Thatcher’s Children

News of students occupying universities across the UK in protest at Israeli atrocities prompted some on the Left to proclaim young people as a new revolutionary force in Britain. This assessment is in part wishful thinking, since if it was accurate, the disproportionate amount of time the Left spends on recruiting and organising students would have some justification.

It is undoubtedly true that there has been an upsurge in student activism around international issues. Many of the school students who walked out of classes in opposition to the 2003 Iraq War are now at university, and their radicalism has not diminished. Any conclusions about a general left-wards shift on the part of the young should be resisted, however. There are no signs that the Gaza campaign will develop into a broader progressive movement. Indeed, research from 2008 shows that students are more likely to express support for the Conservatives than for Labour. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, since due to Britain’s inegalitarian education system, university students are disproportionately middle class.

Therein lies the rub. All the talk on the Left about the radicalism of the young is really about the limited radicalism of young, middle class students. What of the working class young people who do not end up going to university, or who are among the 22% of students who fail to complete their university courses? Almost all the articles on working class young people from the Socialist Worker newspaper focus on media demonisation of youth, and the failure of government to meet young people’s needs on education and crime. The following passage, from an article about youth crime, is typical:

Poor education, poverty, inequality, poor life prospects and decimation of local services – these are the conditions in which many of our young people are living and which create the conditions for some to turn to crime and violence.

Working class young people are cast as passive victims without agency. The political views of working class youth, and the way they see themselves and their society, are neglected. If the Left is to have any hope of building support for its politics in the future, it needs to get to grips with the worldview of young people growing up in communities devastated by Thatcherism.

The kids I work with are predominantly from working class backgrounds. Most have parents employed in routine clerical or manual occupations, though a substantial minority come from families where neither parent works. Some are the children of immigrants who, due to lack of job opportunities or their own refusal to accept poverty pay, have set themselves up as self-employed – often in the “black” economy. Over 90% are non-white: Bengalis, West Africans and Caribbeans are the largest ethnic groups. Nearly all are classified as from “socially deprived” backgrounds. They should be part of the target market for Left groups, but very few have any awareness of socialism or progressive politics. Last month, anti-capitalist demonstrators descended on the Excel Exhibition Centre, round the corner from the College where I work. The students viewed the protests with a mixture of curiosity, amusement and indifference, but seemed to feel no sense of identification with the protestors.

Many of my students are highly ambitious – often ludicrously so. Kids with four GCSEs who have trouble reading and writing announce their plans to become corporate lawyers, doctors and businesspeople. I’m often reminded of Delboy from Only Fools and Horses and his reassuring words to a sceptical younger brother: “this time next year, Rodney, we’ll be millionaires!” As with Delboy, the bravado often masks deep insecurities. Through their time in education, a gap grows between their ambitions and their ability to achieve them. The more distant the prospect of educational success becomes, the more they cling to the fantasy of future wealth. Many give up on tasks after the tiniest set back, afraid to grapple with the problem in case the effort makes the anticipated failure more painful. It is common for kids to mock and take delight in the failure of others, as this provides a welcome distraction from their own inadequacies. Many of them refuse to take responsibility for their actions when they experience failure, since to do so would force them to address their weaknesses.

The kids I work with generally reject the idea that anyone could be motivated by altruism or any non-material concerns, and assume people are naturally selfish. They are keenly aware of their own “rights” but often dismissive of the rights of others. The vast majority of students in every class I have taught favour much harsher restrictions on the rights of immigrants, despite the fact that they are generally the descendants of immigrants themselves. They generally accept the view of British society as meritocratic. While most acknowledge the existence of class as a social fact, they do not see it as a structural barrier to material success. Instead of structural explanations, there is widespread support for “conspiracy theory” views of the world, with the Jews or the Freemasons cast as evil masterminds controlling events.

It isn’t hard to imagine the political views that flow from these assumptions about human nature and British society. My students tend to support the neoliberal model of “tolerance”, insisting upon the right of others to pursue their own self interest. On economics, most are firmly opposed to progressive taxation and redistribution of wealth: Tory proposals to raise the inheritance tax threshold and reverse Labour’s increase in the top rate of tax are popular. If I point out to my students that such taxes affect a tiny minority of the population, the response is that they might be in that tiny minority before too long. Most of my students support harsh, authoritarian policies on law and order, and blame crime on individual criminals rather than social factors.

