"Class conflict has gradually been diluted by growing
"The history of all hitherto existing societies is the
history of class struggle." This famous opening line from
Marx Communist Manifesto refers to the struggle between the
labouring, working classes and the bourgeoisie owners of
the means of production. The proletariat are exploited by
the capitalists for profit and are therefore forced to live
in poverty and dire conditions. Marx predicted that
eventually the proletariat would overthrow this capitalist
system and replace it with a system which is often referred
to as Communist - whereby the workers have control. Today,
whenever the words 'class' or 'class conflict' are
mentioned people usually turn to Marx definition and
picture the poor worker fighting for better pay, better
living and working conditions. The typical class conflict
is typified as workers versus the owners, or bourgeoisie.
In Britain this struggle did not develop in the way that
Marx predicted - there has never been a genuine proletariat
revolutionary threat. In its place has been a tradition of
reformist socialism with the Labour Party and the Trades
Unions being the main campaigners. In Britain the
traditional class conflict is often depicted as Labour
Party versus Conservative Party. The Labour Party have
fought for workers rights and have been supported at
elections by the working class, whereas the Conservatives
have drawn most of their support from the middle classes.
It is argued that today this traditional class conflict,
depicted in no better fashion than the Miners' Strike of
1984, has been diluted by growing affluence. In otherwords
the working class have become economically better off. They
were given the right to buy council houses, to own shares
and have, it is argued, become more middle class. The
working class today have a lot more to lose in a fierce
class struggle and are therefore happy to uphold the
system. The huge decline in the traditional industries,
such as coal, has coincided with a rise in the size of the
non-manual, service industry - the sphere in which the
'middle classes' tend to be employed. In 1964 50% of the
workforce were employed in the manual sector, compared to
36% in 1992. These figures coincide with a 15% rise in the
non-manual, 'petty bourgeoisie' jobs.
Whilst there may be some truth in this 'embourgeoisement'
theory, there is also no doubting the fact that it is an
exaggerated view. To say that 'we are all middle class'
(Blair 1998) is an absurdity. Class conflict may have been
subdued but not only because of growing affluence. The
capitalists have managed to silence what was once a noisy
class. They have succeeded in converting some workers into
their own middle classes and at the same time have managed
to push many out of the system all together. Those who do
not have the luxury of being working class now have no
voice. The unemployed and the homeless have been completely
alienated from the system. If the capitalist system had not
advanced to the complex system it is now - whereby
employers enjoy the luxury of a surplus of labour - then
class conflict would still be prevalent.
The dilution of traditional class conflict can in part be
explained by growing affluence. The Thatcher reforms of the
1980s have enabled some individual members of the working
class to better themselves. The selling of council houses
gave people a stake in society for the first time. The
privatisation of many industries, such as British Telecom
gave employees shares for the first time. Once people
gained this stake they would be less inclined to 'bay for
revolutionary blood.' (This idea can also be found today
under New Labours plans for a stake holder society and is
directly mentioned in the new clause IV). Thatchers belief
in 'self help' and Classical Liberalism meant that
individuals had to take greater responsibility for
themselves. They had less state welfare and there was
greater emphasis on self provision. As a result some became
more affluent. This individual affluence then meant that
the traditional working class spirit of community and
sticking together was eroded and with it the threat of
unified discontent. The working classes were now pitted
against each other not for each other.
To credit the demise of class conflict to growing affluence
alone is to miss other significant reasons, however. The
1980s saw an incredible ideological clash which saw the New
Right come out on top. Thatcher despised socialism and the
Trade Union 'dinosaurs' and waged a war against all that
they stood for. The defeat of the Miners in 1984 and the
anti-Trade Union legislation which followed (e.g. the
banning of secondary picketing) meant that even if people
wanted to campaign for better conditions they could not.
Affluence had nothing to do with this ideological clash.
The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR at the
end of the 1980s served to dilute class conflict.
Socialism, it appeared, had been defeated by the Western
powers and this prompted the likes of Francis Fukoyama to
declare the 'End of History'. Fukoyama argued that history
in terms of class struggle was over and that a new liberal,
social-democratic consensus had emerged. The New Labour
party support this claim arguing that the only way forward
is the 'Third Way', consisting of improving social
conditions in the now global context.
The emergence of New Labour, conceived with the new clause
IV and born in 1997, may be, some have argued, the final
nail in the coffin of class conflict. Those who had
campaigned for a Labour government for the 18 years of
Conservative rule now feel that they should be grateful
with what was achieved in 1997. Many now feel as if they
should not ask for more as they owe 'so much' to Blair.
Blairs union of all the classes in the 1997 election,with
many traditional Conservatives voting Labour, may be his
reason for describing everyone as middle class.
The apparent watering down of class conflict does have some
validity but it must not be seen as the complete picture.
Class conflict is far from extinction. The traditional
elites still dominate our system, with just under 80% of
High Court judges coming out of public school and Oxbridge.
Very similar figures apply equally to the Civil Service and
to the high ranking army officers. The idea of a huge,
contented middle class is not much more than the latest
concept designed to uphold the capitalist system.
Capitalism as a system, it is argued, has a unique way of
To suggest that class conflict has been diluted is to say
that everyone within the system has got what they want.
What this does not include, however, is the existence of a
new under class. A class even lower than the working class.
A class which finds itself almost entirely excluded from
the capitalist system. The rise of the new lower middle
classes in the 1980s has resulted in a group of people who
are no longer offered a voice. Traditionally the Labour
party, in standing up for the working class, has also, as a
result stood up for the impoverished underclass as well.
But now that Labour stands for the new middle classes there
is no one standing up for the ones Thatcher left behind.
There is no conflict today not because everyone is
contented but because they have had their voice taken away.
The causes of class conflict still exist. But they have
been successfully silenced by the traditional elites. By
perpetuating the myth of everyone being content, middle
class stakeholders those who are not feel inhibited. They
are reluctant to speak out for fear of being outcast even
further. The idea of greater affluence may also be
exaggerated. In 1980, for example, 5% of households had no
wage earners. In 1995 this had risen to 20%. The myth of
share ownership and shared wealth can also be dispelled. In
1993 88% of shares rested in the hands of 4% of the
population and 48% of the country's wealth rested in the
bank accounts of just 10% of the population. This figures
are conveniently ignored by those intent on subduing class
conflict. In 1999 there is still poverty, still
unemployment, still low wages and still exploitation.
Capitalism has evolved and advanced to such a level that
employers have almost total control. Conflict has been
silenced by the surplus of labour, peoples fear of losing
their jobs, by the exaggeration of the middle class myth
and the ideological war that was waged some what
successfully in the 1980s.
The higher standards for the new middle class need to be
maintained by the capitalist system if class conflict is to
be subdued for good. Marx theory of the capitalist cycle
could still be said to apply today. The early 20th century
saw the development of the labour movement as the economic
boom and stability of Edwardian England broke down. History
may repeat itself if the economy breaks down once again.
The traditional ruling elites are also slowly being eroded
through the policies like devolution and the reforms of the
House of Lords. Recent proposals also include electing some
judges. These changes coupled with an economic collapse may
see class conflict rise again.