Sunk in the suburbs?

Submitted by martin on 2 September, 2003 - 1:51

Discussion notes on the working class in "globalised" capitalism

Lash/Urry: discussion points 4. Sunk in the suburbs?

The core argument of Lash and Urry in chapters 4 and 5 of their book is that the shift by industry, in the richer countries anyway, to smaller factories and into suburbs or smaller towns, weakens the "capacities" of the working class.

There is obviously a strand of truth in this. The breaking up of old bastions of working-class organisation, the shifting of industry to places like the "sunbelt" in the USA or East Anglia and the "M4 corridor" in Britain, will put the working class on the back foot unless and until someone carries through an effective new organising drive in the new conditions.
The question is whether this setback is permanent, structural, irreversible.


Where jobs are shifted to homeworking, that is a structural weakening of the working class. As regards workplaces, however, mostly the shift is to somewhat smaller factories or offices. I see no clear evidence that this entails a necessary long-term structural weakening of the working class.
Historically, the working class has achieved high levels of organisation and militancy in many industries where average workplaces are fairly small - seafaring, building and construction, rail and buses... Conversely, Lash and Urry themselves report that in France and Germany, historically, larger factories have been less militant than the average.
Higher levels of casualisation reflect a weaker trade union movement. But it is not at all necessarily the case that a working class moving more frequently from job to job, and with less job security, will be less radical. In its heyday, the IWW in the USA was built largely among itinerant and insecure workers, while the workers in more secure jobs were much less radical.


What about the residential dispersal of the working class? In Britain, anyway, and as far as I know in the USA and in Australia too, the inner cities have lost population. There is still a working class there, but these are in their great majority workers in service industries - cleaners, security guards, secretaries, drivers, teachers, postal workers... Factory workers live in the outer suburbs or in small towns. The compact community of industrial workers which used to exist in pit villages, and sometimes also around docks, is a vanishing phenomenon.
The old residential working-class community should not be idealised. They were often insular, conservative places. Some of them were company towns. The pit villages in Britain were hold-outs for working-class Liberalism. They were also centres of immense strategic strength. In the 1920s they became significantly radicalised. Their later radical reputation was in part a reflection of conservatism: they were hold-out strongholds of the old Communist Party tradition. Despite great efforts by the revolutionary left around the miners' strikes of 1972, 1974, and 1984-5, that new left, in all its varieties, had much more difficulty finding recruits in the pit villages than in more varied, mobile working-class communities.
The residential redistribution of the working class which Lash and Urry talk about here is not very new. In Britain, anyway, it was the subject of much discussion back in the 1960s. Slum clearances, the building of large council estates in the suburbs (especially by the 1945-51 Labour government), and improved transport, had already led to many working-class families moving. There was much discussion then about whether this meant the irreversible atomisation, integration into consumer society, and "embourgeoisement" of the working class. The events of the late 1960s and early 1970s would show it did not!
Negri and Hardt, in their book Empire, assert the exact opposite view to Lash and Urry. For them "nomadism" - working-class people moving around a lot from place to place and job to job - is not only a leaven to labour movements, but the very essence of radicalism.
Both Lash and Urry, and Negri and Hardt, have prejudged the question in advance. Negri and Hardt disdain the more stolid virtues of continuing working-class organisation. Lash and Urry disdain unruly, revolutionary, rank and file initiative.
However, what about the working-class residential areas in the suburbs and satellite towns? Both the poorer ones with high rates of unemployment (say, the large "schemes" on the edges of Glasgow, or some of the "cités" on the edges of Paris or Lyons) and the rather more prosperous ones (e.g. the "new towns" around London, or, I guess, the areas where what Mark Latham calls the "aspirational voters" of western Sydney live?)
Their populations are not at all nomadic. Politically, they are neither hegemonised by the existing labour movement, nor radicalised. They have sometimes swung to the right.
Some such areas have become notorious for crime, demoralisation, racism; some for working-class right-wing voting (the Thatcherite "C1/C2s", the "Reagan Democrats", etc.) Many are not notorious for anything special. Not a single one, as far as I can recall, has become known as a centre of radicalism.
When I was a child, living in a steel town in South Wales, the area of the town known as "Little Moscow" was a patch with old (Crimean war), small terrace houses, near the centre. The huge post-World-War-Two council estate (with larger, better houses, and gardens) where probably the majority of the steelworkers lived was known politically for nothing special at all.
Is that a general pattern? What are the general traits of "Little Moscows"?
The left, centred in the inner suburbs, has almost no relation to the suburbs and small towns where most factory workers live - neither to the poorer ones, nor to the more prosperous ones. Given the nature of those areas, it is not easy to see how, with anything like our present forces, the left should start building such a relation.


Later in their book Lash and Urry will also develop the idea that mass politics, where the civil society of residential areas is dominated by large organisations like political parties and (I guess) churches, has been replaced by micro-politics, with a much greater number of smaller organisations.
Is this sober fact? If so, is it something to do with the state's greater willingness to try to co-opt community organisation by funding NGOs? Is it connected with a shift in the identity of the people within each community who carry community organisation? That nowadays they are elderly (retired) people or NGO professionals, where before they would have been a different section?
What are the facts about comparative density of community organisation in different sorts of residential areas?

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