“Harriet Harman puts class at heart of election battle,” shouted the Guardian front page on 20 January, while the 21 January Telegraph proclaimed “Harriet Harman reopens class war with speech on inequality”. What prompted all this?
Harman had given a speech to the left-Blairite pressure group Compass, in which she said:
“Since 1997, we have stopped the trend of rising inequality and have made good progress on tackling inequality and improving people’s lives through focussed Government intervention. But we inherited a vast legacy of inequality which dated back to a Conservative right-wing government in the 1980’s and the legacy is still there in people’s lives today…
“We do not return to the days when inequality was spiralling and where a tiny minority of the population got all the rewards…
“So the big choice at the next election … is between an unchanged, right-wing Tory party that denies inequality exists and Labour which recognises the challenge of inequality and has the commitment, the values and the policies to tackle it.”
Harman used the Compass appearance to unveil the report produced by the “National Equality Panel”, chaired by LSE academic John Hills. The report, she promised, would “clearly document for the first time how inequality is cumulative over an individual’s lifetime and is carried from one generation to the next”. “Persistent inequality of socio-economic status — of class — overarches the discrimination or disadvantage that can come from your gender, race or disability.”
Since then the bourgeois press has been filled with all sorts of confusion. Let us try to cut through some of it.
New Labour’s record
New Labour stands condemned by its own report. According to Hills’ findings, the richest 10 percent of the population are now 100 times as wealthy than the poorest 10 percent. On one measure, income inequality in Britain was higher in 2007-9 than at any time since the Second World War.
Individuals in the top 1 percent of the population each possess household wealth of £2.6 million or more, while for the poorest 10 percent the figure is £8,800. In other words, the richest 1 percent have 295 times the wealth of the poorest 10 percent.
“Over the most recent decade, earnings inequality has narrowed a little and income inequality has stabilised on some measures, but the large inequality growth of the 1980s has not been reversed.” In other words New Labour has maintained the absolutely grotesque level of inequality fostered by the Thatcher and Major Tory governments.
This staggering inequality impacts throughout individuals’ lives, from age of readiness to enter education to life expectancy after 50. It impacts across the spectrum of societal “indicators”, from levels of imprisonment to mental health. Even so-called social mobility, the holy grail of politicians obsessed with the joke concept of “meritocracy”, has stagnated, because equality of opportunity and equality are necessarily interconnected.
What can be done?
John Hills’ comment summed up the perplexity of honest liberals in the face of gigantic inequality: “These are very challenging issues for any government because the problems are so deep-seated. But we hope that by doing this work, policy makers have now got information they never had before, to try and get at the roots of some of those problems.”
The idea that politicians had no idea what was going on, and will now get busy sorting things out is utterly naive. The drive towards greater inequality was consciously and deliberately fostered by Tory governments, and maintained by New Labour ones.
Meanwhile, the Blairites’ response has been not naive but cynical. Brown piously described the report as “sobering”. Harriet Harman commented that “It takes generations to make things more equal”. Our reply should be: no it doesn’t!
These people have been in power thirteen years. In a much shorter space of time, the 1945 Labour government — a capitalist government, at the end of the day — created the NHS and welfare state and dramatically reshaped income distribution in Britain, radically curbing inequality. For socialists these measures were limited in the extreme. But compare them to what New Labour has done!
Since 1997, Labour governments have maintained Tory tax-cuts for the rich. They have held down benefit levels and curbed access to benefits. They have promoted outsourcing and subcontracting to weaken union organisation and spread casualised labour. They have made sure that few wage struggles achieve significant victories for the working class, and since the recession engineered real-terms pay cuts for millions of public and private sector workers. (They were helped in all this, obviously, by the utterly feeble performance of the union leaders.) Is it any surprise that inequality has stayed sky high?
Since the Blairites are “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” (Mandelson) and quite explicitly oppose redistribution of wealth, how could they conceivably have dealt with inequality? The same goes in spades for David Cameron’s demagogic use of the issue to attack Labour.
A shifting of the tax burden from poor to rich, increased benefits, decent wage rises, restored and expanded public services, free trade unions... There is no mystery about the kind of policies necessary to bring down inequality. The likes of New Labour do not want to do it.
If Harriet Harman is a class warrior, it is for the ruling class.
The Equality Bill
A lot of the coverage of this controversy has become tangled up with the Equality Bill Harman is currently trying to steer through Parliament.
The Bill is a tidying up operation incorporating many existing pieces of legislation such as the Race Relations Acts, the Sex Discrimination Act, the Disability Discrimination Acts, the Equality Act 2006 and other pieces of anti-discrimination legislation. A number of aspects have been controversial — not least the application of anti-discrimination clauses to religious organisations — but what is relevant here is the Bill’s attempt to place a requirement on public authorities to tackle socio-economic disadvantage and inequality.
In May 2009, shortly after the Equality Bill was first published, Matt Cooper wrote in Solidarity:
“Never has there been so much legislation for equality, accompanied by so much increase in actual inequality. Why?
