The Curious Case of the American Working Class
The case of the American working class is certainly a curious one. For one thing, by contrast with everywhere else in the world, the working class in America has never been a separate entity. It has always fit in seamlessly with the other gradations of the middle class. And this middle class has always occupied the center of the American polity. It is the beating heart of the American system, the bastion of its principle of freedom.
The establishment of such a vibrant middle class was one purpose of the war of independence from Great Britain. For at the heart of this revolt was the desire to set up a framework of liberty unencumbered by the privilege-granting, dependency-engendering “royal mechanism” of European monarchy. The center of gravity of political power would be lodged in the citizenry, not in an aristocracy; in the rule of a common law, not in privileges carving out exceptions to that law.
As such, the commoner became the primary actor in political affairs. The citizen patriot was the ideal, an ideal which hearkened back to Aristotle. Such a citizen patriot was financially independent, functioning, as Aristotle put it, in terms of mutual reciprocity. “For it is by reciprocity that the city holds together. Men seek to return either evil for evil – and if they cannot do so, think their position mere slavery – or good for good – and if they cannot do so there is no exchange, but it is by exchange that they hold together” (Nicomachean Ethics, V:5).
Within this framework, the citizen exercises political power, and he does so for a particular purpose. For participatory politics can only function properly when the participant does not seek to enrich himself by means of it, but rather eschews the use of public power for personal fortune.
Participatory politics is the corollary of self-sufficient economic activity. As the householder on his own account engages in exchange in the marketplace, he also on his own account engages in political activity as a citizen. Politics is the business of citizens, heads of economically independent households. This puts the city’s constitution on a sound basis, for citizens do not subvert the political process for private economic gain, precipitating a return to dependency and authoritarianism as existed in patriarchal society. Rather, citizens are zealous to ensure that the political process is kept pure of the authority/dependency nexus. They strive to pass and uphold laws which answer to the city’s basic bond, reciprocity (A Common Law, p. 26 (2nd ed., p. 27)).
This was true of Aristotle’s ideal polity; it was also true of the new commonwealth being established in America. Instead of an escape from patriarchy, it provided an escape from monarchy and a privileged aristocracy.
As such, the new ideal answered to Aristotle’s vision of a polity anchored in the middle class, “the class of citizens which is most secure in a state, for they do not, like the poor, covet their neighbors’ goods; nor do others covet theirs, as the poor covet the goods of the rich; and as they neither plot against others, nor are themselves plotted against, they pass through life safely” (Politics, IV:11).
One final element completes the picture of the American ideal citizen: that of the armed militiaman. The ideal of the citizen soldier armed to defend the polity from the encroachments of enemies foreign and domestic is enshrined in the second amendment to the US Constitution. It derives from Niccolò Machiavelli, who first articulated this pillar of civic virtue, and it was mediated to the colonies by James Harrington, whose Oceana, written during the Cromwellian Interregnum, articulated the arms-bearing citizen within the framework of the Aristotelian citizen ideal.
All of this taken together is the American ideal of liberty, as evoked, perhaps most eloquently, by Patrick Henry in his speech to the Second Virginia Convention in 1775, urging the delivery of troops for the revolution: “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! — I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
This ideal has endured throughout the course of events that have shaped American history. It is the stubborn residue of a steadfast hope, planted at a time of opportunity and possibility; and it lives on, despite the changes that have taken place since then – things like civil war, the emancipation of slaves, the enfranchisement of women, the economic transformation wrought by the Industrial Revolution, the demographic transformation wrought by wave after wave of immigration, the ascendancy, through two world wars, to primacy in the affairs of nations.
This ideal shaped the American character. It is this which sets America apart from the other nations of the world. That stubborn adherence to the principle of self-reliance sticks in the craw of those who would establish a regime of benevolent control, in whatever guise.
It especially stuck in the craw of the German social historian Werner Sombart, who in 1906 published a soul-searching investigation entitled Warum gibt es in den Vereinigten Staaten keinen Sozialismus, or “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” Sombart on the one hand proffered a caricature of this citizen ideal: “For the average American, to have success is first and foremost to get rich” (p. 22). But yet he found himself compelled to give the devil his due; and he did so by admitting that the relationship of freedom and equality had been resolved there far more felicitously than was the case in Europe.
For the American worker, “freedom” and “equality” (not only in formal-political but also in material-social relations) are not empty concepts, vague dreams as they are for the proletariat in Europe, but in large part realities. His better social situation is likewise the result of his political position and economic condition: a radical-democratic constitution and a comfortable living situation, both in the midst of a faceless colonial population, which at bottom consisted and consists in “immigrants” in whom the traditions of feudalism are absent (apart from a few southern slave states) (p. 127).
Whoever observes for only a moment the American working man or woman conducting him- or herself outside the factory or the workplace, instantly notices that he is dealing with a fundamentally different sort than with us. We see in what sophisticated and often elegant clothing the workers and especially the working women return to their workplaces. On the street they are “citizens,” in appearance working-gentlemen and working-ladies. To all appearances, the stigma of class is lacking, such as adheres to nearly all European workers. In appearance, in expression, in the manner of conversation, the American worker stands out from the European. He holds his head high, walks with an elastic tread, and is free and jovial in his expression, like any other citizen. The glumness, the submissiveness, is lacking in him…. The groveling and bootlicking before the “higher classes” that is so embarrassing in Europe is completely unknown (p. 128).
