Their Class and Ours

NO ONE really wants to do it, but in this election, it's time to talk about class.

In general, there are two ways we look at class.  The first way is to call class "cultural".  This is when we talk about working class, or middle class, or upper class, etc. The second is when we talk about class in the way it was talked about until about the beginning of World War two, as a power relationship between capitalists and the proletariat.  When we talk about class either in a cultural sense or class in a structural sense, we are talking about real relations of power.  Intermixed in this are the questions of race and sex (and probably others that readers will bring up in the comments), which are are also relations of power.

In this presidential election, the personal integrity of the candidates is important. But I will argue that we need to understand what's going on with the classes underneath and whether there is a real class alignment with the candidates and their supporters.  It is also good to know what is making the voters angry, what they want (or think they want), and whether they know what they are talking about (in terms of class power).

If you have gotten to this point, you may be expecting to be either bored or pissed off by what follows.  So I am going to do something here that I don't like to do, and telegraph my ending.

Everyone is getting screwed.  The Trump people look stupid to Hillary's and vice versa. However, it turns out that we are all stupid.  If you like my analysis, you can decide if it really matters whether it's Hillary or Donald in the end, and why. 

My favorite account of class as a culture comes from the late Paul Fussell in his book Class. Although he claimed to have written it as a joke rather than a real sociological study, it has held up very well indeed over the years.  It's relevant to this discussion not only because it's pretty familiar, but because it deals with class cultural identification and class anxiety. Despite the fact that Trump supporters include many people who financially would be considered middle class, they are generally portrayed as "working class" with their seeming preoccupation with guns, washed up tv actors and American flag apparel and they are made fun of for this.  Trump supporters on the other hand often refer to Democrats (or "liberals", "libtards". "traitors" etc.) as arrogant, smug and elitist.  This mocking of their elitism includes a mocking of experts in particular and higher education in general, "education" being one of the ways that liberals like to mark themselves.

What this looks like is a war between the working class and the middle class.  Insofar as Trump is seen to have middle class supporters, this is attributed to a collapse of the middle class (or what might be called their "proletarianization).  Trump is represented in particular as the candidate of disenfranchised white working class men.  (Here is where race and gender enters. Trump himself has been making all sorts of racist and sexist comments from the beginning, to the applause of his supporters, and this has led to analysts theorizing that his supporters are from our destroyed American working class who are looking back to the days when the working class was both strong and white).

Some Republicans seem embarrassed with Trump and they seem even more embarrassed that Trump is heavily supported in a number of strange things that he says.  I think that this embarrassment is cultural more than anything, because his working class Tea Party type supporters have been courted by these same embarrassed Republicans for election support all over the country for years now.  What it looks like here is a split between working class and middle class Republicans.  Not a sharp, absolute split.  But a split along those lines.

Hillary's working class support seems to be coming from the non-white working class who have been unable to fit in well into working class culture.  From a purely cultural sense, it might appear that from this we have been witnessing a change in working class culture (which is part of why working class white people feel afraid and angry).  And this is probably true given the way that people tend to think of and identify themselves.

To put it very simply, it's as though Liberals are afraid that a narcissistic unpredictable leader of a bunch of yahoos is about to take power.  For Conservatives, it looks like a corrupt incompetent career politicians and her over educated minions are going to take power and to continue to dissolve what is truly American.

All of this drama is truly fascinating.  But underneath, there's something going on that seems more explicable in terms of simple good old fashioned class struggle.

Contrary to what Marx would have expected, the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th saw a split in what would have simply been the working class into a working class and a middle class.  There were some structural differences between the two.  A major one wasa that the working class was strongly unionized.  The middle class included more people who were salaried or who could be called "professionals" even though they took a wage.  There were cultural differences between the two groups, again primarily in what they consumed.  But there were also differences in how they did the work they do (which are covered in a great book by Harry Braverman in his book Labor and Monopoly Capital.  The work of the working classes tended to be more fragmented whereas the work of the middle classes tended to be more whole, coherent, and complete.  Insofar as working class work was still skilled, it was primarily manual, whereas skilled work for the middle class was not manual and came to require more and more higher education.

Working class jobs used to pay well and there was a great overlap between working class pay (on the skilled side) and middle class pay (on the less skilled side).  This system was maintained by a high corporate tax rate, a highly regulated banking system, a strong system of labor unions and to some degree a tariff system.  Around the time of the Ronald Reagan administration (and blamed on him, although it gives him too much credit personally) the US saw the corporate tax rate slashed, the banks deregulated, the labor unions smashed, and the tariff system eliminated.  The slashing of corporate tax rates and the deregulation of banks was supposed to produce and support the freeing of capital for internal investment. The smashing of the unions was supposed to create a more flexible workforce to allow business to become more efficient and more productive.  The elimination of tariffs was supposed to open the markets to global free trade.

What happened instead is that corporations took their extra capital and instead of investing it in production in the United States, invested it wherever they could get the most profitable return, whether in America or outside of it.  The deregulation of the banks promoted more speculation of capital, which had the same effect.  The destruction of the unions led to the falling of wages, then the loss of jobs as businesses relocated overseas to find cheaper wages.  And global free trade not only meant that capital was able to move anywhere on earth that it wanted, but that it was able to stay there in tax havens.

No president thus far has addressed this.  No serious presidential candidate has addressed this.  The first ones to go were the working class.  It's ironic that they blame their job losses and their rotten wages on either foreigners abroad (the Chinese, etc.) or foreigners inside (illegal aliens), since it was capital that went to China looking for higher profits and it is also capital that is drawing illegals into the US to acquire lower waged workers.  The next to go was the middle class.  They suffered job elimination as well.  The college educations they needed became commoditized (since while corporate profits went way up, tax receipts didn't go up with them, so college educations could not be subsidized as they once were).  The jobs they could get were transformed.  The transformation of more jobs into salaried positions meant that companies could force workers into unpaid overtime.  Wages froze. More formerly salaried workers were fired and then rehired as "consultants" or "contractors", doing their former jobs for less money and no benefits.  Capitalists were transformed into globalists and monopolists.  The transformation destroyed communities and created instability in the lives of most people who no longer had any control or even input in their jobs and very little protection.  Strange cults arose that blamed all of this catastrophe on Black people, or Mexicans, or homosexuals, or atheists.  People with excellent educations blamed problems caused by excessive deregulation on regulation or blamed our tax problems on a welfare system that was dismantled under Bill Clinton.  But no one blames the people who control the capital and who have been moving it wherever they feel like moving it.

The distinction between the working class and the middle class is dissolving.  Some from the middle class are moving up to the upper middle class and making that move has become the new pathetic social goal for them.  Workers can no longer aspire to the middle class, which is falling down to meet them.  So it's the cultural differences that are becoming important.  In the meantime, capital is choosing this candidate or that candidate for one short term reason or another, while, as usual, hedging all their bets.

unagidon is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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