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Democrats need to Galvanise the Working Class to Ensure Future Victories

As a Biden-Harris victory is now apparent in the United States Presidential race it’s well to consider the various stratum of voters and how they have determined the result. The future is still in question. Although Trump has lost, voters came out for both tickets in record numbers. The Democrats need to sustain their current base, and indeed improve upon it in the future. There’s the question of how the Democrats might in the future do even better and win control of Congress as a whole, including the Senate. At the moment a policy gridlock is a real prospect.

Despite Trump’s loss people are now speaking of the white working class as if it is a ‘natural’ Republican constituency.

In a way the Left in the US let this happen. Not only did the white working class turn away from the Democrats; the US Left turned away from the white working class as well. Today class is seen as secondary to racial, sexual and gender identity.

In reality all of these things matter and the Left needs to build a united front. But be careful telling a white working-class man on minimum wage how privileged they are. Intersectionality needs to be more complex and nuanced. We need to do more than just stacking a number of identity categories on top of each other. Rather we need to look at specific individual circumstance. The working poor – whether black, Latino, white – are not ‘privileged’ in the big picture. We also need to look at the social and economic ‘structure’ (ie: patterned social relations), and the strategic position of the working class in this.

Another problem is the myth of the US ‘middle class’; standing in the way of solidarity between workers more broadly. The US class structure locks the working poor in place to support the consumption of middle income Americans; but leaves ‘middle income’ Americans insecure enough to be vulnerable industrially (the old reserve army of labour again; with lack of labour market regulation and industrial rights; and a lack of a ‘social safety net’ as well). We need solidarity across the whole working class; against the top 10% – the rich and elements of the self-interested labour aristocracy. ‘Middle income’ is not the same as ‘middle class’.

Again, we need to emphasise solidarity across the whole working class; but I think the privilege of working poor white people can be exaggerated. Race, gender and sexuality are seen as more important in determining privilege than class. Again: In reality it all matters. That said, black people have problems with the police which white people don’t have. Men don’t have to worry about reproductive rights. There’s still homophobia out there. But it’s not helped when some people talk of ‘poor white trash’ and so on. The Right understands the meaning of ‘divide and conquer’, and the Left should not fall for it.

I’m not saying ignore sexuality, race and gender. I’m saying what we are doing to a large extent is ignoring class. I’m saying we’re hurting ourselves electorally and culturally by not attempting to mobilise the working class as a whole. I’m saying you should not just write someone off because they’re a white male. And our language should reflect this. They could be working poor, unemployed, disabled and so on. Or they could just be working class; which is the layer with a broad enough and strategically placed base to potentially transition from capitalism.

I’m saying we should also look at peoples’ individual circumstances when working out privilege. The New Social Movements arising from the 60s onwards are a crucial constituency and reinvigorated the Left in many ways. But the fact is workers are still alienated, immiserated and exploited under capitalism. And the fact is the American Left needs a strategy to win back white workers – not because they’re more important in of themselves; but because the working class is stronger when united; and there’s an important (and sizeable) constituency which might have been the difference between victory and defeat.

For instance, there is the US Senate where a Republican majority could potentially stymie meaningful change. A stronger electoral showing could overcome this. Race, sexuality and gender are important; but we can’t allow them to become all-encompassing fault lines. Again, it’s about divide and conquer. Don’t let it happen. So don’t ‘write people off’ because of identity categories. Take each person as an individual. The point is many workers are voting Republican and they shouldn’t be. What’s gone wrong here and how can we fix it?

Some people are trying to pin the blame on ‘academic elites’; with ‘Critical theory’ and ‘Cultural Marxism’ depicted as alienating the working class. But critical theory is diverse. Habermas is less about ‘identity’ than Marcuse. While Habermas looks at ‘Legitimation Crisis’ stemming from attacks on the welfare state, Marcuse looks to New Social Movements to ‘fill the vacuum’. The problem is that the working class as seen by Marcuse in the 1960s is not the same as today’s working class. Today’s working class has not been ‘bought off’ by prosperity; but is highly exploited and alienated. In particular, there is job insecurity, a weakened labour movement, and a falling wage share of the economy. But a ‘popular front’ of working class and New Social Movements is the only way to win today. So the Right pays great attention to dividing us against one another with narratives on ‘political correctness’ and the like. The Left needs a narrative which engages with more socially conservative workers while not compromising on principle.

In Australia we don’t campaign effectively on class either. We need to make peoples’ economic self-interest transparent. If we could do that, we wouldn’t have to worry so much about “aspirationals”.

Looking at how many votes Sanders got the liberals still do need the socialists in the Democratic Party (and vice-versa). Biden’s victory is largely because the Left base turned out. This needs to be impressed upon Biden so that Biden makes it a top priority to deliver on policy. An active industry policy creating new manufacturing jobs – especially in ‘rust belt’ states – could be offered in return for health reform (a public option) and a $15 minimum wage (indexed). If the Republicans refuse to come to the table here, they turn their backs on the working-class constituency the Democrats must try and win back. So perhaps they will be open to a compromise favouring the Democrat policy agenda. And then the Democrats can take credit for the policy as well.

