Whiteness, Populism and Working-Class

This text discusses how populism constructed the idea of the working-class based on racial criteria of “whiteness”.

Whiteness is a long-term system, from ancient colonialism to present-day capitalism. Thus, it determines the value of people in the labour market, reproducing the opportunity to exploit third-world countries, migrants, and racial minorities. Because we are now living in a period of racial struggle between deconstruction and reinforcement of white privilege and whiteness as ideology, I cannot finish this essay without looking into a paper that stresses the intersection between whiteness, populism and the working-class (the most racialised category). I am choosing Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter’s 2018 article for that.
For the authors, following precedent work, 2016 was a turning point “in the mainstreaming of reactionary and particularly racist, Islamophobic and xenophobic political movements, agendas and discourses” (p. 1). Both Trump’s election and Brexit were grounded on the so-called “working-class”, seen as alienated, white and indigenous. This unidimensional imaginary about the working-class allowed their construction as “the people”, as pointed out by the authors (p.3) and many others. As argued, since the 2008 crisis, we saw a growth of a racialised nationalism based on a “deep sense of loss of prestige; a retreat from the damaging impact of a globalized world that is no longer recognizable, no longer British’.” (idem). This placed a severe trauma on white people since it meant a decline of whiteness and a vulnerability to victimisation by others.
As a consequence of this racial destabilisation, the campaign for Brexit was focused on the slogan “We want our country back”. For Farage, the victory of the leave was for the good, decent, and ordinary people. In other words: a victory for the British against dangerous immigrants.  In line with a consensus in the literature, Cardoso (idem: 622) places this struggle against immigrants as part of cultural racism embodied in racial nationalism. The concept of immigrant would replace the category of “black” in this racial process. Then, cultural identity was placed in a higher rank than economic aspects, albite immigration was presented as Resource-absorbing, even though immigration is the essential financial resource for the United Kingdom and a significant part of European countries. For Trump supporters, ‘Make America Great Again’ was presented as nostalgia for an industrial plentiful jobs period, a time of white men (Mondon/Winter 2018: 4). As pointed out by Jason Stanley in his How Fascism Works (2018), the golden days of Trump’s narrative referred to a period when the USA was embracing the most fascist policies of its history. The narrative of taking the country back or the strike-back of the working-class is linked to whiteness both as ideology and as a policy of racialisation.

In fact, the rhetoric of the left-behind white working-class, which helps to explain the alienation of far-right parties, is linked to whiteness and the sense of loss of privilege and dominancy. The white working-class became more a metaphor than reality since the working-class is not such white as that, and second, whites who voted for Brexit and Trump are not all working-class members. Following the literature, the authors argue that Trump “offered a solution to the dilemma” of the white, native-born heterosexual men (p. 5). They also discuss the concept of methodological whiteness as producing distortion in social sciences analysis of Brexit and Trump since it “sought to focus on the “legitimate” claims of the “left behind” or those who had come to see themselves as “strangers in their own land”. Furthermore, they argue that this methodological whiteness, “not only accepts but legitimises the narrative of loss, disenfranchisement and victimisation, but also that of its original entitlement and the nationalism and racism that underpins and flows from it” (p. 5). This is a fascinating and critical discussion; cultural loss of the white mainstream rural people as a scientific object tends to legitimate it, by giving “voice” to it. But, on the other hand, not recording it isn’t denying the role of science? We must recognise that all methodology is a positioning. The choice for the place of speech of once-silenced minorities is also a methodological option. Should science choose to hide these voices, even if their voices are biased and distorted? Is this not the appeal of political correctness and a way of politicising academia? Though ultimately wrong, the representatives of white cultural loss need to be heard to apply the contradictory. They are, in fact, voices of a white panic of an influential but dominant minority. To cancel their means to lose part of the debate, I believe.

Racialisation of the working-class

As publicly known, the left-behind working-class assumes a central role in the growth of new far-right populism.  Second, to be efficient in the political speech, this working-class was racialised, becoming synonymous with the “white working-class”. Mondon and Winter debate this fallacy. As they claim, the working-class is not white, and the socio-economic consequences suffered by the white working-class people are experienced by people of colour with more impact (p. 7-8). Even more, the white working-class is – following an anthropological speech – a plastic category since it is “subject to historically contingent definitions of whiteness and racialised or ethnicised divisions (e.g. Jewish, Polish and Irish Catholic), often around immigration, labour and reactionary political movements and ideologies” (p. 7). Digesting Virdee’s ideas in his Race, Class and the Racialised Outsider (2014), Mondon and Winter sustain that Irish and Jewish immigrants in Great Britain became white amid the construction of the working-class in the development of British Industry and the negotiation of Britishness and whiteness. In the United States, the working-class “has been shaped through a history of slavery and racism, immigration and specifically both external and internal labour migration” (p.7).

Thereby, as the authors defend, despite Brexit and Trump’s election having been presented as a working-class revolt, there is a long-term process of whitening the working-class by ignoring its diversity, thus promoting an essentialist narrative based on white (male) experience (p. 13). Therefore, the so-called revolt of the left-behind, they argue, was led by racial and wealth privileged. Consequently, social problems arose. First, dividing the society into a racialised white decent working-class against racialised minorities and immigrants who find themselves both working-class status-denied and negatively classified as labour competitors and drainers of increasingly scarce resources neo-liberal UK and USA. Second, the racial construction of the (white) working-class privileges racial interests above class and enforces racial and cultural stigma right-wing populist parties and actors strategically use in the combat against immigration and elites (that they often belong to). Third, it normalises racism as a vox populis demand and finally serves establishment political and economic interests by dividing the society and the intersectional working-class.

[This text is part of a more extended essay available here]

Citação recomendada: João Ferreira Dias, "Whiteness, Populism and Working-Class," in The State of Theory / O Estado da Teoria, acedido a Agosto 18, disponível em
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