Here is a story from contemporary Britain. A private company pockets large sums from the taxpayer to feed the poorest children, then spends a few quid on near-starvation rations. Profits have never been easier. Ministers and journalists are informed that free school meal recipients will receive “hampers”, as if they were a Christmas treat, headed to lucky children.
The reality is, working class families are forced to cope with half a pepper, a banana, a can of tomatoes and not much else to last a week. The same company has an arm that feeds the children of the rich. On its glossy Instagram page, they beam to the world pictures of luxury canapés for some children, while to others, they throw the scraps.
This is the basic injustice of class society: purely by an accident of birth, some children are well fed and others are not. But politics matters here as much as economics. This company, Chartwells, profits not simply because of its buccaneering free market ethos, nor by proven service to customers, but because the government’s interest in their work only stretched as far as the signing of a contract, with no scrutiny of how they treated their working class customers.
Capitalism is not just a market economy as its defenders claim. It is a class system where the few who own vast wealth use state power to protect their profits and their privilege. The ‘working class’ – a term suddenly popular with Tory politicians who claim to champion it – is not a group defined by common accents or cultures or tastes or views about Brexit. All of that is an attempt to muddy the picture. The working class includes everyone who is forced to work for those who own wealth and profit by exploiting workers.
Take Jacob Rees-Mogg, for example, a multi-millionaire whose investment firm promised to profit from the Covid-19 crisis. When I asked Rees-Mogg in Parliament for his response to the news that UNICEF are now stepping in to feed hungry children in Britain, he condemned the charity feeding the kids rather than expressing any regret at all for his government’s revival of near-Victorian malnutrition. He has children, but unlike working class parents he doesn’t have to worry about the poverty premium that is costing poor children more across every area during the pandemic.
From education to physical health, poorer children are being left behind as Covid-19 exacerbates existing inequalities. Rees-Mogg doesn’t see this; his children can study at home during the pandemic, as every child should be able to do, while their father’s government refuses to extend free broadband to working class kids to make education at home possible for them too.
This is what it means to say that capitalism is a class society that punishes the working class on whom it depends. Those who clean our hospitals and look after our loved ones in care homes see their pay stagnate and their children punished multiple times over, while bankers and bosses with the ear of government make a fortune.
The divide between those exploited under capitalism and those doing the exploiting is marked by concrete differences: the sigh of empty bellies versus the satisfaction of expanding bottom lines. But it is also justified by the selective division of humanity, worth and value – irreconcilable differences that cannot be paved over with cultural reference points, nor short-circuited by appeals to racism.
“The Tories might try and position being too ‘woke’ as the social ill that plagues the UK’s working households, but it’s not ‘wokeness’ that is profiting from undercutting starving families”
It is especially important to say all of this at the moment, because there is a concerted campaign afoot to make us forget it. Power and privilege in democratic societies never lasts simply by being honest about its intentions, it must find ways to recruit working class support – some that the powerful have sought by whipping up regular ‘culture wars’.
In Britain, Liz Truss gives speeches promising to defend the working class against the real threats to them: feminism, anti-racism and the “southern elite”, apparently. It is such a cheap trick. The very same people who starve the poorest children present themselves as advocates for the powerless.
Racism is like a double punishment for the workers of Britain; it metes out extra levels of violence and loathing to people of colour, and then sees them blamed for the very system that exploits all workers. The Tories position racism as “victimhood” and the “denial of self-determination,” while avoiding addressing the structural discrimination that actually holds working people of colour back.
The exploitation of the working class can be solved neither by the kind of empty corporate platitudes we witnessed during last year’s Black Lives Matter uprising, nor by cultural crusades against “wokeness” – but by tackling both working class oppression and racism through a serious class politics.
“Conservative paternalism is never going to liberate working class people, no matter how much the Tories try to convince those workers that they are their saviours”
The latest grotesque news, about state-funded malnutrition in 21st century Britain, should form a starting point for this. Politically, I don’t know how the families of those underfed to fund Chartwells’ profits lean. I don’t know how their parents voted in the 2019 election or the 2016 Brexit referendum. It pales in the face of the glaring truth here: all of them suffer as a direct consequence of a social system geared to benefit a few, no matter how determined, how self-sufficient they might be. The Tories might try and position being too “woke” as the social ill that plagues the UK’s working households, but it’s not “wokeness” that is profiting from undercutting starving families. Anti-wokeness is a distraction from £3 food “hampers” and half a bell pepper.
The Tories have continuously sought to rebrand themselves as the down-to-earth party of the working people. Perhaps now, the pitiful images of lone potatoes and a handful of pasta show just what meagre scraps those in power are willing to actually throw to the workers whose exploitation props them up.
That, not any cultural marker, is what it defines the experience of the working class in this society. Conservative paternalism is never going to liberate working class people, no matter how much the Tories try to convince those workers that they are their saviours. Only socialism and its goal of handing back real control to working class families, provides answers and a way forward. Let’s take it.