Looking Historically at the White Working Class in the U.S. | David Gilbert

By David Gilbert, political prisoner

This essay is contained, along with other material by David, in his book Looking at the U.S. White Working Class Historically, which is available from Left Wing Books.

The Context for the Trump Phenomenon

The bizarre and dangerous rise of Donald Trump did not just pop up out of the thin air. The very foundation of the U.S. is white supremacy. This country is, at its core, imperialist, patriarchal and based in a range of ways human beings are delimited and demeaned. Nor are the specific and terribly virulent politics of racial scapegoating brand new. Always a part of U.S. culture, that approach became more central in mainstream politics, with various ups and downs in the rhetoric, since the end of the 1960s. A stable imperialism prefers to rule by keeping the population passive, with large sectors at home placated by relative prosperity. But when the system is in crisis, those running the economy often resort to diverting anger by scapegoating the racial “other.” The sectors of the population who buy into that get the “satisfaction” of stomping on their “inferiors,” which is a lot easier than confronting the mega-powerful ruling class.

The eruption of mass protest against Trump has been exciting, and so far it has been sustained. People seem to have a feel for the critical need for ongoing education, organizing, and mobilization. The movement also has to be prepared, both psychologically and in terms of legal and support networks, for greater repression, both state and extralegal.

The Democrats, in blaming “those damn Russkies,” are deflecting attention away from the real reason they lost: they represented the prevailing global capitalism and all the associated frustrations of the decline of U.S. manufacturing and the erosion of job security. Trump spoke to those anxieties—in a totally demagogic and dishonest way. For example, during the campaign he railed against Goldman Sachs as the prime example of how Wall Street banks screw “the working man”; then, as president he selected seven of his top economic appointments from the ranks of Goldman Sachs. The Democrats could not provide a compelling alternative to this racist scam artist because they too are deeply rooted in the long bipartisan history of white supremacy, capitalism, and wars of aggression.

Regardless of these questionable charges, Russia can’t hold a candle to the U.S. when it comes to interfering in other countries’ elections, let alone more intrusive and violent means of regime change. The big push by the Democrats and allied sectors of the security apparatus for confronting Russia is not only unjustified, but also runs the risk of leading to a horribly destructive war. As much as we’re scandalized, and rightly so, by Trump’s more blatant racism and misogyny, we need to look at the continuities as well as the departures.

President Obama, with his kinder and more inclusive rhetoric, provided trillions of dollars to bail out Wall Street at the expense of Main Street. He presided over seven wars (drone strikes have killed hundreds of civilians and are acts of war under international law). His administration deported a record number of immigrants. In his last year, Obama sought to burnish his legacy around climate change and mass incarceration. He issued 1,715 clemencies in eight years, the most since President Truman, but earlier took legal action to keep far more in prison. After Congress passed a law somewhat reducing what had been incredibly harsh sentences for crack cocaine, the Justice Department went to court to prevent any retroactive application, and thus kept some 6,000 people behind bars. Similarly, Obama issued a number of executive orders, most of which can be readily reversed, to modestly rein in greenhouse gases. But earlier his administration played a key role in sabotaging the 2009 Copenhagen Conference of Parties, which was the best chance to get a binding international treaty with some teeth in it, at a time when Democrats held a majority in Congress.

Recalling these dire problems is a reminder of how much the most basic issue is the very nature of the system. Nonetheless, there is something new and particularly threatening about Trump’s election: the way he has enlarged, energized and emboldened an active and aggressive base for white supremacy. Immigrants, Muslims, Native American water protectors, Black Lives Matter activists, women who’ve faced sexual assault, LGBTQ folks, those who can’t afford health insurance, and more all feel under the gun. The prospect of an unbridled pouring of more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is terrifying. And there is a great danger he could provoke a major war, since in the past that has been the most effective way for unpopular presidents to rally public support behind them. We need much more of an anti-war movement.

We can’t forget that an imperialism in crisis will turn to racist mobilizations to supersede obstacles to continued domination and expansion. Racist mass mobilizations constitute a central force for building fascism.(2)  Even if the U.S. isn’t fully there yet, the 2016 election moved us farther down that fraught road. To deal with this historic challenge we have to understand that the basis is the decline of imperialism. The U.S., while still the predominant power, has been teetering in and out of economic and political crises since 1971. And on top of that, we now are on the brink of environmental disasters that can’t be resolved under capitalism.

As of this writing (February 2017) major sectors of the ruling class are still wary of Trump, seeing him as too much of a loose cannon. They are making an effort to at least rein him in if not bring him down, although leading with the very dangerous push toward greater confrontation with Russia. It remains to be seen if Trump’s amalgam of billionaire businessmen and ultra-Right white nationalists can provide a coherent program or even hold together. Whatever happens with his presidency, we likely are in for a burgeoning of white supremacist movements. If Trump’s economic policies appear to be successful (possible in the short run of a couple of years but, if so, with giant dislocations and problems in the longer run), he’s a hero to those embittered sectors of the white working and middle classes who voted for him. On the other hand, if his administration implodes, millions of his fervent supporters will see it as the “elites” bringing down their champion. In either case our job, our challenge, is to build a strong movement that can articulate the real issues and clearly present humane, international, and sustainable alternatives.

