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a conversation with Ben TIPPET


It is several decades since Margaret Thatcher declared that “there’s no such thing as society.” In the 1980s Thatcher ushered in a new world organised around the primacy of the individual; a world where competition was king and where the brightest and best would rise to the top be that in a financial market or a TV talent contest. The reorganistion of the economy that has taken place since the 1980s has led to a society and a culture in which the distinctions of class were supposed to have less purchase and, for some, less relevance. In the twenty-first century this new society has started to splinter, through financial crises, environmental degradation and a growing consciousness of the gross inequality that neoliberalism has produced. In his new book Split: Class Divides Uncovered (Pluto Press, 2020), Ben Tippet outlines how our understanding of class has not kept up with the changes of the last forty years. He argues that a refreshed engagement with a Marxist understanding of class as a distinction between capital and labour, between—in the words of Warren Buffett—those who make money while they sleep and those who work until they die, is the best way to confront the inequality that society is built on.

Shortly after its publication, Hotel’s Thomas CHADWICK spoke with TIPPET via Skype about how our engagement with class remains nostalgic for older class narratives and how a better understanding of the victories that collective class action has won in the past can help us challenge the power relationship on which the class split is based.

I’d like to start with the book’s origins. What was your first encounter with the ideas and thinking that became Split?

The book came out of doing workshops in schools. With a group of friends we’d teach classes based on different types of political education that the students weren’t getting in their formal education. We did sessions on environmental campaigning, we did some stuff on feminism and consent, and I was running workshops on class and inequality. These were inner city, London schools, predominantly BAME students, quite working-class backgrounds and when you talked to people about class the responses were really varied. There wasn’t really a confusion about class, but there were a wide range of definitions and ways in which people used the concept. I think the students’ responses mirrored what was happening in our politics. So, for example, some students thought that class was this rigid social hierarchy—the upper, the middle and the lower class—and that this hierarchy determined status, esteem and respect; and because they were working class kids they didn’t really associate with it much as a concept because that would mean putting yourself at the bottom of a social hierarchy, which obviously people don’t want to do. There was also this idea that class was no longer relevant. It might have been relevant back in Victorian times or in the 1980s, but it didn’t really relate to our politics today. A few people talked about the distinction between a liberal metropolitan elite and an old industrial working class, but I found that wasn’t so much on people’s radar—that’s more the narrative of class that’s become dominant in mainstream politics. What was missing from any of the discussions, though, was a Marxist analysis of class. These are the founding ideas behind class, the relationship between capital and labour. For me personally, because I’ve been doing Trade Union activism and I’m interested in class as a relationship of power within the economy, this Marxist analysis of class has always been my understanding of class. It’s what first introduced me to the subject and it informs the economic research that I do. So I was interested in why this wasn’t a relevant concept for people, why people weren’t thinking about things in Marxist terms, why when you try to talk to people about capital and labour their eyes gloss over or they think you are being ideological. I wanted to write a book that described a Marxist analysis of class without the usual leftist terms or slogans, to try and put the ideas in a context that is digestible and easy for people to understand today.
Let’s turn now to the main argument of the book itself. Can you briefly outline your understanding of the split between labour and capital and how it relates to class?
I think the best summary is the quote by Warren Buffett that I refer to in the book. Warren Buffett is the third richest man in the world and he has this line: “either you make money while you sleep or you work until you die.” I think this is a neat summary of the two main ways people earn an income in the economy today. Either you earn an income from going out to work, using your labour to get a job and earn a wage. This is the way in which most of us earn the money that we need to survive. The other way of making an income, though, is from owning assets in the economy. These assets could be business assets, financial assets, or housing assets. In a way Buffet’s quote frames an old school classic Marxist divide that is still a clear dividing line in the global economy and one of the big producers of inequality across the globe. People might argue that Buffet’s phrase is too simplistic to describe certain economies, such as the one here in the UK. They might be thinking, actually wait a minute, most of us who are workers—me and you say—we’ve got to go and work for a wage, but we’re not living in a society in which we work until we die, are we? We have the weekends, we have holiday pay, we have pensions and because of that can we really say that we work until we die. But the point I argue in the book is that free time had to be carved out through struggle. Without any resistance, we would, to put it bluntly, be working until we die. It’s a centripetal force of capitalism but it isn’t inevitable. We need a Marxist understanding of class in order to grasp the ways in which people have managed to carve out time for themselves.
