Taking Working Class Toryism seriously

24 Apr

In just a few weeks’ time the British working class will turn out in unprecedented numbers in order to support a right wing Conservative government, marking an apotheosis of trends in which working people of modest means have enthusiastically endorsed a party pursuing an historical agenda which would seem on the surface at least to be hostile to their interests.

However I would say that as a leftist because I have already accepted it as self-evident that a Conservative agenda is not commensurate with the interests of those at the bottom of our socio-economic hierarchy. I have imbibed sufficient life experiences and also by way of exposure to arguments in books and articles over the years to convince me of the malevolence of their brand of free market fundamentalism.

So like many lefties I feel irked to say the least with that most heretical act of political deviancy, the perverse irrationalism of working class Toryism. Social networks are presently going into overdrive as Corbynistas are confronted with the rude reality as many of their friends and family have the temerity to circulate a number of pugnacious right wing memes. The echo chambers are being systemically punctured and we are being cumulatively disabused of the progressive habitats of alternative media.

And thereby hangs a dilemma for us to collectively confront, the left’s deep denial and impotence to comprehend, let alone combat, the reality of the great ‘heresy’.

‘Heresy’

Working class Toryism has a long standing history. Marx thought that the advent of universal suffrage equated with the ‘political supremacy of the working class’. 19th century parliamentarians fretted that the Reform Acts would destroy their dominance. This of course never happened and Conservatives like Disraeli were canny in cultivating blue collar Tories.

As maverick social thinkers like Michael Collins (labelled a ‘bête noir of the liberal left’ for his ‘destructive nostalgia) have argued with increasing plausibility, the instincts and sentiments of certain traditional working class communities are often far removed from the left liberal worldview. His discussion of the costermongers of old delineates their Tory and royalist sympathies and their antipathy to anything that might constitute a bohemian socialist import.

Collins also breaks rank with liberal niceties when he talks of culture and the salience of race and the white working class. For Collins, multiculturalism has been used as a tool by a metropolitan elite to censor and marginalise the indigenous white left behind, inviting a backlash that further strengthens forces on the far right.

Powellism

Enoch Powell’s controversial Rivers of Blood speech from 1968 (described aptly by Stuart Hall’ essay as ‘A torpedo aimed at the boiler room of consensus’), was a powerful reminder of the traction and mass appeal of a right wing doyen. Socialists of the day had no choice but to acknowledge Powell’s formidable appeal to many workers at this time, particularly when organised labour in the form of the dockers and building workers marched in his support. As the International Socialists (forerunners of the Socialist Workers Party) conceded: The ready response to his speech has revealed the prevalence of racialist ideas among workers, inculcated by centuries of capitalism and imperialism

From Ragged Trousered bankruptcy to Vanguardism

Robert Tressell’s famous novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, is essentially an extended Socratic dialogue in the form of a novel, as the main protagonist, Frank Owen, engages with the congenital working class conservatism of his work colleagues. The novel is actually a useful reminder as to socialism’s problematic nature with its ostensible working class base. Owen has to go to great lengths to proselytise for the superior virtues and rationalism of socialism. Owen’s fellow workers are highly resistant to left wing ideas and generally happy to acquiesce in the status quo. This is surely a salutary reminder that such ideas are far from having a privileged locus and position in working class communities, there is no spontaneity or easy populist reception for socialism. On the contrary, socialism is now seen as a didactic radical import. Without the hoped for organic growth of working class left wing movements, this would have to be remedied by vanguardism, thereby negating one of the original premises of socialist thought, that working class emancipation had to be the work of the working class themselves. Unfortunately as the unfolding of history goes, that innovation didn’t work out particularly world.

Acknowledging the reality of a rightist working class

We urgently need to understand the limitations of conventional leftism and the elephant in the room – how the working classes have defected on mass to the right. There will be lots of heads banging against walls come June 9th, but as I have argued here, this is not a new problem. However each generation have to partake of this bitter fruit. However we are still compounded by our collective delusions and failure to understand the reality on the ground.

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