Why hasn’t the U.S. working class risen up to destroy the capitalist system and the pitiless masters who have treated the laboring masses with murderous contempt? Since 1979, productivity has increased eight times faster than pay in the U.S. If the U.S. minimum wage, currently pegged at a pathetic $7.25 an hour, had kept up with productivity it would more than $18 today. Between the late 1980s and today, the average American CEOs pay went from being 59 times higher than the typical U.S. worker’s pay to 301 times higher. Since 1979, the average hourly wage of the nation’s bottom 30% of wage “earners” has risen less than 1% while the top 95th percentile saw a 41% increase. During Barack Obama’s first term in office, 95% of the nation’s income gains went to the top 1%. Such are fruits of neoliberal, so-called “free market” capitalism.
The white working class has never had it easy in American history. It’s been viciously exploited, disrespected, deceived, divided, repressed, and otherwise and generally abused from the United States’ colonial origins through the present day. If you want to glimpse some of what I mean, read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1905), John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or Harriet Arnow’s stunningly beautiful and tragic novel The Dollmaker – a harrowing tale of an Appalachian family’s migration from Kentucky to Detroit during World War II. And listen to the following passage from the great U.S. Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs’ statement to a federal judge readying to sentence him for violating the Sedition Act in 1918:
“At fourteen I went to work in a railroad shop; at sixteen I was firing a freight engine on a railroad. I remember all the hardships and privations of that earlier day…I am thinking this morning of the men in the mills and the factories; of the men in the mines and on the railroads. I am thinking of the women who for a paltry wage are compelled to work out their barren lives; of the little children who in this system are robbed of their childhood and in their tender years are seized in the remorseless grasp of Mammon and forced into the industrial dungeons, there to feed the monster machines while they themselves are being starved and stunted, body and soul. I see them dwarfed and diseased and their little lives broken and blasted because in this high noon of Christian civilization money is still so much more important than the flesh and blood of childhood. In very truth gold is god today and rules with pitiless sway in the affairs of men.”
Most, if not all the workers Debs was thinking about in this oration were certainly Caucasian.
Martin Luther King Jr. observed in 1968, racialized capitalism has given its Caucasian proletarian prey the “satisfaction of…thinking you are somebody big because you are white.”
It has helped cloak white workers’ subordinate and expendable status, which never disappeared despite the advantages white skin privilege has conferred relative to non-whites. It has injured those workers’ material status by undermining their capacity to enhance their economic and political power by joining in solidarity with nonwhite workers. It has joined them in spirit and political allegiance to rich fellow whites who couldn’t care less about working class people of any color. It has focused white workers’ ire on the wrong enemies – those with the least power (non-white workers and the poor) instead of the moneyed elite, which wields its wealth and power to cripple and destroy lives and the common good.
There are three particularly notable things about this recently rising white middle-aged death rate. First, it is driven almost completely by rising mortality among middle-aged working class whites (ages 45-54), with no more than a high school education. Second, the death rate increase of that group is off the charts: it rose by 134 deaths per 100,000 people from 1999 to 2014. “It is difficult to find modern settings with survival losses of this magnitude,” according to the Dartmouth economists, Ellen Meara and Jonathan Skinner. Working class whites are dying off at such a high rate that they are significantly increasing the death rate for the entire cohort of middle-aged white Americans. Third, this dramatically spiking white working class mortality is not being driven by standard big working- and lower-class killers like heart disease and diabetes. It reflects instead “an epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abuse: alcoholic liver disease and overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids” (NYT). Much of the rising death among middle aged working class whites is significantly self-inflicted.
Over recent decades, the U.S. working class has been subjected to a relentless top-down class war on their livelihoods, unions, and standard of living – a sweeping rollback of the “middle class” status and security that much of the white working class attained during the anomalous post-WWII “golden age” of American capitalism. It has been subjected to unprecedented labor market competition with the global proletariat, including immigrant workers and workers across the low-wage global periphery, to which U.S. capital has relocated much of its manufacturing plant in pursuit of cheap labor. Millions of once “productively employed” white working class people have become “surplus Americans”
One key task for a responsible Left today is to open up a third alternative: solidarity with fellow workers and poor of all races and ethnicities in rejection of capitalist divide-and-rule and on behalf of decent conditions for all working people. This was the path taken with no small success by the onetime and commonly Left-led unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), symbolized by the top slogan of the old CIO packinghouse union: “Black and White, Unite and Fight.”
An adapted and abridged article by Paul Street on theCounterpunch website where the full article is available to read.