Thursday, April 21, 2011

The English ideology III: the 'white working class'

I've heard some pathetic electoral pitches in my time, but this is bordering on self-slander. Lord Maurice Glasman, the pathfinder for a newer, Bluer Labour, argues that a successful Labourism of the future must be one that incorporates supporters of the English Defence League. Yes, apparently, the Labour Party, the historic party of the organised working class, frequent party of government, creator of the welfare state, and the outright poll leader du jour, needs the ordure, the fascist, semi-fascist and pre-fascist residues, the most outright reactionary, thuggish and ignorant shit in the country. Without appeasing the scum, it seems, Labour will never be a winner. Well, why does he stop there? There's barely a week that passes without a number of assaults on Muslims, often Muslim women wearing the hijab, or attacks on mosques, or vandalism on shops and houses presumed to be owned by Muslims. Surely it can't be beyond the capacity of Labour canvassers to find the perpetrators and explicitly bid for their support. In fact, if Labour are actually this desperate, perhaps they should consider an entryist move on the BNP, with the aim of subtly persuading Fuhrer Griffin or his successor to adopt some mutualist thinking on welfare and service provision.

Of course, Glasman does not mean to target the EDL and its thousands of supporters with this intervention. He means to mobilise the ideologeme of 'the white working class' as a sort of puppet boxer with which to belabour the left in the party. As he complains: "working-class men can't really speak at Labour party meetings about what causes them grief, concerns about their family, concerns about immigration, love of country, without being falsely stereotyped as sexist, racist, nationalist". As you will see if you peruse that link, Glasman uses 'working class' to describe any silly idea that he likes the sound of, particularly if - as will usually be the case - it is a right-wing idea. Don Paskini rightly points out that this latest is a libel on the working class, the vast majority of whom detest the EDL. But that's almost to miss the point. Of course Glasman is mobilising a (deeply patronising) image of "working class men" to hammer the anti-racists and feminists in the Labour Party. But V N Volosinov argued that the word is the most sensitive index of social change, and we should be very attentive to the changes that such terminological nuances advert to. There's something very important going on when the Labour Right, which worked so hard to end the class war, are anxious to be seen and heard evoking class.

Recently, there was a very useful analysis of the BNP and the 'white working class' by James Rhodes in the Sociology journal. It took issue with the idea, circulated by politicians and journalists alike, that the BNP's support comes from the most deprived among whites. In this respect, he points out that while the BNP have made real inroads into working class areas, there is no natural affinity between the BNP and white workers, and nor is it the poorest they appeal to. The two class fractions most likely to be represented among BNP supporters are 'skilled workers', and the lower middle class. The journalistic accounts are led astray by the 'ecological fallacy' - that is, if BNP voters can be found in a known industrial heartland, then they must be the traditional supporters of Labourism. In fact, Rhodes points out, the BNP support is typically found in the poshest areas of these towns and cities, a fact that has a huge impact on far right politics. BNP supporters and members tend to articulate their sense of class location indirectly, by reference to locality. Their scale is extremely small, as they tend to focus on this street, that area, etc. They are "rooted" and small town, rather than metropolitan; parochial rather than urbane. So, interviews with fascist voters and activists disclose that struggles over resources and entitlements are refracted through particular geographical references - ie, that street is filled with poor people who behave like animals, and the council throws all the money at them; while this street is respectable and well-maintained but gets nothing. Through such spatial distinctions, they carve out a moral and cultural economy, based on authenticity and respectability.

Authenticity merely consists in 'being from here', not merely being British and white, but being of this particular small community. Try leafleting in a BNP target area and one of the challenges that fascist sympathisers are likely to throw at you (assuming they aren't numerous enough to kick your head in) is that you're not from the area. Respectability consists of two intersecting aspects: employment, in which one can be said to be contributing something to the pot deserving of entitlement to services and funding; and conformity to certain social mores, in which one can be said to be integrated. The fascists and their supporters view the poorest of the working class with utter horror and disdain, as being almost as bad as immigrants. For them, 'welfare dependency' is an utter scandal, allowing people to be lazy and parasitic without ever contributing to society. They do not favour more money being spent on poorer areas, even if they do happen to be 'white', and in general don't support big state expenditure. They believe that only a sturdy police intervention can stop poor whites "from behaving how they've always behaved" and compel them to integrate and contribute, while "Asians" and "Muslims" can never be integrated as they aren't authentically "from here".

