The rise of right-wing populism has been the most important re-configuration of politics over the past two decades. Contrary to what is often assumed, its success is less a reflection of the votes of the poor and unskilled than a consequence of the relative decline and perceived threat of status loss among the lower middle classes. Hence, the current political strategies in place to address the challenges of casualized, post-industrial labor markets will do little to appease these fears. It may take way more—a change in cultural norms.
Silja Häusermann is a professor of political science at the University of Zurich.
In virtually all developed democracies, nationalism, xenophobia, and cultural authoritarianism have gained ground massively in electoral politics. The French National Front, the Austrian FPÖ, or the Italian Lega Nord were early forerunners of this movement, while similar party organizations—think of the Freedom Party in the Netherlands or the Danish People’s Party—emerged in the early 2000s in other European countries, and they are gaining electoral ground massively and quickly in Scandinavia (e.g. True Finns, Sweden Democrats), the United Kingdom (UKIP) and North America (e.g. the Tea Party movement in the United States). In many of these countries, such parties are now among the most important political parties and members of government coalitions. Their importance in re-shaping national political debates on cultural liberalism, international integration, immigration, and—increasingly—social policy can hardly be overestimated.
We know by now that this political upheaval is closely linked to a dramatic, underlying economic upheaval: With the massive decline of manufacturing industries in advanced capitalist democracies, a process of “occupational polarization” set in. In other words: the number of jobs is growing at the high end of the skill ladder and at the very low end, though in very different forms. At the top, post-industrial economies need increasing amounts of highly skilled work and this labor demand has contributed to the dramatic increase in wage inequality. At the lower end, we observe the spread of flexible, weakly protected, and unstable low-skill and low-pay jobs. The middle, meanwhile, is hollowed out, not only through direct job cuts, but also through the fading out of employment in the producing industries.
A plausible but erroneous shortcut that is often made is that the expansion of "cheap labor" at the bottom of the occupational pyramid is directly and causally linked to the expansion of right-wing populism. The argument goes that these low-skilled workers fear immigrant competition and therefore support an anti-immigrant political program. However, this is not true. In a way, the political issue at stake with “cheap labor” is much worse—these workers are not politically mobilized at all. They do not have a political identity or group consciousness, there is no party that mobilizes their votes and—if they have the right to do so at all—their first choice in all democratic elections is abstention. They literally have no political voice.
Instead, the right-wing populist electoral success reflects the mobilization of the skilled male manufacturing workers, the working-class heroes of the industrial era. Their core labor market was booming in the second half of the 20th century, their class consciousness was strong, their political articulation by parties and unions even stronger, and the industrial welfare state was built by and for them. Today, they are by far not the worst off: their unemployment rates are lower than among the low-skilled service workers, their wages higher, and if they do lose their jobs they are entitled to income compensation through social security.
However, they feel the worst off. They feel threatened by the structural shift to a knowledge economy, which caters to the jobs and qualities of the highly educated, and they resent modernization for it. They realize their moment in economic history is over. The new economy is more service-intensive, more casualized and flexible, more educated and more female. And it is this resentment of status loss that drives their political mobilization in favor of a protectionist, anti-modernization agenda.
The most worrisome aspect is that it is really hard to imagine substantial sources of employment growth for skilled, but not high-skilled, manual male labor in our post-industrial societies. And in terms of political strategies to address these problems, the two currently available are not very promising. "Dualization" denotes a political strategy that aims at preserving the old system of encompassing social rights for a shrinking core of “standard workers,” while all outsiders, including those skilled male manual workers who drop out of the core, are relegated to a second-tier welfare state, mostly in the form of a tax-financed social minimum payment. However, even if such a social minimum were generous, it would not appease the feeling of relative decline and status inconsistency among its beneficiaries.
The second social policy strategy many (mostly European) countries engage in to shore up their employment performance is social investment. In its most successful form, social investment involves training and re-training, policies to support job growth and employability and childcare support. However, social investment is mostly focused on activating the female workforce in the service sector. Skilled male manual workers are both ill prepared to be re-trained for the service economy and not the main policy target.
Moreover, one cannot help but think that pure material benefits might be insufficient to compensate what appears to be an identity-based grievance, the loss of social and economic status. It may take nothing less than a cultural change in social norms, i.e. the ability to derive status, satisfaction, and pride not only from standard paid work, but from other, even non-paid social activities.
For the Future of Work, a special project from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace, and what anxieties and possibilities they might produce.