Lisa Tilley: The Making of the ‘White Working Class’: Where fascist resurgence meets leftist white anxiety

Image Credit: Christa Lamb
Image Credit: Christa Lamb

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.

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Lisa Tilley is a Research Fellow in Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick





  1. Yes, "white working class" is an extremely problematic category. It is one easily and effectively deployed by the white supremacists, and poorly understood by the left. So the solution is to delete the category from the left. The Democratic party did exactly that, and look at the results. Once the white working class organized and mobilized with others of the working class around class and race issues. Once we were seen as struggling not just for material security, but for the good of humanity. Now we are a caricature, presented as Nazis, white trash, trailer trash, etc. Academia, as I am all too painfully aware, is awash in the elite and their sentiments that we would just disappear, troubling category that we are. Trying to find a voice of the white working class in such a rarefied environment is almost impossible. Either we an historically eclipsed Marxist category, or the destroyers of the dreams of multiculturalism. Either way, it seems no one gets it, and now that we can all be lumped together as neonazis, fascists, racists and reactionary dupes, we should just be eliminated as an historical category. It is not a new feeling to be dismissed by academia. I have personally felt it for many years. We arrive at university ill prepared by public schools and then through graduate school we sit through seminars and classes where out lack of background and preparation continues to haunt our studies, and undermine out confidence. It seems the other scholars have a secret language and a secret handshake. They and their families know each other. They really have half as much to learn as the working class student. So, please forgive the rant, but don't erase our existence because you don't or cannot understand it. Yes, being black/brown/gay/etc. poor and working class is harder. A surprising number of working class whites are well aware of this. Just as the poor give a higher amount of their income to the poorer, so the working class white can often commiserate with their fellow working class and poor comrades based on shared experiences and conditions.

  2. Hi Joanna. To start off, I'd just like to say that I also came to university from an (abysmal) state school with none of the background or preparation you speak of. Others here came to it from considerably greater positions of disadvantage, and I'm pretty sure everyone working on Wildcat has always been stuck on the wrong side of those secret languages and handshakes. Part of what Lisa's piece is addressing is this tendency among those, like you and I, who are white and come from working class backgrounds, to conceive of their experience as uniquely or specially difficult, when in fact all the same disadvantages apply to others of similar economic backgrounds who also have to deal with the disadvantages imposed on people of colour.

    So the question is: is it useful to address the white working class specifically? Why not just address 'the working class'? It would only be helpful to separate out the 'white working class' as a category if they experienced some particular set of oppressions that working class people of other skin colours do not, but that is not the case – in fact, the reverse is true: their whiteness exempts them from many forms of oppression, though they still certainly experience others. No one is suggesting that people who are white and also working class somehow be erased; we are suggesting that it is counterproductive to create a racially defined category for those people – 'the white working class' – and lump them all into it, then single that category out as one that possesses needs that require addressing above and beyond the needs that apply to them as members of the working class. I.e., when someone speaks of 'white working class needs' rather than 'working class needs' it is unhelpful, because the former category is only necessary or coherent if there are particular needs that white working class people have that other working class people don't, and, other than having their own sense of racial superiority (where applicable) ratified, they just don't.

    Long story short: this piece is about the political rhetoric of the 'white working class', not the actual existence of people who are both white and working class.

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