Interview. The author of There Is No Such Thing as Society has a novel theory on the recomposition of the working classes. ‘If the upper and educated classes don’t slide towards populism, that is only because they have the means to erect their “invisible border.”’

The invisible geography of working class anger

The sociologist Christophe Guilluy, who has become a controversial star of the French political and intellectual debate with his La France périphérique (Flammarion, 2015), in which he proposed an interpretation of the new globalized social geography of the West, has now come out with There Is No Such Thing as Society (Luiss University Press, 184 pages, €20, translated into Italian by Richard Antoniucci as La società non esiste), examining the origin and effects of what he describes as “the end of the Western middle class.” According to Guilluy, the current populist wave is, in this sense, only the tip of the iceberg of a widespread resentment by the former working class, deprived of their role and “status” and marginalized, including geographically, from the centers of the global metropolises.

Right-wing populism feeds off the idea that Europe is headed toward an inevitable decline. But while they describe a downfall of the continent in identitarian terms, you instead paint a picture of crisis from a social point of view, talking about “the end of the Western middle class.” What exactly has happened?

I do not believe in the notion of ​​a decline. Europe remains the richest continent on the planet. The issue is, however, a different one: it concerns the fact that today we are dealing with an economic model that no longer integrates the more modest categories who used to form the basis of the Western middle class. They are laborers, office workers, farmers, small business owners, who are still the majority, but who have not found their place within the neoliberal model. Without necessarily slipping into poverty, these categories have become socially weakened, and thus believe that the economic model proposed by the ruling classes has not been advantageous for them.

Why has this “downclassing” often translated into a feeling of resentment which results in a clash between “the low” and “the high,” rather than taking the traditional forms of social conflict?

While globalization—and its corollary, the international division of labor—has allowed the emergence of a Chinese or Indian middle class, it has at the same time destroyed the industrial jobs of the Western working classes. Everywhere in the West, the jobs of the working classes have either disappeared or become precarious. At the same time, the labor market is polarized, and is now divided between highly skilled and well-paid jobs and precarious jobs, “bullshit jobs” that are trapping the popular classes in a form of permanent instability. For this reason, I am talking about a slow process of “abandonment of the middle class,” which started with the workers, then the farmers, and today has reached the employees and the self-employed, who are also more and more precarious. This situation explains the return of a social conflict between the precarious Western working classes and the others, the higher classes, who have become integrated in the system.

Your book opens with a quote from Margaret Thatcher, who said in 1987 that “there is no such thing as society.” Thirty years after the debut of the neoliberal policies embodied by the Iron Lady and Reagan, has that sinister pronouncement become reality?

Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society” describes a global process that has tended to shrink the welfare state and public services. The idea that the working class should not expect anything from the state was later accompanied by another major turning point: the “secession of the elites” that Christopher Lash already identified in the ‘80s. This “secession” doesn’t involve just the elite class, but the whole of the upper classes, those who are benefitting from the economic model which has been gradually imposed, and who are concentrated in the big globalized metropolises.

There Is No Such Thing as Society is the culmination of the research project you began with La France périphérique, where you described the exodus of the working classes toward increasingly marginal areas in terms of services, jobs and opportunities. Is the same phenomenon underway in the whole of the West? And what is the relationship between this phenomenon and the social exclusion of the suburbs?

Whether in France, the United States or the UK, the creation of jobs and wealth is, on average, concentrated in the globalized metropolises. They are more and more rich and gentrified, and they have become the new medieval citadels of the 21st century. For the first time in history, the majority of the working classes no longer live where jobs are being created, but in small towns, de-industrialized medium-sized cities or rural areas, where employment is increasingly rare and where we are seeing a “retreat” of public services. The context of the suburbs, starting from the French banlieues, is different. These poor areas are now found within increasingly rich metropolises, and perfectly illustrate the functioning of the globalized city, in which inequalities are constantly on the rise. They are, in fact, collection points for a workforce destined for low-skilled and poorly paid jobs, which the bourgeoisie of the metropolis need (particularly in construction, personal services or catering). It is a potentially explosive model, because in these areas, social division also conceals ethnic separation.

What is the relationship between the crisis of the world of the working class, then that of the middle class, and the rise of right-wing populism? Can you outline a kind of social geography of the phenomenon?

In all developed countries, populism manifests within the same sociological category (the lower classes) and in the same geography (rural areas, small towns, small de-industrialized cities). The America of the periphery has elected Trump, and the periphery of the United Kingdom decided in favor of Brexit. And even if the national social and economic contexts are different, the dynamics involved are more or less the same. In Nord-Pas de Calais, a former stronghold of the left, the working classes, and especially the laborers and the rural population, are now voting for Marine Le Pen’s National Rally.

In this social context, the movement of the gilets jaunes (“yellow vests”) arose in France. In your opinion, what does it represent, and what weight might it have in the outcome of the European elections in your country?

I believe that this movement represents the concrete embodiment of the concept of “the France of the periphery.“ The map of the first protests at traffic roundabouts in November, where it all started, corresponds precisely to the geography of the popular and dispersed France, where we find all the most vulnerable social groups, those who have been put into a fragile condition by the current economic model: both laborers and employees, rural and urban, youth and pensioners. From this point of view, the gilets jaunes are a positive signal of the re-composition of a class, which is currently underway. However, it is important to note that this movement is neither right-wing nor left-wing, but represents the working class of the 21st century, which, while representing a majority, no longer seems to believe in the right-left duality. Beyond the issue of populism, we are seeing an exodus from the “liquid society” from below, by the popular classes.

You talk about the growth of “identitarian paranoia” that accompanies the development of multiculturalism. In your view, the dominant classes promote openness to migrants because they know they can maintain unaltered the “invisible borders”—both social and urban—separating them from “foreigners,” which the working classes cannot rely on. In that view, what antibodies could we have against racism?

I believe that the ruling classes and the new bourgeoisie are exploiting and instrumentalizing immigrants. That’s why I’m talking about the hypocrisy of the “cool bourgeoisie” that supports the ideas of an ”open society,” but actually lives in their well-segregated citadels, not in the neighborhoods where immigration is concentrated. Thus, it is necessary to make one thing clear: the proportion of racists is exactly the same among the working classes and among the bourgeois. If the upper and educated classes don’t slide towards populism, that is only because they have the means to erect their “invisible border.” This is why truly questioning ourselves on this issue is a prerequisite for reducing the tensions. In my work, I introduced the concept of “cultural insecurity,” trying to show that, especially in a working class environment, it’s not so much the relationship with “the other” that is raising problems, but rather the demographic instability which leads to the fear of becoming a minority and losing a social and cultural capital to which a lot of importance is being attached. It is a fear that is afflicting all the working classes, regardless of their origins.

In the conclusion of your book, you say that the challenge is no longer that of “managing social decline,” but rather that of remaking society anew.

I think that is the only possible solution. But we cannot “remake society” without integrating the popular classes that represent the majority of the population. The popular protests will not stop, and the gilets jaunes and the Brexit supporters will continue to exist for the next 100 years if nothing changes. For this reason, the ruling classes—including here the political parties—should revise their programs. It is necessary to respond to new social and cultural needs, taking into account that the people will never go away.

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