Back during the Presidential election in 1984, when I was a sophomore at Rutgers University, I went to see Walter Mondale at the State Theater in downtown, New Brunswick, New Jersey. Even though Mondale, a colorless liberal Democrat who got creamed in the general election, invoked Bruce Springsteen so many times I thought he was a music critic, he never once used the term “working class.” In 1984, we were all “middle-class.” In 2016, the working-class has reemerged onto the political debate.
Spoiler alert: I have no real answers. I am not a journalist, an economist, a political theorist, or a labor activist. I have not traveled extensively, and have no direct first hand knowledge of the “working class” outside of the places where I have lived. If I can speak with any authority at all, it’s mainly because I grew up at the tail end of New Deal America, and was able to attend a fairly reputable state university without going deeply into debt. If can find an audience (you), it’s mainly because in the 1990s the American ruling-class decided to make the Internet commercially available to the public. My thoughts about the working-class are only impressionistic musings.
So what am I? I guess the vernacular term would be “a bum.” In spite of a fairly good education, I have not been able to work my way into the middle-class. I do not belong to a union, a professional society, a church, or any kind of civic organization. I have no place in society, no family, no wife or kids, and no steady employment. I have “white privilege.” In fact, as a white Protestant with four native-born grandparents, I suppose I qualify as a “real American,” even in the eyes of Ann Coulter or Donald Trump, but all of that is meaningless. The overwhelming reality for most Americans is what they do for a living, and I do nothing. I am a member of what Scrooge called “the surplus-population,” or what Karl Marx more accurately defined as The Reserve Army of Labor.
“capitalistic accumulation itself… constantly produces, and produces in the direct ratio of its own energy and extent, a relatively redundant population of workers, i.e., a population of greater extent than suffices for the average needs of the valorisation of capital, and therefore a surplus-population… It is the absolute interest of every capitalist to press a given quantity of labour out of a smaller, rather than a greater number of laborers, if the cost is about the same… The more extended the scale of production, the stronger this motive. Its force increases with the accumulation of capital.”
At times I am deeply pessimistic. I am a member of a Reserve Army of Labor that’s unlikely to be of much use during my lifetime. While the United States would certainly by any definition still qualify as a “great industrial power,” the computer I’m typing on was made in China. The car you drive was probably made in Mexico and assembled in the right-to-work American south. I am far too old to be of much use to the service industry, or to get onto any kind of track for any kind of skilled position. Who would train a fifty year old when there’s a vast supply of unemployed twenty year olds? I cannot afford Obamacare. At age fifty-one, I am long past my physical prime, and if I have not yet joined that epidemic of white middle-aged people dying before their time, it’s mainly because of a rugged physique, good genetics, and a puritanical upbringing that kept me from ever getting too caught up in drugs, sex or alcohol. Yet I can only last so long. What purpose can I possible serve? I am like an antiquated warship, permanently mothballed, and waiting to be towed to the Chittagong Ship Breaking Yard.
Nevertheless, if there’s a silver lining in the very black cloud that is the Presidential election of 2016, it’s this. The system that has filed me away as useless is beginning to crack up. The post-Bretton-Woods capitalism that has outsourced most of the economy to Bangladesh or Central America has taken off the mask and revealed itself to be the ugly monster it is. Politicians, who for decades avoided the subject like the plague, are once again talking about the “working class.” The elite neoliberalism of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama has proven itself insufficient to keep order, for it has run smack into its central contradiction. The neo-fascism of Donald Trump has stepped in to paper over the cracks.
For the Ivy League educated, professional class in Park Slope, Cambridge, Princeton, Silicon Valley, or Washington, D.C., the disappearance of the American working class is not a thing to be mourned. On the contrary, rich liberals have no objection to the idea that Asian, Mexican, or Indian workers will do the manual labor while the United States becomes one big London, Paris or Manhattan, an administrative and financial center with a need for service workers, but not industrial or clerical workers, “Cloud City” from the old Star Trek series where a chosen few people of color are allowed to join the elite, and where the dirty work is done far away, and in a foreign language. The problem is what to do with the existing working class, especially the existing “white working class,” in places like Scranton, Pennsylvania, Sandusky, Ohio, or Flint, Michigan. Not everybody can, or would even want to learn how to code Java. There can only be so many hedge fund managers and political consultants. What do you with people who simply have no economic reason to exist? There’s no place in Cloud City for the “Unnecessariat.”
For the Clinton campaign in 2016, and for liberal elite as a whole, the answer was to divide and conquer the working class along racial issues, then try to forget about it. Supporters of Bernie Sanders, an old New Deal liberal, were dismissed as racists and sexists. Black and Latino workers were flattered as bourgeoisie in embryo, a natural elite held back only by racism. Then they were disappeared entirely. The “white working-class” was demonized as primitive and regressive, people who by virtue of their “white privilege” should already be rich, but who have instead chosen instead to spend their time watching professional wrestling and monster truck rallies, and killing themselves with prescription opiates.
