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Monday, August 8, 2016


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.


F Lengyel said...

"How do you imagine non-college educated white men respond when told that their problems are their own fault..." Likewise for college educated white men.

Robert Paul Wolff said...


s. wallerstein said...

I'd just like to point out that even back in the good old days, the white working class focused their anger on blacks and latinos.

In the early 1960's when I marched for civil rights in New Jersey and New York, with blacks and other white students, we were heckled, harassed, hectored and at times hit by white working class male adults.

In the later 1960's students protesting against the genocidal war in Viet Nam were violently attacked by the so-called hard-hats, white male construction workers who defended this war against a revolutionary third world country.

In One Dimensional Man, published in 1964, Herbert Marcuse more or less writes off the revolutionary potential of the U.S. white working class. Now Marcuse may have been wrong, but the point is that the rightwing sympathies of the U.S. white working class are not only the product of the current economic crisis and were present even back in the days (1950's and 1960's)when income inequalities were much less marked.

Your Pal Garrett said...

S. Wallerstein,

I think your point is excellent. In both your examples- civil rights and Vietnam protests- I feel like Corey Robin's ideas about conservatism might be of service. I'm almost positive I've seen you post on Prof. Robin's blog as well. Is that right?

In any case, if Robin is correct that US white privilege is a conservative reactionary response to the emancipatory movement of abolition, then it wouldn't be all that surprising that white working class people would band together under a new banner of unearned privilege (whiteness), especially if our institutions reinforce it. After the civil war, privilege in the US shifted away from land-owning whites onto whites in general. I'm not really sure how it happened but it seems to have. Professor Wolff even addressed it in his Ideological Critique lectures when he made an example of how elite attitudes towards working class white people went from unfavorable to favorable after the civil war.

What I'm driving at is this: we might be seeing the long slow decay of this unearned white privilege- at least as it pertains to the working class- and it could turn out that Donald Trump is the death knell of white-male privilege politics. Its increasing radicalism and ferocity seem to indicate their high level of desperation. Marcuse may be correct about their revolutionary potential but perhaps, after the failed promises of conservatism, they'll see they have more in common with the people they have derided for so long. Wishful thinking, perhaps, but certainly not implausible.

s. wallerstein said...

Pal Garrett,

Yes, I also post on Corey Robin's blog.

I guess that if I were feeling optimistic (why not?), I'd bet on the Occupy Wall St. model of the 1% vs. the 99% rather than the model of the white male working class becoming a conscious revolutionary class.

That is, such a high percentage of the population (if not 99%, then 97%) is being screwed over by the system, are unable to pay medical bills or university tuition or to find affordable housing in big cities (New York, San Francisco, for example), etc. that it seem possible that they may become aware that what suits them is some kind of socialism (in the Sanders' sense).

So if I were the left in the U.S. (and I don't even live in the U.S.), I'd emphasize the 99%-1% division rather the stuff about class (surplus value, theory of exploitation, etc.). That the Occupy movement seems to have been a transitory phenomenon is irrelevant here, since that's an organizational question, not a political-theoretical-strategic one.

A. Cameron said...

Aren't the 99/1% division and the business about class, elaborated above by Prof. Wolff, just two sides of the same coin?

Your Pal Garrett said...

That's kind of what I was going for. I think that it's possible that the success of the 99%/1% framing may converge with the implosion of white working class conservatism and bring a new class consciousness to the latter. Nothing is set in stone, of course, but I certainly see it as possible and potentially pretty potent. Unless a Trump presidency is realized (*shudder*), I don't see how the white working class can continue to hang its shingle on conservative politics in America.

Even if only in small part, that group's consciousness was raised by both the Vietnam war and Civil Rights Movement. I don't think it's all that far fetched to suppose it could happen again on a more substantial scale.

Tom Cathcart said...

