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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