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.