Editor’s note: This is the second of two columns on what the recent Brexit vote says about politics and culture on both sides of the Atlantic. The previous column was published last week.
The painfully acute anxiety about personal authenticity that has gripped New Orleans throughout the post-Katrina boom years offers lessons on the right-wing backlash that just took revenge on the United Kingdom and threatens to give the United States a punch in the gut this November.
Similarities between the Brexit campaign and Trumpism were noted in the weeks leading up to the lemming vote in Britain on June 23. The connection was made more explicit by the Donald himself on June 24, when he praised the Brexit outcome, saying “people want to take their country back.”
Those of us who self-define as over-educated ninnies will want to parse Trump’s utterance in the usual ways, by asking which “people” want to take “their” country back — and from whom.
Nigel Farage, leader of the hard-right United Kingdom Independence Party, answered that question when he declared the Brexit outcome a “victory for ordinary people, for good people, for decent people.” I know what “good” means (I think), but “ordinary” and “decent” are more illuminating about the cultural politics common to Trump and Farage and also France’s Marine Le Pen.
Are these code words for white? Many people will argue that they are, and they won’t be wrong. But I continue to believe that the American left’s laser focus on race and gender identity obscures an equally important aspect of the prevailing Kulturkampf: social-class identity. Though collateral damage falls heavily on black and brown communities, what we’re witnessing is really a political drama among white people. Some of us want to live in a multi-cultural society, and other white people resent us for it — in the visceral, almost libidinal way usually reserved for ex-lovers.
An even more instructive term used by Farage for Brexit supporters came a couple of days before the vote, when he predicted it would be a victory for “real people.” Apparently Brexit’s English opponents, urban cosmopolitans, are no longer “real.” They are inauthentic as a result of their education and willingness to embrace cultures they were not born into. By insinuation, then, the only authentic people are the ignorant and the incurious.
What do the New Orleans identity wars of the past few years tell us about the broader social crisis afflicting the U.S. and Europe? The answer lies in the way that economic grievances are misread as cultural ones.
Ever since 2013, when Tulane’s Richard Campanella coined the term “supernatives” to describe the new transplants who so zealously embrace New Orleans culture, there’s been a knee-jerk backlash against “inauthentic” expressions of New Orleans identity. Leading the charge are local people who feel the threat of displacement — no matter that many of them have been local only a few years longer than the newer and much-maligned wave of transplants.
Love of New Orleans culture is thus re-branded as theft, and participation is viewed as expropriation.
The top derogatory term for inauthentic persons displacing “real” people today is “hipster.” American hipitude used to have its own authenticity, associated with the hard-partying cultural left (from 1920’s hep cats to 1960’s hippies). But now the deadly fear of being called a poseur (i.e. inauthentic) stifles the creative and performative energies of those who would be hip. Thus the fear of inauthenticity leads otherwise creative people to dress as drably as Mark Zuckerberg, whose T-shirt is deemed to make the youthful billionaire appear “unpretentious.”
What gets lost in the pointless hand-wringing about local cultural authenticity is the cause of the underlying anxiety and resentment: the economy, stupid. “Bywater hipsters from Brooklyn” is pejorative only because the spike in the cost of housing is real. The cultural arguments can be fun, but they obscure the real issue. The rising cost of living amid stagnant wages is making everyone’s lives more desperate, no matter their cultural identity.
Arguments about cultural authenticity in New Orleans — who’s “real” and who isn’t — reflect our distinctive local cultural contexts, but the way cultural struggle stands in for economic struggle is the same across the country, as well as in Western Europe. A milestone in today’s culture war quagmire took place when “yuppie” got replaced by “hipster” as the demon of urban gentrification. “Yuppie” (young upwardly mobile professional) was a more purely economic category, while “hipster” saddles the cultural left with blame for displacement caused by unregulated capitalist real estate markets.
But how, exactly, does cultural resentment obscure social class relations?
The answer can be found in French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s monumental study of social-class identity in western capitalist societies, called “Distinction: a Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste.” Americans may be world leaders when it comes to analyzing racial and gender identities, but most of us are near illiterate in our understanding of social-class identity.
Take me, for example. I was more of a hipster (and less hip) than I realized before I encountered Bourdieu. It was Bourdieu who clued me in to the fact that my hipster longing for rare microbrews and refined but edgy fashion statements was simply a bourgeois “will to distinction,” a yearning to set myself apart from the masses in cultural ways, if not political ones. People like me — a published author with a non-tenure-track college teaching job — have what Bourdieu calls high “cultural capital,” but low economic capital ($$$).
My relationship with the truly bourgeois — i.e. rich people — is not unlike the one between artists and aristocratic patrons in the pre-capitalist era. Rich people often seek an imprimatur of “high-class” legitimacy by acquiring cultural capital, which they have to pay people like me to get. Elite liberal-arts colleges and universities stand at the intersection of cultural capital and economic capital. Sending rich kids to such a place may assure not just that these kids stay rich but that they also become “high class” — my American translation of “bourgeois,” in the cultural sense.
