Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 25, 2020

The Sinking Middle Class

Filed under: Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 9:15 pm


On September 22ndPolitico reported on how rank-and-file union members were snubbing Biden for Trump. Perhaps inadvertently, the second sentence reveals what kind of trade unionist this means: “To rank-and-file members in some unions, especially the building trades, it doesn’t matter. They’re still firmly in Donald Trump’s camp.” Historically, construction unions have operated as a white-only job trust and would be naturally part of Trump’s hard-core support. While Anthony DiMaggio debunked the myth of Trump’s “blue-collar” populism in CounterPunch, Democratic Party pundits insist that unless it connects with these types of workers, it will lose to demagogues like Ronald Reagan or Donald Trump.

Just hot off of OR Books press, David Roediger’s “The Sinking Middle Class: A Political History” digs deep into the origins of this line of thinking and concludes that it is time to put it to rest. Despite the book’s title, the subject is a demographic that academics and journalists describe interchangeably as the middle-class or the white working-class. Since Black people tend to vote overwhelmingly for Democratic Party politicians, Roediger’s chief concern is to interrogate how this obsession developed.

Roediger has been writing about race and class in the U.S.A. ever since his 1991 “The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class” that paired him with Theodore Allen and my good friend, the late Noel Ignatiev. For these three scholars, the task was to explain how the white working-class could identify with ruling-class values. Speaking for myself, I always attributed that to the phenomenon Karl Marx described in “The German Ideology.”

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.

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1 Comment »

  1. It is virtually impossible to understand the class composition of the United States without coming to terms with its Settler Colonialism. Primitive accumulation in Britain was the enclosure movement that removed British peasants from the land and got them into slums where they could be proletarians. Primitive accumulation in the United States was the taking of First Nations’ lands and displacement by independent white farmers and slave owners. This was the first social ladder where even indentured servants could work off their 7 year debt and then settle on some stolen land.

    Whatever the shortcomings of the original “settler hypothesis” may be it is clear that the process led to a disproportionately larger middle class than exists in other countries formed according to what Ellen Meiksins Wood referred to as the “Pristine Culture of Capitalism”. In the demographics of some of the slave states, excluding slaves, the white laboring class was far less than a third of the total population; being either equal to or outnumbered by the property owning middle class. For white immigrants and the poor left out of this process the New Deal and post-war GI Bill allowed many of them to purchase houses and take the first cut of well paying union jobs.

    The middle class is not only very large here but it has an ethos that seeps into the actual working class. I remember a strike of grocery workers where one of their agitational talking points was that Safeway was trying to “drive them out of the Middle Class.” Of course Europe has its own problems with “false consciousness” and bad union leadership but they did achieve probably most of their benefits from class struggle and the welfare state–not settlerism. Of course this is how we got here not where we are stuck at permanently. De-industrialization and neoliberalism have definitely altered the terrain and the middle class has shrunk. Fissures are showing.

    Comment by New Afrikan Socialist — September 26, 2020 @ 10:30 pm

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