In Search of the American Working Class

Rubin Charles Roberts

May 4, 2022

In 1945, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was sent to America at the behest of Albert Camus' Combat. Sartre's assignment? Write about America and the condition it was in. It is every writer's dream; go travel and just write. And those writings truly are a treasure trove of observations.

In one of the articles, titled “American Workers Are Not Yet Proletariats”, he mentions a moment where a liberal journalist is taking questions from the group Sartre was traveling with. In a moment of impatience, Sartre asked why the journalist was so befuddled by their questions about the working class in America, to which the journalist responded: "It's because you Frenchmen talk about the American working class as if it really existed…"

This is a response that Sartre finds everywhere in America; not only with the journalists or intellectuals but with the workers themselves. In a conversation with an autoworker in Detroit, Sartre was told the following: "At international meetings, workers delegates from Europe often criticize American workers for not expressing solidarity with the international proletarians but that's because you are not aware of our situation; we are not yet proletarians."

I am struck by this sentiment every time I return to it. If we did not have a proletariat then, what do we have now? The only term that really comes to mind, at least for me, is ‘precariat’, what Sartre would call 'serialized workers'. Sartre noted this serialization was based on something racial and religious; that is, organized by social relations. As he wrote: 1920, a worker [in America] no longer knows whether he is a proletarian because he belongs by birth to the proletariat or because he is an Irishman who just got off the boat. On the other hand, national and religious solidarities persist for a long time among immigrants and explain the existence of those innumerable Irish, Jewish, Mexican, and Chinese neighborhoods which function as barriers and blind them to class solidarity.

American workers are just that; workers. All bonds are social, or by profession, as are all differences. It seems to defy Marx; it is not economic conditions that organize social relations, but social relations that organize, and divide, economic conditions.

Now, this is still the case, not that you would know it from the way the blogger punditry talks and the way the podcast pedagogues repeat what they say. Between enunciations of 'neoliberalism' and the drooling groan of people who talk of a ‘Professional Managerial Class’, class is both denied and exaggerated. Even those who admit to there being class in America do know what class is, let alone how it has come to be. Class is always an abstraction or, more correctly, a caricature.

On the Right, most people are taken in by a Mike Rowe reality TV-style of working-class; hard hat, dirty jobs, tough masculine personality, and 'straight talk'. But, beyond this aesthetic exist a few values; a masochistic love of the work you do, where your life is centered around your calling. They live by the unspoken rule of laborare est orare; the 'gospel of work', as Aldous Huxley put it in Point Counter Point. It is, as Huxley expounded further, to keep them stupid. It serves the role of alcohol; to make them forget who they are, to distract them.