October 26, 2022

Will Rishi Sunak hang the paedos and fund the NHS? This is, after all, the most common British political stance. Every constituency nationwide skews this way: Right on social issues, Left on the economy.

But I’ve not seen anything in our new PM’s utterances or parliamentary career to date to suggest that he will respect this post-Brexit “realignment” in British politics. Not even a homeopathic echo of it.

It’s commonplace to mutter at this point about how this proves British democracy is a sham. This isn’t true; but it is true that if you expect policies to be implemented based on how the public votes at a general election, you’re looking at “democracy” backwards.

Election manifestos and associated political programmes take shape based on the mobilisation of political influence by competing interest groups. The willingness of politicians to take any given view into account in this process is less a principled stance, than a pragmatic reflection of how much real clout interest groups are perceived to have. If the median British political standpoint isn’t well represented in our national politics, this reflects a calculation across the board that leaders don’t need to pay much attention to what the masses want — because they no longer wield enough meaningful leverage to insist on it.

Whether or not this is conclusively true, enough leaders now act on this assumption that it forms the core of running political battles across the West. And all these battles turn on an increasingly open class war between two populations with radically conflicting worldviews and interests: the reality people, and the ideas people.

The structure of this conflict is easier to understand by comparison with an earlier one: the industrial-era battle for dominance of Britain, between aristocratic landowners and an emerging mercantile and industrial elite. This battle came to a head in 1815 with the Corn Laws, a punitive tariff on imported grain intended to shield British farmers from overseas competition.

This policy had obvious benefits for the aristocrats and gentry who owned much of the land, and was perhaps the last time the old agrarian ruling class was able blatantly to use the tax code to protect their own material interests. But they had a powerful and rising coalition ranged against them. The mercantile elite, whose wealth was bound up with trade beyond Britain’s borders, objected to tariffs that cramped their business style. And they were supported, for much more pragmatic reasons, by a swelling industrial working and lower-middle class, who couldn’t grow their own food and just wanted to be able to afford a loaf of bread.

I take this detour into British political history to illustrate three points. First, that contra pop-Marxism, contests for power aren’t always between social classes arranged hierarchically — crudely, oppressors and those they oppress. They can also represent competing interests within a class.

Second, not having a vote didn’t stop the industrial poor making their views known. There was huge grassroots opposition to the Corn Laws, which fanned demands for an extended franchise, and prompted mass protests that were sometimes brutally suppressed.

But — and third — mass mobilisation doesn’t accomplish much without leadership. And the leaders of mass movements don’t always share the masses’ motivations, a fact that also has lessons for us today. Richard Cobden, the politician most central to repeal of the Corn Laws, was a textile manufacturer and trader. Understandably given this, he was in favour of trade and hostile to aristocratic protectionism. He wrote several pamphlets on British foreign policy, in which he argued against then-settled 19th-century consensus on multipolar “balance of power”, in favour of an early vision of the modern globalist vision of growth based on free international movement of goods, money, and people.

Cobden was a brilliant organiser, and his successful campaign to repeal the Corn Laws serves to illustrate the way divergent elite and mass political interests can coincide in a single issue. The 1846 repeal signalled the decisive defeat of Britain’s Old Tory agrarian order. In its place, the new dominant order became an expansionist, mercantile Whig one, dedicated to Free Trade — the worldview, ironically, now most associated with the modern Tories.

Today, though, the main contest is no longer between the landed gentry and mercantile elite. The goalposts have moved again, and the battleground is now between those whose power and material interests are grounded in the material world, and those whose wealth comes from the world of ideas. The political analyst NS Lyons characterises this as a class and culture war between “Physicals” and “Virtuals”: two outlooks that broadly correspond to the distinction David Goodhart drew between Somewheres and Anywheres in the wake of Brexit.

What’s key is that the moral outlook is downstream of concrete material interests. Physicals work in sectors such as farming, construction, manufacturing, haulage, mining, and so on: occupations inextricable from the material world. Virtuals, on the other hand, work at a layer of abstraction apart from the physical world: think finance, academia, education, media, tech, and so on.

And Virtuals dominate the elite. For as the West has de-industrialised, Western money and power have drained from Physical occupations toward Virtual ones such as finance and tech. And, as a consequence, Virtuals today hold a near-monopoly on institutional power. Westminster occupational data reflects this: barristers, teachers, solicitors, and journalists are well represented among MPs. Conversely, you can trace the waning power of the Physicals in the total number of MPs who were previously farmers, miners or manual workers. This total shrank by a factor of five between 1979 and 2015, from 142 to a scant 33.

