Notes on the Global Condition: Mapping the debate around the “left behind” white working class:

Part of the reason why the argument over the rise of right-wing populism and the “left behind” “white working-class” is so contentious is that it is not one argument but, by my current count, eight. Eight distinct sets of preoccupations are swirling around this question. All are talking at once. Some are talking to each other. Others are not.

I don’t claim that the list is exhaustive. Nothing hangs on the number 8. The point is to emphasize the constitutive complexity of the issue and to suggest some ways it might be anatomized.



The 8 that come to (my) mind are the following:

(1) Econ v culture: In the most general terms, was it “values” or “economic pressures” and inequality that drove the Brexit and Trump votes? Political scientists, economists, sociologist and journalistic commentators of all sorts engage in efforts to disentangle “values”, or “cultural and political” motivations from socio-economic parameters like degrees of education, social class designations, levels of unemployment, exposure to the “China shock”, immigration, austerity cuts etc. The conversation ranges from in depth quasi anthropological immersion, to journalistic reportage to the gigantic decades-long research project of Ron Inglehart and the “value-change” literature, by way of theories of cultural marketing and personality types inspired by Maslow.

(2) Constructivism: Are Trump and Brexit moments that starkly reveal the force of one determining, stand-alone variable i.e. nativism or resentment at globalization? Or are these prime instances of the way in which meanings are constructed and reconstructed? Is nativism really separable from economic pressure? If there is interaction how should it be conceived? Does economic pressure “produce” nativism? Or is nativism a way of “making sense” of economic pressure?

(3) Populism: Do election and referendum victories for the far right and the far left, signify the breakdown of the political center? Do they point to a populist revolt? A deeply contentious term, “populism” stretches from the sophistication of Laclau and Mouffe’s social and political theory to the boilerplate of Davos and the EU Commission. At one end of the spectrum it is the rubric under which the theorists of “radical democracy” sought to rethink the relationship between politics and social forces. At the other end of the spectrum it is simply a catch-all term for any anti-systemic movement that the current elite find uncomfortable. In between there are political scientists like Jan-Werner Mueller and Cass Mudde trying to articulate crisp definitions of what we should and should not call populism.

(4) Polanyi: Writing in the 1940s Polanyi is the godfather of the idea that radically “successful” liberal globalization may produce a backlash. Polanyian perspectives come in several shades but they have in common a three-step narrative. The sequence starts with globalization conceived of as elite action. This produces an “autonomous” sphere of the economy/market where the commodification of goods, labour and land generates enormous social pressures. These in turn trigger a popular reaction. One camp of Polanyians speaks of the need to understand the current crisis as an opportunity to reassert control by “the social” over “the economy”. Often associated with social democratic positions, this begs the question of which forces in society might do the controlling. Writing in the 1930s and 1940s the historic Polanyi obviously recognized that the impulse to reassert control has historically manifested itself most energetically in nativism, nationalism etc. Call this the “dark Polanyi”. In between, these historically and politically identified brands of Polanyism, we might locate a social science version of Polanyi espoused by mainstream economic historians such as Eichengreen, Rodrik, James, Williamson and O’Rourke.

(5) Race, nation, people: when we talk of a “white working-class” revolt, what work is “whiteness” actually doing? When we talk about resentment towards the EU and “refugees” what role do we accord to the nation? Is what is asserting itself in protest against globalization, the “natural” primary identification with the local, the national, the ethnos? Is there a necessary association between “the people” as the democratic subject and the nation? Is “whiteness” a powerful analytical term? Is it the primary mode of self-identification of the actors in question? Or is it a term of elite condescension – as in “white trash”, white and visibly grubby, “not diverse”? In this context is “white working-class” a synonym for “ugly”

(6) Failure of the left: Is the surge of nativist, popular protest really a failure of the left? How far did the political party in question – be it Syriza, the Labour Party or the Democrats – organize, mobilize and articulate the social interests it is by historic association “supposed” or assumed to organize, mobilize and articulate. Some arguments of this kind see the current crisis as indicative of a profound or recurring fault (social democratic/liberal betrayal), or as the culmination of a historic transition (“modernization” of the Left, New Labour, Clinton Democrats etc). Others focus on the tactical level with a view to putting the scale of the loss in its proper perspective. “Trump didn’t win the popular vote. He only carried a few swing states. If only the Dems had …” etc.

