Tuesday, May 03, 2016

A betrayal wrapped in an oxymoron

By Gage Skidmore (Flickr.com) CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
By running for president of the United States, Donald Trump has exposed a good many open wounds. The phrase used to describe one of these sums it up succinctly, but not neatly. Like origami, the concept opens into multiple dimensions; the more you pull on it, the more it reveals. White working class: suddenly, the phrase appears in everyone's articles, an all purpose location for the appeal of one Donald Trump, and much more beside.

The phrase explains without explaining; it explains not in the sense that the words themselves carry meaning, but in the sense that the words "white working class" serve to trace the lines of deep scars or unhealed fractures in our society. Start with the word order: the white working class. The syntax suggests a single mass, like a vast white shag carpet covering several American states. The opposite phrase, working class African Americans, suggests a single description applicable to multiple individuals. Specifically, the phrase speaks of African Americans who belong to the working class, people who work for wages and who need to work for wages to support themselves. Working class African Americans also belong to a larger set: the working class generally, made up of people of all ethnic varieties, all nationalities. The phrase white working class, on the other hand, completes a definition not of multiple persons but, somehow, a single phenomenon.

This illuminates an old problem, one George Orwell wrote about in his essay on the Spanish Civil War:
In the long struggle that has followed the Russian Revolution it is the manual workers who have been defeated, and it is impossible not to feel that it was their own fault. Time after time, in country after country, the organized working-class movements have been crushed by open, illegal violence, and their comrades abroad, linked to them in theoretical solidarity, have simply looked on and done nothing; and underneath this, secret cause of many betrayals, has lain the fact that between white and coloured workers there is not even lip-service to solidarity.
The "secret cause of many betrayals..." Orwell's readers might not have known much about the betrayals inflicted on workers of colour, but the workers concerned almost certainly knew.

The phrase "the white working class" describes the betrayal Orwell wrote about, wrapped, as we wrap many betrayals, in a contradiction. The working class, after all, relies on solidarity. Without it, no working class exists, only millions of individuals, each weak and, by the design of our society, easily preyed on. Racial division explicitly contradicts that solidarity.

Donald Trump's appeal makes the division more explicit: the phrase "the white working class" makes explicit the claim that persons identified as "white" and born in the United States have a claim on a way of life, and on the resources to support that way of life. Persons born elsewhere, particularly workers not identified as "white", simply cannot make the same claims.

By Evan Guest (Donald Trump in Muscatine, Iowa) CC BY 2.0,
 via Wikimedia Commons
The breakneck expansion of modern communications has made it possible for a shrinking core of highly talented and effective individuals to design for, entertain, schedule, and lead an ever widening circle. This concentrates bargaining power in fewer and fewer hands. The people who collect power, whether through achievement or chicanery, now have more of it over more people, than ever before. Working class people who identify as white, who have racial but not class privilege, thus face a pretty stark long term choice: either accept the growing concentration of power and wealth, or else work toward an egalitarian order, an order that will have no room for racial privilege.

The Donald implicitly promises a third way: by subsuming themselves in "American" greatness, a "greatness" that leaves out Mexicans and Muslims, Americans can justify a standard of living greater than that of 90% of the world's population without taking on the increasing difficult take of accumulating the bargaining power required to obtain high wages in this economy. Those who uncritically use the phrase "the white working class" indicate a partial acceptance of the premises of this appeal.

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