Mind the Gap: Cultural Cleavage and the Idea of the ‘Common People’

A specter is haunting the current political discourse, the specter of cultural cleavage. More and more observers see the emergence of a socio-cultural gap between a hegemonic, globalist, educated class and an underrepresented, locally anchored underclass. The titles of two studies speak volumes: Cleavage Politics and the Populist Right (2010) by sociologist Simon Bornschier, and "The Class Basis of the Cleavage between the New Left and the Radical Right" (2012) by political scientist Daniel Oesch. Meanwhile, French philosopher Guillaume Paoli observes a cultural confrontation between two societal blocs.1 And in his recent work on the "society of singularities,” German sociologist Andreas Reckwitz postulates a new "cultural class divide"—a polarizing dichotomy between a "new middle class" equipped with high levels of cultural and economic capital and a "new underclass" lacking all of this.2

These social formations are linked to a certain understanding of space and place. In The Road to Somewhere (2017) journalist David Goodhart distinguishes conservative and often nationalist "somewheres" from liberal and progressive "anywheres.” In a similar way sociologist Wolfgang Merkel and others discuss the gap between cosmopolitanism and communitarianism.3 Common to all these diagnoses is the significance of culture. Culture seems to be what divides the two shifting classes: the "new middle class" and the "new underclass.” As Reckwitz puts it, "Polarization on the level of education and cultural capital is the central feature of social structure in late modern society.”4

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The theory of such a cultural gap is closely linked to a specific understanding of right-wing populism and its recent successes. Trump voters in the United States, Brexiteers in the United Kingdom, AfD and Pegida supporters in Germany, as well as National Front (now National Rally) voters and yellow vests in France seem to be products of a growing alienation of working-class people from liberal elites and the political establishment. Observers claim the main problem in Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign was the absurd distance between the issues of liberal identity politics and the "common people" out there in flyover country or the Rust Belt. As a result, countless recent publications demonstrate new interest in the "other half" of society, from Arlie Russell Hochschild's Strangers in their Own Land to Darren McGarvey's Poverty Safari, whose telling subtitle reads “Understanding the Anger of Britain's Working-Class.”5 The social autobiographies of Annie Ernaux, Didier Eribon, Édouard Louis, Chantal Jaquet, J. D. Vance, Tara Westover, and many others are hugely successful right now because they hold out the promise of a better understanding of the social circumstances that gave rise to authoritarian political populism. Moreover, all these books essentially deal with social and cultural gaps.

On closer examination, however, the gap discourse proves a questionable model. Purporting to be an explanatory pattern for understanding right-wing populism better, it paradoxically confirms the central populist narrative that invokes the "common people" against left-liberal minority and identity politics. In my on-going research, I examine and historicize this model and its two key elements: the intellectual construct "cultural cleavage" and the related idea of the "common people.” I draw on the case of Germany in order to show that the problem of distance between the educated elites and the "common people" has been discussed in similar terms for at least 150 years, if not longer.

Employing a history of knowledge approach opens up the conundrum we face here by helping us to understand the interrelated ideas of the "gap" and the "common people.” It can make use of concepts like "crisis,” "authenticity," and "heartland" to grasp the dynamics of ideological positioning, on the one hand, and the relative self-positioning of "the elites" and "the people,” on the other hand. And it allows us to draw connections between historical and present-day situations.

The rhetoric of the "gap" rehearses discourses from around 1900, when conservative, German-speaking academics intensely discussed cultural cleavage, that is, a worrying gap between the educated class and the working class. This was also when Volk in the sense of “common people” (gemeines Volk) became an increasingly prevalent keyword in public debate. The formation of folklore studies—Volkskunde—in the 1890s is a good example for the significance of the gap discourse at that time. As German folklorist Anita Bagus has brilliantly shown, the main argument for the creation of folklore studies as a new discipline was the gap between intellectuals and the "common people.”

Folklore studies was established by a group of academic outsiders who criticized the educational mainstays of the establishment in Imperial Germany: the knowledge of experts on education as well as the humanistic tradition of classical studies.6 For authors like Friedrich Paulsen (1846–1908), Albrecht Dieterich (1866–1908), Adolf Strack (1860–1906), and others, the "cleavage between the people and the educated classes" was the key issue of their time. In 1900, folklorist Eugen Mogk (1854–1939) defined Volk as "the social layers who did not obtain a scientific education and whose thinking and feeling is not restricted by the straitjacket of logical consistency and due consideration.”7 Furthermore, he stated that the cleavage between academics and the "common people" was due to the arrogant and elitist attitude of academics toward folk culture.8 According to this discourse, the basic reasons for cultural cleavage were cultural alienation, misunderstanding and elitist arrogance. Folklore studies was promoted as a way to overcome the gap.

