Rise of the New Right
The Rise of the Right: English Nationalism and the Transformation of Working-Class Politics, Simon Winlow et al., Policy Press, University of Bristol, 2017, reviewed by Allan Pond
The claim that the ‘left’ has replaced traditional socio-economic concerns with ‘intersectional’ issues such as gender and ethnicity is hardly original. Many commentators on both the left and the right have concluded that the left ‘lost the economic battle but won the cultural one’. A set of interviews with supporters and members of the English Defence League (EDL) is the peg upon which the authors hang a larger argument about the decline of the traditional working class left.
The middle class, liberal left preferred adaptation to capitalism rather than its transformation. This caused the working class to feel abandoned and patronized, so they adopted right wing’ ideas instead. That, in a nut-shell, is the authors’ argument. This new left no longer had faith in the working class and looked instead to the ‘fragments’ as the motor of change. The traditional (white) working class were now deemed ‘redundant’ (to use the title of one of their chapters) not only in the sense of being surplus to capital’s requirements, but also in terms of the liberal left’s analysis of agents capable of leveraging change.
“The traditional left was built on a firm commitment to equality, security and common ownership. Its politics were structured in relation to a progressive account of solidarity and togetherness. In the left’s traditional discourse, workers of all genders and from all ethnic groups were encouraged to believe that their problems were caused by the same historical forces. The traditional left believed that the profit motive and rampant profit seeking of the business class encouraged self-interest, broke apart communities, and cause innumerable harms throughout the social order. They worked hard to convince ordinary men and women that this account of social disruption and harm was true, and that capitalism itself was the ultimate enemy” (p.150)
This perspective was abandoned with the ‘cultural turn’ in the 1960s/1970s;
“The hierarchy of ideas that was constructed by the cultural turn as it gathered pace in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s pushed all urgent and realistic forms of working-class representation into the background. The Utopian vision of a defeated bourgeois system replaced by a humble egalitarian future of co-working and sharing was displaced by narcissistic visions of reclaimed identities, unlimited individual freedoms and polysexual pleasure and celebrity, while social justice was redefined as the equalisation of opportunities to attain such individualistic goals”. (p.66)
Concerning the hostility of EDL supporters to politicians, Muslims etc. the authors report that “we spent a lot of time in pubs, from the ubiquitous corporate bars of the city centre to neighbourhood boozers on sprawling council estates.” (p.9) They also visited some of their respondents homes and ‘hung around’ in the hood.
The authors accuse the middle class left of patronising the (white) working class, of dismissing their concerns. But they too are guilty. Here is ‘Big Baz’, describing how it is nonsense to say that immigrants are good for the economy, when they claim benefits and send them back home to their relatives. “Big Baz’s knowledge of political economy is not particularly advanced.” (p.141) Another respondent, Richie, “fails to follow up with any clear understanding of what the system actually is or how it works.” (p.104) Young Bren, likewise, “like many others has no real understanding of the founding principles of the political parties or what they stand for and the influence they have had on the development of the nation.” (p.105).
The authors sum up the overall educational standard of their respondents as follows; “our contacts are overwhelmingly working-class men with minimal education”. (p.123) And not only that but “their discourse developed entirely in the absence of an informed vanguard”. (Ibid.) Again, “it is clear that the absence of an intellectual vanguard has limited the EDL to occasional street protests (p.148) and “The EDL didn’t have a defined political project, but had they possessed an intellectual vanguard, things could have been quite different. ” (p.149)
Had the EDL possessed ‘a true leader’, they could perhaps have achieved much more than they in fact did. “A true leader could have attracted money and influence before beginning the process of actually taking power….A true leader could have attracted others to the movement and dragged the group away from aimless street protests….A true leader could have inspired pissed off men and women from across the country and drawn them towards a project of working-class nationalism….etc” (pp.149/150)
Their ‘true’ enemy is the liberal elite and monopoly capitalism, not Muslims. And it is only the identity driven politics of the middle class left liberal elite that prevents them from seeing this.
Of course, a big problem is the authors’ assumption that ‘populism’, being opposed to mass immigration and in favour of ‘brexit,’ is ipso facto ‘right wing’. But in reality, the working class have always been socially conservative even when economically radical, much more ready than the middle class to condemn the ‘slatterns’ in their midst; i.e. those who fail to keep their steps clean, their net curtains drawn, their gardens tidy. They dislike deviancy, sexual promiscuity, oddness and eccentricity as much as ‘those who were stuck up’ and those who ‘got above themselves’.
The traditional values of the working class were honourable and it is regrettable that they are now discounted. But this does not justify a return to red in tooth and claw socialism. Collectivism, community, solidarity, protectionism, all things the authors claim are redolent of the traditional socialist movement (p.152), are also central to a radical, one-nation, conservative tradition. Even ‘collectivism’, qua co-operatives, distributism and profit-sharing, rather than nationalised industries, can be part of a ‘red Toryism’. If the cultural left is decomposing, the alternative is not necessarily an old fashioned and clearly discredited Marxist vanguardism, but a one-nation conservatism that puts the needs and interests of the whole of the national community before the interests of any single class.
© Allan Pond, 2018
Allan Pond is the author of a forthcoming book on Conservatism. He writes from Northumberland