Antonio Gramsci talked of a ‘counter-hegemonic historic bloc’; an articulated alliance of forces – including the organised and conscious working class; and ‘organic intellectuals’ embedded in that class – as the key to socialist transition. To this today we must add the New Social Movements. A counter-hegemonic historic bloc must include the broad working class; and if meaningful progress is to be attained the Left cannot allow large swathes of that class to remain feeling alienated from, and over-looked by the Left.

 

In short, this means appealing to the working class as a whole ; and emphasising class at least as much as race, gender and sexuality. It means not allowing a critique of race and gender to prevent us from identifying class-based disadvantage. It means not “writing off” white male workers because of race and gender ; but rather applying a nuanced intersectionality which appreciates peoples’ unique circumstances. And building solidarity based on this inclusive approach.

 

This article was originally published on ALP Socialist Left Forum.

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14 comments

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  1. New England Cocky

    An interesting academic analysis but what only counts is the number of Australian voters who want to change the political system to their own benefit rather than the benefit of a few oligarchs, foreign owned multinational corporations that pay little or no tax in Australia with their probably treasonous ecto-parasitic politicians, are prepared to vote in the national interest rather than accept the few political promises from the COALiiton that are rarely achieved.

  2. calculus witherspoon.

    I think the other way.

    The working class needs to galvanise the Democrats.

  3. Dr Tristan Ewins

    calculus witherspoon ; in that case the working class needs to self organise. Perhaps it’s best to see it as Rosa Luxemburg did ; with a dialectical relationship between leadership and working class self-initiative. But first people have to ‘get the ball rolling’. The movement has to be built ; and then it can take action. Consciousness needs to be developed. Also, as it is the US labour movement is in a worse state than its Australian counterpart. And we have enough problems here compared with the US.

  4. calculus witherspoon.

    Yes, the US labour market IS in a worse state than even the Australian bull-pen, exactly illustrates the point I tried to make.
    Given monkey see monkey do slavish emulation of most thing US neoliberal, the need is great and we need more than another strain of Blairism here and elsewhere to get the oligarchic formations out of civil society and money again employed for rational purposes, although it is probably a pious hope watching what has happened with FTA’s, Defence procurements, reich securitat, etc.

  5. leefe

    Equating the Democrats with “the Left” in the US is laughable. They are a right wing party, just not quite as extremist (especially on social issues) as the Republicans.

    The biggest problem is the lack of education, along with anti-socialist propaganda and the extreme religiousity that drives it. The US is a profoundly weird nation.

  6. Dr Tristan Ewins

    They have a sizable left-wing as evidenced by Bernie Sanders’ good showing early on. The Left needs to point out progress is necessary if they’re going to be able to bring their base out. As I say in the article, let’s hope for progress on minimum wage and public health.

  7. Matters Not

    Perhaps it depends on the definition of left wing that’s brought to bear? (It always does.) Bernie Sanders is only left wing in a relative sense (and even then he’s barely left of centre as it’s commonly understood in Australia) but he ruined his nomination chances by wearing the socialist tag and he did so without any attempt at clarification.

    The average American has a very poor appreciation of political philosophy (they just love chanting the freedom mantra) but the average Australian is at the same level of understanding. Approximately at 2/3 on a 10 point scale.

  8. Dr Tristan Ewins

    Changing the discourse on socialism in the US will be a long, hard battle. Socialism was marginalised by the combination of McCarthyism and Cold War. But it’s 30 years since the collapse of the USSR now. Florida will not vote socialist in the near future. But candidates like Sanders can shift the debate ; and use their support base as leverage on policy. I see Sanders as a democratic socialist ; but a reformist. Free education, socialised health care, and a much higher minimum wage would be big steps forward in the US.

  9. DrakeN

    This “working class” bullshit needs to be dumped in the deepest ocean.
    Everyone who engages in paid employment is “working class” not just the “blue collar and labouring types”.
    There is only one effective class distinction and that is one based on established wealth and income; the “middle class” having effectively been reduced to a rump since the Thatcher/Reagan years.
    What is actually needed, Dr. Ewins, is some legal constraint on the lies, half truths and deceptions so freely distributed across the religious, mercantile and political arenas.
    “Alternative facts”, “fake news”, conspiracy theories, religious dogma and the whole raft of ‘tinfoil hat’ horse-droppings which infest both the formal and informal media need to be treated as treasonous in the context of politics and corruption in the civil fora.
    Impose on them the requirement to prove their points of view or treat them in the same way as perjurers in court cases.
    “For the Truth is not in Them.”
    In reality your academic perspective means nothing to the hoi polloi and as such is of little more than an exercise in semantics – perhaps a little time spent sitting and listening in the cafes, pubs and clubs where people gather might be more educative than eternal referencing of philosophers from distant, past ages who themselves had little direct connection with the run-of-the-mill industrial worker and/or the rural peasantry.
    “Ivory Towers”, theoretical “Thought Bubbles” and all that.

