There is an elephant in the room during this Presidential election cycle, and it is called the “working class.”
Perhaps we should qualify that statement by nothing that the elephant is really a white elephant, i.e., the white working class, the constituency which by many accounts is responsible for the totally unanticipated surge of Donald Trump’s candidacy. Dictionary.com defines a white elephant as “a possession unwanted by the owner but difficult to dispose of” as well as “a possession entailing great expense out of proportion to its usefulness or value to the owner.”
The term originated in the mid-19th century from apocryphal stories that the King of Siam had a habit of giving a “gift” of a white elephant to obnoxious courtiers, whom he wanted to punish and ruin because of the unmanageable cost of the animal’s upkeep.
Both these definitions and etymologies are quite apt as metaphors of the current politics of the white working class. They suggest that the this particular constituency is something the leadership of neither party wants, but can’t really “gift” to the other side without seriously jeopardizing its November electoral margins, especially in the swing states. But each party in a distinctive way is stuck with them.
The Republicans don’t want them (or at least the Republican establishment doesn’t), because they have defiantly repudiated the Republican conservative economic orthodoxy of free trade, expanding international commerce, and limited taxes, an agenda that always implies the reduction of entitlement benefits. The Democrats tend to slough them off because of their support for traditional values in the ongoing culture wars and because of an emerging white identity politics, which I have written about on this site, that more often than not trenches on what the new critical theory, as opposed to legal discourse, identifies as racism.
As Derek Thompson writing in The Atlantic points out, this new voting bloc, which can be easily misinterpreted if we simply label them “populist,” do not fit – and, in fact, are likely to explode – what have become well-accepted, ideologically comfortable, and self-reinforcing narratives, especially among academics and the doyens of the commentariat. Nor do they jibe at all with recognizable party platforms.
Thompson, citing a study by the Rand corporation, notes that
voters who agreed with the statement “people like me don’t have any say about what the government does” were 86.5 percent more likely to prefer Trump. This feeling of powerlessness and voicelessness was a much better predictor of Trump support than age, race, college attainment, income, attitudes towards Muslims, illegal immigrants, or Hispanic identity.
Over the last few decades conventional political narratives have tended to recast American voting patterns in terms of social, cultural, and ethnic identity rather than what used to be called “class interest.” Thus we talk frequently about the “women’s vote,” the “African-American vote,” etc. but rarely mention the “working class” anymore as a significant constituency, even though we still genuflect before the old saw that in many respects, as Bill Clinton’s now almost hackneyed adage during the 1992 campaign underscored, it “is the economy, stupid!”
The perceived “voicelessness” of the working class may be, in fact, the real joker in the deck of this election. The standard narrative, as the socialist magazine The Jacobin (which calls itself “a leading voice of the American left”) fulminates in a recent article entitled “Burying the White Working Class”, is that any progressive agenda no longer requires white workers, because the future lies in a grand coalition of ethnic minorities, historically marginalized social identity groupings, and the cultural, esthetic, and intellectual avant-garde.
“Liberal condescension towards white workers is code for a broader anti-working class agenda”, Connor Kilpatrick declaims. By adding the specific modifier “white” to the the historic, “universal” genre that Karl Marx named the proleteriat, “liberalism” – or, more precisely, neo-liberalism – effectively is able to strangle all revolutionary sentiments in the process of gestation by tainting them with the age-old moral pathologies that have always accompanied social class resentments in the first place.
Before World War I the Social Democrats said much the same about the peasantry – they were hopelessly backward in their values and incurably religious in their thinking – as today’s bi-coastal elites – not just progressives but also conservatives – tend to talk about the Midwestern and Southern small-town dwellers and displaced industrial workers of the Rust Belt. But it was these “backward” people who eventually became the backbone of both the Russian and Chinese revolutions.
History aside, the “whiteness” of the working class has become something of a distraction for radical politics, according to Kilpatrick, ignoring the fact that fomenting racist antagonism has always been a divide-and-conquer strategy favored by economic and social elites. As far as America is concerned, Kilpatrick argues, it is as much about class as it is race, something which “cultural Marxists” who shifted the conversation over a generation ago were loathe to recognize. “No matter how you slice it, the working class — while not quite Wes-Anderson-movie-white — is really damn white.”