(7) Politicization and cleavage: How has the surge in politicization represented by Brexit and Trump happened? Amongst political scientists the question is less whether a particular party of the “left” has failed to perform its historic role, disappointed its supporters, or misjudged its tactics. The question for some Pol Scientists is why certain issues have been politicized at all. One large body of European literature looks at the terms under which globalization and the EU have been politicized, tries to measure degrees of politicization and tries to relate various levels at which politicization takes place (social structure, institutional organization, ideation) under a concept of cleavage. see Kriesi‘s work in particular

(8) “Classic” Marxism: the central preoccupation for these writers is the question of class and specifically the role of the working class in precipitating the crisis. They generally resist the attribution of responsibility to the working-class. They remind us of how diverse that group is, both in occupational profile, gender and racial terms. They remind us of the role normally assigned to the “petty bourgeois” in the upsurge of radical right-wing movements. They remind us not to forget the role of elite, oligarchic capitalists in funding and inspiring “populist” movements. They remind us of the “rules of the game” and the structural biases, which make it unlikely that anything like a truly popular movement could have much influence on power. They remind us of the ideological work that the image of the “racist, white working-class” may be performing in the elite discourse in which we, like or not, almost invariably participate.

So it isn’t surprising, perhaps, that it is easy to reach a kind of intellectual gridlock: too many different agendas, too much at stake for too many very different intellectual sets.



I tried yesterday to articulate an argument between several of the strands: (1), (2), (4), (5) and (8) and to make some headway by distinguishing their concerns.

One could imagine a whole matrix of combinations. I started sketching this very early yesterday morning, realized around 5 am how complex it was and how unfinished the thought was and dropped it. But, sometimes an unfinished thing, or a failed thing is worth sharing. Perhaps somebody else can make some use of it. So, in that spirit, as a provocation to intellectual up-cycling here is the 8*8.

There are a large number of vacant spots where juxtapositions or intellectual collisions have not yet occurred. Perhaps this mapping might be useful in suggesting new possibilities. For instance, why have we not heard yet from Frank Trentmann on Brexit and the breakdown of Republican free trade politics?

Trentmann’s Free Trade Nation is the essential constructivist/culturalist critique and extension of the basic Polanyian framework.

The matrix also forces various questions of logic. One immediate issue is that there is either a redundant half, where the combinations repeat e.g. whiteness/class and class/whiteness. To avoid this one has to specify some logic to the juxtapositions. Typically in a matrix like this, one would specify that the terms in the rows “operate” in some way on the terms in the columns e.g. “a Polanyian reading of the issue of whiteness” v. “a reading of Polanyi with race put back in”.

That then raises the interesting question of reflexivity along the center line, as in “A populist reading of the populism thesis”.

Some of the cells make intuitive and immediate sense. Laclau and Mouffe “go” in the populism/constructivism box, or should that be the populism/constructivism cell? Sandbu’s constructivist response to the “nativism” problem can be clearly located (Or, can it? After all the move involves both constructivism and a Polanyian thesis about the emergence of anti-immigrant sentiment. Do we need three dimensions not 2?) The Streeck position and the critique I offered of it can be neatly located.

But, as I said, it needs more work!


Apart from the matrix mapping what other ways might there be of talking about this field?

