Post-Interest Politics

I HAD OCCASION to speak with an under-secretary in the Department of State some months before the US elections. He said that Barack Obama was the first post-hegemonic American president, dedicated as he had been to pulling back from the world-transforming policies of his predecessors, though without forsaking the use of violence when he thought it necessary. As my interlocutor noted, this meant that Obama’s true successor could only be Donald Trump, himself a votary of violent pluralism in geopolitics. Hillary Clinton, therefore, was in his view merely a throwback to the imperial past of her husband’s presidency and that of his successor, George W. Bush, who further militarized the global arena of US politics in the War on Terror. Trump, on the other hand, was to bring the violence of the American empire home from its usual deployment in wars abroad.

How can this comparison, and the paradoxical political inheritance it implies, be sustained? Perhaps by noting that both Obama and Trump came to power by foregrounding their role as outsiders, intent on changing the country’s direction together with its political establishment. But whereas the former ended up becoming complicit in — or a victim of — the system, retaining many of its most important representatives (Hillary Clinton in particular) within his cabinet, the latter achieved power by hollowing out and taking over his own party in a kind of coup. This is why the same people who voted for Obama in the so-called Rust Belt also voted for Trump and, in doing so, won him the presidency. What this suggests is that party loyalties and platforms, to say nothing of simple racial identifications, were not as crucial as imagined in the US elections.


A politics without identity

In this situation, the sociological categories of class, race, age, gender, or income that are generally used to explain voting behavior have possessed little explanatory power. Yet it is curious to see how their spectacular failure in calling the elections has resulted in an even more forceful application of such categories to explain their aftermath, as if to illustrate the symptoms of a compulsive-obsessive disorder. The upshot of all this soul-searching, premised upon the refusal to question one’s own analytical terms and procedures, seems to be an agreement on the previously undetected role of the “white working class” in Clinton’s surprise defeat. It was this class that apparently rejected globalization in the form of immigration and neoliberalism.

The fact that a bipartisan agreement on the importance of this working class can be achieved, especially at a time of such great polarization, should fill us with grave suspicion. Why should the “middle class” that had for so long constituted the ideal, if not illusion, of American politics, one to and about which Clinton repeatedly and unexceptionably spoke, suddenly suffer a political collapse? And how could it be replaced by a “working class” that, particularly for Republicans, had until recently served as nothing less than a shorthand for communism? Perhaps such fulsome and nostalgic identities are only possible because the working class is as illusory an entity as the middle class that preceded it as the favored subject of American politics.

For decades now, sociologists have been writing about the decline of the American and indeed West-European working class, a transformation brought about by the elimination of manufacturing jobs through automation or relocation, with the creation of a global market after the Cold War, and the consequent fragmentation of unionization and class solidarity. Can the low-wage workers of today’s service sector be called a “working class,” and is their characterization as “white” not simply a way of deferring this question by turning it into one about other forms of identity? The opposition between class and cultural (including sexual, racial, religious, and other) identities during and after the elections cannot be taken seriously and is itself a dated one. Neither one nor the other is correct, each representing a false choice that obscures the slide into irrelevance of both kinds of interest.

The attitudes about race, immigration, or Muslims that experts now attribute to this working class, after all, can no longer be confined to some regional or even national sociological map. Precisely because such opinions are so widespread, from social-democratic Scandinavia to the free-market United States, they cannot be directly inferred from some phenomenon like neoliberalism, to say nothing of the demographics of the American Midwest. They must be recognized as the global narratives that they are. It is part of the irony of our times that the supposedly internationalist Left has abandoned the global arena for a purely national sociology of the working class, while it is the Right that embraces it by including such a proletariat within the global identity of a “Western civilization” supposedly under threat.

While this new American proletariat might have been embraced by the Left as much as the Right, one Marxist term missing from their debate is perhaps more apt: that of the lumpenproletariat. If we are going to use such categories, surely it is this unclassifiable remainder — the detritus of an old order — that best describes the group to which all political analysis in the United States is now directed. For, like those who swung the vote for Trump, it is both transient and mercurial, without a deep attachment to any party, or a stable form as an economic or political interest. Another category that has gone unmentioned, despite being the traditional counterpart of the “populism” about which we all now speak, is that of the “masses,” distinguished not by their number, but rather by their indistinctness. It is this kind of group, rather than a particularly “working class” or even “white” one, that in political debate is opposed to those defined by the much-derided term “identity politics.”

Before World War II, the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset argued, in The Revolt of the Masses (1930), that the masses were characterized in part by the impossible desire to identify with a statistical average, as measured by pollsters and other experts. Hence the emergence of locutions such as “average man,” “woman,” or “citizen.” The revolt of the masses, in his view, gave voice to the question of how a statistical category could become an existential one. This hybrid cannot be defined fully in terms like identity and interests. Thus it defies all conventionally social as much as political categories by illustrating the way in which the terms of sociological analysis have themselves been absorbed into their objects of study. Might the mass’s racialization as “white,” then, just as its economization as “working class,” serve not merely to supplement, but in fact endow the hybrid statistical category of the “average citizen” with some kind of old-fashioned existential character?

