Thursday, 10 May 2018

Can the left talk to the "white working class"?

Professor Green in the documentary
Working Class White Men

Matthew Goodwin, a Professor of Politics at Kent University, and co-author with Robert Ford of the seminal study of UKIP, Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain (Routledge: 2014), spends a lot of time on Twitter sharing data that proves two things: one, populism is durable and deeply rooted in European electorates and two, European social democracy is dying for wont of an adequate response. Alongside this is a nagging insinuation: if social democracy wants to survive, it needs to appeal to working-class voters' deep, durable concerns about security, immigration, and cultural change. More often than not, it is one section of the working class in particular that is seen as the driver of populism, Brexit, and Trump: the white working class.

If it didn't invent it, Goodwin and Ford's book certainly popularised the phrase the "left behind" as a descriptor, first, of UKIP voters and then of the majority that voted for Brexit in 2016. Goodwin's prominence may advert less to his own brilliance, than the total inadequacy of prevailing political science to account for something like Brexit. This is not to insult Goodwin's achievement. More than anyone else - at least on Twitter - he has made Brexit at least loosely comprehensible to centrist commentators and concerned liberals. He is also a voice of sanity compared to the #FBPE crowd, a singular reminder that Brexit won and that no polling shows any evidence that it would not win again. A new centrist party, he argues, would almost certainly fail against the challenges of Britain's First Past the Post electoral system - and there my be deeper causes for its failure than that. In his view centrist voters are spread too thinly across the country to have significant impact on electoral results. But perhaps more seriously, centrism cannot call on any deep cultural attachments in order to wield together an electoral alliance. It is a permanent tabula rasa which rarely sustains complex political cultures for any period of time. Moreover, converting one of the existing major parties - the likely candidate being Labour - to a Remain position would spell electoral disaster for similar demographic and geographic reasons.

Goodwin's weaknesses are also what make him understandable to an 'educated', often 'liberal' and politically informed readership. His story about Brexit - and about European populism more broadly - is one of "preferences". This is a term he falls back on on occasion to explain what Brexit means to people who still struggle to comprehend why it happened. In a recent podcast he depicts populism as a "reaction" by working-class voters against the liberal era that started in the 1960s. It has been gestating since the 1970s and has gradually captured more of the concerns of more conservative, settled populations. "Preferences" come - presumably - from "interests" and allow political scientists - I suppose - the advantage of grouping sections of society by what they are supposed to want. They are useful to political science because they are measurable. Even if preferences themselves are not rational they can be rendered meaningful by rational inquiry. They can be inserted into systems of competing interests and the conflicts between them can be easily explored. But something is missing, something captured by the Freudian word "desire." All of political science is some kind of answer to the terrifying question, "What do the masses want?" What is terrifying for polite society here is not the answer to the question, which can be pretty mundane - faith, flag, nation, and all the rest - but the need to know. What liberals are looking at when they look at the "working class" is, in Freudian terms, a fear of their own impotence, their own inability to know, their own inability to control and direct the working class. This is why so often "the masses" appear in political science not as rational actors but as a mute blob of inchoate prejudices which must be rendered visible and comprehensible to reason.

One of the more glorious spectacles of the aftermath of the 2017 General Election was the sight of Matthew Goodwin eating his own book on live television after predicting the Labour Party would fail to reach 38% of the vote. Political science will, it turns out, eat itself. For all his credentials on populism, Goodwin had missed something about it. He had missed how an apparently unappealing, marginal left-winger could tap into a seam of anger in British society and articulate it to left-wing ends. Goodwin has dedicated a good deal of effort since to proving that Corbynism is a "blip", a perverse outcome of a flawed electoral system. This is another weakness of political science: when the analysis fails, it blames a system which prevents "preferences" from attaining their natural expression. Goodwin is ultimately right that the Labour electoral coalition is fragile and split down the middle on Brexit, but he is far from understanding what on earth is holding it together.

A typical left response to Goodwin's invocation of the "white working class" is more or less to deny its existence. This is a sure sign of failure of analysis - though this time on the left's part. The standard argument goes like this: materially speaking - that is, at the most authentic level of its existence - the working class is multi-racial or (which is really the opposite) it knows no race. There are internal cleavages within the working class, which are related to greater and lesser degrees of exploitation on the basis of citizenship, property, skill sets, racialisation, gender, and so on. Thus, there are racist layers of the working class, though they are really the minority. These layers tend to be richer, older, more propertied, and whiter - or perhaps on their way out of working class-dom altogether. The first problem with this view is that it neglects a principle lesson of Marxism: class is relational and is not only about material conditions but about how identities are articulated between different social groups. What the working class is at the level of some unmediated material reality is less important than how it is articulated through a given set of social relations. If the working class is not merely a material thing - if it is composed internally and externally of social relations - then it must be multi-racial and it must logically contain a white section. To the extent that some are racialised as non-white, some must be racialised as white. And while it's true that "in normal times" whiteness is invisible, times are rarely normal.

