Saturday, November 22, 2014
Let's talk about the 'white working class'. For more than a decade, a twin discourse about class has been building up.
'Two souls' of the working class
On the one hand, there is this melancholic representation of a forgotten, disenfranchised 'white working class'. There were documentaries, articles, tea towel memoirs, focus groups, policy documents. This 'white working class' was never discussed in terms of what made it (part of) a class, but always in terms of its supposed cultural tics. I still remember, with cringing embarrassment, the spectacle of Matthew Taylor - then the head of the IPPR - patronising some skinheaded East End codger about pie n mash, and jellied eels, in the context of a documentary about multiculturalism. This is the working class we have supposedly lost, gone with the empire, and all those manufacturing jobs: an industrious, clean, virtuous, jolly, culturally vibrant working class. It is important to stress just how much this is a mythical mobilisation of affect. Historically, in certain contexts, it has been possible to speak of a 'white working class' in a meaningful sense, as something that was historically and politically produced through practices like segregation. There is no equivalent experience in the UK today.
On the other hand, there is the vicious, punitive demonisation of a section of the working class whom both the Thatcherites and Third Way politicos referred to as 'the underclass' or, in politically correct New Labour terminology, the 'socially excluded'. Later, the idea was popularised through the meme of chavs. These were people identified by their failure to integrate into societal norms, their 'dependency culture', their crass consumption patterns, their mobbishness, their unfamiliar speech patterns, and their moral degeneracy. They represented the decay of 'British values'. This was linked to racial anxiety in obvious ways, which became explicit during and after the England riots: "the whites have become black". Even today's rioters aren't like rioters in the good old days.
This discourse began to develop only a few years after Tony Blair had declared the class war over. It very visibly wasn't over. However, this was because the symptoms of class were visible rather than because there was a well-organised labour movement putting class on the agenda. And the symptoms of class life under neoliberalism did not have to be explained in a leftist idiom.
Three changes in class life
The entrenchment of neoliberalism in everyday life, with the destruction of collective organisation and the removal of social protections and provision, ensured that more and more of ordinary experience was characterised by vicious competition. The more that competition was accepted and valorised, the more hierarchy was worshipped, and those lower down the chain treated simultaneously as potential competitors, losers who should be spat upon, and dangerous elements who needed to be controlled. Thus, the resentments deriving from class injuries could be effectively canalised into competition and aggression toward others of the same class.
Also important was the growing stratification of the working class based on working patterns, education and lifestyle. It had never been the case that factory workers made up the majority of the working class. However, their experiences were sufficiently like those of other workers, that they were able to 'stand in' for the class, figuratively. Their degree of organisation commanded respect, as did the cultural salience they had achieved in post-war Britain. There is no such easy metonym for the working class today. It is far easier to speak of the class in terms of cultural cliches: the estuary accent, poor education, social conservatism and traditionalism. Skinheads, white vans, England flags, and sports tops, became synecdoches for class. And two small businessmen, Tommy Robinson and now Daniel Ware, were able to 'stand in' for the 'white working class'.
Finally, just as important was the transformation of social democracy and its adaptation to Thatcherism. If capitalism creates its own gravediggers, you could argue, so does the working class. When New Labour took office, it was not sufficient for them to administer neoliberal capitalism and police its breakdowns. They had to discipline their own working class base, and react to breakdowns as challenges to their project of transforming Labour into New Labour. These sporadic strikes, protests, civil disobedience and occasional political defections were manifestations of backward-looking tendencies within the working class which had held back Labour's necessary modernisation. This resort to non-market solutions was linked to the cultural pathologies producing 'social exclusion' and trapping people in poverty. Hence, the variety of authoritarian panaceas, from the demand that British Asians 'integrate', to Asbos, to Blair's proposal to monitor potential problem children from before birth - all intended to adjust working class people to life in neoliberal Britain.
Racecraft and neoliberal dysfunction
Race, as became evident after the northern riots and the Cantle report into them, is a convenient ready-made strategy for policing the dysfunctions arising from neoliberal politics. These riots - like almost all riots - were not about one simple issue. Hundreds of young people became spontaneously embroiled in open combat with the police, as well as gangs of fascist bovver boys, over a range of issues. The immediate issue was fascist provocation and police brutality. The longer-range issues were local government under-funding, de facto segregation in local housing and service provision, and the tendency for racist local police forces to criminalise Asian youths.
