The End of Class Solidarity

There’s something interesting hinted at in this piece by John Lingan on the difficulties the city of Winchester, Virginia, has had with embracing the legacy of country singer Patsy Cline:

The entire Winchester-area middle class has traveled a similar path since about World War II. Economic, cultural, and political changes have elevated these proprietary sons and daughters beyond the abidingly second-tier status that their parents held. Starting in the 1950s, the new “business progressive” mindset replaced the previous Southern focus on industry and agriculture, and Winchester went all-in. The current Winchester-Frederick County Manufacturing Directory includes about 100 companies, most of which have come to the region in the last 60 years. The Winchester section of I-81, which forms the city’s eastern border, was completed in 1965. Thanks to that road and the other major local thoroughfares—I-66 and state Routes 7 (the Harry F. Byrd Highway) and 37-50 percent of the U.S. population lives within a day’s drive. Virginia’s sole inland port was built just 12 miles south of Winchester in 1989, so shipping traffic now accounts for part of the region’s economic pull, as well. The first industrial parks were built in the ’80s, and now they cover a shudderingly vast sprawl of land above the city limits along the interstate. 

 Not surprisingly, the region’s population growth over the past four decades has rivaled that of any other U.S. county in the 20th century, as the Winchester-Frederick County Economic Development Commission will happily tell you. U.S. manufacturing jobs decreased throughout the ’80s and ’90s, but Winchester-Frederick County’s spiked. And inside the Winchester limits alone, the population increased 7.4% from 1990 to 2000, and 11% from 2000 to 2010. 

There have of course been what Anita mournfully called “growing pains.” Many residents pay an inadvisable third or more of their income in rent. Nearly a fifth live below the poverty level, a figure slightly higher than the national rate. Like America at large, Winchester’s economy has become increasingly corporatized and unfriendly to the truly working-class. The big employers in town aren’t the old local tycoons but monolithic corporations like Rubbermaid, Pactiv Foodservice Products, and Valley Health, which owns the infinitely expanding Winchester Medical Center on the city’s west side. Nearly a quarter of the workforce is employed in the human services field, especially health care, and an additional quarter works in manufacturing and retail. 

… 

… With the old social structure no longer economically relevant, the descendants of Patsy’s people are now in positions of power and influence. Patsy is their north star, their spirit animal. She embodies everything they claim to value in a person: hard work, generosity, humor, irreverence, and God-given talent. Winchester is a town that clings to family stories and historical claims with grim obstinacy, and Celebrating Patsy Cline is attempting to reclaim that identity as other long-held stories crumble under the weight of prefabricated shopping centers and an influx of outsiders.

We forget, I think, that as the racial order was destroyed in the South (and across the country) beginning in the 1950s, so was the class order. And with that, the social solidarity that made it possible for the white working class to be “progressive” in large numbers.

Lingan writes about how Winchester’s elites — mainly professionals, landowners, bankers, and clergy (he hints at this description more than outright stating it) — have been reluctant to embrace Cline because she was “white trash.” The city’s tourism focuses mainly on the Civil War and its apple festival, things the town’s gentility can and have organized (and been passionate about). In the passage I cite above, he notes that the “business progressive” view took hold about the time segregation was challenged. That “business progressive” view needed not just an end to segregation, but an end to the class structure as well.

Why? The working class, prior to the 1950s, were fairly well cordoned off from the elites. They were ruled, and had little say in how they were rules or who ruled them. The children of the working class could, if they were very smart or very talented, becomes something other than industrial or agricultural laborers (or small-time merchants). But mostly, to be born working meant that you would most likely do what your father and grandfather had done before you. Your options would be fairly constrained.

And it is in this constraint, this limit on mobility and freedom — a limit held firmly in place by the structure of power — that created a working “class” that could identify itself as such. Few could hope to get rich, or even rise to management or government, so you then fought for the best deal not just for yourself but also for your neighbors. Because they and you were in the same situation, the same condition, and shared the same fate. And this was involuntary. Few could choose to move higher (though that always existed, it was limited only to the very best and very brightest). A class was forged because it had no choice.

Destroy the social structure, however, and you remove the compulsion. Anyone can become anything. Even a professional. Even, as Lingan’s story notes, those who end up running Winchester. Once “working class” is no longer an involuntary identity, one held together by rigid social norms, and lack of opportunity and mobility, and a fair amount of violence, then solidarity disintegrates. And you no longer have a “class,” you have a mass of individuals, each believing — and rightly so — that they can succeed at whatever they wish without external limitations. There is no longer a class interest because the “working class” are no longer in it together.

Instead, what comes to matter is “hard work, generosity, humor, irreverence, and God-given talent” in each individual. That had always been true, but this was no longer tempered by the real hopes placed in the very exceptional versus the very real fact that some people don’t have talent or won’t work hard. And thus will never become much more than what their parents were.

This, I think, is the answer to Thomas Franks as to why the “working class” don’t vote their class interests. Because they no longer have a class interest, only a shared set of individual interests (which is not the same thing). Because of that, they have affected a cultural identity (in much the same way African American nationalists did in the 1960s) that is grounded in a real culture but that comes without the real solidarity. It may be that in a world of atomized individuals, all collective identities are affectations — choices made — rather than real markers of class or social status.

But that is as far as I want to take the theorizing now, I think.