Another way of thinking about this field of debate and engaging with it, would be historical. All of the themes listed above have conceptual histories. Some have disciplinary genealogies. These intersect in complex ways with the conjuncture. And those intersections color the debate and give it a particular energy. The populism meme burst on the mainstream scene in 2014 (featured articles in the Economist, FT etc) with the elections to the European parliament in May 2014. Obviously, for those immersed in debates in Marxism, it reawakens memories of the crisis of the left in the 1980s and for those with a Latin American background it goes back far deeper. For the Davos crowd, the populism debate was supercharged by its coincidence with the phenomenal impact of Piketty Capital, which changed the debate about inequality. But those were movements of protest, from the outside. The left actually in power in Greece in 2015 produced a very different discourse, especially within the left itself. And then the kaleidoscope shifted again with the shocks to the power system itself delivered by Brexit and Trump. In 2016 it seems to me that the more Polanyian theme of the “crisis of globalization” has come to the fore. America-centered discussions of Trump have not surprisingly added heavy emphasis on the “whiteness” of the working-class. Race obviously played a huge role in Brexit, but by way of more terms such as “refugee”, “immigrant”, “Islam”.

We should be aware of the shifts over time. And we should of course be aware of our own standpoint in this debate and our own mode of narrating the crisis. This is what I was trying to articulate in response to Jed Purdy over the weekend. What, at this point, do we assume about the future? What does it mean that at this point everything seems to hang on the outcome of the French election. Even assuming that Le Pen is defeated how do we narrate Europe’s story forever after. It isn’t “just” Trump, it is the possibility of Trump that is the challenge we face and the experience we must somehow assimilate into narratives of modernity.


Finally, there is the question of politics, academia and academic politics.

It is tempting, given the heterogeneous list of 8 different fields of concern above, to group together the more overtly “academic” contributions as opposed to the more overtly “political” contributions. Do the writers in question regard themselves as making a practical intervention in the field that they are describing or is their intervention directed towards a scholarly literature? Obviously, this is not to deny that scholarly work has politics. It is merely to say that its effects, if there are any, will be more indirect.

If this distinction makes sense then at one of the spectrum we have the Marxist theorists and followers of Poulantzas who helped guide the Syriza government in Greece – at least for a while. Theorists of populism helped inspire Podemos. Critics of the “failure of the left” are often engaged journalists and political activists. At the other end of the spectrum the attempt to measure politicization and cleavage in the EU and to see whether it extends to the US too is largely an academic-scholarly pursuit.

Writers who discuss Polanyi, populism and constructivism occupy a variety of different attitudes towards their work, some strictly academic, some highly engaged.

What, you might ask, is the purpose of making this distinction between academic and political? It certainly has a clarifying function, given the very different “energy” or “Stimmung” of the contributions. The distinction helps us to clarify the nature and purposes of the arguments being made by the various contributors. But it also helps us imagine new types of challenge that might be directed across the academic-political divide: what are the implicit politics of the political science work? How rigorous are the quantitative claims being made by some of the more overtly political contributions? What is the role for various types of translation? Why are some ideas and results being translated and not others?

Viewed from the political side, such questions and the approach of this blog post may appear naïvely scholarly. We are in a political situation, willy-nilly. We are thrown into some kind of crisis. As I’ve recently learned at the hands of Die Zeit, any intervention can be given a meaning regardless of its content, by its “context”. Framing your intervention in conditionals – “If you were to be of the CDU, you might think that deterrence was a good idea” – isn’t going to prevent the reduction to “deterrence is a good idea”.

It is the Marxist interpretative framework that allows one to see the force of this kind of objective logic most clearly. I placed classical Marxism last on the list of 8 above, because, in its own terms, it encompasses and places all the other approaches. At the end of the post yesterday I conceded, as one must, that there has been no more illuminating and constructive critique of mainstream, “liberal”, “bourgeois” social science than that offered by sophisticated Marxism. And I say that as someone who self-identifies as a “Keynesian liberal” (an identification reinforced by reading Geoff Mann’s fascinating new book on Keynesian liberalism).

In response to the current crisis, can critical liberal thought up its game? Is that not the question that, for many of us, lies behind the “left behind white working-class” meme? Is it a matter of my personal inadequacy and lack of sleep, is it by accident that if you try to provide something like an adequate answer to the comprehensiveness of Marxisant social/political/cultural theory from a Keynesian liberal perspective you end up sounding like Habermas? Is it by accident that your “mappings” end up looking like 1970s structural sociology, or the social theory equivalent of my favorite goofy car show, Roadkill.

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