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Who is to blame for Brexit (and nationalist populism)? A strange new elite theory

Gerhard Schnyder / Apr 2023

Image: Shutterstock

 

Over the past couple of weeks, British newspapers and social media have been awash with articles and posts about a strange theory explaining the rise of ‘National Populism’ in the UK – and thus Brexit –, which refers to the rise over the past 50 years of a ‘new elite’ against which people in Britain are now rebelling.

The theory is the brainchild of Prof Matt Goodwin, a political scientist whose reputation is based on a pioneering study of the UK Independence Party. The recent spike in salience of Goodwin’s work was triggered by his new book that presents what his publisher Penguin calls a ‘bold new theory for our ongoing political instability.’

Goodwin’s theory goes something like this: The national populism that brought us Brexit is primarily a popular reaction against a ‘new elite,’ which over the past fifty years has progressively displaced the ‘old elite’ and increasingly shaped the country according to its radical progressive (‘woke’) values. The ‘masses’ of ordinary people, on the other hand, suffer from the consequences of the elite’s ill-informed and relaxed attitude towards mass- and illegal immigration and towards the ‘breakdown of families.’

Goodwin’s elite definition is threefold: education, location, and inclination (values/opinions): The key defining features of the new elite are their education (Russell Group university education), where they live (‘postcodes in the most affluent or trendy districts in London, the big cities or university towns’), and the values they hold (progressive-liberal, ‘woke’). This distinguishes the new elite from the old one, which was ‘mainly defined by its wealth, inherited titles, estates, “small C” cultural values and, often, its lack of university education.’ While ‘out of touch’ with regular people in socio-economic terms, the old elite shared cultural values with the ‘masses,’ while the new elite does not.

Many things about this ‘theory’ are questionable (see for other points my Brexit Impact Tracker blog post), but it is regarding socio-economic class that his theory is particularly weak. Goodwin argues – not without reason – that ‘woke institutions’ should be required ‘to focus as much effort on class as they do race, sex and gender.’ Yet, the socio-economic aspect of his theory is half-baked and secondary to the trinity of education-location-inclination.

He describes the new elite as wealthy because they are ‘hoovering up the gains from globalisation’ (and benefit from the buoyant housing markets in the postcodes where they live). That contradicts serious studies of socio-economic class in the UK. For instance, work by Prof. Mike Savage contradicts Goodwin’s Manichean world view of a wealthy woke elite that rules over the poor conservative masses. It suggests that British class structure has become more complicated in the post-industrial era and seven class categories can now be distinguished rather than just two or three. People with the social profile Goodwin associates with the ‘new elite’ are not obviously in one dominant group.

Conversely, regarding the working class, Goodwin rightly points out the feeling of humiliation and lack of respect that pushes many non-university educated working class people to vote for right-wing populist parties. He cites Noam Gidron and Peter A. Hall’s research in support of his argument, who found that people who vote for right-wing populists do so out of a 'feeling that they have not been treated with respect — a sense that they are not fully valued by society. They care as much about recognition as about redistribution.' Yet, what Goodwin forgets, is that for Gidron and Hall’s respect and recognition start in the workplace. Indeed, social recognition, they write, ‘is closely-linked to having a decent job, addressing those concerns will require efforts to create such jobs and to make existing jobs more decent.’

This is where the apportioning of blame needs to shift from ‘woke values’ to economic theories. What has been humiliating for white working class people in past decades, is not so much that ethnic minorities or non-binary people have started to fight for their rights or that university-educated city-dwellers drink ‘oat flat whites,’ but rather that their jobs have either disappeared or increasingly become precarious ‘bull**it jobs.’ That is not to say that discursive strategies blaming immigrants and the woke for all the country's ills are unimportant, but they only work because the living standards of working class people have declined in the past 50 years. The less a countries’ institutions protect workers from that decline, the stronger the backlash.

In the French case, which Goodwin cites, Bruno Palier explained in the context of the protests over Macron’s pension reform that especially older workers do not feel valued in the workplace. Keeping them in work for an additional two years – as Macron’s reform would do – will increase frustrations and thus increase support for Marine Le Pen’s far-right party. Palier’s work shows that the fact that work is increasingly seen as a cost to be minimised, rather than an asset to be cherished, is a key reason for workers to feel a lack of respect and self-worth (here in French).

That idea, however, was not developed in ‘lefty law schools’ or in university departments associated with ‘woke theories.’ Rather, it resulted from the rise of neo-classical theories taught in Economics departments and Business Schools. These theories taught future managers a financialised view of business management and professional ethics where workers become ‘human capital’ and are treated as just one input factor among others, rather than as human beings. That inhumane view of workers is primarily to blame for feelings of humiliation and thus nationalist populism not some imagined ‘new elite,’ however well-educated, urban, and progressive.

Gerhard Schnyder

Gerhard Schnyder

April 2023

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