Loving Folk (Part II) | underscore__

Loving Folk (Part II)

Part II: Untying the Paradox

Although any attempt to “abolish” the Paradox is basically doomed to fail—as will become clearer below—we can hope at the very least to understand it, and where it comes from. Perhaps the best way to initiate this task of understanding is to ask the following question: why is it the Paradox of the Proletarian? Why are the middle classes and the bourgeoisie “exempt”, so to speak, from this trap?

There is one particular example that I think can help us begin to answer these questions, and it’s a phenomenon known as “class tourism”1. Class tourism essentially describes a practice of certain members of the middle and upper classes, whereby they venerate and appropriate cultural symbols and practices usually associated with the working class (e.g. ways of dressing, speaking, making music, eating, etc), while still, ultimately, living a comfortable middle-class life. Through this, these symbols are emptied of their meaningful content so that they can become window dressing for these classes: it gives them a bit of “edge”, “spice”, or a veneer of “authenticity”. In other words, these practices are ripped out of their context of emergence, often one of real poverty and struggle, and are reduced to superficial appearances. (A very specific of example of this might be, for instance, white middle-class “fans” of grime or hip-hop, who usually—but certainly not always!—simply like the “beat” or immediate sensation of the music, without engaging at all with the culture behind the music, which is intimately bound up with a whole host of social, political and economic issues.)

Although it may seem obvious what the problem is here, lets challenge ourselves to make it explicit. The problem is this: these middle-class “tourists” are essentially fetishists. They fetishise working-class life, which is the same as saying that they reduce it to a set of representative images without any depth; in other words, what matters is the image of the thing rather than the thing itself. (Indeed, for the fetishist, the former comes to replace and stand in for the latter.) Consider how the favoured buzzwords of the middle-class fetishists are “real” or “authentic”, connoting how a particular style of music or cuisine has emerged from “real” people living in “real” poverty with “real” struggles, to such an extent that this actual struggle has infused the style itself with some mystical “raw” aura. Now, there’s a hilarious irony here in that, if the middle-class fetishist is appropriating something from elsewhere that isn’t theirs, then any attempt here to be “authentic” is in fact clearly inauthentic, an utterly pathetic charade2. Everyone who isn’t the fetishist can see this clearly, and laughs heartily as a result, but the fetishist doesn’t see this problem because for them the thing and the image of the thing coincide: the style and the struggle it emerged from are effectively equivalent, in such a way that the style effectively embodies the struggle behind it, and the struggle is ultimately expressible as a series of symbols. It is through this magical act of equivalence that the fetishist is able to a) feel as if they are experiencing a “real” “rawness” when engaging with working-class culture3, while also b) essentially seeing working-class culture as a series of floating symbols and styles that can be exchanged just like any other. The reader will notice a clear contradiction here—how can something be more “raw” and “real” if it is just a “floating symbol like any other”?—but it is precisely the magical effacement (read: repression) of this contradiction that defines the fetishist as such, recalling that the word “fetish” was first coined to describe the mythologies and religions of “primitive” peoples in the colonised world, specifically their attributing of magical or supernatural powers to particular objects, such as totems. Fetishism has always been an affair of magic.4

