Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Towards a populism of the working class

constructive deconstruction:

If we're going to move out of this morass of misdirection, it's going to happen because partisan people put down their boxing gloves and start to see what they have in common. Polly-Anne Progressive is going to have to try to understand why Sarah Palin is attractive to Ethyl Sixpack. It won't help Polly-Anne to keep complaining that Ethyl is a stupid, poor white trash, ignoramus redneck bigot. All that sort of commentary reinforces is Polly-Anne's feeling of superiority for not being Ethyl Sixpack.

Now, this constitutes an actual strategy. Do you see that? The author is saying, if we want to do something about this -- if rightward populism is as serious as we think it is -- then you have to do something about it. If we're going to move out of this morass, it will happen because of what people like you and me do about it.

Complaining about what you don't like in life is not a strategy for dealing with it. Whatever you want to say about social trends that you dislike, the only meaningful question, if you are a serious person, is what you intend to do about it. There are plenty of unserious people who complain their lives away. If you aspire to anything more than that, you think about how you can advance your concerns in any situation.

Needless to say, appealing to the state is not the first strategy we want to jump to when our problem resides with the working class. This is what the author means when he says the partisans have to knock it off. Partisanship is an appeal to the state: it means you want state force to advance your preferences, not theirs -- but in US politics this implies one part of the working class versus another. Is that clear? Democrats and Republicans means one part of the working class set against the other. It is a vertical alignment -- working people identifying with competing elite groups. And the whole point is that we don't want this if we can help it.

Now, maybe there are justifications for state force under certain circumstances. If vigilante groups in the Southwest US are beating or harassing Mexican immigrants, and there's no social organization to stop this, then you might need federal agents. Or if there's some genuine threat of fascism, and nobody's taken any of the above-mentioned steps to stop it, then there may be a justification for some cross-class alliance, between elements of the working class and whatever parts of corporate America aren't owned by Rupert Murdoch.

But the point is, you don't start at this solution. The solution to Tea Partying isn't to ensure that Democrats stay in power. Democrats aren't going to heal the wounds of the post-manufacturing communities when their political power flows from Wall Street. You can try to keep these people out of power, but unless you address their concerns, their numbers will grow. I hope this is clear. Unless you devise a way to address their concerns, all you are saying is, "don't let them run the country."

Last but not least, we should be building a class-based populism. Populism -- the idea that ordinary people can run their lives -- is a trend we should be supporting wherever it is. It's hard enough to get a group of poli-sci sophisticates together to accomplish anything; here you have ordinary Americans enthusiastic about participating in their own affairs, employing a language critical of "elites" -- this is stuff you don't often get in a saturated commercial environment. If you read Dick Armey's Tea Party Manifesto, it reads like an anarchist tract. It's obvious that Republicans of his stripe are jumping through some substantial hoops to hold the attention of disgruntled middle-Americans. What genuine anarchist organizers could do with this is something worth thinking about.


JM said...

Populism means appealing and respecting everyone so I don't know if teabaggers would be thrilled that a revolution would have to involve people that they fear and loathe. Not all of them are like those in the 365gay article.

JRB said...


People have more tolerance for each other when they don't exhaust it all in the daily appeal for life.

The same fools that show such obsequience at the job erupt into a furor at the slightest misunderstanding in the street.

When we spend all our tolerance for one thing we don't have it for another.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the kind words and linkage, JRB. Appreciate it.

drip said...

I completely agree with CFO and you on this. It takes patience. And it takes work. It is hard to persuade people who have reached a conclusion already. You must learn their vocabulary and gently, slowly present the facts that you believe demonstrate where they went wrong without arguing a position. You must be open-minded because you can never tell when insight will strike and you must be prepared to see it, from whatever the source. As you and CFO and others have posited, the teabaggers have legitimate grievances and their anger is directed at the right source -- the powerful. That is a lot of common ground and we must find a way to build on that. We must talk about where the money comes from and where it goes rather than whether a church or a CYO basketball court belongs at a particular intersection. We must talk about our place in this society and why we are in the position we are in as individuals rather than whether Obama or Bush or Palin or whoever is fronting the big money is better or worse than the next stooge of the year. It is small ball in baseball terms. It is a base at a time, a step at a time, a conversation at a time and a daily commitment to being educated and educating.

And your site helps me with that. I am consistently amazed at how you crystallize the crap rolling around my head into clear thoughts. Thanks.

Ethan said...

This is a beautiful post, and I share drip's amazement. The one thing I would quibble with is this part:

Complaining about what you don't like in life is not a strategy for dealing with it. Whatever you want to say about social trends that you dislike, the only meaningful question, if you are a serious person, is what you intend to do about it.

This is of course frequently very, very true, but I find that much of the time complaining about things is a very useful form of stripping away the assumptions growing up in our society has layered over our minds, which it seems to me is a lifelong process for all of us. Complaining often makes me consider things from a different angle, and helps me figure out why it is that what I'm complaining about is a problem. Complaining aloud, too, can spark a new thought process in someone overhearing it--they may realize that something (the wage system, say) they've always taken for granted might not have to be eternal.

Of course, thinking alone isn't worth anything to anyone other than the thinker (if that), but it does help us see what it is that needs to be done, and what portions of that can be done. So: yes, complaining is often exactly what you say it is, but I think that a lot of the time it's a step in the direction of taking the kind of action you're talking about.

Oh and another thing: your comment in response to Jenny in this thread is a wonderfully brief and clear way of putting something I've tried and failed to compose many lengthy essays about. Thank you for that.

Anonymous said...


The same fools that show such obsequience at the job erupt into a furor at the slightest misunderstanding in the street.

