The Opportunity America/AEI/Brookings report maintains that the political establishment has abandoned the working class in recent decades and has been more responsive to the needs of minorities, women, and gays. This has provoked a turn to toward white nationalism and ultra-Rightist manifestations, of which the election of Donald Trump is an indication. The report expresses concern for the hostile division between Left and Right; it believes that the nation may be becoming ungovernable. The report recommends specific measures to increase the wages of low-waged workers. It hopes to form a consensus among democrats, republicans, and the corporate elite in support of such measures.
I have maintained that the members of the study group were driven by the political objective of rescuing the political establishment and enabling it to reassert its control over the nation. I maintain that an analysis framed by defense of the interests of an elite class will arrive to a limited understanding. In order to develop a universal understanding that does not reflect particular interests, one must encounter and listen to persons from different horizons, and especially important are the voices from below that emerge from the exploited classes and the dominated nations and people. Driven by defense of particular political interests rather than by a desire to understand that creates a listening mode, the study group is unable to grasp the historical, national, and global factors that have led to the relative decline of the nation and that have fostered alienation among the people. It is unable to discern the necessary steps for the renewal of the nation, including the need for the empowerment of the working class and other popular sectors.
In this final post in the series, I maintain that the Opportunity America/AEI/Brookings report has a white-male-centered view of the nation and the world, which is reflected in the following. “For much of the nation’s history, [steady] work was easy to come by, without regard to background or education, and it gave workers and their families a respected and moderately secure standing in American life” (OA/AEI/BI, 2018, 61). Such a reading of American history ignores historic patterns of racial and gender discrimination; its description is far more accurate for white workers than for women and blacks. And it leaves aside the fact that economic opportunities were made possible by the conquest of indigenous nations and Mexican territory, and by the strategic commercial relations with the slave systems of the Caribbean and the South.
The study group’s myopic reading of American history could not possibly see that the elimination of the most basic forms of discrimination in 1964 and 1965 came too late for the black working class. It occurred just as the great industrial expansion of the nation was coming to an end. Expanding industry had been central to the upward mobility of white ethnic groups, because good-paying jobs in factories, mines, and construction were available to white men with low levels of education during the 100 years following the Civil War. Expanding industry enabled a multi-generational working class ascent to the middle class, because it provided the economic and social conditions for much higher levels of educational attainment by the children of the poorly educated but well paid white workers. However, with industrial expansion coming to an end by the 1960s, a similar pattern of upward mobility would not be available to working class or poor blacks, now that racial barriers were removed. See “The abandonment of the black lower class” 6/24/2015 in the category Race in the USA.
The elimination of basic discrimination in 1964-1965 would result in significant and highly visible gains for the black middle class over subsequent decades. However, in the context of a changing economy, and with the absence of any national commitment to protecting the economic and social rights of the citizens of the nation, there emerged a greater class inequality within the black community. In 1987, the sociologist William J. Wilson (1987) argued that a socially isolated black lower class had emerged.
In this post 1965 period, identity politics emerged in resentful and angry reaction to surviving forms of prejudice and discrimination and the continuing white-male-centric narratives on American history. But identity politics is an overreaction to these social sins, taking into account that they are much reduced from their pre-1965 manifestations; and it provokes division. What is needed is a unifying reformulation of the American narrative, one that finds a dignified place for all, in the past and in the future, even as it fully acknowledges historic and contemporary social sins.
With their myopic reading of the national story, it is not surprising that the members of the study group do not see the causal relation between the Western rise and colonial domination of the world. It is clear that they have never heard the voiced of the colonized. Accordingly, they cannot see the imperialist intentions of free trade (see OA/AEI/BI, 2018, 64). And they do not understand that China’s state interventionist policies and its position on intellectual property (see OA/AEI/BI, 2018, 64) coincide with the concepts and demands that have been expressed by international organizations of Third World governments, such as the Non-Aligned Movement and the G-77. China merely stands out because it is sufficiently strong to act in accordance with Third World principals.
With the emission of the Opportunity America/AEI/Brookings report, the political establishment of the United States once again demonstrates that it is morally and intellectually unprepared to lead the nation in this historic moment of national challenge and global crisis. Now is the time for the Left to join forces in order to seek to take political power, united on fundamental principles. Such principals ought to include the necessary role of the state in protecting the social and economic rights of all citizens and in formulating a plan for national economic and social development, anti-imperialism in foreign policy, and structural reforms in the political process in order to bring to an end its control by the elite.
Opportunity America/AEI/Brookings Working Class Study (OA/AEI/BI). 2018. Work, Skills, Community: Restoring opportunity for the working class. (Opportunity America, the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and the Brookings Institution).
Wilson, William J. 1987. The Truly Disadvantaged. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.