Revolt of the Working Class

The working class is in revolt against neoliberalism. But there is a problem. The revolt is led, not by the left, but by far-right populists. How did this happen? And how should the left respond?

Until recently, the working class was the mainstay of socialist parties worldwide. Marx in the mid-19th century concisely summed up the road to socialist success: “Workers of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains.”

However, in the 21st century, the working class has  become not only numerically less significant, but also increasingly drawn to the politics of the far right.

The Far Right and the Working Class

In the United States, polls consistently record that Donald Trump’s support is highest among lower-income, less-educated white voters. These traits lead commentators to identify blue-collar workers as among his most ardent followers. Trump plays  to the widespread sense of rage among this class arising from their economic, cultural and demographic marginalization. He has pledged to reverse the offshoring of jobs and raise wages, restrict trade agreements, reassert conservative cultural norms, reverse open immigration policies, and deport illegal migrants. Flouting ‘elite’ pieties and peddling patriotism appeal to Trump’s core supporters’ sense of loss.

In Britain, recent reports suggest that the right-populist United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), not labour, is now the most heavily working-class party. UKIP identifies immigrants as taking jobs from British workers and depressing their wages. The party was an early supporter of Brexit (British exit from the EU), and helped rally the support of workers for the ‘Leave’ option, especially in the rust-belt towns and suburbs with high unemployment.

Even in France, with its more robust welfare state, extensive unionization and labour militancy, workers have been susceptible to right-wing populist appeals. Leftist parties, especially the Communist Party but also the Socialists, have lost substantial working-class support since the 1980s. There has been a decline in voting in many worker-dominated constituencies. In areas of high job losses and precarious employment, the right-wing  Front National’s scapegoating of immigrants has garnered substantial support. The party vilifies Muslims and others as stealing jobs, threatening core values and bilking the welfare state . Support for the FN is strongest in areas without a history of organization by the union movement and leftist parties.

What has Gone Wrong?

Why has this reversal happened, in these countries and elsewhere?

First, we should be in no doubt that support for right-wing populism on the part of white workers and unemployed is a revolt against neoliberalism.  Market liberalization, globalization and technological revolution have created large pools of losers along with the winners. Market volatility, vast inequality, job insecurity, the offshoring of jobs, stagnating real wages  competition from cheap foreign labor and high debt burdens, together with rapid cultural change, have fomented despair, anger and frustration. Meanwhile, corporations record higher earnings, stock markets rise to new highs, housing and other speculative bubbles expand, and executives reward themselves  with huge annual increases.  Is it any wonder that workers feel marginalized and betrayed?

But what about the xenophobic reaction against immigrants evoked by the right? Is not racism rather than neoliberalism the problem? Not really. Xenophobia is rooted in the failed economic model. In periods of rapid reversal of fortune, when life becomes uncertain and precarious, people seek to understand their plight. But impersonal economic forces working out their destructive logic through global markets – this is not an easy concept to grasp. What the far right offers instead is a simple explanation. It is the ‘other’ who has moved into your neighbourhood, your job, and your social programmes or it is venal and manipulative (Jewish?) bankers that is the prime cause of misery.

Secondly, the leftist parties and movements have largely failed to frame the growing insecurity and rootlessness of workers in class terms. A class analysis might have achieved some resonance in a context of growing inequality, precarious livelihoods and social dislocation. In the US, Bernie Sanders tried to frame the issues in these terms during the primaries, but he succeeded in winning support mainly among well-educated, young people. Generally,  the left has been unable to match the deft manipulation of core values and  popular rage achieved by the far right.

This  manipulation is not just a matter of scapegoating minorities. It is also a matter of capturing a powerful, positive story in a few words.

Consider a couple of examples. In Britain, the ‘Leave’ campaign in the Brexit referendum summed up a world of meaning in three words: “Take Back Control.” Whatever frustration one felt could find an outlet in that evocative slogan. In the US, Trump’s mantra – “Make America Great Again” – though essentially meaningless, nevertheless evoked patriotism and a sense of empowerment among those who felt powerless and at sea.

The Challenge

Can the left rise to the occasion? We have a long way to go. In Europe, for example, leftist governments have endorsed the very austerity programmes that have created so much pain.

There are positives, certainly. We have accepted the complexity of the world. We know that  problems are deeply rooted. We realize that solutions are multi-faceted, requiring cooperation on a national and often transnational basis over lengthy periods. But abstract analyses of trends and statistics  and learned technocratic solutions do not touch the hearts of workers and others. Surely we have a compelling story to tell?

If we cannot succeed at this symbolic level, we will lose the battle to the forces of reaction. And we know where that leads.

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