Matt Myers: Neoliberalism and the Breaking of the English Working Class: an Attempt to Historicise


Neoliberalism cannot be understood solely from the standpoint of narrowly defined political history, political philosophy, political economy, or the top-down cultural analysis of much past scholarship on the subject.[1] Neither can it be understood, as Eric Hobsbawm famously tried to do in his 1978 Marx Memorial Lecture later published as ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted’, from a purely structuralist, and ultimately intevitabilist, analysis of economic, social, and political trends.[2] Instead, we have to turn to a discipline that Hobsbawm himself did much to popularise but which he ignored in his 1978 speech – the discipline of social history. But this must be a certain kind of social history, a history of the working-class experience of the specific techniques of discipline and punishment that characterised the neoliberal class project. Only social history can warn us against structuralist complacencies while reasserting the potential for collective subjectivity in history – that which could have avoided Thatcher in the 1970s and could now supersede neoliberalism in the present.

Furthermore, instead of viewing the 1970s as just one of many defeats for the labour movement, I wish to characterise the period – and the adjoining birth of neoliberalism – as the latest genuine ‘bourgeois revolution’. In his book How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions (2013), Neil Davidson claims that ‘the theory of bourgeois revolution is not […] about the origins and development of capitalism as a socioeconomic system but the removal of backward looking threats to its continued existence and the overthrow of restrictions to its further development’.[3] If this definition is correct then the 1970s was not just the culmination or apex of the last great industrialisation surge seen in the post-war West, but was the decade in which the fetters to growth and profitability of the old Western-industrial society, progressively built up from the eighteenth century, were systematically uprooted. This was achieved through a restructuring of the economic base ‘from above’, using older bourgeois state strategies of divide and rule to new ends. The bourgeois state structure and the parliamentary constitutional settlement remained in the West even if the specific mode of political economy was revolutionised by further specialisation of the worldwide division of labour. In Britain this meant a globally-integrated national economy on a renewed and distinctively neoliberal basis, finally superseding the imperial and post-imperial economy’s dual commitment to world dominance in the industrial sphere and the maintenance of an international finance centre (the latter increasingly being considered of primary importance from the early twentieth century). The 1970s saw the breakdown of the schizophrenic British economy, which had been given artificial life-support by the post-war boom, and a recalibration in favour of finance and the service sector at the great expense of British industrial workers and former industrial regions under the specific national experience of an international profitability crisis.

The worldwide revolution-from-below of the 1960s and early 1970s prefigured the breakdown of the post-war boom. The 1970s revolution-from-above paved the way for future capitalist development along very different lines. Thatcher and Reagan should stand beside Cromwell and Robespierre as archetypal bourgeois revolutionaries, at least in the terms of Davidson’s monumental book. Neoliberalism in the West removed the checks that an industrial Taylorist-oriented economy with a militant and well-organised labour movement posed to future development, precipitated in the context of worldwide overproduction and a crisis of post-war levels of profitability.[4] Meanwhile, in the East and global South various state-building, Communist, and anti-imperialist movements stalled in the face of endogenous contradictions (economic, social, political) and external interventions. The integration of East and West, North and South, in the new era of neoliberal globalisation did not start in 1989 but with the collapse of Bretton-Woods in 1973. The confluence of trends in the East and West further compounded, overdetermined, and made permanent the new balance of forces in the West. Eastern and Southern economies were integrated into the world market on liberal lines, their states kept intact (as in China, East Asia, Latin America, parts of Africa) or else collapsing under the weight of their own contradictions  (the former USSR, Yugoslavia). The scale of the shift, observed on an integrated world-scale, warrants the term ‘bourgeois revolution’ – understood as the systematic removal of fetters to capital accumulation and profitability – even allowing for the plethora and heterogeneity of the ruling classes across the world that instituted it.

