“Common sense is not a single unique conception, identical in time and space. It is the ‘folklore’ of philosophy, and, like folklore, it takes countless different forms. Its most fundamental characteristic is that it is a conception which, even in the brain of one individual, is fragmentary, incoherent and inconsequential, in conformity with the social and cultural position of those masses whose philosophy it is. At those times in history when a homogenous social group is brought into being, there comes into being also, in opposition to common sense, a homogenous – in other words coherent and systematic – philosophy.” (Gramsci 1971: 419)
“Many working class people believe in Brexit. Who can blame them?”, writes self-defined anarchist working class academic Lisa Mckenzie in her LSE blog post. Her narrative on working class support for Brexit is of a class long and systematically excluded from British cosmopolitan society fighting back. What is critically missing from Mckenzie’s narrative is a consideration of the politics which they are fighting back on. As such, she fetishizes the working class: they have been so downtrodden that their resistance is… well, what exactly?
“How depressing that now seems as chaos ensues in Parliament, the political system is at breaking point and rage is infectious. The only positive is that Brexit has at last broken the political and social hegemony that kept our population subdued and somewhat apathetic. They are no longer apathetic, and their rage has become unbearable to the Westminster political and media chattering classes.” (Mckenzie)
Is Mckenzie suggesting here, rage is good because it is working class rage?
The recent period has seen an ascendency of right-wing nationalist populist politics in Britain, the United States, and Europe: captivating significant sections of the sociologically working class through an anti-establishment discourse. “Take Back Control”, in retrospect, was a brilliant slogan because it had traction: it made common sense to people’s life experiences and conditions, to their reality of social and political exclusion. But, following Gramsci, common sense is not good sense. Mckenzie is right to emphasize that many who voted did so feeling politically empowered after years of disempowerment, but she fails to scrutinise the politics of “Take Back Control”. Worse still, she dismisses its racist current.
“I have written and argued in academic journals, and on panels at academic conferences, that for some working class people in the UK – those who had experienced political, economic and social exclusion – the question they saw on the ballot paper was not about leaving or remaining in the European Union, but was ‘Do you want things to stay the same, or do you want things to be different?’ Those people – whom the media has since named ‘the left behind’ – answered. They wanted things to change, they wanted things to be different. […] working class people had read, understood and heard the debates around the EU as exclusive, and elite, too often using language that diminished their own life experiences: ‘stupidity and racism’ has been the most common.” (Mckenzie)
The legacy of mainstream political parties in England and Wales long problematizing immigration meant that the EU referendum was a tinderbox-in-waiting: the spark to set off the nationalist populist Right and far Right. Enter UKIP, the English Defence League, and the rest. This is not to say that all people who voted Leave were racist; of course not. But it is to say that the common sense ideology of the right-wing Leave campaign was an exclusive and excluding racist nationalism – on this point, see Expounding racial hatred before and after the Brexit vote and Brexit’s inevitable racism.
Mckenzie deplores the disgraceful dismissal of her working class heroes as ‘stupid and racist’. Yes that’s a crude assertion, but the flipside of this notion isn’t analytically accurate either: that people voted Leave in a coherent and fully informed way and weren’t affected by its common sense ideology. What’s more, the working class – as perhaps distinct from Mckenzie’s working class heroes – are not a uniform group. The Lord Ashcroft Polls established that older people were more likely than their younger counterparts to vote Leave and black and Asian people were more likely to vote Remain. University educated people were also more likely to vote Remain. The working class who are classified sociologically lower middle class were fairly evenly split between Leave and Remain.
The Left thus far has failed, either by pursuing Stalinist nationalist Lexit politics or by simply not winning the arguments wide and well enough. The progressive Left has failed in winning the idea that cosmopolitanism, the expansion of civil and political rights, feminism, environmental concern, globalisation, the internet, and immigration are not ‘the enemy’ of the working class. Further still, the progressive Left has failed to spell out that it’s in favour of globalisation as democratically controlled by international working class interests rather than the interests of big business, and in favour of freedom of movement of labour (in a world that allows freedom of movement of capital).
“Westminster, the media, and the academic world – all of which are solid bourgeois spaces devoid of working class people – are in full agreement: the past 40 years of deindustrialisation and aggressive policies of social mobility that marginalise working class life, pride and identity have no credence in the debate about the EU. […] Brexit has let those rational, liberal masks slip, and you are ugly.” (Mckenzie)
Mckenzie makes a false argument that the academic world is in full agreement that the past four decades of deindustrialisation and socio-economic and political exclusion of the poorest in our society had no bearing on the EU referendum. Of course it did. She is right that Westminster, the media, and the academic world generally ignored significant layers of the working class, yet she omits that the likes of UKIP readily stepped in and captured hearts and minds during the referendum. Again, the liberal and radical Left failed. Oswell (2006: 46), following Gramsci, reminds us that, “[in] order to change people’s mind and conduct, common sense must not be foregone in favour of an arid knowledge, rather it must be carried over, as it is that passion that forms the connection between the leaders and those who are led”:
“One cannot make politics-history without this passion, without this sentimental connection between intellectuals and the people-nation. In the absence of such a nexus the relations between the intellectual and the people-nation are, or are reduced to, relationships of a purely bureaucratic and formal order; the intellectuals become a caste, or a priesthood.” (Gramsci 1971: 418)
“Take Back Control” could have been the political slogan of the Left, successfully translated into the demand for a labour-led socialist united states of Europe.
Back to the fetishized rage of the working class. Is the demand not to be binded to a referendum decision made two and a half years ago political disenfranchisement of the working class? Is the demand to have a say on the actual political reality and options here and now undemocratic to the working class? No, it’s politics: the necessary on-going battle of ideas on how society is and how it could be. As Oswell (2006: 46) states, “common sense is not only the ground upon which ideological battles are fought, it is also that which needs to be contested and brought to bear under the weight of critical consciousness.”
David Oswell (2006) Culture and Society: an Introduction to Cultural Studies. Sage Publications, London.