There’s been an outpouring of Left analysis on who voted for Trump and why. Some of it is very helpful about race, class, and the economy. From what I’ve seen there’s been very little that puts all that in the global context, with the U.S. as the premier imperial power but in decline. Nor has there been enough that has rooted Trump’s rise in the developments of the past 45 years. This is the challenge for our ongoing project of analysis and activism.

After the 1960s: Reaction and Restructuring

The three decades following World War II are often referred to as the “golden age” of capitalism. Those who proclaim it so disregard the millions of people worldwide who suffered from hunger, deprivation, and abuse. The reference is to that period’s high rates of economic growth and steep gains in real wages in the U.S., especially for white, male workers. This economic strength was based in no small part on U.S. dominance in the world economy. Unsurprisingly, most of the white working class, especially the dominant unions, maintained loyalty to the U.S.’s imperial mission.

By the early 1970s, in a reversal of the alchemists’ dreams, the gold started to turn into lead, with imperialism besieged around the world and at home and with the emergence of some intractable economic problems. The turmoil led to some major restructuring economically and politically, with heavy impact on the white working class in the U.S. The impressive gains in real wages were forcibly reined in and levelled off, while jobs and benefits were made less secure. Those changes were accompanied by the ramping up of the politics of racial scapegoating. These developments took place in the context of the broader crisis for imperialism and the fierce counterattacks it launched.

Imperialism was in many ways on the ropes internationally. At center stage, the mightiest military machine in world history was being defeated by Vietnam, a poor Third World (Global South) country. At the same time, dozens of national liberation struggles were raging throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America, threatening to end the huge profits and strategic raw materials the transnational corporations (TNCs) raked in from the labor and resources there at obscenely cheap rates. The sweep of revolutions, the potential for “2, 3, many Vietnams” as Che Guevara put it, threatened to overextend and defeat imperialism. Much of the U.S. public, including many soldiers, came to actively oppose such military interventions.

Inspired by the decolonization of Africa, Black people, Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, Chican@s, and Asian-Americans launched militant struggles for self-determination. They all, especially the Black Liberation Movement, inspired a range of emerging radical upsurges: antiwar, G.I. (soldier) resistance, students, women, lesbian/ gay (now expanded and referred to as LGBTQ), environmental, younger workers’ labor militancy. Many of these movements involved some, and increasing numbers of, younger white working class people.

Revolutions throughout the Third World threatened to cut off imperialism’s most lucrative—and absolutely necessary—arenas of exploitation. Insurgencies at home also began to seriously erode profits: the federal government sought to co-opt the Black struggle with welfare programs that required tax dollars; environmental protection entailed new demands and costs for industry; women, whose wages were only 59% of those for men, were demanding equality; younger workers set off a wave of wildcat strikes (i.e., unauthorized by the union) with the potential for sparking widespread militancy that would raise labor costs.

As it happened, these political challenges mounted at the same time as another economic blow: competition from Europe and Japan. Those economies had been in rubble at the end of WWII but were now rebuilt with technologically advanced production turning out competitive goods for the world market. U.S. industries faced increasing difficulties in selling their full output at the prices they expected. In 1971, the U.S. experienced its first trade deficit since the late 1800s, the beginning of what would become a chronic and mounting imbalance.

This cascade of challenges had a severe impact on the bottom line. The average profit rate in the U.S. fell from almost 10% in 1965 to 4.5% in 1974.(3) While profit rates can vary considerably with cyclical ups and downs, these setbacks were deeper and more long term—what Left economists term a “structural crisis.” The most dramatic early sign came in 1971, when President Nixon shocked the world by unilaterally cancelling the direct international convertibility of (the right to redeem) the United States dollar to gold. The fixed peg of $35 for an ounce of gold had been a foundation piece of world finance since the end of WWII. Soon the U.S. economy began to suffer troubling inflation (big price increases) and stagnation (serious slowdown in economic growth) at the same time. This “stagflation” posed a new and dire dilemma for capital because it defied and discredited the standard Keynesian techniques for economic management. Governments were supposed to run budget deficits, thereby pumping money in, to stimulate a stagnating economy. Conversely, they were supposed to run budget surpluses, thereby taking money out, to cool off inflation. What were they to do now that the economy raced off in both of these supposedly opposite directions at the same time?

The situation was made even worse by the “oil shocks” as OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) drove up the cost of a barrel of oil from $3 to $31 in the course of the decade. Of course these hikes were also very profitable for the big oil companies, but they became major cost factors for other industries. OPEC conjured up a ghastly spectre for corporate America: what if the wave of national liberation led a range of Third World producers of essential raw materials to band together to raise prices?

Naturally, with such vast wealth and power at stake, the lords of the global economy were not going to take this series of blows lying down. Their think tanks and political representatives developed a set of momentous and viciously destructive strategies to restructure political rule and economic dominance in their favor. These efforts included a number of ways to reduce labor costs at home. Before getting to that, I want to briefly sketch three other main areas. Each of these efforts entailed concerted, companion propaganda and cultural campaigns, which I won’t take the time to describe beyond an occasional example.