“The older laws against race and sex discrimination were part of the project of the ‘revisionist’ right wing of the Labour Party in the 1960s. Those ‘revisionists’ preferred the concept of equality of opportunity to any drive for actual equality in the distribution of society’s wealth and power.
“Actual equality was utopian, they argued. But to discriminate on the grounds of race or gender, or to deny educational opportunities to children from poorer families, was unfair; and, moreover, it was economic nonsense, squandering society’s resources. Equality of opportunity could allow a rational, somewhat more civilised, capitalism.
“No one would face unfair or irrational discrimination on the grounds of race, colour, sexuality, their parents’ income, or any other irrelevant characteristic. People’s aptitude would gain them education; the skills and qualifications won through education would win them employment; their money would buy goods and services.
“There would still be billionaires and paupers, bosses and wage-slaves; only, the selection of who would become a billionaire boss would be based not on family background but on talent and drive (or, at least, some talents and drives...)
“One kind of inequality (based on prejudice and irrational discrimination) would be replaced by another (based ‘rationally’ on ability). There would be a ‘fair’ distribution of inequality, so that white people and black people, gay people and straight, and so on would have the same chance of ending up poor.
“Whether all that was desirable or not — the term “meritocracy” was originally coined to denounce the idea that this was any sort of just society — it was in any case unrealistic. So long there are families with wealth, and families without, children will be on an uneven playing field… On the whole, in a competitive, money-based society with formal equality of opportunity, children will tend to follow in the occupational, educational and cultural footsteps of their parents.”
After the Second World War there were changes in both income inequality and social mobility — until the late 1970s, when the Callaghan government began to pave the way for Thatcher, mostly positive — but these were not the result of abstract legal duties. Rather they were the result of concrete policy changes: redistribution of wealth, vastly expanded public services and institutional changes such as comprehensive education.
In a society where gender, sexual, race etc oppression are bound up with economics, even these forms of inequality cannot be eliminated by law. Nonetheless, there is a rational sense to outlawing discrimination based on these categories. But what does it mean to outlaw discrimination on the basis of socioeconomic status? How can such a thing be possible in an economy based on money and exchange? Either you follow this demand to its logical conclusion, in which case it means overthrowing capitalism, or it is meaningless, since legal duties will not even dent inequality.
This aspect of the Equality Bill, in other words, is absolute nonsense.
Inequality and class
Perhaps the most extreme confusion surrounding Harman’s big day out has been the concept of class itself.
New Labour has worked systematically to expel the notion of class (to say nothing of class struggle) from political discourse. As its working-class support decays, giving way to disillusionment, apathy and to a lesser extent the pseudo-class politics of the far right, it occasionally yelps about the need to 'reconnect with the working class'. The concepts of class on which it bases these appeals are necessarily incoherent.
In so far as they are even definitions, non-Marxist definitions of class almost inevitably hide the existence of a capitalist ruling minority standing opposed not just to the “poor”, but to a substantial majority of the population. They cannot explain why attacks on the organisation and conditions of well-organised and thus relatively well-off workers lead to the pushing down of those beneath and an overall increase in inequality, while a victory for even a “privileged” group of workers strengthens the position of the entire working class, including the worst off.
The Marxist definition of the working class as everyone who sells their labour power to an employer, plus retired members of that class and those dependent on one or more of its members, is the only way to cut through the confusion.
In this context, the relationship between capitalism and inequality becomes clearer.
A reduction in economic inequality, even quite a drastic one, would not (in the past, has not) in itself threaten the existence of capitalism. Capitalism is not income inequality, but the exploitation of wage labour by capital: income inequality is only one symptom of it. Nonetheless, capitalism does have an inbuilt tendency towards increasingly inequality.
The reasons why should be obvious. The system’s basic drive, to increase profits relative to wages, is the jumping-off point of inequality. At the same time, capital will constantly push to cut costs by holding down and cutting back social provision. It requires a reserve army of unemployed workers, sometimes smaller and sometimes (as at present) larger. Its market mechanisms develop huge inequalities of infrastructure and services between different areas of each country and, radically more so, of the world. The various aspects of the push towards inequality reinforce and accelerate each other.
This drive can be curbed by strong trade unions and by state intervention (redistribution of wealth, expanded public services, transfers between regions). But it will always exist as long as capital does. A truly consistent, radical drive for equality would necessarily mean the overthrow of capitalism. But just as capitalism is not just income inequality, socialism is not just egalitarianism. Capitalism can only be replaced by workers becoming conscious and organised enough as a class to take power, socialise the economy and gradually abolish commodity production, wage labour, money and markets.
In a society based on wage labour and exploitation — even one modified by egalitarian measures in a way New Labour has been unwilling to do — formal equal rights cannot lead to actual equality. That is only possible in a society run according to the principle “From each according to her ability, to each according to her need” (Marx, Critique of Gotha Programme). Or as Engels put it in a different context (women’s liberation): “A programme for full equality must be a programme for the abolition of classes”.
Of course, we have to start from where we are. In a situation like today, when the working class is very much on the defensive, one starting point in the fight for socialism can be the demand for greater equality, and the measures necessary to really make it happen. But that in turn demands the reassertion of class politics.