Maybe there is a similar thing going for BS jobs, not as bad as no job, but one where you just stew in idleness could be part of the problem today. Looking at the film of all the Nihilistic student/graduate classes out protesting for such causes it does fit.

William Cameron
William Cameron
2 years ago

University should be about widening perspectives and opening minds. Sadly the dominance of left wing lecturers has produced a generation – possibly two- of graduates with narrower thinking , more closed minds and robotic one model of their world.

Andrew Harvey
Andrew Harvey
2 years ago

As we have seen with destructive lockdown imposed upon the country against the explicit advice of the WHO, your critique of the PMC does not go far enough. The PMC aren’t simply attempting to grab power for themselves, they are actively working to undermine the country. Hardly anyone in the PMC will lose out from shutting down the economy, even though it’s destroying the livelihoods of many working class people or individual business owners. The lack of a proper benefit/risk analysis was inexcusable, and completely undermines the idea that the PMC around be leading the country based on their “professional” or “managerial” ability.

Michael Dawson
Michael Dawson
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Harvey

It’s not obvious why the PMC would want to undermine the country and I think you’d struggle to find any evidence for this intention. (I know that may mean it’s an especially effective conspiracy, but I doubt it). It’s more likely that we are just very badly governed, with poor politicians and inadequate advisers. Quite a lot during the pandemic has shown this, although it’s fair to point out that all countries of western Europe have struggled with the pandemic, so the UK is not unique in its ineptness, even if it worse than most.

Anna Tanneberger
Anna Tanneberger
2 years ago
Reply to  Michael Dawson

Why is it that whenever someone makes a good point, it is pooh-poohed as “conspiracy theory”? Things often happen as a result of the attitudes of a certain demographic, without them having conspired to achieve this end. There was a time when we were taught to be aware of and concerned about “the underprivileged” those “less fortunate,” people from “disadvantaged backgrounds” and how public policies affect such people; we were taught to be aware of the circumstances of people whose lives were different from ours. Now you will be hard-pressed to find someone with such concerns. They are obsessed with skin-colour and sexuality, but will advocate the lockdown “to save humanity from the corona virus” while working from home, unconcerned about the guy doing deliveries and cleaning drains during the lockdown, who is apparently not part of the humanity worth saving.

Tom Graham
Tom Graham
2 years ago
Reply to  Michael Dawson

The evidence that they are doing it is all around. The only question is whether it is in any way intentional, or all just blind stupidity.

There is no question that we have an increasingly hereditary ruling class which is both completely incompetent and entirely self serving. At best they are parasites on the real work of other people, at best they are actively undermining society and the economy to serve their own interests and that of their thick offspring.

Bernard Hill
Bernard Hill
1 year ago
Reply to  Michael Dawson

…correct. The PMC’s attention is not on the, or any, “country”. It’s concerned with all goings-on being expressed and experienced in terms of the Rules Based World Order.
The result is poor performance at the nation and local levels because the RBWO lens does not have an intermediate focal length.

Nun Yerbizness
Nun Yerbizness
2 years ago

The “New Working Class” is the “soon to be permanently unemployed working class.”

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
2 years ago
Reply to  Nun Yerbizness

A lot of these people work in the public sector, or in quasi-public sector areas like so-called charities and non-profits, or for so-called universities etc. As such, they tend to hang on to their non-jobs when productive people in the private sector are being laid off.

Neil John
Neil John
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Many non-academics in Universities have been furloughed, others have taken voluntarily redundancy (mainly non-academic support staff on ‘permanent’ contracts), a lot on ‘casual’ or zero hours contracts (all types of staff) have been laid off without cost, next comes the compulsory redundancies across the board. Though some are digging up any excuse to dismiss without payment if they can, ‘bringing the University into disrepute’ is a favourite, with Trades Union Health & Safety reps being specifically targeted at mine.

Nun Yerbizness
Nun Yerbizness
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

AI operating on quantum computers makes no class distinctions on the basis of education levels, standing in a hierachy or ownership for that matter.

Gary Taylor
Gary Taylor
1 year ago

“Urban Graduates are the poorest people I ever met. So they must be the Working Class.”

Ash Sakar, utter poseur.

Tom Graham
Tom Graham
2 years ago

Douglas Adams came up with a good term to describe all those humanities graduates living in Hackney and working in the “third sector”.

vince porter
vince porter
2 years ago

The most potent coalition of the future will consist of industrial/resource workers, service workers, and, the businesses that employ them. They will, in time, realize their necessary dependence on each other – and the threat to all of them posed by the PMC cabal of environmentalists, academics, journalists and politicians.

Andrew Harvey
Andrew Harvey
2 years ago

Ash Sarkar. Brahmin family? Obviously.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Harvey

Ha ha – she is ‘literally a Brahmin’.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

‘Sarkar’ is multilayered word of Mogul/Persian derivation meaning ‘Government’ or ‘Governor’ or ‘Authority’, and as such very unlikely to be a Brahmin surname. Such things do of course, get scrambled over the years though.

