One of the many disturbing consequences of the Trump/Brexit tragedy has been the sudden widespread reference to the White Working Class in popular and academic debate. This identified social group is assumed to be responsible for delivering each of these results regardless of evidence that the Trump/Brexit outcomes were supported in greater proportion by more minted sections of society. As such, the focus of much deliberation has become the question of how politicians can better attend to the interests of working class whites.
For many of those who grew up with a working-class consciousness this is beyond chilling. Working class people of colour are being erased from view, while those who are fully aware of how their whiteness works as privilege recoil at the coupling of ‘white’ with ‘working class’ in discussions of society’s ‘left behind’. It’s true that there is a transracial working class experience of precarious life and barriers to education and decent work, but racism and sexism (both structural and interpersonal) combine to worsen these conditions for working class women and people of colour. Whiteness in and of itself is not a barrier to social and economic success and anti-whiteness is not a widespread violent racist ideology.
Like all ‘races’, whiteness does not correspond to any real biological difference, yet it becomes a material reality when constructed through active political projects. For instance, the construction of whiteness was vital to colonial domination and the slave trade, and this is carried through to the present (most prominently but not solely) by the arguments of the far-right. The ambition of linking a white-conscious working class with a similarly white-conscious middle class has been considered as the key to driving forward fascist projects.
However, current narratives on the White Working Class are repeated with ease by leftists and mainstream political commentators as much as by those on the right. These narratives are unsettling precisely because they serve to build a white political consciousness and therefore do the work of the far-right in constructing the ideal constituency for fascist politics to speak to. That this is taking place at a time of resurgent fascism across Europe and the US begs the question of why so many voices on the left and centre are doing this consciousness-building work seemingly without thought for the consequences.
Yet this gathering of concerned voices around white interests is no historical anomaly and white supremacism has never been solely a thing of the right. Perhaps it’s time to more squarely confront leftist white supremacism and recognise its broader impact?
Logically, the two things which most trouble white supremacism are white poverty and Black achievement. Each of these directly challenges the white supremacist ideal order of society in which whiteness is located above colour on the social hierarchy. Addressing white poverty has therefore been the logical endeavour of white supremacists on the left.
The unpalatable truth which is rarely referenced in relation to the history of welfare provision and labour rights is that many campaigns for such protections were driven by a concern to keep whites elevated in a hierarchy serving the existing racial order.
The fact that some key British social reformers were eugenicists and imperialists does not imply a contradiction. Similarly, many labour rights have been gained through struggles intended to elevate the relative condition of the white worker. As David Roediger explains with regard to the US context in his book The Wages of Whiteness: “What brought the question of hired labor to centre stage, what quickened the sense of expectation and possibility for the entire working class, indeed what made the eight-hour movement itself possible, was the spectacular emancipation of slaves between 1863 and 1865.” The freedom of Black labour was understood to anticipate the decline of the white worker, giving rise to anxiety around white degradation.
It is not a coincidence, therefore, that decolonisation provided the context for the construction of European welfare states and that the abolition of slavery similarly formed the backdrop to key labour struggles in the US.
While universal labour and welfare gains have been made which benefit and protect people of colour, at least marginally, these have often been paradoxically driven by white supremacist anxiety.
So when we reference the White Working Class as a political group with its own distinct interests, we are in fact referencing a problematic white anxiety. This anxiety is rooted in the perceived dissolution of a hierarchy in which whiteness relates to a superior status. Such a social ranking was constructed through the colonial centuries and is still presumed by many (even subconsciously) to be the proper order of things.
The White Working Class, then, should be buried as a political category. To reference it is a dangerous appeal to build whiteness as a political consciousness at a time of fascist resurgence. Examining instead how whiteness functions in the formation of inter-class alliances, and how it is appealed to in the wider context of debates over economic precarity, would lead us to a much more valuable understanding of the political present.
Lisa Tilley is a Research Fellow in Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick