Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a press conference, at 10 Downing Street, in London, on the government's coronavirus action plan.

What's behind the west's populist wave?

Elites pretend class power does not exist
March 5, 2020

After leading the Conservatives to a resounding victory, Boris Johnson brought about Brexit. But the greatest challenge for the old Etonian lies ahead: in ending the new class war.

To understand today’s populism in the UK, the US and elsewhere, we must go beyond single-factor theories—is it all about money? Is it all about race?—and put class at the centre of the analysis. The democracies of the North Atlantic are riven by a struggle involving three classes. The divide is between the mostly, but not exclusively, native white working class in inexpensive small towns in the heartlands; the college-credentialled professionals and managers who cluster in expensive hub cities; and the disproportionately-foreign-born class of urban service workers who wait upon them there.

Both the affluent professionals and the low-wage service workers in the hubs have a stake in the free flow of goods and labour. The metropolitan overclass tend to work for multinationals or provide professional services to them. Immigrants are concentrated in the major cities: they make up only 14 per cent of the population of the UK, but 36 per cent in London. By contrast, in the heartlands of the British north or US midwest, communities are more likely to be threatened by globalisation in the form of offshoring and dumped imports, like the wave of subsidised Chinese manufactured goods over the last generation. Affluent professionals in the hubs may live near low-wage immigrants, but do not compete with them for jobs and public services, unlike many members of the native working class of all races.

Rather than recognise these conflicts, and attempt to broker cross-class compromises, the elites have tried to “gaslight” the population by claiming the issues are purely imaginary. They cite simplistic economic studies claiming offshoring and immigration have no negative impacts at all—claims unlikely to convince factory workers whose jobs were transferred to China or others whose old vocations are now performed by immigrants for lower wages. Another elite technique is to change the subject to racial and gender disparities whenever class divisions within the national majority are raised.

Elites pretend class power does not exist. Power? What power? Professionals supposedly owe success to their “human capital,” not to having been born, overwhelmingly, into the educated middle class. Globalisation has not been rigged by treaties against manufacturing workers and in favour of corporates; no, we are told, it is an unstoppable, natural force, unaffected by human agency.

Class denialism, then, is the creed of the metropolitan elite. It makes negotiation with the heartland impossible. After all, negotiation is based on the assumption that both sides have legitimate—if clashing—interests. If the downsides of trade and immigration are figments of the imagination, then working-class populist voters need re-education or therapy. If they are scapegoating immigrants for their own personal failures, they are simply evil. They have no legitimate concerns worthy of acknowledgment.

Johnson has broken with the establishment consensus, including in his own party, by taking the concerns of working-class voters seriously. Treating them with respect—not least by honouring the majority in favour of Brexit—has produced, for now, realignment, with the Tories annexing voters in former Labour heartlands. While hubs of inner London and -Manchester, together with prosperous and traditionally Conservative university towns such as Canterbury, lapped up Jeremy Corbyn’s social liberalism and Marxist economics, former coalfields and manufacturing areas such as Bolsover, Blyth Valley and Bassetlaw turned blue for the first time in living memory. But realignment is not enough. Nor is redistribution of income, by direct or indirect methods, like infrastructure investment in depressed regions.

The source of the populist wave in the west is the imbalance of power between the working-class majority and the elite. That can be cured only by what the economist John Kenneth Galbraith called “countervailing power.” The imperfect institutions that provided the working class with countervailing power half a century ago—trade unions, in some places churches and chapels, and local political machines—have atrophied. Power has been siphoned upward to corporations, universities and political donors.

The old organisations of working-class power cannot be simply resuscitated. But functional equivalents are needed today, to turn disconnected masses across the heartland into organised communities with real leverage in politics, the economy and culture.

This is not a project that will appeal to the neoliberal wing of the British right, with which Johnson was at one time associated. Its vision of society as a post-national global market of competing individuals is shared with neoliberals of the left like Tony Blair. But in promoting the diffusion of real power, Johnson’s Conservatives can now draw on older, richer and more pluralist Tory traditions, as well as present-day British schools of thought including post-liberalism, Red Toryism and Blue Labourism. What is more, for conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic, increasing the leverage of ordinary people who pool power should appeal as an alternative to an overbearing, centralised state.

Britain inaugurated the modern age of populist revolt with the Brexit vote.  Whether Britain can also lead the west in bringing the age of disruptive populism to an end, with the help of power-sharing in a new cross-class compromise, remains to be seen.