In the last few weeks, I have been reading and thinking a lot about the political crisis in America, working class culture, the effects of rapist capitalism, and so on. I am formulating the notion that the great, ongoing social injustice in the western/developed world is not racism, sexism, genderism, or the effects of colonialism, but anti-working class (by which I mean the class that used to create the wealth through physical and menial rather than intellectual labour) classism.
This is not to say that those other things are NOT still problems, but they are problems that are being addressed through critical analysis, through activist and mainstream politics, through policies and programs, and so on, and real (if slow) progress is being made. I don’t think the same thing can be said about the plight of the (former) working class.
It cannot be denied that a massive social change occurred in developed economies over the last 50 years with the off-shoring of manufacturing jobs to low-wage, low-regulation developing nations, the rapid introduction of labour-eliminating technologies into whatever production remains, and the industrialization of agriculture and elimination of the subsistence family farm. In the process, advanced economies shed millions of jobs.
Almost all of those jobs had belonged to a class of people that had been consciously created and disciplined over the previous century to fill precisely this function in society. A vast pool of people was made obsolete by the demands of capitalism for ever greater profits squeezed out through efficiencies (what Marx called “relative surplus value”). And these people had developed a class culture that helped them cope with the exploitation of their labour, but which made it very difficult for them to transition to the new “knowledge economy.”
Meanwhile, the capitalist state was dismantling what little social safety nets had been created to support this class, through the demonization of taxes and regulations and the introduction of the concept of trickle-down economics. Ironically, such ideologies-instituted-as-policies had a real appeal to the working class whose work was vanishing, because they had a deep cultural pride in their self-sufficiency, a deep suspicion if not hatred of handouts and welfare: they truly believed in the (North) American Dream.
The promises of a Reagan—that such policies would create new jobs for them, would make welfare unnecessary, would perhaps enable them to create their own businesses—made good sense to them, and they switched their political allegiance from the Liberals/NDP/Democrats to the Conservatives/Republicans. But it didn’t really make a lot of difference to their prospects, because the Liberals/NDP/Democrats had already abandoned them as a priority.
A real problem, in North America in particular, is that any sort of consciousness or acknowlegement of class was suppressed, so the working class never saw themselves as such, never recognized their exploitation, never realized that their interests were at odds with those of the middle class—the low-level managers, the lower professions, public servants, and so on. They had the same aspirations, and generally they were paid well enough (at least from the 1940s to the 1970s) to live in the same neighbourhoods, to have a lifestyle that differed little from that of their neighbours who were foremen or teachers or small merchants.
They might always be broke, living from paycheque to paycheque, but with easy credit they could live in a nice house, drive a late-model car, and put their kids in hockey and piano lessons. In the sixties and seventies, with exploding post secondary and cheap tuition fees, there was even the possibility of sending their kids to college in the hopes that the kids wouldn’t have to work as hard as they themselves did.
So when their jobs disappeared, and they couldn’t find new jobs (as they’d always been able to do before, through their networks of friends and relatives and their general lack of specialization), they were in a state of denial. They could not comprehend the depth and breadth of the change that was occurring in society. They thought it was just a bad patch—they were used to recessions and lay-offs, and they’d always got back on their feet before. When that didn’t happen, they blamed some failure in themselves, turned against themselves, at the same time that those who were already in the knowledge economy—those in and with power and privilege—turned against them, chided them for not being able to adapt, continued to pull any shreds of rug that were left out from under them.
Because a culture (including life habits and expectations) does not change quickly, most working class kids did not go to post-sec, but got married and pregnant (or vice versa) early, had a lot of kids, and financed a lifestyle similar to that of their parents and neighbours through unstable employment and easy, addictive debt. They clung to the shreds of the (North) American Dream that they’d been force-fed since birth by celebrity culture and network TV.
Meanwhile they were being preyed upon by talk radio, sleazy evangelists, state-run gambling, prescription-happy doctors, and illicit drug dealers. In confusion and desperation, they bought whatever cheap hope (or oblivion) they could get their hands on. They, of course, looked back at a past in which they had stable jobs, could supprt their families, had some dignity, and even had some simple pleasures, and dreamed that it would come back.
They believed politicians who held out illusory hope; they latched on to any lame-brained theory that seemed to explain their predicament and for which there seemed to be some evidence (such as the notion that immigrants and refugees were taking all the “good” jobs: hell, Mexicans and Indians were running all of the motels and restaurants and dollar stores everywhere); and they resented the fact that a lot of attention was being paid to the problems of women and other minorities (sic!) when nothing was being done for them, no one was speaking to their plight or taking up their cause (except the odd red-neck country musician like Willie Nelson, now and again).
Of course, the left, the Democrats, the NDP, all the traditional advocates for the working classes had shifted their attention to other things: racism, sexism, genderism, colonialism. And that politics became offensive, self-righteous, judgmental, and intolerant through so-called political correctness campaigns and various forms of in-fighting and witch-hunting. It also spoke a college-learned language that made no sense to the under-educated working class.
The simple (white) working-class desire for decent jobs, dignity, and the ability to support their families (which they saw idealized in a vanishing past) was recast by “liberals” as a reactionary wish to return to a racist, sexist, homophobic past when whites had privilege; this mostly on the basis of the crap spouted by the talk radio/TV hosts, the shouting evangelical preachers, and the reactionary redneck politicians who spoke to the working class whites in their own language.
[Generally unnoticed and left unspoken is the fact that, historically, working-class blacks and whites were, by and large, way more integrated in their workplaces, in their neighbourhoods, in their schools, and in their friendships than was the case in the middle and upper classes. There was more equality between the sexes too: they struggled together to keep their families afloat in equally shitty jobs with more or less equally shitty wages and insecurity. Indeed, working class women were more likely than men to get a bit of post-sec education and assume better (pink-collar) jobs; it was not at all uncommon for a production-line labourer or construction worker to be married to a nurse or a court clerk. True, there was probably more domestic violence against women than in the “higher” classes, but there was violence everywhere by everybody against everybody: it was a culture that tended to resort to violence as a means of conflict resolution.]
What was in fact a sad continuation of the several-hundred-year-old class struggle within capitalism—sad because the working class now was totally without power or allies, had only exploiters, not of their labour, but of their pain and resentment—was re-written as a culture war: a war (for christ’s sake) between an enlightened, liberating, forward-looking culture and a racist, sexist, willfully blinkered reactionary one. Having been made obsolete by the capitalist mode of production, the white working class has been written off culturally and politically, pretty much obliterated from consideration (except by truly reactionary exploiters).
In an ironically racist twist, the black working class—which suffered exactly the same devastating socio-economic blow and many of the same consequences as the whites—has been at least partially protected from obliteration, from invisibility, by the colour of its skin.
Nancy Isenberg, White Trash (2016).
Karl Marx, Capital, three volumes (1867-1883).
Sarah Smarsh, Heartland (2018).
J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy (2016).