Trump’s election victory has led to calls to bring class back into leftist politics. “Class trumps gender, and it’s driving American politics” says Joan Williams. Sam Dale attacks the “toxic failure of identity politics” and says “Liberal elites have no clue about the lives of the working class. They should learn.” John Gapper writes that the resentment that led to Trump and Brexit “seems to me to originate on the factory floor.” And Mark Lilla writes:
The fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life.
Of course, I applaud this re-assertion of class – which, in generals if not specifics, applies equally to the UK. We must, however, distinguish between a good and bad way of bringing class back into politics.
The bad way is to regard the “white working class” as yet another “demographic” to be catered to by marketing politics, often by claiming to heed their “legitimate concerns” about immigration.
I fear this would fail in its own terms: workers don’t trust politicians who look like their bosses and who claim insincerely to care about their concerns.
But it fails in other ways. The very notion of a “white” working class plays the ruling class’s game of divide and rule. This isn’t just because it pits class politics against identity politics, but also because it imputes a racism to workers which is perhaps just as prevalent – and more damaging – among the boss class. It downgrades the many other genuine problems workers have, such as stagnant wages, insecurity and workplace tyranny. And it has the absurd implication that ethnic minorities aren’t part of the working class too.
There is, however, a more intelligent form of class politics. This starts from the fact that class isn’t a state of mind but an objective fact: if you’re in a position of subordination to an employer, you’re working class whatever you feel. This means that being working class unites otherwise disparate people. The immigrant chambermaid, the skilled coder whose boss is a twat, and the academic facing the neoliberalization of the university are all working class.
This means they have some common interests. All would benefit from increased control in the workplace and increased bargaining power.
In this sense, class politics should be a unifying force. And there needn’t be a conflict between class politics in this sense and identity politics, for at least three reasons:
- The same fuller employment and anti-austerity policies that would benefit workers would also help reduce gender and ethnic inequalities. In a tight labour market, employers will have less power to indulge racist and sexist attitudes.
- Faster growth in real wages would foster a climate of tolerance of diversity. This year’s events in the UK and US have vindicated Ben Friedman’s point that economic growth breeds liberalism and stagnation creates intolerance and racism.
- The same high basic income that increases workers’ bargaining power is also (pdf) a feminist policy, both because it valorizes what has traditionally been “women’s work” outside the marketplace, and because it gives women the ability to flee abusive relationships.
Of course, all this is easier said than done. One challenge for the left – which is as great today as in Marx’s time – is to build class consciousness. Politics isn’t just a marketing exercise aimed at getting our person into office. It’s about building a constituency for intelligent class politics. This is a long game.
But let’s remember the underlying fact here. The interests of the working class are, to a fair extent, the interests of most people. In this sense, the working class is not a problem in politics. It’s the solution.