Jerry Fresia posts this comment.
“I find it interesting that on the left, we have been forever exhorted to study the dynamics of "race, gender, and class" - but the injuries of class, particularly among white men, has been, in reality, treated as a monstrous irrelevance.”
I should like to offer some reflections on this provocative observation. I have written about this before, but I believe that it bears repeating, especially as it relates to the prospects for a serious progressive movement built on Bernie’s extraordinary run for the Democratic Party nomination.
Capitalism rests on the exploitation of the working class. That is, I believe, a foundational truth for the discovery, articulation, and demonstration of which we owe Karl Marx an eternal debt. Because capitalism exists to extract a surplus from those whose labor creates material wealth, it naturally, inexorably, and almost irresistibly creates large and ever-greater inequalities of wealth and income. Capitalism is also prone to instabilities and crises rooted in its essential nature, although the experience of the past century demonstrates that it has within it the resources to cope with at least some of the self-destructive consequences of that tendency.
Racial, gender, ethnic, religious, national and other social differentiations play a complex role in the development and operations of capitalism. Capitalism has routinely used these differentiations to set different portions of the working class against one another in ways that assist in the accumulation of wealth and the inequality of income, but these differentiations, although useful to capitalism, are not essential to it. Capitalism is quite well able to flourish in a socially homogeneous society in which even the inevitable gender differences are not made the basis of differential worker compensation or access to the commanding heights of the economy.
That is stated rather abstractly and formulaically, so I should like to pause and emphasize the point. The United States is a large country with a quite diverse population, so we are accustomed to economic divisions along racial, ethnic, gender, and other lines. But a little thought will make it obvious that capitalism can quite well flourish in a society that is, let us say, all white, all Protestant, and all Anglo-Irish. Even in a homogeneous capitalist society, there will necessarily be a few who exploit and many who are exploited. That, as Marx taught us, is the genius and the revolutionary potential of capitalism.
The great liberation movements of the past seventy years that have defined post-war American politics have sought to achieve equal treatment and complete incorporation into the American capitalist economy for one or another social group previously excluded or disadvantaged. The Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Liberation, Gay Liberation, the movement for Native American rights, the growing demand for inclusion of Latinos and Latinas into the American economy – one and all – have demanded inclusion into the existing social and economic order. Not one of them, save in its fringe manifestations, has challenged capitalism itself. As I have observed in this space before, this is why the great multi-national corporations find it so comfortable to adopt uncompromisingly “progressive” public positions on affirmative action, gay rights, even women’s rights. Those positions do not in any way threaten their core interest, which is the continuation of the exploitation of the working class.
Marx failed to foresee [as I argue at some length in my essay, “The Future of Socialism”] that in mature capitalism, a pyramidal structure of worker compensation would become entrenched, to a considerable degree keyed to the acquisition of formal educational credentials [but not to the acquisition of a genuine education! That is a separate matter, as I shall not try to explain here.]
Consider now the worsening economic situation of white working class non-college education men. That their condition is bad and getting worse is obvious to anyone who looks at the statistics. That their condition is a direct consequence of the routine and efficient operations of capitalism seems to me also obvious, although I shall be happy to discuss that claim if called upon to do so. It is hardly surprising that these men are deeply angry about their ever-worsening economic situation. It is also hardly surprising that they focus their anger on those – Blacks, Latinos, Women – who now occupy some of the good jobs that previously were occupied only by white men. You may find that reprehensible, but you surely do not find it surprising.
What can these men do? Well, they can take a cue from Black, Latino, Female, and Gay Americans and form a Liberation Movement. Which appears to be exactly what they have done! What else is the Donald Trump candidacy to them [but not, of course, to Trump] but a white male non-college educated liberation movement? They are getting screwed, they know they are getting screwed, and those who are doing better than they have no advice for them save “go to college.”
Now, when sanctimonious well-to-do white men tell African-Americans that their disadvantages are their own fault, how do they respond? With anger, with resentment, with bitterness, of course. How do you imagine non-college educated white men respond when told that their problems are their own fault, and that they should have stayed in school?
Which brings me to Bernie. It is, as we used to say in the good old days, no accident that Bernie describes himself as a socialist. Never mind that the magic words, “collective ownership of the means of production,” never pass his lips. Simply the label “socialist” sets Bernie off from all the liberation movements and all the progressive movements that have graced American society and made it even marginally bearable. Simply by calling himself a socialist, Bernie raises the unutterable question that looms like Voldemort over all of our political debates: Why capitalism?
If you conceive of progressive politics as the struggle to perfect capitalism by including all races, genders, ethnicities, religions, and sexual orientations in its warm embrace, then it is natural to view as your enemy anyone who resists that inclusion. But if you conceive of truly transformational politics as the forging of a broad coalition of the exploited to challenge capitalism itself, then it will be obvious that such a coalition must include white working class non-college educated white men.
Our challenge, and Bernie’s challenge as well, is to find a way to fashion such a coalition.