I got the sense reading the book that there is also a split in our understanding of class: there’s the way you’ve just described class in terms of a relationship between labour and capital, but there’s also a nostalgic narrative of class. Could you say a bit more about how our understanding of class has been affected by this nostalgic perspective?
I think this is one of the big changes that’s happened over the last four years: the change in the way that as a society we see class. There’s a phrase we tell kids “don’t pull a funny face because if the wind changes you’re going to get stuck like that” and I think in a way that something similar has happened with our understanding of class. Our narrative of class is nostalgic for class relations as they were back in the 1980s, or even before that. This idea of the working class as an industrial, male worker on the one hand and an upper-class elite at the top of British society on the other. This is of course no longer the case, but maybe let’s unpack that a bit. From the 1980s through to today we’ve seen huge transformations in the global economy that are often categorised as neoliberalism. One of the central ideas of neoliberalism is the idea of individual competition, the idea that we’re individuals competing in a global marketplace of ideas of labour of capital and the most successful person is the one who is most talented and able to compete and succeed in whatever they do. This driving narrative of individualism at the heart of neoliberalism has developed alongside a lot of other structural changes that have taken place in the global economy. You’ve seen mass deindustrialisation in countries in the global north and the relocation of industrial jobs to places like India and China, often to areas where working conditions are much worse. You’ve seen technological changes driving some of this deindustrialisation, but you’ve also seen a huge decline in the power of an organised working class in the global north. I can’t remember the statistics I have for it, but basically trade union density from the 1980s to today has halved. In 1985, 45.3% of the British workforce was in a trade union, today only 23% are. So what you’ve seen is the massive decline in the organised working class and the rise of this narrative of individual competition at the same time as these other structural changes in the global economy. I think all of these things help to explain why we’re so confused about class. In the book I use Billy Elliott as a neat way to summarise this. Billy Elliott is set against the backdrop of the 1984/1985 miner’s struggle and I feel this is a really pivotal moment in British working class history, partly because of the fact that it was such a large strike, but also because after a year of going on strike the miners lost. It became seen as this watershed moment and the point at which British trade unionism went into terminal decline. The film follows an 11-year old boy called Billy Elliot who is this talented ballet dancer who ends up going down to London and winning a place at the royal ballet school. The last scene is his family, who are striking miners, watching him on the stage performing Swan Lake somewhere like Sadlers Wells or something like that. I think the parable at the heart of the story is that as a talented individual Billy Elliot is able to move away from these old industrial working class towns to the city and succeed, while collectively his community, who tried to organise along class lines, have failed. Collective struggle means you are forgotten about and you lose, whereas if you compete individually then you succeed. This is really the story of neoliberalism, but in order for that narrative to take hold you have to completely destroy the idea that class is something that people can organise around. So part of the ways in which neoliberalism has succeeded has been to undermine the very idea of class as something that shapes our society and people might want to be associated with. Lots of people have written a lot about the demonisation of class as a category. Owen Jones’s book Chavs is probably the most significant work on this. His book has had a really big cultural impact on the way we understand the word chav, but also how we understand the term class as a society. To stop people from associating with their class you have to turn class into something that people don’t really want to associate with. People don’t really want to associate with class if it’s considered to be something that’s seen as vulgar and pathological. So all of these aspects have come together to really make us confused about class as a concept.