At the end of his essay, Sombart argues that despite the success of American capitalism, it would one day find the tables turned; its inherent drive toward exploitation and subjection would eventually pave the way for the socialism he so ardently championed. “All the aspects which have hindered the development of socialism in the United States are about to disappear or be reversed, so that in consequence, socialism will in all likelihood reach full bloom in the next generation” (pp. 142–143).
But that is, once again, to fall prey to false conceptualizations. Sombart, like Europeans generally, was a child of the French Revolution and as such, a champion of the concept of equality. He viewed capitalism as a necessary evil, the product of contradictory, anarchic forces which need to be channeled and controlled by a benevolent guiding hand in the form of government, in the light of the great ideal, equality. For this is what socialism embodies. He refuses to recognize that America offers an alternative ideal altogether, an alternative approach to integrating social order and social life which does not rely on the indispensable visible hand of government intervention and control, but the freedom-oriented spontaneous order of the common-law society. As such, for him capitalism is merely a stepping stone which, through its inherent contradictions, will collapse and yield to socialism, instead of being an integral, functioning part of a larger whole in which it is embedded, from which it derives meaning, direction, and indeed success.
This explains the inconvenient position of the working class in the American political constellation. Sombart and his fellow-travelers expected great things from what they called the proletariat. The proletariat were to them the essential precondition for the establishment of their centralized planned economy. Without it, there could be no question of such a supreme controlling body. It would be, as a politically incorrect generation used to say, all chiefs and no Indians. It was the sine qua non; and this explains Sombart’s extended reflections on why such had not manifested itself: the wish was father to the thought.
As such, the recalcitrance of the American working class to develop a proper proletarian consciousness was worrisome to Sombart but not, as we have seen, cause for panic. But the days of Henry Ford were still to come; and despite the long hiatus of the Great Depression, the “capitalist machine” (to use Schumpeter’s description) would generate new levels of prosperity unheard of in human history. And put the kibosh on the promise of American socialism.
As time has gone by, the American working class has developed even more bad habits. It abandoned labor unions in the 1980s and participated wholeheartedly in that so-called Decade of Greed, which witnessed not only the Reagan boom years but the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites. The promise of an American proletariat was vanishing like a will-o’-the-wisp. In fact, Francis Fukuyama was speaking of the End of History and the triumph-to-end-all-triumphs of liberal democracy.
But little did the working class know that its days were numbered. The very same capitalists who profited from a boom economy and the collapse of Communism were busy reorienting the world economic order, not in terms of the common good, but in terms of their own hegemony and wealth maximization. And the working class no longer had a place in this new world order.
These members of the Transnational Capitalist Class ensured that plenty of cheap products would be made available to this working class, but at the expense of their livelihoods. For they were busy shipping their jobs overseas. The manufacturing base in America was being boxed up and sent off to new destinations, where labor laws and environmental regulations were not so onerous.
And a new, more activist proletariat was beginning to take shape. The banner under which this new exploited congeries of groups would form was multiculturalism. This new approach to society’s ills was based on delegitimizing all of America’s received institutions in order to constitute a new order based in, you guessed it, equality. And that order would require a massive top-down command-and-control effort to be realized. Precisely what the Transnational Capitalist Class was intent on shaping. Away with democratic controls! Away with citizen participation! The elite had arrived and was now ready to impose its enlightened – woke – will on the unenlightened primitives.
This explains the funding of all manner of polity-threatening movements, from the takeover of the universities by radical ideologues pushing their insipid agendas – funded by the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and various and sundry other members of the club – to the balance sheets amounting to the billions of dollars held by such revolutionary organizations as the Southern Poverty Law Center and Black Lives Matter.
This is the new proletariat – funded by the capitalists themselves! Is it any coincidence that this new proletariat takes the place of the old, the proletariat that would not cooperate? This new proletariat certainly will do the master’s bidding, as witness the riots and destruction it has brought on middle-class businesses and neighborhoods. The old proletariat has been cast onto the ash heap of history, its jobs removed, its status as the vanguard of progress stripped away.
The capitalist class has bankrolled the Left’s shift away from the working class and toward the intersectionalist grievance coalition. On top of that, the working class has received a change of name to go along with its change of status. It is no longer the proletariat. No, it no longer deserved that name. It is now the Deplorables – the Wal-Mart shoppers, the uneducated, the backward hicks, the racists.
This development reveals to us the goal of these capitalist hegemonists. What do you do with the American middle class, which stands in the way of enlightened rule? You break it up.
You first work on the emotions of the college-educated middle class. They – why of course – they refuse to be associated with such losers. The educated middle class, mainly educated suburban women, are being enticed to joined forces with all the various aggrieved groups, at the expense of their middle-class compatriots, the erstwhile “working gentlemen and working ladies.” The paroxysms of guilt that they, in this process, are able to displace thereby is a welcome relief, let me tell you.
Divide and conquer, for a house divided cannot stand. The American middle class, the bastion of liberty, is being carved up and neutralized. The bastion of a free and participatory citizenry is being blasted apart, one part heading for permanent disenfranchisement, the other serving as willing accomplices for the hegemonists’ power grab. This is why Antifa targets the Deplorables: Antifa comprises mainly college-educated white suburbanites, who no longer can bear to be associated with this insufferable rabble. And these Deplorables are likewise the targets of BLM, because they are, by definition, racist, systemically racist. Crackers, don’t you know.
How have the mighty fallen….
Workers of the world, take flight!
 J. G. A. Pocock provided the classic account of this in his The Machiavellian Moment.