The Weaponisation of the Working Class
From Jo Cox to Brexit. From John McTernan storming out of the Labour conference because Corbyn wouldn’t promise to ban immigration to Theresa May delivering a speech so loaded with anti-migrant sentiment that Amnesty International condemned it as a return to the bad old days before Aylan Kurdi’s photo temporarily shocked Europe out of its xenophobic instincts. Immigration —or more specifically the existence of people from other places — is the topic of the autumn. It’s the topic of every season, of course, but it seems to have reached a fever pitch right now.
Thursday’s appointment of Diane Abbott to the Shadow Home Secretary post has brought a standard refrain out of the woodwork. “This shows that the government is out of touch with ordinary working people’s concerns about immigration.”
But who are these ordinary working people, what are their concerns, and how come their concerns are always the most important thing in the world when they are about foreigners but not over other issues?
This year has provided a marked contrast between the way our media and political elites respond to different populist threats to the status quo. The rise of UKIP, the “shock” of Brexit. These things have our newspapers pouring ink out by the barrel-load to explain that these “ordinary” people and their “reasonable” concerns are the most important things for politicians to listen to, that to not do so is elitist, and that it is absolutely unacceptable to suggest there is any racism involved. On the other side, the reshaping of left politics with Labour being smashed by the SNP in Scotland and the party experiencing a surge of members in support of a leftward politics has been treated with dismissal, disdain and slander.
Demographically both the right and left have a membership drawn from all up and down the income scale. Despite anti-immigrant sentiment being found in force among middle class retirees it is presented as a working class phenomenon — indeed, even presented in such a way as to make it an essential and vital part of being working class. To be working class in the UK, as we are presented by the media and spoken about by politicians, is to have “genuine concerns” about the impact of immigration.
On the other hand to be on the left is to be a middle class, out of touch urban elitist. This is accepted as a fundamental truth even if you’re a 9–5 worker getting below the median wage, or on disability benefits, or a white man without a degree in a manual job who just happens to not be racist.
In my view this is important in and of itself. While these positions are ostensibly about aligning the speaker with the fetishised, totemic, working class, salt of the earth, man on the street, their real purpose is to constrain working class expression into a form that is useful for the perpetuation of middle and upper class interests.
Most people don’t lose a damn thing, in material terms, from immigration. In the enclaves of Tory-voting “middle england” the closest they come to an immigrant is when they go shopping. At worst, they are marginally inconvenienced if sometimes they have to ask for their coffee twice because of a language barrier. They are irked and annoyed, and having Romanians in Costa makes them feel uncomfortable, but a large number of them are also socially educated enough to understand that voicing these concerns — at least in public — is not the done thing any more.
The commentariat understand that the anti-racist left have pretty much won the argument about irrational biases being a good basis for policy, and this leaves them in a dilemma. How do they get what they want when their reasons for wanting it are petty and irrational? The answer is to go hunting for reasons that sound less petty, and thus we end up with the weaponised white van man and his “genuine concerns”.
We can see quite easily that the people who fall over themselves to lift up this constrained conception of the working class don’t really have any particular interest in our welfare. Other issues that affect working class people, such as school and hospital funding, benefits and disability payments, unemployment etc, are dismissed as invalid. Either they are cast as luxuries, a “tax and spend” approach to government that is irresponsible and unserious, or they are turned back on us as evidence of our own fecklessness and lack of ambition. It is only when we holler about immigrants that we are listened to. When we say “build more houses,” “stop throwing us out of the few houses we have,” “we need benefits to live because you hollowed out our towns and cities in pursuit of a flawed economic doctrine,” we are castigated for being workshy, of faking our disabilities, of only having ourselves to blame for our lack of education. If we alter our complaints to blame foreign people rather than the natives who have been in charge forever, suddenly we have more listening and sympathetic ears than we know what to do with. “I can’t get a council house because they’ve all been sold to private landlords” gets nothing. “I can’t get a council house because they’ve all gone to bloody Muslims” gets on the front page of the Express.