In short, the majority of the working class young people I work with seem to have accepted Thatcherite principles and assumptions in full. There is no society; only competing and ruthless individuals. Collectivism is a doomed endeavour, since people are bound by nature to seek their own benefit at the expense of others. It is easy to move up through the class system, and anyone can “get to the top” with the requisite hard work. People are entitled to the fruits of their labour and have no obligation to give up any of their money in the form of redistributive taxes.

Of course, the picture is far more complex and nuanced than the one I have sketched. In their personal dealings with others, for instance, most of my students amply demonstrate the altruism they deny exists. It is also true that my students do not constitute a representative cross section of British society. Since many are the children of recent immigrants, they do not have the ingrained awareness of class that indigenous British people often do. Those whose parents are self employed are perhaps less likely to be sensitive to class than those whose parents are workers.

Most importantly, they are just kids with no experience of the world of full time work. Once they leave college or university, they are bound to come up against the realities of a deeply unequal and unfair society and their views will surely change. However, the direction of that change is by no means pre-ordained. Someone who has always believed that society is meritocratic will not necessarily abandon that belief once they find themselves unemployed or in a low paid, unsatisfying job. In the absence of a socialist political culture, they are as likely to blame their situation on Eastern European immigrants and cartels of Jewish bankers as they are to point the finger at an exploitative economic system. The evidence is that young people do have reactionary views on a number of issues. A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2007 showed that young people were less concerned with economic inequalities and much less supportive of policies to redistribute wealth than older respondents. Indeed, it would be surprising if decades of neoliberal social polices, designed in part to weaken social solidarity and support for collectivism, were not successful in altering the views of those who have grown up under them.

A good way to begin to tackle some of these problems would be to set up community organisations to involve working class young people in activities that prove that altruism and collectivism are possible. The left-leaning Kurdish/Turkish youth organisation DayMer runs a number of such activities for kids in East London, including sports activities and trips away. This approach should not be confused with the left-liberal stance that working class young people are simply bored and do not have enough to do. Of course the dearth of youth and community facilities is something that should be addressed as a matter of urgency, but unless there are community organisations that facilitate activities that engage young people in self-sacrifice and teamwork, attitudes are unlikely to change.

The Left should also build on the elements of the views of working class young people that have progressive potential. Ideas about personal responsibility should be nurtured rather than dismissed as reactionary. For instance, any approach to crime that is seen to absolve criminals of responsibility for their actions is unlikely to gain many adherents among working class youth. Ideas about hard work can also be progressive, but the need to work hard for others as well as to fulfil personal potential should be stressed. Similarly, we should not argue against seeking “success”, but should try to broaden the notion of success to include non-material and intrinsic goals.

Romantic notions of young people as a revolutionary force are wide of the mark at present. In fact, unless community and political organisations can successfully intervene, it seems likely that the Left will have an even harder job recruiting and organising in the working class communities of the future than they have today.

Left Luggage is an independent network of community organisers and trade union shop-stewards based in the UK. Its primary goal is to develop working class self-organisation and to reorientate the Left towards this aim. It also aims to encourage a culture of robust self-criticism and internal democracy. Read other articles by Left Luggage, or visit Left Luggage's website.

11 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Michael Kenny said on May 16th, 2009 at 12:57pm #

    This is pompous twaddle! The author’s whole tone is that of a middle class do-gooder who comes down from his comfortable Valhalla to pat the working class kids on the head and save them from their own ignorance and depravity.

    He consistently “talks down” to the working class, whose failure to follow the lead of their betters is a “problem” to be “tacked”. The young are to be “involved” in “community organisations” (run by Guess Who!) and have taught to them that “altruism and collectivism are possible”. The “Left” are to “build on the elements of the views of working class young people that have progressive potential”. Such elements, no doubt, to be selected by their middle class betters! If you think all this is starting to sound like the Hitler Youth, it gets even better: “ideas about personal responsibility should be nurtured”. “We” should try to broaden the notion of success to include non-material and intrinsic goals. And “unless community and political organisations can successfully intervene …”

    Most of his misperceptions stem from that “little brown brother” mentality and to turn his own words against him, he casts working class young people as passive victims without agency. The young are not selfish. In fact, the young of today are highly idealistic and totally lucid. They just cover their idealism with cynicism. And they love to be shocking! I would guess that they find Mr Luggage totally ridiculous, have identified what he wants them to say and are saying the opposite, just to “pull his chain”, so to speak.

