Why Do Progressives Loathe the Working Class?
Racialising class is an inevitability of postmodern identity politics.
After the colossal electoral defeat of Labour by the Conservatives in 2019, Deborah Mattinson, a UK pollster who had worked for the Labour Party, engaged a series of focus groups in the North of England in three towns: Hyndburn, Darlington and Stoke-on-Trent. These towns, along with so many others, considered part of “the Red Wall”, areas of the industrial midlands and north of England that had voted Labour for the guts of a century. Moreover, these were towns that Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives had spent a decade in the 1980’s decimating; smashing unions, privatising and offshoring the industries that supported local economies. The 2019 general election was beyond symbolic; it wasn’t just that working class voters didn’t vote for Labour, it was that they gave their vote to the very party they had spent four decades reviling.
Mattinson’s focus groups, published in her book, Beyond the Red Wall, elicited some common themes; a sense of loss, both in the industries that gave their towns economic stability, and in the sense of dignity derived from their contributions to the nation; an acute consciousness that this was local, that there was wealth aplenty in the country but they were cut far adrift from it. But crucially for the purposes of this essay, a sense of belittlement and denigration from “London”, i.e., by young, urban, university-educated, globally-mobile, “progressives” that now voted for the Labour Party they no longer recognised.
This is not an issue confined to the UK; modern “progressivism” is a distinctly U.S. phenomenon, and their British counterparts are merely mimicking behaviours across the pond in America. The sociologist Arlie Hochschild detailed this in her empathic and haunting book, Strangers in their Own Land:
“Crazy redneck.” “White Trash.” “Ignorant Southern Bible-thumper.” You realise that’s you they’re talking about. Working class whites are now portrayed as moronic...You are a stranger in your own land. You do not recognise yourself in how others see you. It is a struggle to feel seen and honored. And to feel honored you have to feel - and feel seen as - moving forward. But through no fault of your own, and in ways that are hidden, you are slipping backwards. So you look to other sources of honor. You get no points for your race... You look to gender, but if you’re a man, you get no extra points for that either... Regional honor? Not that either. You are often disparaged for the place you call home.”
The source of this disparagement and belittlement is largely liberal “progressives”. It is important to define precisely what this term means particularly if, like me, your politics are centre-Left of a more “old Left” variety, because unfortunately “progressive” and “Left” have become synonymous, despite both differing in meaningful ways. However, in the context of electoral systems like the U.S. and UK, with two-horse races each time, in reality both progressives and Leftists tend to end up voting for the same party. And, tragically, this means that the very term of “the Left” has become tarnished by progressivism, reduced to a caricature of unseriousness held with serious conviction.
The Pew Research Center’s political typology provides a definition of “progressives”: majority White, younger, highly educated, very liberal social views, and hostile to political conservatives. Other research adds to this picture; progressives are ideological and rigid, highly engaged politically and Very Online, meaning they exert a disproportionate influence on political discourse despite being a political minority (~6-8% of voters). They express high levels of intolerance to different views, and an overwhelming majority believe that political correctness hasn’t gone far enough. They also hold opinions on issues of identity that differ not only from political conservatives, but also from other Left-of-centre and liberal typologies. Of particular importance is the fact that the views progressives hold on, for example, race, are not even shared by the ethnic groups they purport to speak on behalf of.
Their view of the working class was summed up in one word by Hilary Clinton in 2016: “deplorables”. In the UK, these same over-educated and under-informed progressives took to Twitter after Brexit to revile the people in towns like Darlington and Stoke as angry, racist, ignorant, servile scum who didn’t know what was good for them (despite the fact that the Brexit win was driven by middle-class voters in the Shires). These same liberals rinsed and repeated this act after the 2019 general election, when the Red Wall turned to the Conservatives. On both sides of the Atlantic, despite lofty rhetoric and overtures to egalitarianism, their stratification of society is, literally, skin-deep, and conspicuously absent any serious class-based analysis. The interventions they want are for their benefit; student debt relief in the U.S., or home ownership in London in the UK. U.S. progressives don’t give a shit about a Rust Belt town in Ohio ravaged by opioids, just as London’s Oat Milk Latte Radicals don’t give a shit about former industrial towns in the Midlands and North of England.
