Out of the Melting Pot, Into the Fire: on our populist problem in our post-industrial West

You know what the trouble is, Brucey? We used to make shit in this country.”

– The Wire

Vibrant, awake, and full is the life that tops and lights the walls of the floating harbour, decorated as it is with art and dining, with the food and song of many cultures, and by a young and European community. The erstwhile gateway to the heart and centre of the city of Bristol is populated, is developed, is living. But the art is shown and the food is served in the shells of industrial working sheds, the tram and train tracks – no longer needed but for childhood fun – lace through the post-industrial present, and the four harbour cranes stand sleeping, hooks hanging out over the water into the past, waiting for the boats to come.

The post-industrial city is a central feature of the modern West. Yet while they may find great and consistent success in assimilating the physical relics of the recent past into present life and the plans for future, the integration into the city of the hands that built it seems ever either lacking or ill attempted. And that goes for our societies as a whole, beyond just the cities. Those busy leading the undaunted march to globalisation are once again finding themselves forced to give at least a cursory glance over the shoulder to the ones they left behind. The development of societies and, particularly, cities from centres of industry to neoliberal, multicultural hubs has been a long unfolding, cross-generational negative event for les déplorables: pushed just far enough away to be forgotten.

Until 2016, it seems.

“For they exist in tens and hundreds of thousands; they are one of the characteristic by-products of the modern world. You cannot disregard them if you accept the civilisation that produced them.”

– The Road to Wigan Pier

 “When you stifle dissent, there is a very high chance that people will turn to political violence. So, with multiculturalism, with this self-censorship, with the elites completely ignoring the needs of the citizens that elected them, they are creating the context for a civil war.”

– Ayaan Hirsi Ali

In recent decades, much of Western Europe and the United States has competed, progressed, and developed itself into a globalist, post-industrial psyche. Myriad benefits have been accrued from this transition, and it has undoubtedly assured the necessity of yet another expansive wing in the museum of sincerely wondrous human progress. And if the ideas and concerns expressed about and for the situation of those lower down on the economic ladder during industrialisation did not still ring true in its post-Fordist equivalent, it would be possible to take the very real positives and continue on.

Not only do they ring just as true, they ring out louder in an eminently more layered harmony, threatened on every measure by discord.

Gentrification is a manifestation of the move to post-industry, seen in class structure, occupational changes, income and earnings, renovation and renewal, and often the displacement or replacement of previous occupiers of the space in question. One of the major social aspects is the change in attitude and ethic, resulting from the paradigm-shift in work, of the middle class, favouring inner city living over commuting from the suburbs. Where previously the suburbs were the realm of the affluent, a young, urban, middle class was drawn back to the central areas of cities, spurring redevelopment and exacerbating the growing problem. Once the industry of a society ends, to be off-shored, not only is there the slow decline of a labouring culture and the loss of the jobs themselves, but there begins the erecting of social and economic barriers.

And with that, the roots were established.

What followed was a process of othering. The capitalists adapted with ease to the switch to a service economy, but the workers went from proletariat to precariat: job security replaced with precarious employment. Economic differences became infused with superiority and inferiority complexes through the lens of culture, reinforced from the youngest age at school: fashion, language, music, employment, education, consumption, neighbourhood, all became signifiers of the boundaries of difference. Othered in terms of economy, of culture, and of place, they were then handed a mantle, previously held with pride by the upper classes in a bygone era, now a crown of thorns given in mockery and to scapegoat. The mantle was that of whiteness.

Gentrified, othered, alienated, racialised. With the political parties traditionally for the would-be working class ever more in tune instead with the young individualist liberals of the upper middle class, new representation was sought. The capitalists used them up; the socialists let them down.

And with that, the roots well fed, the shoots of reactionary populism grew, now standing clear above the soil.

Populism does not equal the far right, nor is it intrinsically pejorative. Whilst ever-cognizant of the blame earnt and deserved by some far right representatives and agitators of xenophobic nationalism, the rise of a dangerously regressive populism and the increasing popularity of far right rhetoric as being a direct consequence of liberal, leftist elitism and a racing toward an imagined finish line – fingers in ears, blindfold on – of utopian, global multiculturalism is no new theory, and has been warned about and lamented over by many a commentator over many a year, yelling, then and now, into the wind. The current, rapid rejection of the globalist, neoliberal world order is a result of people being unable to speak out critically about or against it, just as much as it is a result of the problems mentioned above that landed people in the position of wanting to speak out in the first place, bewildered by such a rapid and total change.

Socialist and communist stances tend to be taken up by those who received the benefits and fortunes of these post-industrial cities and societies, those with capitalism as a safety net beneath them and standing up behind them, pushing them on, even as they denounce it. It is in these circles that negative views on capitalism and economic growth are far more likely to be found. Of course, there is validity to their views and often sincere good intentions, but more often than not it seems that to those most abused by capitalism what is desired is a chance to actually compete in the free market: to earn, to save, to accumulate, and to pass on that which has been earned to the next generation. This is not to say that the working classes do not care for the environment or for social justice, but the luxury of communism, environmentalism, and dreams of post-capitalism is a luxury reserved for the intellectual beneficiaries of the post-industrial, neoliberal, global society.

