Why Christophe Guilluy’s attacks on the progressive middle class only tell half the story
Ben Margulies is Lecturer for Political Science at the University of Brighton and a blogger
Although social scientists would not put it this way, much of what we do involves the assigning of blame. We tend to say causation – and rightly so – but when dealing with a phenomenon like the collapse of an institution or a governing order, many observers and readers will read that “causation” as a sort of blame.
Some social scientists, however, also write in a polemical vein, and they do assign blame. One of these is French geographer Christophe Guilluy, whose Twilight of the Elites: Prosperity, The Periphery and the Future of France1 was published in English this year. Guilluy, recently profiled in The New Statesman, has fingered his culprit with the tenacity and fury of a Javert. He condemns the progressive middle class, the “bohemian bourgeois” (or “bobos”), a “hip upper-middle class devoted to a new conception of urbanism and a particularly agreeable way of life, wholesome, healthy and environmentally friendly” (13). He inveighs against their hypocrisy, their social and economic manipulations and their exclusion of most of the French population. Guilluy’s work ties the rise of the bobos to globalization, and the resultant concentration of economic growth in France’s largest cities. As these cities gentrify and become costlier, the French working classes have been consigned to a “peripheral France,” either in the immediate suburbs of the major cities (mainly home to non-whites of immigrant backgrounds) or smaller cities and towns or rural areas (which are largely white). The latter are the archetypical home of the gilets jaunes, whom Guilluy supports.
Guilluy’s work lies in an emergent school of thought that tends to view “the populist explosion” as a by-product of inequality and economic marginalisation. This interpretation views Brexit and the election of Trump as “working-class revolts.” It also tends to be critical of the middle classes, either for expressing disdain and arrogance towards the working classes, or for embracing “identity politics” and alienating workers. The “cosmopolitans,” or “Anywheres” in David Goodhart’s phrasing, assume the aforementioned blame, for neglecting the working classes with their strong sense of “place” in their rooted communities. The radical right, Brexit and Trump are all understandable responses to this scorn and abuse.
There is much truth in this thesis. It is true that economic marginalization has played a role in the rightwards, nativist shift in Europe, the United States and elsewhere. Hans-Georg Betz proposed in 1993 that “modernization losers,” from classes that had done badly out of globalization, were voting for the populist radical-right. Research since then has tended to find or confirm an association between being working class, or lower-middle class, and voting for the radical right.
It is also hard to deny the success the radical right tends to have in peripheral areas where industrial economies have collapsed. Trump really did do well in the ex-industrial Midwest. Brexit was popular in equivalent areas of northern and central England, and South Wales. Marine Le Pen’s political base is in the French rust-belt in the northernmost part of the country, while the Alternative for Germany has built its most formidable bastions in the formerly Communist east.
This neat world-view, which suffuses Guilluy’s book, tells a credible story. The problem is that, in rushing to denounce the perfidy of the middle classes, Guilluy mischaracterizes the true composition of some of these populist revolts. In Guilluy’s case, there is also a gross simplification of historical patterns and demographic categorizations. Finally, Twilight of the Elites turns the racism and nativism of the National Front into a middle-class straw man, an alarming perversion of reality.
While it is true that many working-class voters choose radical right or nativist parties, neither Brexit nor Trump can be explained solely by a revolt of the “modernization losers.” Trump’s voters were mostly the same voters who chose the arch-neoliberal Mitt Romney four years before, and were richer than Clinton’s. Multiple studies (though not all studies) have found racism, not economic anxiety, to be either a major or the main determinant of voter choice for Trump. Brexit did win among the working classes and poorer voters, but large minorities of better-off voters also backed departing the EU – “41 to 50 percent respectively” of “those in the highest socio-occupational groups” also voted for Brexit, and 35 percent of those who earned £60,000 or more per year.
Twilight of the Elites rightly calls out the French middle classes for their inconsistent and often hypocritical stances on cultural and racial diversity. He notes how whites dominate French politics (33-34), and makes a convincing argument about the way the French neoliberal elites use nearby immigrant communities both as an inexpensive labor reserve and a “fig leaf of diversity” (37).
The wheels start to slide off when Guilluy makes forays into two areas – the past, and the National Front. Guilluy’s writing tends to blame globalization and the bobos for the division, segregation and exclusion that the French working classes suffers. “France has become an American society like the others” marked by class conflict instead of “shared interests” (51). I do not pretend to be an expert on French history, but I sincerely doubt that the contemporary bobos invented French class conflict; France had one of the world’s largest Communist parties for many years after World War II. The mass strikes of ’68 emerged after a decade of Gaullist government concerned with the national interest over class conflict.
Guilluy also laments the abandonment of the “republican model of assimilation.” He complains of the “enormous calamity” of “communitarianism” (70) and of the “young and middle-aged people [of immigrant backgrounds] who reject the French secularist ideal of social integration, insisting instead on the right to lay claim to an identity that is bound up with the religion and culture of Islam” (109). This makes little historical sense. France has never tried to integrate Muslims; a cursory engagement with the history of French Algeria would make that clear. Nor did the “bobos” invent the immigrants’ banlieues; earlier generations of immigrants found shelters in slums (bidonvilles) long before globalization. At times, Guilluy seems to feel the mere presence of Islam is disruptive (“the Islamization of some metropolitan areas is the most visible sign of a rampant multiculturalism” and of “the Americanization of society” (72)), perhaps forgetting that the strongest religious opposition to French republicanism has come from the Catholic Church, and not Islam.
There is a tendency among writers like Guilluy to cast right-wing or nativist reactions to globalization as natural, expected and just. Guilluy treats the “antifascism” of the elites as a con designed to protect their class rule, while turning an empathetic eye towards working-class demands for immigration restriction, which are “not motivated by racist hatred” but “a rational response by self-reliant low-income groups seeking to protect a precious fund of social and cultural capital” (125).
This critique is vague and unsettling. Guilluy complains about the arrogance of the working classes, but his view of them is paternalistic – the working classes merely react to the nefarious Somewheres/bobos. In Guilluy’s telling, the urban middle classes are perpetually calling working-class French people racist, but somehow, none but the same middle classes are ever racist. Whatever the grievances of peripheral France, such a neat distribution of moral justification seems unlikely.
Guilluy’s work reminds me of the much more incisive and strongly supported arguments in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The First White President.” Coates, too, points out that the white middle classes often scapegoat the white working classes for the collective racism of all whites. But Coates also mocks the politicians and journalism who deny working-class racism. As he so eloquently puts it:
“Ostensibly assaulted by campus protests, battered by arguments about intersectionality, and oppressed by new bathroom rights, a blameless white working class did the only thing any reasonable polity might: elect an orcish reality-television star who insists on taking his intelligence briefings in picture-book form.”
Underlying Twilight of the Elites is a passionate concern with the injustices of neoliberalism, and what seems to be a considerable body of scholarship on the economic geography of contemporary France. However, these ultimately serve a morality tale full of lofty condemnations and suffering working-class heroes – but not nearly enough detail or nuance.