Absent talent of their own, or in addition to it, the rich can augment their cultural capital by supporting major arts institutions like opera and ballet associations, art museums, etc. — or, in the local context, maybe just traipsing along as second-liners behind a brass band.
The young rich tend to seek out neighborhoods where starving artists (high cultural capital + low economic capital) reside, thus causing the gentrification that eventually replaces practicing artists with their customers.
People like me — “hip” people — tend to be knee-jerk liberals, and sometimes in unproductive ways, such as hating on people with low cultural capital (correction: white people with low cultural capital), rather than targeting the rich people who are the source not only of our discontent, but the discontent of many of our political opponents as well.
Supporters of Brexit and Trump are not hip, and they know it. The outdated term “blue collar” is also not very useful when it comes to understanding today’s social-class identities. For one thing, social-class identity needs to take into account not only income and type of job, but aspiration as well. The better term for the social-class identity of Trump supporters is a textbook example of what Bourdieu calls petit-bourgeois. “The petit-bourgeois is a proletarian who makes himself small to become bourgeois,” Bourdieu writes. “Proletarian” means working class, the social class whose accoutrements the petit-bourgeois is trying frantically to shed, lest they hinder his ascent into the full-tilt bourgeoisie.
The very first aspect of working-class culture a petit-bourgeois can be expected to axe is solidarity with people who remain working class. American socialist leader Eugene Debs (1855-1926) once famously said, “I don’t want to rise out of the working class, I want to rise with the working class.” Unfortunately for American socialism, the United States has a powerful petit-bourgeois myth called “the American Dream.”
A big theme of New Orleans writing, from John Kennedy Toole to Alice Dunbar-Nelson to David Simon’s unfairly maligned HBO series “Tremé” is about throwing shade on that particular American myth. Sadly, not even the hippest New Orleanians have read much of the city’s indigenous literature, no matter how given they are to raving about how exceptional the city is.
The problem with the American Dream myth is how it works in cahoots with racism and xenophobia to blind the resentful to the common economic roots of their suffering. The narrative associated with the Dream holds that the U.S. is the country where anyone can achieve anything as long as, to quote Bill Clinton, we “work hard and play by the rules.” So instead of the economic security promised by democratic socialism, we get the dream of social mobility; we get “economic opportunity” instead of the right to a job — even though social mobility is lower here than in social democracies like France that conservatives accuse of stifling individuality and entrepreneurial initiative.
In Jackson County, Kentucky, 34 percent of the predominantly white population lives below the poverty line, yet they voted last fall for a Republican governor who had promised to take away their Medicaid, NPR reported. He won Jackson County even though fully half the population was on Medicaid. NPR interviewed subjects who were themselves Medicaid recipients, and yet they trash-talked their neighbors who themselves rely on Medicaid: “They want everything they can get for free,” said one. Another added, “They think somebody owes it to them — just because. Nobody owes you anything. You earn what you get.”
The problem is that, since the “American Dream” has the mythic power of indubitable fact in their lives, there must be some reason it’s not working, some scapegoat. But because of petit-bourgeois reluctance to indict their masters (the economically powerful), they kick at the people slightly below them on the social scale: races that had been considered inferior (before the “politically correct” crowd messed that up). That includes immigrants, of course, but, perhaps most of all, those people with high cultural capital whom they see as liking international brown-skinned and gay people more than them.
It’s these forces who tie the hands of the generous capitalist class who would love to give a well-paying job to all the white people of Jackson County, Kentucky — but America-hating liberals just won’t let them.
So the real object of ire for today’s petit-bourgeois Republican stalwarts isn’t really Mexican “illegals” or Syrian refugee terrorists. It’s people like me. People who may have more cultural capital, but who also struggle to pay the bills, have zero job security and limited-to-no assets.
“Liberal” ceased to be an economic term long ago. It’s all imagery now, vague impressions of urban people with cosmopolitan tastes who should be on their side but have betrayed them instead. The treachery stems from that hip but shameful “blame America first” attitude. It’s a conspiracy, really, to deprive white working-class country people of their birthright: to become masters themselves.
Surely they deserve that iteration of the American Dream. Aren’t they, after all, the truest and most authentic Americans, the “real people?” It’s no surprise that the bulk of Trump’s support comes from people of low educational attainment. Not only can they not realize the extent to which Trump’s rhetoric is flimflam — or a flat-out lie. They also thrill to the rise Trump gets from educated people, whom they’ve decided to hate since they don’t have the guts to hate what has really messed up their lives.
So if you’re hip, stop worrying about whether you’re authentic or not and take a tip from Jimi Hendrix: wave your “freak flag high.”
In New Orleans that may mean wearing a straw hat, white linen, colorful shirts (the look I favor). You might get called a poseur by small hearts who don’t have the guts to be flamboyant. Let them struggle with their own insecurities. If you’re a hipster hater, remember: there’s nothing metrosexual about your government’s refusal to guarantee your economic security.
C.W.Cannon’s most recent novel is “Katrina Means Cleansing.” He teaches writing and New Orleans Literature at Loyola University.