The almost instinctive, learned response of the British media, the government and the Labour leadership both in Westminster and in local councils, was to boil all this down to 'race riots'. Long before an official report was produced, local politicians and police chiefs, as well as Labour MPs, were describing a failure of multiculturalism. It was a lack of integration, the failure of locals to internalise British values, self-segregation, and so on, which had made local whites resentful, kept the communities divided and fostered distrust of the police.
Such claims only made sense as a malevolent twist a particularly toothless kind of liberal multicultural discourse according to which racism is not about hierarchies and oppression, but rather about different groups needing to tolerate one another, get along, respect one another's right to narrate, and so on. The malevolent twist took the form of an insidious white nationalism in which British Asians were assumed to be essentially outsiders rather than citizens, and troublemaking outsiders at that. Thus, the problem was that British Asians had failed to tolerate whites, to respect their diversity, and to acknowledge their right to narrate. This was when New Labour and its allied intelligentsia adopted in fully the neo-Powellite idiom that was to become its disgrace note on questions of race, nationality and immigration. The 'war on terror' merely accelerated the trend, and ushered in the spectacle of the melancholic 'white working class', marginalised and forgotten, undermined by a new multicultural 'underclass' filled with 'feral youths' and brooding would-be terrorists.
The fertile terrain of reaction
At the early stages, this class discourse was simply one element in a complex set of racial representations that centred on culture, and particularly on Islam as the folk devil menacing British values. It helped create fertile territory for the far right. The BNP was the first beneficiary, increasing its votes between 2000 and 2009 by over 1000%. Often its successes derived from effectively manipulating the language already popularised by New Labour. For example, when the government made it a priority to 'crack down' on asylum seekers, with a range of measures from voucher schemes to detention camps, the BNP leader Nick Griffin expressed his gratitude: "The asylum seeker issue has been great for us. It legitimates us." And: "If Blunkett deports one asylum seeker, we can deport all of them". Likewise, it was Gordon Brown who legitimised the "British jobs for British workers" slogan by uttering it as Prime Minister to a Labour conference.
However, it seems likely that it was the credit crunch and ensuing recession that decisively shifted the focus of racist politics. Islam was replaced by immigration as the most salient enemy. Were it not for the economy still being rather parlous, polls suggest that immigration would have been the number one issue in the 2010 election. This was when the discourse of the 'white working class' began to assume the prominence that it has today. And just as the BNP began to collapse - the new post-crunch climate imposing challenges that the schismatic organisation failed to handle with aplomb - the EDL had arrived with its strategy of street violence. Partly, this very spectacle was linked to a media strategy in which Tommy Robinson, evidently hamming up his educational handicap, moved in on the cultural space marked 'abandoned white working class'. And when the EDL fell apart, it was not long before Britain First had half a million 'likes' on Facebook and was doing its bomber jacket and cloth cap routine.
Now UKIP is using the BNP's strategy in hollowed out Labour 'heartlands', talking up racialised local issues - to be precise, issues which local Labour elites have often assiduously racialised - and strongly suggesting that Labour has stopped caring about white working class people because it's too busy being politically correct and sucking up to immigrants and the EU. And if UKIP were to fall apart, which seems incredibly unlikely, a new organisation would spring up in its place.
This is the meaning of 'fertile ground': however organisationally fractious the far right are, however much they are projecting influence insanely above their social weight, they are able to do so because the terrain has been produced over a long period. What is more, because of the prolonged social and political crisis unleashed by the credit crunch, they have the initiative. The dominant parties are locked in their own dynamics of stalemate and decline. Any semblance of representative democracy is paralysed by the Westminster consensus on all essential matters. The unions are too busy conserving whatever remains of the union premium to take the lead on anything. And the left is shattered. So what we get instead of a broad popular mobilisation is a kind of ersatz resistance led by a dissident tributary of the Tories; instead of class struggle, this bitterly melancholic politics of whiteness and class authenticity.
The 'white van' working class
So here we are. The Labour leader is so utterly petrified of alienating this quasi-mythical figure, 'white van man', lest it turns out that he speaks for the whole 'white working class', that he fires a shadow cabinet member for even obliquely possibly offending them.
The government are so desperate to get in on this game that they have Michael Gove telling us that prejudice toward 'white van man' is as abhorrent as prejudice to an ethnic minority. And Ed Miliband, absurdly, is probably kicking himself not to have thought of that line.
This is the UKIPisation of English politics. It has been a long time in the making.