To listen to how we are portrayed and discussed is to realise that, to the media who construct our national conversations and the politicians who create policy, the only authentic working class is a racist working class. When Kelvin McKenzie edited The Sun he produced the canonical picture of the white working class:
He’s the bloke you see in the pub, a right old fascist, wants to send the wogs back, buy his poxy council house, he’s afraid of the unions, afraid of the Russians, hates the queers and the weirdos and drug dealers. He doesn’t want to hear about that stuff (serious news).
It’s clear that even Labour MPs still hold this as being both true and necessary. The idea of a working class identity that is complex and complicated is alien. The idea of being a working class person from an ethnic minority is positively baffling. The fact that most migrants in this country are and remain working class is used as a further sign that they are somehow damaging and polluting the “real” working class culture in our country, which is definitionally white, racist, and thick.
This is in itself incredibly patronising and a sign of the extent of the disconnection from the complexities of real working class communities. Of course there are many of us who are Fosters-drinking UKIP voters who talk about nothing but football. But then there are many middle class people who come out with utterly vile racism when they’re in the privacy of their own social settings. (Don’t lie, I’ve worked with you. You think people who provide services at your work parties are invisible. I’ve heard what you say.) But to reduce us down to that barely even 2 dimensional stereotype and to refuse to listen to us unless we perform our ignorance for your use is not to be on our side.
The working class’ primary use in this debate comes from the fact that we are the only population who can point to real material losses that are connected, even tangentially, to migration. While migration is invariably a net social and economic gain, it can cause disruption in the short term in already economically deprived areas — i.e. those areas where people are poorly equipped to deal with any economic disruption.
Of course it is not the only thing that will do so, nor the worst. Global trade that strips areas of jobs by moving production wholesale into places where the wages are 10% of the UK’s have much bigger and deeper impacts. The damage done by using cheap, easily exploitable migrant labour does not compare in scale to the gutting of communities by the loss of entire industries. For a start, migration of people into an area is often correlated with a demand for them to fill labour vacancies and thus generally associated with areas that are undergoing growth. This is demonstrated in figures from Migration Observatory, which show 36% of foreign-born employees and 45% of foreign-born self employed workers live in London. It is very rare for migrants to move into areas with already-depressed labour markets. London is also a target for internal migration because, in our incredibly unbalanced economy, it is often the only place where someone can go and find work wherever they’re from. This can’t be because migration in their area is “taking all the jobs” because, if that were the case, natives would be flooding out of London as they were displaced by all this new, cheap foreign labour.
The big difference between migrants coming into the country and jobs being shipped abroad is that in the former case the economic benefits of the industry are still felt by the localities where the industry is located. Because migrants still have to consume within the local economy, even in places where bosses use underhand tactics to weaponise migrant populations against natives in order to get away with wage depression, poor working practices and unsafe conditions, the net impact is still far less than those in which the industries simply cease to exist.
Yet, time and again, working class complaints about the impacts of trade liberalisation on their capability to get and keep decent, well paying work is ignored or dismissed out of hand by the liberal mainstream. Right-wing parties across Europe, including UKIP, often feature economic protectionism as at least as large a part of their policy platform as anti-immigration policies. Yet it is only the immigration part which is elevated as a set of important “genuine concerns.” The sight of a liberal commentator haranguing his peers to pay attention to UKIP’s protectionism is a rare one indeed, whereas you cannot open a newspaper on any given day without someone sadly shaking their head over how our out of touch liberal elite just aren’t listening to the working class’ Very Real Concerns about Romanians.
I do think it’s important to point out that immigration isn’t the cause of job losses and overstretched services, but to understand that it can feel like that. The housing pressure in areas with high migration isn’t caused by migrants but by decades of inadequate investment as part of a decades-long strategy to transfer public wealth into the hands of private rentiers. Pressure on the NHS isn’t caused by migrants but by governments who repeatedly meddle, insisting on structural reforms running parallel with efficiency gains — a tall ask for even the most deft management team — and a failure to understand that we cannot have a world-leading health system if we don’t pay for it. But it’s easy for people to see the increase of brown faces and the decrease in services and make that connection. Especially with a media and political class who call immigration a problem with dedicated consistency for decades. But just because concerns are genuinely felt does not mean that they are either genuinely understood or the basis of solutions to the issues which affect us.
