Literary Pairing. Read Insurgent Supremacists with The Sinking Middle Class
Traveling the spine of the United States from Minnesota to New Mexico during the Omicron surge, I have been reading two books: Matthew N. Lyons’ Insurgent Supremacists: The US Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire and David Roediger’s The Sinking Middle Class: A Political History As I passed through urban and rural spaces, and “red” and “blue”states, these books illuminated my understanding of what is real and what is manufactured about divisions among people in the economic 60-90% bottom of the United States.
In the material world, the 60% — 198 million people who own 3% of the US wealth—share so many interests; like the need to reign in corporations, advance environmental justice, decriminalize addiction and mental illness, decrease class sizes for their children, obtain universal healthcare and have access to tuition-free higher education. And peace. War and its post-trauma is, materially speaking, not good for children and other non-elite human beings.
So why are we – the 60%, (or even the 90% who own only 30% of US wealth) — so divided? Some of our differences have a basis in reality: we oppose or support reproductive rights, for example. Yet as Roediger argues, though we hear much ado about the growing red/blue divide, when it comes to class and race, both Republican and Democratic party leaders have been pushing the same fictive agenda. Both wring their hands and write best-selling books about the fate of the “middle class.” This majority sector, who are somehow in the same economic category can range in annual income from 24,000 to 144,000. Or in some calculations, up to 250,000. And that is not even talking about wealth. In other words, in economic terms, the phrase is almost meaningless. Yet most of us believe we are in it.
Roediger shows how the phrase, as these political pundits discuss it, often infers a modifying “white.” Sometimes it is a stand-in for “American,” and/or “class-less,” used to support the dangerous myth of US exceptionalism – that the country with some of the largest inequalities, is a country without economic classes. Now that is some BIG LIE.
Roediger argues that this middle-class that the pundits want to revive, is not only materially unreal, but the fiction we uphold by trying to live it, is not worth saving, unless you are a capitalist. Capital needs a base of people who overwork and overspend. To strive for, or live a middle-class lifestyle, is to suffer from a level of anxiety that is not humanly sustainable. (To understand how this works, one just needs to listen to the rhetoric around the economy and holiday spending. What is good for the system is not good for the financial, physical or spiritual health of the household.)
But listening to politicians of the two major political parties, the middle class is what makes America either great (Democrats) or is the America that was great and needs to be great again (Republicans).
Generally, Democratic and Republican pundits have not mentioned the working class. This, Roediger argues, is a holdover from the Cold War, when maintaining the myth of a classless society was paramount. Recently, however, both parties have become quite obsessed with the “white working class” a phrase in which, Roediger notes, the accent is on the “white.”
Since the Civil Rights Movement, the major parties have avoided official use of the word “white,” but, especially since Trump’s victory in 2016, both parties have been talking openly about how Democrats lost the “white working class.” To get them back, pundits on both sides argue, Democrats must appeal to their whiteness. (And, often, their cisgender maleness, and heterosexuality). No talk of immigrant rights, of defunding police, of monuments, of ethnic studies in K-12 schools, of the rights of transgendered people, for example.
Here is where pairing Sinking Middle with Insurgent Supremacists adds an essential perspective. For, appealing to “whiteness” to win the white working class, is essentially endorsing the arguments of right-wing supremacists. If you subsume issues of racial equity to woo the white working class, you are serving them white nationalist or white supremacist Koolaid. In a goblet.
White nationalist OR white supremacist? What’s the difference? Read Insurgent Supremacists to find out. Indeed, Lyons shows that rightwing insurgents are an ideologically diverse bunch with a panoply of (often convoluted) theoretical frameworks. Bringing Roediger in, one can see how these ideologies emerge as one type of reaction to a lifestyle of high anxiety, over work, overconsumption, and dangerous debt. Indeed, Lyons argues, demonizing the far right is not just unhelpful but inaccurate. They are “regular human beings” attracted to organizations that speak to their “hopes, fears, grievances, and aspirations.” (p. iii).
Insurgent supremacists have one precept in common, an idea also inherent in the very concept of “white working class” – that people are inherently unequal. For if all people are created equal, then there is no such thing as a white working-class interest, only a working-class interest.
The 60%, the 198 million poor people, working class people, people on the aspiring middle class hamster wheel, live in urban and rural places, red and blue states. They are a multiracial, multi-ethnic, of diverse faiths and no faith. Lyons shows how racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia, are adopted by rightwing insurgent groups in their quest to make inequality natural. These isms, or course, help to keep the 60% in their economic place. Capital divides to conquer.
In upholding and championing inequality, the right-wing insurgents are, for the most part, upholding the status quo. But the insurgent supremacists also challenge state and empire, in contradictory ways. Some advocate for a stronger state, others for dismantling statism. They are concerned about US Foreign policy, some encouraging intervention, others deeply opposed. Some side with elements of the left on police repression. On gun rights, reproductive rights, immigrant rights, their positions are all over the map but make “sense” within the kind of inequality they peddle. (For example, some groups favor abortion for people of color and not for white people.)
As we struggle to take back the narrative and fight for real advances for the 60%, we need to understand how we are being manipulated by the political classes in power and be cognizant of the worst manifestations of both rhetoric that creates a “white working class” and a system that destroys the emotional health of those aspiring to middle class. For perspectives that show much of the current political debate dished out by mainstream political pundits to be irrelevant to the bottom economic majority, I recommend this pairing: Insurgent Supremacists and the Sinking Middle Class. If you can read them while on a US road trip, all the better. If the pandemic is over and you can hang out in cafes and talk to people, that would be best.