As my friends and colleagues spend the day in horrified reaction all over Facebook and Twitter, I’m left with a lot of thoughts. I have a routine I use for these thoughts; I usually splurge them all over Facebook in giant effort-posts that take seven hours to read and are only accessible by my own tiny corner of the universe. After all, I don’t really know very much about anything other than programming languages and obscure 80s and 90s RPGs, so I keep my giant run-on sentences to a limited audience.
Not this time, though. I think I understand what has happened. I saw it coming, and I am not surprised by the results. So I’m going to make a huge giant post about it, and I’m going to use the first-person pronoun a lot cos I’m incredibly self-obsessed. So there.
Unnecessary Personal Background
I voted Remain, because of course I did. I’m a lefty person in his 30s with a degree living in Ceredigion; I’d have to buck a huge number of trends to do otherwise and besides, I’ve spent a significant chunk of my career working in Germany in one way or another. I’m hardly about to vote for Xmas on the rare occasion me and my fellow Turkeys get the chance to vote against it. (OK, that reverses the context of the EU vote but bear with me on this.) I might be as true-blue Remain as it’s possible to get. But the potential was there to understand where the Leave desire was coming from and besides, as a lefty I have an inherent distrust of giant multinational structures dominated by neoliberal financial interests. The fate of Greece had hardly served to endear the EU to me and mine. It’s hard to oppose Austerity with one hand and Independence with the other. There were solid reasons to oppose the EU from a lefty perspective just as there were solid reasons to support it.
And that’s the heart of the issue in many ways. Leave and Remain cut right across the boundaries of the usual political class in the UK, at least on a policy level. Of course, that is not how politics works. The Tories tore themselves in two over the issue, as they always have and always will, but the openly Left were required to fall in line behind Remain and a lot of opprobrium thrown at anyone who broke ranks. Even Jeremy Corbyn, whose opinion of the EU has always been divided, was required to argue for the EU. Arguing against the neoliberal ECB was treated as breaking trust, and the Remain camp furiously painted anyone that dissented as a racist xenophobe, a Friend To Nigel.
This wasn’t that surprising, of course. Tribalism is a normal human response. But the upshot of this tribalism — of people proudly talking about blocking anyone who talked about voting Leave on social media, of people sneering at dissent of any kind, was that most Remain supporters quickly found their immediate surrounds filled solely with people voting Remain. After all, anyone speaking out about voting Leave had already been excised, and anyone not speaking out was keeping their gob thoroughly shut lest they lose friends. This same phenomenon occurred during the General Election last year and led to a lot of people being shocked and horrified then too.
But there’s more to this than what Scott Alexander of SlateStarCodex called his Dark Matter Politics theory. Yes, it’s true that the Remain campaigners, just like the Labour campaigners last year, were completely unaware of just how many of their neighbours and coworkers disagree with them. But I don’t think that’s the whole story. See, I think there is something happening in the UK, just as it is in the US right now with the rise of Trump. I think a lot of people are going to be shocked by it as it becomes more obvious. I think a lot of our assumptions are unsafe and will not survive the next few years.
A Crude Tidal Wave Metaphor
There’s something bigger happening in the world. I’m not the first person to notice this, since that’s something pretty much every commentator in the history of writing has said since commentary was invented; I’m reasonably sure that Ug the Writer said something to his caveman friend about “Hurunga, New Paradigm, Tidal Wave, Ugggg”. But that doesn’t actually mean it’s not true, only that noticing it is a little trite, which might perhaps explain why few people are talking about this seriously.
See, there’s been a lot said about globalisation and the effect it has on the working class, and that’s all fine and dandy and the research is in and yes, it completely screws the poor basically everywhere it is implemented, which is unsurprising as that was kind of the point of the exercise. But there’s a second wave coming, bearing down on us, casting a shadow across our futures like a giant crude metaphor hovering on the horizon. That second wave is automation.
My paternal grandfather and grandmother both worked in factories their entire working lives, making things for people to buy. My maternal grandfather was a sailor, sailing those things around the world. My maternal grandmother was (amongst numerous other things), a homemaker, keeping the household and looking after the children. One of my relatives has spent most of his career making tools for other people to make things. My uncle was a plasterer. My father was a builder until his arthritis took his career away, but such calamities have always been with us.
This upcoming calamity has not. Globalisation moved all the factories to China and India and left those who would take my grandparents’ place in the lurch. Homemakers barely exist any longer. But it’s going to get worse.
Factories are getting more and more automated; even now China and India are suffering from unemployment issues as the aforementioned factories employ less and less unskilled labour. The aforementioned ships are now giant robots with a tiny number of sailors mainly engaged in making sure the machine keeps running; most of my grandfather’s work no longer exists. Even looking after a household is becoming increasingly automated. And builders? Concrete printing.
Actual jobs making and doing things are going to get more and more scarce and this process is not new, it has been going on for 50 years and it is not going to stop. If you’re honest with yourself, you already know this; where do you work? Where do your friends work? The median reader of this is likely to be a student, or a software person, or an office worker. What happens when the tsunami hits? When automation removes all the taxi drivers? All the remaining construction jobs? There aren’t that many places in Uni available. There aren’t that many office jobs available. There sure as hell aren’t that many coding jobs available. What are those people going to do?
My guess is they’re going to do the same thing the people where I grew up did. They’re going to dwell. They’re going to be denizens. They’re going to sit, and fester, and grow angry.