Does anybody really think that, were we to suddenly slam shut the borders tomorrow, that managers would not still want to retain as much of the marginal product of an employee’s labour as possible? That the pressure on wages would not still be downwards? The rhetorical strategy would instead shift, as it already has partially done, to blaming the undesirables in our own populations: the “workshy”, the scroungers, the feckless, the disabled, the immoral, the single parents and their grubby children.
Likewise, does anyone think that if a magic spell eliminated the possibility that French and Syrian people could be found on our shores, that our governments would suddenly discover their deep love of decent public housing and a fully-funded NHS? Of course not — again, we would see the pressure shift to native people who have too many children, to fat people and everyone else who is putting pressure on the NHS because of their “life choices” to smoke and have bacon for breakfast.
This is neoliberalism — a phrase which people will decry as being vague and non-specific but in fact works as a useful summary for a philosophical approach to government. Its biggest and most damaging component is the way in which it reduces large scale, systemic issues down to individual choices and responsibilities, effectively alleviating the ruling classes of any responsibility for the impacts of their own choices. If there are 100 vacancies and 400 people looking for work, the amount of training, motivation, ambition that individuals have may well impact which of those 400 people get the jobs, but it won’t impact the problem that 3/4 of them won’t get work. Educate, train, put on CV-writing classes by all means, but you can’t get a quart into a pint pot.
Blaming immigrants or “wasteful, feckless” working class people is a way of passing off the responsibility for systemic problems of localised resource scarcity onto other people’s personal choices — to come over here or to sponge off “taxpayers’ money.” It’s a strategy that works because it utilises people’s in built tendencies to see things in terms of simple narratives with people we can blame. Providing a scapegoat to focus people’s ire onto works.
What I’m not saying here is that the working classes in this country aren’t racist. A large percentage of Britons, and Europeans in general, hold racist views, and the working class are not exempt from that. Indeed these scapegoating strategies work in part because of this. However, we have coded racism specifically as a Traditional Working Class Value when we talk about it. If you tell one of us commoners that we shouldn’t be racist you are being an out of touch liberal elitist.
But racism cuts across class. As a working class person who has worked with people up and down the class ladder myself I sincerely doubt we’re more racist than the rest of the population. Rather, middle class people are more aware of what they have to lose by vocalising their racist views in public. Awareness that we should not say racist things because you’ll get in trouble from HR does not equate to an awareness of why it is wrong to believe them. Instead they are shifted into private conversation where “PC culture” is grumbled against, where the crime committed is not that people say damaging and harmful things but that sensitive lefties are “offended by everything these days.”
We have created a toxic way of talking about racial prejudice in this country which emphasises a binary where “racist” means someone is a bad person who goes around hating on foreigners for irrational reasons. Anyone who does not do this, for example those who hate foreigners for rational reasons like they take up room in the NHS, is Not A Racist and it is therefore bigotry to say that they are.
People who look at how racist structures are encoded and perpetuated in our society understand that you need to bring more detail in than simply “racist = bad”. We need to understand how there are levels of support for racism, from the unconscious complicity that even the most liberal anti-racist hippy lefty can fall prey to, through to acceptance of racist stereotypes that reinforce structural biases, working up to the more active eliminationist violence which is what we are more used to referring to as “racism.”
Again the working class are rhetorically weaponised to undermine this approach. A key component of the analysis is the idea of relative privilege. If racist structures disadvantage those from non-native, non-white ethnic backgrounds, it stands to reason that other groups receive a comparative advantage. Advantage and disadvantage are relative terms, after all.
But the working class will be rolled out to deny the concept of privilege vociferously and emphatically. Momentarily abandoning the workshy scroungers narrative, our poverty and struggle will be admitted for the time it takes to say “how are you going to tell an unemployed white person in a leaking house that he is privileged?!” We are maneuvered into place as human shields so that those whose rhetorical position is much less secure can be protected from a discussion which threatens to undermine their sense of having earned every advantage they accrued. And once we have been used in this way, it’s back to the “get a job you scrounger” stuff.
Similarly, anti-racism itself is framed as something which is damaging to us as working class people. The phrase “political correctness” is deployed to emphasise the idea that anti-racist liberal policies are privileging the rights of immigrants and foreigners, even to our detriment. This is exemplified most dramatically in the “immigrant rape gang” rhetoric and the idea that people are “scared to tell the truth” about the inherent violence of other cultures and the threat they pose to “our” girls.
