There’s a political trend I have been privately thinking of as “the Great Inversion”. It has been visible since about the end of World War II in the U.S., Great Britain, and much of Western Europe, gradually gaining steam and going into high gear in the late 1970s.
The Great Inversion reached a kind of culmination in the British elections of 2019. That makes this a good time, and the British elections a good frame, for explaining the Great Inversion to an American audience. It’s a thing that is easier to see without the distraction of transient American political issues.
(And maybe I have an easier time seeing the pattern because I lived in Great Britain as a child. British politics is more intelligible to me than to most Americans because of that early experience.)
To understand the Great Inversion, we have to start by remembering what the Marxism of the pre-WWII Old Left was like — not ideologically, but sociologically. It was an ideology of, by, and for the working class.
Now it’s 2019 and the Marxist-rooted Labor party in Great Britain is smashed, possibly beyond repair. It didn’t just take its worst losses since 1935, it was eviscerated in its Northern industrial heartland, losing seats to the Tories in places that had been “safe Labor” for nigh on a century.
Exit polls made clear what had happened. The British working class, Labor’s historical constituency, voted anyone-but-Labor. Only in South Wales and a handful of English cities with large immigrant populations was it able to cling to power. In rural areas the rout was utter and complete.
To understand the why of this I think it’s important to look beyond personalities and current political issues. Yes, Jeremy Corbyn was a repulsive figure, and that played a significant role in Labor’s defeat; yes, Brexit upended British politics. But if we look at the demographics of who voted Labor, it is not difficult to discern larger and longer-term forces in play.
Who voted Labor? Recent immigrants. University students. Urban professionals. The wealthy and the near wealthy. People who make their living by slinging words and images, not wrenches or hammers. Other than recent immigrants, the Labor voting base is now predominantly elite.
This is the Great Inversion – in Great Britain, Marxist-derived Left politics has become the signature of the overclass even as the working class has abandoned it. Indeed, an increasingly important feature of Left politics in Britain is a visceral and loudly expressed loathing of the working class.
To today’s British leftist, the worst thing you can be is a “gammon”. The word literally means “ham”, but is metaphorically an older white male with a choleric complexion. A working-class white male, vulgar and uneducated – the term is never used to refer to men in upper socio-economic strata. And, of course, all gammons are presumed to be reactionary bigots; that’s the payload of the insult.
Catch any Labor talking head on video in the first days after the election and what you’d see is either tearful, disbelieving shock or a venomous rant about gammons and how racist, sexist, homophobic, and fascist they are. They haven’t recovered yet as I write, eleven days later.
Observe what has occurred: the working class are now reactionaries. New Labor is entirely composed of what an old Leninist would have called “the revolutionary vanguard” and their immigrant clients. Is it any wonder that some Laborites now speak openly of demographic replacement, of swamping the gammons with brown immigrants?
It would be entertaining to talk about the obvious parallels in American politics – British “gammons” map straight to American “deplorables”, of course, and I’m not even close to first in noticing how alike Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are – but I think it is more interesting to take a longer-term view and examine the causes of the Great Inversion in both countries.
It’s easy enough to locate its beginning – World War II. The war effort quickened the pace of innovation and industrialization in ways that are easy to miss the full significance of. In Great Britain, for example, wartime logistical demands – especially the demands of airfields – stimulated a large uptick in road-making. All that infrastructure outlasted the war and enabled a sharp drop in transport costs, with unanticipated consequences like making it inexpensive for hungry (and previously chronically malnourished!) working-class people in cities to buy meat and fresh produce.
Marxists themselves were perhaps the first to notice that the “proletariat” as their theory conceived it was vanishing, assimilated to the petty bourgeoisie by the postwar rise in living standards and the propagation of middlebrow culture through the then-new media of paperback books, radio, and television.
In the new environment, being “working class” became steadily less of a purchasing-power distinction and more one of culture, affiliation, and educational limits on upward mobility. A plumber might make more than an advertising copywriter per hour, but the copywriter could reasonably hope to run his own ad agency – or at least a corporate marketing department – some day. The plumber remained “working class” because, lacking his A-level, he could never hope to join the managerial elite.
At the same time, state socialism was becoming increasingly appealing to the managerial and upper classes because it offered the prospect not of revolution but of a managed economy that would freeze power relationships into a shape they were familiar with and knew how to manipulate. This came to be seen as greatly preferable to the chaotic dynamism of unrestrained free markets – and to upper-SES people who every year feared falling into poverty less but losing relative status more, it really was preferable.
In Great Britain, the formation of the National Health Service in 1947 was therefore not a radical move but a conservative one. It was a triumph not of revolutionary working-class fervor overthrowing elites but of managerial statism cementing elite power in place.
During the long recovery boom after World War II – until the early 1970s – it was possible to avoid noticing that the interests of the managerial elite and the working classes were diverging. Both the U.S. and Great Britain used their unmatched industrial capacity to act as price-takers in international markets, delivering profits fat enough to both buoy up working-class wages and blur the purchasing-power line between the upper-level managerial class and the owners of large capital concentrations almost out of existence.
The largest divergence was that the managerial elite, like capitalists before them, became de-localized and international. What mobility of money had done for the owners of capital by the end of the 19th century, mobility of skills did for the managerial class towards the end of the 20th.
As late as the 1960s, when I had an international childhood because my father was one of the few exceptions, the ability of capital owners to chase low labor costs was limited by the unwillingness of their hired managers to live and work outside their home countries.
The year my family returned to the U.S. for good – 1971 – was about the time the long post-war boom ended. The U.S. and Great Britain, exposed to competition (especially from a re-industrialized Germany and Japan) began a period of relative decline.