1. Wrecking National Liberation. Even though it was not an especially lucrative source of wealth, the U.S. doggedly pursued the war on Vietnam based on the “domino theory.” One Third World country falling out of the imperial orbit might set off a series of others once they saw it could be done. That’s why imperialism couldn’t allow any national liberation movement to become an attractive example of how much better things could be for their people. For that reason, long after the U.S. realized it would have to leave Vietnam and the neighboring Indo-Chinese countries of Laos and Cambodia, it rained down the most extensive and concentrated bombings in world history. It also pursued an unprecedented program of ecocide using 20 million gallons of herbicides, mainly the highly toxic Agent Orange. These crimes against humanity not only presented overwhelming immediate obstacles to achieving a healthy and thriving Vietnam; they continue to take a cruel toll on the people and economy to this day, more than 40 years later.

Imperialism also had to find ways to derail national liberation where they couldn’t just send in the marines. They developed a two-pronged strategy. (a) The CIA fostered and sponsored armed terrorist groups such as the “Contras” in Nicaragua, UNITA in Angola, and RENAMO in Mozambique. These gangs inflicted random, brutal violence against civilians; they also targeted rural health and education workers in particular in order to destroy the gains made by the revolutions. (b) The U.S. and its allies often imposed economic embargoes, which cut these countries off from the machinery and components needed to build an integrated economy, as well as medicines and other products necessary for the population’s well-being. The combination of these two forms of attack turned back many of the impressive initial gains in literacy, health care, women’s rights, and mass political participation. Chaos and poverty reigned instead.

2. Kicking the “Vietnam Syndrome.” You can’t keep an extortion racket going if the victims can opt out without repercussions. While the above tactics were often effective, the U.S. couldn’t give up the option of direct military intervention. But the U.S. public was no longer willing to support such wars. That was called the “Vietnam Syndrome.” The ruling class made getting past that distaste for war a top priority. To do so, they organized a series of stepping stones, each one on false pretenses, to give citizens renewed confidence that such aggressions could be carried out with minimal U.S. casualties and economic costs. In 1983, in an action similar to a pro boxer picking a fight with an infant, the U.S. invaded Grenada, a tiny country of 100,000 people. In 1989, moving up to a toddler, they sent troops into Panama, a country of a little over 3,000,000 (one hundredth of the U.S.’s size). In 1991 they took on an adolescent with an all-out war on Iraq, a country of 30,000,000. Preceding that invasion, the media carried on with all kinds of hype about how powerful the Iraqi army was—all designed to make the inevitable U.S. victory seem all the more impressive. That invasion was devastating for the people of Iraq but had little cost for the U.S., where it was glorified in the Pentagon-guided media. After the big bully prevailed, President George H.W. Bush couldn’t contain himself and publicly gloated, “We kicked the Vietnam Syndrome!” Then, in the course of the 1990s, NATO’s air forces showed how much could be accomplished without “boots on the ground,” as concerted bombings of Yugoslavia reduced that multinational state, which had resisted some of the dictates of the world market, to a fragmented set of hostile ethnic enclaves.

Today U.S. imperialism is happily wallowing in the filth of multiple never-ending brutal wars—Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Syria. In every one of these situations the crisis was instigated in large part by U.S. interventions. None of them has a reasonable resolution in sight. All of them serve as steroids for the overblown military machine. Each one has been totally devastating for the people of the country involved.

These stepping stones back to an unbridled U.S. military segued into the unending, continuous, and brutal “war on terror.” U.S. intervention itself created the unsavory groups that are now given as a justification for more intervention. The extensive and growing use of drones has allowed the U.S. to carry out bombings, unambiguous acts of war, on some seven countries at this time, with no U.S. casualties. For theaters of combat where U.S. troops are still engaged, the government and media have relentlessly pursued a cultural standard where any criticism of a war is tantamount to an attack on the soldiers, “our brave men and women who are fighting for our freedoms.” This canard turns reality totally upside down. The rulers who use working-class youth as cannon fodder in these wars of aggression are the ones disrespecting them by putting them in harm’s way as well as subjecting them to the trauma of inflicting violence on other human beings.

