A Different Class

How autocrats get away with posing as authentocrats

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On the say-so of no less an authority on social class in Britain than Steve Bannon, there’s a person who represents the moral “backbone” of my homeland and place of birth: he is a multi-property-owning landlord with criminal convictions for, among other things, mortgage fraud, assault, and football hooliganism. The “solid guy” who accrued this record, Bannon’s epitome of gritty “blue-collar Britons,” is Tommy Robinson—real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon—the one-time leader of the right-wing, anti-Islamic street movement the English Defence League. Robinson now works as an adviser to the United Kingdom Independence Party, the revanchist movement of economic nationalists behind the Brexit referendum vote.

The setting for the former Trump strategist’s panegyric was an interview with London-based radio station LBC, which addressed Robinson’s latest legal run-in, this time for violating court reporting restrictions, jeopardizing the prosecution of a gang of child sex offenders. Bannon lit up on cue, suggesting that Robinson’s brief detention on contempt of court charges was but one more elite ploy to silence the British working class. In Bannon’s one-note political refrain, the media class, the financial elite, and sundry other enemies of the people consistently deride, suppress, ignore, marginalize, and overrule the good-faith patriotic traditionalism of the misunderstood plain people of whatever country he now happens to be consulting. (Oh, and despite what you may be thinking, globe-trotting campaign messaging is not remotely a professional class betrayal of the dispossessed working majority.) The salt of the earth folks, in the new Bannonite political playbook, are innately conservative; so it simply stands to reason that the politics of liberals and the left are an inevitable status-driven assault on an aggrieved proletariat, carried out at the whim of the hypocritical metropolitan establishment.

Not for the first time, the world is superabundant with politicians who assert legitimacy for their belligerently conservative policies on the grounds that they are merely what “real” people desire. Still, there’s something jaw-dropping about how brazen and evidence-averse this spiel has grown in a time of acute real-world inequality and ideological division. Yes, Bannon and Robinson are little more than glorified political grifters—but what explains the curious appeal and endurance of the underlying grift here?

First, consider the biographical affinities that Bannon and Robinson share. Both do come from working-class origins that closely resemble an archetype (however unwieldy said archetype may become under closer critical scrutiny): Bannon’s upbringing in eastern Virginia with a telephone lineman father bears a broad resemblance to Robinson’s in Luton—one of only a handful of towns in England’s generally prosperous southeast to be defined by industrial (specifically, automobile) manufacturing. Coincidentally, their ancestral families are both Irish. Less coincidentally, both, by the time of their elevation to roles as self-anointed spokespeople for a beleaguered working class, had moved financially away from their backgrounds, Bannon through banking and Robinson via real estate.

Crucially, both hang tenaciously onto their early histories as validations of their politics; in fact, one might well suggest that they petition for ongoing membership of a hypothetical “traditional working class” precisely because of those politics. The propagandistic subtext of Bannon’s avowal that Robinson is Britain’s “backbone,” its ne plus ultra of authenticity, is that it is attitude, belief, and culture, instead of anything material, that assigns class identity. Thus are countless identities at odds with these traditionalist attitudes—gendered, racialized, sexualized—excluded from the working-class canon regardless of how materially suited to it they might otherwise be. Such out-group figures may suffer from structural economic inequalities, digitally engineered obsolescence in the workplace, and many other all-too familiar setbacks faced by working people in the casualized, benefits-starved global gig economy, but they’re not permitted backbone status in the rhetoric of right-wing pseudo-populism for the simple reason that they lack the proper cultural grievances—or political attitude, as the case may be.

The Golden Don

Much the same culture-over-class dogma animates Anthony Scaramucci’s favor-currying book, Trump, the Blue-Collar President, one of the most absurd examples of sycophantic Trumpography yet to appear in the rich cavalcade of class fantasias kicked up by this bizarre presidency. Like Bannon and Robinson, Scaramucci can lay an honest claim to working-class backstory—which is, vitally, not the same thing as “being working-class”—but he, too, has put pecuniary oceans between himself and his socioeconomic origins via a long and lucrative tour in investment banking. Nevertheless, the simple brute fact of a less privileged origin story confers an impermeable aura of proletarian authenticity to Scaramucci—and, what’s more, to his erstwhile employer, a private-school scion of a vast New York real-estate fortune. Thus, Scaramucci can produce a surreal gloss on predatory American capitalism such as this, with an apparently straight face: “My father and Fred Trump lived by the simple American equation: the harder you worked, the more opportunity you afforded your family.”