We can find the same kind of thinking within middle-class social movements, also around 1900—the German youth movement and the various branches of cultural and educational reform. All these movements embraced the gap diagnosis and an image of the "common people" and "folk culture" as the sources from which society’s fundamental renewal should come. In the 1920s, this discourse intensified. In 1921, Paul Natorp (1854–1924), one of the masterminds of the German educational movement at the time, called for narrowing the gap between the educated and workers with his slogan: "Work and intellect, intellect and work have to find each other.”9

Volk was crucial to many concepts of how to form a new, alternative elite that could bring German society out of its crisis. In this thought-world, true leadership was based on proximity to and knowledge of the people. At the same time, this proximity and knowledge legitimized the new elite. In this way, the idea of the Volk was directed against the German plutocracy ruled by economic, technical, and functional elites. Its adherents also used it to take aim at American democracy and the modernity of ostensibly Americanized mass culture. Of course, it was also directed against the Social Democrats who gained power and influence from the 1890s. Folklorists and social reformers claimed to be the real friends of the "common people.” They pretended to be the ones who could heal the wounds of social division.

To cut a long story short, the logic and the function of the gap discourse in different historical constellations deserves scrutiny, from discussions about the Volk in the 1890s to current ideologies of right-wing populism. From the perspective of a history of knowledge, there are four points of special interest:

  1. The gap discourse and the concept of the "common people" are important elements of what we might call "intellectual populism,” driven by the educated classes who seek self-legitimization in their embrace of a certain conception of the Volk.
  2. Second, we can understand intellectual populism as a mode of dealing with societal crisis and its effects on established knowledge.
  3. The gap discourse is a mode of making social inequality a cultural phenomenon At the same time, knowledge about societal crises oscillates between social and cultural explanations.
  4. The idea of the "common people" serves as a regulative idea that shapes positioning and competition within the intellectual field. Pierre Bourdieu has made exactly this point:

To throw some light on discussions about the “people” and the “popular,” one need only bear in mind that the “people” or the “popular” . . . is first of all one of the things at stake in the struggle between intellectuals. The fact of being or feeling authorized to speak about the “people” or of speaking for . . . the “people” may constitute, in itself, a force in the struggles within different fields.”10

If we consider the knowledge dynamics of the "common people" as a concept in such fashion, we can certainly use it as an analytic approach toward a better understanding of class relations in social and political history.

Jens Wietschorke is currently a Heisenberg Fellow of the German Research Foundation at the Institute for European Ethnology, University of Vienna.

  1. Guillaume Paoli, Die lange Nacht der Metamorphose: Über die Gentrifizierung der Kultur (Berlin: Matthes & Seitz, 2017). ↩︎
  2. Andreas Reckwitz, Die Gesellschaft der Singularitäten: Zum Strukturwandel der Moderne (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2017), 277. ↩︎
  3. David Goodhart, The Road to Somewhere: The New Tribes Shaping British Politics (London: Penguin 2017); Wolfgang Merkel, “Kosmopolitismus versus Kommunitarismus: Ein neuer Konflikt in der Demokratie,” in Parties, Governments and Elites, ed. Philipp Harfst (Wiesbaden: Springer, 2017), 9–23. ↩︎
  4. Reckwitz, Die Gesellschaft der Singularitäten, 280. ↩︎
  5. Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (New York: The New Press, 2016); Darren McGarvey, Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain's Underclass (Edinburgh: Luath Press Limited, 2017). ↩︎
  6. Anita Bagus, Volkskultur in der bildungsbürgerlichen Welt: Zum Institutionalisierungsprozeß wissenschaftlicher Volkskunde im wilhelminischen Kaiserreich am Beispiel der Hessischen Vereinigung für Volkskunde (Gießen: Universitätsbibliothek Gießen, 2005), 312. ↩︎
  7. Eugen Mogk, “Sitten und Gebräuche im Kreislauf des Jahres,” in Sächsische Volkskunde, ed. Robert Wuttke (Dresden: Schönfeld’s Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1900), 274. ↩︎
  8. Bagus, Volkskultur, 313. ↩︎
  9. Paul Natorp, “Die Erziehung der Jugend zum Gemeinschaftssinn,” Akademisch-Soziale Monatsschrift 5, no. 1 (1921), 5. ↩︎
  10. Pierre Bourdieu, The Uses of the "People,” in Bourdieu, In Other Words: Essays Towards a Reflexive Sociology, trans. Matthew Adamson (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), 150. ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Jens Wietschorke, “Mind the Gap: Cultural Cleavage and the Idea of the ‘Common People’,” History of Knowledge, May 30, 2019, https://historyofknowledge.net/2019/05/30/mind-the-gap/.