My experience among blue collar people is that they definitely feel the inequalities of their work situation and where they fit socio-economically in America, but they lack the ability to connect the dots between themselves in their work situation (disparity in power) and themselves in their socio-economic situation (another disparity in another kind of power). The scale of disparity is bigger in the political arena and harder to discern.

Road rage is a great indicator of general American social dissatisfaction. People will be, as you say, sycophantic and unctuous at work and then in other settings hair-trigger intolerant. It's the pressures of one situation bleeding into the response to another situation.

Political operators profit from manipulating the pressures into a scapegoating vector. For people whose life has included inculcation in bigotry -- Archie Bunker's dinner table, for example -- it's easy to nudge them into believing the problems in America are rooted in too much tolerance for Islam, too little tolerance for Christ.

In the past I've tried talking to pwoggies about this, but they're so quickly reflexively dismissive about those who believe in Christianity. I usually suggest the pwog try discerning WHY Joe Sixpack is pulled into Christianity, but as my blog post suggests, it's really common for the pwog to simply elevate him/herself by denigrating Joe Sixpack's Christ-loving religiosity.

Tribal identity is hard to break, so the solution seems to be fairly clear to me: show the Pwog tribalist how the Beck-Palin tribalist is actually part of the Pwog's tribe too.

It's ironic that a pwog would work so hard to be tolerant of Blacks by electing and supporting The Articulate Black Man Barack Obama, while showing intolerance for a fellow American who simply doesn't know how to articulate his or her frustration in the proper pwog-approved buzzphrases and passwords.

It suggests to me that something in the pull for pwogs to be pwogs is a strong feeling of superiority. Something about being a "progressive" seems to carry the notion of intellectual or existential superiority. What else explains the crass, mean-spirited dismissal of Beck, Palin and Tea Partiers?

...dismissal without assessment, I mean.

d.mantis said...

I agree with the praise for this post.

I mentioned my utter disdain for the progressive elite some time back in a comment to another one of your posts. I mentioned that the progressive-types arguments always rang hollow to me because they had a golden opportunity to appeal to this tea party crowd early on. I think I mentioned their uncomfortableness with pounding the pavement in a WalMart or something.

Anyway, I find the above a perfect example of your 'vertical alignment'. The powerful have no desire for meaningful consensus, Dems or Repubs. The purpose is to legitimate the left or right and maintain the power structure.

Who was it that when questioned why they taught and preached on the street answered that once an institution is created, the purpose is the continuation of that institution and not teaching/preaching?

JM said...

I'm just more cynical.

"What else explains the crass, mean-spirited dismissal of Beck, Palin and Tea Partiers? "

What do you agree with Palin and Beck on, may I ask? II can understand why Joe Sixpack turns to Jesus, it's when he becomes intolerant, like Palin,that gets under my skin.

And again, I don't think they're going to go along with a socialist revolution.

Joe said...

"It suggests to me that something in the pull for pwogs to be pwogs is a strong feeling of superiority."

There is definitely quite a bit of truth to this. My wife used to belong to a book club that consisted almost exclusively of self-described liberals/progressives. They went to fancy private universities and had "good jobs" (whatever the hell that means) at corporate behemoth offices and their attitudes towards working class people were, to put it charitably, disdainful. The irony is that they'd read a book like Nickel and Dimed and then turn around and talk trash about the secretaries in their offices. It shouldn't be any mystery why non-college educated working people don't like liberals.


I agree that these people are misguided in thinking that Beck and Palin represent anything other than the ruling establishment in another guise, but I can't hardly blame them for opposing a bunch of smug elitists who think they know what's in everybody else's best interest.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for showing what I'm talking about. By the way, I'm not seeking a socialist revolution. I hate socialists. They want to own everything I own, they want communal ownership of everything. That isn't a solution. It's a dictatorship. "Of the proletariat" is just the sales point. Karl Marx = bad news. I have posted my distaste for Marxism here at JRB's place several times before. It's not news for me to say I abhor Marx and Marxists.

Who said I agreed with Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin?

Only you said that, JM.

JRB said...

I think the question is: How do we have an industrial democracy? How do we have an American democracy?

Within the left-libertarian tradition, "socialism" has always meant industrial democracy: it meant industry controlled by free-associations of communities. You're extending democracy from the political arena into the economy, where some of the most important decisions lie -- and you have to do this because of the industrial revolution; everybody can't own their own factory in order to produce what they need.

Obviously, there are competing interpretations of "socialism" which amount to the "one big firm" model which Marx himself poses in Capital as the final result of capitalist centralization through competition, except that the state assumes the role as bourgeoisie -- as the owner of all productive wealth, and therefore the employer of everyone else.

Considering that the whole of point Capital is to underscore the fact that capitalism will naturally head in this direction -- and the affront to human freedom this implies -- I don't read Marx saying this is somehow desirable if only the state does it and not capital.

That Marxists and socialists have made this claim once they were attached to particular bureaucratic regimes, however, is undeniable, if not surprising -- I mean look at what "Democrats" and "Republicans" represent in this country. I would not say it has much to do with democracy or republicanism as a rule -- but, yes, justifications for power are advanced behind popular ideas.

In an American context, "socialism" is probably never going to fly, but "democracy" can, so we have to look for the principles we share in common to work towards a social system that actually gets us to the point of deciding "what we want."

JRB said...

Also wanted to say, great observations all around.


For practicality's sake, I would probably just draw a distinction between criticism and what I think most people understand as complaining in the sense of a passive reflex that reproduces itself without contributing to anything more. The latter I find especially prevalent in workplaces and political discourse that amounts to sports commentary about the state.


You have a good appreciation for not prejudging a situation, and finding the opportunities within it instead.


Oh, I feel like I should know this. I want to say Francis of Assisi! Besides that, anyone smart.

Ethan said...

"Sports commentary about the state," oh, yes. I understand what you mean now and yes--you're absolutely right.