There is another way of describing this fetishism. If fetishism is based off a kind of overabundant positivity (meaning is jam-packed into very specific objects, overflowing them), then we can say that a constitutive error it makes is to ignore the negative dimension of language. Language is ultimately made possible by a murky realm outside language, a point which Alain Badiou, via Samuel Beckett, terms “the unnameable”. This sounds complicated, but there’s actually a very easy way to demonstrate it. Imagine a dog. It’s by your side, yapping at you; it’s hungry. Now try and to define this dog without using the word “dog”. (Have a go, then return to this text.) You might have come up with something like “animal with four legs often kept as a pet by humans”, then realised this wasn’t specific enough (this could include cats), so changed it to “barking animal with four legs often kept as a pet by humans”. But then you think: what if a dog loses a leg; does it stop being a dog? And what do I mean by “animal”? You clasp your hands to your head at the enormity of the task and start breaking down, realising that this entire time language had been a fragile house of cards teetering over the brink of an a-linguistic void. For as soon as you lost the word “dog”, you lost any hold on the thing you were attempting to name. No words seem to be able express the yapping thing beside you—the “definition” just isn’t an adequate replacement. Curled in a foetal position on the floor, you stare down at your leg, and all you see is the hideous thing emitting its yaps and growls. Before long, it starts gnawing at your leg for sustenance. You look into it; all you see now is an unnameable horror. The Thing; I must name The Thing, you think… finally, you exclaim “dog!!!” and suddenly, looking in its eyes again, you see a friendly, fluffy Collie licking your shin; the wound is gone.

If that demonstration descended into schlocky horror, it is because the unnameable is something naturally horrific or traumatic: hence the endless SF and horror films with titles such as The Thing, It Came From Outer Space, and, quite literally, The Unnameable. Putting that aside, the point is that language is not simply a set of labels that we stick on top of “things” that exist separately to, or before, language. Language is instead that which makes these things “things” in the first place, which cuts something out of an indeterminate, pre-linguistic multitude and gives it a name. Although this fact becomes effaced through the regular and routinised use of language, every single symbol we encounter has its genesis in this way. The fundamental trauma of language is that its conditions of existence exist outside language, at what Giorgio Agamben has called that “strange point in which language and real in a way coincide”.

So, if we return to our middle-class “tourists”, we can see that they make the quite easy mistake of ignoring or repressing the unnameable, and essentially treating the world as if it was just an endless, floating array of intelligible symbols that can be exchanged and used at whim. (The fundamental myth here is that language is its own foundation, and thus that everything can and indeed does have a name; thus we can freely appropriate symbols and names from elsewhere.) The working-class people whose “culture” (to use a rather blunt term, all too aware of the paradoxical trap that is constantly beneath us in these discussions) is being appropriated, though, know that these ways of life are not mere symbols. They emerged out of the brute, unnameable realities of their existence which no available words, styles or symbols seemed to accurately express; consequently, they had to come up with their own. Through their real struggles, they know that the unnameable is the thing that drives us to name, and to create new names. They know intimately, in short, that language has its limits; that it is a wager, a hedging of one’s bets, a leap over the unnameable.


We are close here to honing in on the answer to our initial question (why the Paradox of the Proletarian?). And we can get there by considering the opposite scenario to the one above. In other words, instead of considering “class tourism” (bourgeois and middle-class people doing “working-class” things), let us consider “reverse class tourism” (working-class people doing “middle-class” or “bourgeois” things).

Immediately, we realise that this isn’t really a thing — we don’t get the same bad feeling from working-class people doing “middle-class” things as we do from the contrary. If a working-class person tries to work their way up and climb the ladders of class, saving up, say, for a deposit on a house, or aspiring to be a manager at their workplace, no middle-class person is seriously going to claim that they are “appropriating middle-class culture”. It’s such a ridiculous argument that I’m laughing as I’m typing this. Indeed, the opposite is much more likely to be true: the middle-class person will welcome the “aspirational”, “hard-working” working-class tourist into their ranks, setting them up against the languid, idle proles who refuse to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. They even have a name for it: “social mobility”.