You’ve used Billy Elliot to describe the ways in which a Marxist understanding of class has been disrupted by neoliberalism and you turn to culture quite a lot in the book. I’m interested to know how you see culture or cultural production having contributed to both that loss of understanding but also that nostalgic understanding of class?
In the book I have this line that “class is a lucrative British export.” I think in Britain we’re quite famous for having a society that is very class defined and quite class divided and actually all of these nostalgic images of class in Britain from the stiff-upper lip gentleman to the industrial worker, to the queen, to the cockney accent are all so much part of the way in which we sell ourselves to the rest of the world. I think you see this a lot in the TV shows that we produce and sell to audiences both here and also abroad, shows like The Crown or Downton Abbey. There’s a huge production of that very nostalgic image of class. So that’s obviously one way in which it has contributed, but I think there are other ways which are more to do with the demonisation of class as a category. We can all think of the shows that were so prevalent I guess when you and I were growing up in the early noughties. Things like Jeremy Kyle, Benefits Street (although that came a little later), even shows like X Factor and Pop Idol and Britain’s Got Talent. Within these shows there was this underlying idea that to be seen as working class was to be seen as vulgar or something to be laughed.
Those shows also fit with the narrative you were describing around individualism, especially within TV talent shows.
Exactly. There’s also a thing that’s particularly relevant to the talent shows that really justify another idea of neoliberalism, which is this idea that the market is a form of democracy. When people used to criticise X Factor, people like Simon Cowell would justify these shows by saying, that the people who are criticising them are snobs and that they’re the ones who are trying to un-democratically tell people what they should and shouldn’t like. You see exactly the same narrative with people like Rupert Murdoch defending the content of their papers or even somebody like Richard Branson defending Virgin. It’s this idea that if people are buying and consuming this thing then that is almost like a form of democracy and if you try and criticise it you are being an elite and trying to tell people what to do. Of course this narrative ignores the fact that all of these things are produced by multinational corporations for profit, are heavily centralised with power controlled from the top down and massively editorially controlled and are by no means participatory democratic experiences.
Do you see implications for cultural production itself from the way in which we currently understand class?
There’s a great book by Natalie Olah about culture and class called Steal As Much As You Can. She really picks apart the fact that the cultural industries in the UK today offer a really interesting crossover in terms of class. On the one hand so many of the jobs within them are precarious and insecure, so in that sense in taking those jobs you put yourself in a very exploited working class position, particularly if you are looking at class from a capital vs labour perspective. But then on the other hand, because those jobs are so insecure it’s only the elite or those who come from elite backgrounds with a lot of financial support who are able to access these jobs. It’s a really interesting crossover between the Bourdieusian and Marxist analysis of class. In Split I write about these researchers from the LSE who have a book called The Class Pay Gap. The book is based on interviews with loads of people in elite professions to analyse how people end up in those positions. One of the main ones is commissioning editors at a top TV channel in the UK (Channel 4). They find that one of the ways in which you get to a commissioning editor’s job is by knowing a series of “cultural codes”, following Bourdieu’s cultural capital. Things like being in a meeting and knowing when to swear at the right time. When to put your feet on the table and when not to put your feet on the table. These codes in no way reflect how well you can do the job of the commissioning editor, what the codes show is that you’re part of an elite group that means that other elite people within that profession give you respect and allow you to get up the ladder. That’s quite theoretical, but these cultural codes have allowed these professions to be dominated by an elite which has inevitably affected the content that is produced. This is Natalie Olah’s point in Steal As Much As You Can. She argues that the lack of working-class representation within top professions in the media has had a huge impact on the content that the media has produced. It’s very hard not to agree with that argument. That’s not to say that the people doing these jobs are malicious or don’t think about class. Actually, I’m sure they’re all very conscious of their own class background and are very interested in representing a wide and diverse group of voices in their programmes. It’s more the fact that through this process you lose connections between different groups of people. It separates people into different spheres and that makes it hard for different people to penetrate each other’s sphere. It’s worth saying that on top of that there is quite an orchestrated cultural narrative to demonise working class people as well, which, as I’ve already mentioned, is much more sinister, but I wouldn’t say for example that the commissioning editor at Channel 4 is not thinking about class generally.
