The Puzzle of Working Class Politics Around the World

by Pranab Bardhan

Giorgia Meloni has been serving as Prime Minister of Italy since 22 October 2022, the first woman to hold this position.

The recent spectacular rise of extreme right-wing parties in Italy and Sweden and the squeaking narrow victory of Lula in Brazil have revived the puzzle that in the face of economic crisis and rising inequality the working classes are often turning politically right, instead of left. This is as prevalent in developing countries as in the rich countries of North America and Europe. One difference between the two sets of countries may be that while in rich countries this trend is markedly among less-educated, older, and more rural workers, in some developing countries, say India, this is also the case for more educated, aspirational, urban youth. The other difference between the two sets of countries is that working classes in developing countries are now in general more pro-globalization than in developed countries—more pro-globalization in Vietnam, Bangladesh, Nigeria and India, than say in France or US, as surveys of attitudes to globalization show.

But in both sets of countries large numbers of workers (and peasants), defying the usual pre-suppositions about inequality, have rallied under right-wing leaders who are often plutocrats, like Erdoğan, Orbán, Trump, Le Pen, or Nigel Farage (the original Brexit leader). In India the poor supporters of Modi do not care much that he is cozy with some of the richest Indian billionaire businessmen in the world. Workers are worried more about the rise in insecurity in their own lives, and do not seem to care much about the rising wealth of the top 1 percent. And this insecurity is not just about economic insecurity in terms of their jobs and incomes but also cultural insecurity of one kind or another, as I have illustrated in my recent book A World of Insecurity: Democratic Disenchantment in Rich and Poor Countries (Harvard University Press and Harper Collins India, 2022).

There is, however, an important difference between the US and other countries on right-wing attitude to economic insecurity.

In other countries welfare policies are popular even with the right-wing parties, as in France, Germany, Turkey, Poland or India. In Poland the PiS has been quite active in child assistance policies in ways that the Republican Party in the US is averse to. In Turkey Erdoğan has expanded housing for the poor and universal health care policy. In India Modi has not merely continued the earlier regime’s policies of food security, urban housing and job guarantee for rural workers, he has also introduced some new welfare policies for the poor. All this helps right-wing parties to neutralize the appeal of the Left usually associated with welfare policies.

The more important way the Right appeals to the working poor has to do with the fact that economic insecurity has often been intertwined with cultural insecurity, which the Right is in a better position to exploit. Their anti-elitism is more against the liberal-cultural elite than the financial elite. In Western Europe where provisions for worker welfare and economic security are more assured, the issue of cultural insecurity arising from immigration becomes more salient.

In countries where immigration is less of a problem, the Right stokes hostility to domestic minorities (like Muslims in India and Bosnia, Kurds in Turkey, Tamils in Sri Lanka, the Chinese in Indonesia and so on). The more favorable attitude to immigrants and minorities on the part of the left-liberal parties is portrayed as ‘appeasement’ to subversive or culturally foreign elements (and this is amplified with easy spread of falsehoods and half-truths through social media). The common fear among the workers is the status insecurity of losing something they now have; this could be jobs, but more often national and cultural pride and the comfort of tradition.

The left and the liberals are on the defensive when ethnic or majoritarian nationalism is invoked, or slogans like ‘take back control’ or matters like local community values are raised. By concentrating on economic or redistributive issues the left-liberals are giving up the game too soon. It is possible to showcase to workers other, non-ethnic, forms of nationalism, like what is called ‘civic nationalism’ based on constitutional values which include respect for minority rights without sacrificing legitimate national pride—like pride in the national football team while celebrating diversity in its composition.

In a 2009 speech Barack Obama said, “One of the great strengths of the United States is . . . we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation . . . we consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values,” presumably as enshrined in the Constitution. This is akin to what the German philosopher Habermas had called “constitutional patriotism”, as opposed to patriotism based on “blood and soil” that has popular appeal in Germany and elsewhere. He has also argued that immigrants to a liberal democratic state need not assimilate into the host culture but only accept the principles of the country’s constitution. This means that multiculturalism is acceptable as long as it is compatible with basic human rights enshrined in a democratic constitution. So the more permissive kind of multiculturalism—where all groups are allowed their peculiar cultural practices and gender norms, however repugnant they may be from the human rights point of view—is not acceptable under civic nationalism. This diffuses some of the usual complaints of ethnic nationalists against culturally alien immigrants/minorities.

In carrying out other policies for underprivileged groups liberals may try a more open attitude about poor workers from the ethnic majority communities, and show more sensitivity to the current resentment among blue-collar workers about liberals caring only for minorities and immigrants. Labor organizations can try to accommodate policies that give priority to economic justice but relieve some identity-based tension by making all of this a part of a common goal of humanitarian uplift and citizenship rather than a sectarian agenda of catering to some particular social groups. In collaboration with civil-society organizations they could try to be more open to the genuine communitarian needs and the cultural neglect that workers feel in their relation with cosmopolitan liberal leaders, but at the same time try to make local communities and norms somewhat more inclusive.

My book referred to above makes a plea for some form of rejuvenation of social democracy, not just building on the new enthusiasm in some countries for organizing workers in unions, but striving to give workers more voice in the governance of the firm particularly in matters of decisions to outsource/relocate and decisions to shape the pattern of in-house research into technological innovations in a more labor-absorbing (rather than labor-replacing) and environment-friendly direction. Also, bringing the increasing number of gig workers in all countries and the large numbers of informal workers in developing countries into the tent of labor organizations can go a long way in strengthening the bargaining power of labor as a whole and thus improving their economic security.

For many years now the liberals have lost the allegiance of blue-collar workers in different parts of the world because they have not paid enough attention to their twin needs of economic security and cultural pride.