    Radical suggestion: let the working class decide what is in their best interests and then butt out and let them get on with doing it.

  2. Jim² said on May 16th, 2009 at 2:07pm #

    One word(ish) for you…

    Television! i.e. The Media

    Transcends class, colour, creed, everything! and is a great factor in all of the woes described above. Time for everyone to do a Kieth Moon me thinks.

  3. Left Luggage said on May 16th, 2009 at 2:16pm #

    Michael, I think you’ve really misinterpreted this article. If you read the rest of the articles on the Left Luggage website you’d see that we’re totally against the kind of approach and worldview that involves middle class people try to “save” working class people from ignorance etc.

    Aside from this misinterpretation, most of your comment contains no substantive reference to anything in the article, let alone the main points: 1) that young working class people in Britain have been influenced by the values of Thatcherism, and have adopted many of these values (on the surface at least) 2) that the Left needs to recognise this if it has any hope of winning support for its values and 3) that forms of community politics may offer a solution to this problem.

    Perhaps you could put forward your views on these points?

    Your suggestion that the kids referred to in the article were willfully misrepresenting their views is interesting. Do you also think that the people who participated in the poll (cited in the article – it showed that young people were more opposed to redistribution of wealth than older people) lied about their views? Perhaps it was only the young people polled who lied…

    Of course it is comforting to tell ourselves that working class young people are budding revolutionaries but, at least in Britain, there is no evidence for this whatsoever.

    You make some rather patronising comments about how I must have had the wool pulled over my eyes by the kids I teach. Maybe you have experiences of working with young people you’d like to tell us about?

    Left Luggage

  4. Jeff said on May 16th, 2009 at 2:51pm #

    Left Luggage: The public education system, which you have indicated you belong, is the very reason we home school.

    Times will change.

  5. lichen said on May 16th, 2009 at 5:34pm #

    This was rather amusing really; first of all you insult and denigrate the young left for not being born into sufficiently poor families, and then you state that the “working class” young people (aren’t there child labour laws to prevent a “working class” of minors in the UK?) are excessively right wing. You seem to love generalizations, but basically what it comes down to is more anti-youth drivel. Most people in high school haven’t solidified their political views yet, anyway.

  6. Antonio said on May 17th, 2009 at 5:34am #

    I think “lichen” seriously and willfully misreads what this article is trying to say.

    Of course there is a degree of generalisation in the article. Any broad discussion of the views of any social group based on a small sample will inevitably contain this. However, that does not invalidate the evidence gathered here; such qualitative methods are standard fare in social science research.

    In any case, the polling data to which Left Luggage refers is quantitative evidence of the highest order, and what’s more it should be extremely worrying for the Left. It is a truism to say, as “lichen” does, that “most people in high school haven’t solidified their political views yet”. Of course, and this is admitted in the article. But at the same time, to ignore the impact of long-term changes in political culture and ideology and the reproduction of such ideas is patently absurd. Why was it “common sense” in the 1940s that Britain needed a welfare state and a national health service, whereas it is “common sense” now that corporate models are more efficient and deliver better value for “customers” i.e. public service users? Such things are due to changes in how people view the field of political possibility over time, shaped by economic and social factors. And Thatcherism/neo-liberalism has undoubtedly left a deep imprint on British political and social culture in visible ways; all studies show there has been a breakdown in community culture in the last 30 years and increasing atomization of society. Naturally young people who have only experienced such a political culture will have different views of the world as compared to grandparents who saw the construction of the welfare state and lived through a time when trade union and community culture was stronger. To dismiss this and simply to imagine that young people will “grow into” left-wing views is a dangerously naive and simplistic view of history and social change.

    Also, dismissing the article as “more anti-youth drivel” seems a little absurd given that it is patently written by a teacher in East London who is attempting in a seemingly honest fashion to describe his first-hand experience of young people and their views. It is frankly offensive and ill-considered to accuse someone who chooses to teach in one of the most deprived parts of the UK, with one of the highest rates of youth violence and social problems, as “anti-youth”. I wonder what “lichen”‘s experience of young working class (or, as he says, “poor”) people is?

