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.

Migrant, Tourist, Pilgrim, Monk

That’s the title of Cavanaugh’s third chapter of Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church, and it’s a brief exploration of Christian identity in the world globalization and nation-states. I’m always leery of discussions of identity. Not because such conversations aren’t important, but because words and ideas can be used to convey more than the actual reality does.

Nonetheless, this is a book about being church. That’s a question of identity. And this chapter is important, if somewhat limited.

Cavanaugh first looks at migrants and tourists, two types of people he sees as prime types in globalized modernity. The migrant is stateless and sees the world from the bottom. The tourist is cosmopolitan — a pretend stateless person — who sees the world from the top. More than describing such people, Cavanaugh says these types (he admits they are stereotypes, but drawn from reality) perform an important function for the modern nation-state. In talking about the U.S.-Mexico border (though he could be talking about any international boundary crossed by people legally and illegally seeking work), he writes:

The purpose of the border is not simply to exclude immigrants but to define them, to give them an identity. That identity is a liminal identity, an identity that straddles the border and defines a person as being neither here nor there. (p. 74)

Again, I don’t want to give too much weight to these words, but despite being an American, I have a somewhat different experience of borders and work, having twice crossed international frontiers (both times legally, though in the case of Saudi Arabia, my stay was long enough to become an illegal one) looking for work. There’s a fair amount to this assertion of his, and that people without rights as nationals — or nationals of the nation-state they inhabit — are important in globalization. However, it does put the lie to one of Cavanaugh’s earlier statements that in a globalized world, capital moves while labor doesn’t. Clearly labor does. It just doesn’t do so easily, or often as legally as it could.

And then he begins to wander into what I think could be an interesting discussion if he kept it up. Which he doesn’t:

The modern nation-state was born of the attempt to protect the rights of humans as humans. The Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789 declared all human life as such to be the subject of rights. As Giorgio Agamben points out, however, the more “life” became the subject of rights–that is, the more life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, health, the satisfaction of human needs, and so on, became the subject of rights–the more “life” became inscribed into the political order and brought under sovereign control. This process is completed when state sovereignty becomes linked to the nation (from nascere, to be born). Political life in the nation-state is not derived from the conscious and free subject, but from the bare fact of birth. The key political question now takes the form “Who is German?” or “Who is American?” and more pointedly “Who is not?” Migrants and refugees challenge the link between nativity and citizenship. The nation-state may choose to confer citizen status on some migrants and refugees. Unless that takes places, however, migrants retain a liminal status. The person without a nation-state is what Agamben calls “bare life,” whose biological needs may be attended to by humanitarian relief efforts, but whose full identity as the bearer of rights is constantly held in question. (p. 74-75)

Two things pop out from this passage. The first is the expansion of rights necessitated the expansion of state power. For example, if suddenly the U.S. Constitution were amended to grant all Americans the right to a free lunch, the state would have to act to make sure those rights could be realized. More rights for individuals requires more state power.

The second, for me, is how citizenship/nationality have become in the nation-state what baptism was in Christendom. An accident, the result of being born in a particular place amidst a particular group of people. The United Nations has as one of its fundamental rights the right to nationality, that no one in theory can be without it. Because, as Cavanaugh notes here, civic and social — and even human — rights all flow from holding nationality. But why can’t I choose my nationality? Or, more importantly, why can’t I choose to have none at all? I can renounce my U.S. citizenship, but it is a meaningless gesture, since I’m still subject to U.S. law and taxes as long as I reside in the U.S. Statelessness is not a real option in a world of nation-states, at least not a voluntary one. And the only real choice is to obtain some other nation’s citizenship or nationality. And I’m not rich enough to do that easily.

Back to Cavanaugh. His ideal Christian type in the world of nation-states is the pilgrim. That’s important for him because Constantinianism gave Christians the illusions that we are a truly settled people, that the world and its arrangement seem more permanent than they truly are. He’s a little too enamored of globalization, spends a little too much time quoting from newspaper and magazine articles on economics and politics, but in the end, I think he’s right to want this is our primary identity:

To embrace the identity of pilgrim now is first of all to embrace a certain kind of mobility in the context of globalization. The church has been unmoored and should joyfully take leave of the settledness of Constantinian social arrangements that gave it privilege and power. To accept our status as pilgrims on our way back to God is, as Augustine saw, to accept the provisional nature of human government. Our status as pilgrims makes clear that our primary identity is not what is defined for us by national borders. The pilgrim seeks to transgress all artificial borders that impede the quest for communion with God and with other people. 

Loyalty to the nation-state is not eclipsed by a simple cosmopolitanism, however, for like the migrant and unlike the tourist, the pilgrim travels on foot and does not enjoy a commanding view of the globe from above. Again, humility is the key virtue of the pilgrim. A church that desires to be a pilgrim does not claim the power to treat every location as interchangeable and impose global solutions on the world. As it was before, pilgrimage today in a kenotic moment. The church on the periphery finds itself in solidarity with the migrant and with other people whose identity is liminal. The pilgrim church is itself a liminal reality, occupying the border between heaven and earth. The term peregrinus, from which “pilgrim” is derived, recognizes this liminal status: the meaning of the term in Latin includes foreigner, wanderer, exile, alien, traveler, newcomer, and stranger. Like the Israelites, whose care for the alien and poor was motivated by their own remembrance of their own slavery and wandering, the pilgrim church is to find its identity in solidarity with the migrant who travels out of necessity, not in order to transcend all necessity. (p. 82)

In his brief discussion of monks, Cavanaugh talks a bit about settledness. Citing St. Benedict’s orders for monasteries, Cavanaugh writes that the only real purpose of settledness is to be able to greet the stranger and wanderer properly. Only in the settled community can the kind of obedience necessary to truly “enter communion with God and with others” because this process takes a great deal of time. And only in settled communities can the kind of human relationships exist that truly create and sustain communities. Not the imagined and mediated relationships of citizenship in a nation-state of 300 million people, but real relationships on the human scale of congregation, town and neighborhood.

But Cavanaugh is clear — the point of the settled life, of creating the settled community, is to welcome and stranger and care for the wanderer. One way of living is not better than the other, nor more desired than the other. (I would add, at this point, that both ways of living are callings. The host cannot be without the guest.) Both need each other to fully live out their callings as people of God. Cavanaugh ends the chapter this way:

Following Jesus on our pilgrimage through this world clearly relativizes any national borders that define some people as “illegal.” Their primary identity is bestowed by Christ; it is Christ we welcome when we welcome the stranger. This position put the church at the margins of the law and at the margins of any national identity. Before we are Americans, we are Christians. But that marginality is accompanied by a rootedness in the concrete needs of a particular people, a rootedness that stands as the basis for hospitality to the migrant poor. The church should respond to globalism by enacting a more truly global story of all things made one in Christ. At the same time, the identity of the universal Christ is found in the one lonely migrant who knocks at the door, looking for rest. (p. 87)

Okay, from here, it is on to chapter four, which is all about the messianic nature of American nationalism.