In his 1963 classic work of social history 'The Making of the English Working Class' E.P Thompson describes exactly what the title suggests; how the working class in England came to be.
If the catastrophic upheavals of the pre-existing peasant and artisan communities during the industrial revolution was our father then our mother was our own sense of determination and resistance. Through the various ways in which we pushed back against oppression and exploitation; radical politics, trade unionism and even violent insurrection the English working class carved out a place for itself in the new world. Labour laws, social housing and eventually the welfare state were the compromises we won in order to fend off being driven into the ground.
In the late 20th Century a run of post-war generations went by where conditions just seemed to keep getting better and better. Labour saving new technologies were being churned out, wages as a share of GDP were on the rise for a time and there was an ever ascending rate of home ownership.
Some of us began to think of the whole idea of a 'working class' as a relic of a passing era or having more to do with a lifestyle than anything meaningful.
"We're all middle class now" declared John Prescott in 1997.
But our story didn't end in 1997. In fact at that time wages as a proportion of GDP had already tumbled from it's mid 70s peak of 66% to under 52%, new technologies were still being churned out but they were now enabling us to work more rather than less and home -ownership rates peaked at 69% four years later and have been slowly declining ever since.
The stark reality of our relationship to political power and our relation to capital and capitalists is coming back into focus.
The cost of existence
In a capitalist economy people who work for a wage (as opposed to those who invest money in order to harvest profits, interest and rents) are just another cost to the capitalist class just like any other business expense although unlike machines we have to live, not just work.
In a wealthy country such as the UK in the 21st Century it isn't particularly difficult to ensure that workers are housed and fed and even thrown a little extra to keep us content. As a post-industrialised nation and a global financial centre the bosses here are not only revelling in the surplus extracted from our labour but also from wealth extracted from the poor throughout the much of the rest of the world.
So the actual cost of keeping us productive and content is really fairly trivial to them, especially when there are trillions of pounds floating around. So why are things slipping backwards?
I want to focus primarily on the housing crisis in London and the South East (because housing is my field of work) but this can be taken as representative of other issues. The real reason that things are slipping is not that we represent an actual cost but we are beginning to represent a very large 'opportunity cost'. As property prices in this corner of England spiral out of control, far faster than wages or benefits are rising all the space that poorer are people are taking up is starting to look very much like a wasted opportunity.
Investors from all around the world, and many home grown ones too, look at our affordable housing, schools, libraries and parks with ££ signs flashing before their eyes. If only they could just clear all those annoying people out of the way. The cost of building a social housing estate and even paying housing benefit for a few hundred tenants to live there may run up into the hundreds of millions but the opportunity that investors are losing by not using that space for something more profitable may run into the billions. We are 'in the way'.
A brief history of unwanted people getting in the way
We've been in the way of progress before.
The first massive land grab since 1066 (when William the conquer technically grabbed 100% of the land, although through the feudal system he granted fiefs to his barons to rule on his behalf) was the dissolution of the monasteries in the late 1530s. Putting the theological issues of this aside, the result of this was that Henry VIII confiscated one fifth of all arable land in the country and parcelled it out to his upper class mates.
Tudor times also saw the beginning of the enclosure movement, some aristocrats found that sheep could bring in more money than peasants and where possible those in this position booted their peasants off the land to make way for the sheep. The trouble was that Feudalism entailed responsibilities, the lords of the land had paternalistic duties to the peasants and serfs that worked their land but this system was slowly changing. The abolition of Tenure act of 1660 effectively transformed the aristocrats' property rights from feudal tenure, which entailed all kinds of responsibilities (both upwards to the monarch and downwards to the peasants) into something more like modern private property.
In the years to come, especially accelerating from 1750-ish onwards, large scale enclosure of the common lands and open field system occurred. Roughly 7 million acres of land in all was enclosed and privatised during this time. Those people who had made a living subsisting off the common lands and collectively farming open fields together were violently uprooted and transformed into an urban proletariat or; working class to serve in the 'dark satanic mills'.
Our yearning for the land we lost has never really gone away but as we got used to the industrialised way of life the our focus became more about carving out a space for ourselves in the cities and towns.
0.3% of the population of the UK still owns 70% of the land in Britain making this the second most unequal country on earth for land distribution.
Now the elite wants this, now we're in the way of progress again and now we're witnessing and experiencing the beginning of another great upheaval.
The 21st century land grab.
Let's change the tone up a bit because we're zooming right into the present moment and this is serious:
- Right now thousands of poor people are being shipped out of London every year (at least 50,000 in the last 3 years).
- Right now our even our independent housing associations are at risk of being forcibly nationalised and sold off to private developers.
- Right now council housing that we have all paid for by taxation is being sold off and replaced with expensive housing and the former communities occupying them are evicted and scattered, some made homeless.
- Right now even some of those who own their own homes are being subject to compulsory purchase orders and cleared out of the way for redevelopment.
I can remember the days of explaining to people how complex homelessness was and that it's often a combination of factors that lead people to such a state. Whilst there is still some truth to this there are more and more cases which are not particularly complex at all. Many people are simply thrown out of a private tenancy and can't afford either the rent in advance and deposit, or the actual monthly rent on anywhere else. As prices rise landlords seek to cash in or evict current tenants and re-advertise the property at a higher rent evictions are at their highest level since records began in 2000. This is an intentional strategy by the current government.
Just like the enclosures of the 18th and 19th centuries there is a resistance but it is hampered by the same big issue that those who resisted the last enclosure movement were hampered with; the process is gradual. Enclosure came to one village at a time, one act of parliament at a time and it may have been decades before the next one was affected the same is true of the estates and poorer areas of London. It's hard to mount a massive effective resistance to a process that is happening bit by bit.
What happens if this trend continues?
The making of the English destitute-undeserving-underclass-poor
There is no obvious reason to see why this process is going to change course. And I see no reason not to speculate on the horrific scenario that this trend is taking us towards.
If this continues we will see the following things in decades to come:
- Inequality between wealthier areas and poorer ones will increase, the division between economically depressed (or repressed) areas within nations that have gone through this process could become as stark as the division between wealthy countries and poorer ones in our time. Instead of big cities with mixed neighbourhoods whole areas will either be wealthy and cleansed of the poor or they will be dirt poor and of no interest to the wealthy or to investors.
- As mechanisation continues to threaten to take away the jobs of the poorer workers alongside this process of ghettoisation people in whole areas will go back to being dependent on the state and they will look increasingly like a total waste space to the wealthy and the politicians.
- Cities like London will be effectively under economic apartheid, poor workers will need to be ferried in and out to do the undesirable jobs.
- The rhetoric of people on benefits being lazy scroungers will intensify to levels of seething unvield resentment.
- Life expectancy may drop overall or at least in poor areas.
Do you think I'm being dramatic?
This man died alone and hungry with a pile of CVs next to him.
This is what happens when the capitalists and the state get together.
Noteworthy articles and essays on the subject:
- High house prices? Inequality? I blame the Normans - Paul Kingsnorth
- The Iron Fist Behind the invisible hand - Kevin Carson
- The Invention of Capitalism: How a Self-Sufficient Peasantry was Whipped Into Industrial Wage Slaves - Yasha Levine
- Disillusion and Dispossession: An Expansion - Billy Christmas
- A Short History of Enclosure in Britain -Simon Fairlie