Elites On Both Sides Are Claiming the Working Class—While Abandoning Them | Opinion

Across the globe, we are seeing a renewed focus on the role of elites in political life. Rising inequality and the rebirth of populism, embodied by movements like Brexit and Donald Trump, have shone a light on the gap separating highly educated liberals from the Right, whose leaders cast the Left as an out of touch elite. But while populist parties like the new GOP claim to speak for the working-class, liberals are quick to point that their economic agenda is still built around tax cuts for the rich and trickle-down economics; they are the real elites, the Left contends.

The truth is, both sides are right. Because there are two elites in the West, one cultural and one economic. And though both sides like to call themselves the side of the working class, both elites are pursuing their own economic interests behind their moral posturing.

The French economist Thomas Picketty was one of the first to point out the two elites, coining them the Merchant Right and the Brahmin Left. The Merchant Right is what used to be called the capitalist class, or what Marx called the petty bourgeoisie: small farmers, small business owners, small landlords. And while they are often culturally similar to members of the working class, their interests are not the same; the opposite, in fact: They are in tension with each other. A small business owner's interests are opposed to a 15 dollar minimum wage for the same reason landlords are against rent protection.


There is a big economic gap separating electricians and contractors from warehouse workers and waiters. And there is a gap in power and autonomy, too: Electricians don't have bosses, while wait staff and warehouse workers do. Many skilled laborers make a good living at work that gives them dignity, making their lives very different from the precarious lower parts of the working class who are answerable to the whims of middle management. And yet, the capitalist class in America frequently refers to itself as "working class" or postures as their champions.

It's political theater, but one that serves the economic interests of Right wing elites. After all, confusing wage earners with the Merchant Right only staves off the kind of class-based politics that would help those who most need it.

But the Right is not the only side doing this. On the Left, you'll find what is increasingly called the "professional managerial class," a top 10 percent made up of highly credentialed white collar office workers. But though their labor is remunerative, many in the PMC also see themselves as the side of the working class. And some go even further, seeing themselves as the "real" working class. For example, you frequently see appeals made for the government to pay off the student loans of millennials with graduate degrees on the grounds that they are the real beleaguered class, with earnings not up to the cost of living in the cities they populate.

Between these two elites, you find the mass abandonment of the working class—by two highly paid sides claiming to be the real working class. And it's onto this economic divide that all of the culture wars get superimposed.

Thus, white men without a college degree in the Rust Belt will hear Republican elites shaming them for not being real men after they lost their jobs—and they will hear Democratic elites saying that they don't deserve any compassion since they are white men and have had every advantage.

The Democratic elite pushes climate change as an existential threat, completely dismissing the poor in rural America who depend on their cars and gasoline to reach the nearest hospital—while the Republican elite argues that climate change is not real and that those hurricanes that are devastating Central America and the South are not a serious issue at all.

The economic Right and the cultural Left have destroyed social relationships and replaced them with the market or the state respectively, creating the loneliest civilization that has ever existed. Neither churches nor labor unions exist to nurture relationships between workers—only social media.

What both elites are hiding in cosplaying as champions of labor is that they have taken away the power of the working class, making them vulnerable to an increasingly hierarchical state or to the whims of corporations and the stock market. And they are able to do this because workers don't interact with each other anymore and can't organize, making it easy to redirect their justified rage at the elites of the other tribe.

The only way forward is to reconnect with our common humanity. We should be validating the feelings of the working class, not regulating them. Only through human interactions, real economic security can occur. It's only through labor unions, multiracial and international alliances of the working class, and a politics that redirects income towards the "essential" workers who actually do the labor, that we can heal what ails us.

At the end of the day, we only have each other. There is no one else.

Alan Matías Givré is a writer based in Argentina. He is a PhD Student in Physical Sciences (Biophysics) and has spent years volunteering in some of Buenos Aires' poorest neighborhoods. He is passionate about science and practices Nonviolent Communication.

The views in this article are the writer's own.