3. The War Against the Black Rebellion. Within the U.S, the Black rebellion was the most dramatic threat to those in power. At the same time as the U.S. was losing in Vietnam, widespread uprisings in the inner cities had the ruling class facing its nightmare of a two-front war. Also, the Black struggle was the spearhead for a range of radical movements. The government strategy to crush Black liberation had two main thrusts:
(a) They implemented an extensive counter-insurgency program designed to destroy radical Black organizations. While the FBI and various police forces had surveilled and disrupted the Civil Rights Movement, they moved into a full-court press against Black power with the 8/25/67 FBI memo that outlined a national program “[…] to expose, disrupt, misdirect, or otherwise neutralize the activity of black nationalist hate-type [sic] organizations or groupings […]” The FBI’s now notorious COINTELPRO (Counter­intelligence Program) was only one of many illegal and often violent attacks carried out by a range of government agencies. The tactics included planting false “snitch” accusations to create bitter divisions, as well as outright assassinations. In 1969 alone, 27 Black Panthers were killed and 749 were arrested. Similarly, some 60 American Indian Movement members and sympathizers on the Pine Ridge reservation were killed in the 3 years following the Indigenous takeover/reclaiming of Wounded Knee. (For a lot more on both of these COINTELPRO campaigns, see Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall, Agents of Repression.) Many Puerto Rican, Chican@, and a number of other activists were killed or put away with long prison sentences.
(b) The government also worked to incapacitate the broader Black community. The lead tactic here has been mass incarceration, on top of a number of health (including drugs), social, and economic assaults. The dramatic change can be seen in a chart of rates of imprisonment. For the 50 years preceding, the line is flat with a constant rate, comparable to other countries, of 100 prisoners per 100,000 people. Then in 1973 the line starts a breathtaking ascent, rising to 500 per 100,000—five times the previous rate—by 2005.(4) Within that gigantic overall figure, Black males are 6 times more likely than their white counterparts to be put in prison. One of several pistons driving this incarceration machine was the war on drugs. Those who promoted it already knew, from the 1917-33 experience with Prohibition, that such an effort was guaranteed to result in a mushroom cloud of “crime” and violence. The damage done by mass incarceration isn’t just to those put behind bars but also to the larger community, which suffers from the removal of needed loved ones, breadwinners, and mentors. (The two-headed monster of political repression and mass incarceration is discussed in my pamphlet, “Our Commitment Is to Our Communities”; for a more in-depth account, see Elizabeth Kai Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime.)

4. Reining in Labor Costs. The serious erosion of profit rates also led to a concerted capitalist campaign to contain labor costs at home. In 1970-71, labor unions launched the largest and most successful series of strikes in post-WWII U.S. history, winning huge gains for workers. Capital then used the 1973-75 recession, the worst since the 1930s, to wage a counter-offensive. Businesses began to shift, where possible, to nonunion workers and went to the courts to set limits on the number of pickets at a site and the use of secondary boycotts to support strikes.

The labor/management playing field was tilted, precipitously, by the Volcker interest rate hike of 1979. Paul Volcker, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, sent interest rates through the roof, up to 20%. The ostensible reason was to fight inflation, but the recession that inevitably followed led to an unemployment rate that reached 10.8% in 1981, a post-WWII high. This put labor in a very weak bargaining position, which enabled capital to implement significant restructuring.

Before looking at these changes we need to acknowledge how this manipulation ravaged the Third World. In the early 1970s, when interest costs were low, many of these countries took out large loans—a lot of which were spent by U.S.-supported dictators on military hardware or for vanity projects. Now that those rates were sky high, these countries couldn’t even keep up on interest payments. The debt mushroomed, and that became the cudgel to impose in essence a global system of debt peonage as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank used it to mandate “structural adjustment programs” (SAPs) on over 70 countries. The SAPs were draconian austerity regimes, very favorable for the transnational corporations operating in the Third World and ruinous for the people and for economic development there. (For a fuller discussion see the essay in my book, No Surrender, “The Global Lords of Poverty,” which explains why, “There is probably no dynamic in motion today that has more devastating impact on more lives.” This essay is also available on line at http://kersplebedeb.com/posts/global-lords-of-poverty/).

The most visible turning point for labor in the U.S. came with the PATCO strike. The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization went out on strike on August 3rd, 1981. In one of his earliest decisive actions, President Reagan dismissed them on August 5th and brought in replacement workers. (A week later he signed a law providing the biggest ever tax cuts for the rich.) Reagan’s success in replacing even such highly skilled workers provided a clear example for private business; many companies, including Phelps Dodge (mining) and Greyhound (bus), soon followed suit. Job actions went from being a means of advancement for labor to the occasions for serious setbacks. The number of major strikes began its nosedive, from 286/year at the end of the 1960s to 34/year in the 1990s.

The shifting of manufacture to the Third World took off. By some accounts (these estimates are hard to do and can vary considerably) over 2 million jobs were lost to downsizing and globalization from 1979 to 1983.(5) Those losses have been accompanied by a rise of low-paying service jobs, such as Walmart, and increased use of temporary and part-time labor with minimal benefits. These changes made jobs a lot less secure, which heightened workers’ anxieties and further weakened their bargaining power. Union negotiations often turned into labor “givebacks” in wages and benefits to try to keep jobs. (For a fuller summary of the impact of the Volcker shock, replacement workers, and the loss of manufacturing jobs, see Harold Meyerson’s 2013 article “The Forty-Year Slump” available online at http://prospect.org/article/40-year-slump).

Unions are important not only for their members but also to set a better framework for all of labor. Union membership in the U.S. peaked in 1954 at 34.8% of all wage and salary workers. In 1983 it was at a respectable 20.1%; today it’s an anemic 11.1%. But within that there is a disparity. In the private sector it’s only 6.9%; the remaining stronghold is in the public sector, most notably teachers’ unions. (Teachers as the last bulwark of unionism helps explain the heartwarming phenomenon of hedge fund billionaires becoming “education reformers”—promoting the proliferation of charter schools with nonunion teachers.)

