Britain has become one of the most unequal societies in the developed world in terms of income and wealth, housing, diet, health, and employment and educational opportunities.
At the root of this social inequality is the system of capitalist exploitation itself. In return for providing society’s goods and services, workers rely mostly on their wages to sustain themselves and their families (many of which are rearing the next generation of workers or caring for the previous one). Many parents and carers depend on state benefits or pensions – the ‘social wage’ – funded from taxes on the wages and profits generated by the working class.
All forms of working class income have come under increasing pressure in recent decades. Traditionally, capitalism has depended on large-scale unemployment to weaken trade union organisation and bargaining strength. Most significantly, therefore, the British ruling class opted in the late 1970s to ditch the 1944 White Paper commitment to full employment and begin dismantling the welfare state. A range of techniques and strategies was developed to maximise profit at the expense of working class income, including casualisation, flexible working, privatisation, deregulation, ‘pension holidays’ and debt bondage.
As exploitation intensified, so the gap between working people and the super-rich has widened enormously. In Britain today, the richest 10 per cent of the population own around half of all declared personal wealth, while the poorer 50 per cent of the population own less than one-tenth of it.
Moreover, capitalism has always utilised differences of gender, ethnicity, education, skill and mental and physical disability to divide the labour force and drive down the level of real wages.
In Britain, most women workers are still paid less than many men for doing work of equal value. Black and ethnic minority labour is used to fill many of the jobs with low pay and minimal training and promotion opportunities. In particular, TNCs seek to employ young and migrant workers as casual or short-term labour on inferior terms and conditions, often to undermine collective agreements reached with trade unions. This super-exploitation has been enshrined in law by EU legal judgements and directives.
It is also reinforced by sexist, racist and anti-foreigner attitudes. In an imperialist country with a history of empire, such as Britain, racist ideas are deeply rooted and can be manipulated by the ruling class as well as by right-wing nationalist or fascist movements. Social inequalities of class and race can be further exacerbated by capitalism’s uneven development and structural crises in the regions and nations of Britain.
All these disparities of income and well-being among working people are, therefore, the direct result of the way capital extracts surplus value by fragmenting and segregating labour and exploiting existing oppressions. This process ensures that in every generation many more people will face homelessness, insecurity and poverty.
All such inequalities can be utilised to divide people. The erosion of the welfare state has meant that all these divisions have become more entrenched over the past 30 years. At the same time, the struggle to reduce, if not eliminate, inequality has the potential not only for promoting unity within the working class, but also for drawing in those people from the intermediate strata (many self-employed, small traders and farmers, senior managers, etc.) who also experience or oppose inequality, prejudice, discrimination and oppression.