Democracy and the working class
in The roots of populism
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Having invoked ‘the people’ as the inalienable source of legitimacy in democracy, this chapter offers a snapshot of the politics of the British workers’ movements in the nineteenth century. This is the context, arguably, in which the modern democratic conception of ‘the people’ is constructed. E. P. Thompson’s (1968) The Making of the English Working Class is pivotal to this chapter. It is here that a theory of class as concrete collective experience rather than statistical generalization is set out. Rehabilitating class is a crucial, though no doubt contestable, aspect of the analysis of populism offered in this book. In broad terms, the conceptualization of class offered here is ‘cultural’ rather than ‘economic’ in origins and nature. I place the two terms in scare quotes to indicate scepticism about this divide. As Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin remark of this division with regard to current understandings of populism, ‘this binary debate is extremely unhelpful: real life never really works like this’. On the idea of working-class identity, I eschew both essentialist and statistical definitions and align my thinking with Thompson’s celebrated concept of class not ‘as a “structure”, nor even as a “category”, but as something that in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships’. This perspective allows me to reconstruct the struggles for universal enfranchisement in nineteenth-century Britain as historically constituting the linkages between democracy, working-class identity and populism.

The roots of populism

Neoliberalism and working-class lives


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