29 July 2013

Only A Pawn in Their Game

White alienation is on the rise. “Going back to the 1980s, never have whites been so pessimistic about their futures,” according to a recent article about increasing economic insecurity published by the Associated Press. “Just 45 percent say their family will have a good chance of improving their economic position based on the way things are in America.”

Such pessimism corresponds, of course, to the objective economic situation facing the majority of white Americans. As the AP explains, “While racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to live in poverty, race disparities in the poverty rate have narrowed substantially since the 1970s, census data show. Economic insecurity among whites also is more pervasive than is shown in government data, engulfing more than 76 percent of white adults by the time they turn 60, according to a new economic gauge being published next year by the Oxford University Press.”

While decreasing racial disparities in the poverty rate hold out the possibility that whites and non-whites will come together in the face of shared economic immiseration to challenge the neoliberal policy regime responsible for their increasing insecurity, it is overly sanguine to believe that the collective experience of acute economic anxiety will lead inexorably to proletarian racial harmony. Indeed, the perverse racial equality promoted by neoliberalism’s program of universal dispossession is haunted by the specter of a racialized politics in which the objective social antagonisms of capitalism’s bio-polar class structure become increasingly displaced into threatening forms of populist chauvinism that could radically transform the American political landscape. As Walker has discussed at length in two recent posts, the unleashing of such reactionary forces could eventuate in a Rand Paul presidency, a scenario that harbors the possibility of accelerating national and international disintegration and hostility.

Our chances of averting such a catastrophe depend on our ability to articulate a narrative that will place the subjective experience of economic distress in an objective perspective that discloses the class-bound economic mechanisms driving contemporary inequality. As William Julius Wilson, a Harvard sociologist, tells the AP, “It’s time that America comes to understand that many of the nation’s biggest disparities, from education and life expectancy to poverty, are increasingly due to economic class position.” He goes on to caution, “There is the real possibility that white alienation will increase if steps are not taken to highlight and address inequality on a broad front.”

Unless progressives, socialists, and leftists can forge such a narrative and present it alongside a political program based on the regulation of financial corporations in the public interest and the creation of jobs through large-scale investment in infrastructure, transportation, and education, rising white alienation will continue to portend reaction.


  1. This essential post could also be titled "Wake-Up Call." It deserves to be read along with a viewing of Our Nixon, which is a "home movie" assembled from Super-8 footage shot by top Nixon aides, showing the adoring crowds on the 1972 campaign trail that re-elected the 20th century's most reactionary president by a landslide.

    White alienation is, or could be, a tremendous political opportunity for the Left. It shows the glaring need for what the US does not have: a political vanguard with convincing ideas that speak to large fractions of the population. Without it, the traditional formulas of a democracy in crisis are almost sure to take hold. They are: repression, nationalism, external aggression. Anyone who does not see a strong possibility for these kinds of solutions in the near future is simply and perhaps irremediably blind.

  2. More and more I feel that what I think and do politically is motivated by a fear of what the right could do with a self-identified disenfranchised and largely white middle/working class. From the Tea Party to Occupy, narratives of an us being disinherited and a them doing the stealing have mass appeal and acceptance.

    Let's hope that nobody will ever write The Eighteenth Brumaire of the the Grand Old Tea Party.

  3. Picking up on the themes of "repression, nationalism, external aggression", I think it's worth putting this in the context of the dangerous political trends we're seeing elsewhere. We've commented on Asia before. Japan is getting particularly grotesque.

  4. Far be it from me to doubt apocalyptic scenarios, but what reason do we have to think that this particular dystopia will involve race hatred? I tend to think that neoliberalism has slowly dissolved a lot of the ontological basis for race, and as the make-up of the underclass becomes more diverse, that will push the process further, because the material basis for the persistence of racism today is the uneven racial makeup of the excluded population.

    I actually take right-wing people at their word when they protest that they are not racist. So I expect the likely direction for reaction to be much less anti-minority and much more anti-elite (which I emphasized in the Rand Paul posts) and anti-foreign (possibly including anti-immigrant, though there are reasons to be optimistic there, too, if only for the US, definitely not for Europe or Japan). But I would like to hear others' thoughts on that.

