Thursday, May 22, 2008


Some time ago, I remarked on how odd it is that the media assigned the bad guys – the even worse guys, that is – the color red. No doubt the graphics departments at our crack news organizations are populated by citizens of what Gore Vidal has aptly called the United States of Amnesia. Lately, it has gotten even worse. Now entire news organizations have emigrated into the same territory, and not just with respect to color words. They have even forgotten what “the working class” is.

In the good old days of just a few months ago, the media consensus was that there is no working class anymore. Everybody was “middle class” -- as in Bill Clinton’s quickly forgotten promise of 1992, to make things better for “the great forgotten middle class.” That charming thought allowed Clinton to neglect working class issues, while keeping working class organizations more or less in tow. It allowed him, along with nearly all our political leaders for many decades, to deny the reality of an historical antagonist to the capitalist mode of production; to see everyone without regard to their place in the economic structure as a consumer only – one with more or less (usually more) disposable income to spend.

But at least Bill Clinton didn’t mess too much with the meaning of the word he avoided using. Where words still mean what they say, the working class is comprised of wage workers – typically, but not necessarily, in industrial enterprises. It does not include small farmers, shop owners, independent producers and the like; though all these groups may, and often do, ally with the working class in particular times and places. It was in reference to the working class, so conceived, that, for more than a century and a half, people have spoken of working class culture, working class organizations (industrial and trade unions) and working class political organizations (Communist, Social Democratic, and Laborite). In this last respect, the United States has always been an outlier. We have never had a significant political party representing, or purporting to represent, working class interests. That task has long been assumed by the feckless POP -- the Party of Pusillanimity, the Democratic Party – for which workers in general, and organized labor in particular, were just one constituency among many.

Lately, though, the wordsmiths in charge of dumbing down political discourse in these United States of Amnesia have surreptitiously redefined the term – to designate rural, poorly educated white people, living mainly, but not necessarily, in Appalachia. You’re working class, on this view, if you favor Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama because you think he’s a Muslim. For the long legged beauties and cartoon character older men who pontificate on the cable networks, “working class” and “redneck” have almost become synonymous.

How did this happen? Since the myth of the great forgotten middle class is still serviceable, I think that blame must be ascribed to the media’s grip on what the Right still calls “political correctness.” Nobody dares say that the Clintons are trying -- probably in vain, though at great cost to Obama’s chances of victory in November -- to mobilize “white trash” by appealing to their latent racism. Because no one dares say such things or use such words, the Clintons can have it both ways. They can capitalize on racist attitudes; and they can present themselves as working class heroes – notwithstanding the fact that, in two terms in office, Bill Clinton did nothing, repeat nothing, for organized labor or, for that matter, for the ever growing numbers of workers who no longer benefit from union protection or who, even in better times, never did.

A government that would help the working class organize, that would foster the revitalization of working class culture, that would help workers rise, as Eugene Debs long ago said, “with their class not out of it,” is what this country needs. What it does not need are Clintonites and pundits who cut Clintonites too much slack who are hell-bent on redefining the working class to mean “uneducated,” “uninformed,” “unsophisticated” and bigoted. That’s false of most real workers and of most residents of Appalachia. It is insulting to both, and overly complementary towards people who live in “blue” states and who have college educations. But it is a useful thought for those who are, as Samantha Power, late of the Obama campaign, aptly put it, “monsters” who will “do anything to win.”

1 comment:

Abby said...

I’m in agreement with you, but now the media and Hillary are starting to drop the word “class” from “working class,” I suppose out of political correctness because if you’re defined as part of a class then maybe it’s implied that you're stuck there which borders on caste and we know that’s un-American. Or maybe if the “working class” people are supporting Hillary then she’s a commie. I think it was this political correctness that allowed Hillary to almost get away with talking about her supporters as “working Americans, White Americans.” I would imagine the term “working class” will disappear altogether in favor of “working” before long, which is interesting, because if it does, the unintended implication is that only previously “working class” people do any work at all, or maybe only people in Appalachia.