Whilst global trade and movement and competition is not new, the globalisation of the new millennium is uniquely contentious. In an excellent essay on nationalism and globalism, Jonathan Haidt shows the defence of parochial attitudes as ethical and necessary by both Adam Smith and Edmund Burke: Smith arguing that a focus on local matters allows people to best use their abilities and understanding to do good, remaining in the sphere they know best; Burke arguing that close-knit and proud local ties and affections lay the groundwork for both a love of nation and beyond. This has been lost, and a progressive nationalism has not been considered, overshadowed as it is by the supposed moral high ground of globalism.

Nationalism has been seen by most as only a nostalgic at best, racist at worst desire to see the return of industry and the rejection of multiculturalism. The close-knit communities and sense of belonging nationalism allows may well be needed if the more abstract global community is to hold together. It is human society at an unprecedented scale: of course it is not simple, is not obvious. Countries must be allowed to place a sense of priority on their own citizens, whilst maintaining global cooperation.

Throughout the globe throughout history, immigration and pluralism have long been an overall, though not total, success. It is only when integration decreases and is less demanded in the name of multicultural tolerance, and when national identity is fractured for all because it has been discarded by some, that break down begins to occur. In recent decades, there has been a rise in the prominence of culture within development theory and practice, particularly a concern for globalisation drowning out native traditions. Perhaps this attitude can be applied when those being considered and spoken of happen to be, for example, white and English. There is a culture being clung to, and it might be time, and it might be too late, to stop denigrating it.

Make them separate, and you make them separatists. And even now, after blow (Brexit) after blow (Trump) to the notion that this can be denied back into submission, exactly when the cursory glance over the shoulder ought become a sincere, sustained engagement with les déplorables, even now the tears of the least affected are given a weight that the laments of the ones who just don’t count were never truly afforded, and those tears are all too often shed primarily for and amongst themselves, bemoaning that the world cannot be improved from safely within the comfort zone and the echo chamber.

These reactions so far seen in this year by many liberal, left-leaning members of the middle class – for example, spending the immediate and long term aftermath of a referendum result, which challenged the wisdom of unchecked multiculturalism and immigration, reassuring the rest of the world that they are unhesitatingly welcome – are not the required solutions of creativity and nuance. A third great transformation can be progression and it can be regression. But in leaving it so late, in not taking critique of globalised capitalism or of multicultural globalism seriously, regression has been made, to many eyes, the only option. It is not a feasible option, however: humans do not go any way but forward, and the aim of a global community of trading, competing, and cooperating nations should remain, but we must accept that we cannot rush toward it with this motto, that seems to have guided us so far, of: we are going to be all together, even if we have to leave you behind.

Whatever our globalised world is going to be, pluralism and peaceful difference must be allowed where multiculturalism has failed, capitalism must not be abandoned but heavily, stridently reformed for environmental and social reasons, and freedom of speech (and freedom to dissent) must be upheld, having been retrieved and protected from the far left, lest we continue to leave the charismatic far right as the alienated people’s only option.

Post-industrial cities and societies cannot return entirely to Fordism and industry, but they cannot continue to develop as hubs accommodating only the affluent, and as commodities for the consumption of the tourist. If there is a light at the end of the tunnel that the West is lost within, it will be reached in the company of those people so alienated that they vote in the manner that they currently are, or it will not be reached at all. You cannot hope to create a working global community made up of a thousand fragile nations.

 “Know where we’re a-goin’?” Uncle John asked.

“No,” said Al. “Jus’ goin’, an’ gettin’ goddamn sick of it.”

– The Grapes of Wrath

The ghost of industry lies above the harbour in the guise of the morning mist on the surface of the captured tide, dissipating as the city wakes. Sheets of cardboard used for beds and crushed cans of cider, drained for ashtrays, are the signs of the only usage found by the homeless and the alienated underclass, as the first ferry boat rides past, tour-guide pointing proudly, rehearsed, to the cranes that won’t wake with the city and beginning: Now, here is an interesting story…

In ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, it is the climate crisis of the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma combined with the impersonalisation and industrialisation of the farming industry, and the accompanying use, abuse, and abandonment of the working, farming class, in which the wrath gestates. In the early days of our strikingly vulnerable century, to the delight of some, to the horror of others, seen as potentially positive by some, as only destructive by others, so long-expected for some, still so deniable for others, both the climate and the would-be working class of the post-industrial world, pushed to the point of extremes, are finding this as the moment of opportunity to release that long-gestated wrath and make their valid statement:

try ignoring me now.

Adapted, in part verbatim, from a term paper written as part of a master’s degree in Development Studies.

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