In Search of the American Working Class
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:
...in 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.
On the Left, the working class is a God--praised, yet alien to its congregation and always silent. And like all good religions, the priests of left media have similar but alternative interpretations of who the working class is. However, the tumultuous debates of YouTube and Twitch become little more than entertainment for an enthusiastic crowd, cheering on the ‘Rock 'em Sock 'em robots’ as if their lives depended on it. To borrow from Herzen, they have contracted syphilitic thinking from their passion for revolution.
This leads, of course, to sects that become delusional. The left 'populists' like Jimmy Dore and others become absolutists in applying their interpretations of the political values provided by arousing aesthetics. While most people have an ire for centrists, it is the populists who are without souls; the centrist may want to maintain a faux-balance between liberal-left and center-right ideals, but the populist will give themselves over to whoever is willing to promise them what they want. They are mercenaries for despotism, Pavlovian sycophants for leaders with treats in their pockets.
This melding of mediocre media nonsense is always fun; a veritable three-ring circus for people to find entertainment in. Gore Vidal called America a 'funhouse with laughing gas being pumped in', and he was not wrong. In this funhouse, the only difference is that now we have large speakers, making our ears bleed as every idiot and their mother offers an opinion. The liberals and conservatives fight over which song we should listen to at such high volumes, with the songs belonging to the same album. The Left and alt-Right screech at their own distorted reflections in the funhouse mirrors, and the populists have their mouths over the pipe where the laughing gas is coming from.
And all are deaf to the workers.
As things go on, they try to convince us that different shadows on the walls are 'signs' of a working class. I know everyone is happy, of course, with the victory of Amazon Labor in New York City, but we should not forget the way populist pundits attempted to sell us on the 'People's Convoy', the American mimicry of the Canadian circus. After all, why not? These truckers looked the part of a 'worker'. Dirty hands, dirty demeanors, a faux straight talker right out of a reality show we put on our 'history channel'. The shadow was convincing, at least, to those who are ones to believe in shadows. While condemning teachers’ unions and mocking workers getting vaccinated, these populists told us confidently that these truckers were the authentic working-class we were looking for. But really, they just looked the part.
It was HL Mencken who noted while looking out over the American landscape, that there was a civil war going on. The members of this civil war, he sneered, were two 'inferiorities’, the plutocracy and the proletariat. And what were they fighting over? Putting the nail in the coffin, he said they were fighting over 'the privilege of polluting the world'.
This is a grating assessment to some, but one I think contains an element of truth. We are living in a moment where the class structure of America is harder than ever to deny and, to a certain degree class mobilization is alive and well. However, what is ignored is just that the language class is mobilized to do battle only as a means of keeping things as they are. In American politics, appeals to the working class are made not with any positive agenda directed at improving their lot. Rather, it is deployed cynically to ensure one or other of the wings of plutocracy might have their favored candidates obtain public office. In other words, the working class is dragged into an electoral stage play in which they are mere extras in a drama directed by the ruling classes.
Mencken may be right that we have a plutocracy here. But what we do not have, and I would argue we have not had for a while, a proletariat ‘for itself’. As Sartre noted in 1946, and I am condemned to repeat, America is a land of workers, but not a working class.