The Extreme Right & Middle-Class Apathy

May 8, 2009

There’s a really good article in current LRB by Gareth Peirce about the UK government’s possible (likely) complicity with torture in Guantanamo Bay and other overseas detention centres.

It’s interesting for several reasons, one of which is that it highlights something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately:  middle-class political apathy.  Peirce argues that the government uses secrecy to maintain general apathy towards the possibility that the government is torturing people; people don’t know, so they can’t care.  For me, what is particularly frightening, is that I think a lot of people are happy not caring.

When activists talk about the democratic deficit – the fact that a million people can march against a war and it will happen anyway, the fact that no one thinks ID cards are a good idea, and yet we all know the government will push them through anyway – we are angry and frustrated.  We start trying to think of new strategies; if conventional activism isn’t working, what do we do now?

But when I talk to many non-activists about the democratic deficit, there is almost a sense of relief underpinning their words.  I can’t do anything about injustice/poverty/the war/racism/torture; so therefore, I don’t have to bother. 

European elections are coming up, and there’s been a lot of discussion about the BNP, and the inroads the BNP are making in traditional Labour-supporting white working-class communities.  I have a lot of issues with the way this discussion is framed, which I will be talking about more in the future.  But one factor in the rise of the BNP that is continually overlooked is middle-class apathy.

Part of this apathy is grounded in the fact that a lot of middle-class white people don’t actually disagree with BNP views on immigration even while condemning the BNP.  If they did, then the Labour & Conservative parties wouldn’t be trying to out-xenophobe each other every election.

But even the (middle-class) people in my office who agree with the Labour & Tory immigrant scapegoating (I don’t count as an immigrant for them, what with being white & Canadian) are pretty scathing about the BNP.  Yet, if I sent around an email encouraging people to vote in the European elections, or stuck a “hope not hate” postcard on my desk, I’d get in trouble.

The people in my office, by and large, are not going to vote.  They will condemn the BNP verbally, but they think I’m eccentric, at best, for actually going to protests and having political opinions.  They don’t understand why I actually care about stuff like this.

So the BNP might get an MEP seat, and everyone will tut-tut, feeling morally superior to the BNP while having done nothing to stop them.  The government wouldn’t listen anyway.  Which is just fine, because to quote Phil Ochs “demonstrations are a drag…”  And I hear Debenhams is having a really good sale this weekend.


3 Responses to “The Extreme Right & Middle-Class Apathy”

  1. Jen Says:

    It’s all kind of convenient isn’t it, getting to feel all sensible and anti-racist, while also having a pretext for thinking working class people are just innately boorish and uneducated, for espousing a less delicate version of the exact same politics.

    Noticed the same thing in feminism, where people are outraged by the Daily Mail (the Daily Male!) and its readers, supposedly male, despite the fact that most Daily Mail readers are actually working class women (which doesn’t make the paper itself above criticism by any means, of course, but at least means we shouldn’t be so simplistic or make these assumptions about its readership – that they’re male, boorish, uneducated… you know which must be why half the headlines are about “yobs”, but I digress). Whereas other papers like the Times and the Independent and even the Telegraph are considered nice neutral sources of information, even though they can be every bit as right-wing.

    I think if the BNP disappeared it would be very inconvenient for the middle-class, because it would take away a marker of the distinction between classes, and one reason to feel superior. That’s very much what the apathy is about too, it’s actually not so much apathy as a very definite position: we’re better than this, we’re too refined to care.

    Also why I have a huge problem with left-wing and feminist groups describing people with wrong views as inhuman, as a kind of baying mob of hatred, which, well, should seem familiar to you if you got round to reading Germinal.

  2. Thomas Belvedere Says:

    The author of the article writes, “But when I talk to many non-activists about the democratic deficit, there is almost a sense of relief underpinning their words. I can’t do anything about injustice/poverty/the war/racism/torture; so therefore, I don’t have to bother.”

    The author clearly would like to see middle class people be less apathetic. I agree. Tocqueville’s fundamental point (“Notes et variantes”) is worth repeating: “The remedy is above all else, outside constitutions. In order for democracy to govern, there must be citizens, i.e., people who are interested in public affairs, who have the capacity and the desire to participate in them. One must always return to this fundamental point.” Citizens as opposed to subjects: the distinction is basic.

    Middle class apathy, unfortunately, is related to something beyond the specific issue areas of injustice, poverty, war, racism, torture. That something is potentially catastrophic. It has to do with the fundamental role played by the middle class in Western civilization…

    Aristotle identified that role as balancing the upper and lower classes. He wrote (“Politics”) that neither the rich nor the poor would “tolerate a system under which either ruled in its turn: they have too little confidence in one another. A neutral arbitrator always gives the best ground for confidence; and ‘the man in the middle’ is such an arbitrator.” Why should the man in the middle be trusted? Answer: the middle class “forms the mean” and “moderation and the mean are always best.” Being moderate, those who occupy the middle “are the most ready to listen to reason.”

    If the middle class, as the author of the article intimates, is becoming less moderate and reasonable, the best, why? What is happening?

    The middle class in the contemporary Western world was founded on small producers, both agricultural and nonagricultural. Those small producers were severely undercut as capitalism developed and enterprise became more concentrated, centralized. Yet a look out the window is sufficient to confirm that the middle class did not fall. The reason was the explosive growth of the service sector in the 1900s; there are now more people employed in that sector — doctors, lawyers, teachers, governmental workers, realtors — than in the production sector.