This series of changes has had considerable impact. From 1947 to 1974, real wages (that is, with the numbers corrected for inflation) rose 95%. In the more than 40 years since then, despite comparable gains in productivity(6), real wages have risen only a paltry 10%. For white male workers they remained completely flat: $20.78/ hour in 1973, $21.03 in 2015. These figures average out a wide range of workers. Those at the bottom lost ground with a something like 1/3 decline for white male workers with no more than a high school education. This loss of income, security, and status has had a dire impact. In sharp contrast to long-term trends among all others in the U.S., these less educated white males are now experiencing a marked decline in life expectancy. This shocking outcome is evidently the result of a rise in drug addiction and suicides and of the physiological damage from stress.

Median family income rose 111% from 1945 to 1973, but only 9% since then. That’s a little better than white male wages because more family members have entered the work force; also there have been some gains, although still far from equal, for women’s wages. Perhaps even more important than these wage and income concerns is the new precariousness. Now many workers feel they could easily lose their jobs or be downgraded, which could have dire consequences for health care coverage or repaying student loans. On top of that injury, people get the infuriating insult of soaring inequality. In 1965, the CEOs at the 350 largest public U.S. firms made 20 times the pay of their average worker; by 2013, it was close to 300 times.

The post-1973 economic changes have been summarized and analyzed a lot more fully by many authors on the Left, often in ways that seem to set the stage for the traditional Left vision of the workers rising up against the bosses. So far, the Right has had more success on capitalizing on white workers’ frustrations. A tunnel vision focused on stagnating real wages and increased precariousness misses or downplays other crucial dimensions of reality: white supremacy, male supremacy, imperialism. At least on average, white male workers have not been pushed down to the level of mere subsistence or below; what their wages buy today is comparable to 1973. What’s changed is that they no longer have the dazzling rise in their standard of living of the 25 years that followed WWII. Losing what felt like an entitlement became a catalyst for important cultural changes. Many white males who had felt on top of the world as far as workers are concerned began to feel besieged. The politics were framed in a way that they felt any gain for people of color or women as an attack on their own position in society. That sentiment got expressed in a distaste for “political correctness” and an intensified hatred for political elites who were making some concessions in order to co-opt the Black and other struggles. Some of us in the movement, in the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr.’s poor people’s campaign, sought to include low-income whites in demands for affirmative action. There’s evidence that political operatives in the Nixon administration maneuvered to make such programs race or gender-based only—in order to generate a white, male backlash.

Racial animus, sexism, America-First arrogance are so deeply embedded, so much in the very foundation of U.S. history and culture, that they can readily form the basis of reaction for many white working-class families when they feel stressed. That’s not just “false consciousness.” At least in the short and intermediate run it has a definite material basis. Hard times in the U.S. usually don’t drive workers of all races into a common situation. The Black/white male wage gap had narrowed during the Civil Rights era. Then in the early 1970s it began to widen again to the point that it’s now similar to what it was in the 1950s … the Jim Crow era that is Donald Trump’s reference point for “Make America Great Again.” In 1973 the median hourly wage for Black male workers was about 77% of their white male counterparts; today it is 70%. The smaller gap among women narrowed from 80% to 87%, but since male wages are higher, overall Blacks have lost ground.

Household wealth is an even more telling measure than income. Wealth includes all assets such as cars, homes, savings, investments, while any debts would be a negative, a deduction. Wealth can be accumulated and passed on over generations and is crucial to whether people have something to fall back on in case of sickness, or to send someone to college, or to get a loan to start a small business. Black and Latin@ families were especially hard hit by the tsunami of home foreclosures following the financial crisis of 2008. The white/Black difference in this crucial index of security and well-being is staggering. The ratio of white to Black household wealth is a whopping 13/1.(7) The situation is not much better for Latin@s at 10/1.

We also live in a global and class polarized economy. According to a recent Oxfam study, the 8 richest individuals, 8 mega-billionaires, control as much wealth as the 3.6 billion poorest human beings. When we look at income and wealth, it’s not just a matter of side-by-side figures. The colossal riches and abject poverty are two sides of the same global coin, as those on the top continue to suck up fabulous riches at the expense of labor, resources, and deprivations of those at the bottom. One example of how that wealth is generated can be found in the fire-trap garment factories in Bangladesh, where women work 70-hour weeks for $73 a month.

In the U.S., women have made some wage gains relative to men, up to 79%—still grossly unequal and quite a rake-off for employers. But those women are likely to face the “double shift” of having jobs and also doing the bulk of the demanding but unpaid household work. It can be a triple shift when we include the way it often falls on women to provide emotional support and caring. At the same time, there’s been a large increase in households headed by a single female. These families have by far the highest rate of poverty, an inexcusable 28.2%.

Sometimes we on the Left can sound dangerously close to the “America First” Right-wing when we denounce the export of manufacturing jobs. Those losses have hurt. At the same time, imperial globalization has been far more damaging for the three quarters of humanity who live in the Third World. SAPs have entailed reducing already abysmal wages and radically cutting back on government subsidies for the poor. “Free trade” has meant that goods pour in from heavily subsidized U.S. agribusiness, undercutting and then eliminating the small farmers who were the backbone of the local economy. This process is one of the factors that have driven hundreds of millions of people off the land, creating massive unemployment and thereby a pool of people so desperate that they’ll work—often at manufacture that was outsourced from the U.S.—at starvation wages. One of the most promising revolutionary movements of the period has been the Zapatista National Liberation Army. In 1994, the Indigenous Mayan population of Chiapas, Mexico rose up against NAFTA and how imports from the U.S. were wiping out local corn farmers.

