Brexit and working class alienation.

Brexit reveals the urgency of resolving the split between working class and liberals.

There appears to be a tragedy brewing in the Western World.  This tragedy is based on the fact that the wealth of the  working classes has for the last forty years been sucked up by the top ten percent of the wealthy.  Beginning in the 1960’s, big business and big corporations de-industrialized America by moving most of the best paying factory jobs overseas and by the replacement of industrial employees with a growing wave of  automation.  The working classes, over the last two generations have been increasingly abandoned to lives of semi-poverty, loss of respect and an increasing alienation to the upper classes.  

As the lives of the working class became more and more desperate, they became more and more angry and they began to distrust democracy and government and politicians.  And so many in the middle class began looking away from a failed democracy and looking more and more to possible solutions on the right and then the far right.  The more their plight was ignored the more they turned to far right parties all over the western world.  And they also began to turn to unscrupulous populist leaders who promised to bring back the good old days.

And now America and Britain and Europe are split into two halves: the far right and the left.  And the chasm between the two sides of is getting deeper by the day.

Part of the problem is that neither side understands the other side and that both sides vilify the other.  Liberals think the workers are stupid and uneducated.  The workers think the liberals are taking their lives and their incomes away from them and that the liberals are divorced from the real world.

Now each side thinks the other side is irredeemably evil.  There is almost zero communication between the two sides.

These mutual assessments cannot be correct.  Neither side is actually evil or even irredeemable wrong.  Something else is going on here. 

Some say, that Tribalism is the problem.  In tribalism everyone automatically thinks that their own tribe is always right and  moral and wise and that all other tribes are evil and stupid and wrong.  This is the familiar battle between “Us” and “Them.”  Unfortunately, all humans have evolved over millions of years to have these tribal feelings.  Amy Chua is the best writer I know who clearly illustrates how  primitive tribalism has morphed into modern political tribalism.  Both of her books  on political tribalism are excellent.  

Yet, I don’t think that the situation is hopeless.  It is possible, with effort and hard work,  for two tribes to understand each other.    Many people all over the west are beginning to realize this.  And they are also realizing  that if we cannot solve this problem it is very possible that democracy may not last much longer.  

And this total lack of understanding between liberals and working class is getting to be a more urgent problem every day.  Brexit in Britain is the current hot spot.

Time is running out in Britain where Brexit will be finalized in one way or another in mid March of 2019.  And since the people in Britain are polarized into two groups unable to talk productively with each other, Parliament is also split into two groups and is now at total loggerheads.  If some kind of a solution is not arrived at very quickly, Britain may end up leaving the EU without any agreement at all.  And this would mean that Britain would suffer severe economic losses.

A couple days ago I read an article in the New York Review of Books that made me realize the seriousness of this split between liberals and the working class.  The article is  by Lisa Nandy.  The is a link to the complete article at the bottom of this page.

 “Lisa Nandy is a British Labour Party politician who has been Member of Parliament for Wigan since 2010. Previously, she was a senior policy adviser for The Children’s Society charity. As an MP, she has served as the party’s spokesperson on children, civil society, energy and climate change, respectively.“

Nandy begins by stating the basic problem.

“With 100 days to go until the United Kingdom officially leaves the European Union, the British government is in crisis, political parties are riven by deep divisions, and Parliament is gridlocked. Without something to break the deadlock, caused by politicians who hold such different views on Brexit that we are unable to agree on any of the options available, we will leave the EU with no deal at all on March 29, 2019, and the economic consequences will be severe.”

The fundamental problem is that the British Parliament is deadlocked because the people are evenly split on the issue of leave the EU or remain in the EU.  And since this is true, a new vote on Brexit won’t really help.

“In a 10,000 sample poll for YouGov this year, 58 percent of respondents saw themselves as either the most hardline Remain or the most hardline Leave voter. This is the thorny truth that the People’s Vote campaign for a second referendum does nothing to resolve: Parliament is divided because the people are divided.”

And even worse the enmity between the two sides is beginning to run very deep.

“Media stories regularly carry comments from Members of Parliament describing how they wish to “knife” and “hang” one another. Though every MP in the country represents people who voted to leave and to remain, we have picked sides and insulted large sections of the population. Remain voters have been called liberal elites, supposedly out of touch with the sentiment of the country. My Leave-voting constituents have been called stupid, racist little Englanders. The truth is nothing of the sort.”

Nandy says that her working class constituents are not stupid or unknowable.  They know exactly what the situation is.  

She says that, 

“It was in Sunderland, in the North East of England, where I finally started to understand the strength of feeling. At the Nissan factory there, I explained to workers that those car-manufacturing jobs that were the major source of good, skilled jobs in the area would likely disappear if we left the EU. One of the work force stood up and said, “We know and we are going to vote for it anyway.” People like him have been called irrational ever since, but I began to understand that day that this was a deeply rational choice because he, like many others, was prepared to forgo economic gain for power.”  

And Nandy says that there is very good reason for these working class feelings.  

