Phil McDuff 30th July 2018
There is a basic difference between things that are popular and things that are populist.
In a nutshell, popularity is what you get when lots of people like a thing. Populism is what you get when a small group of people tell you that everyone likes a thing and if you don’t like it, you’re a traitor.
Real populations tend to be wildly divergent. Even in the case of uncontroversially popular things that you might say “the people” are in favour of, for example, ice cream and puppies, you can’t get 100% agreement.
So, if you want to claim “the people” are on your side, you need to figure out how to carefully curate and manage who counts as people. You can’t actually come out and say, “The only people who count are the ones who agree with me,” so you need to invent a cleverer way of saying that, using code words such as “the white working class” or “the heartlands”.
Class is a ferociously complex and difficult subject to engage with, with interaction between culture and economics, and a whole host of diverging, infinitely granular subdivisions. That’s pretty useless if you just want a convenient stand-in through which you can ventriloquise your own opinions, so there are several key techniques to master in creating a useful White Working Class.
Retired doctors are basically the same as unemployed people
Firstly, strip away any kind of material or structural component from your class analysis and reduce it down to the most simplistic and caricatured cultural signifiers. The key assumption is that everything falls into one of two classes, with no overlap. Working-class things, such as fish and chips, football and ethnonationalism, are honest, authentic signifiers of “common sense”. Middle-class things, such as falafel, drinking coffee or being a person of colour, are vapid and illegitimate.
The NRS Social Grades can help you pretend that you’re using “working class” to talk about a broad economic category rather than a narrow social one, especially if you do the neat trick of combining “ABC1” and “C2DE”. C1s in call centres (average UK salary £16,000) are middle-class and should rightly be included with their bosses in the A and B category. C2s working on oil rigs (average UK salary £55,000) are working-class and much less privileged than call centre workers. Retired people are all E, because retired doctors are basically the same as unemployed people.
All students are middle-class and therefore out of touch
You should never look at age breakdowns when you’re trying to elide “traditional working class” with C2DE, either, because while the headline figures tell you the Conservatives had their best result ever in this group in 2017, and therefore that Labour are out of touch, this was almost entirely driven by the over 55s. If someone forces you to look at the data, talk about how this shows people get more conservative as they get older, which enables you to make a play for that, “If you’re not a socialist when you’re 20, you don’t have a heart and if you’re a not a conservative when you’re 50, you don’t have a brain,” hokum. The fact that poor people die younger, and so the cohort of retired people is disproportionately made up of the people who avoided life-shortening work and poverty, is immaterial and should be discarded.
A 17-year-old earning £4.20 per hour is a middle-class cosmopolitan because she dyed her hair green
If you simply must address the disparity between older and younger voters, you should carefully conflate “young people” with “students”, because all students are middle-class and therefore out of touch. This move works best when combined with sneering at “kids these days”, with their funny hairstyles and identity politics. A 17-year-old earning £4.20 per hour doing admin work is a middle-class cosmopolitan because she dyed her hair green and has liberal ideas, while her Audi-driving boss is working-class because he made his money selling plumbing supplies and gets irrationally angry.
There is a catch to this, which is that the White Working Class needs to be infantilised as a whole. The important rhetorical move is to position working-class instincts as correct but to maintain their status as intellectually inferior. Their naïve, uncomplicated straight-talking is there to show that the Social Justice Emperor is naked, something ignored by the liberal lefties in their postmodern universities. But there is still a requirement for people such as yourself to act as the conduit for their wisdom and, you know, actually run things.
All Labour heartlands are populated exclusively by middle-aged, white, working-class people who love the Queen and nuclear weapons
Deliberately misunderstanding geography is another good tactic. All cities are London, which is itself made up entirely of the Notting Hill Carnival, trans people who work for the BBC (undermining traditional gender roles) and Jeremy Corbyn. Everywhere that’s not a city is a “Labour heartland”, and all Labour heartlands are populated exclusively by middle-aged, white, working-class people who love the Queen and nuclear weapons. Labour doing well in Liverpool is a sign that they appeal to Cosmopolitan Middle-Class Values, and are therefore illegitimate. This is a great analysis that makes sense and is in no way total rubbish.
Working-class people don’t live in cities, and they wouldn’t even if city property prices were lower. They don’t take the train, nor would they if the train was less expensive and went where they needed to go. You can’t get that rarefied elixir of privilege, the “latte”, anywhere except in cities, and even if you could, working-class people wouldn’t drink it.
Care must be taken to never engage with the mechanisms behind the geographic distribution of political tendencies. For example, LGBT+ people are never born in poor, post-industrial or rural parts of the country. People never move to cities to get away from the social conservatism of their hometowns, thereby creating a self-sorting effect. The more sensible assumption is that these people are manufactured in cities and exported — imposed even — on the simple, rustic shire folk.
Probably the most vital characteristic of The White Working Class is that it cannot possibly be racist, and even saying the word racist is a form of prejudice worse than actual racism. Middle-class people have implicit biases; working-class people have Genuine Cultural Concerns. You can accept that racism and prejudice exist in the abstract, provided you never concede that anything anybody ever actually says, does or thinks is a specific example of prejudice. A good technique here is to shuffle between a trivially true claim and a ridiculously overbroad claim. You can say, for example, “Having concerns about immigration isn’t necessarily racist,” which is a true general claim, but use this to imply, “Absolutely nothing a working-class person says about migrants is even inadvertently influenced by racial prejudice.”
Even if the White Working Class are racist, which they aren’t, they are only racist because cosmopolitan city folk annoyed them into being racist
However, there is a caveat. While the White Working Class are definitely not racist, if ivory tower latte liberals call them racist then they will turn into actual Nazis and vote for the most racist people imaginable. This is similar to what happened when American “shock jock” Rush Limbaugh popularized the term “feminazi” in 1992, thus chasing every woman in America into the arms of the far right. Therefore, even if the White Working Class are racist, which they aren’t, they are only racist because cosmopolitan city folk annoyed them into being racist, even though they aren’t racist and anyone who says that they are is an out of touch elitist.
Don’t worry that many of these positions are incoherent and contradictory. The point is not to create a cohesive and explanatory theory of class. What you’re doing is building up a grab bag of “gotcha” soundbites to be thrown about like hand grenades through the discourse. You don’t need to actually care about the working class in any material sense, and it helps if you don’t. They are there to be deployed as rhetorical chaff that you can scatter about to distract from the substance of your own arguments.
Don’t stop to think that by constantly casting provincialism, bigotry and closed-mindedness as the only true expression of no-nonsense, authentic working-class culture, you are basically siding with the schoolyard bullies
Finally, it’s imperative that you don’t stop to think that by constantly casting provincialism, bigotry and closed-mindedness as the only true expression of no-nonsense, authentic working-class culture, you are basically siding with the schoolyard bullies, the pub bores and every reactionary boss ever to have made a clumsy sexual advance on his green-haired 17-year-old admin assistant. Letting these people act as stand-ins for their entire geographic region and social class doesn’t erase whole swathes of the actually existing working class. It doesn’t buttress the positions of abusers, misogynists and racists, and undermine those who are trying to fight bigotry in their own families and communities. It certainly doesn’t contribute to the perpetuation of toxic cultures which trap people in cycles of alienation, depression and suicide.
No, whether you’re doing this because you need a cheap rhetorical prop for your preferred authoritarian policy, or because you’re trying to play a game of “more authentic than you” with your rivals, there are definitely no downsides to any of this, and everyone should keep doing it.
Phil McDuff 30th July 2018