The impact of globalization on U.S. workers is complex and involves more than just the decline of manufacture. One benefit is the cheaper consumer goods imported from low-waged countries. Even more importantly, the colossal corporate wealth reaped from the cheap labor and raw materials of the Third World is used to build and sustain the burgeoning nonproductive sectors of the U.S. economy. By “nonproductive” I mean they don’t provide for the survival and education of workers and their families and they don’t provide equipment or techniques or materials for production. In the U.S., the sales effort, including advertising, accounts for over $1 trillion. Military, security, and prisons come close to another trillion. The speculative aspects of FIRE (finance, insurance, and real estate) are much bigger still. As Zak Cope puts it in Divided World, Divided Class, “[…] if around 80% of the world’s productive labor is performed in the Third World by workers earning less than 10% of the wages of First World workers, that provides not only for the profits of the haute bourgeoisie [capitalists] in the OECD [rich nations] but also the economic foundation for the massive expansion of retail, administration and security services.” Many of those workers consider themselves to be of higher status than those who do physical labor and who often get dirty or exposed to toxins on their production jobs. The differences in status and the nature of work can be the basis for a more conservative politics and in any case add to the plethora of stratifications dividing those who live and support their families by working for wages or salaries.

While their frustrations and anxieties have increased, the white working class is situated in a contradictory position, both material and in light of the long political and cultural history. In this post-1973 period, the white/Black gap has actually increased. The wage difference between First World and Third World workers has narrowed a bit, but still is the size of Mount Everest, at 7 or 8 to 1. The TNC and finance capital’s huge rake-off from the TW supports and provides jobs in the gigantic parasitic sectors of the U.S. economy. The benefits from imperial wealth affect the situation and consciousness even of many people of color in the U.S., leading some of them to support empire.

What has capitalism meant for the white working class over the past 45 years? To put it in one sentence: stagnating real wages along with less job security, accompanied by a ramping up of the politics of racial scapegoating.

President Nixon built support for his lethal attacks on the Black liberation struggle with his cries of “Law and Order.” In 1981, at the same time that President Reagan set about to break unions and provide record-breaking tax cuts for the rich, he publicly fulminated about “welfare queens” living high off of the taxpayer’s dollar. Millions of white workers—”Reagan Democrats”—loved the movie actor as president because he socked it to the “[racial others],” even while he gutted labor’s bargaining power. President Clinton ran on a promise to “end welfare as we know it,” and signed an omnibus crime bill that greatly expanded the number of people in prison. These trends segued into the “war on terror” as the cattle prod to shock the public into supporting the warfare/security state; all of which has happened as income and wealth inequality has soared to unimagined heights in the U.S., and even more so in the world.

These developments set the stage for Trump, even if he doesn’t, at this point, represent a consolidated ruling class strategy. He did lose the popular vote and also 40% of the electorate didn’t vote at all. Nonetheless it is sobering that 63 million people, including large swaths of the working and middle classes,(8) voted for such a blatant racist and misogynist. That represents a strong potential base for virulent white nationalism.

We white radicals have a particular responsibility and crying need to organize as many white people as possible to break from imperialism and to see that their long term interests, as human beings and for a livable future for their children, lie in allying with the rest of humanity. The environmental and economic catastrophes we face can only be resolved by replacing capitalism with some form of socialism, based in commitment to community and harmony with nature. Class is one of several important elements of social reality. We can’t organize by showing disdain or simply preaching; we need to engage people and hear their concerns. At the same time, we need to fully challenge the dominant politics and culture by articulating and representing a clear counterpoint to white supremacy. The importance of class does not mean we can just recite old formulas that abstract from the realities of imperialism, white supremacy, male supremacy—that abstract from the actual political history. Yet we have to find a way to get across to white working-class people the most fundamental issues: the only way to achieve a humane and sustainable society is by allying with the Third World and people of color.

Capitalism is inherently unstable. Right now the colossal concentration of wealth at the top is generating severe imbalances and the scope of financial speculation is creating steep vulnerabilities. There are bound to be times when conditions get even worse for millions of U.S. workers. Economic stresses or even depressions in themselves do not provide fertile soil for revolutionary consciousness to blossom. In the imperial nations, the dangers of economic crisis are likely to outweigh the opportunities unless we have reached large numbers beforehand on the basis of unity with the oppressed majority of humanity. That’s why an urgent priority is to look for the places where movements for justice can best organize white people for their long term interests on an anti-imperialist, anti-racist, anti-sexist basis.

Many of the lessons from the 1960s still apply. Creating a visible rallying point for anti-imperialist politics is more important than the class composition, the percent that is working-class, that our movements start with. Cultural bridges can be an important force. What some on the Left have disdained as “social movements”—such as feminism, LGBTQ, environment—are not only important in their own right but might provide the best arenas, if we work consciously to reach and involve working-class people. The large numbers of whites responding positively to Black Lives Matter, such as SURJ and other groups, is another important area to work for more of a working-class base.