The world is superabundant with politicians who assert legitimacy for their belligerently conservative policies on the grounds that they are what “real” people desire.

True, our collective flight from class reality has not—yet—produced a portrayal of the young Donald Trump as literally poor. But it’s still quite striking to note in such adulatory transports that one’s relative wealth seems almost irrelevant to the donning of the mythic blue collar. For Scaramucci, Trump is from the wrong (which is to say the noble and reliable) side of the tracks because he shoots from the hip, doesn’t mince his words, knows how to hustle, and makes decisions with sturdy macho impetuousness rather than bourgeois prissiness. Forget the inherited multimillions, the expansive golf resorts, the gold-plated elevator—again, values and attitudes are all the proof we need that this man is not truly of the elite.

It’s easy to write off such callow posturing to the deranged and (one hopes) ephemeral state of political and media discourse in the Trump era—only now our foreshortened rhetoric of class is dictating the economic fate of nations. Consider again the case of Britain, where the continuing chaos over departure from the European Union gets routinely scripted as a conflict between elites (supposedly in favour of EU membership) and everybody else. In this telling, opposition to Europeanism marks one out as “of the people” irrespective of whether one grew up on a rain-swept council estate in the post-industrial north or on the other kind of estate—the ones borrowed to film Jane Austen adaptations. So, for example, we see tough working-class realness ascribed to Brexit architects such as Nigel Farage (once a commodities trader and educated at Dulwich College, whose facade resembles Hogwarts), the Eton and Oxford alumnus Boris Johnson, and Jacob Rees-Mogg, a preening haute-bourgeois narcissist whose father William was editor of the (London) Times when he was born in 1969. Rees-Mogg has been serenely and shamelessly comfortable accepting the mantle of Defender of the People, to the point that he roused himself to attack the former Prime Minister John Major (himself raised in genuinely insalubrious circumstances) as a mouthpiece of a “European Elite” when Major urged a mild measure of caution over Britain’s ever-pending divorce from the EU.

Down, with the People

Obviously, this dadaist parody of class politics is pregnant with contradiction. On the one hand, the right-wing arbiters of authenticity create a near-absolute culturalization of class by insisting that you can be blue-collar simply by, say, stating an opposition to “bureaucracy,” or disliking “political correctness” and “social justice politics,” or by advocating wall-building or Brexit. On the other, such ideological shadowplay depends upon a solid, if somewhat displaced, material referent, specifically the hard-done-by strugglers of West Virginia or the English northeast, or Pas-de-Calais, the former DDR, Wallonia, and so on. There must be people living in significantly straitened circumstances in order to ennoble a corpus of values that are, however unjustly and maliciously, associated with them. In other words, the only time the economic circumstances of the people become important is in their cynical and strategic deployment as cultural signifiers enabling the conspicuous display of a political leader’s putative earthiness.

The awkwardness of the relation between cultural comportment, political persuasion and material circumstance for the Trump-era right becomes particularly apparent when leftist figures emerge who sport actual working-class backgrounds of their own. Exhibit A here is, of course, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Since she defeated ten-term incumbent Joe Crowley in the primaries for New York’s fourteenth congressional district last summer, Ocasio-Cortez has surged into the forefront of left politics. Bernie-ites and DSA partisans hail her unprivileged Bronx upbringing as a crucial set of experiential credentials that permit her to speak to many working-class Americans alienated by Third Way vapidity. And she’s likewise been the target of an unceasing hailstorm of invective from conservatives desperate to expose her as a fraud and a mimic. Because Ocasio-Cortez fails in nearly every way to display the culturally sanctioned political signifiers of blue-collarness, so the logic appears to go, her material circumstances can’t ever have been remotely as bad as she has made them out to be.

