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Farewell to the Working Class?

  • Geoff Eley (a1) and Keith Nield (a2)

Abstract

By the early 1980s, the class-centered politics of the socialist tradition was in crisis. In this situation, leading commentators took apocalyptic tones. By the end of the 1980s, the Left remained deeply divided between the advocates of change (“New Times” required new politics) and the defenders of the faith (class politics could be practiced, mutatis mutandis, much as before). By the mid-1990s the former had mainly carried the day. We wish to present this contemporary transformation not as the “death of class,” but as the passing of one particular type of class society, one marked by the process of working-class formation between the 1880s and 1940s and the resulting political alignment, reaching its apogee in the social democratic construction of the postwar settlement. As long-term changes in the economy combined with the attack on Keynesianism in the politics of recession from the mid-1970s, the unity of the working class ceased to be available in the old and well-tried way, as the natural ground of left-wing politics. While one dominant working-class collectivity went into decline (the classic male proletarians of mining, transportation, and manufacturing industry, with their associated forms of trade unionism and residential concentration), another slowly and unevenly materialized to take its place (predominantly female white-collar workers in services and all types of public employment). But the operative unity of this new working-class aggregation—its active agency as an organized political presence—is still very much in formation. To reclaim the political efficacy of the socialist tradition, some new vision of collective political agency will be needed, one imaginatively keyed to the emerging conditions of capitalist production and accumulation at the start of the twenty-first century. Class needs to be reshaped, reassembled, put back together again in political ways. To use a Gramscian adage: The old has been dying, but the new has yet to be born. Class decomposition is yet to be replaced by its opposite, the recomposition of class into a new and coherently shaped form.

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Farewell to the Working Class?

  • Geoff Eley (a1) and Keith Nield (a2)

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