The other major lesson from the 1960s is to look for places where white working-class folk can more immediately see how their interests intersect with struggles in the Third World and by people of color. Today we don’t have the same level of casualties and costs as during the Vietnam War, although being in the military still can involve a lot of pain and trauma. Veterans for Peace have been vitally important; an especially inspiring recent example was when 2,000 of them rallied to North Dakota, in front-line solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux-led encampment against the oil pipeline. We very much need a strong antiwar movement, as the U.S. has been waging multiple wars, with criminal interventions that have turned whole nations into failed states. That devastation becomes the breeding ground for terrorist groups that in turn are used as the rationale for escalating the warfare/security state that is itself the main source of these conflicts.

In looking for intersection points, it helps to remember that the white working class is not the same as the U.S. working class. While the white working class within the U.S., which itself contains quite a variety of strata and politics, is an important demographic, the U.S. working class also encompasses many workers of color, including immigrants, who are doing much of the most arduous and exploited labor. One of the best places to organize white working-class people could well be in those arenas predominated and/or led by workers of color. Organizing home health care workers, campaigns for farmworkers, Justice for Janitors, the fight for a $15/hour minimum wage are current examples of such possibilities. These efforts often involve broader community mobilizations.

I am not offering, am not capable of, a grand strategy for organizing. But on top of the above lessons from the sixties, I want to stress two often neglected themes of overriding importance: internationalism and the environment. As differentiated and divided as the oppressed and exploited of the world may be, the vast majority have a fundamental interest in stopping capitalism’s exterminationist assault on people and the environment. Several vitally needed ecosystems are on the brink of collapsing, thousands of species have been lost or are endangered, and now global warming is an existential threat to earth as a habitat for humanity. Environmental damage is caused mainly by the profligate economies of the North; the harm is most dire in the South. Any movement worth its salt must account for that differential.

But internationalism is not just a moral obligation; even more, it is the only path to victory. The South is where consciousness and struggles tend to be the most advanced; that is what gives us a chance against this Goliath of a ruling class. A telling example is what happened after the crucial 2009 international conference on climate change in Copenhagen failed to come up with a treaty. In response, many movements and nations of the South, along with their allies, met in Cochabama, Bolivia, and came up with a comprehensive, on-point People’s Agreement that included strong statements on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Rights of Mother Earth. While the environmental justice movement within the U.S. responded, there was otherwise all too little mobilizing here to create momentum for this outstanding program. Let’s do better with the Eco-Socialism Conference slated to take place in Venezuela in October, 2017.

Even though the corporate media doesn’t cover them, thousands of promising initiatives are in motion in the South—from peasant-led battles against destructive dams in India, to women-led fights for sustainable agriculture in Africa, to mass-based democratic challenges to capitalism in Latin America, to indigenous efforts around the world to protect the water and Mother Earth. Our “Certain Days” Political Prisoner calendar of 2015 (www.certaindays.org) highlighted several examples. Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything provides many more.

Beyond encouraging people to adopt an internationalist perspective, we need to learn how to link up, how to make these issues concrete, how to organize. While I don’t have a blueprint, I think that our broad approach can make a difference. The Left shouldn’t try to outdo imperialism in promising workers at home a “higher standard of living.” Instead, we have to show how we can work toward a better quality of life, especially for our children. That requires unity with the rest of humanity and harmony with nature. For example, Cuba’s impressive advances around developing an ecological agriculture not only deserve our support but even more are an important example for us to learn from and apply.

Perhaps Trump’s outrageous budget proposal can help us highlight the tradeoff between military aggression and social needs. We need pro-active programs that take some of the vast resources now harmfully squandered on the military, the sales effort, and financial speculation to instead create jobs that provide for the long term health of the planet. The geographic core of reactionary Donald Trump’s electoral support was rural. Some of those areas would be well-suited for building a green economy with wind and/or solar power. We also want to work toward reparations to the Third World and communities of color. One form that could take is the development and transfer of green technology—not as a matter of guilt but as the way to join their leading efforts and to help all of us.

Within the U.S., the Jackson-Kush plan, led by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, offers a cogent way to build an economy around environmental projects, based on cooperatives, in the heart of the Black Belt in Mississippi. Such an advanced program provides a strong context for trying to organize some working-class and poor whites as allies. Any successful efforts to build alternatives to rapacious capitalism will undoubtedly come under attack and must be supported in all the ways we can.

The current strongest expression of internationalism in the U.S. is solidarity with Palestine; the connections made with and by Black Lives Matter are especially moving. Palestine is a front-line struggle against settler colonialism and its enforcement through a form of apartheid. BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) is an important and promising campaign that deserves our concerted support.

We urgently need a strong anti-war movement. Veterans for Peace and a number of other antiwar groups have provided a valiant beachhead, but it has been hard to build a mass movement in a period when the designated “enemies” have been so unsavory and U.S. casualties so low. But with an erratic and unpopular Commander-in-Chief anxious to prove how tough he is and with future terrorist incidents almost inevitable, we have to get across how U.S. aggressions have created a vicious spiral. We have to show how U.S. interventions to destroy the secular Lefts, to promote violent Islamist extremists, and then to turn whole countries into failed states are the combustion engine speeding this car off the cliff.