This restructuring of the economic structure in practice meant the reconstitution of the working class as a class in itself. This did not mean a different mode of production in the  orthodox Marxist sense but a very different kind of political economy and a correspondingly different working class experience. With a transformation of the  forces of production (the materiality of production techniques and instruments of production) came different relations of capitalist production (how labour is organised within the capitalist mode). The British car industry is no better place to see this twentieth century transition: from patriarchal craft-style production using ‘piecework’ (non-Taylorist) work practices, to a slow process of agglomeration on Fordist principles, peaking in the late 1960s, and then to lean production (‘Japanisation’ or ‘working smarter not harder’) from the 1980s onwards.[5] The difference between the workers of the Pressed Steel Cowley body plant, who went on strike in 1936 over union recognition, and the current workforce at Mini Plant Oxford, with over 30 percent being ‘agency labour’ recruited from outside the factory and working on ‘lean production methods’, is vast (even if there are some notable similarities). The restructuring of work, of entire communities, of housing, created a corresponding annihilation in ‘historical memory’. The leader of the 1936 Oxford strike, the communist Abe Lazarus, is probably as foreign to current Cowley workers as Alan Thornett, Bob Fryer, and other militants of the 1950s-70s. To supersede a crisis, capitalism destroys not only masses of unprofitable capital but historical memory itself. And so it is not very useful to explain the ‘low level of struggle’ of the past thirty years – that which is now a cliché – simply in terms of military-style ‘defeats’ during the Thatcher period.[6]  Something more fundamental happened in the 1970s and 1980s that cannot be explained in the usual discourse of ‘victory’ and ‘defeat’, ‘Glorious Summer’ and ‘Winter of Discontent’,[7] or structuralist and sociological explanations of Stuart Hall’s ‘Great Moving Right Show’,[8] ‘Thatcherism’, or ‘New Times’.

What is missing from our conception of neoliberalism is how, as a historically specific way of governing capitalist society, neoliberalism has been able to enact a new form of class rule. The only way we can understand this process is through social history, and specifically that which foregrounds working-class experience, broadly defined.[9] Sociological notions, such as those popularized by Stuart Hall, of an ‘organic crisis’ of ‘corporatism’ leading to a Thatcherite ‘national-popular’ response that reconstituted a new ‘historic bloc’ and ‘balance of class forces’ can only go so far in explaining the break up of ‘Labour socialism’ and the victory of neoliberalism.[10] Only the historical experience of the working class, in its multifaceted, contradictory, non-deterministic and contextually specific forms, can explain why Thatcherism won. The debates around Hall, Hobsbawm, and Marxism Today, although an often unacknowledged treasure-trove of analysis, critique, and conceptual tools, can only take us so far.

Understanding the specificities of working-class experience in 1970s and 1980s Britain can answer a number of questions. First, why was one of the best organised labour movements in Europe, with an extensive rank-and-file network and a significant grassroots class consciousness, able to be comprehensively defeated in less than fifteen years? Second, why did massive social upheavals, popular strike waves, occupations, and demonstrations not result in a revolutionary situation for the British state, as seen on the continent, nor create mass parties on the far-left/right or a hegemonic Marxist or radical political and intellectual culture? In other words, why did a militant working-class movement not break free of the traditional confines of the labour movement and Labour leadership even in the height of struggle and popular involvement? And thirdly, why was the positively ‘forward marching’ movement of the early 1970s, coupled with a far-left still envisaging a Portugal-style revolutionary situation, able to be corralled and eventually neutered in the next decade even with rising levels of strikes and union membership?

To answer the questions posed above would require a number of books rather than a single essay. To understand the 1970s we need to relate a radical social history to the already broad work of economists. First, in the British national context; second, on an industry-wide scale (say, the British car-industry, shipbuilding, light-manufacturing); and thirdly, on an individual workplace basis, putting the experiences of workers at the heart of our analysis. Only this way can we marry Marxist economics with Marxist social history (the two disciplines worst hit in the postmodern, neoliberal intellectual counter-revolution of the past thirty years), to come to a fuller understanding of the period. Some possible ways to develop this field could be in-depth comparative studies of labour relations and workplace confidence, or comprehensive studies of attempts by trade-union militants, the far-left, and the wider rank-and-file of the labour movement to strategise and work politically during the period. It is not enough to say, in the spirit of Andre Gorz’s Farewell to the Working Class, that broad sociological sweeps of the structuralist brush, without reference to empirically observable working class experiences, can make apparent the nature of neoliberalism. Instead we need to understand the specifics of how neoliberalism won by taking the experiences of workers as our starting point.

