The Specter Of The Working Class


The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. -Yeats

Has the left figured out yet what happened on Nov. 2? After all the ink that’s been spilled and all the megabytes that have been downloaded, you still get the sense that something’s missing. And it isn’t hard to figure out what that something is: while there’s lots of talk about why the Democrats lost, there’s very little about the far more troubling question of why the Republicans won (apart, that is, from predictable denunciations of red-state rednecks).

In a way this blind spot is all the more curious given the wide attention that Thomas Frank’s book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” has gotten. Because the book is precisely about why the Republicans won, as its subtitle spells out: “How conservatives won the heart of America.” They won it, not because the country is awash in racism, misogyny and homophobia but rather because it is awash in anger – class anger. The culture wars, writes Frank, “are a way of framing the ever-powerful subject of social class,” and his trenchant reporting from his home state of Kansas convincingly shows how this has happened.

But therein lies a terribly irony. The country is more economically polarized than ever and it hasn’t been as deeply split politically since the Civil War – and yet there is almost no intersection between these two fault lines. This is because it isn’t the left but the extreme right which is now getting to frame the question of class, channeling the anger of millions of working poor and lower middle class people into a populist ‘backlash’ movement against a mythical ‘liberal elite’. And so amazingly enough the Republicans, Bush’s party of “the haves and the have-mores,” are now the voice of the proverbial “forgotten man.”

That’s why ‘red-state rednecks’ doesn’t work as an explanation for what happened on Nov. 2. Of course racism was a factor in the election, as was religion: they always are. But a new political alignment has emerged in the last two elections and it can’t be explained away by rounding up the usual suspects.

In fact Frank makes a point of showing that in Kansas racism played no role in the triumph of conservative politics. Quite the contrary, the right-wing makes a big deal of associating itself with the state’s history of Abolitionism in the Civil War period. Pro-life activists routinely compare themselves to John Brown, they compare Roe v. Wade to the notorious pro-slavery Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court in 1857 and they issue documents like the “Emancipation Proclamation of Unborn Children.” That this association is entirely spurious, as Frank shows, doesn’t detract from its political effectiveness. It’s actually a good example of how right-wing populism frames class anger in terms of an issue like opposition to abortion by portraying it as a ‘freedom struggle’.

But this also suggests why the left may be reading Frank but not assimilating him. Because the success of the right in tapping into class anger is also the failure of the left, the traditional champion of the underdog, to do the same. It’s as if between the lines this book is really about “What’s the Matter with the American Left?”

That Frank doesn’t draw out these implications isn’t surprising, given his liberal viewpoint. Mostly what he has to say in this regard is to knock the Democrats for abandoning their traditional working class base in favor of yuppies and exurbanites. While this isn’t wrong, it doesn’t go very deep. If class anger is the key to electoral politics, then surely class is also key to understanding the Democrats. Since the New Deal they’ve been the capitalist party of reform, except that with the onset of globalization in the last few decades the room for reform within capitalism has narrowed almost to nothing.

That’s the real reason the Democrats have abandoned their base – not out of some misguided election strategy but because they’ve had to abandon their reformism. It was either that or abandon capitalism, which is as unthinkable to Democrats as to Republicans. Hence the growing convergence of the two parties, to the point where they become almost indistinguishable. Clinton ran a Republican administration in all but rhetoric and Kerry ran a Republican (‘Bush-lite’) campaign in all but name. It’s a pipedream to hope this trend will change. Class matters – even more than winning elections.

But beyond the Democrats there is a wide spectrum of progressive politics all the way to the radical left. Why have these elements been unable to tap into class anger?

Of course radicals are marginalized within American politics, reduced to the status of fringe groups. But it’s precisely fringe groups on the right that have been crucial to the growth of right-wing populism. Indeed, being on the fringe isn’t a bad thing to the extent that it means not being associated with an increasingly discredited mainstream. Obviously the radical left is never going to have a Rush Limbaugh or a Fox News to broadcast its message, but it would be a mistake to see right-wing populism solely as the product of media manipulation, as important as that is. The backbone of that movement is its grassroots – people who work tirelessly and selflessly for what they see as a great cause.

It’s a devotion that used to characterize the left, something Frank alludes to when he dubs one pro-life organizer an “upside-down Cesar Chavez.” But how many ‘right-side up’ Cesar Chavezes are there anymore? There’s nothing heroic about the labor movement today: bureaucratic ‘business unionism’ has driven it into the ground. As much as the Democrats, the unions have abandoned their base, working as ‘partners’ of management in imposing the imperatives of a globalized marketplace on their rank-and-file. This has left a trail of devastation in thousands of working class communities, like the mining towns of West Virginia and Kentucky or the steel towns of Ohio, and predictably many of these places have become prey to ‘backlash’ demagogy.