If people behaved in a purely rational manner, the white, black, Latino and Asian working-class would have already united behind a revolutionary agenda to destroy capitalism. The New York Stock Exchange and the Goldman Sachs Building would be a smouldering ruin, but as Louis Althusser has demonstrated in his seminal work Contradiction and Overdetermination, that’s not the way it works in the real world. Asians and Latins, divided by class and nationality, played a surprisingly small role in the Presidential election of 2016. While the Clinton campaign did use Chicano activist Dolores Huerta to drive a wedge between Latinos and the Sanders campaign, by the time Hillary Clinton secured the nomination in July she felt so confident of Latino support she chose the white Virginian Tim Kaine as her Vice Presidential nominee. While Asians, with the ascendancy of China to the status of economic superpower, probably make up the majority of the world’s “industrial proletariat,” Asian Americans are rarely, if ever thought of as “working class” but instead as petty bourgeois and upwardly mobile. The historic Presidency of Barack Obama, the Clinton campaign’s use of Civil Rights icons like John Lewis, and fear of Donald Trump have effectively preempted rebellion by the black working-class, and they largely stayed within the neoliberal corporate mainstream.
It was the “white working class,” a term popularized by Hillary Clinton during her losing run against Barack Obama, that came to be identified with the working class as a whole. In 2016, the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party under Hillary Clinton — largely in order to tamp down a liberal insurgency of Bernie Sanders — decided to do a 180 degree about face from their position in 2008. No longer the candidate of “hard working white people,” Hillary Clinton became their scourge. Even though black people were impacted much more severely by the financial crisis of 2008 than white people, pro-Clinton neoliberals managed to define any move towards a class-based campaign as racist and sexist. The black working-class was an enlightened middle-class in embryo, held back only by racism. The white working class was backwards and regressive. It became a self-fulfilling prophesy. Largely pushed out of the Democratic Party in the name of an alliance between the white liberal elite, Latino and black Americans, and lacking the institutional support or historical consciousness to move to the left, the “white working-class” moved precipitously to the right. In fact, it moved so far to the right that they wound up helping to put the neo-fascist Donald Trump in the White House.
To understand why the “white working-class” chose fascism over socialism, we need to understand the history of the New Deal. New Deal America wasn’t social democracy. It was, for lack of a better term, libertarians would call a “warfare welfare state.” Franklin Roosevelt was essentially a conservative who used the idea of socialism against itself. It was not the New Deal that wrenched the American economy out of the Great Depression. It was the Second World War and the collapse of Western Europe. The golden age of the “white working-class” from 1945 to 1973 depended on American imperial hegemony, not on Keynesian make work programs. Even if the United States had not suffered from the self-inflicted wound of the Vietnam War, it was still only a matter of time before Germany, Japan, and eventually China would challenge its economic supremacy.
Bernie Sanders awkwardly tried to invoke New Deal America without confronting the military industrial complex, but most “white workers” know better. While Sanders may have appealed to young liberals, their parents and grandparents understood that you can’t have the GI Bill without a war. Go to any working-class town anywhere in the United States and you’ll probably find a Pearl Harbor Memorial of some kind, usually opposite the 9/11 Memorial. On the other hand talk to random strangers about the WPA mural on the wall of the local post office and you’ll more likely than not be met without uncomprehending stares. In the 1930s, my grandparents moved from the anthracite coal fields in Northeastern Pennsylvania to New Jersey, not to work for the WPA, but because my grandfather found a job in the Kearny shipyards working on destroyers and light cruisers. The New Deal never called American imperialism into question. Quite the opposite. The New Deal and the Great Society were the domestic component of American imperialism at its most powerful.
Donald Trump is a radical, right-wing free market ideologue who has never claimed to be anything but a radical, right-wing, free-market ideologue. Nevertheless, with his crude flag waiving and vicious nationalism, he managed to appeal, probably unconsciously, to the same nostalgia for New Deal America Bernie Sanders tried so hard to invoke from the left. The “white working-class,” having had its collective, historical memory stripped of any kind of revolutionary, or even radical consciousness, chose fascism over social democracy. “Make America Great Again,” not “workers of the world unite,” became its guiding principle. If the Clinton campaign chained the black working class to the same neoliberalism that destroyed the housing market and the tax base for inner city schools, the Sanders campaign eventually delivered the white working class right into the arms of Donald Trump. Social democracy without anti-imperialism isn’t identical with fascism, but sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. Effectively deemed a surplus population by the Clinton campaign, and denied a radical alternative, the “white working class” chose the racism and imperial nostalgia of the Republicans over the “socially liberal and economically conservative” neoliberalism of the Democrats.
With the crackup of neoliberal capitalism, however, it’s time to sever the idea of the American working class from American nationalism. The working-class is not American. It’s neither white nor black. It’s white. It’s black. It’s Asian. It’s Latino. It’s French, German, Pakistani, Chinese, Mexican and Korean. It’s not only the auto worker in Detroit. It’s the Chinese worker who made your computer and the Filipino nanny who takes care of your kids while you go to see “Hamilton” on Broadway. The right-wing populist who wants to build a wall along the border with Mexico, and the Clinton supporter who refuses to talk about class at all he sees the working class as “white,” are two sides of the same coin. Without a precise, and all-embracing view of the working-class as multi-ethnic, multi-racial and international, the left will be helpless in the face of the Trumps, the UKIPs, and the Marine Le Pens, the tidal wave of ultra-nationalist reaction sweeping the west. The term “working class” has made its way back into the political debate. It’s time for the working-class itself to make its way back into history. If it doesn’t, we have a lot more to lose than our chains.