“Five, 10 years from now—different party. You’re going to have a worker’s party.” These words, uttered by Donald Trump in the May of 2016, might at first appear prophetic given the current bout of protests that have taken off throughout the US. In these protests, the star-spangled banner is strewn across various cityscapes as largely white crowds gather to demand that their respective states resume normal working operations. “We are all essential workers” has quickly become a go-to slogan for many who show up; and yet, it is worth dwelling on what exactly this means, particularly for a country that, for a long time, was politically ‘allergic’ to questions concerning the working class. In a sense, the rhetorical norm of referring to “working people” as political auxiliaries for the “middle class” has now become unsettled. With this in mind, we can see the protestors’ attempt to aesthetically represent oneself through the avatar of productive labor as a significant development worthy of some preliminary concentration.
Of course, the transformation of political discourse is one thing, but its aesthetic adaptation by protestors who appear opposed to measures taken against the Covid-19 pandemic is another. Certainly, how political issues are framed is an important element that has been discussed widely by sociologists of social movements. Framing allows movement participants ways to publicly articulate grievances on their own terms. Yet, what is interesting about the framing before us is its contextual and historical content. The idea that short-term distress would beckon long-term economic dynamism—a set of causal presumptions cast into the concept known as the Kuznets Curve—has begun to splinter. Simultaneously, political forces that once asserted themselves through the middle-class registers of taxation and entrepreneurial freedom now appear differently. While there is a fierce, and perhaps intractable, debate about how right-wing populism in the US relates, or does not relate, to economic distress and racial status, the slow discursive turn towards labor, especially amid the Republican Party’s softening to economic nationalism, signals a new ideological battle line in US politics that must be taken seriously.
From the Real to Spectral
Economic inequality is very real in the US. Since the 2007-09 economic crisis, which was simultaneously a destabilization of the financial sector and a housing crisis, concerns about inequality have spurred interest in a class antagonism perspective. It should be no surprise, then, that the development of the Occupy Movement has been followed by the Bernie Sanders campaign, as the lived experience of augmenting economic inequality has yet to find a durable avenue for political representation. Of course, these singular political developments reflect long-term general trends, with class divisions widening significantly since at least the 1970’s. Yet, although interrelated, economic realities and political constructions are clearly two very different things. An unresolved question lingers: Which political forces can meld feelings arising from today’s uncertain economic experience into a durable ideological perspective?
It is from this view that we can assess the current “open my state” protests. Setting aside the empirical question about class composition, the protests are nevertheless engaged in an attempt to fuse together the liberal—and in the US, libertarian-tinged—anxiety for personal liberty with ostensibly workerist concerns. Ostensibly, because the class character of the protests seems quite questionable. Given the history of similar protest moments, like the Tea Party, it is likely that the overall class situation for many is that of the middling classes. Presuming that this is so—it is too early to give an empirical answer—gives rise to another question, one that is centered on what these protests do within today’s wider political field.
One way to thinking about the protests is through the lens of aestheticized politics, which is to say that the performative enactments of “working class” is an attempt to definitionally attenuate “working class” at an ideological level. Parading large vehicles like trucks and SUV’s and the presence of work gear are paired with a discourse that emphasizes the productive capacity of the human in general, and the apparent exceptionality of American productivity in particular. Initially, “we are all essential workers” appears as a demand for productivity to be treated as a universal category. But this aestheticized performance of working class enacts a slight of hand: it renders those who employ low-income wage earners to labor as “essential,” resulting in an automatic downgrade for frontline workers who would be forced to resume working during the COVID-19 pandemic if the shutdowns were lifted.
While these sentiments appear to connect with anti-government positions expressed by right-wing protests of the recent past, their emphasis on the worker, as opposed to the taxpayer, indicates an important shift. Concerns surrounding taxation typically center on a property-first approach, with cash transfers politicized as undue state intrusion into the private sphere. In attempting to frame the situation through the lens of labor, the polemical focus is moved towards productivity, and thus production as such. One might imagine that this shift would cast light on hitherto neglected economic trends, like the ascendency of low-wage service labor, or the demolition of labor rights by mounting tech-mediated gig work. Instead, we are confronted with an aesthetic detour, as the conditions of production are subsumed under the apparent right to consume.
This obfuscation becomes apparent when looking at the various internet pages where protest partisans share related content about the shutdowns. In one post, a video of an angry Walmart customer who, denied his ability to buy two loaves of bread by store policy, circulates rapidly alongside numerous complaints of small business owners who demand that their shops be reopened. The juxtaposition of consumption complaints and the myriad issues of small business owners is an important amalgamation. More broadly, the desire to establish a homology between the consumption of labor and the acquisition of goods appears to be an animating element of the protests discourse. However, while there have been no reports of widespread food shortages yet, workers will certainly see rates of infection rise among their ranks if economic operations resume. For us, this contradiction appears obvious enough.
While our use of analytical argumentation may be able to take apart the protest’s discourse, it must be acknowledged that performed representations of “working class” communicate in an altogether different mode. The protest’s articulations are aesthetically communicated. Rather than through rational exposition, they attempt to engage their viewer at an intuitive, “common sense” level. They portend to render the Gordian knot of social relations into something apparently “knowable” through a series of aesthetic representations that purport to describe what the US working class is. The US has a notable absence of institutions that maintain and transfer historical accounts of working-class social struggles and their traditions that might serve as important tools of interpretation for increasingly unsettled economic conditions. This absence makes knowing the social relations behind today’s economic turbulence intensely opaque.
Importantly, the aestheticization of politics is not new. In fact, rendering politics through a malleable aesthetic frame has a storied history in far right-wing political development. Walter Benjamin, reflecting on fascist legitimization in interwar Germany, famously reflected on this very situation:
“Fascism attempts to organize the newly proletarianized masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life.”
The danger, following Benjamin, was one of engendering authoritarian compliance from the raw material of class contradictions. Of course, interwar Germany’s class cleavages were obviously different than those in today’s United States. Benjamin’s insight is helpful, though, for thinking through the stakes of the turn towards working class representations.
While the level of success of these protests remains to be seen, the importance of capturing the “American working class” at the ideational level has serious political implications. Common sense presumptions about what the “working class” means will determine the potentials and limits for right-wing politics, especially if class divisions continue to widen. Regardless of their potential for success or failure, today’s protests signal an important, albeit paradoxical, rift around discourses that signify the “working class.” And, amid a rapidly deteriorating economic situation, politicizing what the working class is, and what it wants, seems impossible to avoid.
Mr Justin Gilmore is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a Doctoral candidate in Department of History of Consciousness, University of California Santa Cruz. See his profile here.
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