Thus we get such transparent farces as Newsmax host John Cardillo using Google Maps to hunt down the home her family moved to when she was five in order to prove her childhood was “a far cry from the Bronx hood upbringing she’s selling” and the forensic study by conservative hack Eddie Scarry that led him to assess Ocasio-Cortez’s work attire on Twitter: “that jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles.” This initial round of authenticity-mongering on the right was but the overture to Fox News’s elevation of Ocasio-Cortez as a veritable socialist horsewoman of the apocalypse, even though she had yet to begin serving her inaugural term in Congress. The right’s full-on moral panic over Ocasio-Cortez’s allegedly spurious working-class identity reached a bathetic crescendo in January, when online right-wing sleuths circulated a video of her dancing on a rooftop during her undergraduate years at Boston University—as though a true member of the working class is never permitted to move her feet for any purpose other than shuffling in and out of coal mines.

Such rudderless delusiveness bears testimony to the threat the right senses in a figure like Ocasio-Cortez. The talking heads and keyboard clatterers of Trump nation plainly understand just how much damage she might do to their most expedient narratives about class. She is also the clearest evidence available of the wild inconsistency of the rules that govern the public expression of American class identity. Trump can be “blue-collar” after launching his adult career with an (at least) eight-figure paternal business loan and a battery of familial tax shelters, while Ocasio-Cortez can be derided as a stuffily middle-class poseur for being lucky enough to have grown up in a house. Likewise, the “backbone” of working- class Britain can sit comfortably on piles of rental income derived from working-class tenants, but there are no authenticity credits available for a socialist woman of color so long as she possesses outerwear.

Object Relations

Behind all this frenetic policing of culturalized class authenticity is a deep and worsening contradiction at the heart of Anglo-American politics on the right. Modern conservatism on both sides of the Atlantic has frequently bedecked itself in an of-the-people rhetoric in the face of a range of hard-to-refute egalitarian and redistributive critiques. We know this much about the spread of right-wing populism across the generations: it’s what happens when elites can no longer excuse their status on the grounds of kingly magnificence and exceptional genealogy. Instead, they have to turn to a range of bogus emotive rhetorical strategies to arrogate authority from below. Historically, liberals—as distinguished from the socialist left—have been swift to object to this sort of thing, priding themselves on their rationality, fairness, and ironclad faith in meritocracy. In the United States, Trump is a bogeyman for liberals precisely because he is regarded as the zenith—or nadir, as the case may be—of a uniquely unmitigated strain of demagogic truth-avoidance; the same can be said in the United Kingdom for Robinson and the Bad Boys of Brexit. But this placid and complacent mode of counterattack sidesteps, perhaps deliberately, the question of why liberals throughout the Anglosphere—and, indeed, beyond—are engaged in almost precisely the same thing they want to hang Trump or Farage out to dry for.

Trump can be “blue-collar” after launching his adult career with an eight-figure paternal business loan, while Ocasio-Cortez can be derided as a middle-class poseur for being lucky enough to have grown up in a house.

If there is something meaningfully original in today’s class charades, it isn’t really the right’s all-too-plain self-interested investment in them. Instead, what’s novel is an aspirational populism of the center—a populism of notional anti- populists. To begin getting a grip on this phenomenon, we can return to Ocasio-Cortez, or more precisely to the gamut of anxieties she triggers. It isn’t only the pundits and leaders of the Republican right who are flustered by her stolid insistence that a socialist politics is entirely congenial in blue-collar America—which in reality is precarious, not homogenously white, and not in anything close to uniform agreement about apple-pie civic virtues—in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Having fought off Crowley in a campaign that emphasised his disconnect from working-class voters, Ocasio-Cortez has now attracted skepticism from centrist Democrats alongside the predictable avalanche of hate mail from Fox News.