Of course, those BNP supporters who are themselves dependent on benefits must have their own way of asserting their respectability, and thus entitlement, within the context of fascist ideology. And they stake their claim principally on the fact of their being British and white: "locals first" as they are wont to say. But this merely defers an antagonism within the fascist constituencies - between, if you like, the petty bourgeois and lumpenproletarian elements - over entitlement to resources. And moreover, it's an antagonism where the latter are at a decided disadvantage, since fascist ideology, as is made abundantly plain in the newspapers, magazines and pamphlets of fascists, does hold the unemployed, the poor and the disabled in particularly low regard. Indeed, far from channelling the latent fears and resentments of the 'white working class', it's clear that the far right trade on a language very different from that of class, and mobilise an unstable alliance of localised constituencies often on the basis of hostility to much of the working class. Recall that Nick Griffin dubbed the people of the East End "stupid" and "decadent". This is because they comprise just those sectors of the working class - who are representative of the majority - who are either poor, 'unskilled', black, gay, leftist, culturally liberal, or in some other way not the right side of 'whiteness', of 'Britishness'. One thing James Rhodes' article doesn't discuss is the fascists' relationship to trade unionism. Perhaps this is because it's too obvious, but it's worth just saying that the BNP's long history of hostility to working class militancy has included their participation in major scabbing operations during the Miners' Strike, during which epic battle they called for the army to be deployed against striking workers.

If it is striking just how closely the apparition of 'working class' authenticity invoked by the Labour Right resembles the notion of 'white' respectability circulated by fascists, this is because there are elements of the petty bourgeois weltanschauung which have resonate with other social experiences, and which the Thatcherites in both the Conservative and Labour parties worked so hard to univeralise. The fact that some in the Labour Right want to go farther in this direction, trying to construct an electoral bloc by pandering to the most backward elements in society, who would never vote Labour anyway, is not the issue here. Rather, it is the fact that they have felt the need to do so using the language of class in a racialised way. They could just stick with standard Poujadist talk about 'ordinary decent people', 'the little man in the street' and so on, but they feel compelled to phrase it in 'class' terms that the far right are actually less comfortable with using, even if 'class' is heavily racialised.

It could be argued that this is a hegemonic operation within Labourism. The evisceration of several of Labour's working class 'heartlands' throughout the 2000s as a result of New Labour's commitment to warmongering, privatization and aggressive social authoritarianism has cost the party 5 million mainly working class votes. The pseudo-explanation, the way this can be incorporated without anything too significant having to change, is that the 'white working class' became fed up with immigration and in a world of increasing insecurity, become ever more committed to the security blankets of nation and ethnic identity, which politicians did not sufficiently articulate. This manouevering has been going on since Blair went and it became clear that Brown would not stay on for long. As the bye-election losses piled up, the Right leaked to the papers that Harriet Harman was responsible, the weasely line being that "we've got a problem with white working class males, and Harriet Harman wants to pass a Bill to help the gays, blacks and women!" But the losses still came, even harder when Labour tacked to the right on immigration and criminal justice. Labour voters didn't respond well to this sort of campaigning and boycotted the election. But it didn't matter, just as it doesn't matter now that Blue Labour or whatever it is called tomorrow won't actually win back all of those lost voters - they already know this perfectly well. Revulsion against the Tories will, they are betting, throw an election victory their way soon. The 'Blue Labour' stuff will, if anything, lessen the scale of any comeback. But the narrative provides a seemingly compelling reason why the Left, who would naturally be expected to make some small advances in the case of a big social struggle against austerity, must be kept out of the way, disenfranchised and neutralised at all costs. This also explains the tendency among the Labour Right (and centre) to favour reforms which either demote the trade unions within Labour, or give votes to largely passive groups outwith the party. But the language of class also provides a raiment of insurgency to what is actually a continuity exercise, a matey populist facade for an elitist politics. By adding the word 'white', moreover, the 'working class' becomes de-odorised, neutralised, cleansed of menacing cadences of militancy and leftism. It becomes an object of pathos and melancholia, inherently reactionary, and typified by the middle aged white male emoting about family and country, and probably organising one of the mythical millions of street parties to erupt in spontaneous planned celebration over the royal wedding next week. This sort of 'working class' is tame, dull, conformist, and deferential, but also vicious, sadistic, and vindictive. It is in this, and so many other ways, the ideal alibi for the Blairites. The actual working class will be a more fissile, combustible and less manageable matter in the coming months and years.