The Left, modern work and the new working class

Developing a new moral politics of work in the 21st century could help the left regain traditional supporters and connect to new working class groups

Maha Rafi AtalAmong the themes in this year of political surprises on both sides of the Atlantic – from the victory of the Leave campaign to the candidacies of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders – is predominantly white working class voters’ rejection of the centre-left candidates who have historically counted on their support.  These voters are resentful of neoliberal globalisation, which they hold responsible for the decline of the industries in which they used to work, and for falling real wages, rising costs of living and a shrinking welfare state.

The left’s responses have been mainly economic.  Some, looking backwards, argue that we can impose trade protectionism and restore the manufacturing economy of the mid-20th century, a dubious proposal, and issue calls to rebuild the welfare state in the face of austerity politics.  Yet, as Sophie Moullin recently argued, the old welfare system ‘worked’ because it operated in societies with near-full employment, where women were a full-time source of unpaid care labour.  Today’s family structures are (thankfully) different, and so even if we could get the mid-20th century economy back, we would not get back the quality of life that went with it.

A more forward-looking proposal is the notion of universal basic income (UBI).  In theory, this might mitigate the financial risk of a volatile labour market and give workers more bargaining power.  As a universal programme, UBI could also de-stigmatise welfare.  But this only works if the UBI is implemented in addition to existing programmes – a substantial new expenditure requiring new taxes to be secured from a sceptical electorate.  If, instead, UBI comes at the expense of existing programmes, it’s merely a wealth transfer from the bottom to the top.

Yet, these economic debates miss a critical point: the disaffection white working class voters are expressing is not all about money.  The deprivation of deindustrialisation is partly about loss of income, but it is also about a loss of cultural identity.  With some white working class voters, this is married to a rising tide of racism and xenophobia, though those who imagine that economic crisis alone has caused that tide ignore history at their peril.

Moreover, the attempt to separate white working class frustration into its ‘economic’ and ‘cultural’ aspects ignores the cultural aspects of economic change itself.  Disenchanted voters express nostalgia not only for the financial security of steel factories and coalmines, but also for the cultural community that steady, unionised jobs provide:

‘The union halls, the factories, all used to define the neighborhood, filling it with pride. You can still find some union members, but most of them are retired. George Navrek, 79, is one of those, a lifelong member of U[nited] A[uto] W[orkers] local 91, and a Hillary voter. …. He is still proud: “I am a union man, through and through. They made this country, they gave us our standard of living.’

Working in the same industry for a whole career, with the same cohort of colleagues with whom you also socialise and organise (as Mr Navrek did and does), is a powerful engine of political identity.  Indeed, the power of 20th century labour unions owed much to the ‘glue’ of a culturally homogenous workforce.  Unions’ inability to build solidarity across ethnic and gender lines in diversifying industries and a fragmenting labour market is one reason union membership has declined since the 1970s.  The difficulty of forging personal ties with coworkers in an economy of short-term contracts is another.

Yet the left has struggled to respond to the longing for cultural community in work.  Instead, it talks about work as a means to an end, something society could do without if only we could ensure livelihoods otherwise.

This development is neither necessary nor natural.  The left emerged from the cultural communities of the early industrial economy, and in particular from the churches where 19th century industrial labourers gathered to organise what would become the first unions.  Churches contributed a scriptural language of work as a source of moral improvement in which the rights of workers to fair wages and just treatment were based not on universal rights, but on their particular moral merit as labourers.  Being a worker was a point of moral pride, and therefore a source of identity.  Socialising in working men’s clubs and organising in unions formed part of a political culture, which was played back to them by their elected officials, many of whom came from within this culture.  Many voters who still subscribe to this identity still seek politicians to perform this role.

This approach to the inherent moral dignity of work has drawbacks, not least that talking about work as a cultural good in itself can all too easily bleed into demonising those who don’t, or can’t, work as ‘undeserving.’  It also rests on a narrow definition of what ‘work’ is that does not accommodate the working class women and immigrants who still provide most of society’s care labour.  As a consequence, the cultural language of labour dignity that many disenfranchised white working class voters long for has come from the right, where advocacy for ‘hard-working families’ is code for paring back welfare provision.

But, there are three ways the left can reclaim this ground for progressive ends.  First, it can stop talking about work in purely economic terms.  When elites who undoubtedly derive a sense of identity from their own work talk about the work of others in economistic terms, they suggest that only certain fields are ‘worthy’ enough to hold cultural value for those who work in them.  We imagine that people become doctors or musicians because they love medicine or music, but that taxi drivers only drive to pay the rent.  This is patronising, and dismissive of the cultural value people in relatively low-paid fields nevertheless place on their labour.

Second, while advocating for the right to dignity in work, the left must abandon its historic assumptions about what kind of jobs afford it (coal mining good, Uber driving bad).  At least some people who have made the transition from industrial work to new economy jobs find meaning in their new employment.  These new jobs may carry dignity for those who do them, however, for reasons quite different from the sort the 20th century industrial economy valourised.  Namely, the benefits that workers report with these new economy jobs centre not on building an identity around a single industry, but on the flexibility to fit work for multiple employers around family obligations.

A broader and more inclusive understanding of the moral satisfaction people take from their work must also encompass care labour, taking it seriously as meaningful work in its own right, as well as arguing that paid work cannot be morally just if it does not make room for care.  As such, thirdly, the left should redirect its economic policies to improve security for people without reducing the individual autonomy flexible work affords.  Labour’s John McDonnell’s recent promise to examine the impact of welfare policies on the self-employed is a welcome step.

While the left’s current crisis in both the US and UK reflects declining support from white working class voters, recapturing the moral language of work can help it connect also with newer working class minority groups and immigrants.  Though often left out of the organised labour movement, these groups place great emphasis on the cultural value of work as a pathway to integration and equality, bringing them closer culturally to working class whites than to centre-left elites.  Developing a new moral politics of work, broadly defined, then, may also be a route to building new channels of solidarity across cultural difference.