Something that ran throughout the book was the relationship between class and space. You talked a lot about the erosion of public space under neoliberalism but also explored longer histories of common land and enclosure.

Could you explain how you see the relationship between class and space?
I think the clearest relationship between them—which is one of the central ideas in Capital by Marx and has been a dominant idea on the left ever since—is this idea of the enclosure of the common lands being the start of any form of capitalist system. Let’s break that down a little bit. How does capitalism develop and how does this class relationship between capital and labour develop? At the moment capital and labour are such an integral part of our economy and our society that we often treat their hierarchy as quite natural and inevitable. In the book what I’m really trying to argue is the fact that this relationship between labour and capital is something that has been created. We can see this when we look back at the historical processes that have created the relationship. Why, for instance, are people so often willing to work a crappy job doing something they don’t want to do for a wage that leaves them barely able to survive? The reason people enter into a relationship that exploits them is because they don’t really have any other choice. Without it they don’t have the things that they need to survive. If you don’t have the housing that you need to survive, if you don’t have any land in order to grow the food that you need to survive, then you have to go and sell your labour in a mine or in a sweatshop or something and this is exactly like how capitalism started here in the UK at the birth of the industrial revolution. Access to space is so integral to this. We used to have a system of common land that allowed people to work land in order to produce the things that they needed in order to survive. We actually had something called the Charter of the Forest, which was a right to the land and woodland, the right to go and gather food, chop down timber and build your house. It’s interesting the way in which this woodland has been lost. Until the 1400s when there was a huge expansion of sheep farming, the British Isles was completely covered in woodland, roughly 80-85%. Today only about 5% of Britain is covered by woodland, they’ve been completely decimated. So that’s one example of space. Another is simply having land that you can farm and over a period of centuries, during the development of capital in the UK, these were enclosed. The landlords at the time realised that if they privatised the land, they could effectively choose the most productive peasants to work the land and massively increase the amount that they were producing. This tied in to changes that were happening in the global economy as well. I mentioned sheep, Britain became one of the biggest exporters of wool, and there was a huge demand for it in the building of the global economy with the colonisation of the rest of the world. So these economic changes saw people get kicked off the land, which created a dispossessed group of people that had effectively nowhere to go so they moved to the cities. This created the start of the industrial working classes. They then went to work in factories and from there we know the story. A very similar thing happened in the late 20th century in South Africa, which I write about in the book. I think that if we tell these stories we can see that the systems we have now are not inevitable. Even in the global economy where they still feel modern and new, these systems can be traced back to social changes that happened in the 1400s. I do think it’s good to caveat the story otherwise it starts to sounds a little bit like the William Morris notion that everything was great before the industrial revolution and we just need to go back that way. That’s not what I’m saying. There were obviously huge problems in pre-industrial times, but when thinking about class and space it is important to understand that access to land is one way in which our society has massively regressed.
It was difficult to read your book without thinking about the situation we are currently in. There was one element, though, that seemed particularly pertinent to COVID-19 and our lockdown situation: time. Labour is always understood through time. In the book you illustrate really neatly how you don’t sell your labour, you sell your time. I feel like that’s something which if it hasn’t changed is certainly been refracted in different ways by the Corona crisis. Has this crisis changed our understanding of working time?