Again, the reasons for this might seem obvious, but let’s challenge ourselves to make it explicit. One sentence will suffice: there is no such thing as middle-class culture. Or, if there is a middle-class culture, it is constitutively empty, hollow, and dead behind the eyes. Nothing the middle class does “belongs” to them, as in the case of what we can clumsily and inaccurately call “working-class culture”: instead, the middle class are defined by the fact that they are always anxious to do the “done thing”, the thing that has already been articulated, established, and socially sanctioned (in other words, put into language). Whether it be dutifully studying hard at school to get into a good university, applying for graduate jobs in the professional sectors, or settling down with a mortgage as soon as possible, the middle class are never acting on their own accord; they are always acting with one anxious eye on what I will call the State. (This term gesturing towards not only the various apparatuses of the state conventionally understood, but also something akin to Lacan/Zizek’s “Big Other” — the all-seeing eye of public morality and normality.) The middle class have always been the class of the State: the working class are effectively ignored and exploited by it, while the bourgeoisie and aristocracy are both canny and powerful enough to make the State submit to their ends. (Perhaps this explains why the quintessential middle-class profession has always been working for the civil service or other State bureaucracy.)

This allegiance between the middle class and the State explains why “reverse class tourism” doesn’t exist: because there is nothing from “middle-class culture” that could be appropriated; it all already belongs to the State. And—this is the crucial point—this is the exact same thing as saying that everything the middle class does can be uncontroversially represented. Whereas we got caught in paradoxical knots trying to faithfully talk about or “represent” the working class, no such issue exists for the middle class. I can say “middle-class people have mortgages” or “middle-class people are boring” and no one will accuse me of either romanticising or denigrating them, or of robbing them of their voice. Yes, perhaps some would quibble with the particulars of this statement (“but some middle-class people actually do X/Y/Z”), but certainly no-one would accuse the statement of being oppressive or harmful. After all, with their good access to education and relatively secure economic position, and thus fluent in the language of the State (i.e. the dominant, official, “highest value” language of a territory), the middle class can simply speak back and be heard. In some way, the middle class always has the State to back them up — much unlike the working class.

Why? Because of the very intimate—perhaps even innate—link between the State and language. Leaning heavily on Badiou’s theorisation of the State, we can say that the very logic of the State is representation, in contrast to presentation or unpresentation. This logic manifests itself in two different senses.5 First, the State employs political representation: it represents the People by being their representative, standing in for them, and embodying the popular will. (In other words, the State is the image of the People.) Secondly, though, the State also employs symbolic representation: it is continually collecting snapshots of its people, forging representations of them, in order to manage them. (In other words, the People are images for the State.) This symbolic representation has always been one of the State’s core functions, from as far back to the first major civilisations in (e.g) Rome and Mesopotamia, which were consistently tallying and logging their available resources, such as taxes, soldiers, and food supplies. By the time of the 18th and 19th centuries, following recent developments in probability theory, this activity had evolved into what came to be known as statistics: which, literally, means “the science of the State”. And today, this has evolved into the near-constant practice of harvesting and extracting data from populations through information and communications technologies, and an accordant obsession with “data-led” marketing, strategy, decision-making, and so on.6

Throughout this all, there is one constant thread. First, things happen; they are presented. Then, afterwards, the State tries to make sense of it; it re-presents those things, in order to manage and control them. This is the order; it is always the order. In 2500 BC, a Mesopotamian bureaucrat tallies the barley collected that day, and rations it between the various employees of the temple; in 2021, a British civil servant runs a regression analysis on recently collected census data, in order to assist policymaking. Over four thousand years of history stand between these events; they remain, nonetheless, analogous. And it all has to do with representation.


As all things change to fire,
and fire exhausted
falls back into things,
the crops are sold
for money spent on food.

—Heraclitus, Fragment 22

What has emerged, then, is a knot of three particular elements: the State, class, and language (or representation). We propose—again under the influence of Badiou—to better understand this untidy knot through the sifting out of three “levels”, so to speak:

  • 1) The Unpresented: Also known as the unnameable, the traumatic Real, the very condition of language that “exists” outside language. The unnameable and unspeakable point where language and the Real coincide (echoing Agamben above).

  • 2) The Presented: The raw “happening” of any particular event, the dimension that makes it unique from anything that has happened before. This level is not outside language, but on the very edge of it: in that it presents itself to us, it does so through symbols and signs, but the meaning of these has not been fixed yet, and all they seem to name is themselves as names. These names are, in linguistics, known as “proper names”.