One such naysayer is former Missouri senator Claire McCaskill, who gave an exit interview to CNN in which she called Ocasio-Cortez a “bright shiny new object” who “came out of nowhere” to “beat a very experienced congressman.” These are dog-whistle words: “shiny” denotes superficiality and disposability; “new” placelessness; “out of nowhere” a lack of sympathy or kinship for a particular embedded culture. The central organizing conceit here is again personal authenticity: the juxaposition of “shiny” rootlessness to scuffed, worthy locatability is a cornerstone of post-liberal discourse. Here in England, this truncated vision of class politics got an extended airing in The Road to Somewhere, a 2017 book by the British (Etonian!) political commentator David Goodhart. This nimble establishment student of working-class mores argued that the twenty-first century’s most consequential political fault line separates out metropolitan, cosmopolitan “anywheres” who reject rootedness and embrace shiny modernity, from provincial or heartland “somewheres” who invest in and commit themselves to a specific place and its traditions. Under the guidance of a Goodhart-influenced adviser to Theresa May’s Tory government, Nick Timothy, this crude binary account of culturalized class politics has gained a great deal of traction among May’s post-Brexit-vote Conservative Party. In a recent, now- notorious speech, May said of Remainers: “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” Much the same place-driven analysis propels the two big American books conscripted into duty as all-purpose explanations of Trump’s rise, Charles Murray’s 2012 study of the white working class Coming Apart and J.D. Vance’s 2016 memoir Hillbilly Elegy.

The Classless Center

This new class metaphysics of place are scarcely confined to the right, as McCaskill herself made clear in the balance of her CNN interview. The senior legislator took it upon herself to issue some cautions to her shiny new counterpart about the real outlook of the “working class”— notably the “white” section of it who have been “rejecting the Democratic Party” and who “need to hear about how their work is going to be respected, and the dignity of their jobs.”

In such none-too-subtle callouts to the disenchantment of the real (i.e., white) working class, we see their alleged penchant to take promiscuous offense used rhetorically as an ideological cudgel against the left. Never mind that the catastrophic vote-seep in the heartlands in 2016 occurred under the watch of late-period Third Way centrism. Needless to say, McCaskill was a conspicuous endorser of Hillary Clinton during the bitter 2016 Democratic primaries, and like most Clinton surrogates, she let loose a similar stream of prophetic injunctions against frightening or otherwise provoking the hardy sons and daughters of the working class by hearing out the “extreme” Bernie Sanders and his supporters.

This version of the white working-class electorate as a feral and unpredictable force of dangerous reaction out of War for the Planet of the Apes plays an increasingly central role in the thinking of Anglophone centrism. In an essay called “Notes on Late Fascism,” the philosopher and political theorist Alberto Toscano calls this demographic “sociologically spectral”—i.e., an incoherent category dressed up as an ever-looming hypothetical threat. Out in the world, it might actually be quite hard to pin down this “white working class”: how does one isolate it from the non-white working class, or distinguish it cleanly from the white middle classes? In lieu of plotting out and resolving such empirical dilemmas, however, the working- class whisperers of the neoliberal center have elected instead to use the idea of the white working class as a limiting case in the policing of acceptable discourse. Trespass against the claim to unquestioned sovereignty incanted in the phrase at your own mortal political peril. And in this disciplinary guise, the totem of the white working class is as potent in the supposedly rational center as on the supposedly populist right. Indeed, it is under the pretense of keeping political inquiry both orderly and rational that the center calls upon the sociological specter of the mythic white working class and ritually invokes its putatively immutable conservatism—always backed up with craftily selected polling data—
as an argument-clinching claim against any and all brands of leftist idealism.

What’s more, liberals are now increasingly apt to produce another spectral fiction to accompany the unruly yet easily offended white working-class—namely, a no-less mythic and monolithic left guilty of alienating, say, the Rust Belt or various immiserated former coalfield regions in Britain. As votes for the social democratic parties that cleaved profitably toward the center in the sunlit, post–Cold War uplands began to dry up, moderate politicians and commentators were on hand to announce that it was actually the feckless and faithless left who had abandoned its traditional bases of support. It would have been more accurate to note that the parties that had historically commanded the left vote—the Democrats in the United States, Labour in the United Kingdom, France’s Socialist Party and Germany’s Social Democratic Pary, to name a few—had taken for granted a still left-leaning working-class base. And it would have been more germane still to note that all these Third Way formations had tacked strategically toward the center while pursuing a neoliberal set of economic initiatives that today’s centrist commentators now largely take for granted as the common-sense version of the way the world should work. Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Lionel Jospin, and their many epigones were, very pointedly and precisely, not the left but assumed as a matter of course that they would retain the loyalty of the traditional left—including the working class, in all its ethnic and racial variants.