  10. Phil Pryor

    It may or may not be of use, but, long ago I would teach students the “-isms” including liberalisn, nationalism, socialism, communism, as required, and would relate them to every word concepts, in that we lived in a community, a society, a nation, and feel caring and sharing enough to be “liberal”. I’d say we did not need an individual fighter plane, library, road or bridge, but our community did and society approves of such things in planning and expenditure, for all of us. It seemed to lessen the heavier reactions to political science concepts and prejudices. USA people I’ve known are ill informed, not broadly or generously educated, ill experienced in travel or study of alternative influences, whereas some students here are instinctively broad minded and multicultural in outlook . So many of my later migrant classes were quite “western” in outlook (and possessions) despite coming from over 150 nations. Old concepts die hard and while this article is useful and informative to me, and no doubt to many, it is rarefied for general digestion, and, as Matters suggested, would not attract serious attempts at comprehension here or in the USA.

  11. Matters Not

    Re:

    Everyone who engages in paid employment is “working class”

    If that works for you, then so be it. Nothing wrong with that, Given that class is a mental construct and also an abstract concept (doesn’t have physical dimensions etc) the range can therefore be many and varied, you are quite entitled to think as you like BUT you will probably have difficulty communicating widely with those who have a more nuanced view. Class has a broad range of usages in the wider world. In schooling, for example, the class location (can and does go under several names because ‘class’ is a widely misunderstood concept) of parents is employed to make predictions about the likely success or otherwise of students and then to allocate resources (including human and financial) accordingly. It’s been happening for decades and will continue for a long, long time to come.

    As for:

    spent sitting and listening in the

    What conceptual framework for listening do you employ? Yes – when people listen they employ a conceptual framework in order to give meaning to what is heard.

  12. Dr Tristan Ewins

    DrakeN: I’m well aware that “working class” can be interpreted as “all wage labourers”. I don’t believe “only blue collar workers are working class”. But from that you take away high wage workers who view themselves as ‘middle class’ and who can be seen as part of a ‘labour aristocracy’.

    You may think Habermas and Marcuse are irrelevant. But critical theory influences a lot of leftists in the US. Where do you think all this bullshit about ‘cultural Marxism’ comes from?

    Most workers will never read Marcuse or Habermas ; just like most workers never read Marx ; but that didn’t stop these people having influence.

    In fact the ‘working class’ IS the vast majority. And if we could convince the bottom 90% to fight for their interests – as opposed to the top 10% – then maybe we would really see change.

    Again: there are practical ramifications when it comes to socialised health care, free education, a higher minimum wage. Now that’s anything but irrelevant.

  13. DrakeN

    Dr. Ewins, I was born the son of a builders’ labourer and a nursing assistant and brought up in a small rural town where the community was dependant on and mainy serviced local agriculture.
    I have moved up and down your supposed class structure over more than half of a century.
    The influence which you ascribe to these class-detatched academics is purely that which gets imposed on the ordinary folk by the very forces of power and priviledge which represses them.
    They are observing the common people through distorting lenses, unaccustomed as they are to the fears and deprevations experienced by those who are entirely dependent on the goodwill, or otherwise, of those who have control of their lives.
    Unfortunately, the prevalence of sychophants and social climbers within the ‘lower orders’, – the “brown nosers” and “boot lickers” as we of the common herd describe them – continues to significantly undermine the efforts of genuinely socially responsible.
    On the other hand we are fortunate to have some of those in positions of priviledge and influence who are both sympathetic and empathetic to the plight of the less fortunate, but most often they are people who do not engage in academic rhetoric and philosophical argument but who prefer to see for themselves the actualities of social repression inherent in our present-day social, economic and administrative systems.
    My own education at all three levels was a gift from a socialistic government in the UK, something which hardly exists there any more and which is steadily disappearing from Australia and apparently has hardly existed at all in the USofA – not that I have direct experience of their situation.
    Cuba, on the other hand, is quite advanced in that regard despite the depravations imposed on it by the USofA, as are several Northern European countries who manage to combine socialism and capitalism quite succesfully.

  14. DrakeN

    Matters Not,

    “conceptualy framework”?
    “…a more nuanced view…”?
    What a load of unmitigated adminstrative and pseudo academic gobbledegook.
    Such, unfortunately is the meaningless jargon which substitutes for communication and observation in the over egoistic and self assured world of professional education administrators, Education Ministers in government and professional “Empire Builders”.
    I’m old and have had the rare priviledge of a working intellect combined with a great deal of unencumbered time in which to exercise it, in which to observe the world of the ordinary folk and in which to listen to their concerns and worries somewhat free of a “conceptual framework”.
    You should try it sometime.

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