The Origin of the Species
When this piece was originally published in mid-August, 2016, I, like most pundits, was predicting that Trump would never be president. I failed to take into account both the spectacular incompetence of the Clinton campaign and the surprising competence of the Trump voter-targeting and GOTV operations in core swing states.
I’ll leave the dissection of the technical successes and failures of both campaigns to others. But one thing worth noting is how so many analysts have doubled down on the white working class speciation theories described below in their post-election analyses. It is truly impressive how quickly this new category called white working class has been naturalized and incorporated into popular culture. The existence of this species—with racism embedded in its DNA—has been used by Trump supporters to claim a mandate for an anti-working class agenda, by neoliberals as a rationale for why their policies were rejected by the electorate and by many elements of the so-called left as an excuse to do nothing. Meanwhile, the actually existing working class, in all its complexity and diversity, continues to be overlooked, both as an analytic category and as an independent actor in its own right.
Reprinted from First of the Month
Back in the day, two knucklehead members of my old union local at a Union Carbide plant in New Jersey fashioned KKK hoods out of chemical filtration paper and paraded through the lunchroom on Halloween. The corporate HR executive sent to investigate summarily terminated both workers within hours of arriving at the plant. She loudly proclaimed the company’s “zero tolerance” to racial harassment.
Now this was very interesting considering that her employer was the prime suspect in the unpunished industrial murder of 764 mostly African American workers on the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel in the 1930’s and its current corporate chairman, Warren Anderson, was a fugitive from justice wanted by the Indian government in connection with the 1984 criminal manslaughter of at least 15,000 Indians in Bhopal. Over the next 15 years, the same HR exec who showed Phil and John the door was the point person in the shutdown of all three unionized Union Carbide plants in New Jersey, leaving behind a series of toxic waste sites contaminating communities throughout the state and 2,000 black, white and Hispanic workers, many suffering from uncompensated industrial diseases.
This episode comes to mind while contemplating the detritus of the Republican and Democratic conventions and the growing trope that the rage of the white (male) working class has propelled both the Trump campaign and the critique of the Clinton campaign from the left. The politics of race and gender often obscure much more than they reveal. It is true that individual white workers can be horribly racist and misogynist. But it is also true that the worship of “diversity” often serves as a cover for gross hypocrisy and ruthless class rule.
At the Democratic convention, diversity was rolled out in service of the status quo. Stripped of the soaring rhetoric of the Obama years, the neoliberalism of the Clinton variety fails to inspire or move people to action. “There is no alternative,” she proclaimed time and again during the campaign and at the convention, “so we might as well make the best of it and do what we can without upsetting the apple cart.” All of the energy inside and outside the convention hall came from the Bernie delegates who came prepared to fight for the issues and concerns of the people who sent them there. Even the concessions that the Clinton campaign made on platform issues had no real effect. No one really believes that Clinton will seriously oppose the Trans Pacific Partnership or work to institute a $15 living wage. Already she is moving to the right in an attempt to capture the refugees fleeing the new Trump-branded Republican Party. In more normal times, the rants of General Allen or, god bless them, the patriotic evocations of the bereaved Khan family, would have been much more at home at a Republican convention. Despite the deliberate celebration of diversity, we all left Philly knowing quite well what to expect over the next four years.
In Cleveland, the party of Trump was an altogether darker affair. Here diversity and it’s cousin “political correctness,” played the role that marginalized communities always play in right wing populist and revanchist movements: as a focal point for anger that would otherwise be directed against a social and economic order. Trump has mastered an appeal that combines Munich beer hall fascism with a kind of post-modern shock jock sensibility that doesn’t take itself all that seriously. It allows him to get away with the most outrageous statements that would have been the end of any traditional politician. He will never be president but he may succeed in destroying the modern Republican Party, which advanced a fundamentally pro-capitalist, neoliberal program by fanning racial and gender resentments, religious fundamentalism and populist anger at elites. To borrow a metaphor from Tom Frank, a whole lot of people don’t want to live in Kansas anymore.
It is interesting that many in the Republican establishment blame the white working class for the destruction of their party. The vitriol and sense of betrayal of the National Review crowd are truly remarkable. Trump certainly enjoys considerable working class support. For some workers, Hillary Clinton probably reminds them of that HR rep who forced them to attend “everyone is awesome” sensitivity training while secretly assisting in plans to move the plant to China (of course Trump not only symbolizes, he actually is that type of dickhead boss in the Frank Lorenzo-Jack Welsh-Carly Fiorina-Carl Icahn mold who runs the business into the ground while personally enriching himself and screwing everyone around him).
But the extent of Trump’s working class support is greatly exaggerated. Those workers at the Carrier plant in Indiana that Trump promised to stop from moving to Mexico? They’re members of the Steelworkers union who voted overwhelmingly to have their local endorse Bernie Sanders. Same with the Chicago Nabisco workers, primarily black and Latino and members of the Bakery Confectionary union. In fact, Trump voters have an average income about 20% above the median. I like to envision the typical Trump voter as an upwardly mobile fast food shift manager: making a crappy salary and working lousy hours with little hope for real advancement, but glad to be wearing a tie and away from the deep fryers, desperate to please the main office, envious of the life style of the local franchise owner and resentful and contemptuous of the lazy slugs they supervise who are constantly whining for more hours and better conditions.