© Adam Maida

A Paso for Your Thoughts

Electoral data from various countries backs this up, and in Europe we even have a name for the process: Pasokification, after the Greek social democratic party whose vote collapsed by more than 85 percent in the six years after the financial crisis hit. The only mainstream social democratic party on the continent to have really begun to reverse this trend in earnest is the UK’s Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn. The more militant and confrontational Corbynite Labour party has seen its robust redistributive, universalist policy platform steadily gain in its share of the vote—in particularly striking contrast to the dog days of the centrist New Labour era under Gordon Brown and the moribund Ed Miliband. Yet since Corbyn’s stewardship of the party began, he’s faced unceasing second-guessing from “sensible” centrist MPs and their allies in the liberal press—the Guardian, the New Statesman, and the BBC. The speculation harps almost exclusively on Corbyn’s supposed inability to sell left-wing ideas to the “left-behind” people of provincial England. The impossible-to-miss subtext of all this talk is that the modern left is an exclusively metropolitan movement that can’t speak to its abandoned working-class base—apparently everyone who lives in a big city is bourgeois, and everyone who doesn’t isn’t—because it cannot synchronize itself to cultural traditionalism of that base.

Since Corbyn’s stewardship of the Labour Party began, he’s faced unceasing second-guessing from “sensible” centrist MPs and their allies in the liberal press.

Labour MP Graham Jones is one of Parliament’s more prominent Corbyn critics—a representative of Hyndburn, a northwestern English constituency consisting largely of former textile-manufacturing towns. After the 2017 general election balloting, which saw Jones’s party claw back some vital seats and force Theresa May’s Conservatives into a precarious pact with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists, Jones laid into Corbyn’s leadership. “How thick does this party have to be?” he asked, not looking for an answer. “Our core voters cannot be taken for granted. . . . We have to talk about their concerns—counter- terrorism, nationalism, defense, and community, the nuclear deterrent and patriotism.” And thus another dog-whistle incantation went forth to summon up the specter of the fabled, homogenous (white) working-class core, apparently fatalistic about whether they can afford to pay their rent but deeply concerned about getting its hands on upgraded missile systems and the household gods of “nationalism,” however that amorphous political ideology might be defined.

By now, we live amid a veritable pundit cottage industry devoted to propagating and reinforcing the idea that “real people” are implacably hostile to any and all left-leaning policy initiatives on strictly cultural grounds. The least harmful variety of this speech-act is a preposterous brand of class thespianism that politicos routinely deploy to demonstrate they’re in touch with the proles. A classic British instance was the 2016 centrist leadership challenge to Corbyn mounted by Owen Smith, a Labour MP brought up in a comfortable academic household and once employed in public relations by Big Pharma. During a softball interview with the Guardian in a café among his Welsh constituency, Jones affected bafflement when his waiter served him a cappuccino in a “posh cup,” apparently unaware of the long history of Italian cafeterias in South Wales.

The Left and the Left Behind

Such clumsy feints at class authenticity are smoked out easily enough, but other allied stratagems are more insidious. These are typically the political narratives that drive mainstream journalism in England and the United States, and they claim a greater purchase on public attention because they seem to possess a literary frankness which looks good set against the more nakedly agenda-driven, propagandistic performances of class served up by acting politicians.

One of these instruments is the strand of Smart Thinking epitomized by David Goodhart, which theatrically offers a benevolent warning to a would-be left insurgency while in reality trying to undermine it. Goodhart’s case is against a left that’s allegedly succumbed to fashionable, fly-by-night “identity politics,” thereby alienating heroic working-class “somewheres” who want to retain the inimitable social terroir of their hometowns.