The Atlantic article brought back a terrible flood of memories. I grew up (ages 6-11) in West Virginia. About a block from where we lived along the C&O tracks in Huntington was a block known as Gatesville, populated by hillbillies from the "hollers" of the West Virginia mountains. It was a block we walked through cautiously as kids and only on the 8th Avenue side, never through the alley where most of the Gatesville people lived and where there were no drivers to observe whatever was happening. Moe Cremeans was the despot of the Gatesville kids. Moe was a sociopathic bully. He was bigger and a little older than we were, and he was very frightening. There were many Moe Cremeans stories, but the most horrific was about the time we all lived through when he locked his little brother, Jackie Cremeans, in a C&O railroad shack and set it on fire. Jackie survived somehow, but most of both ears were burned off.
In our class were the fraternal Beckner twins, John and Gary. John was called "Buck" Beckner by the boys in our class. It was short for "Bucktooth" Beckner, which made no sense, since he didn't have buck teeth. His real sin wasn't his teeth; it was that he was defensive and angry and gave some of our classmates the creeps. His brother Gary was a saint, charming, affable, and well-liked by his classmates. The Beckners lived in a room behind the little grocery store with their mother. When we would knock on the door to see if the boys could come out to play, their mother would answer, always in a ratty nightgown and looking dazed and dopey. Alcoholism? Some mental disorder? I don't know. How they got by, I have no idea. It was the late '40s in West Virginia, so there couldn't have been much in the way of public assistance. Some kindly neighbors one Christmas made the rounds of the neighborhood collecting toys, so the boys would have something for Christmas. Huntington was a segregated town---schools, movie theaters, buses. West Virginia is a border state, so occasionally one of our teachers would say that segregation was wrong. But that was an unusual sentiment, and I wonder now if Miss Lewis got some flack for saying it. As I read the Atlantic piece, I was overwhelmed by the complexity of the problem. Today, some social service agency would probably try to get Moe Cremeans into some sort of program. It would fail. Ditto Jackie Cremeans. John Beckner? I don't know. Maybe he would have ended up in the Army, and maybe it would have given him the social and occupational skills that would have helped him find a niche. But maybe not. Gary Beckner probably got out on his own on the strength of his personality. I am repulsed by the conservative impulse of people like Vance, who feel that there's nothing to be done. But I must admit, I totally understand it. I'm not at all confident that a progressive agenda will help much in the short term. Maybe if we can sustain it for a few generations, but what are the odds of that?

s. wallerstein said...

Pal Garrett,

There are a couple of differences between the 60's/70's and now.

First of all, as Professor Wolff points out above, the ruling elite (capitalists) had no problem integrating blacks into American society: more consumers, more producers, etc. They are going to resist a lot more any movement which challenges their profits, for example, a 99% against 1% movement. Besides the obvious security state mechanisms of repression, the elite disposes of an impressive propaganda apparatus (Hollywood, TV, the media, etc.) which keeps people striving to be "normal".

Second, in the 60's and the 70's we were in the cold war. Any U.S. racial atrocity or political prisoner immediately was broadcast worldwide by a rather effective Soviet propaganda apparatus: for example, Angela Davis became an international hero, better known worldwide than any imprisoned Soviet dissident. The effectiveness of the Soviet propaganda apparatus meant that the U.S. repressive apparatus had to watch its step or "we'd" look like the bad guys internationally.

howie said...

Professor Wolff

You make capitalism out to be some Leviathan, some impersonal beast, that imposes it's rule on people, for some puted good.
Is this just my overactive imagination?


Unknown said... 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.]

I would love to have that last point elaborated on, or directed to where it has previously been done. As a current grad student, one seeped in philosophy, political science, and interdisciplinary studies generally, I am always defending the merits of (what I hope is) the genuine education. In a non capitalist society, say, a fully fledged socialist society, how would, ideally, the approach between mere educational credential acquisition vs genuine education, be drawn up so that the latter is what is actually sought after?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Austin Haiglker, you ask a very interesting question. Let me think about it for a bit. It might make a good blog post.

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