‘Farewell to the working class’?  Or good-bye to parts of the middle?

It’s getting on for forty-five years since the publication of Andre Gorz’s Farewell to the Working Class led to controversy – and accusations of heresy, from socialist and labour movement quarters. Gorz claimed that as a result of developments within capitalist society, particularly the increased role of machinery, groups of workers would be ejected from the production process. Essentially becoming surplus to requirements, they would make up a ‘non-class’ incapable of the collective solidarity required to overthrown capitalism in the way Marx and his later followers continued to maintain.

Yet rather than ‘a society based on mass unemployment’ as Gorz predicted, the displacement of industrial workers has been counteracted by a growing service sector workforce, including more public sector roles in education, health and local government – though elsewhere, particularly in areas like social care, much of this work has been low-skilled and low-paid. (And of course, the gig economy continues to be based on insecure, zero-hours and bogus ‘self-employment.’)

Yet interest in the effects of technological change on job destruction has continued. In contrast to Gorz’s time when machines were replacing industrial manual labour: in the early years of the 21st century it was argued that automation was eliminating large amounts of middle ‘routine’, non-manual work, particularly in offices.  As a result, the occupational structure was seen to be ‘hollowing out’ and an ‘hour-glass’ shaped structure was replacing the post-war pyramid – with highly skilled jobs in the top half, yet with many ‘non-routine’ service  jobs in the bottom – jobs, it was not feasible or even sensible to automate –new technologies might be able to take your meal orders, but we’re not going to see many robots that bring the food to your table!

But further technological advances, part of what’s been described as a Fourth Industrial Revolution and based around new artificial intelligence and machine learning will likely have major implications for work that was previously considered to be ‘safe’ from threats of automation. For example, the arrival of Chatbots software, not to mention its constant improvement, the result of cut throat competition between big tech, has caused growing consternation across creative arts, journalistic and education professions. Examples of Chatbots ‘pretending to be journalists’ with news sites being entirely AI generated are numerous and if the software has yet to properly penetrate the world of the classroom, alarm bells are already ringing at mega educational publishers like  Pearson, while companies specialising in on-line learning packages fear total wipe out.   

Though few expect employment in these areas to completely disappear, it’s undoubtably the case that specific tasks and roles will be eliminated or at best, be aggregated – fewer people will need to undertake the arduous but also the energy sapping task of ‘report writing’ while the processing of applications for loans and mortgages won’t need armies of financial advisors.

Meanwhile, even if technological developments mean that more jobs will experience deskilling, young people will still need more and more qualifications to get them (if not to do them). Rather than ‘moving up’ the occupational ladder, with more roles ‘pushed down’ the main issue will be whether downwards mobility can be avoided. Rather than farewell to the working class, under present conditions it will be goodbye to the middle class – or at least large sections of them.

One thought on “‘Farewell to the working class’?  Or good-bye to parts of the middle?

  1. Brilliant accompanying photo of the ‘classroom’/’office’/?prison of the future but I think you should link your revisiting of Gorz to Dan Evans’ new book, ‘Nation of Shop Keepers’ that you recently reviewed on this blog, as he sees as a ‘new petit bourgeoisie’ being produced and reproduced by schooling particularly but also by limited access to privately owned housing. This is linked to the ‘hour-glass’ model of the class structure that you mention above but that is different from the ‘pear-shaped’ model of a new middle-working/ working-middle class you and I have previously described ‘running up a down escalator’ of devaluing educational qualifications and limited access to private housing who are between a dwindling professional and managerial old-style ‘middle class’ serving the new globalised ruling class above and a growing ‘precariat’ beneath (‘between the snobs and the yobs’ as has been said – I can’t remember who by!).

    The traditional three class pyramid of 1/ upper class employing 2/non-manual ‘middle’ class and 3/ industrially manually working class has been eroded by technical change breaking down divisions of labour between manual and non-manual workers. This technological drive continues at arguably increased pace to merge previously skilled manually labour with academically qualified ‘non-manual’ workers in a new middle-working/working-middle class of employees, while beneath them the latest applications of new technology individualise the mass of precariously employed often part-time workers in often two or three or more ‘jobs’ at once. This preserves the old upper-middle-working tripartite form but with a new content.

    In Dan Evans by contrast it seems to me there is no technological driver to differentiate between his reborn self-employed petit bourgeois, who never went away but always contributed to the mass of small businesses, but instead relies on cultural differentiation (a la Bourdieu) in schools but also between those who go and do not go to higher education. Nor does he mention the now globalised employing class of international speculators = the 0.1 who increasingly finance and subordinate surviving national and productive capital.

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