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Neoliberalism and working-class lives
Author: Brian Elliott

How are we to understand the recent rise of populism in Britain and beyond? In this book, philosopher Brian Elliott traces the roots of contemporary populism back to the waves of intensified globalization and deindustrialization that began in the 1970s and early 1980s. This period of our political history witnessed a radical transformation of democratic party politics, where the potential for organized labour to influence high-level politics was diminished. The Reagan–Thatcher era brought about a neoliberal reconfiguration of the democratic state that weakened or destroyed traditional sources of working-class social and cultural capital. In the UK, the Labour Party was transformed through a ‘Third Way’ agenda under the leadership of Tony Blair. The long-term consequence of this has been an inexorable undermining of working-class support for the party and a notable drift towards Conservative-led anti-European Union sentiment. Populism, in the UK and elsewhere, should not simply be attributed to increasing nationalism, nativism and xenophobia among the working-class electorate. It also gives voice to a desire to make the political class more directly accountable to the people it is meant to serve. At the same time, the populist wave is a reaction to a decades-long denigration of working-class lives and culture. Charting seminal episodes in the rise of the British working class in light of recent sociological and political analyses of the nature of work, the analysis offered in this book grants to contemporary populism a deeper and more coherent meaning.

Abstract only
Brian Elliott

Our investigation begins by situating the analysis offered in the book within the burgeoning field of academic studies on populism. While acknowledging common ground with other recent investigations, it is made clear that the general argument of the book stands at odds with the current consensus on populism as a fundamentally reactionary, nationalistic, or even straightforwardly xenophobic mode of contemporary politics. In sharp contrast to this dominant view, the underlying argument advanced in the book is that contemporary populism in the UK is a reaction to the decades-long process of neoliberalization, which began with Thatcher in the 1980s and was consolidated with Blair and New Labour between 1997 and 2010. As a result of this process, the British working class was essentially rendered homeless within the UK by a Labour Party increasingly anxious to distance itself from its heritage of working-class struggle and labour-union organization. The rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in the 2000s articulated a certain disenchantment among the British working class about the established parties. The Great Recession beginning in 2008, and the period of Conservative-led austerity politics it ushered in, further alienated the working class from the political establishment and gave rise to the populist sentiment given consummate expression in the Brexit referendum result of 2016. The introduction concludes with a synopsis of each of chapter in the book.

in The roots of populism
Paradoxes of democracy
Brian Elliott

I begin the analysis of populism by outlining and defending a certain conception of democracy. This does not involve a typology of forms of democracy – direct as opposed to representative democracy, and so forth – but rather delineates what I consider the animating principle and, to some extent, paradox of democracy, namely popular sovereignty. Here the theory is largely drawn from two sources: on the one hand, from the democratic theory of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe and, on the other, from the political philosophy of Jacques Rancière. While there are important differences between these thinkers, the crucial commonality is an idea of democratic politics as based on radical dissent that constantly contests given political legitimacy. What Rancière, in particular, highlights, is the inherent tension within any democratic polity between the bureaucratic managers and the enfranchised electorate. The former project a ‘born to rule’ sense of entitled social and technocratically grounded political legitimacy, while the latter contest this privilege in the name of no qualification other than their being present within the political community. This latter claim on behalf of an ‘unqualified’ electorate lies at the heart of the intersection between constitutional democracy and populism. On this basis, it is argued that populism is an inalienable feature of democracy and not an extraneous element bent on its destruction. In other words, populism is construed as essential rather than alien to democracy.

in The roots of populism
Brian Elliott

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.

in The roots of populism
Brian Elliott

This chapter turns to the founding figures and works of British cultural studies, in which a renewed conceptualization of the working class was achieved. Richard Hoggart’s (1957) The Uses of Literacy blazed a trail in the academic portrayal of British working-class culture. This analysis highlights the very feature commonly identified as the hallmark of the populist collective consciousness: an unremitting and radical polarization between the ‘Them’ of the political establishment and the ‘Us’ of the working-class populace. Hoggart’s 1950s analysis also foresaw the danger of a creeping capitalist commercialization of the British working-class lifeworld, particularly through the workings of the popular mass media. His contemporary, Raymond Williams, a fellow cultural studies pioneer, complements and amplifies this analysis with his idea of democratic popular culture as a ‘long revolution’. It is the revolution of popular control over the material conditions of everyday life that constitutes Williams’s notion of progressive democracy, an idea I adopt and apply to contemporary populism throughout this book. With the advent of Thatcherite neoliberalism in the UK, this revolution is stalled as the idea of collective responsibility and the practices of working-class solidarity are denigrated and steadily eroded.