  • 3) The Represented: The particular set of presented events that are explicitly recognised and given expression (“represented”) by the State.

The numbering here is important, because there is a logical order that exists between these three. First, always first, is the void of the unpresented, the unnameable. It is indifferent; it is everywhere and nowhere; it is what drives us to name, to create language. Then, there is the presented: those novel events that emerge from that void first level, that blatantly present themselves to us, but we lack any suitable images or signs (i.e. representations) that we could use to make them intelligible. Consequently, people make up their own. (Example: clubgoers and DJs begin to pick up on a new “scene”, a new sound, that seems to be emerging and solidifying into form. No available genre name is quite right, though, so, in a messy, collective way, they eventually create and decide upon one.) Finally, we have the represented, the presentation of presentation: the translation of these presented events into fixed symbols or names, which then come to stand in for (i.e. represent) them. (Example: over time, this new genre solidifies into form. It becomes an established genre, gets its own Top 40 chart, begins getting played on the radio, and perhaps even gets taught in the State music curriculum. The consequence of this, of course, is that the genre loses its “soul” — it becomes detached from the unpresented level that originally gave it its edge and novelty and turned into a pure, empty representation.)

We can also observe another pattern as we progress through these ordered levels: they move from the universal to the particular. The void is clearly the most universal; no one, ultimately, can escape it. Indeed, it is so indifferent, so purely empty, that it is almost beyond universality altogether. Then we move up to the presented, which follows the logic of singularity, or uniqueness. At the level of raw presentation, everything is unique, and happening for both the first and last times. The unique presentation is not so much a particular thing as what Deleuze and Guattari, via Duns Scotus, would call a haecceity: a pure happening in its very happening, open and ongoing, rather than retroactively delimited as a fixed particular. (Deleuze and Guattari use the example of a season, an hour, or perhaps a gust of wind: individualities that lack any kind of fixed “body” or form and yet nonetheless exist perfectly as individualities.) Finally, once we have reached the level of the represented, we are in the realm of particularity. Everything here has been given its proper place, its particular position in the State machine. The open, ambivalent happenings of presentation have become “things”, cut off from other things, their relations obfuscated.

From this we can then pinpoint the difference between the working class and the middle class (from a “linguistic” point of view): the working class exist between the unpresented and the presented, while the middle class exist between the presented and the represented7. In other words, to use some somewhat clunky terminology, the working class are “closer” to that unnameable level where language and the Real meet than the middle class, who are more concerned with the third level of representation. (As demonstrated by the classically middle-class activity of “keeping up appearances”.) Although anyone in principle can “access” the first level (see below), the working class tend to confront it more “naturally”, by virtue of their economic position and relation to the State.8 Taken for granted and ignored, and not fluent in the State/Master’s language, the working-class person has essentially two choices: one, play the State/Master’s game, learn its language, and aspire to become middle class (thereby leaving the working class behind); or two, go their own way, aspiring to excellence (through, for example, making music/art/poetry/etc or starting a community project such as a social centre or soup kitchen) while staying “true”, so to speak, to their background. If they pick the latter, they quickly learn that there is no one that can help them apart from their friends, family and those in their community who share their situation, acting through a labour of love without a single guarantee of return. There are no wealthy benefactors or rich parents to finance these endeavours, and funding from the State or any other bureaucracy is scarce, for it is designed for projects that can immediately benefit themselves, rather than the autonomous hopes and dreams of the working-class aspirant. With no pre-available, already-represented “path” that they can simply follow, then, the aspirant is naturally confronted with a void—the unnameable—which humbly reminds them of one sober fact: if they want to do this, they will have to do it themselves. This brush with the void, however, is precisely what makes the aspirant’s work matter: it secures the work’s uniqueness, novelty and value, for it means that without the aspirant and the community behind it, the work would not exist. In other words, this work is something that genuinely can be said to belong to the working-class aspirants and communities that give rise to it.9 The work has not yet been secured and represented by the State, it is not simply another floating image, but instead a fragile, precious, and above all real activity profoundly rooted in the unnameable realities out of which it was given life.