That this argument reduces all these “somewheres” to an undifferentiated gunk of oratorically convenient traditionalist “particularity” is an irony apparently lost on the man making it. But that of course hasn’t prevented a variety of liberal commentators nodding and chin-stroking along with him. In much the same rhetorical vein, there was the much buzzed-over American broadside, The Once and Future Liberal, by former neoconservative Mark Lilla, which, like Goodhart’s book, concern-trolls the left for pursuing an obsession with social justice. In a 2017 essay for the New Statesman, Lilla dismissed “identity liberalism” as “a prism refracting a single beam of light into its constituent colours, producing a rainbow” of aesthetically pleasing but politically ineffectual factionalism. Lilla argued further that the diffusion and dissipation of a hardier liberal politics was largely the handiwork of an “anywhere”-style professoriat permitted to indulge its worst instincts in the liberal marketplace of ideas. This bootless cadre, he complained, has created a series of self-protective enclaves of intellectualism which “stand out from the rest of America” as places where one can “have a decent meal followed by an espresso”—the conspicuous consumption of coffee clearly represents a frontline battlefield in the authenticity wars—“and perhaps attend a workshop to ease your conscience.” Lilla crested this sneering vignette by imagining his unvirtuous identitarian counterparts inhabiting “a thoroughly bourgeois setting . . . apart from the homeless men and women who flock there and whose job is to keep it real for the residents.”

News from Nowhere

Lilla’s brief lurch into David Brooks-style pundit ethnography opens, in turn, onto still another mode of journalistic inquiry that sustains contemporary centrism’s cautionary tale of an abandoned working class furious at the left for shoving modernity down its throat. I refer to the now hoary practice of dispatching a metropolitan reporter to the hinterland to bravely write back on what it’s like in the outposts of antimodernity. Whether the provincial backwater in question is in Ohio or Montana, County Durham or South Wales, France or Belgium, Europe or America, the portrait has a cookie-cutter quality. We will hear of a proud manufacturing or agricultural tradition that has tailed off into a smattering of architectural relics. We will behold the dying residuum of a blue-collar politics in the process of being forsaken in despair, and patiently ponder the “legitimate concerns” about demographic change and immigration voiced by some cranky yet endearing cultural holdouts who fail to resemble a bien-pensant liberal’s caricature of a racist. A bar or diner will be visited; somebody will testify that they were once an unswayable Democrat or Labour voter but have switched to Trump or UKIP. Melancholy community activists will be interviewed besides some decrepit piece of infrastructure that was supposed to reverse the place’s slide into nowhere status before being defunded.

Both the left and right brands of anti-utopian politics work to isolate actually existing working people from exercising any meaningful say in determining their own collective fate.

In seeking to put flesh and bone on the binary schema laid out by thinkers like Goodheart and Lilla, these liberal ethnographies affect to listen to the “left- behind” while actually beginning another conversation over their heads. This is not to say, of course, that we shouldn’t heed the struggles of the many communities scraping by in conditions of post-industrial (and post-agro-
industrial) decline throughout the capitalist northern hemisphere. But the liberal press’s obsession with repeatedly telegraphing such “concern” throughout the mediasphere ultimately strips away the uniqueness it purports to defend, and dismisses the notion of genuine cross-geographical class solidarity before it has any chance to test its mettle in the political sphere. And indeed, the class component of the shared experience evoked in such dispatches is almost always treated in cursory, scene-setting fashion, in the guise of an abandoned factory or a vacant union hall; the real takeaway from such pieces is the unshakeable social conservatism of their subjects, who have been betrayed by a speciously defined left.

Indeed, the genre is now clearly in its late-baroque phase—the point at which reporters feel comfortably entitled to dispense with the basic conventions of truthful reporting altogether. Take, for example, German journalist Claas Relotius’s energetically distorted representation of the tiny western Minnesota city of Fergus Falls. Sent on assignment by the news magazine Der Spiegel to find the quintessence of Trump Country, Relotius filed a dispatch that gratuitously altered nearly every conceivable fact about the town and its inhabitants to fit the required template. Perhaps he was banking, naively, on an exclusively German readership; unfortunately, two residents, Michele Anderson and Jake Krohn wrote a long Medium post debunking his “uninhibited fiction” in comprehensive detail. Even so, they noted that considerations of time and space permitted them only to itemize the “top 11 lies”: but even that limited sampling furnished an abiding—and one can only hope, a fatal—rebuke not only to what its authors call the “anthropological gaze on rural America” but to the broader way that this brand of class-bound hackwork has taken hold of our political discourse.