“Towns like Sunderland that overwhelmingly voted to leave have seen decades of relative decline. In the 1980s and 1990s, Britain’s mining, steel and manufacturing industries were decimated, causing widespread job losses and the devastation of entire communities that depended on those jobs.”

I knew that working class wages had stagnated for many years all over American and Britain and Europe, but the realization that British workers knew that leaving the EU would be a devastating economic blow to them and that they still wanted to leave and that this was a deliberate, rational, carefully thought through political choice  was a total surprise to Nandy and to me and I think to all of the elite college educated class who fancy that they are brilliant while the working class is dead stupid.  

If there is to be any kind of reconciliation between liberals and the working class, I think this realization by liberals that the working class is not even a little bit stupid would be an excellent first step.

The working class in Britain, particularly in the formerly industrial parts of Britain, have been truly decimated by the deindustrialization that began in the 1960s.  

“In those towns unable to adapt, where a third of adults have no skills or qualifications at all, the result was minimum-wage, jobs in warehouses that offered little hope for the future, while the well-paid white-collar jobs went to nearby cities This coincided with a huge expansion of higher education that was life-changing for many young people. They grasped the opportunities opened up to them and left. But when they looked back, increasingly they found there was nothing to return to.

“The consequence is that towns have grown older while cities have grown much younger. As the Centre for Towns think tank has shown, working-age populations have been lost from our towns and the older people who remain there live miles apart from their children and grandchildren. The loss of spending power in these towns has cost us dearly, from the struggling high streets and closure of community pubs and banks to the loss of bus services that are commissioned according to passenger numbers.” 

After years of such decimation, many voters turned toward conservative far right, nationalist parties to get some kind of help and understanding.  And when the Brexit vote came up it was seen as way to push back against the liberals who they thought had created this situation.  And there was definitely some truth in that thought.

“After decades of seeing families split apart and close communities undone, many voters in those towns turned to the far-right party UKIP, a protest that rose so suddenly and overwhelmingly that for the most part, politicians and commentators failed to comprehend what had caused it. This followed years of falling turnout at elections that we ignored because we couldn’t hear that “roar,” as George Eliot put it, “that lies on the other side of silence.” Against this backdrop, when people were asked if they wanted to leave the EU, it was an opportunity to push back against one of the most vivid symbols of a political system that is faceless, unresponsive, and unaccountable, where decisions are made by people hundreds of miles away with no skin in the game.”

Basically those people who lacked a college education and who were getting poorer and poorer every year felt that they had lost the ability to control their own lives and destinies.  As the college professors put it, they “lacked agency.”  And the same feelings are very evident in both America and Europe. 

 And the working class in England did not respond enthusiastically to the British liberals who keep talking about the “People’s Vote” to solve the Brexit problem.   (The People’s Vote is the idea that Britain should vote again on Brexit and this time the Remain in EU faction would win.)   To the working class, this sounded like another liberal con-job.

“A university degree was the best predictor of how you would vote in the 2016 EU referendum. In a very real sense, it was a tug of war between those who do and those who don’t have agency in their lives. Three years later, it still is. For those who lack agency, the words “People’s Vote” summon anger, not inspiration, and a feeling that they are now about to lose what little control and agency they wrestled back two and a half years ago.” 

“This is not a phenomenon confined to Britain. From the rise of Trump in the US to the ascendancy of populist and nationalist parties in countries across the EU, tensions between those who have agency and those who do not have broken out into the open. In France, when President Macron responded to the Gilets Jaunes  (Yellow vests)   protests last week, he acknowledged the depth and strength of feeling using words that could just as easily describe much of Britain: “It is as if they have been forgotten, erased. This is forty years of malaise that has risen to the surface. It has been a long time coming. But it is here now.”

For the British working class, to seek to overturn a democratic referendum sounds like tyranny.   It seems like the end of democracy to them.  And since this feels right to them, they tend to look for democracy elsewhere.  Nandy says that,

“In former mining towns like mine, democracy is no abstract question. Within living memory, scores of people were killed and injured at work every year because they lacked basic rights that only democracy could win them, such as the minimum wage, health and safety laws, and protection from unfair dismissal. It is for that reason that trade unions are still strong and democracy feels precious. To seek to overturn a democratic referendum looks like tyranny to those who fought hard, using that vote as their only tool, for the security, dignity, and hope that was denied to their parents and grandparents.” 

Advocates of a second referendum on leaving the EU are correct when they say that leaving with no deal would be very bad economically for those who live in manufacturing towns and who originally voted to leave.  But to these working class people, getting out of the EU, even though this will hurt them, sounds like a better deal than giving up what little democratic power they still have.

“Advocates of a second referendum are right that leaving the EU without a trade deal would be particularly disastrous for the economies of many of those towns where majorities voted to leave, costing us jobs in car and food manufacturing, ceramics, and other industries. But for those who prize democracy above all else, a second referendum that seeks to overturn the first—with the possible options on the ballot being remaining in the EU, leaving with Theresa May’s deal, and leaving with no deal—would be more likely to provoke them into voting for no deal than any other option. How then to avoid it?”