    But is that salvation of the middle class permanent or only a pause in a longer decline? Albert Camus was a major spokesman for the permanent-solution viewpoint. It prevails in Western societies. He wrote (“The Rebel”):

    “Small enterprises have been, in many cases, destroyed by competition as Marx foresaw. But the complexity of modern production has generated a multitude of small factories around great enterprises. In 1938 Ford was able to announce that five thousand two hundred independent workshops supplied him with their products. Of course large industries inevitably assimilated these enterprises to a certain extent. But the essential thing is that these small industrialists form an intermediary social layer which complicates the scheme that Marx imagined.”

    In short, the small independent producer turns into a middle level employee in a large enterprise; he loses his independence but presumably does not disappear as “middle class” because of his position and the salary he receives.

    Camus argued that this “intermediary social layer” would be necessarily strengthened and augmented by industrial processes. “The very conditions of industrial production, which every Marxist is called upon to encourage, improved, to a considerable extent, the conditions the middle class and even created a new social stratum, the technicians.” This new stratum is a creation of the division of labor: “Every worker has been brought to the point of performing a particular function without knowing the over-all plan into which his work will fit. Those who co-ordinate individual work have formed, by their very function, a class whose social importance is decisive.”

    Given the timeframe in which Camus was writing, 1951, and given the late arrival of the service sector revolution in France (post World War II), it is noteworthy that he foresaw, in his own way, that revolution. Under the circumstances, it is understandable, however, that he did not foresee the next development: the division of labor that had simplified the worker’s task would not stop at the worker but continue up the line — that is, to simplify (routinize and standardize) the function of co-ordination itself, along with other, more complex functions performed by (if you will) formerly independent small producers absorbed into large enterprises. Thus, the simplification of function saps the very economic foundation of the service sector middle class: the higher levels of education and formation necessary to perform more complex tasks. That erosion is the reason why the salvation of the middle class via the growth of the service sector is, I believe, not permanent.

    “A class whose social importance is decisive.” Camus’ lack of distinction between the old and the new middle class is worth emphasizing. The assimilation of the middle class by larger enterprises — the loss of the former’s independence — cannot but have a momentous impact on the ability of the middle class to perform its vital political function of reconciliation. Can the middle class continue to balance the other classes?: that is the question.

    What we are seeing today is a pivotal moment in the history of Western civilization: the crucial weakening of the middle class and its reconciler role. In the United States, official statistics show irrefutably that the rich are becoming richer, the poor poorer, the middle class smaller. The point is underscored daily billions of times, in every dollar of government bailout money openly demanded and received by the wealthiest sector of society.

    The author of the article yearned for rebellion versus complacency. I would say that the extreme conformism and apathy of the middle class give the secret away: extremism always contains its opposite. There is precious little that is apathetic about middle class apathy; that class is, as the author intimates, enthusiastically apathetic (albeit secretly so). The upshot: rebellion is alive and well in the middle class –only, it is not taking the left direction desired by the author but rather is moving (i) to the right and (ii) to extreme conformism. The latter two are obviously more acceptable outlets to the powers that be.

    Rebellion to the left — against poverty, racism, etc. — has always been indispensable to the prevailing mode of reconciliation maintained and produced by the middle class. Rebellion is how that mode is repaired, revitalized, rejuvenated. When that type of rebellion is no longer present to an important degree, we need to ask: has the decline passed the tipping point? Do middle class apathy and conformism signal that the point of no return has been crossed, breached?

    There is precious little that is new in this problem. Aristotle wrote of his favorite political system, the “polity” or democracy/oligarchy hybrid based on a large middle class, which is the hallmark of the Western world today: “The better, and the more equitable the mixture in a ‘polity’, the more durable it will be.” He warned that the major threat to the polity is posed not by outside enemies or by the poor or by the middle class, but by the wealthy who want to convert a polity into an aristocracy:

    “[Forgetting the claims of equity], they not only give more power to the well-to-do, but they also deceive the people [by fobbing them off with sham rights]. Illusory benefits must always produce real evils in the long run; and the encroachments made by the rich [under cover of such devices] are more destructive to a constitution than those of the people.” [Note: Bracketed material made by the translator, Ernest Barker].

    It is exactly that avarice and those illusory benefits — above all, so-called “rights” that are given as gifts and hence are not accompanied by power — that are associated today with the economic decline of the middle class and the weakening of its reconciler role. That decline and weakening are the reason why the polity of the United States, as well as of other Western nations, is starting to unravel. Finally, that decline and weakening are the origin of the crisis of legitimacy plaguing not only Western governments but also families, businesses, schools, neighborhoods, even entire societies.

    Tocqueville asked (“Democracy in America I”), “Is it possible that, after having destroyed feudalism and defeated kings, that democracy will retreat before the bourgeoisie and the rich? Will democracy stop now that it has become so strong and its adversaries so weak?” Some 170 years later, in 2008, we finally have the answer.

    Yes, it is possible. Indeed, probable.

    Highest regards,

    Thomas Belvedere

    Author of “The Source of Terrorism: Middle Class Rebellion” (published May 2009).

  3. Jen Says:

    Rebellion to the left — against poverty, racism, etc. — has always been indispensable to the prevailing mode of reconciliation maintained and produced by the middle class. Rebellion is how that mode is repaired, revitalized, rejuvenated.

    The spambot is correct! “Rebellion” is just sowing the wild oats. But I won’t repeat myself ad nauseam (woops, probably did that already).

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