in The roots of populism
Brian Elliott

This chapter shows how Owen Jones’s (2011) book Chavs documents the denigration of working-class solidarity and, in so doing, accounts for the rise of populist sentiment among the British working class. In popular news and entertainment media – amidst a landscape of exponential corporate consolidation – portrayals of the working class are transformed from a celebration of integrity in the face of adversity typical of the 1950s ‘kitchen-sink drama’, to a lampooning of feckless social welfare dependency and antisocial behaviour by the 1990s and beyond. Complementing Jones’s account of the denigration of working-class lives, Richard Sennett (2006, 2008, 2012) incisively portrays the demoralizing impact of neoliberal conditions of work. Most recently, these conditions have come to attention under the banner of the ‘gig economy’. While this economy is defended by the executives of disruptive start-ups in the name of corporate flexibility and employee choice, the stark reality of precarious employment readily undermines this rationalizing of employment casualization and worker precarity. In this connection, Angela McRobbie’s (2016) probing analysis of the ‘creative industries’ offers a further, devastating critique of the New Labour project. Contemporary work conditions offer thereby a powerful and concrete context in which the seeding ground of contemporary populism can be located.

in The roots of populism
Brian Elliott

Having charted the background and growth of British populism from nineteenth-century worker agitation to discontent with the gig economy of the 2010s, this chapter offers a concluding prognosis of the possible future of UK liberal democracy in the wake of Brexit-based populism. Bringing together the two threads of cultural denigration and economic marginalization of the working class, the question arises: how can contemporary populism be channelled into a renewal of democratic political culture? Here I consider the complex and influential interventions of Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (2016) and Paul Mason (2015), which have in common the notion that the current wave of automation sweeping through the global economy has the potential to lead us out of the prevailing pattern of mass material scarcity and deprivation. One of the mechanisms seen as pivotal to such a transition is a radical and scalable programme of universal basic income (UBI). I reject this solution as untenable, in part because it represents an extension of André Gorz’s (2012) earlier and, I contend, implausible argument that the very idea of the ‘working class’ should be abandoned as automating technology and structural unemployment make work a less politically significant reality. While leftist commentators and theorists may criticize the legacy of Marxism for enthroning a ‘labour theory of value’, the lived reality of the working class cannot be so easily severed from its connections to socially meaningful work. In other words, progressive populism cannot, I contend, take the form of a world beyond work.

in The roots of populism
Abstract only
Brian Elliott

In the conclusion, we return to Raymond Williams’s conception of democracy as a political culture born of collective working-class struggle and experience. Just as Williams looked at Britain in the 1950s as a place where a new wave of popular democratization was both possible and necessary, so under current conditions it is possible to see populism as a potential catalyst rather than a danger to democratic culture in a radical sense. In his later writings from the 1980s, Williams bore witness to the early phase of neoliberalization in the UK under Margaret Thatcher. He noted how the consumerist paradigm marked a withdrawal from collective concerns into the limited sphere of the individual or family home. Returning to the present moment in UK politics, the historic defeat of the Labour Party in the 2019 general election is ascribed to the party’s increasing distance from its traditional working-class constituency. The populist appeal to ‘get Brexit done’ allowed Boris Johnson to amass a Conservative majority in the UK parliament undreamed of two and a half years earlier when Theresa May called a mid-term election. The way for Labour to return from the political wilderness, it is proposed, it to see populism for what it truly is, namely a demand by the working class that the political establishment make good on the historical promise of modern democracy. This must involve, first and foremost, democratization of the workplace, education, healthcare and all other vital social sectors and organizations.

in The roots of populism