  5. I agree with Walker's intuition about the race-neutrality of neoliberalism. It seems to me that capitalism is uniquely capable of accommodating formal/legal modes of racial equality given that it relies on purely "economic" methods of surplus extraction that do not require the legitimating racial ideologies of, say, chattel slavery.

    But even so, I'm far less optimistic about the disappearance of racial animus. Even if such animus becomes more and more attenuated, I think the rise of "white alienation" may produce other, perhaps less direct but nevertheless just as nefarious, forms of racial tension. For one, the anti-elite feelings Walker alludes to are usually played out as a vague feeling of hostility toward "the government," the burden of taxation it creates, and the "freeloaders" who abuse "government handouts." Can someone like Rand Paul really come to power on this wave of anti-elite, anti-government feeling without stoking racial tensions? He and his father have stated their opposition to the Civil Rights Act on the grounds of private ownership, after all. Then there's the case of George Zimmerman, which I had in mind when I embedded the Dylan song. Even if rising white alienation doesn't issue in explicit racial hatred (who would admit to such a thing anyway in this day and age, and how much of the right wing denial of the charge of racism is simply good public relations?), it seems possible to me that people with these feelings of disaffection will seek a false sense of empowerment through acts like Zimmerman's.

    These are somewhat hasty reflections, and I'm interested in others' take.

  6. Alas, both "anti-foreign" and "anti-immigrant" sentiments in the US are still expressed in terms of race. And racism is clearly virulent inside the country, just read the news or ask non-white people about it. Post-racial, hyper-individualist, color-blind neoliberalism is an ideological construct of the 1990s, obviously not the worst one, but as unrealistic as the New Economy. It has been embodied by a percentage of the population - basically by what used to be called "liberals," along with some libertarians on the right - but it left huge sectors untouched. Since then, the devastating pressures that neoliberalism has brought to bear on so much of the population have produced anger and desperation that neoconservative politicians and social movements try, often quite successfully, to channel into nationalism, racism and chauvinism. Neolib and neocon are two sides of one coin. The story is as old as capitalism itself...

  7. I very much agree with John Ball's point that anti-elite sentiment on the right is wrapped up in the thought that there are "freeloaders" who have the liberal government elites in their pocket. And I think Walker overstates things when he accepts that right-wingers are not racist. I would rather say (and I think this is something Walker has in mind) that mainstream contemporary American racism is not directed towards any biological notion of race, but rather to some idea of a freeloader culture in which people choose to embrace lives of poverty and dependency. And this idea has been color-coded.

    But, on Walker's side, I do wonder if the image of the freeloader is becoming less racialized. I don't know if Tea Partiers (who tend to be relatively affluent) are as hateful towards "poor white trash" (and their "culture") as they are towards the poor black people, but I have a completely data-free impression that things have moved much more in that direction compared to, say, the era of Reagan.

    So, assuming there is a trend here, one possibility is that racism will transform into a more straightforward kind of classism, which is something that I think we see in some other (equally neoliberal) countries. And of course this will be combined with nationalism (enemies within, enemies without).

  8. I should clarify my point. I think that the accusation of racism is generally used with almost no analytical precision, which may or may be politically useful but is definitely not useful for understanding the problems we face and how to confront them. Sweeping claims that the right is racist just like it was fifty or one hundred years ago are simply inaccurate. I believe right-wing people when they say they aren't racist because I see abundant evidence that the totalizing ontological racial framework—including biological notions of race but which was there before the biological conception of race really came to the fore in the late 19th century—which dominated the American social imaginary up to the civil rights movement, has broken down and probably can't be reconstructed.

    Of course various racialized stereotypes still flourish, especially on the right, because they're nurtured by the uneven racial distribution of exclusion from the economy. So in this sense the right, and many other people, are racist, but we need to be more precise about what that means, what kind of opportunities that leaves for politics, and where to focus our interventions. This is a qualitatively different form of racism, which is not ontological and for that reason may be more malleable. But not necessarily in a positive direction, as John and Shu Yundo's points on the notion of "freeloaders" make clear.

    You can see how this dynamic would feed a politics of generational resentment, millenials vs baby boomers, captured most vividly in the Old Economy Steve meme. The only political potential I can see in that orientation is very reactionary, yet that meme drew a lot of spontaneous sympathy among progressives. So we really have our work cut out for us in trying to avoid a path for politics that heads down that road.