There is one crucial fact underpinning this lack of class-based conscience among progressives: the vast majority of working class voters lack the requisite concentration of melanin to qualify for the benevolent paternalism of progressivism. However, this fact does not provide an explanation for the why, and in order to understand why, we must grapple with the epistemic basis for the progressive worldview: postmodernism. Postmodern epistemology is grounded in two fundamental tenets; that reality is a construct of language and lacks any objective basis, and that this language is used to construct power dynamics between social groups. I’ve written a previous essay on the language aspect to this fatuous philosophy, however, it is the latter element - the concept of power structures - that underpins the progressivist loathing of the working class.
In the postmodern worldview, society consists of systems of power that are socially and culturally constructed to reflect a dominant or (in their parlance) “hegemonic” discourse (yes, language again), and this discourse enforces a specific conception of the world that benefits the hegemonic group. This delineates society according to a dominant oppressor social group that benefit from hegemony, and victim social groups that are oppressed by said hegemonic power structures. In postmodern ideology, these power structures are omnipresent, invisible, and presumed to exist in all contexts independent of any empirical, verifiable reality (the existence of which, of course, is denied).
From this basis, postmodernism has generated entire fields of pseudo-academic bullshit, sometimes termed social “sciences”, which consist of nothing more than reading “power structures” into anything you like (literally anything), and “deconstructing” whatever it is the sophist (they call themselves ‘Theorists’) has made up. In this analysis, for example, science does not derive legitimacy from the method itself and its accomplishments, but instead has constructed an assumption of legitimacy through discourse which enforces science as a superior “way of knowing”. Science therefore assumes its role through power, not merit, and enforces hegemony over “other ways of knowing”, which to the postmodern sophist are equally valid to science but oppressed by the “dominant discourse” of science.
This pseudo-academic bullshit provides the “intellectual” basis of progressivism and their ideas about society and the nature of reality, particularly the myopic obsession with identity groups. It meshes with a secular form of distinctly American Protestant puritanism, which gives progressivism its hysterical character; a fire-and-brimstone obsession with moral purity, demonstrations of moral outrage, and purging of perceived heretics against their orthodoxy. The focus on social groups and their power relations carries a default implication of flattening class distinctions. As a material reality, the existence of which is denied, class is extinguished. And the “power structures” for which progressives are currently obsessed are institutional and relate primarily to ethnicity and gender, in which the dominant oppressor class are Pale Straight Males. Thus, the imposition of a pigment-based power dynamic eradicates class in the consideration of oppressor/oppressed: to be White is to be an oppressor independent of class.
This creates a thorny issue for progressives, who are themselves overwhelmingly White. In fact, in the infinite incoherence of this ideology, they are whiter than White; they are the least diverse of all political typologies, despite their hysterical protestations on “diversity and inclusion”. This creates a need for the New Puritans to distinguish themselves within this oppressor group. Distinguishing themselves manifests in two ways. The first is obsequious displays of moral purity; self-flagellation about their oppressor status in relation to Valorised Identities. The second is moral outrage; ritualistic displays of purging those in the oppressor group who do not conform to their orthodoxy. And because many differences of opinion stratify along class lines, the moral fury of the progressive Puritans is directed on the proportion of the working class that looks like them. In the U.S., “Crazy redneck.” “White Trash.” “Ignorant Southern Bible-thumper.” In the UK, “racists”, “xenophobes”, “ignorant Northerners".
Attempting to distinguish themselves as progressive saviours here to cast the heathen asunder also contains another incoherence that divides progressives from traditional Left politics. Progressives form, despite their rhetoric, a lynchpin in the late-stage neoliberal capitalist economic model that has brutalised the working class to levels not seen since the Industrial Revolution. Safe in their fintech jobs or a Google office, they punch down on the “ignorant” and “deplorable” masses in an environment where their views go uncontested because they represent their own homogeneity and the corporate status quo. The secularisation and liberalisation of the university-educated, urban-dwelling, professional and tech class is a function of comfort and material security. If economies produce inequalities in wealth and opportunity, which produces disparities in worldviews on certain socio-cultural lines, failure to acknowledge these drivers will inevitably result in a “culture war”. To quote Chris Hedges on the corporate championing of identity politics:
“It is an advertising gimmick, a brand, used to mask mounting social inequality and imperial folly. It busies liberals and the educated with a boutique activism, which is not only ineffectual but exacerbates the divide between the privileged and a working class in deep economic distress. The haves scold the have-nots for their bad manners, racism, linguistic insensitivity and garishness, while ignoring the root causes of their economic distress. The oligarchs could not be happier.”