This is what we mean, then, when we say that the working class are naturally (though certainly not exclusively) “closer” to this unnameable level. Now, at this point let us recall that the first level is also the most universal: the unnameable point, the void, in that it is the very condition of language, concerns at the very least everybody. (After all, even though the middle classes (e.g.) are constantly engaged in the activity of repressing this void, in principle any member of them could, should they realise its necessity, dare to face it head-on.) Taking this universality into consideration, we can rephrase our conclusion from the previous paragraph, and say that the working classes are “closer” to a generic universal condition of humanity than the middle classes. As the repressed element of society that people would rather not confront and think about, they are the “part of no part” (Zizek) that unveils the truth of the entire society that they are a part of. Much like the unintended Freudian slip unveils what we were actually thinking buried beneath the stifling layers of egotism and social niceties, those moments where “the mask slips” and we see capitalism’s exploitation of the working class laid bare are when we realise what capitalism—and, perhaps, humanity—genuinely is beneath its projected images of free trade and liberty.10 This is what we are hinting towards when we say that the working class are “closer” to some kind of universal condition.

This statement of universality needs to be very precisely understood, however. First, it is not saying that the working class as they are right now are a kind of universal subject (in the sense that would lead one to say something gross like “we are all working class”). The reason for this is quite simple: inequality, brutally, exists. The working class might be “closer”—whatever that might exactly mean—to a generic universal condition of humanity, but they still retain their particular existence: something most succinctly demonstrated by the fact that crossing an ocean is a life-threatening necessity for refugees, but a luxury cruise for the rich. To ignore this difference is to fall into the Paradox’s trap of romanticisation, yet again; it is to fetishise the working class and to act as if everything they do right now is “progressive” or “good” or “subversive”. (Which is, of course, to patronise and denigrate them; the other trap of the Paradox.) The problem here is that we try and jump to the universal too quickly; we simply copy and paste some particular practice and immediately elevate it to being some kind of universal code of conduct. But this simply reduces the universal to a finite, particular attribute; in other words, something not universal at all.11

Secondly and relatedly, “universal condition of humanity” should not be taken to mean “everybody is the same”. Universality presupposes an “all”, an “everybody” or “everything”; it does not, however, logically follow from this that “everybody is the same” in the sense of “homogeneous”. In short, universality is not identity or homogeneity.

What my argument is saying, then, is that the working class can, potentially, stand in for everybody. One need only consider the usual demands and slogans of proletarian movements to see this in action: whether it be demanding universal healthcare, welfare, or rights, proletarian movements never ask for things for “themselves”, but for everybody, “for all”. The reason for this is the old Marxist point that the working class is the only class whose self-expression involves its self-negation — in other words, the working class is the only class that ultimately seeks to abolish itself, via the abolition of class society and inequality all together.12 It would be absurd, for example, for a proletarian movement to demand things just for the working class. Consider healthcare: if a proletarian movement demanded free healthcare, but only for “working class” people (defined in practice, say, by a certain income level), the implication would be that they are completely fine with rich people a) existing and b) receiving most likely superior private healthcare. This vision, evidently, solves nothing; it is essentially what we have now. Instead, authentic proletarian politics always goes further: it dares to speak for/as an all, and to upend the entire system altogether.13

Proletarian politics is therefore never about representation; it is never about the recognition of the rights of a particular, already-constituted group. Instead, mediating between the unpresented and the presented, all proletarian politics takes the form of a wager, a leap over the unnameable void, a gamble on what it is or could become14. The proletarian movement is constantly taking a chance on itself, testing out what it can do, and, consequently, is never entirely sure of what it is doing, or who exactly it is speaking “for” — and while these issues demand temporary and pragmatic fixes in the heat of any particular political struggle, they are also what ultimately grounds this struggle’s universalism, and its potential to, in principle, upend the entire system.15

