Saturday, November 19, 2016

Hands in all colours

A couple of days ago on Patheos, Connor Wood wrote about the role the urban versus rural, working class versus managerial or creative class divides had in elevating Donald Trump to the White House. He wrote:
There are tens of millions of people in this country who are not symbol-manipulators for a living. They work with tangible things: gears, spark plugs, two-by-fours, PVC pipes. They can’t just talk their ways out of mistakes and errors in judgment, the way finance professionals or academic prognosticators can. If you screw up cutting drywall, there is no hiding it.
By Ciacho5 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Ciacho5 ,Wikimedia Commons
The reflects a standard, if quite controversial, account of Donald Trump's rise: salt of the Earth working people, enraged by the aloof, callous elites of the metropolitan centres, elected him. A single phrase in the paragraph I have quoted, however, illustrates the problem with this view very well.

To write: "There are tens of millions of people in this country" leaves the question, what about the people in other countries? Americans make up a bare five percent of the world's population; billions of people throughout the wold work with their hands. The people in Bangladesh or India or China who sew for a living work with their hands as much as the people who hang drywall or turn wrenches in the American heartland. Yet Donald Trump got elected largely by insisting people who work with their hands in other countries have no right to compete with American workers.
Of course, the disconnect does not just happen at national borders: during the election just passed, the phrase "white working class" slipped into the news vocabulary, without too many people remaking on the way this phrase excludes as many as half the Americans who routinely work with their hands.

This might not matter if manual workers, both workers of colour and workers identified as "white", did not face serious, even existential, challenges, principally from automation. Seventy-five years ago, George Orwell understood the disconnect between workers of colour and workers who clung to the identity of "white" had played an instrumental role in the defeat of manual workers. Today, division between American workers and workers in other countries, or between racialized workers and those identified as "white" may cripple their efforts to achieve a just distribution of the profits from the coming labour saving technologies.

In a profit economy, workers facing automation have limited bargaining power. In this situation, the only hope I can see for American workers lies in the widest possible solidarity. As Connor Wood acknowledges, if solidarity breaks down, people of colour will suffer the most. In the long run, the manual workers who think of themselves as "white" will suffer almost as much.

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