Saturday 2 March 2013

The Irreparably Broken Middle?

Ed West writes:

Has the British middle class had its day? I read an eye-opening piece in the Evening Standard earlier this week, which made me even more downbeat than usual. In it Andrew Neather wrote: “Conventional wisdom holds that while technology destroys jobs, it creates others — along with the intangible benefits of the web. But as the pace of change accelerates, bringing artificial intelligence and the digitisation of vast stores of knowledge, both the speed and nature of job losses are shifting. Now middle-class jobs in the music industry, legal research, newspapers and elsewhere are rapidly melting away.”

This has been happening for some time, with music being the canary in the coalmine. Lots of people sneered at the Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich back in 2000 when he spoke out about free downloads killing music, but the real losers in that industry have been not the big stars but the middle-ranking producers whose skills have been made obsolete by technology of various types.

A similar thing happened, slightly later, with journalism. I suspect that the increasing media anger about salaries (in the Left-wing press, towards bankers; on the Right towards public sector officials) is partly due to falling journalist salaries, the subliminal headline of many op-ed pieces being “why are my university contemporaries making 20 times as much money as me?” The bitterness over the hacking scandal and Leveson – the “circular firing squad” – reflects this. Like in music, the only people surviving and thriving are the big names; everyone else is in trouble.

Retail is going through the same thing, and bookshops for one have long been showrooms for Amazon; last time I went into Waterstones, to use a voucher, I bought a nice book for £14, then checked on Amazon, where it was going for £9.

The question is how this will affect politics. The triumph of social liberalism in recent years, and the failure of socialism and social conservatism, partly reflects the decline of the English working class, if such a thing can really be said to exist.

Most of the progressive causes today are elite movements that chime with well-educated peoples’ moral compasses and their economic interests; mass immigration is promoted by big business for economic reasons but it fits with moral views about racism; “diversity” issues such as affirmative action (certainly in the US) have mostly been at the expense of rural people and lower-middle class whites, not the elites; women in the boardroom is of little interest to the vast majority of people who will never reach the top floor. The most recent cause, the campaign for gay marriage, has come from the top down.

These movements aren’t necessarily wrong, but they are elite concerns, and in the former two cases come at the expense of the working class and so reflect their impotence (I’m not even convinced that “diversity” in the professions makes them more open – it could just mean the old boy’s network gets a bit more colourful but just as shut to outsiders). Gay marriage is unlikely to make that much difference to the everyday lives of most heterosexuals, but there’s a perception that it is an elite obsession, which is why it has turned into an open wound for David Cameron.

Economic and political strength have always been linked; by the mid-20th century working class men could turn the lights off in Britain, and had reduced inequality levels to the lowest they would ever get; unfortunately for them their union leaders were too keen to exercise that power, even when technology was making manufacturing jobs obsolete.

If technology does the same for the middle class there are bound to be repercussions for politics. Political party membership is already in freefall and politics has become professionalised and elitist, this Triumph of the Political Class personified by the two party leaders, virtual caricatures of the Tory and Labour elites.

And political parties are products of a strong middle class, having developed as the professions and skilled trades expanded in the 19th century, and which reached their peak in the middle of the 20th. As the major parties decline we see more strange results for smaller groups such as Respect or the Greens, or independents.

The most recent beneficiaries of such discontent are Ukip, an anti-politics party that rejects elite liberalism on issues such as immigration and gay marriage. Ukip is popular precisely because it appears so amateur and its leader is a normal human being, and while that amateurishness will prove more of a weakness as the media turns nasty, for now it’s winning votes off all three main parties and not just the Tories. So I’m not sure it’s only the Tories who should be concerned by Eastleigh, which was a bad result for the political class as a whole. There are plenty more to come.

No comments:

Post a Comment