Nandy says that some hope in improving communications and understanding between working class and liberals in Britain might be in using “Citizens Assemblies” which have been used in other places to try to help people unite on important issues.  This sometimes helps politicians decide what the will of the people actually is.  A trial run on Brexit has given some promising results.  If something  like this could be done, it might still be possible for Parliament to pass some kind of a soft Brexit proposal that would avoid the worst damage of a totally unstructured withdrawal.

“In Ireland, Citizens’ Assemblies have been used in recent years to help the country unite around two of the most contentious issues it has faced: abortion and marriage equality. Citizens are chosen at random but with the guarantee that, as a whole, they will be representative of the nation. With the support of neutral experts, they provide the politicians with a clear set of views that can help break the deadlock. The question of abortion in Ireland produced a referendum that politicians had resisted because the issue was too contentious. Importantly, when the public is divided and issues are so fractious, Citizens’ Assemblies give politicians the cover they need to proceed. In Britain, the sense that the “elite politicians” are somehow not representing the will of the people is a charge that has produced much of the deadlock. The failure to ask the people how we should leave the EU has meant that it is impossible for politicians to even articulate what “the will of the people” is.”

“A Citizens’ Assembly pilot on Brexit was run over a few weeks last year by University College, London, and produced a consensus around what is usually called a “soft Brexit,” in which trade, jobs, and access to the EU’s single market take priority over major restrictions on immigration. This is a model that would find a majority in Parliament and the country. It would protect us from a hard Brexit, in which the UK breaks its ties with the EU and seeks to form trade deals with countries that have lower standards, and prevent the leveling-down of wages and workplace rights that matter most in post-industrial Northern towns.” 

However there are problems even with this Citizens Assembly idea.  

“One major stumbling block remains. To find a majority in Parliament, Prime Minister Theresa May would have to reach out beyond the Conservative Party to those Labour MPs who support a softer Brexit. This would alienate large sections of the hard Brexiteers in her own party. By doing so, she would most likely find a resolution to the national crisis but provoke a crisis in the Tory Party that could lead to a historic split. Similar challenges exist within the Labour Party, in which, two and a half years on from the referendum, there is still a division between the party’s leaders and sections of the party membership about whether we should leave the EU at all.

In the chaos around Brexit, many are losing trust in the whole concept of democracy. How we deal with not only the Brexit crisis, but the entire revolt of working class people in Britain and America and Europe will determine if democracy will survive at all. And this I think is a major point in the history of the West in which democracy must survive.

In the last ten years much of the working class in the West has abandoned democracy for all kinds of far-right parties.  People are abandoning their faith in voting, abandoning their faith in all politicians and their faith in government.  Trust in old-style political organizations is fading rapidly.   

All of this began with the deliberate economic abandonment of the working classes forty years ago in the age of Thatcher and Regan.  If this is not to end in a major catastrophe,  both the upper-middle-class and the upper classes (the top 10%) must now decide to abandon at least some of their own self interest in an attempt to save democracy for everyone.  They must do something to reverse the sinking of the working and lower middle classes.

The upper ten percent urgently need to realize that the world will no longer work for them, it they don’t allow some wealth and some respect to flow back to the working classes.   It seems to me that a world without a democracy is not going to work well for anyone.

Here is what Nandy has to say about this.

“If there has ever been a moment that the national interest must come first, it is surely now. In Wigan, people constantly tell me that they will never vote again if the result is overturned. There has long been a loss of trust in politicians, but the chaos surrounding Brexit is provoking a collapse of trust in democracy itself. There is no route to healing the country and beginning to rebuild those communities that have lived through decades of decline without that trust.” 

“When I stood at that Nissan factory in Sunderland three years ago, I said that leaving the EU, and the way in which we did so, would define what sort of country we would be for decades to come. Three years later, the stakes are even higher. In Britain, we are beset by waves of populism and a resurgent far right that thrives on fear, mistrust, and democratic crisis. Our institutions—from Parliament and the political parties to the media and civil society—are simply not fit to respond. The vote to leave the EU was a political earthquake, a clamor for change that has been a long time coming. As Abraham Lincoln put it, in no less a moment of historical rupture, “The dogmas of the quiet past are unfit for the stormy present.” That is the hard truth for our political system. We elected representatives cannot carry on divorced from an understanding of the sentiment out in the country. We either adapt and change, or we will be erased. “ 

And, bottom line, all of this loss of faith in democracy, government, politicians and political leaders has meant that it is now impossible to fix the other real problem of our generation: environment degradation of the earth, global warming, climate change and mass extinction.  

These problems must be solved just as soon as possible, before it is too late, but we cannot do this until we have first solved the problem of working class abandonment and their consequent alienation from the liberal west.


The image at the top of this page is The Snake River Oxbow
in Teton National Park
in Wyoming

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