I’m trying to work this out for myself as well. I want to be optimistic in some respects. In the 2019 general election, Labour were lampooned for saying that they wanted to move to a four-day working week. It was considered to be completely unrealistic, even though they were talking about transitioning to this over the course of ten years. Something so obviously feasible in the economy, but nobody saw that as politically possible. I think now people would be much more receptive to something like that. People can understand that something as fundamental as the labour market can be shaped by politics. The fact that we’ve shut down the labour market for a public health crisis, shows that we can also mould the labour market to serve other political demands and interests and I think when you point out to people that we’ve done things like that in the past, maybe even under harsher conditions, you can actually really see that. In the book I talk about the example of how we won the weekend. The weekend as a two-day weekend was only something that was created over the last 150 years. Before that there was only one day off, which was Sunday as instructed by the Bible. Basically what happened was that people who were working in the mid-19th-century would take Sunday off, get really pissed in the evening and on Monday morning when they had to get up and go to work they collectively decided to sack it off. It spread like wildfire. They used to mockingly name it after a fake saint and call it the tradition of Saint Monday. The people who ran the workplaces and the factory started panicking and as a way to try and create some kind of order they said okay we’ll give you Saturday afternoon off if you stop bunking off on Monday. Incidentally, this is why football matches start at 3pm because the cut off point when the first piece of legislation came in was 2pm so everyone used to leave and go and play football. I can’t remember when the rest of Saturday became a full day off, I think it was sometime in the early 20th-century, but the point is that it was only the collective refusal to work that won us something that we now take for granted. I’m hopeful that a similar thing will happen with the four-day working week. That’s the optimistic side of it. On the other side there is the fact that while on the one hand we’re working too much on the other hand we’re not working enough. We’ve got this problem of precarious work, this idea that people don’t have a fixed time that they’re working and don’t have a fixed wage. Precarious work and the use of zero-hour contracts has been increasing. Before we went into this crisis one in six workers were on insecure, precarious contracts. What we’re seeing in the Corona crisis is that a lot of these people have lost their jobs, they’re paying extortionate rents, they don’t have access to universal credit or maybe it’s not going to come in in time, they’re not going to be furloughed because they are one of these groups who are falling in between the cracks of the government’s support and people are just ending up on the street. This is a product of the labour market that we created. If you didn’t have huge numbers of the work force on these insecure contracts you wouldn’t have people in such a precarious situation.
To come back to Split itself. How do you see it intervening in the conversation about class? What would you like readers of the book to come away with?
One thing I would like is for people who read the book to think, actually I should do something like join a union or become a little bit more politically active. It’s only through collective organising along a class line that people have real power to be able to change the injustice that we see in the world. Class isn’t just something that divides us, it can also be a relationship between people that can empower communities to challenge power and to improve the conditions in which they live. I think you only get that from a Marxist analysis of class. In a way that’s why people want to keep hold of the Marxist analysis of class. Bourdieu’s thinking about class is very good at describing how people are different from each other. I think it’s better than Marx in giving a more accurate picture of the divisions that exist within society, but what it loses is this idea that class is a relationship of power, how as a worker or as a renter it is only by organising with other people who are in a similar class position to you that you can actually change the very nature of that power relationship. We’re seeing this at the moment so starkly with the Covid crisis. There’s an amazing group called the London Renters Union who are organising people facing problems paying their rents. I read a statistic that only 44% of residential rents were paid in early April. We don’t call them rent strikes, but people are not paying their rents because they can’t pay them. That could be really bad for people if they do it individually and end up getting kicked out, but if you can collectivise that it can become a real source of power to challenge the financialisation of the housing system, to help us build more affordable social housing for people, to tackle street homelessness—all the things that we know are possible but we don’t understand how to get the power to make them a reality. It’s only when we think about the collective of class power that we can actually start to change these things. So hopefully that is something people can take away from the book and I think joining your local renters union or your trade union is a great way to start. You don’t have to do anything radical to start off with, often it’s just about paying your subs—£7 a month or however much they are—and that money will go and help somebody else fight a court cost and you just keep up to date with what’s happening in your industry.

Split is published by Pluto Press and is available here.

Ben TIPPET is an educator, activist, and writer. He is currently doing a PhD at the University of Greenwich, researching the causes of wealth inequality in the UK. He is a researcher for The Transnational Institute and has written for Novara, Strike! and Economy.

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