Social class blues

Socialist or Labour parties made deliberate choices to moderate their platform to seek to appeal to a newer set of voters.

I am somebody who I originally thought came from the working class, my father having been a dockyard worker.  Having, probably for this reason, tended to drift towards the Labour Party, for a long time I supported left-wing causes, though not Marxism.  Over time, I have ditched the rather extreme policies associated with socialism and tended to look at myself as a middle-of-the-road left-winger.  

More lately, working class and certain sections of the middle class have been having a severe loyalty crisis.  In the wake of the financial crises between 2008 and 2012, most left-wing parties in Europe fell all over themselves to ditch socialism, making a whole swathe of people feel like orphans.  The collapse of the centre-left has been universal: social justice rhetoric without the institutional force to support it simply cannot win elections.

Socialist or labour parties made deliberate choices to moderate their platform to seek to appeal to a newer set of voters than the set that put them in power in the first place. In each of these cases, the inevitable result was the alienation of their base and their removal from power.  The European elections in a few months’ time are universally forecast to bring in a swathe of right-wing governments to add to those already in place in at least five European countries.

“Trickle-down” economics is a hoax

It hasn’t been any different in Malta.  Joseph Muscat did it with a sleight of hand.  He famously proposed a new “movement” and did everything in his power to eliminate any notion of socialism or left-wing labels.  He even wore blue ties, for God’s sake. He succeeded as nobody ever did before him.  Nobody in the PL would dare change that successful formula.

One result of this development is that the PL has recast its electoral fortunes to the middle class, with nods every now and then to the “working class”.   It has tied itself in knots sorting out when to favour one or the other, and how.  One example of this was Muscat’s “trickle-down economics”, whereby the fact that a section of the population was becoming very rich overnight was neither here nor there since some of its wealth was trickling down.  To whom: to the middle class or the working class? 

Of course, trickle-down economics is a hoax.  In practice, trickle down has not gone according to plan.  Instead, it has given rise to higher inequality, in Malta too.  In a 2015 assessment, the International Monetary Fund rubbished trickle down and said governments should instead focus on policies that would directly help those on low and middle incomes.  The cherry on the cake in the hoax was Muscat’s claim that he had turned everybody into “little rich men”, when the working class was actually becoming relatively poorer and the newly-minted little rich men’s dreams remained an ever-distant prospect, while the real rich made themselves millions.

But, just in case anybody thinks I am on a negative campaign, I must also admit that conceptually it is not easy as it used to be to identify who the working class is.  This is not a just a problem of the PL.  The PN, floundering for the last decade on a swinging pendulum, is similarly lost.

A simple search on the web gave me at least 20 different definitions of “working class”, ranging from “anybody working for a salary” (earning €9,000 or even lower at one end and €85,000 at the other?) through “unskilled or semi-skilled manual or industrial workers (24.8% of the workforce), to ”individuals in the labour force who do not have bachelor’s degrees” (68.8% versus the 31.2% who don’t?). 

25% identify as working class

A Eurobarometer survey early last year revealed that 25% of the Maltese people  identify themselves as working class. In contrast, 56% identified as middle class, while 14% identified as lower-middle class. On the other hand, just 5% identified as upper-middle, but none associated with the higher or upper class. 

Surveys in other countries have shown a shrinking middle class while lower- and upper-income tiers have increased.  One cannot say that the same has happened in Malta, though the fact that none have identified as high or upper class simply means that those who earn very high salaries still think of themselves as middle class.  This tendency is confirmed by a survey in the UK which showed that, although just 25% of British people now work in routine and manual occupations, 60% of them regard themselves as working class   ̶    a phenomenon described as a “working class of the mind” that has withstood dramatic changes in the labour market.

A comparison of pay by class between 2013 and 2022 (4th quarter of each year) is shown in the chart.  I have defined each class by relating its average salary to the total average of the workforce.

Pay by class

Here the high and upper middle classes are combined because the Labour Force Detail doesn’t provide enough detail. But if some of the workers in this bracket were to be shifted to the Middle Class, then their percentage shares would be very close to those in the Eurobarometer survey.

Three points stand out: a small decrease in the working class component (whose  share is the lowest one in the EU);  a small increase in the share of the middle class, offset by a decrease in the lower middle class, leaving their combined share relatively stable over the decade (its share is the fourth highest in the EU, keeping in mind that only 11 countries had sections of the labour force identifying as middle class); the increased share of the upper middle and high class (keeping in mind that there were 17 EU states, including Malta, which said they had no high class).