In conjunction with this broad outline there remains another methodological prerequisite: an appreciation of the gender divisions inside and outside the workplace, and of the role of non-workplace-specific movements like feminism and campaigns around race and sexuality. One of the reasons that Gorz bid farewell to the working class was not just the disillusionment of a worldwide intellectual strata with the potential of a Marxist liberationist politics post-‘68, but that he (like Hobsbawn) was looking in the wrong places to find the mythical proletarian subject. Above all, this intellectual process failed to comprehend the gendered nature of class and was overly Eurocentric. Recognising that productive (waged) labour presupposes untold hours of reproductive (unwaged) labour done largely by women would help do away with the implicit pairing of white, male, blue-collar industrial worker with the revolutionary working class subject.[11] A fuller appreciation of the multiplicities of the working-class experience presupposes a much needed marrying of social history, Marxism and intersectionality.

We cannot hope to understand neoliberalism outside of its historical context.  To historicise it requires that we place experience at the forefront of our analysis. This applies just as much to the current conjuncture, the recomposition of the working class, class consciousness, and class subjectivity, as it does to our analysis of the past. We need to understand the specificities of the car worker experience in the 1970s in the same manner and method as we understand the call-centre worker today. These conclusions have implications for our understanding of neoliberalism today. Richard Seymour’s intervention in his recent book Against Austerity, suggesting that we have underestimated neoliberalism, its dynamism, and its staying power, is a crucial one.[12] The activist-left and especially the far-left may not, after all, have been in the best position to analyse the very personal experiences of defeat suffered by the labour movement and the far-left militants who were active within it. An element of distance is needed, where sober analysis can be separated from the personalised memory of defeat. As Hegel notes, it is only at the end of an historical period that we come to a fuller understanding of the nature of the era just lived.[13] It is only now that we can fully understand the scale of the defeat of the labour movement in the past thirty years and prepare for the next forward march in the twenty-first century.

Further study will need Foucault as well as Marx. Neoliberalism was also a constructivist project about rebuilding society from top to bottom on the model of competition, by disciplining and punishing the working class into accepting this state of affairs as the natural order. Whilst Seymour’s broad premise is sound, we must place a different stress on method and empirical approaches. It is up to the sociologists to predict and outline, and for the historians to make concrete. Only a rigorous and empirically-grounded study of the specific techniques of the neoliberal project from the late 1960s-1980s, as a disciplining class project led by the ruling class, to restore profitability to the system through a mass destruction of capital, will enable us to understand our present state of affairs. This process cannot be observed simply on the level of political philosophy, political economy, or culture, but must be seen from the specificities of working class experience through a social-historical approach. Where most of Britain’s social historians deserted an active Marxism in the 1980s and after – numbered amongst them Hobsbawn, Stedman Jones, Patrick Joyce, Raphael Samuel and others – we need to return to the basic Thompsonian premises of an empirically-grounded knowledge of lived experience, informed by a Marxist method, alongside genuine sympathy with the historical subject and a great deal of imagination. That is the only way to truly understand neoliberalism.


Matt Myers is reading for an MA in History at the London School of Economics, and is a former member of the OLR editorial team.


[1]           Most notably Mark Fisher, Colin Crouch, Noam Chomsky, David Harvey, Mirowski, and Dumenil & Levy.


[2]           Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’, Marxism Today, September 1978.


[3]           Neil Davidson, How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (Chicago: Haymarket, 2013), p. 420.


[4]           See Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy, The Crisis of Neoliberalism (London: Harvard University Press, 2011) or the work of Michael Roberts.


[5]           See Paul Stewart and others, We Sell Our Time No More: Workers’ Struggles Against Lean Production in the UK Automobile Industry from 1945-2006 (London: Pluto, 2009).


[6]           Charlie Kimber and Alex Callinicos, ‘The Politics of the SWP Crisis’, International Socialism, 140 (October 2013).


[7]           Ralph Darlington and Dave Lydon, Glorious Summer: Class Struggle in Britain, 1972 (London: Bookmarks, 2001).


[8]           See Stuart Hall, ‘The Great Moving Right Show’, Marxism Today, January 1979.


[9]           I am here defining ‘working class’ in its productive and reproductive capacities (a point not acknowledged in the 1970s), including specifically gendered forms of labour.


[10]         Stuart Hall, ‘The Great Moving Right Show’.


[11]         Lisa Vogel’s Marxism and the Oppression of Women (London: Pluto, 1983; new edn Chicago: Haymarket, 2013) is key in this regard.


[12]         Richard Seymour, Against Austerity: How We Can Fix the Crisis They Made (London: Pluto, 2014).


[13]         Hegel writes that ‘Minerva’s owl flies only at dusk’, see Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Outlines of the Philosophy of Right [1840] (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).


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