But progressives don’t just divide the privileged and the working class; their wrath is projected downward directly at that proportion of the working class that share their complexion. In traditional Left politics, class would be a unifying factor above other aspects of identity. To postmodern progressives, because society is judged at the group level of power dynamics, this unity must be denied. The postmodern progressive analysis does the work of corporations by dividing the working class along “deserving” and “undeserving” lines, based on their power relations of oppressed (Black, Asian, Hispanic, etc.) or oppressor (White), respectively. Insofar as progressives think about class, it is only in relation to identity; as “intersecting” with, and providing further validation to, a Valorised Identity. And in the postmodern progressive worldview it is not possible for a group to be both victim and oppressor simultaneously. This is why progressives have to punch down on working class people who look like them; they cannot extend their empathy to this group and see their humanity because to do so would be to acknowledge that they are as much victims of late-stage capitalism as any group. And this would undermine their entire “power relations” construct; their political project, built on this bullshit theorising, would unravel.
Even having to even insert a pigment-based qualifier as a prefix to “working class” is precisely why progressives are repellent to many traditional Leftists. Recall that not only are progressives overwhelmingly White themselves, they also hold views on various issues of identity that do not even reflect the views of identity groups they purport to speak on behalf of. The Hidden Tribes of America survey showed that progressives are, by orders of magnitude, more sensitive to issues of race than Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, and African Americans, respectively. Yes, the people most sensitive to issues of race are...majority White progressives. Perhaps if progressives spent any time actually speaking to individuals in minority groups, rather than about them, they would have more nuanced takes on these issues. But to the progressives, the role of minority groups is not to be heterogeneous communities of individuals with their own experiences, opinions and perspectives, especially not ones that differ from the progressive orthodoxy. The role of minority groups is simply to be a homogenous symbol reduced to an acronym, like “BIPOC”, with White progressives serving as their self-appointed guardians against the “racist” and “phobic” working class Pale Males.
This detachment is not without political consequence. In the U.S., the Democrats are haemorrhaging non-White working class voters, which has been twice as large as the decline in White working class voters, and the steepest decline is among Hispanic and Asian American voters. The Democrats are only gaining ground among college-educated voters, and as Ruy Teixeira highlights, small margins in the working class vote would be enough to sink the Democrats in the next presidential election. In the UK, the progressive tropes about Brexit were similarly divorced from the reality of the vote, which also stratified along class lines for British minorities:
“Much has been written about the north of England, racist white people, uneducated voters... but there has been little discussion of how South Asians voted. Outside London, nearly every constituency with a double-digit South Asian population voted Leave.”
Progressives have racialised class. In doing so, they obscure the way that issues related to loss of job opportunities, offshoring, declining real wages, housing, poverty, and healthcare, are shared by the working class of all ethnic backgrounds and “identities”. Not only does this demonstrate the neoliberal corporatism of progressives, the postmodern dichotomy of victim/oppressor provides progressives with both their patronising and infantilising view of minorities, and their scapegoat in their own image for the bigotry they perceive everywhere. Their Puritanism casts themselves as the saviours, here to cast the “deplorables” and “ignorants” to damnation. And in racialising the working class, progressives pour the most potent fuel on the fire that is Right-wing populism, legitimising the rhetoric of alienation and belittlement that populist authoritarians feed on.
And yet when we look hard at trends, one factor is clear: class remains far more explanatory than identity ever will. What then for the Puritan White Progressives, once they realise that working class voters of the very minority groups they purport to speak for are abandoning them in droves? They have no way of reconciling this without resorting to their own absurd tropes. This is the fundamental limit of identity politics.
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