It is instructive to look at what the media chose to emphasise in the wake of the report into the Rotherham child abuse scandal, in which the perpetrators generally came from ethnic minority backgrounds, compared to the historic child abuse cases which have seen prominent white men accused of rape and abuse.
The right wing press has made vast bales of hay out of the problem of “Asian men grooming vulnerable white girls,” drawing attention to elements of the report where social services expressed confusion about what they were or weren’t allowed to say about the ethnic background of the men involved. It neglected to mention, however, that the situation had been investigated in 2002 and the police had been outright hostile towards criticisms of their approach. Nor was much effort put into covering the police’s indifference to the safety of working class girls, who were considered “promiscuous,” accused of wasting police time and even threatened with arrest after making accusations.
A particularly stunning passage from the report, for example, seems to indicate police collusion, not simply indifference.
10.9 According to the researcher, attempts to raise many of the concerns described above with senior personnel were met with defensiveness and hostility.”
“She described a particular case that was ‘the final straw’. In 2001, a young girl who had been repeatedly raped had tried to escape her perpetrators but was terrified of reprisals. They had allegedly put all the windows in at the parental home and broken both of her brother’s legs ‘to send a message’. At that point, the child agreed to make a complaint to the Police. The researcher took her to the police station office where she would be interviewed in advance in order to familiarise her with the place and the officer who would be conducting the interview. Whilst there, the girl received a text from the main perpetrator. He had with him her 11-year old sister. He said repeatedly to her ‘your choice…’. The girl did not proceed with the complaint. She disengaged from the pilot and project and is quoted by the researcher as saying ‘you can’t protect me’. This incident raised questions about how the perpetrator knew where the young woman was and what she was doing.”
It was only when the abuse of working class girls could be used to perpetuate an anti-migrant narrative that the press sat up and took notice. It also failed to make note of the fact that much of what underpinned local authorities reluctance to emphasise the ethnicity of the abusers was the risk that such information would be used to whip up hate and violence towards the broader community — a fear which is not unfounded.
In contrast, as the inquiry into historic child abuse by more prominent white people staggers under the weight of the sheer volume it has to cover, newspapers cannot help but express their deeply held concerns about it all being a waste of money. “The scope is too broad to be feasible!” they say. “One cannot hope to dig up everything from the past,” they lament. It seems to have escaped their notice, or they are driving past this realisation at speed while hoping nobody else notices, that if this objection is true it means that the institutional abuse of vulnerable children has been a standard feature of British society for decades. Far from being something which is isolated to “roaming Asian gangs,” this implicates the establishment itself — churches, police forces, even Parliamentarians, including Baroness Margaret “State Funeral” Thatcher herself.
Suddenly the abuse of vulnerable children, mostly from deprived backgrounds, is unimportant. It is difficult to escape the idea that their pain is only important if it can, like unemployment or stretched health resources, be weaponised in defense of a racist narrative.
The picture all this adds up to is not one of a political and media establishment that quotes us being racist because of their deeply felt concern for our material needs. The moment we get too uppity and start demanding anything other than commitments to the further brutalisation of foreign people at the hands of the state, they will turn on us just as quickly as they do on our non-native neighbours. We will be shifted from the frame where we are honest hard working salt of the earth noble peasants, to the frame where we are obese thick scroungers suitable only to be mocked on a Channel 5 docusoap.
The working class are always viewed through the lens of their value to others. We provide physical labour or cultural capital for middle class consumption. If we cannot do either of those things, we are useless, to be despised for sucking at the teat of the “wealth creators” as we obstinately continue to insist on our own humanity in the face of evidence that we are unneccesary, subhuman burdens on the state.
Far from supporting us, the rush to demonise migrants in our name is deeply patronising and damaging. Not only does a rush to embrace far right, migrant-demonising policies not help us white working class people, it also completely erases those working class people who aren’t white. By listening to us only when we are playing the role of your pet thick racists, you perpetuate the myth that working class culture is exclusively a white, anti-intellectual culture, contributing to the alienation and exclusion of working class people of colour and undermining those of us from working class communities who are trying to work against racism and bigotry.