'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

On the Road with Gaius 

Gaius ventured out of Pittsburgh the other day, and, it is fair to say, his experiences were not evocative of those of Jack Kerouac and Charles Kuralt. Through his encounters with people that he describes as Pennsylvania hillbillies, he discovered:

(a) that Obama is a communist and a nigger,
(b) that he is destroying the country,
(c) that he wants old people to die as proved by a scheduled increase in the Medicare Part B premium and a government announcement that there will be no Social Security cost of living increase this year
(d) and as proved by many things told to America by Glenn Beck;
(e) that there’s going to be a revolution led by tea-baggers,
(f) that American doctors and scientists are arrogant swine who won’t listen to anyone,
(g) that that is why they deny the marvelous curative powers of crystals
(h) and the equally astonishing curative powers of professional faith healers,
(i) and the astonishing abilities of psychics, though there is one well-known locally who helped the Pittsburgh police find the body of a murder victim along one of the rivers,
(j) and the consoling communication with the dead made possible by various well-known local mediums.

Does this help explain why there are so many white working class people voting Republican?

Certainly, it is easy to ridicule people from Appalachia, sometimes legitimately, sometimes not. But it is important to step back a moment and think about whether characterizing many of the people who live there as ignorant and irrational is an accurate reflection of their social experience. Furthermore, is such a characterization so inherently pessimistic that it precludes the prospect of any meaningful social transformation?

To some extent, we traveled over much of this ground during the primary contest between Obama and Hillary Clinton. Even so, I think that it is worth revisiting from a more avowedly left perspective. Hostility towards Obama in Appalachia is a difficult subject to address, primarily because it raises that eternal dilemma in US history, the interrelationship of race and class in shaping the social perceptions of white workers.

No doubt, there are a lot of racist people in Appalachia who detest Obama, and they are very open about expressing it. Even so, we should proceed with care before drawing any broad conclusions, such as the notion that white Appalachians are most racist than whites elsewhere. For example, one of the primary demographic features of Appalachia is the near uniformity of its population. In many parts, whites constitute more than 90% of the population, although, as I noted in April, Latinos have made inroads in north Georgia and western North Carolina. Accordingly, are whites in Appalachia more racist than other whites, or, do they merely appear to be more so, because whites constitute a higher percentage of the population overall?

This is an important question, because the answer may assist one in determining whether Obama faces an entrenched, racist white opposition that is regional in character, or, whether, it is, more seriously, national in scope. As you might expect, I tend towards the latter perspective, as, apparently does Gaius as well, given his generalization of his experience as applicable to the white working class. His willingness to do so opens a door on a related subject that one rarely sees addressed, the extent to which white working class hostility towards Obama is a politically understandable response to Obama and his policies.

Upon examination, there is good reason for such a response. Obama bails out bankers, while letting the auto industry die on the vine so that he can extract concessions from the UAW. Health care reform has morphed into health insurance reform, as health insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies and health care providers dictate the content of legislation moving through Congress. His stimulus plan has revived the economy just enough to protect corporations and financial institutions from the creative destruction of capitalism, while millions of people remain out of work, with a record setting number of foreclosures.

Gaius, as one who blogs frequently about religion and spirituality in the US, pokes fun at Appalachians for their superstitions, but there is nothing uniquely Appalachian, or, for that matter, white working class about it. Living in Sacramento, I can readily find numerous New Age publications directed towards an audience of middle and upper middle class people, all announcing upcoming appearances by uniquely talented people capable of enlightening us, along with an array of related DVDs and sundry products, such as, yes, you guessed it, crystals. There is definitely a story to be told here, a story about how the cresting of the modernist left wave in the 1960s and 1970s ushered in an era, still ongoing, of crackpot spiritualism, but that is something for another day.

Finally, there is the question, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, as to whether characterizations of the white working class, symbolized by the Pennsylvania hillbillies that Gaius encountered, as bigoted and irrational necessarily implies a pessimism about the possibility of any meaningful social transformation. If so, that's a scary thought, because the people Gaius describes have been at the center of both the anarchist and Marxist projects since their inception.

While anarchists have cast their net more broadly than Marxists, rejecting the notion of the industrial proleteriat, and adopting a definition of the working class that includes peasants and artisans as well as industrial workers, one finds both significantly represented in the white working class encountered by Gaius. One can read his post as suggesting that the white working class is so prone to bigotry and religious quackery that it will never be capable of participating in a liberal, much less socialist, destruction of the neoliberal order. The End of History, as it were, but in a very different way than contemplated by Fukuyama.

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