There was a sudden moment yesterday morning when I was hit (it felt bodily, like a punch) by the realisation that it was really likely that Trump would win the US presidential election. I was half-watching the morning news on the BBC while preparing breakfast and they showed clips of the final rallies of the two candidates: Clinton in Philadelphia, embracing Bruce Springsteen, and Trump addressing a crowd in New Hampshire. What jolted my attention was Trump’s language: ‘Tomorrow’, he said, with complete confidence, ‘the American working class will strike back’. Wow, I thought, he actually said it; he actually used that phrase ‘working class’ which has always seemed so inexplicably taboo among mainstream Democrats. And I felt a deep conviction that he understood precisely what he was doing when he used it.
For years, I, and no doubt other people on the European left, have been puzzled by the way, across the Atlantic, workers have been persistently described as ‘middle class’. It could perhaps be explained in several ways: negatively, as a way of disassociating from any hint of communist leanings; more positively as an appeal to the aspirations of the poor in a society that has grown through upward mobility, particularly of second-generation immigrants; as a way of fudging class differences in an electoral system in which victory can only be won by broad alliances between what Marxists would regard as proletarians and elements of the petit bourgeoisie.
One of its many effects has been to make it difficult to speak clearly of class at all. People are analysed in their capacities as consumers, or in relation to their ethnicity or other demographic variables, but rarely in relation to their role in the economic division of labour. Although the industrial working class may be romanticised nostalgically (interestingly enough not least by Democrat supporters like Bruce Springsteen) it is marginalised in general discourse. An increasingly fictionalised idea of a centre ground made up of ‘hard working families’ is substituted for them in the mainstream discourse (echoing the language of the 1990s centre-left political discourse which presumed a fuzzy middle ground in which ‘third way’ politics would work).
Tragically, this dissolution of clear class analysis has been echoed on the left as well as in this centre ground, where concepts like ‘the 99%’, the ‘multitude’ and the ‘precariat’ have been substituted for that of the working class.
By not daring to speak its name, these deniers have opened the door to a reframing of working class identity. If the people (workers or former workers) who perceive themselves to be losers of neo-liberal globalisation policies and know very well, and rightly reject, the designation ‘middle-class’ feel that they are not being ‘seen’ by social democratic parties then they will look for other leaders who recognise them for who they are and seem to care about what they fear. And what we are seeing, in the USA as in the UK and other parts of the world, is that those who do so are rabble-rousing, xenophobic populists.
Working class people who have been told they are middle class know that they have been lied to, and will not trust the politicians they believe are liars. The unfolding tragedy we are living through shows that they may then become open to believing other liars, who persuade them to deflect their rage against fellow members of the working class, whom they do not recognise as such, having been deprived of the analytical tools to do so.
To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton (on god): When men choose not to believe in socialism they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.
But I will try to end with a glimmer of hope, this time from Hegel.