By Curtis Price
August 16, 2020
“If a social class acts against its own apparent collective interests, then the historian should at least provisionally assume a rational basis for its action, rather than trying to force it into a posthumous session in consciousness-raising” – Eugene Genovese, “Yeoman Farmers in A Slaveholders’ Democracy”
At my auto mechanics last fall, I looked over the waiting room: a large battleship-grey area with four plush, copper-studded burgundy leather chairs that were circled around a non-descript rug. Fox TV blared from a wall TV. The sky hung grey too and in the distance loomed the last outcroppings of the Appalachians stooping over Huntsville like watchful gods. A corner rack held wilted Bible tracts doubled over from the summer heat just past.
I’ve been coming here for a while and even with all the customer traffic- it’s a busy place- the managers know me by name. Once, earlier on, I had called impersonally, asking if they could give me an oil change. When I showed up, the manager scolded me, “Why Curtis, why didn’t you say it was you? Of course, we can take you. I’ll do it myself.” This is not the cold, impersonal North, but the convivial South where personal relations trump business formality, at least in the working-class areas. I suspect personal relations are more formal and aloof in all the NASA and defense industry engineering labs. But these are separate worlds, worlds that barely intersect with blue-collar Huntsville.
John, one of the managers, is a short, middle-aged white man with naturally slicked back black hair that reminds me of Elvis with a widow’s peak. Speaking in a thick, nasal twang, John is very sociable and shares his wit and wisdom with anyone who will listen. I always enjoy his stories and we banter back and forth. Today, I asked him if he plans to go gallavantin’ on a cruise again anytime soon, that vacation choice of Black and white working class America, a yearly ritual that is as unknown to our coastal cultural elites as the mating rituals of Stone-age Papua New Guinean tribes. But I understand it. If you’ve physically worked hard all year, you want to kick back and do nothing but eat and relax. It’s only the symbolic analysts who want to climb the Andes.
It’s right after Thanksgiving so I ask John the perfunctory, “How was your Thanksgiving?” He paused and a pensive look crossed his face. There was no one in the shop so he could talk freely and without interruption. He said his son was in Nashville but he couldn’t make it down this year. A family reunion used to take place every Thanksgiving but people “drifted apart” and that stopped. When he was growing up, he knew all of his cousins but now his children just know a few. If you needed help from family, they’d help without asking anything in return. But people just aren’t willing to help one another anymore these days. As a child growing up in the country, he used to milk the neighbor’s cows from time to time and mow other neighbor’s grass “just because it needed to be done.” Things are different today. His voice trailed as he looked in the distance, “But I figure if you give a blessing, one will come your way. Eventually.”
What John doesn’t realize is that he’s describing the larger crisis of family and personal life under turbo capitalism that has undermined people’s lives, making their lives churn, leaving people more alone and adrift. Even families aren’t what they used to be. I know many families here whose personal relations remind me more of addicts conning each other for drugs than a support network, so much has the ruthless competition of the outside seeped even into that “haven in a heartless world.” John and many others look back to a better world in the past, where people helped one another more, jobs were plentiful and better paid and your knew your community. I can understand why he probably voted for Trump who at least said things were worse off now as opposed to glib, New York Hillary. John doesn’t know whether capital is fictitious or not, he just knows “things are falling apart.”
Or “Coming Apart.” Charles Murray, to give the Devil his due, wrote one of the best class analyses of recent years in ‘Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010.” Murray, perhaps realizing he is a poisoned messenger, strictly confines himself to descriptive data analysis and what he shows, although he would never draw such conclusions, is the dovetailing of white workers with Black and Latino’s life prospects. The Great Unwinding, in George Packer’s pungent words, hit Blacks and Latinos first and then it moved on to white workers too who face the same collapse of community and family life, declining prospects and loss of security, whose neighborhoods are awash in drugs and who fill early graves just like their Black and Latino counter-parts. They may hate one another but their fates are intermingled, their lives intertwined. The line connecting the Chicago South Side to rural Alabama trailer parks will not pass through the editorial offices of The Nation. . .
What, then, can be said to men (and women) such as John?
One approach, from those embalmed in Sociology departments and Brooklyn, is to say this man is nostalgic for “lost whiteness.” After all, he’s nostalgic for the past and since white supremacy was part of that past so, ipso facto, he’s pining for “whiteness.” This is the shallow, arrogant, analysis of people who have no real contact with other human beings outside their professional and political bubble worlds. It proffers a gross psychological simplification worthy of a fourteen year old blaming everything on “society.” Why? Because people are active actors, picking and choosing from the past, freely discarding aspects of the past they don’t like and preserving those that they do. We remember days playing freely as children and not the days we were sent to the principal’s office for smearing gum in little girls’ hair (confession). John and others like him can yearn for the past without longing for the racial segregation that was part of it. Arguments about “whiteness” that used to be made by Marxist groups such as Sojourner Truth Organization to ENGAGE at the point of production with white workers are today arguments being made in a professional-managerial class Left to flatter its alleged cultural superiority and effectively write white workers off.
If a Left can’t stand for a politics of “common decency,” to use Orwell’s poignant phrase, then hasn’t it lost both its way and maybe the right to exist? Unchanged, the Left will remain, as it is today, disproportionately the province of the credentialed educated and the protected; the journalists, media pundits, academics and the like with no real roots outside these circles and no imaginative capacity to reflect on why it has so dismally failed to connect with ordinary hopes and aspirations. It instead will continue to rely on undemocratic means such as the courts, Twitter feeds, the media, and “woke” capital to impose an identity-focused agenda from above while screaming to high Heaven . . . “Democracy Now!” Or its less protected but still credentialed part will escape from the world’s messiness into sandbox “autonomous zones.” The Left will remain the province of “Champagne Socialism” and grow further away from lived experience than it already is. It will be like a totaled car, where all critical thinkers can do is shake heads and walk away from the wreckage, realizing there’s nothing left to salvage.