When a proletarian movement expresses the demand “Free Healthcare for All”, for example, it is not saying “we are a particular group of people, we believe in universal healthcare, and we want this taken into account and represented”. No — instead, proletarian politics definitively begins when this representationalist frame is smashed open, when the very delimitations on what can even be represented are called into question. Saying “Free Healthcare for All” is not so much about representing the interests of a particular group, but making that very demand sayable for an ever-larger group of people. This is, again—as I have been saying throughout this essay—an expression of the different relationship to language that the working class have compared to, say, the middle class. For the middle class, what matters primarily is what is said: the focus is on “saying the right things”, being “respectable”, conforming to established social and political etiquette, etc. By contrast, though the content of a demand (what it says) clearly also concerns proletarian politics, what perhaps matters more to it is the very fact that such a demand was said at all. It is the very act, the Event, of speaking up—moreso than “who” exactly speaks or “what” is spoken—that counts. This is a decisively more interventionist approach to language than the middle class are used to. The language of proletarian demands is never designed to “represent” a fixed reality, but to immanently cut into and change it. As such, it is impossible to fix a working-class subject of enunciation: for the very saying of a demand recomposes the subject-group that (supposedly) representatively “said” it. And it is precisely this feedback loop, this lack of closure, that ensures the universalism of proletarian politics.

In other words, there is never a definite subject of enunciation behind such proletarian slogans; there is always a little crack, an opening, a lack of closure, which foundationally must be there if the slogan is to speak “for all”. This is not the case for, say, nationalist politics, which is always obsessed with “speaking for” (i.e. representing) an always-already constituted—and above all particular—group of people (those of a particular racial/ethnic/national group). A slogan like “Close the Borders”, for example, is always very clearly spoken by and for an already-constituted, already-recognisable subject (e.g. “the English”), and thereby one with very definite and violent boundaries. Wagering on the universal, proletarian politics—to many on the right’s derision—never has this surety. Its starting point is not an already-given (i.e. a posteriori) subject of experience, but an a priori axiom that cannot be proved, and can only be assumed to be true on faith: “Everyone is equal.” Holding this close to its heart, it leaps into action.


And so, following this long meandering journey through fetishism, class, language, representation, and the State, we are now in a position to conclude why the Paradox is decisively the Paradox of the Proletarian: because it is only the working class that can, potentially, stand in for the whole of humanity; because it is the working class that is “closest” to this unnameable universal “baseline”. What we have done here is not “solve” the Paradox—this was never our intention—but rather indicate and uncover its “source”, which is precisely this: the (difficulty in speaking the) universal. The reason we got caught in paradoxical knots trying to speak of or give a voice to the working class, ending up either romanticising or denigrating them, is precisely because the working class is never “just” the working class as a particular socio-economic category, but always a kind of ambivalent symbol of the “masses” as a whole, the “universal human condition”. The activities of the working class never really belong to “them” as a particular socio-economic or linguistic category, but are instead, directly and immediately, the brute churnings of history, of life, of production… If the working class has an “essence”, then, it is one that can only be active, on the move. Hence why every attempt to name the working class—which, by necessity, must statically fix together symbols and meanings—feels intuitively wrong: a prison cell of particularity.

