The Puzzle of Working Class Politics Around the World

by Pranab Bardhan: 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. More here.

Honorary contributors to Adil Khan, Ajaz Ahmed, Anwar Abbas, Arif Mirza, Aziz Ahmed, Bawar Tawfik, Dr. Razzak Ladha, Dr. Syed M. Ali, G. R. Baloch, Haseeb Warsi, Hasham Saddique, Jamil Usman, Javed Abbasi, Jawed Ahmed, Ishaq Saqi, Khalid Sharif, Majid Ahmed, Masroor Ali, Md. Ahmed, Md. Najibullah, Mushtaq Siddiqui,, Mustafa Jivanjee, Nusrat Jamshed, Shahbaz Ali, Shahid Hamza, Shahid Nayeem, Shareer Alam, Syed Ali Ammaar Jafrey, Syed Hamza Gilani, Shaheer Alam, Syed Hasan Javed, Syed M. Ali, Tahir Sohail, Talha Alam, Tariq Chaudhry, Usman Nazir, Yasir Raza