The idea of the ‘crisis of the working class subject’ takes the analysis one step further, saying in effect that class consciousness has declined to such a degree that the overwhelming majority of working class people have no consciousness of themselves as part of a class that has its own interests other than those of the ruling class; using Lukacs’ distinction the working class is a “class in itself” but no longer a “class for itself”.
The idea that the working class is no longer a “class for itself” is an exaggeration, but like most caricatures is based on aspects of reality that workers have to identify and integrate into their strategy and tactics. Consciousness, especially mass consciousness, is a dynamic factor that is subject to change and sometimes, in periods of crisis, is subject to abrupt shifts. So any attempt to capture and interpret mass working class consciousness is likely to be partial and one-sided. Before we get into the detail of that we have to say something about the changing structure of the working class.
John Major in 1996 argued that “we are all middle class now” – in other words working class living standards have risen to such a degree that the difference with middle class people have become blurred. However Cumbria University academic Phillip Bond has recently argued the precise opposite – the ‘middle classes’ are being forced into the working class.
“The facts are astounding. Contrary to the delusions of the free-market fundamentalists, the Reagan revolution has come at a great cost to the working and middle classes. In the US, the top one per cent have seen a 78 per cent increase in their share of national income since 1979 with the bottom 80 per cent of the population experiencing a 15 per cent fall.
Wage earners have coped with this structural shift by taking on unprecedented levels of debt, working more and asking their partners to join the workforce. Family life has suffered; children see less of their parents than at any time in the last 100 years and since nobody has any time, civic life has virtually vanished.
Class consciousness may have declined in Western countries, but a decline does not denote an absence. To truly become a ‘class for itself’ the working class, has not just to fight for its immediate interests but to fight for an historical alternative.
So my answer is–NO! The working class is not disappearing, it is however, in a coma. The current economic crisis may be the jolt needed to bring them out of the vegetative state.