David Cameron likes to talk a lot about the working people of Britain and how the Conservatives are behind them in their project of being busy working people. If we’re careful to avoid the Puritan deification of work, we can agree that the project of holding down a job and working one’s way through the ranks has a lot to be said for it. There is a sense in which holding down any job at all, in the short- to medium-term, uplifts people and gets them out of depressive self-centeredness. But in the longer term it’s irresponsible not to look at one’s work in the context of the national and international economies. And when we do this we find that Cameron is inviting the middle classes to vote him and his friends in for selfish reasons and then assuage the guilt by indulging in a narrative about being a working person.

I’ll explain how I think this works. First consider people in the lower classes. The Tories say that they aim to crack down on “benefit scroungers”: people who choose to take money from the state to survive instead of finding a job. Putting aside all the unkindness with which they implement these crackdowns, in the best possible version of this they are pitting people on benefits against people who are not on benefits but are basically equally wealthy. Their policies aim to make those who are working rather than on benefits better off and pull the rug out from some of those on benefits. They want to widen the notion of “fit to work” and narrow the notion of “not fit to work right now.” So they suggest to those working that they should vote selfishly to improve their own odds at the cost of people who are basically equivalently wealthy but aren’t supporting the economy with their labour, on the grounds that putting labour into the economy makes one more worthy.

Now we do as I said I think we need to and look at the bigger picture. The truth is that most jobs in our consumer economy are not worth doing. We keep everyone busy by making the numbers go up with economic growth, but people are not becoming more virtuous and suffering is not decreasing (outside of the poorest of countries, where poverty reduction is reducing suffering). Since the majority of those in the working classes don’t have access to jobs outside of the suffering-generating parts of the economy, the choice is between living off benefits (for good or bad reasons) and contributing to the suffering-generating consumer economy. Doing the latter is not more noble than doing the former. Both are just cases of people getting by to the extent that the world will let them.

The story for the middle classes is a little different. Such people have more substantially built-up careers than those in the lower classes, so they are more attached to them. The Tory invitation is to indulge this attachment: it is to say that having worked ones way through a career hierarchy is a noble thing that deserves to be rewarded by voting selfishly in favour of a party that will make one better off at the expense of others who live more precarious existences. A lot of these careers have the same status that I just discussed: all those managers of businesses are in many cases just generating suffering. But let’s consider those careers that aren’t. In these cases, what’s to be admired is doing the work each day, not the having climbed the ladder and secured a middle class economic position in society, which is selfish activity at best and a matter of luck at worst. But Cameron invites people to vote selfishly with a story for covering that up by concentrating on how building up one’s economic position is such a noble thing.

A few weeks ago I spent a little time reading a thread on reddit where someone had asked, “those who voted Tory, please explain why.” My Labour-supporting friends and family are asking this kind of question and feeling mystified, and it seems we’re not alone. The view that came up a lot was the idea that there is not really such a thing as society in the socialist sense of that term, just a bunch of families living in proximity. And as far as their family was concerned, the Tories would leave them better off. They felt very attached to the struggle they’ve been through in working hard to put their family in the financial position it’s in, and so they’re attached to keeping that position. In this post I’ve tried to explain how I think the Tories turned this attachment to their advantage.