John Lydon, the once-rebellious ex-singer of the once-subversive punk band the Sex Pistols, appeared on the breakfast show Good Morning Britain on Monday. Lydon took the opportunity to inform Susanna Reid, Piers Morgan and the breakfast TV watchers of Britain of his opinions on Brexit, the “fantastic” Nigel Farage and the “political Sex Pistol” and “possible friend” Donald Trump.
Lydon’s positive appraisals of these phenomena seem to stem from his buying into the common fallacy that Trump and Farage are somehow anti-establishment figures – and that consequently the Brexit vote and Trump’s election resembled genuine political revolutions with transformative potential, out of which, in Lydon’s words, “there just might be a chance that something good will come”. In reality, of course, the effects of Brexit and Trump’s election on British and American power structures simply amount to the replacement of one wealthy, reactionary and insular group of ruling elites with another still wealthier, more reactionary and more insular such grouping.
Lydon then explained some more of the reasoning behind his beliefs, stating that “the working class have spoken and I’m one of them and I’m with them.”
The first problem with this statement is that, once again, it rests on a misconception of the forces behind Brexit and Trump’s election which is simply untrue. Contrary to popular myth, Brexit was as much a revolt of middle class, middle England as it was of the working-class Northerners of common caricature – a full 59% of Leave voters were middle class. As in previous Presidential elections, meanwhile, Americans earning less than $50,000 a year voted by a comfortable margin for the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, with wealthier voters considerably more likely than their working-class compatriots to plump for Trump.
But perhaps even more importantly, Lydon’s statement belies an outmoded and fantastical perception of what the working class actually is in 21st century, post-industrial societies. When he says that “the working-class has spoken”, Lydon clearly has a certain working-class stereotype in mind – the socially conservative, non-university educated male manual worker whose unconcern for political correctness is assumed to mask the presence of a deeper, more general bigotry. The promotion of this stereotype as somehow representative of the working-class as a whole serves a purpose for both conservative and liberal commentators in the mainstream media, both of whom have a vested interest in ensuring that any potential for a genuine revival in mass working-class political mobilisation remains dormant. Yet this doesn’t mean such promotion is any more rooted in reality.
So what, then, really is the working class in today’s context? The working-class as traditionally conceived hasn’t existed to nearly the same extent as it once did in countries like the UK and USA since the decimation of industry and manufacturing jobs in the 1980s. Nonetheless, class divisions – or at least, the divide between the top 1% and everyone else – have intensified in the past 30 years. What we have in place of this traditional working class is a variety of sociological types. Most, however, can probably be placed into one of two broad categories. First, the past few decades have seen the creation and entrenchment of an impoverished and unloved lumpenproletariat, those unfortunate souls denied an official capitalist function as a result of the structural unemployment which is an inherent feature of a consumption-based economy. And second, for most other people, we have seen a mobile, precarious working life become the standard experience. While neither of these groups resemble the traditional working-class in terms of type of labour performed, both have in common the experience of isolation and alienation universal in such rampantly exploitative capitalist societies as those of the UK and USA.
Trade unionism and the stable workplace setting of the traditional working class provided the basis for the many successes of social democracy, the defining left-wing project of the 20th century in Western societies. The defining left-wing movements of the 21st century will draw on the shared experiences of those who are victims of late capitalist pathology, whether in purely economic terms or as a result of the increasingly prevalent mental suffering which is becoming a more and more defining feature of late capitalism. But these movements – and I think it will be fair to call them 21st working class movements – will be led by those who recognise these morbid symptoms, and yet don’t react by targeting their anger at those least deserving of it, à la Farage and Trump.
The only thing setting John Lydon apart from the multitudes of other very wealthy, middle-aged men who voted for Trump and Brexit is an eccentric haircut. His reactionary beliefs aren’t that different to those of many of those ilk, and he doesn’t deserve special condemnation just because he used to be in a punk band. But we shouldn’t accept his attempt to associate himself with, and thus besmirch, working class people. Lydon has about as much familiarity with the realities of 21st century working class life as a packet of Countrylife butter.