This reality also relates to the refugee and immigration crises that have served as highly combustible fuel for the racist arson squads of the U.S. and Europe’s “populist” right wings. The Left slogan of “No Borders” expresses our vision, but it skips over the more immediate, searing human reality. These crises are caused by how imperialism has ravaged Third World countries. Wealth extraction, military interventions, CIA operations, climate chaos pour across borders like devastating floods. These massive “migrations,” these wholesale aggressions, have wrecked economies, generated pervasive violence, and undermined food production in the Middle East, Central America, and most of Africa. Our first and foremost task is to get the U.S. to respect the sovereignty—economic, political, military, and climate—of indigenous peoples and Third World nations.

The only way to defeat the highly destructive capitalist globalization is with a deeply loving people’s internationalism.

We live in a very dangerous time, but fortunately we have had a resurgence of activism in the U.S. over the past ten years, beginning with the massive mobilization for immigrants’ rights in 2006. Occupy Wall Street helped define the real problem as the rule by the 1%. The LGBTQ movement has made impressive advances. Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives are confronting core injustices, and a growing number of anti-racist whites have been joining SURJ and other groups. The Native American encampment at Standing Rock to try to stop an oil pipeline that endangers the water supply is a powerful example of how Indigenous sovereignty can lead the struggles for environmental protection. These and other sparkling streams of struggle can be fed by a new torrent of anti-Trump protests to become a mighty and life-nurturing river.

We may not be able to organize the white working class as a whole, and a sector will fight against us. But there are positive ways to move forward. We can work for the “social movements” to become staunchly anti-imperialist and on that basis deepen the class base. And we can look for the ways to involve an increasing number of white working people in alliances with the forces that fight for justice and give us our only hope for a more humane and sustainable world.

Here’s the haiku I wrote right after the election:

Fierce volcanoes spew
greed, hate. But six billion strong,
we can fight and win.


About the author: David Gilbert has been an activist since the early 1960s and a New York State political prisoner since 1981. David would love to hear your feedback. Feel free to write to him at:

David Gilbert 83-A-6158
Wende Correctional Facility
3040 Wende Road
Alden, New York 14004-1187


End Notes

1. The white working class is not the entire U.S. working class, but is a particular demographic important to analyze in order to understand race and class in the U.S. Many people of color are workers who do much of the most arduous and exploited labor.

2. I don’t discuss fascism in this paper. The term is tossed around in such a variety of ways that to use it meaningfully would require an essay in itself. To me, it is essential to situate the current dangers in the decline of imperialism. As essay that does a very good job of that is Michael Novick, “Fascism and How to Fight It.” ( https://ara-la.tumblr.com/post/158486897375/fascism-how-to-fight-it-2017 )

3. This summary of the structural crisis is taken from Christian Parenti, Lockdown America. Profit rate numbers can vary according to the time period selected and whether pre- or post- tax profit figures are used. The Economic Policy Institute gives the drop as from 8% to less than 5%.

4. There’s a common confusion in statistics for incarceration. Prior to 1971 official numbers covered only those in state and federal prisons, while more recent figures may or may not also include those in county or city jails. Including the latter reveals numbers that are about 40% higher. Here, to be consistent, I compare only those in prison. When we add those in jails, the U.S. incarceration rate is staggering, at above 700/100,000.

5. A lot more jobs were lost to productivity gains from new technologies. Traditionally such advances generated even more jobs in other sectors of the economy. I haven’t seen any definitive study on whether or not that’s been happening in this period.

6. Standard “productivity” figures are skewed due to international unequal exchange and pricing. For example, the pay to the workers in the Dominican Republic who sew a garment amounts to only 1% of its final price. A lot of the higher price within the U.S. is then attributed to the “productivity” of U.S. workers. Nonetheless, these figures provide a valid comparison for showing that the levelling off of wages was not based on a decline in productivity.

7. Household wealth is another statistic that can vary according to what method is used. Here, I chose the middle figure, between 8/1 and 22/1, of the three sources I found.

8. Middle class would include the self-employed, some professionals, and very small business people. In common U.S. usage it also includes better paid workers. That’s not just an affectation. Within a global class analysis, many U.S. workers are middle class.

Thank you – Hearty thank-yous to Dan Berger, Cynthia Bowman, Bernardine Dohrn, r.n.d., Bob Feldman, Naomi Jaffe, Karl Kersplebedeb, Elana Levy, Rob McBride, Dave Reilly, Ken Yale

Author photo by Breno Altman





1 thought on “Looking Historically at the White Working Class in the U.S. | David Gilbert

  1. Very interesting and heart felt essay with good observations and insights. However, as a fundamental matter, the term “White radical” is an oxymoron. If you think of yourself or others as “White” (or “Black”) then you are not using “radical” thinking, you are using the thinking created by the very same people who created the system of “White supremacy.” The term “White” was created for no other purpose than to establish the color coded caste system as a social engineering model of dominance and oppression. A radical does not accept or buy into that social fiction of color coded “races” and so does not call themselves or others by color-coded caste designations such as “white” or “black.” We are all brown, of different shades and tints, with freckles, splotches, and other anomalies of coloring.

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