“Because ‘the people’ does not exist. What exist are diverse or even antagonistic figures of the people, figures constructed by privileging certain modes of assembling, certain distinctive traits, certain capacities or incapacities: an ethnic people defined by the community of land or blood; a vigilant herding people by good pastureland; a democratic people putting to use the skills of those who have no particular skills; an ignorant people that the oligarchs keep at a distance; and so on”(Rancière in What is a people?, Badiou et al. 2016)
Jacques Rancière is typically not considered a friendly figure within sociology. For his own part, he has accused both sociology and political philosophy of enabling the end of politics through an essentialisation of inequality, a point he made forcefully in a rebuttal to the seminal work of Pierre Bourdieu. But Rancière’s oeuvre informs us of his problematizing of contemporary politics in the most fundamental manner, trying to answer ‘what is politics?’ through radical equality and emancipation; one of his central concepts is the distribution of the sensibility, which engenders “a system of self-evident facts of perception based on the set horizons and modalities of what is visible and audible as well as what can be said, thought, made, or done” (Rancière and Rockhill 2019), one that is usually missing theories of social class.
Class analysis seeks to make sense of inequalities, hierarchies, and differences across several variables such as occupations, cultural tastes, and relations of employment. A definitive aspect that reconciles the objective class and subjective class is that material conditions have a lasting impact on how the social actor perceives themselves relative to the society. Social Class, for example in quantitative endeavours such as Goldthorpe’s occupational schema (1997) and Savage et al’s (2013) analysis – has been operationalized on tangible aspects such as job description, wealth, savings, taxation, social networks, tastes and assets. What is often lacking in understandings of class is the crucial role of the emotions, the subjective and meaningful elements of group membership that are key to the practices and sense makings associated with social class. In short, the role of meaning-making through emotions as a way to conceptualise class is absent.
The global spread of right-wing populism requires us to observe the relations of class and politics unconventionally, for the advent has brought the global space into unprecedented challenges. I consider the process of Brexit, the tenure of Trump, and the rise of Modi as critical cases that exemplify ‘hate.’ A threat of immigrants taking over jobs or Hindus being marginalised is established to provoke an emotional upheaval, imaginaries are created through democratization of fake news as well as media that nurture a passionate response (i.e. hatred). The question ‘How are the people united?’ is as much a question of politics as it is for social class.
There are two approaches to address these. The first looks at cross-class patronage of populism. It focuses on understanding contemporary populism as neo-populism or post-populism that finds voters and supporters cutting across class boundaries. The second focuses on the question – why do some, including some of the poor, vote for populists? It focuses on the appropriation of lower-class vulnerabilities for electoral purposes. Particular to his approach is understanding how the rhetoric of political campaigns works in establishing a direct connection with their voters through hyperbolic references of cultural uniqueness of the community, its marginalisation and possible annihilation by an ‘other’.
Populism constructs the people as a brute force that implodes the conventional social class barriers and questions what those barriers achieve. The anti-immigrant sentiment, the Islamophobic collectives, and the anti-intellectuals are united passionately. Increasing focus on the meaning-making approach on sociology which focuses on rhetoric and symbolic explications of power struggle, is quite revealing that the direction of our societies is equally based on emotions as it is on any other measurable aspect. The turn to a decline in trust in democracies (Wike et al. 2019) and an increase in hate crimes – police brutality against African Americans such as the deaths of Geroge Floyd, Breonna Taylor, lynching of Muslims in India for instance the attacks on Pehlu Khan and Mohammad Hashim, attacks on Asians during the pandemic mostly reported by Stop AAPI- cannot be understood if we acknowledge cross-class patronage for populists, which there is.
Can we attempt to explain social class based on emotions then? To explain social class as a group of people sharing certain emotions would be incorrect, as no class can be understood as the flagbearer of certain emotions and not others (to do so is essentialist). Rather, I propose to see class itself as an affective category. To understand politics in a society where truth and fact are no more the treasures of the scientific community but are mediated by masses and in masses through what we call misinformation or fake news, we need to observe what unites a diversity, a ‘people’ that in old class forms are antagonistic to each other. In his book On the shore of politics, Rancière (2007, p26) writes “[p]olitics thus finds itself even facing an even more radical split, born neither of differences in wealth nor of the struggle for office, but rather of a particular passion for unity, a passion fed by the rallying power of hatred.”
A shameful example of this passion and the rallying power of hatred was the storming of Capitol Hill. It included personnel from the military, lawmakers, traditional workers, religious groups, and people from other nationalities. An alternate way to address this is by calling it an -one-off event, a moment, and an ephemeral aspect of exaltation. Henri Lefebvre’s (1991) theory of moments is useful here; this event was a ‘moment’ emanating from the materiality of everyday life that is experienced through hatred for the ‘other.’ I appropriate it to explain, and find that it can explain, the pro-capitalist moment of the Capital Hill Riot.
Yet, the riot was not operating with pro or anti-capitalist sentiment. It was the maturing of the slogan “Stop the Steal”! Trump consistently invoked voter fraud enabling a space of anxiety that a mandate is being stolen. These people who Arlie Hochschild refers to as those ‘waiting in line’ (2016) had to come out against those ‘cutting in line.’ A similar case was the Delhi 2020 riots that emerged between the Pro-Citizenship Amendment act and the Anti Citizenship Amendment Act. In both cases there is a convergence of creating the other as an object of hate which cannot be ignored. It demands action and a violent one at that. Expressiveness of this action is an effort to reclaim what is thought to be lost or will be lost. Sara Ahmed’s work on cultural politics of emotion provides us a cue – ‘Because we love, we hate, and this hate is what brings us together’ (Ahmed 2016).
To task sociology with explaining the upheavals of populist movements, it is essential we bring forth emotions, not simply as an offshoot of material conditions, but as matter itself that is orienting our society’s shape, form, and imagination. Understanding social class requires modifications to probe how – across inequalities – people unite to understand the distribution of this sensibility to passionately hate.
Sandeepan Tripathy is a Ph.D. scholar and Teaching Assistant at the National University of Singapore, Department of Sociology. They obtained their MSc in Sociology from the London School of Economics and was also a Karl Jaspers Scholar in Universitat Heidelberg. Their work focuses on relations between social class, precarity, politics, and social behavior.
Ahmed, Sara. (2016) ‘Fascism as Love’, Feminist Killjoys at https://feministkilljoys.com/2016/11/09/fascism-as-love/
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Bourdieu, Pierre. (2010) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Routledge Classics. London: Routledge.
Goldthorpe, J.H. (1997). The “Goldthorpe” Class Schema: Some Observations on Conceptual and Operational Issues in Relation to the ESRC Review of Government Social Classification. In D. Rose & K. O’Reilly (Eds.), Constructing Classes: Towards a New Social Classification for the UK. Swindon: ESRC/ONS.
Hochschild, A. (2017) Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.
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Rancière, Jacques, and Gabriel Rockhill. (2019) The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. Bloomsbury: London.
Savage, Mike, Fiona Devine, Niall Cunningham, Mark Taylor, Yaojun Li, Johs Hjellbrekke, Brigitte Le Roux, Sam Friedman, and Andrew Miles. (2013) “A New Model of Social Class? Findings from the BBC’s Great British Class Survey Experiment.” Sociology 47 (2): 219–50. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038038513481128.
Wike et al. (2019) “Many People Around the World Are Unhappy With How Democracy Is Working.” Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project (blog). April 29, 2019. https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2019/04/29/many-across-the-globe-are-dissatisfied-with-how-democracy-is-working/.