Changes in Capitalism, Class Experience, Loss and Uncertainty

The increases in part-time employment and in zero-hours contracts of employment, the weakening of labour unions and the general ‘flexibilisa- tion’ of employment mean that at all points in the business cycle, work is less secure. The evidence from Ireland (Muhlau 2014) indicates that the least well-off are hardest hit by recessions; but we have also seen that other parts of the labour force can be subjected to ‘downsizing’ and ‘de-layering’. Middle managers in their fifties are losing jobs which they have held for a large portion of their careers. Manual workers whose jobs are lost to outsourcing and closures and middle-class workers losing their jobs in ‘rationalisations’ face both unemployment and difficulty getting back into the labour market. Where they have not been upwardly mobile, the children of those who lost their jobs as industries shrank or closed down have found that jobs available are the insecure flexible jobs mentioned earlier. Some have become self-employed in equally precarious small businesses.

In the aftermath of the recession of 2008 in the UK, the steepest fall in employment was in manufacturing (9.7 %), followed closely by construction. There were also falls in finance and retail hospitality, which, being much larger sectors, accounted for a higher percentage of all postrecession unemployed (Gregg and Wadsworth 2010). Public administration showed a rise in employment of 3.5 % after the recession, but later there were expectations that public-sector employment would fall sharply as a consequence of cuts in public expenditures (Cribb et al. 2014: 2). The declines in employment in construction would mean difficulties and business closures in this small business sector, affecting labourers who had tried to solve their loss of employment by starting small enterprises (Bradley 2014: 434; see discussion in chapter one). Taken together, the important changes in the UK economy mean losses of employment in skilled trades found in manufacturing, a proliferation of semi-skilled service work under much less secure conditions of employment and diminished security of employment among middle managers.

This class structure, discursively described earlier, matches quite closely Bradley’s (2014) descriptions. She writes of an elite who are among the prime actors in the global economy; a middle class of professionals in traditional professions as well as a managerial middle and a lower middle class of ‘nurses, council workers, technicians’; a working class of both ‘relatively affluent upper working class’ and a less well-off group of retail and service workers; and finally a ‘precariat’ characterised by highly insecure working conditions and contracts of employment. Most of these forms of employment and work conditions can be found in both the public and private sectors, and the sector in which people work may well influence their political outlook. This is, of course, a much more complex picture of a (changing) class system than could possibly be captured by the simple distinction between working class and middle class. We should add that the particular class experiences, and the political and cultural attitudes associated with them, do not encompass a single class, nor do they encompass a whole class, but rather a class fraction. Thus, some observers have too easily pronounced the end of class politics or of class as a social determinant in general (Oesch 2008).

If we relate these class positions to the consequences of changes in capitalism outlined in the preceding sketches, we detect particularly vulnerable classes. We may select four in particular. First are the members of the older working class who have experienced deindustrialisation; they are marked, not only by class experience, but also by age and region. Second are those who are most exposed to the uncertainties of flexible work in unskilled and semi-skilled jobs. Third are the petty bourgeois and self-employed who are subject to cyclical shifts in demand for their services, to competition from newer entrants to their business, or (as ever) to the incursion by larger businesses into small business—most notably of superstores into the livelihoods of high street shops. Fourth are the middle managers and supervisors who are subject to unemployment resulting from rationalisations. They are all possible bearers of the resentment felt by those who lose something to which they have come to feel entitled, as well as something which formed the basis of their expectations and a familiar life which they may have known for decades.

Resentful nationalism, or at least resentful national sentiments, does not grow mechanically from these class experiences. These sentiments are also framed by a broad cultural and political set of changes and peoples’ experiences of them. Some of this cultural change is not dissimilar to the disappearing Real England which Kingsnorth (2009) describes in his book by that title, in which he documents the decline of high streets, the emergence of shopping malls and the closure or absorption into chains of familiar pubs. The sense of resentment is also allied to the arrival of immigrants and the defraying of a sense of belonging to ‘our country’ (Skey 2013). In the next section we turn to the way our respondents described their experience of class change and related their comments to their sense of national identity.

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