Home Truths

I share Anderson and Krohn’s frustration. My hometown in the northeast of England, Darlington, has the exact combination of an increasingly distant manufacturing heritage and present-day socio-economic decline to lure in the writers on the left-counselling gravy train. The slightest rightward nudge in its electoral results is taken to be indicative of a generalized failure of the left to connect with forgotten Britons—even though Darlington’s Labour MPs and local council have, for the last two decades, been firmly in the market-embracing Blairite camp, and the damage to the city’s beleaguered infrastructure has almost exclusively been a consequence of privatization or austerity cutting. In contemporary reportage, Darlington is typically held up as a kind of Brexitland, although roughly 24,000 of the 55,000 who cast a vote in the 2016 referendum were in the Remain camp. (It thus came as no surprise for me to read Anderson and Krohn relate Relotius’s unembarrassed exaggeration of Trump support in Fergus Falls.) The community’s many genuine rough edges and nettlesome particularities are planed away in the numbingly generalized portrayals that disingenuously exhort the reader to pay more—always more—attention to the fulminating anger of the authentic working classes.

Smug ethnographies of the “left-behind” come with two fundamental risks. The first of these is probably quite obvious: their hyperbolic excesses and elisions are blatantly obvious to the people whom they are professing to speak for. Some of these people may well see in such distortions—as some Americans seemingly have in Relotius’s piece—confirmation of the Trumpian shibboleth that the mainstream liberal media is a metropolitan fabrication, thus making them more amenable to the Bannonite buddy-talk of right-wing populism.

The second, similarly parlous risk involved in such coverage is that it ignores a category of voters who are (at least) equally responsible for Trump and Brexit: an asset-rich conservative middle-class. The UK’s media would certainly arrive at a much more accurate and reliable understanding of the dynamics of the Brexit vote if it could recognize that its driving disagreement was in fact between two wings of the nation’s bourgeoisie, the traditionalist small-business class and a largely professionalized, socially liberal one. The centrist media’s portrayal of the Brexit referendum as a revolt of the downtrodden, a narrative engineered for the ideological purpose of chastening the left, has done no good at all.

In “Notes on Late Fascism,” Toscano discusses a “fascism without utopia”—a brand of authoritarian nationalism that offers no theoretically redemptive vision of a volkish utopia to go with its rage, bitterness, and nihilism. For all Trump’s MAGA sloganeering and tycoon posturing, this seems an accurate description of what his ideological retainers like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller support. The same would appear to hold for the Trump braintrust’s British equivalents such as Nigel Farage and Tommy Robinson. Perhaps, though, we might also pursue a parallel diagnosis of the authentocracy of Anglo-American centrism. An ideological movement that’s obsessively focused on elaborating its homogenizing fictions about the operation of class politics might likewise be described as a “liberalism without utopia.” That seems an apt designation for a party politics that lays out no ideal of liberty, fairness, or truth but instead devotes the bulk of its energy to scolding displays of one-upmanship against the left. And it also seems the proper term to characterize a school of thought that depends upon an identically sequestered concept of “the people” as the one long merchandized on the pseudo-populist right. And significantly, both the left and right brands of anti-utopian politics work to isolate actually existing working people from exercising any meaningful say in determining their own collective fate; where “late fascism” claims to speak on behalf of “blue-collar” Americans, Britons, and so on, contemporary centrism opportunistically endorses the same demographic body of fictions with much the same aim: to inoculate them from any remote hope of taking part in a revived left politics.

Joe Kennedy is the author of Authentocrats: Culture, Politics and the New Seriousness (2018) and Games Without Frontiers (2016). He teaches English Literature at the University of Gothenburg.

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