The working classes are a volcano waiting to erupt

The working classes are a volcano waiting to erupt. By Joel Kotkin.

Whatever the final outcome, the recent French elections have already revealed the comparative irrelevance of many elite concerns, from genderfluidity and racial injustice to the ever-present ‘climate catastrophe’. Instead, most voters in France and elsewhere are more concerned about soaring energy, food and housing costs. Many suspect that the cognitive elites, epitomised by President Emmanuel Macron, lack even the ambition to improve their living conditions.

The French elections reflect the essential political conflict of our time. On one side, there is a powerful alliance between the corporate oligarchy and the regulatory clerisy. On the other, there are two beleaguered and angry classes — the small-business owners and artisans, and the vast, largely unorganised service class. The small-business class generally tends to favour the populist right, whether in America, Australia or Europe. These people want the government out of their business and to be left alone. Meanwhile, workers tend towards the populist left, which promises to relieve their economic pain. …

We may, as de Tocqueville put it during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, be ‘sleeping on a volcano’. A still inchoate rebellion from below against the concentration of wealth and power above seems to be gathering momentum. Across the 36 wealthier countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the richest citizens have taken an ever-greater share of national GDP in recent years as the middle class has become smaller. …

One key indicator of the declining middle class is rates of home ownership, which are stagnant or plummeting, particularly among the young, in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. …

As it was during the Industrial Revolution, today there are key divisions within society — between what economist Thomas Piketty refers to as the ‘merchant right’, largely in the analogue economy, and the ‘Brahmin left’ of large corporations and investors.

In the US, this latter group generally backs the Democrats and the environmental and cultural agenda of the progressive left. In contrast, the traditional middle class — comprised of skilled workers, Main Street businesspeople and small property owners – has become the bulwark of the Trumpian Republican Party.

Similar patterns can be seen in Australia, Canada and the UK, … ‘left’ parties have all become dominated by highly educated professionals (though they have also cultivated constituencies of the destitute).

This strategy has limits and may not even appeal to the young in the long-term. Biden has already lost his majority among young voters — the same troubled generation that helped elect him. Populist and nationalist parties in Sweden, Hungary, Spain, Poland and Slovakia have done particularly well among younger voters. In fact, many of Europe’s right-wing nationalist parties are led by millennials. These parties appear, generally, on the rise in an inflation-rattled, increasingly pessimistic continent.

Voters’ anger can sometimes be expressed in crude, even racist, terms. But it reflects real economic distress, made worse by Covid and now the Russian war, stoking inflation to the highest level in 40 years. …

The first signs of class unrest are already evident. The beleaguered working and middle classes are taking to the streets, as seen with the Canadian truckers or the gilets jaunes movement in France. There are not a lot of red flags at these demonstrations, which are attended mainly by suburban and exurban independent workers, contractors, artisans and delivery people who work for themselves. These people may have looked to socialists once, but many have now planted themselves firmly on the right. …

Spin, spin, spin:

The progressive classes live in a kind of fantasy world. During the initial inflation surge, the Biden administration’s response was to minimise it as temporary and even as a rich person’s problem — the very opposite of the truth. This is not how it was experienced by working-class families and small businesses. Among intellectual progressives, the instinct has been to urge austerity and restraint. The likes of Vox castigate the average worker for being too mindlessly materialistic. Such attitudes help explain how the Biden administration has proven remarkably adept at driving working-class voters, including many minorities, even further from the Democrats.

At the same time, conservative parties are burdened by their addiction to market fundamentalism, a pervasive class hauteur, a refusal to tax the rich and a worship of capital’s prerogatives. They may despise the progressive agenda, but conservatives have to offer more than just bromides about the ‘beauty’ of capitalism, which are no longer persuasive in an era of oligarchic control.

We are living in increasingly interesting times.

It looks like Macron will comfortably win the French election, but by a much reduced margin compared to 2017. The forces and problems are building irresistibly. Maybe next time.