Indeed, understanding the working class essentially involves us adopting a rather different approach to language than we are usually accustomed to. If we remain at the level of language as a series of literal (which is to say, again, already-constituted, recognised, accepted) meanings, then we will never attain any serious level of understanding of the working-class “essence”, if one can use such a word. Due to its position “between” the unpresented and the presented, as I argued above, the working class is not a subject that can be literally “read” — the outcome of this was those deeply weird sentiments of “paying rent is working-class” or “going to McDonalds is working-class” that we cited in Part I, which, again, can only denigrate or romanticise the working class. Instead of this literal approach, there is a curious sense in which we must approach the working class in the same way that we approach an avant-garde artwork or a religious text: one riddled with allegories, symbolism, and misleading pathways that often lead nowhere. For much like an artwork or poem whose meaning seems only capable of being experienced rather than understood, the “meaning” of the working class is not something that will speak to us in literal, State-approved terms, but can only be experienced as a real historical movement: the visceral coming-to-be of the proletariat. Provided we can step out of the often unhelpful straitjacket of language, therefore, we need not succumb to the Paradox’s paralysis. Indeed, we can even hope to learn from it.

Part III will be posted tomorrow

  1. Also known as “poverty tourism”. 

  2. For clarity’s sake, this is not me arguing that it’s bad for middle-class people to partake in or enjoy the kind of working-class styles, music, cuisines etc invoked here. The issue is the way we approach these various styles that are not “ours”, which I tackle more in Part III. 

  3. The term “working-class culture” is, of course, pretty problematic (as I mention a few paragraphs below this). As long as we are loose and charitable with how we read it however, it works in the context I have used it here. 

  4. Needless to say, my arguments in this post are not designed to apply to these “kinds” of fetishism; instead they are a playful reworking akin to Marx’s “commodity fetishism”. 

  5. This argument is derived from Marx (via Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak”) in The Eighteenth Brumaire, who highlights these two slightly different senses of representation by employing two different German words: vertreten (“stand in for”, “deputise”, “be a representative of” = political representation) and darstellen (to describe or portray = symbolic representation). 

  6. Indeed, the obsession with data and statistics has spread so far that nation-states no longer have a monopoly on it; perhaps one of the most significant political developments of the past 30 years has been the ascent of tech giants like Google, Amazon and Facebook, whose prime commodity is, precisely, data, collected from these platform’s users. What is interesting and perhaps novel is that these companies maintain the State’s acts of symbolic representation, translating people’s real activities into processable bits of data, but jettison entirely any notion of political representation. Neither Google, Amazon nor Facebook make any pretense to represent “the People” as a collective subject, or embody some popular will; indeed, they are essentially predicated on the assumption that such a collective cannot exist. Gone are any notions of collective purpose, interest or desire, replaced with the paltry substitutes of individual tastes and preferences

  7. The reader will probably have noticed by this point that the upper class/bourgeoisie have quietly slipped out of the picture over this preceding section. This is a) for simplicity’s sake, as my argument is really about the middle and working classes, not the bourgeois; and b) because, to be honest, I haven’t figured out how fit entirely into this schema yet. 

  8. A lot of the language here is clunky and hazy. This is not because I’m trying to be willingly obscurantist, but because when you’re trying to describe something that exists outside language, using the right language to describe it becomes exceedingly difficult. 

  9. This is why the majority of genuine cultural/political innovations and revolutions, historically speaking, have come from the bottom up. 

  10. An example I always come back to on this point is the BLM protests last year. Racists hate the slogan “Black Lives Matter” because they mistakenly take it to mean “Only Black Lives Matter”, which they then retorted to with “All Lives Matter”. BLM activists then correctly noted that “Black Lives Matter” doesn’t mean “Only Black Lives Matter”, but rather “All Lives Can’t Matter Until Black Lives Matter”. This is the problem of “jumping too quickly” to the universal in a nutshell. By quickly asserting “All Lives Matter”, the racists were simply reducing that “All” to a particular group—white people. Instead the true universalism here was practiced by the BLM activists, who correctly understood that the only true path to the universal (“all lives matter”) was through the speaking up of a particular group that had been hitherto excluded from this false universal (“black lives matter”). James Joyce, 1922: “In the particular is contained the universal.” BLM protester, 2020: “All lives can’t matter until black lives matter.” 

