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Class has once again reared its ugly head.

Throughout U.S. history, class has always been there, if only just below the surface. But then in times of crisis, such as the aftermath of the crash of 2007-08 and during the Second Great Depression, class comes to the fore.

Thus, in recent years, class has become a significant theme in a wide range of media: literature—both fiction (for example, Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047) and memoir (such as The Draw, by Lee Siegel)—as well as literature made into films (especially The Hunger Games); in television, both reality TV (for example, Undercover Boss) and sit-coms (2 Broke Girls is a good example); and, of course, in non-fiction—from journalistic exposés (the best of which is George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America) to data-heavy best-sellers (I’m thinking, in particular, of Capital in the Twenty First Century by Thomas Piketty).*

And for a country that at least in its public pronouncements and mainstream economic theorizing mostly denies the existence of class, it is remarkable that a great deal of attention is now focused on the working-class, especially one segment of that class: the so-called white working-class.

The decline of the white working-class was, of course, the overriding theme of Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, which would have sunk into much-deserved obscurity had it not been for conservative commentators (like David Brooks) and a well-financed, right-wing-engineered string of controversial college-campus visits (including my own university).

J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy also should have been consigned to oblivion. But, of course, it wasn’t. To my mind, it became such a media and commercial success not only because it was celebrated by American conservatives (lavishing praise on it to give it credence it didn’t deserve), but also because of the growing class divide in the United States and the curiosity on the part of those on the other side (including many concerned, well-meaning liberals) about what is actually happening to the white working-class.

Much better, in my view, is Strangers in Their Own Land, Arlie Hochschild’s attempt to climb the “empathy wall” and make sense of the “great paradox”: why hatred of government appears to most intense among people, including the white working-class of Louisiana, who need government services most. (Her answer: it’s all about the “deep stories”— about who they are, and what their values are—that people feel to be true.)

And then there’s Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America—a remarkable book that serves as a reminder of both how class is a central thread in the American narrative and the fact that class has been configured not only by finances but also in geographical and even bodily terms.

Crackers and squatters, rednecks and hillbillies, sandhillers and mudsills, clay eaters and trailer trash: over the course of its history, America has developed a rich vocabulary to describe its uneasy and unresolved relationship to one part of the underclass—the dispossessed—its economic and social institutions have presumed and produced on an ongoing basis.

According to Isenberg, the designation of a portion of the U.S. population as “waste people” and later “white trash” existed at the founding of the republic, having derived from British colonial policies designed to resettle the poor, which left a permanent imprint on postcolonial conceptions of American society and of the American Dream. From the very beginning,

marginalized Americans were stigmatized for their inability to be productive, to own property, or to produce healthy and upwardly mobile children—the sense of uplift on which the American Dream is predicated.

Poor whites haunted the writings of such diverse founders as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson—because they threatened both to disrupt “enlightened” democracy and to undermine national economic prosperity. The political and economic menace they posed continued into nineteenth-century American society but then was intertwined, starting in the 1840s, with its opposite, as the landless vagrant and squatter became romanticized and morphed into “the colloquial common man of democratic lore.” From then on, American white trash were alternately threatened with expulsion and even sterilization (especially in the first two decades of the twentieth century when the eugenics movement flourished), to reduce the burden on the national political economy, and greeted with populist calls (from the rise of Lincoln’s Republican Party to the campaign of Donald Trump) to make American great again.

Isenberg’s compelling survey of the invoking of white trash and its various synonyms across 400 years of American history teaches us, first, that “not only did Americans not abandon their desire for class distinctions, they repeatedly reinvented class distinctions.” The United States is, and has been from the very beginning, a class society. Second, it shows that those class distinctions exceed financial inequalities and invoke as well geographical and physical characteristics. White trash are poor but they are as often as not rural Southern white trash, living in shacks, hovels, and trailer parks, with dirty feet and tallow faces that are signs of “delinquency and depravity.”

If I have one major bone to pick with Isenberg’s otherwise absorbing and persuasive analysis, it’s that she overlooks the changing foundation of white trash—and thus of class distinctions generally—across American history. It is true, property, especially land, played a significant role in designating the gulf separating waste people and everyone else when the U.S. economy was mostly rural and white trash evoked landless laborers who were pushed to or beyond the margins of feudal, slave, and independent agricultural production. But that changed with the rise of capitalism, after which poor whites were either members of the working-class who found themselves in low-paying jobs or who failed in the effort to sell their ability to work to employers and thus were jettisoned into the ranks of the underclass, the lumpenproletariat.

So, yes, as Isenberg argues, “pretending that America has grown rich as a largely classless society is bad history.” But so is presuming that the basis of class can be found in an uninterrupted pattern of unequal ownership and dispossession in the presumed land of opportunity.

Today’s white trash are not merely yesterday’s landless vagrants on wheels. Those wheels are the only way they can get to their jobs at Wal-Mart and shop at the dollar stores that together represent the injuries, insults, and inequities meted out by an American economy that, over the course of the past four decades, has punished a growing part of the population for whom the American Dream is increasingly out of reach.

 

*Down the road, I plan to write a review of After Piketty: The Agenda for Economics and Inequality, edited by Heather Boushey, Brad DeLong, and Marshall Steinbaum.

Comments
  1. Magpie says:

    That intermittent focus on the working class by the bourgeois and petty bourgeois intelligentsia has a way to arise when things go wrong with capitalism, doesn’t it?

    After the housing bubble burst, for instance, the wise and educated did not find any problems in the excessive lending, or in shitty financial deals, or in bad financial advice, or in the lack of regulation, or in deliberate economic policy. Those who profited from that situation and their friends in government, in other words, were not responsible for it.

    The exclusive responsibility belonged to those who borrowed beyond their capacity to re-pay, many of whom allegedly were non-caucasians. That’s why it was only fair for them to lose even their shirts.

    To be honest, however, among those intent now on using the white working class as a scapegoat there are plenty so-called progressives, including — I’m sad to say it — even some so-called Marxists.

    God, those people really need the working class.

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