Confused Attempt At A Thesis
See, I grew up amongst what More Crows Than Eagles referred to as the Unnecessariat. The world he describes, though rendered through a rural viewpoint, is at its heart exactly what my home town was like in the 80s and 90s. I lived on a sink estate in a dead industrial town, riddled with crime and drugs and what the Tories like to consider the “undeserving poor” who get by on a combination of benefits, under-the-table employment and the very-dark-grey market.
Ironically, Wirral voted to Remain, probably because the EU have poured so much money into it and besides, outside Birkenhead a lot of the Wirral is remarkably middle-class. It was one of those middle-class enclaves that contained the school I managed to get into, and it’s into that middle-class I’ve sort of accidentally wandered. But most of the people I grew up with would see the Unnecessariat as a scarily accurate depiction of themselves, particularly the older generations. This is a place where a mosque was recently firebombed, after all.
I know these people. I was these people. They don’t see a future. They don’t see a way out. No-one has a plan for them, barring the drug dealers and the prison companies. They are lost, and they are poor, and they do not know how they got there or what they have done to deserve it (although as mentioned in that article, a surprising number of them think it is somehow their own fault).
These people are Leave.
Don’t believe me? Look at the Guardian’s graphs correlating votes in regions to their social class, median income and educational level.
All over the UK, an incredibly huge number of people have been thrown on the scrapheap over the past few decades and they do not know who to blame or what to do about it. So when people like Farage and Britain First tell them that Those Immigrants are to blame, and everyone else just screams invective at them — and make no mistake, that is what the “left” have been doing for the past 20 years — who are they going to listen to?
I’ve watched the Left abandon the actual poor in favour of trying to appeal to the middle class, bit by bit, starting in the 80s all the way through to now. The Unnecessariat do not vote, after all, and when they do they are conveniently corralled into all-red constituencies anyway, so what’s the point in trying to appeal to the 15,000 strong Labour majority in Birkenhead rather than the 500 strong Labour majority in middle-class-as-hell Wirral South? This pattern continues itself across the entire nation on a party-politics level. But this isn’t just about party politics.
Ill-Considered Outrage Bait
It’s impossible to talk about the UK left without talking about the social justice movement of the last 10ish years. That movement concerns itself primarily with identity politics; with the treatment of gender, sexual and racial minorities. It has dominated leftist discussion and marked most of the perceived victories of the left in the past decade or so. It has strong support from the leftist elements of the media as well as from numerous Labour MPs, particularly from the party’s large female contingent. And it utterly dominates leftist discourse on the Internet.
I’m not going to talk here about what I think the social justice movement’s overall qualities might be. That’s not relevant to this article. This is:
Modern Social Justice-style leftism has nothing to say about the poor and actively drives them away from the left.
I’m very serious about this, and I think it points very strongly towards a large part of the reason why the Unnecessariat voted in such numbers to leave the EU. I don’t think they care much about being called racist, sexist, homophobic or whatever else; they get called worse all the time. However, a campaign based almost entirely on “If you believe this, you are scum” does not work on a group of people who have been trodden on to this extent. You cannot appeal to them by telling them their woes are unimportant.
Therein lies the difference between what Farage and his greasy friends have been doing and what the Guardian and their greasy friends have been doing. One side tells those who have little left to lose that their problems are due to something tangible, something they can point at. They’d need an understanding of numbers, of demographics, and of statistics to disprove it. The other side tells them that they can’t possibly have any problems as they’re white, male, straight, whatever… and they can just look out of their front doors to disprove that.
This is why they keep going on about “PC”. Not because they’re actually affected by it, but because they see the left as their enemy. And, based on my social media feeds this morning, that feeling is reciprocated. Bear in mind these are people who have voted Labour for generations, and they think of the left as the enemy. And why should they not? One side is doing nothing to help them, while the other is doing nothing to help them and, as far as they can tell, considers them scum.
Faltering Attempt At Reaching A Conclusion
So, then, what is to be done about this? Are we to abandon PoC, women, LGBT to attempt to appeal to those a lot of us secretly consider “chavs”? Can they be won back? Is there even anything that can be done to help them?
Well, there’s been a good first step taken. The left has spent a lot of time and energy on Universal Basic Income, which is the only actual solution to the automation problem that anyone’s come up with so far. (No, “leave the poor to die and continue dancing on your bed made of money” is not actually a solution.) In the long run, UBI would have unpredictable effects on the Unnecessariat; in essence it cements their uselessness, even as it supports their livelihoods.
The other part is that we do not yet know how to create a society which no longer enshrines work as being the heart of life. That’s going to be tough for a leftist movement, but to a degree that’s actually something the social justice movement is already good at; assigning people implicit worth without dependency is a core social justice premise.
Yet… this would require a shift in the way the institutional and ideological Left thinks. It would require a major restructuring of current political theories to re-introduce economic class as an overriding aspect of leftist thought, and most importantly of all, it would require a lot of very comfortable individuals to confront the fact that a huge number of people have it a whole lot worse off than they do.
But it wouldn’t be the first time the academic and institutional Left has done this. There’s work to be done, if people are willing to admit it rather than just screaming at the poor for betraying them. This is not a time for recrimination. This is a time for a revolution in Leftist thinking.
That, at least, is a hopeful thought on a pretty dark day.