Ignorant and Harmful: Popular Left Politics and the Working Class

It’s been a while since I sat down to write anything that wasn’t a short status update or a comment. I’ve been feeling the urge bubble up, over the last few months, around a congealing understanding I’m coming to regarding what I’ll call Popular Left Politics – you know, academic, feminist, anti-racist, safe-space-creating, language-concerned, privilege-counting shame-shamers, and the allies who love them — and how those politics interact with (or avoid, as it were) the views and interests and politics of the working classes. Specifically, I’ve noticed a divergence; a reversal; a contradiction; a removal of things-as-such into the realm of things-as-symbols and symbols-as-things; a realm of fetish and ironic appropriation.

I was finally driven out of this latest writing famine after reading an article that came across my feed addressing the problems facing adherents to Popular Left Politics — specifically feminists — who come from rural and working class backgrounds. I’m a working class person from a rural background, who has in the past run with the denizens of the Popular Left. Even though I ostensibly agree with many of the views held by these people, it’s been made clear to me on a number of occasions that my unpolished bearing, working class experience, and resultant worldview are not welcome in such polite and upstanding company. As such, I have a few things to say on the matter.

Before I get into my specific thoughts regarding this topic, let me elucidate the basic parameters of my own political thinking, lest I be accused of one treachery or another. It’s bound to happen anyway, but I have to try. I’m basically a left-libertarian. I believe in a society, with a robust safety net, that creates the greatest possibility for the greatest number of individuals to achieve freedom and fulfillment. Ideally, that would mean absolutely everyone. Unfortunately, ours is not, and never will be, an ideal reality. Unlike most people, I see capitalism and socialism as ideas that are not mutually exclusive, but which should be maintained in tension with each other to create a balance. The particular game of tug-of-war we’re playing in the United States today has pulled the knot much too far onto the capitalist side of the river for my taste. I think we’re overdue for a new labor movement (more on that later).

OK. Back to this Everyday Feminism piece. The author describes her experience as a rural kid moving to the Big City and encountering negative stereotyping and prejudice among her political peers, and lays out some advice for “Urban feminists” on how to be more welcoming to people like her. She correctly identifies a Civilized Academy/Savage Rural Community dichotomy at work, and attempts to explain ways in which rural and working class people really aren’t all a bunch of backwards, misogynistic, illiterate rubes. (Even thought they sort of are.) But please stop assuming she is, thankyouverymuch.

I do not presume that my position is an obvious solution which any sane person parsing this topic will necessarily arrive at, as I don’t actually believe that’s true. However, what “Annah Anti-Palindrome” hasn’t figured out is that there is a fundamental opposition between current Popular Left Politics and working class culture.

This opposition lies in the very structure of civilization. People in white collar, academic, and executive positions have become increasingly detached from the direct means of their survival. Undoubtedly, specialization is a great boon to the human race. The mass production of food and the mechanization of manufacturing have freed up vast human resources to focus on “higher” concerns. When we don’t have to spend all of our energy to feed and shelter ourselves, civilization progresses. In one sense, we become more interconnected. But in another, we become more segregated.

The problem is, no matter how far we progress, the basic fact of human existence depends on a constant battle against entropy. We need to work land and manage livestock to produce food. We need to build and maintain homes and schools and skyskrapers to live and learn and work in. We need to produce fuel and energy to move goods and power our modern conveniences. We need to protect ourselves and our property against those who would steal from us or do us harm. Technology has increased the efficiency of all these activities, but great numbers of humans must still put in long hours performing these essential tasks in the fight against entropy. Unless and until we develop automated means by which to do this work, a large portion of the human race will continue to labor on behalf of the rest, in order to enable the continued march of civilization’s progress.

So as certain segments of the population get further and further removed from worrying about protecting themselves from ever-encroaching entropy, they find different things to worry about. They philosophize and meta-analyze and sensitize. They find new monsters; vague monsters; monsters in the mirror. Meanwhile, those on the front lines every day, doing what needs to be done to maintain the buffer zone for civilization, employ age-old coping strategies to fight against their own entropy of meaninglessness, while continuing to grind on. They uphold traditions and practice escapism and de-sensitize. They create heroes and villains. All of these things are natural and valid. Unfortunately, the further removed the intellectual and creative classes get from those doing the difficult, uncomfortable, and dangerous work to provide for their basic needs, the more alien the values of each become to the other.

I see in current Popular Left Politics a privileged ignorance that attacks the very foundation of its existence. It eschews tactless stoicism and practicality, while it reveres social strategy and “knowing better”. This is, itself, classist. The Popular Left preaches Marxist collectivism, yet practices consumerist individualism. In this way, identity has become currency. The identity-obsessed spend money to accouter themselves in ways which they assume will make their chosen identities self-evident to the rest of the world, however complex or esoteric those identities might be. They buy bumper-sticker lifestyles. They don uniforms to tell the people who matter that they “know better”. They climb academic and corporate and social ladders. They make money. They buy shit they don’t need, but make themselves feel better about it by choosing “sustainable” or “organic” or “fair trade” or “carbon neutral”. Meanwhile, everything in their lives becomes inextricably tied to their perceived identity and projection of morality, so any affront to or misunderstanding of that identity starts to feel like an existential attack.

This Everyday Feminism piece, and numerous like it across the internet, are how-to guides to help the target audience “know better” how to approach a certain kind of person; that they might not “harm” or “offend” with their ignorance. In this environment, natural social impulse becomes gauche, unscripted interaction between people becomes a minefield, and naïve curiosity becomes violence. Working class culture, which doesn’t prioritize the protection of the individual social identity, and instead encourages the formation of independent self-esteem and resilience, becomes the epitome of barbarism.

So even as “Annah Anti-Palindrome” asks her fellow feminists not to think her uncivilized, the very framework of her politics accuses the rest of us of savagery. Therein lies the rift.

Liberal pundits often lament the lack of cohesiveness among the various strains of left activism. Billions of words have been written, speculating on this inability to form a robust coalition behind any of a wide range of meaningful projects. In the current climate of increasing corporate power and continuing marginalization of workers, we desperately need a new labor movement in this country. But when the working classes see the Popular Left as out of touch, elitist snobs and the Popular Left sees the working classes as a dangerous, uncivilized mob, well, it’s not hard to see why it hasn’t happened yet.

I don’t have any grand solutions for all this. Sometimes I think the Luddites were onto something. Perhaps there really is a point past which civilization becomes counterproductive to humanity. I grew up in the 1980s, so I naturally feel like that was the high point. I recognize my inner geezer in that sentiment.

Maybe we ought to implement some kind of mandatory civil service where everybody has to spend a month out of every five years contributing directly to our collective battle against entropy. Sure, it would be hugely inefficient. But the benefits to society might prove immeasurable. I don’t see much hope along our current diverging trajectories.