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Xenophobia has been inverted with the indigenous working classes treated as ‘the other’: unless parties on the right are to have a clear run a new political movement is required to unpick this doomed neo-liberal stratagem

There are differing reasons behind the political chaos engulfing America, Britain, Italy, and France, but cutting the indigenous working class out of the national conversation is common to all of them. So unless the far-right is to be allowed a free run, won’t a new political movement be required to cut the working class back in?

World AIDS Day 2018 was marked on the 1st of December. In the 1980s, at the height of the epidemic in the US, tens of thousands died annually. For the religious right it was seen as a condemnation from on high for the crime of pursuing a promiscuous homosexual lifestyle. Drug users were another vulnerable group for whom there was also little sympathy. But the liberal Left rallied to the cause, chiefly by presenting AIDS as of equal threat to everyone, and money duly poured into research for a cure.

Today America is suffering from another even more lethal epidemic caused by opioid addiction. More than 70,000 died from overdoses last year, a death toll which surpasses the worst years of deaths from AIDS, gun deaths or car crashes, as well as total US military casualties from the Iraq and Vietnam wars combined. Additionally, at just over 47,000, the suicide rate last year was the highest in half a century. Life expectancy in the United States is now actually falling in the longest decline in longevity since the First World War. America is the only wealthy country where this is happening. But because the victims are overwhelmingly what only liberals designate as ‘white working class’ and thus a ‘community we do not identify with’, the American Left, so vocal on other issues, is largely silent.

Graph of US life expectancy at birth over time compared to selected OECD countries, alongside Gillets Jaunes protest by

Not everyone is. Mimicking the spit-flecked fervour associated with the religious Right in the 1980s, some argue that the victims deserve their fate. In 2016 as the overdoses spiralled, the National Review chipped in with the following:

“Nobody did this to them. They failed themselves. Take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy – which is to say the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog, and you will come to an awful realization. Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t a war or a famine. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence – and the incomprehensible malice of poor white America. The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically they are negative assets. Morally they are indefensible. The white underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles.”

In actual fact it is not heroin, but a powerful synthetic opioid such as fentanyl, manufactured in China, which is held responsible for the death toll. Individuals can become addicted via the use of prescriptions channelled through conventional medical practice through no fault of their own.

So at issue is not the portrayal of a lumpen ‘white underclass’ (which undeniably exists), but the conflation between it and the largest of working class battalions, the white non-college educated, who have deliberately been cut out of the left’s constituency altogether.

Democrats even thought it could be done safely, because in their eyes this gigantic working class battalion had nowhere else to go. But it was a strategic blunder (the problems confronting the European left are largely a result of following the same formula) that was always destined to come back to haunt them. Donald Trump spotted the miscalculation and rode all the way to the White House off the back of it in 2016.

Naturally, a hubristic and know-it-all Left would never be able to admit to such a self-inflicted wound. So Trump was instantly classed as ‘Hitler’, in order to allow for the tens of millions of the ignored and derided working class who voted for him out of sheer desperation to be dehumanised in turn. Or as the Daily Beast put it: “It isn’t enough just to beat Trump, he and his ‘deplorables’ must be crushed.”

As much as anything else, it is probably this enmity displayed towards his blue collar base which prompted Trump to call for the death penalty for illegal exporters of fentanyl in trade talks with China. All three of the worst hit states, West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania voted Trump in 2016.

So on World AIDS Day, Trump was busy looking after his tribe in the same way that the left has looked after theirs. That they actually are his tribe is of course the central problem. And it is a problem that bedevils the European left as well. Even after the forced resignation of Merkel, the meteoric rise of Salvini in Italy, the anti-Macron (an Economist cover depicted him walking on water just last year) riots in France, and the constitutional crisis caused here by the referendum, liberals seem determined to learn nothing. According to Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, “a batch of intellectuals, politicians and policy wonks are manically obsessed with the right of indigenous Brits, “people of somewhere”, who apparently have lost their sense of place because of migration.” As a shrill ‘Remainer’ she does not hide her disdain that low born ‘indigenous Brits’ are being listened to at all, even though cutting them out of the national conversation has already led directly to the biggest constitutional crisis since 1939.

In thrall to neo-liberalism’s edict on open borders, xenophobia has been inverted with the indigenous working classes treated as ‘the other’. Historically ‘the other’ is usually a despised outsider/minority that can be easily silenced or subdued. But uniquely in this instance ‘the other’ is also the majority, making serious political upheaval inevitable. Remedying the situation is not a job for out of touch ‘progressives’ who have no appetite for it anyway. So unless parties emerging from the right are to be allowed to have clear run at it, responsibility for unpicking this now doomed neo-liberal stratagem must eventually fall to a new political movement.

This article first appeared on the Independent Working Class Association facebook page on the date given above and has been transferred here in August 2019.

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