Chris Harman


Contours at the crisis

(November 1981)

From Socialist Review, No. 37, 15 November–13 December 1981: 10, p. 33.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Slump City: The politics of mass unemployment
Andrew Friend and Andy Metcalf
Pluto £3,95

This book’s theme is the impact of the crisis upon the working class, particularly in the inner cities. It shows how on top of the old geographical distribution of unemployment – with far higher levels in Scotland, the North and South Wales than in the South East – there has also developed an uneven concentration within the major cities. The inner city areas have become areas of deindustrialisation, with double the average areas of unemployment and with the employed population very much dependent upon jobs in the service sector of in sweat shops.

The authors take from Marx’s Capital the concept of ‘surplus population’ to define many of those who live in these areas. This includes not just the unemployed, but other groups as well who cannot find permanent employment in the main sectors of the economy:

‘Those for whom long periods of unemployment alternate with dependence on temporary or casual part time work; those participating in the bottom reaches of the “black economy” outside the tax system; all those who are dependent on state benefits or forms of charity (including the mass of pensioners, the chronically sick and disabled, the single parent families on social security); and those people who, although in regular employment in labour intensive sweated occupations or the state service sector, earn wages significantly below the national average ...’

They suggest that this ‘surplus population’ can constitute up to half the population of major cities like Liverpool, and an even higher proportion of the inner city population.

Many of the old institutional structures of British capitalist society have begun to break down in such areas. The traditional stereotype of the ‘male headed nuclear family’, for instance, hardly makes sense in inner London, where a quarter of families are single parent families and where there has been a rapid growth of single people (particularly old people) living by themselves.

‘The cyclone of social change that has enveloped family life in the post-war period has both destroyed the working class extended families and progressively fractured ever larger number of the nuclear units that succeeded them. As this has happened, the working class has effectively lost the haven of family life which acted as a shield against the harshness of capitalist urban life ... As economic stagnation engenders cut backs in public spending and new ways of disciplining the surplus population are sought out by the state, the welfare lines are hauled in and “ personal problems” are screwed to a new pitch.’

Under circumstances, there is a growth of mental ill health on the one hand, of petty crime on the other. The only response known by the forces of the state is to increase the level of harassment, particularly – but not only – of black people and of youth.

By April 1980

‘an ORC poll on attitudes to the police ... showed that while a majority of the North West’s population generally had confidence in the police, hostility to and distrust of the police was high in Huyton (Merseyside) and Moss Side (Manchester) and cut across both age and race divides.’

The riots of the early summer – with adults as well as youth, white as well as black, joining in – confirm this finding.

There are, however, faults with this book, both at the level of analysis and in what it has to say about the way forward. Here all the authors can do is to mouth clichés about the ‘danger’ of ‘militant defensive struggles’ based upon the ‘skilled male working class’ which will ‘inevitable fail’. They urge a ‘strategy’ of ‘building alliances between consumers and producers and between different groups within the working class’. In this way, they claim, the ‘richness of political action and the depth of analysis’ which the ‘autonomous black and women’s organisations have developed’ can overcome ‘the economistic approaches of the labour movement’.

That is all so much nonsense. Apart from the IWAs, ‘autonomous’ black organisations hardly exist in Britain today; at best there are small groups of activists in a few cities. The women’s movement hardly exists between conferences or demonstrations every couple of years and, in many cases, is dominated by upper grade white collar women whose attitudes and traditions are a million miles from those who toil in the sweat shops or try to bring up families on SS. And the ‘traditional’ working class – whether in manufacturing industry or in the lowest grades of white collar work – is neither all male or all white. In fact, both black men and black women are more likely on average to be employed in manufacturing and transport industry than white men, with black male workers being especially concentrated in the large workplaces. And a third of the workforce in inner city areas have jobs in manufacturing, despite deindustrialisation.

The problem is not establishing ‘alliances’. It is one of political agitation and organisation, so that the militancy that exploded in the inner city areas in the summer can be directed into the factories and offices where a -.good number of the rioters work.

Last updated on 5 October 2019