Class War in the UK?

Two columns in the Guardian set up an interesting (if unsatisfying) debate: do the working classes need the middle classes?

First up is David Boyle who on Tuesday came up with the provocative sounding “Why we all need the middle classes” . In truth, nothing Boyle has said is terribly shocking. In a capitalist society it is the bourgeoisie who imprint themselves on the political system. This is, in fact what the French revolution was about, middle class values asserting themselves in the midst of Absolutist Ancien Regime incapable of assimilating middle class aspirations. So it is not terrible shocking to read:

Their fierce determination to retain some of that independence is a vital underpinning for the liberties of everyone else. Without the middle classes, there is no hope for the poor either.

I would challenge the assertion that they “always have” since the bourgeoisie have not always been with us, but we’re quibbling of rhetorical niceties. No, far more disturbing is Boyle’s commentary asserting that our choice is a triumvirate system of elite, middle and proletariate or an unworkable elite/proletariate divide. This will not do, says Boyle, because there is a chance that we might see “a new tyranny by the few”. Boyle seems to have missed the past 20 years consolidation of elite power. He is truly oblivious to the fact that this is the world we live in already. Boyle is also clearly so out of touch with the very history of bourgeoise politics that he makes the shocking (and it is shocking) assertion that the interests of the middle and working classes are now aligned. Again, it was Bourgeoise liberty leading the people during that first Revolution. The problem has never been the ability of the middle class to articulate a political program that would seduce the working classes to their cause. The problem has been to snuff out that marriage and make the working classes see what has been patently obvious for generations – working class politics has no need for middle-class alliances. Which brings me to the response from yesterday’s Guardian.

In response, Ellie Mae O’Hagan fires back what can only be considered a weak attack from a decidedly petit-bourgeois perspective. I say weak because I’m not sure she fully recognizes her own class position which is made all the more ironic by her rather amateur attempt to apply a Marxist gloss to her thoughts. Regardless – here it is: No, the working classes do not ‘need’ the middle classes | Ellie Mae O’Hagan | Comment is free |  O’Hagan is fundamentally correct in her conclusion about the working class having no need for the middle class. But misses the broader historical context in which she’s writing and the intimate connections between working class politics and middle-class. This is not to say one needs the other, but that to assume that the lack of need means they have never been connected demonstrates an unconscionable level of ignorance given her self-identification as a member of the working class. O’Hagan needs to read Hobsbawm (and probably Marx) before she returns to this fray as an advocate for working class politics. She needs to recognize the significance of cooption of the working class in bourgeois politics before injecting terms from an analytical framework she clearly has limited exposure to.

I am actually a little amazed that the Guardian couldn’t find two better commentators (even from among their editorial staff) to offer a more spirited debate about class politics. Oh well. 10 points for the attempt. Minus 100 for the execution.


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