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Either way, one of the elite, not one of the workers

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Well it does seem the urge to tell others what to do and think is innate. The fraternity itself is transient.

D S
D S
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew D

She is muslim (in response to brahmin comments), her mum is a social worker and she went to a comprehensive. Not a fan of her personally, but lets get the facts right.

Andrew D
Andrew D
1 year ago
Reply to  D S

Thanks for the correction. I confess I’d never heard of her – clearly the family’s come down in the world

Andrew Harvey
Andrew Harvey
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Look her up on Wikipedia.

Peter Ian Staker
Peter Ian Staker
2 years ago

Perhaps the difference is in education and having mixed to some extent in that world. This would give you insights and potential opportunities that people from real working class communities wouldn’t have. I expect the drawing of similarities was intended to highlight that there are graduates who are also struggling, when some people say they have nothing to worry about or that they should look at people really suffering. It takes people in power to point out that actually the whole system is BS, as Graeber did, because they’re aren’t enough meaningful, useful jobs. But those in power either have the few useful jobs or they are not incentivised to point out the uselessness of the system that supports them.

Bob Green
Bob Green
2 years ago

If there aren’t enough useful meaningful jobs then you need to explain why so many E. Europeans are here earning a living.

What there aren’t are useful jobs for the plethora of university graduates that would utilise the “skills” bestowed upon them by three years studying arts and humanities.

None of the staff I encountered as a mature student (Science) in academia had knowledge of the world outside their limited specialised field and had no information to impart regarding potential wider opportunities. I felt I was being taught by 50 something teenagers.

We have very different definitions of “useful ” if you believe that the people in power are the useful ones.
The guy who empties my bin is of far more use to me than the chair of any QUANGO.
.

Peter Ian Staker
Peter Ian Staker
2 years ago
Reply to  Bob Green

Yes, I agree that many university lecturers have little idea how to prepare students for work after university because they haven’t experienced it themselves. If I was in their position I would struggle to teach students, knowing that most of it will be of no use to them in the real world. Without wanting to be offensive, some of them grew up in an age when going to university meant something, and there were established career paths open afterwards.

It seems to me that there is a real disconnect between what students think they are getting from university and what they actually get. The universities are at fault for miss-selling courses to boost profits, but students also need to be educated about the real costs and benefits. I’m sure a lot of students know deep down there is no market for their degree but the alternative seems much worse and government subsidies make the decision easier.

The number of Europeans here is an indication that the work pays better and they are more desperate than us. I don’t think we should expect British people to become as desperate, more that we should improve conditions and pay more. Meaningful as in someone gets meaning from the job, this is subjective.

Nun Yerbizness
Nun Yerbizness
2 years ago

conservative right wing fanatics believe the confluence of AI and quantum computers will somehow pass over their children when the deadly combination lays waste to 40 percent of ALL jobs existent today.

not just individual jobs in individual economic enterprises but entire classes of jobs from the top of the skills pyramid to the bottom.

mel.swan2
mel.swan2
2 years ago
Reply to  Nun Yerbizness

Traditional working class jobs have all but disappeared. Universities who churn out humanities graduates must know that few go on to work in their fields of study: politics, social policy, social history etc. They claim graduates will have a skill set that makes them attractive to employers – critical thinking, analysis etc. But to call disaffected graduates the NWC is stretching it and trying to give them a status they don’t deserve.

If working to pay their way and to meet ends meet (add whatever job you like to the lengthy list) then they might class themselves as WC. They don’t kneed a unique subset. But I guess all of this keeps social scientists in a job.

Neil John
Neil John
1 year ago
Reply to  mel.swan2

The University sausage machine continues to churn out useless graduates and graduates with useless degrees at the behest of Government, the money that they pay enables the useful graduates with useful degrees to exist, STEM labs are expensive to run, very expensive. The Thatcherite loading with debt to aid control is a benefit, as is keeping many off the dole.

Nun Yerbizness
Nun Yerbizness
1 year ago
Reply to  mel.swan2

“… a skill set that makes them attractive to employers – critical thinking, analysis etc….” the very things that will make them the first to be replaced by AI operating on quantum computers that never take breaks, sick days, family leave, vacations or need an HR department or management oversight at any ascending level…managers at all levels of the enterprise are targeted as well.

Tom Graham
Tom Graham
2 years ago
Reply to  Nun Yerbizness

There is absolutely nothing new about that. It has been happening for over 200 years since the start of the industrial revolution.

More than 40% of the jobs that existed when my parents were young no longer do, because of technology.

And the generation before that, and the generation before that.

Did you know “computer” used to be a human job description?

When I was at school, they were still just teaching typing as a vocational course. Imagine that!

Nun Yerbizness
Nun Yerbizness
1 year ago
Reply to  Tom Graham

so much whistling past the graveyard.

I don’t have to imagine it, my touch typing”60 wpm with 2 errors max”is one the few skills that has paid dividends in my working life, now retired working life.

Point being AI powered by quantum computers make human workers redundant”not merely specific sectors””human worker redundant” ponder that.

polidoris ghost
polidoris ghost
2 years ago

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