    With his comments regarding child labour laws and a “working class” of minors in the UK, “lichen” betrays the fact that he does not regard class as fundamental to a left-wing analysis of society. Again, a fairly fundamental concept in the social sciences and in the theoretic apparatus of most successfull progressive social movements. But nevermind, why would one worry about about how society or the economy functions, let alone taking a moment to consider how to connect with the vast majority of ordinary people. Why on earth would the left want to do that, “lichen”?!

  7. ron ridenour said on May 17th, 2009 at 7:33am #

    Comrades Left Luggage/Antonio,
    Thank you for this refreshing candour. So much of the left, and solidarity groups with Cuba for instance, insist upon living illusions, illusions of all sorts, in order to, perhaps, distance themselves from our collective loneliness-isolation, impotency, weak influence in society as a whole.
    Yes, where is the left when it comes to the “marginals”, the real working class, the impoverished? And certainly it is a sad fact that in the world of today–especially in the “First World”–most of the youth and most of the working class grossly lack class consciousness, let alone any commitment to build socialism as an alternative to the class bashing capitalism.
    I meet the same response from the lichens and michaels on the matter of whether Cuba’s government is truly endeavouring to allow the working class to determine policy. Much of the left simply prefers ideological blinders to facing reality.
    Keep on truck`in,

  8. lichen said on May 17th, 2009 at 2:46pm #

    From glancing through your ridiculous reply to me, with every sentance trying to make your trotskyism sound more “authoritative” than my independant left, pro-children’s rights stance, I’m sure you are so much better at talking to “ordinary people” than I am. I can see you deconstructing their every word, making constant references to established academic paradigms matched condescending remarks and ones that make statistics sacred. My points still stand, this article is ridiculous, it’s standpoint is outdated, and to reach truly left goals we need a different vocabulary and strategy. You are the one with the ideological blinders!

  9. Antonio said on May 17th, 2009 at 3:20pm #

    First of all, I am not a Trotskyist. I don’t think anything whatsoever in my comment suggests I am, unless you can enlighten me. Perhaps you think a belief in class structures makes me a Trotskyist? Well, I guess the 53% of other British people who describe themselves as working class must be Trotskyists as well, right? Clearly the Trotskyist parties here are missing a real trick in their recruitment strategies!

    Your point doesn’t “still stand”, “lichen”. You have yet to address any substantive point contained within it, nor within my comments. You have merely launched a couple of disparaging volleys in the direction of Left Luggage and myself. You choose to attack my writing style and makes claims about my ability to interact with ordinary people for which you have no evidence, rather than addressing any of the points I raise. This doesn’t stand up your points, unless we’re using playground rules.

    To be honest, I’d be very interested to hear what vocabulary and strategy you think the left needs to adopt, “lichen”. It seems you and Left Luggage agree on the necessity of finding alternatives. At least they are attempting to engage in this discussion, however, whereas you are simply sniping from the sidelines without any points of substance.

    As for ideological blinders, clearly everyone has their view of the world, but I am comfortable with engaging in serious debates and having my ideas challenged, and changed in fact. Actually, personally I prefer this form of interaction over launching ad hominem attacks on writers’ and posters’ characters, intentions, and politics. Clearly you are otherwise inclined.

    So, “lichen”, have you got anything serious to contribute to the debate, or are you still lost for words?

  10. Deadbeat said on May 18th, 2009 at 9:37pm #

    I think Left Luggage has been one of the most insightful contributors on DV. Luggage’s critique of the “Left” is vital and extremely important to understand what needs to be done. The “Left” IMO has unwilling to engage in race and class issues and has apparently ceded domestic issue to the Right while it has been busy supposedly confronting “imperialism” and organized around “identity” issues. Unfortunately “imperialism” is really a ruse and a distraction from dealing with domestic inequality and most importantly obscuring domestic Zionism and “identity” issues — not grounded in class — further exaserbates class contradictions.

    Kudos for Left Luggage and his critiques by holding a mirror to the Left showing us that its reflection ain’t pretty.

  11. kalidas said on May 20th, 2009 at 1:18pm #

    Is that Spike Jones I hear, playing their theme song?