I have a good friend, an Italian who lives in Milano, who for a while was the head of the youth organization of the Italian Communist Party. One day he was walking across one of the major Milanese piazzas, and had an epiphany, which he later described very simply. “I shouted, ‘There is no working class!’”
A bit later he left the Party to become a newspaper and book editor — and an invaluable guide to the workings of European Communism. But I want to focus on that epiphany, because it’s both rare and important. It’s rare, since very few true believers have the honesty and courage to blurt out a truth that puts paid to their entire worldview and compels them to abandon a career, which in his case was already very successful and held the promise of even greater things. And it’s important because it underlines the intimate relationship between our ideas and the real world.
The epiphany was a fine example of one of Hegel’s basic insights, which is that the world is constantly changing, and ideas must accordingly be updated, or become anachronisms. So it was with “working class,” a concept that accurately described a group in a society at a certain stage of industrial development, as in 18th- and 19th-century England and Europe. For much of that period, “working class” helped understand what was going on, and it helped policy makers deal with very real problems. There were working-class parties, scholars who specialized in studying the working class, politicians who made careers by representing working-class districts, and so forth.
But the world changed, and in the modern postindustrial societies, the working class vanished. There aren’t working-class parties any more, since there aren’t enough voters who think of themselves that way. And honest politicians like my Italian friend gave it up, updated their thinking, and tried to cope with today’s problems.
In this process, there are plenty of people who can’t update their thinking. They’re easy to recognize, because they write and talk about a world that no longer exists. The easiest places to find them in contemporary America are Hollywood, college campuses, and the Obama administration with its attendant satellites, the dead tree media and the Democrat Party. Their common bond is anger and frustration; frustration because they can’t understand what’s going on, and anger because their remedies for contemporary problems do not come to grips with the essence of the problems.