Right-wing populism is also in some ways an upside-down version of Sixties radicalism. For all its conservatism, it is eager to appear radical, to embrace extremes. Sometimes this takes the form of directly mimicking Sixties jargon, as in this final flourish from a diatribe against gay marriage cited by Frank: “All of the rhetoric of the sixties comes alive describing our totalitarian liberal establishment. Fascist pig, baby killers, sick society, it’s all applicable. What we need to do now is change it by any means necessary. Power to the people.” This would be funny if it weren’t so creepy. Because clearly this upside-down radicalism works as a way of galvanizing the resentment of the victims of the ‘establishment’ – the latter of course redefined as liberal. The more extreme people’s conditions become, the more ‘extremism’ speaks their language.

So where are the extremists of the left? Where are its John Browns, working to ignite a firestorm against class oppression? It’s hard to imagine anyone matching that description in the broad coalition of the left that backed John Kerry.

Of course not everybody jumped on the Anybody But Bush bandwagon: there was resistance, most prominently from Ralph Nader. But the extent of the cave-in this time to the bankrupt logic of lesser-evilism was unprecedented. And it wasn’t even as if Kerry had to make any concessions to win this support; on the contrary, there was the appalling spectacle of a mass anti-war movement backing an openly, even aggressively, pro-war candidate. This was the real debacle for the left – not that Bush won. After all, would it have been any less of a debacle to have a President-elect Kerry cheering on the massacre in Fallujah?

So while the right is doing everything it can to appear more extreme, the left is all sweet moderation. While the right is constantly emphasizing its ‘principles’ and ‘values’, the left is shamelessly selling out to the first ‘electable’ pretty face that comes along. In this sense there is a grain of truth in the mountain of right-wing lies about morality: the left doesn’t seem to stand for anything anymore, it doesn’t seem to have a moral compass. This is true even of so evidently moral a film as “Fahrenheit 9/11″, easily the most influential intervention by the left in the campaign. You came out of that movie wanting to storm the barricades – and all you were offered was a Kerry/Edwards bumper sticker.

To his credit, though, Michael Moore is one of the few voices on the left trying to make himself heard in the working class (which is why the right vilifies him so much). A long time ago, as the popular image of the worker went from Tom Joad to Archie Bunker, the left stopped caring much about the plight of the working class. Identity is what came to matter: politics became increasingly personalized (and almost as niche-marketed as cable tv), while economics receded into the background.

But this shift away from class was also a shift away from any challenge to the system. In the old left-wing paradigm, the fight against racism or the oppression of women was seen as integral to the fight against capitalism. But with identity politics the goal isn’t revolution anymore but inclusion. Which is why identity politics has never been radical in any meaningful sense – because its goal is fundamentally conformist.

The issue of same sex marriage illustrates the larger problem: gays and lesbians want ‘in’ – to a reactionary institution that is collapsing all around them. Of course they should have that right and of course the right wing campaign against it should be opposed. But the problem isn’t inclusion as such but making a virtue of it. Same sex marriage isn’t just about spousal benefits or adoption rights (which could be accommodated outside the framework of marriage), but above all about ‘acceptance’. But acceptance of what and for what? Why should gay marriage be any less “legalized prostitution” than straight marriage, why should it be any less emotionally stifling, any less prone to abuse? The larger social critique, however, all but disappears in the battle for inclusion.

Again, the contrast with right-wing populism is revealing. In its version of identity politics, the big divide in America is between the phony, arrogant blue states and the decent, unpretentious red states. This works well as an alibi for capitalism: the country is seen as split over “authenticity” rather than over “something hard and ugly like economics,” as Frank explains. But it also works well as a way of framing class anger: red states aren’t looking for inclusion, they aren’t looking to become blue states, their identity is meant to express their own ‘decency’ and above all how badly they are treated because of that ‘decency’. The emphasis is on underscoring rejection, not on seeking acceptance – and that is just what makes this sort of politics so potent.

If Nov. 2 proved anything, it is that the old political model of ‘consensus-building’ is now ancient history. We live in radical times. But FDR isn’t coming back from the grave and the unions aren’t going to shut down Wal-Mart with sit-down strikes. If there is any alternative to right-wing populism, if there is any way of framing class anger so that it is directed at the real enemies on Wall Street instead of at liberal bogeymen, then this can only come from the radical left. But the left has to become as radical as the times, it has to find its revolutionary soul again. And nothing is more important in this respect that putting socialism back on the agenda: so long as the left has no alternative to capitalism, so long as it stands for nothing except ‘inclusion’, it will only merit contempt. What the rise of right-wing populism shows is that the road to popular consciousness isn’t through pragmatic compromise or lesser evilism, but through a radical idealism that speaks to working people’s anger. Either the working class will haunt capitalism or it will haunt the left.

Stan Hister has written radical journalism for many years, most recently for rabble.ca in Canada He can be reached at  [email protected]

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