In general, however, the figures show that the traditional middle class has been somewhat squeezed betwen the higher-income and lower-income classes; and that the income share of the high/upper middle/middle classes has increased the highest, whereas that of the lower middle and working classes has deteriorated.  This was obviously the result of stagnating lower salaries due to the influx of low-paid foreign workers.  So the working class remains, though its members are imported foreign workers, rather than Maltese ones.

Not just a question of occupation

Certainly, class is not just a question of occupation.  Although there are now relatively fewer people employed in a working-class job (elementary, unskilled ones), whether people say they are middle or working class nowadays reflects their educational background more than their occupation. People in the lowest quartile of household incomes are also more likely than those in the highest quartile to identify as working class. Foreign ethnic minorities are more likely to identify as working class than people from white backgrounds.

Regardless of occupation, people who identify as working class tend to be left-wing, more authoritarian, and more anti-immigration than those who identify as middle class. However, working-class identifiers have become less distinctively left-wing but more distinctively authoritarian and anti-immigrant than previously. Moreover, awareness of the difficulty of moving from one class to another has become more strongly linked to holding left-wing views, while it makes little difference to the prevalence of authoritarian or anti-immigrant views.

Today, as a result of the shrinking manufacturing/shiprepairing sectors, the old industrial working class has largely been unmade, politically marginalised, and stripped of its social power.  Few regard class as a fertile concept in historical thinking, fewer still as a foundation for progressive politics.  Instead, we can talk of a reimagining of class and class consciousness.

I remember reading Edward Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class when I was studying for my Economics degree.  He wrote that class was “not a thing”, or a “structure”, but a “historical phenomenon” through which the dispossessed “as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs”.  That insight is as relevant today as it was seven decades ago.

Now, as then, there is contempt for working-class people, hostility to benefit “scroungers”, derision of those forced to use food banks (they should work, rather than beg), and indifference to injustice (if I earn a median income or better, I’m alright Jack).  It is visible also in the scorn for the supposed bigotry (racist) and conservatism (anti-LGBT) of the working class or in the disdain for those who voted the wrong way (ex-PN voters) or have become disillusioned with the left (PL voters).  They are fertile ground for the likes of Norman Lowell.

Courting the middle class

Meanwhile, assessments that attach importance to the middle class have become dominant in political terms, as argued by Dr Alfred Sant in a blog.  The Labour MEP wrote that nowadays, the political achievements of a party “are measured according to whether it has gotten the blessing of the ‘middle class’. “Only on that basis,” he says, “can elections be swung in one’s favour.”   Political parties are doing all kinds of somersaults in search of this elusive middle class which confounds them.

Dr Sant reminds us that, at the same time, it is said that the working class does not exist and that it is a Marxist invention.  According to the non-Marxist view, the idea that society can be split into classes is a divisive tactic, meant only to create division within society.  

But then how do we come to openly discuss the middle class?  Retaining a job or improving their income is of more concern to people who comprise the new working class than it is to those who are better off.  A survey by Ernst & Young last year found that 52% of those in employment in Malta were thinking about leaving their current job, with a quarter saying they were unlikely or unsure of staying. Again, 46% of respondents said they were not satisfied with their current salary package and working conditions, while 60% were likely to quit if their preferences for when and where they work (work-life balance, growth, and career progression) were not met by their employer.

Serious issues

High employment and abolishing extreme poverty pay are significant achievements of the last decade. The issues the new working and lower middle classes in Malta face in relation to work are serious, however: long-term low or relatively low pay that leaves them unable to save for the future, insecurity, a lack of opportunity to progress, and much of their prospects in the labour market related to the individual characteristics of being female, from a non-white minority ethnic group, with caring responsibilities, or with a disability or health condition. And this is before the full effects of the impending impact of automation on jobs at all levels, in industries from retail to hospitality, is felt.

Theoretically, if we were to get rid of the non-European low-wage labour force, there could be an increase in the price of currently cheap labour as high consumer demand meets lower labour supply, but even if this were to occur, it could result in the loss of low-wage jobs without the prospects of an alternative.  In addition, it would go against the last 40 years’ form for an economic gear change to benefit the least well-off. One of the major risks for the lower-income classes is not just their vulnerability to automation, but how ill-equipped they are compared to higher skilled workers to adapt or change jobs.

One of the characteristics that members of the working class and new working class still share with the older versions is their likelihood of not holding a university degree, and it is the increased skills and qualifications that come with higher education that equip many workers to change jobs or careers, and therefore so disadvantages non-graduates. Too many people in the lower-income classes are trapped by receiving an education that did not equip them well enough in the first place into jobs that do not pay enough to make ends meet, and are stuck there due to lack of opportunity and skills to move on.

So, we seem to be back to my old hobby-force.  Education is the key, both to the prospects of the new working class as well as to the chances of the working class to escape from poverty.

Photo: Life of Pix

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