The Failure of White Solidarity

Over at The American Conservative, Rod Dreher has a piece on the troubles besetting the white working class (I think term is inadequate, and I will explain a bit later), vamping off some recently released data which shows that white men without college degrees are killing themselves in record numbers.

Go read the Dreher piece for yourself. It’s one of his better essays of late, though I suspect given how he tends to write about African Americans and social order, this won’t help him much.

Still, someone does need to care about poor and working class whites — people who in previous generations would have been called proletarians and peasants.

Dreher notes the difference between poor whites, poor blacks and poor Latinos — blacks and Latinos, despite the poverty and violence, are not killing themselves — and concludes that the given the spiritual tools that churches give their members, “white people do not know how to suffer successfully.”

… [T]he bottom line is that the changes in the American economy over the past few decades have worked to alienate working-class whites from religious life because of the way the white working class connects its sense of self, and of justice, to the ability to be rewarded for hard work, being honest, playing by the rules, and delaying gratification. When this formula fails, they don’t know how to deal with it. Say the sociologists, “In brief, the declining economic position of white working class Americans may have made the bourgeois moral logic embodied in many churches both less attractive and attainable.”

What I think Dreher is saying here is that bourgeois aspirations for peasants and proletarians are good things when those aspirations can lead to some kind of attainable success, to something more concrete. And the rearranging of the economy in the last four decades has made life brutal and unrewarding for many white proletarians and peasants. Social change over the same period has not helped those least able to successfully navigate or even manage those changes.

Dreher uses the word dispossession, and notes that the order of the world — which up until the mid–1970s generally favored white proletarians and peasants — suddenly came undone. And it has left white proletarians and peasants without a way to measure their self-worth or social worth, or to feel like successful participants in a communal endeavor.

What is missing — at least overtly — from Dreher’s analysis is an understanding of solidarity.

White proletarians and peasants benefitted hugely from the Progressive Era and New Deal arrangements that created the very world that built a floor under their lives and provided them with some significant economic security. But that order didn’t simply come into being on its own — proletarians and peasants organized and agitated hard for that order, frequently fighting and dying in the process in order to gain some say over how their lives were viewed, valued, and protected. Labor unions were the biggest part of this, and along with fraternal organizations, created and fostered solidarity — “we are in this together, and no one succeeds unless we all succeed.”

Of course, there was the reality of America’s racial order to content with. Progressive and New Deal intellectuals and policy makers were just as committed to America’s racial order, and white solidarity rarely included Blacks Americans (though this was not always the case). It was a limited “we.” But it was a “we.”

That “we” was built on a very conservative social order. It was religious (too often in a parochial and utilitarian way, but it was religious), hierarchical, patriarchal, and it was far too comfortable with the racial order — black and brown people should be kept down and far away — but it still understood that social solidarity was important. Even with bourgeois aspirations, they understood themselves as workers and peasants, and they organized and acted accordingly (in an American context). And very successfully.

Two things undid this solidarity, I think.

The first was the economic success of the nearly three decades after the end of World War Two allowed bourgeois aspirations to become a reality for many of these proletarians and peasants. And especially for their children. They lived very well for almost 30 years, and in the process, they forgot to be a “we.” I cannot recall how many times growing up I heard relatively conservative members of that generation lecture us on self-reliance and hard work — this from the generation who created (and benefitted handsomely from) Social Security, went to university on the GI Bill, bought houses with mortgages backed by the federal government (the VA or FHA), worked for the government or for companies whose sole business was contracting with the government, and frequently drew government pensions. In short, their good and comfortable and successful lives were the result of a great deal of social investment, struggle, and solidarity.

And by the 1970s and 1980s, they’d either forgotten that, or had chosen to ignore it.

In becoming bourgeois, they became individuals. Someone’s success became utterly independent of anyone else’s. You can’t have solidarity under those conditions.

The second thing that, oddly enough, undid white proletarian and peasant solidarity was the end of the racial order. In the 50s and the 60s, the natural order of the world came undone, beginning with the Civil Rights movement, but continuing with various cultural revolutions that destroyed the family and social structures proletarians and peasants need to thrive. This was more disorienting than anything else, but by the 1970s, poor whites were having to compete with brown and black folks for a shrinking share of the economy. Things that had been guaranteed now had to be fought for, and increasingly lost. The same people who in 1948 secured Harry Truman’s surprise victory also propelled Richard Nixon into the White House in 1968.

In the process of voting their fears — which they’d always done, but in the New Deal era, those fears built an economic world they could thrive in — proletarians and peasants yoked themselves to a Republican Party intent on destroying much of the New Deal. In voting their rage, white proletarians and peasants voted, basically, to immiserate, isolate, and alienate themselves. They did so frightened of a changing world, and thinking they could put a lid on it. They voted for good order in 1968 just as much as they did in 1948. But their voting has done nothing to rescind that change and restore the social order they thrived in.