  11. The middle classes and bourgeoisie, by contrast, are utterly particular, being small protected enclaves that have, over time, climbed out of and built walls to defend themselves from this “generic universal condition”. Consider those family stories that are passed down generations, of how one’s ancestors, at some point, “worked their way up” and finally achieved that mythic escape from wretched poverty—in all of these there is always one recurring theme: they started from “the bottom”. The middle classes and bourgeoisie can only ever define themselves in relation to this kind of generic, universal “baseline” out of which they, at some point, climbed; by contrast, the working class, in their capacity of standing in for this generic universal, need no exterior agent or class in which to define themselves. 

  12. See the The Holy Family passage below on this. (“…it cannot emancipate itself without abolishing the conditions of its own life. It cannot abolish the conditions of its own life without abolishing all the inhuman conditions of life of society today which are summed up in its own situation.”) This is obviously not the case for the bourgeoisie, whose politics ultimately always boil down to a self-interested clinging on to power, and a maintenance of the status quo of inequality. 

  13. The reader may have noted a subtle semantic shift in this paragraph, from “working class” to “proletarian”. I use “proletarian” to designate the working class in its more “active” mode, in its self-realisation. This is necessary because, as our review of the Paradox in Part I demonstrated, one gets caught in linguistic knots whenever one tries to pin down the working class as a transparent, clear, representable subject that does things. 

  14. This is said, more eloquently, by Marx and Engels in The Holy Family – and basically gets to the heart of this piece despite having been written in 1844: “When socialist writers ascribe this world-historic role to the proletariat, it is not at all, as Critical Criticism pretends to believe, because they regard the proletarians as gods. Rather the contrary. Since in the fully-formed proletariat the abstraction of all humanity, even of the semblance of humanity, is practically complete; since the conditions of life of the proletariat sum up all the conditions of life of society today in their most inhuman form; since man has lost himself in the proletariat, yet at the same time has not only gained theoretical consciousness of that loss, but through urgent, no longer removable, no longer disguisable, absolutely imperative need — the practical expression of necessity — is driven directly to revolt against this inhumanity, it follows that the proletariat can and must emancipate itself. But it cannot emancipate itself without abolishing the conditions of its own life. It cannot abolish the conditions of its own life without abolishing all the inhuman conditions of life of society today which are summed up in its own situation. Not in vain does it go through the stern but steeling school of labour. It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, at the moment regards as its aim. It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with this being, it will historically be compelled to do. Its aim and historical action is visibly and irrevocably foreshadowed in its own life situation as well as in the whole organization of bourgeois society today. There is no need to explain here that a large part of the English and French proletariat is already conscious of its historic task and is constantly working to develop that consciousness into complete clarity.” 

  15. The following note perhaps clarifies what I mean by “universalism” here. David Graeber makes a remark somewhere in Debt regarding the tendency for, following great natural or economic disasters, the old identifications of society to temporarily become irrelevant and an instinctual egalitarianism—which he calls “baseline communism”—to kick in. After all, when the world is on fire and livelihoods have been destroyed on a mass scale, whether one is rich or poor simply doesn’t matter any more: the brute priority just to survive temporarily suspends the meaning and use of these kinds of particular identifications. I would add, though, that this doesn’t just happen in apocalyptic scenarios; it also accompanies some of the most joyful and sublime moments of our lives. In amidst the chanting crowd of a protest, rave or football match, there are, occasionally, distinct moments where time seems to contract into a single point, and all the prior identifications and baggage that everyone usually has hanging around their necks become totally irrelevant: all that matters is that each and every one of us is right here, right now, as witnesses to an Event. It is precisely this indifference to difference, this temporary dissolution of particularities, that proletarian politics aspires to—and it can only do this by daring to take the centre stage, by daring to speak “for all”. 

To support underscore__ you can subscribe below to receive email alerts of new posts, or buy me a coffee here: