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What’s the Matter with the ‘White Working Class’?

by | February 2, 2017

I. On both sides of the Atlantic, there is one group of people who terrify and enrage the punditocracy. The legend that is the white working class, a trope long in gestation throughout the noughties, has finally struck back with a vengeance. Conservatives in government, Brexit, and now President Trump.

The ‘white working class’ used to provoke mainly a form of sentimental nostalgia and patronising endearment. It was a tea towel memory, a commodity, not something that had real influence. But the terror arising from this wave of global reaction is producing an interesting anti-democratic backlash amongst liberal-minded opinion-formers. The lefty vicar, Giles Fraser, has argued that Trump’s win is a good case for a hereditary monarch. A royal head of state, he argued, would provide a structure of meaning that guaranteed national cohesion and attenuated the bitterness of democratic contestation. But this backlash against the ignorant voter has been developing for some while among sections of the intelligentsia.

Anyone who spent time listening to liberal opinion after the Brexit vote would have heard more than a whiff of this. George Monbiot was not alone in wondering aloud whether democracy actually works. Where democracy produces results that conflict with liberal statecraft, democracy must be at fault. We are a parliamentary sovereignty, not a mobocracy, it was said after Brexit – and already something like this can be heard, sotto voce, in reaction to Trump’s victory.

Of course, this is pushing against an open door. By de facto rather than de jure means, electoral systems are increasingly excluding the working class – and nowhere is this more advanced than in the United States, where Obama’s moderate 2008 offer of healthcare reform, union rights and withdrawal from Iraq was enough to drive up turnout to a ‘record high’ of just over sixty percent of eligible voters. As Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward wrote long ago, poor people largely don’t vote because they are largely not represented. In this election, almost half of the eligible electorate didn’t vote, and probably most of the working class. There is thus no need for smart liberals to take the vote away from dumb workers. It is being done already, and Trump’s victory is a significant by-product of that.

To be fair, not every commentator who thinks like this blames the ‘white working class’ for the democratic nadir. But the trope was ubiquitous enough in this election, and toxic enough in the hands of Bourbon elitists, to merit thinking through.


II. What is the ‘white working class’?

Quite apart from the fact that the working class is not ‘white,’ that it includes large numbers of non-white workers who have been at the forefront of recent examples of militancy (Chicago Teachers’ Union strikes, undocumented workers strike, Black Lives Matter protests, and the fight for $15 per hour) which place them far outside the Clintonite centre, the discussion is dogged by imprecision. In the US, the ‘white working class’ is simply anyone who codes as white and doesn’t have a college degree. That is, patronisingly and inaccurately, to conflate the working class with the uneducated. It takes no account of the great expansion of the higher education system over the last few decades, specifically intended to draw in a mass of workers to skill them up for a new economy. On the other hand, over a quarter of business owners have no college degree, and similar proportions apply to CEOs. There is a glut of middle managers and supervisors without a college education, but who are quite apart from the mass of workers in their employment position and rewards. Education is a poor proxy for social class, and the two have very different explanatory functions.

In the United Kingdom, social class is usually interpreted in relation to an outdated schema of ‘social grading’ introduced for market research purposes by the National Readership Survey. In essence, it reproduces the old hand-brain dichotomy, with the working class usually related to manual labour, and those in clerical, technical or administrative occupations lumped in with the middle class. Once again, class is conflated with knowledge. This is a legacy of the days when to even use a typewriter was to have a special privilege in the workplace, whereas even the lowly call centre operator today has to be able to perform comparatively complex IT functions. It persists because it serves a useful ideological function, of allowing us to think that the new ‘knowledge’ economy is doing away with class division.

It is because of this obfuscatory language that it is possible to blame the ‘white working class’ for UKIP, Brexit, Trump and other species of reaction. There are two key reasons for this. One of the effects of a higher education is to dissolve traditionalist, authoritarian and deferential social values. This is in part because unlike the schools, the higher education system has, to some extent, to foster independence of thought. Second, to identify class distinctions with the distinction between old and new economies, between those workers based in factories and mines, and those working in information and communications, is to identify the working class with sectors of the workforce who are in a trajectory of decline, stuck in regions of decline isolated from the new patterns of growth, and thus most susceptible to forms of resentful nationalism.

A class relationship, at any rate, cannot be reduced to its possible outcomes. It might produce an unequal distribution of rewards, for example, or afford differential access to education, but these are its measurable effects, imperfect proxies. Class is a relationship based on different positions in relations of production, supported by relations of authority (or, in another idiom, political and ideological control). From this perspective, what distinguishes the middle class from workers is not how much they know, but how much authority they have in the production process. The emergence of a ‘new middle class’ in the post-war period, was concurrent with the expansion of public sector bureaucracies, and with capital’s development of new disciplinary apparatuses – middle managers, technicians, and supervisors – to better control the labour process and counteract working class militancy. This distinction is not always as hard in reality as in theory – in practice, there tend to be elements of the middle class that are downwardly mobile, undergoing ‘proletarianisation’, and elements of the working class being drawn into the middle class. This gives rise to ambiguous phenomena which Erik Olin Wright dubbed ‘contradictory class locations’ – that is, positions in production relations that contain elements of different social classes in motion.

So with that in mind, it is worth clarifying a few things about Trump’s support. As Charlie Post argued in the run up to the election, even focusing on ‘non-college whites’ doesn’t get very far, since they are under-represented in Trump’s base – representing 55 per cent of his support and 70 per cent of the population as a whole. Meanwhile, the college educated new middle class represented 30 per cent of the population, and 40 per cent of Trump’s supporters.‘Most Trump supporters,’ he wrote,‘are part of the traditional middle class (self-employed) and those sectors of the new middle class (supervisors) who do not require college degrees.’

Even so, there is some evidence from exit polls of Trump reaching a minority of white workers, including some unionised cohorts. Michael McQuarrie’s post-election breakdown of some county-level data indicates that Trump was able to flip a number of formerly Obama-voting counties with large white working class communities. He didn’t have to get the majority of white workers on board. He simply had to change voting patterns in the rustbelt states where it counted, which he did. Real Clear Politics has produced a ‘correlation machine,’ using county-level data from the Census and election results, to link changes in the Republican vote to various characteristics. While it makes the serious error of conflating ‘working class whites’ with ‘non-college whites’, it also offers a number of other correlation points. In a number of key states, such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, there is a small correlation between improvements in the Republican vote share and incomes below $50,000, but a much larger correlation with race, education, owner-occupied housing, and previous support for ‘alternative’ right-wing candidates like Ross Perot.

The collapse in the Democratic vote explains some of the shift among voters on lower incomes, which can be treated as a closer – though still very imperfect – proxy for class than education. However, while in Wisconsin, Trump did not increase the total Republican vote, in Pennsylvania he did. There are some localised reasons for this. Democrats have aligned themselves cautiously with de-carbonisation policies, without any broader commitment to alternative industrial development or employment strategies, thus ensuring that mining-based communities in West Virginia turned against them. NAFTA, meanwhile – a policy implemented and stridently defended by Bill Clinton – resulted in job losses in some of the rustbelt states, thus eroding Democratic Party standing there.

This is not to deny that racism was an important factor in ‘flipping’ many of these votes. But it suggests that we have to part with one of the false dichotomies of the post-election debate. The argument about whether Trump voters were driven by economic distress, racism or something else, is missing the point. There is no need to choose: racist nationalism is the mythical mode throughn which Trump tried to address the very real economic distress of a minority of American workers. And he did that just enough, in just the right places, to win.


III. So why should class be colour-coded? There are white workers, but why should we believe in any such cohesive entity as the ‘white working class’? If we were to believe the emergent orthodoxy that white workers are the pillar and stay of Trumpism, ‘whiteness’ functions alongside religion and nationality as a sort of security blanket for the perpetually anxious and paranoid. It is a guaranteed and stable referent in an unstable and frightening world (for the uneducated and broke, that is).

This argument can even take a progressive hue. Damon Young’s bitter disappointment with Trump’s victory leads him to argue, in The Nation, that ‘the preservation of white supremacy’ was the ‘paramount interest’ of ‘particularly working-class white people’. They didn’t vote against their own interests so much as choose between a variety of contending interests, and settled on protecting the ‘privileges – real or fabricated, concrete or spiritual’ that white supremacy offered, even at the expense of ‘their own livelihoods’.

Young’s claim at least has the virtue of acknowledging that interests are interesting things, that people can have more than one over-riding interest, and that there is always something that might matter more to us than our own perceived well-being. This is a small step forward from simply assuming that the ‘white working class’ cannot be trusted to vote with their own interests. Interests can only be calculated in relation to a given horizon of possible action, and in a given political and representational framework. The interest that anyone has in a given order is always relative to the possible alternatives, which depends on how reality is culturally and politically represented, how it is dreamed and daydreamed about. There is, in other words, no straightforward way to counterpose interest to value, and the attempt to maintain such a binary results both in damaging over-simplification of explanatory schema, and in the pathologising of phenomena that somehow fail to measure up to supposed ‘rational choice’ standards.

In the run up to the 2015 general election, then-UKIP leader Nigel Farage famously staked his bid on the claim that he would rather lose something financially if it meant having more control over immigration – it would be better to be a little poorer than have Romanians for neighbours. After the Brexit vote in the UK, amid general signs of looming economic decline, it was not unknown for those activists who had supported it to say that they were prepared to bear a sacrifice for the greater good of getting their government back under control. And indeed, as far as they were concerned, they acted altruistically, for the good of the (white, British) social whole. The long dominant and completely unjustified assumption that people only really care about how well off they and their families are left by Budget decisions, would certainly struggle to explain this.

Intellectuals should know this. After all, they are exposed to the pomo-inflected liberalism of Universities, and are aware of the provisional, negotiated and discursive nature of ‘interests’. But that insight is usually lost as soon as they start to run anything. Then, the seductive idea of a universal discourse, one that speaks neutrally and authoritatively on behalf of all ‘interests’ – technocracy, ‘the economy’ – almost invariably takes hold. This is a deeply embedded cultural fantasy working in the unconscious of The West Wing, House of Cards, and similar fodder, and one that sustains the dogged loyalty of educated liberals to political strategies and agencies that repeatedly fail to deliver the goods on their own terms. That is to say, no one acts with a straightforward orientation toward their ‘best interests’ on the basis of ‘the facts’, and the idea that anyone does or could is one of the fantasies enabling knowledgeable, rational people to override their own declared interests.

If some people experience their class interests in a ‘colour-coded’ way, in light of white-supremacy, then it isn’t good enough to scoff at their lack of enlightened self-interest. It is crucial to ask what political frameworks, representational and cultural systems, social structures and employment patterns would lend themselves to that, and how they might be overturned.


IV. However, on this ground, Young is hugely over-simplifying. And, indeed, the language of ‘whiteness’ does tend to simplify, homogenise and absolutise race in a problematic way. Young allows that there is a distinction between ‘allies and racial antagonists,’ but that doesn’t do anywhere near enough to complicate the picture. If whiteness is a property of violent and exploitative social relationships, precisely where and how one is situated in the ensemble of relations makes a great difference to the meaning and value of whiteness. There is a world of difference between the ‘whiteness’ of Virginia miners, and that of Fifth Avenue billionaires. Or, between the specific and direct investment in whiteness that, say, workers striking in defence of ‘colour bar’ practices might have, and the more general and diffuse investments which workers voting to ‘Make America Great Again’ might have. One of the functions of the ideology of ‘whiteness’ is, of course, to override or efface those differences – but then, in that case, to participate in effacing those differences is to reproduce the ideology of ‘whiteness’.

Further, the way in which one’s class experience is organised politically and economically makes a great difference to whatever value one puts on whiteness. Certainly, anyone who voted for Trump is hardly innocent of racism. Even if oppressing black people and immigrants wasn’t a priority for some of them, they knew who he would victimise. One of the complexities of this situation, however, is that a small number of African American voters, and a much larger number of Hispanic voters, backed Trump. This raises questions about the operation of white-supremacy beyond ‘whiteness’. To what extent were these voters aware of the danger to them from a more egregiously racist presidency, but willing to tolerate it for the greater perceived gain of voting against the establishment, or voting for supposed economic populism? To what extent did Hispanic voters, in voting for an anti-Mexican, anti-Muslim presidency, implicitly consolidate their identification with the United States and thus their place in it? Or, from another perspective, did some voters place a traditional middle class affiliation ahead of any supposed racial affiliation? For example, did middle class African Americans who might have traditionally voted Republican on the grounds of support for ‘free markets’ and ‘law and order’ simply continue to place those values ahead of the risks incurred by poorer black voters? Just as problematic are the white voters who had supported Obama in two previous elections, whatever their hang-ups about the emerging multicultural realities of politics, and then switched to Trump. They have shown themselves to be capable of acting on their whiteness in different ways. That is to say, have been willing to vote for a black president who would not fundamentally challenge the structures of white-supremacy, in return for some promised pro-worker policies.

In addition to needing a more complex model of how ‘whiteness’ works on people, we also need more information. We just don’t know to what extent, for this particular subset of white voters who were ‘flipped’, the conservation of whiteness was prioritised as a strategic prize (consciously, or unconsciously) in 2016. And we don’t know if so, what that prize actually amounted to in each case. We don’t know to what extent it was merely the taken-for-granted context of their political action (and if so, what effects this contextualisation had). Or to what extent it acted as a factor in the congealing and mediating of all of their other issues (and if so, how important an adhesive it was). We don’t know to what precise extent and in what specific ways their working practice and daily social existence is structured by race.

We don’t know in what modalities whiteness matters most for these various groups of workers. It may be their investment in the violent policing and incarceration of black communities, their perceived competition with migrant workers or Chinese workers, their identification with an empire-state in its struggles with jihadis and other evil-doers, or something else. We don’t know what, if anything, is specific to the working class about these modalities. And these are all things we need to know to make anything more than the general point that ‘whiteness’ of various configurations played a part in the election.

This is to say that the entire discourse pinning the blame for Trump on the ‘white working class’ is suspiciously opaque and impressionistic on matters where precision is vital, and that (partly as a consequence) the argument is incoherent and verging on meaningless. It is nebulous in its definition of class, barely even inaccurate in its apprehension of actual voting patterns, and overly glib and summary in its analysis of whiteness and its functions. The ‘white working class’ which it invokes is a reification, a sock puppet, and a scapegoat. And it is scapegoating in a way that is logically incoherent. The ‘white working class’ has, like the rest of the US working class, borne a terrible burden in declining workplace conditions, stagnant real wages, the evisceration of industries and unions and in some quarters declining life expectancy. Yet we are also to believe that it, almost single-handedly, chose the most important and powerful global leader. Even if it were the case that they were disproportionately present in Trump’s base, which is far from obvious from exit poll data, one would have to account for the constraining structures of capitalist democracy. The US electoral system is more directly organised by capitalist class power than other democracies, and fund-raising requirements are only one part of this problem. The dominance of the system by two parties of business, with barely any democratic or even strictly ‘party-like’ structures, organised by business-aligned elites, makes it very difficult to mobilise alternatives. This is one of the reasons why there has never been a successful labour-based party in the US. The strategy of takeover by the ‘grassroots’ succeeded only in the Republican Party, where the candidate preferred by the base was a self-funding billionaire. Workers, white or not, are left with choices emerging out of a balance of forces favouring capital. The majority, it seems, simply don’t vote.

The trope most likely survives and is perpetuated because, in so many ways, it is a useful cover story. It appears to explain, without actually leaving anyone informed. It appears to critique racism, without actually disclosing anything about it. Worse, it is often used to justify recourse to racist policies in a mournful way, as if it is a necessary evil to prevent far worse expostulations on the part of this mythical group, many of whose notional members are among the first to engage in protest and civil disobedience to obstruct Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’. It even appears to say something about class, although most of its advocates would find reference to the ‘capitalist class’ vulgar: why does no one ever inquire into the racial politics of the white bourgeoisie? Given the salient role of capitalists and administrators of capitalist states in devising racial oppression, be it Jim Crow and equivalent ‘colour bar’ systems, various forms of ‘race management’ in the workplace, or the modern system of mass incarceration, this is an odd oversight. It displaces attention from the sheer, structured weight of white-supremacy as an enduring system rather than just a value on the part of neo-Nazis, militias and Klan members. It is the sort of construction of psephologists and newspaper leader writers that appears profound, and profoundly explanatory. It is at best a far-from-ideal shorthand; at worst, as in these cases, a conservative stopgap for analysis, and one which supports the wider authoritarian and anti-democratic lurch from which Trumpism benefits.