The argument may seem increasingly compelling, particularly now that the harsh reality of widening economic inequality and the loss of class mobility is becoming impossible to deny. However, so-called “critical race theory,” which has evolved apace with the late twentieth and early twenty-first century socio-cultural hermeneutics that challenged early on orthodox Marxist analyses of social injustices, would argue racism is no simple epiphenomenon of class struggle. It is inherent in the structure of economic domination itself.
Edward Baptist’s brilliant history of capitalism titled The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, for example, shows in striking detail how the “peculiar institution” of slavery was intimately interwoven with America’s rapid ascent from rural arcadia to industrial powerhouse from the War of Independence onward. Furthermore, the inscription of racist sentimentalities and the privileging of “whiteness” in the social consciousness of the proto-capitalist order allowed for a more efficient deployment of land, labor, and money which ultimately enslaved not only blacks, but white urban industrial workers.
At the same time, the class issue will not go away, and it thrusts into full relief an “inconvenient truth” about the political rhetoric that tends to overshadow the upcoming fall elections. The issue boils down to the changing nature of the American economy and the new underclass of those who lack the proper education for “competing”, as the neo-liberal patois tends to parse it, in the emerging system of global production and consumption.
The underclass is not only white; it is multi-cultural and multi-ethnic, and its increasing domination and dispossession by those own the new “means of production” in the post-industrial world where it is computer algorithms, advanced technical degrees, and advertising images rather than Fordist assembly lines that generate wealth (think the new “robber barons” of Google, Facebook, Uber, AirBnb, etc.) that is pushing the political equilibrium toward some kind of seismic upheaval.
As prominent progressive journalist Thomas Frank points out in his trenchant and savage best-seller Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, the real source of income inequality is the fact that the vastly enhanced economic productivity of the digital revolution since the 1980s has gone not to those who pull the levers to made the ever cheaper goods we all enjoy, but to those who control the knowledge base whereby they are more efficiently made.
Before the late 1970s, productivity and wage growth had always increased in unison— as workers made more stuff, they earned more money. But by the early 1990s, the two had clearly separated. Workers made more stuff than ever before, but they …weren’t reaping the profits from it. Wall Street was.
Taking the same cue as the editors of The Jacobin, Frank excoriates the Democratic party, particularly its Washington and bi-coastal urban establishment that is presently rallying around the Clinton candidacy, for prioritizing the culture wars over the last thirty years at the expense of the economic crisis. He also assails the common nostrum trotted out by the same “liberal” elites that the key to economic inequality is not redistribution, but simply more education.
This was a massive and fundamental disorder, but one thing it was not was a failure of education. Had the problem been one of inadequate worker skills, productivity would not have been increasing so fast. The real problem was one of inadequate worker power, not inadequate worker smarts. The people who produced were losing their ability to demand a share in what they made. The people who owned were taking more and more. (59)
If this trend sounds a lot like what Marx called the “immiseration” of the working classes brought about by the excessive accumulation and appropriation of “surplus value”, well, it is. But Frank notes, rightly if not counterintuitively, that it is the knowledge society itself that privileges education and the manipulation of symbols, largely through ubiquitous communications and computerization, that has created a whole new form of capital as well as “capitalists”, who turn out not to be the same kind of people your professor in college told you they were.
It is you, who probably hold an advanced degree of some sort and are reading this article. You, of course, like the kind of “petty capitalists” Marx himself singled out in the 1850s, are probably caught up in the cycle of immiseration when you recognize that not only are you up to your false eyebrows in student debt, which today’s global financial moguls underwrite, but that the economic value of your degree is becoming less and less.
The same point is made forcefully, albeit more arcanely and philosophically, by the Parisian sociologist and philosopher Maurizio Lazzarato in his epochal book The Making of Indebted Man: An Essay on the Neo-Liberal Condition. The new symbolic economies of the planet are powered by debt, he argues, by an “infinite debt” that is constantly differentiating itself by new forms of knowledge (“machinic signification”) and enforcing the requirement that all be subjected to the protocols of this knowledge. This new purely virtual “empire of capital”, as I myself have argued, not only enslaves us all, but ultimately enslaves in the worst way possible the unproductive populations, i.e., the historic working class.
As the history of political economy drives home to us, when class conflict exacerbated by the “contradictions” of the prevailing system reach a certain point of no return, there are completely unanticipated – and often not very appealing – “evental” consequences. We are nearing that point with the 2016 elections, and if we are caught off guard by what happens, it is our own damn fault.
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