This class-inflected contest between the virtual and the real economies is the core of the class and culture war now being fought across the West. It also helps to make sense of how apparently unrelated issues, such as trans rights and immigration, can become bitter battlefronts in the same war.

Trans rights make sense as a proxy for the Virtuals’ core moral claim: that ideas matter more than the material world. When we consider what a person is in legal terms, do we prioritise the material fact of their biological sex, or their inner, abstract idea of who they are? Understandably, the Virtuals prefer the answer that places their class of work, their worldview and by extension their political interests at the top of the moral pile.

High immigration, meanwhile, is a material positive to Virtuals: more people means more growth. This material upside is then moralised in terms of “openness”, “culture”, “freedom” and so on. For working-class Physicals, though, high immigration means stiffer competition for jobs. This, far more than racial animus, was the central driver of the working-class Brexit vote.

The anti-Corn Law movement has further lessons for the Brexit battle between Virtuals and Physicals, in that it followed the Cobden pattern: it was a mass movement that succeeded with leadership from elites with their own reasons for pushing it. Two mutually exclusive Brexits were promised: an open and globalising one for those such as Jacob Rees-Mogg and an immigration-restrictionist one for the Red Wall. The impossibility of delivering both has paralysed the Tories ever since.

For what complicates this class war is that it’s not a simple contest between “elites” and physical-world proles. Overall, Physicals skew more working-class, and working-class Physical jobs are generally low-status and precarious. But farmers, tradesmen and oil executives can be relatively well-off while still sharing broad cultural sympathies with working-class Physicals. And yet the latter can’t always rely on Physical elites to defend their interests: on immigration restriction, for example, factory-owners and farmers will swap culture-war sides in a flash when they can’t get seasonal workers from overseas.

Still, it remains to be seen whether the Virtuals’ dominance really is as complete as it appears from their stranglehold on government and the media. At the last count, Virtuals remain materially dependent on the real economy: without farm workers, shop workers, bin men and drivers, the laptop class are as helpless and useless as a snail without its shell. This was visible in those groups for whom lockdown rules were most blithely waived: despite often-cramped living conditions, for example, even those seasonal agricultural workers coming to the UK from high-risk countries were exempted from the 14-day quarantine rule.

What happens if the Physicals start weaponising this dependence more methodically? As Lyons observes, the Vancouver truckers’ protest at the start of this year offers a glimmer of what it might look like when the simmering class conflict between Physicals and Virtuals erupts into open warfare. Arguably the Yellow Vest protests in France, and recent farmers’ protests in the Netherlands form part of the same picture. And with rising energy prices driven by US foreign policy in Ukraine pushing German manufacturers offshore or into shutdown, we may presently see more German Physicals in the dissident ranks.

But mutinous Physicals may need to learn from the truckers: Trudeau eventually ended the protest by freezing protesters out of their own bank accounts. Even the most capable Physicals can’t easily get by in the modern world without access to Virtual finance and tech.

Another possibility is a more thoroughgoing push to turn what’s left of working-class Physicals into the “useless class“ some predict will emerge if AI and automation replace human-powered jobs. This would represent the final Virtual victory: for without even the option to withdraw their labour, it’s hard to see on what basis such a group could compel elites to consider their political interests. This condition of political weakness would be even more pronounced should UBI replace earned wages: few adolescents, however rebellious, will do more than pull faces at their parents if they’re afraid their pocket money will be stopped.

Whether or not this is the future we get, the likelihood is that we’re in for a period of class conflict on a scale not seen since the early days of trade unionism. If history is any guide, the eventual outcome will be some kind of settlement — but before we reach that point, we can expect a great deal more mobilisation by the Physicals as a class, and a great deal more moral denunciation of that class and its interests by their Virtual class enemies. And whatever the eventual settlement is, formal democracy won’t be the vehicle for bringing it about. It’ll be the rubber-stamp for an exercise of political leverage that forces Physical political interests back onto (or definitively off) the table.

To exercise such leverage, working-class Physicals will need to find allies among dissident segments of the elite, all of whom will (like Cobden) have their own motivations for the bargain. And if this seems an ugly compromise, the alternative is a political process that continues to elect Prime Ministers who ignore their interests. Simply because they can.