I don’t know where White solidarity comes from anymore. It is hard to be a people who are dispossessed of even what little you have and not turn that into a politics of resentment. Some whites are learning to become just more aggrieved ethnic group, thinking that’s how success is achieved in today’s squalid multiculture. Effective white solidarity will, as Dreher notes, have to learn how to suffer — to suffer in the way black folks have suffered in America, and to give that suffering meaning and purpose. To even find hope amidst the suffering. Ineffective white solidarity will seek to restore an old order, demonizing black and brown people and demanding not just their subjugation, but their happy assent to it as well.

The church can provide that structure, but it has to be a different kind of church. One not so invested in social order (which white churches always have been), but rather, in fostering successful resistance and survival in the face of difficult odds. White churches that succeed will become more like black churches, giving a story to tell that gives meaning rather than rules to live successful lives by. Because life may not be successful by any bourgeois definition. And yet, it’s still a human life Christ lived and died for. Loved and redeemed and given a purpose.

I bet some of this is already happening. I know this is something I want to do.

There is, however, on other thing to consider. In the history of Anglo-America, the lives of peasants and workers have largely been violent, brutish, and all-too-short. The arc of success of trade union and progressive movements, and all that brought with it, from the 1880s through to the 1960s, may be a historical aberration. It may be that proletarian and peasants lives — lives largely given over to chaos, squalor, and violence — are returning to historical type. Solidarity had never really paid off for white peasants and workers until the 20th century. Prior to that, in Anglo-America, attempts by the poor to organize were generally met with brutal and merciless repression. And failed nearly every time.

It would be a pity if that were true again. It doesn’t have to be. But I see very little will anywhere to change this. Any creation of a proletarian and peasant church, and of a culture of persistence, will have to begin at the bottom. One soul at a time.

6 thoughts on “The Failure of White Solidarity

  1. The urban proletarians often first found solidarity in ethnicity (in which churches were also central) and local politics, which then made labor organizing easier. In England, it was the Methodist movement which provided a social base which evolved into the Labour party. Ethnicity has weakened considerably from intermarriage and distance from the generations who remembered the old country. Also the decline of manufacturing, which is an activity easier to organize than government and services. Whiteness itself will never support solidarity. There is no central cultural core, nothing to attract allegiance. The easy prosperity of the past — kids just out of high school with no skills finding 40-hour-week jobs with good benefits and secure employment — has almost passed out of memory. A new kind of church movement might work (and Lord knows the fields are ripe for the picking). But it won’t work as a specifically white-solidarity movement. Fortunately, that well has poisoned by the crimes of the past. It would have to be a Christian-solidarity movement, but one very different from the white evangelical churches of the past few decades. That could work, and maybe it will.

    There has never been a properly ‘peasant’ class in the US — one tied to the soil with a long tradition of subservience to the large land-owners. Instead, before the end of family farms, there was a class of mobile rural entrepreneurs, who were fiercely independent. Farm cooperatives and associations worked best in the north- and western-midwest, settled by Germans and Scandinavians; not so well in the old midwest (east of the Mississippi) and the southern border regions. The great majority of this class of people can no longer make a living by farming, or by running small shops to sell to farmers. Those who have not moved to cities or suburbs have become a rural proletariat centered around dying small towns, and threaten to become a criminal underclass. The only future I can imagine for such places is tourism, trade and some manufacturing condensing around the interstates, especially if suburbs spread out in their direction.

    • Actually, peasants are historically mostly smallholders. As opposed to serfs or sharecroppers. So I would argue in the yeomanry, we actually do have a substantial peasant class in the US. And have had. Mostly, I am thinking about rural folks with this.

  2. Re European peasants vs American small farmers, I was thinking mainly of the (prior) mobility and occasionally violent conflict for control of land in the US frontier as a formative factor in culture and character. Such things had not been seen in the old world since the generation following the Black Death (with exceptions maybe in parts of Spain and Italy and much of Eastern Europe). Indiana hasn’t been frontier since 1840 or so (earlier in the south), but the influence of those times remains somewhat. Far more so in, say, Montana. The principle of a class-less society in which everything was up for grabs still had weight as an ideal well into the 20th century. The reality was something else; but there was in my lifetime (and may still be) a distinct difference between the relatively egalitarian Midwest and West vs. the hierarchical Northeast and Old South. Then there’s Texas … a state of mind unto itself.

    But yes, as the frontier receded farther into the past, the rural folk of the US became more like a peasant class.

  3. Any solidarity would be nice. I work at a public school this year, in a community where many of the wealthier, more stable parents put their kids in private schools, leaving those least able to make “better choices” behind. I know you aren’t a big fan of nationalism, but it would be nice to acknowledge that in some fundamental way, we are all in this together.

    • It would. And nationalism has been one way of “being in this together.” Real solidarity, at least among poor whites, has been replaced by a set of cultural affectations that reflect the worst of our identity politics. Even the nationalism we have these days is an affectation, as opposed to something real and solid.

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