But for all that, the "white working class" should not be abstracted from its peculiar conditions of existence. Whiteness is a badge - often of citizenship, or of ownership, or of rights and respect - which allows certain people access to things they wouldn't otherwise get. Historically, the working class has been partially racialised as white. Its multi-racial character has been half-buried. The welfare state and the postwar settlement were heavily, if only implicitly, coded with whiteness. It was paid for partly out of the legacy of imperialism, the sterling zone, colonial export markets, and the pound's reserve currency status in the commonwealth. The left is rightly very cautious about using the term "white working class," but that does not mean there are not people - many people - who will identify in this way. To acknowledge this is to acknowledge a difficult fact about the society in which working class-ness is embedded. There is, then, always a left-wing struggle within the working class to convert it to anti-racism.

Goodwin's work, then, does pose a serious practical problem for the left. Even in the wake of the Windrush scandal, there remains widespread support for the "hostile environment" policy against immigrants. Although concerns about immigration have lost some of their intensity since the Brexit vote, we should not see this as the success of anti-racist movements but rather an increase in the feeling that the state is now "on side." Nor will racism subside because a left-wing Labour government manages to redistribute wealth downwards for the first time in decades. There is a fear on the left that if we talk about the "white working class", we might just conjure it into being, ignoring that it already exists as a settled social fact. But there is also the opposite tendency - the tendency of Blue Labour, occasionally Paul Mason, and sometimes Goodwin himself - that if we just talk about the white working class enough, they'll come round to us, they'll realise we aren't all "Tumblr liberals" obsessed with identity and safe spaces. We have to realise here that the increasingly explicit whiteness of a section of the working class is a product of a non-material "identity" turn in politics as a whole. I don't mean this in the sense Angela Nagle means it, that is, that identity politics is just bad and is the demon spawn of social media. We can't just get back to class politics, as if identity politics never happened and as if Brexit is not itself a matter of culture and identity as much as economics (as Goodwin has rightly said). 

Being white and working class doesn't make someone racist. But we also need to be aware that those who talk up whiteness, who see something in whiteness per se that is worth celebrating, generally do so out of a sense of grievance. The danger, then, is the left becomes hectoring, insisting that poorer white people experience their loss of status in an age of multiple forms of insecurity as a loss of their historical claim to privilege in the form of their whiteness - the lack of the lack in Lacan's terms. The job is not to abolish whiteness but to displace it, even to disperse it, and to substitute it with something else.

In Professor Green's documentary Working Class White Men there is a nice scene where a teenage model is on his way to Japan for his big break. Professor Green asks the young man if anyone in his family has ever been to Tokyo before and he says, "We go on English holidays - to Tenerife - and we stay in the resort and watch the entertainment. That's all we do." It is a familiar enough description of the English abroad, but is it necessarily or exclusively a white one? Well, perhaps, yes, actually. Indeed the issues that Green catalogues - unemployment, criminalisation, absent dads - are not the preserve of white people. Yet, in a society in which a certain culture of whiteness became synonymous with working class life, the disappearance of manufacturing jobs and the communities built around them is experienced - partially at least - in racialised terms. The experience of economic decline is over-determined by cultural, political, and - crucially - inter-generational factors. It is the latter - the continuities and discontinuities of generational heritage - that weight these experiences towards racialised and nationalistic conclusions.    

It is this over determination of lived experience that suggests a workable left strategy can only be developed out of a return to theory. The theory of hegemony in the left tradition, from Gramsci to Stuart Hall, is the best alternative I know of to the bland "preferences" and "interest groups" of political science. Hegemony is about how power always incorporates subjects, pulling them into its orbit and inducting select groups into situations of relative privilege at the expense of others. It is a necessarily cultural process, but one that does not do away with material matters. Indeed, in the process of building hegemony, we find the material and ideal in constant relations of mutual determination. The primacy of one over the other in actual social formations is never finally established.

Building an effective counter-power - "counter-hegemony" - involves articulating diverse groups into a formidable political will. The success of socialist and social democratic parties, trade unions, and social movements in the past suggests that "preferences" are not just givens but are formed through political activity. This is not to say that the preferences of white people - or of anyone - are infinitely malleable. Only that there is potential for apparently settled views to be shifted - however slightly - over time and through experience. The task is ultimately to find ways of making that happen through political action.

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