Jean Baudrillard, for his part, writing after the failure of student radicalism to mobilize the working class in the European and American uprisings of the 1960s, approached this problem from another direction. Arguing that sociology’s statistical tools destroyed their object of measurement, he suggested that in the US context of the 1980s culture wars, the masses became what conservatives described as a “silent majority.” This silence was on full view during the recent elections, when voters lied about who they would or had in fact cast their ballots for. The shame, or pleasure, they apparently felt in secretly voting for Trump should, in Baudrillard’s terms, be described as a retreat from signification, not least because opinion polls and statistics pulverize “real” communities, whose sociological avatars then lose or even refuse political voice.

What all of this suggests is that the political upheaval of 2016 in the United States does not depend either on a racial or class identity, and is therefore much more fragile than we generally imagine. Its very violence might be due to the tenuous and sociologically disconnected character of this politics, which needs to ground itself in the psychic life of its transient and indistinct support base by way of spectacular gestures of liberation from inherited conventions and even identity itself. But this means that its enemies, too, are not as tightly bound to a ruling ideological narrative, and are therefore also in a state of flux. Though Mexicans or Muslims may bear the brunt of popular prejudice, now and in the future, there is little that connects them, in any meaningful way, to the new administration’s narrative of globalization, immigration, and the loss of America’s greatness. They do not, in other words, play the ideologically vital role of Jews for anti-Semitism and Nazism. This might be why Sikhs or Hindus are repeatedly “mistaken” for Muslims in US hate crimes — not because the attackers cannot identify them correctly, but due to the vacillating character of the enemy.

But if Trump’s enemies are replaceable, so are his friends. About this the new president has been perfectly clear, when repeatedly voicing his desire for an unpredictable if not arbitrary geopolitics. In the domestic arena this translates into what one might call a post-interest politics, which of course is entirely in keeping with the anti-identity rhetoric of this administration, and its lack of conventional sociological foundations. The term “populism,” which has been bandied about to describe Trump’s politics, as well as that of leaders like Putin, Duterte, Orbán, Modi, Sisi, and Erdoğan, implicitly recognizes this rejection of interest and therefore class, without however exploring it. At most, we have an all too predictable puzzlement about why the working class should act against its interests in voting for Trump.


The party’s over

Maybe the big story has to do with the destruction of political parties as the primary form in which interests are expressed. For Trump to take over the Republican Party it had to be destroyed, and the interests it had represented scattered to the winds. But this event should not be seen as a mere putsch, in which one set of interests is replaced by another — here an incomprehensible because patently false combination of the “white working class” and big business. It is true that the increasing role of money in American politics has ended up with capital literally owning both parties, and in the case of the Republicans even running one. Yet this doesn’t represent a conventionally ideological shift either, in which something called the “alt-right” has taken over from the older conservatism of free trade.

After all, in post-Brexit Britain a similar process has been played out, but with quite different political consequences. There the Conservative Party managed to reconstitute itself within two weeks of the referendum’s unexpected result, which provided another example of the failure of sociological explanations. In doing so, it expelled or marginalized anti-EU radicals under a prime minister who had been opposed to leaving the union. While the Conservatives have adopted a number of xenophobic policies, the far right is nevertheless a smaller force there than in practically any other European country. So if in the United States the winning Republicans have been destroyed as a party, with the Democrats having to undergo a routine process of change after defeat, in Britain it is Labour that has been dissolved as a party due to internal tensions and the Tories who have come through the crisis unscathed for the moment.

All of this is subject to change, of course, which is only natural in such a febrile political and economic situation, both in the United States and the United Kingdom, as well as globally. But what remains crucial through these changes is the dismantling of the party form itself as a vehicle for political interests. In other words, the investment of interest groups in party politics may well continue, but become increasingly meaningless. For as a banker friend of mine pointed out over lunch in Mumbai shortly after the US elections, if even the super-rich and the elite have been unable to predict or control democratic politics and cultures in countries like Britain and the United States, then what exactly is their role in society? It is this perplexing question about the elite’s political failure, but not their replacement by another one, that has led a number of commentators to draw comparisons from the rise of fascism and its compromise with capitalists in the 1930s.

Interests have always been tied to property, initially of the landed kind, and later manifested in intellectual and other forms, and indeed in the idea of ownership itself. So one in effect “owns” an identity, whether defined by class, race, gender, or culture, which must therefore be protected as an interest through democratic politics. This is why in earlier times, voting rights were only given to those who had property and so were deemed to be genuinely invested in the future of their societies. Clearly a capitalist form based on the generalization of property in defining all social relations, interest was first put into question in those parts of the world where property could not play this role. And today it appears to be coming unstuck in post-industrial societies, where disparities of ownership are as great if not greater than in the former Third World, and property has itself become increasingly abstract and globalized.

Made possible by the generalization of property, interests were once represented by political parties in nation-states that, seen as the property of their citizens, were themselves both the models and guarantors of capitalist ownership. There was a time when we could only imagine another kind of world in ideologies like communism, whose promise of radical expropriation was meant to create a different kind of society and social relations. Have we now entered a period in which interests and political parties, if not the nation-state, are being winnowed away in a non-communist manner, without requiring the abolition of property? Not so long ago, this process had resulted in the emergence of a multicultural logic in which political ownership was simply multiplied beyond the old principles of class or ethnicity. But today this logic, too, has been superseded to lay bare the crisis of interest itself as the primary form that political identity takes in the party.


Faisal Devji is reader in Modern South Asian History and fellow of St. Antony’s College at the University of Oxford.