Likewise, many in the Democratic establishment blame backward white workers for the success of the Bernie Sanders insurgency. Joan Walsh, among many others, opined that Sanders’ substantial support among white workers (who overwhelmingly supported Clinton in 2008) is because “she has been damaged by her association with the first black president.” And Paul Krugman, that eternal guardian of the left gate of the ruling class, pontificated that the Sanders campaign failed to understand the importance of “horizontal inequality” between groups. What the fuck does that even mean?
The “white working class,” like the “black community,” is an abstraction that does not exist anywhere in the real world. The U.S. working class is broad and diverse. It’s not even all that white any more and certainly not all that male. Its conditions are determined by its position within a political economy but, like everyone else, the experience and consciousness of individual workers is formed by a whole series of contingent relationships and experiences. The recent use of the trope of the angry white working class attempts to extract white workers from these class dynamics and present them as a demonized and marginalized natural group.
Adolph Reed has written extensively about the ideological and epistemological machinations that legitimize and stabilize regimes of hierarchy by transforming social relations into natural conditions. In the U. S., race, and its various ethno-subdivisions, has always been the great tapestry upon which this story has played itself out. Race science developed as an efficient sorting and control mechanism for capitalism and, in the 19th Century, embraced Darwinian and Lamarckian evolutionary theory to lend legitimacy to the ideology (late 20thcentury racialists incorporated more modern genetic theories into the mix). While the old racialist model persists to this day, the integration of various ethnic groups into the great American middle class and the successes of the civil rights movement compelled most mainstream ideologists to move to a newer version that incorporated speciation theory. This new model emerged in the 1980’s with the discovery of the black underclass. Just as Darwin’s finches evolved into unique species on their isolated Galapagos islands, so did social Darwinists identify a black underclass culturally and economically isolated from the rest of us (Trump, by the way, had a bit to do with naturalizing this new model. He made his bones as a rabid proponent of the “wilding” hysteria that, in 1989, helped to frame 5 black and Hispanic youths for the rape of a female investment banker who was jogging in Central Park.)
In the U.S., class relations per se have rarely been naturalized. Instead, the ideological consensus was that most Americans become subsumed into a broad middle class with the exception of a few culturally marginalized populations. But now we are witnessing the evolution of a new species: white, blue-collar workers unable or unwilling to transcend their dead-end jobs/communities who are acting out in self-destructive and dysfunctional ways that undermine the very foundations of political stability. The underclass descriptors are remarkably similar: OxyContin for crack, social security disability for welfare dependency, family dysfunction and sexual profligacy (Kevin Williamson’s stunning invective against a “white American underclass in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles” engaged in “the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog” could apply equally to either species).
Then there’s J. D. Vance’s best-selling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy. In a style that fans of every racial uplift story since Manchild in the Promised Land will immediately recognize, Vance relates the massive dysfunction of his working class Ohio background and his personal overcoming through pluck and hard work. As the New York Times points out in its review, Vance subscribes to the Obama “brothers should just pull up their pants/stop feeding Popeye’s to your kids for breakfast” school of thought that “hillbilly culture…increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.”
This new species has an irrational fear of globalization, a perverse sense of entitlement and a worldview colored by racial and sexual resentments. In the conservative account, they have only themselves to blame–social programs will just exacerbate the culture of dependency and only a strong dose of religion or family values backed by the punitive and carceral powers of the state can nip this inferior species in the bud, reintegrating its more robust members into the great American phenotype. In the liberal view, it is actually the evolved racism and other entrenched attitudes of this species that prevents progressive change. It’s as if my two knuckleheaded union brothers were actually the ones responsible for Union Carbide’s legacy of racist industrial homicide. There’s no real solution to this problem because this racism and sexism is actually part of the DNA of the species rather than embedded in a political economy. We can only hope that the species self-extincts as its more enlightened members move to Seattle and Silicon Valley to become baristas and uber drivers as the others obliterate themselves with drugs, alcohol and guns. Either way, one thing is clear. They. Are. Not. Like. Us.
The Sanders campaign was so disorienting to both conservatives and liberals because it did not embrace these naturalized categories but, instead, revealed them as social relationships established by real human beings and, thus, open to change through the application of political and economic policies. After stumbling a bit in the early months around how to give voice to the outrages of police violence and mass incarceration, it laid out a working class politics of hope that was both visionary and practical. In the process, it helped lay bare the actual mechanisms of capitalism that drive inequality. And it exposed the fault lines created by decades of neoliberalism that are impeding real change in the labor, racial justice and other social movements.
The tasks ahead should be clear: first decisively defeat Trump and everything he stands for. Then immediately pivot to attack the neoliberalism that will be at the core of the new Clinton Administration. Failure to do so will doom us to decades more of a politics of cynicism, divisiveness and corporate rule over every aspect of human existence.
One thing for sure, it’s going to be an interesting ride…