But while working-class wage gains were increasingly smothered, the managerial elite actually increased its ability to price-take in international markets after the boom. They became less and less tied to their home countries and communities – more willing and able to offshore not just themselves but working-class jobs as well. As that barrier eroded, the great hollowing out of the British industrial North and the American Rust Belt began.
The working class increasingly found itself trapped in dying towns. Where it wasn’t, credentialism often proved an equally effective barrier to upward mobility. My wife bootstrapped herself out of a hardscrabble working-class background after 1975 to become a partner at a law firm, but the way she did it would be unavailable to anyone outside the 1 in 100 of her peers at or above the IQ required to earn a graduate degree. She didn’t need that IQ to be a lawyer; she needed it to get the sheepskin that said she was allowed to be a lawyer.
The increasingly internationalized managerial-statist tribe traded increasingly in such permissions – both in getting them and in denying them to others. My older readers might be able to remember, just barely, when what medical treatment you could get was between you and your physician and didn’t depend on the gatekeeping of a faceless monitor at an insurance company.
Eventually, processing of those medical-insurance claims was largely outsourced to India. The whole tier of clerical jobs that had once been the least demanding white-collar work came under pressure from outsourcing and automation. effectively disappearing. This made the gap between working-class jobs and the lowest tier of the managerial elite more difficult to cross.
In this and other ways, the internationalized managerial elite grew more and more unlike a working class for which both economic and social life remained stubbornly local. Like every other ruling elite, as that distance increased it developed a correspondingly increasing demand for an ideology that justified that distinction and legitimized its power. And in the post-class-warfare mutations of Marxism, it found one.
Again, historical contingencies make this process easier to follow in Great Britain than its analog in the U.S. was. But first we need to review primordial Marxism and its mutations.
By “primordial Marxism” I mean Marx’s original theory of immiseration and class warfare. Marx believed, and taught, that increasing exploitation of the proletariat would immiserate it, building up a counterpressure of rage that would bring on socialist revolution in a process as automatic as a steam engine.
Inconveniently, the only place this ever actually happened was in a Communist country – Poland – in 1981. I’m not going to get into the complicated historiography of how the Soviet Revolution itself failed to fit the causal sequence Marx expected; consult any decent history. What’s interesting for our purposes is that capitalism accidentally solved the immiseration problem well before then, by abolishing Marx’s proletariat through rising standards of living – reverse immiseration.
The most forward-thinking Marxists had already figured out this was going to be a problem by around 1910. This began a century-long struggle to find a theoretical basis for socialism decoupled from Marxian class analysis.
Early, on, Lenin developed the theory of the revolutionary vanguard. In this telling, the proletariat was incapable of spontaneously respond to immiseration with socialist revolution but needed to be led to it by a vanguard of intellectuals and men of action which would, naturally, take a leading role in crafting the post-revolutionary paradise.
Only a few years later came one of the most virulent discoveries in this quest – Fascism. It is not simplifying much to say that Communists invented Fascism as an escape from the failure of class-warfare theory, then had to both fight their malignant offspring to death and gaslight everyone else into thinking that the second word in “National Socialism” meant anything but what it said.
During its short lifetime, Fascism did exert quite a fascination on the emerging managerial-statist elite. Before WWII much of that elite viewed Mussolini and Hitler as super-managers who Got Things Done, models to be emulated rather than blood-soaked tyrants. But Fascism’s appeal did not long survive its defeat.
Marxists had more success through replacing the Marxian economic class hierarchy with other ontologies of power in which some new victim group could be substituted for the vanished proletariat and plugged into the same drama of immiseration leading to inevitable revolution.
Most importantly, each of these mutations offered the international managerial elite a privileged role as the vanguard of the new revolution – a way to justify its supremacy and its embrace of managerial state socialism. This is how we got the Great Inversion – Marxists in the middle and upper classes, anti-Marxists in the working class being dismissed as gammons and deplorables.
Leaving out some failed experiments, we can distinguish three major categories of substitution. One, “world systems theory”, is no longer of more than historical interest. In this story, the role of the proletariat is taken by oppressed Third-World nations being raped of resources by capitalist oppressors.
Though world systems theory still gets some worship in academia, it succumbed to the inconvenient fact that the areas of the Third World most penetrated by capitalist “exploitation” tended to be those where living standards rose the fastest. The few really serious hellholes left are places (like, e,g. the Congo) where capitalism has been thwarted or co-opted by local bandits. But in general, Frantz Fanon’s wretched of the Earth are now being bourgeoisified as fast as the old proletariat was during and after WWII.
The other two mutations of Marxian vanguard theory were much more successful. One replaced the Marxian class hierarchy with a racialized hierarchy of victim groups. The other simply replaced “the proletariat” with “the environment”.
And now you know everything you need to understand who the Labor party of 2019 is and why it got utterly shellacked by actual labor. If you think back a bit, you can even understand Tony Blair.
For Tony Blair it was who first understood that the Labor Party’s natural future was as an organ not of the working class, but as a fully converged tool of the international managerial elite. Of those who think their justifying duty is to fight racism or sexism or cis-normativity or global warming and keep those ugly gammons firmly under their thumbs, rather than acting on the interests and the loudly expressed will of the British people.
Now you also know why in the Britain of 2019, the rhetoric of Marxism and state socialism issues not from assembly-line workers and plumbers and bricklayers, but from the chattering classes – university students, journalists and pundits, professional political activists, and the like.
This is the face of the Great Inversion – and its application to the politics of the U.S. is left as a very easy exercise.