The Center Blows Itself Up: Care and Spite in the ‘Brexit Election’

As Thomas Frank has pointed out, as early as the 1970s, formerly leftist parties from the US to Japan made a strategic decision to effectively abandon what remained of their older, working-class base and rebrand themselves primarily as parties representing the interests and sensibilities of the professional-managerial classes. This was the real social base of Clintonism in the US, Blairism in the UK, and now Macronism in France. All became the parties of administrators. (In the UK, of course, this included those endless legions of lawyers and accountants.) Whereas the core value of the caring classes is, precisely, care, the core value of the professional-managerials might best be described as proceduralism. The rules and regulations, flow charts, quality reviews, audits and PowerPoints that form the main substance of their working life inevitably color their view of politics or even morality . These are people who tend to genuinely believe in the rules. They may well be the only significant stratum of the population who do so. If it is possible to generalize about class sensibilities, one might say that members of this class see society less as a web of human relationships, of love, hate, or enthusiasm, than, precisely, as a set of rules and institutional procedures, just as they see democracy, and rule of law, as effectively the same thing. (This, for instance, accounts for Hillary Clinton’s supporters’ otherwise inexplicable inability to understand why other Americans didn’t accept the principle that if one makes bribery legal—by renaming it “campaign contributions” or half-million-dollar fees for private speeches—that makes it okay.) The peculiar fusion of public and private, market forces and administrative oversight, the world of hallmarks, benchmarks, and stakeholders that characterizes what I’ve been calling centrism is a direct expression of the sensibilities of the professional-managerial classes. To them alone, it makes a certain sort of sense. But they had become the base of the center-left, and centrism is endlessly presented in the media as the only viable political position. For most care-givers, however, these people are the enemy. If you are a nurse, for example, you are keenly aware that it’s the administrators upstairs who are your real, immediate class antagonist. The professional-managerials are the ones who are not only soaking up all the money for their inflated salaries, but hire useless flunkies who then justify their existence by creating endless reams of administrative paperwork whose primary effect is to make it more difficult to actually provide care. This central class divide now runs directly through the middle of most parties on the left. Like the Democrats in the US, Labour incorporates both the teachers and the school administrators, both the nurses and their managers. It makes becoming the spokespeople for the revolt of the caring classes extraordinarily difficult. All this also helps explain the otherwise mysterious popular appeal of the disorganized, impulsive, shambolic (but nonetheless cut-to-the-chase, get-things-done) personas cultivated by men like Trump and Johnson. Yes, they are children of privilege in every possible sense of the term. Yes, they are pathological liars. Yes, they don’t seem to care about anyone but themselves. But they also present themselves as the precise opposite of the infuriating administrator whose endless appeal to rules and demand for additional meetings, paperwork, and motivational seminars makes it impossible for you to do your job. In the UK, the game of Brexit politics has been to maneuver the Labour left into a position where it is forced to identify itself with that same infuriating administrator.

David Graeber in The Center Blows Itself Up: Care and Spite in the ‘Brexit Election’ (Nybooks.com)