Race, Class, and the US Elections

Image via Flickr and is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.


Post-election exit polls in the US have provoked much debate and controversy. Leading mainstream publications have come out with detailed synopsis and breakdowns of the US voting public and their preferences. One of the major axes of polarization in these discussions has been the debate over the importance of class or “economics” in this election specifically and the Trump phenomenon generally.

Large sections of liberals and the left have simply refused to see class and resorted to explaining election outcomes as simply the result of an inherent white supremacy or racism in the US body politic. Often, this has been through resort to unhelpful schema of “intersectionality” or the stratification approach to class used in the exit polls. These approaches and polarized debates obscure more than they reveal, and I would like to briefly go over a few of these problems below:

1) Class is not defined by income alone, but mainly by relations of and in production. The income approach reduces class into an arbitrary stratification, which can be cut up according to the whims and inclinations of the particular investigator. Of course, to say that class has an independent existence beyond purely subjective stratifications of income is not to put up class as a predictor or measure of the various measures of passivity, irruption, or resistance of social groups and subjects. This is a matter of concrete investigation and the historical-structural conjuncture and practice.

2) Class and race are not two mutually exclusive explanations. This is especially true in case of the US where there is historically a co-production of class and race. In fact, capitalism’s division of labor and its attendant structure of feeling has always been racialized and gendered (which is not to say that race and gender have worked in the same way in all places and times). A concrete investigation of US history shows how class has been lived always as a racialized and ethnicized affair.

Again, this is not due to the abstract and undifferentiated workings of race or white supremacy throughout US history but due to the particular rhythms of industrial and agrarian development, land alienation, migration, and labor incorporation in the US (see, for example, Ira Katznelson’s excellent work on urban politics and class in the US).

To emphasize again, and beyond abstract valorizations of class or white supremacy as trans-historical phenomena, it is much more important to understand how race and “whiteness” have been produced concretely and how these have changed within the particular context and changing character of class society in the US.

3) Class anxieties can and often are articulated through the idiom of race. Moreover, the changes in voter turnout, abstention, and party switching in certain demographics in the Rust Belt States point to the integral importance of class in this election. In addition to this, there is the undisputed fact of the US having one of the highest rates of voting abstention, especially among the lower classes, among any of the OECD countries. Again, this is related to concrete rhythms of development and interaction among the factors enumerated above.

4) By saying class is important one does not mean that “it is poverty which causes X reaction or outcome” (in this case, voting for Trump): this is the “income-centric” approach to class. When one points to the importance of class, it is to recognize that the dominant or ruling class hegemony operates differently for different social groups.

Thus, for example, the pre- and post-Reconstruction incorporation of the Southern yeoman peasantry versus plantation-landlord whites into the hegemonic coalitions of the time was achieved on a common but a differentially articulated ideological field (see, for example, Barbara Fields’ classic articles). That the privileges of “whiteness” operated as a crucial element in this material-ideological field is without doubt; but what is also without doubt is that neither “race” nor “whiteness” operated evenly across this coalition and contradictions and potentials for different kinds of coalitions and alliances were always present.

To translate this into our present predicament, it is very important to understand the differentiated material-ideological field through which hegemonic projects such as the “American Dream” or, now, “Make America Great Again” are operating. Here again the crucial determining rhythms are provided by the interaction of, for example, industrial-agrarian change, changes in the social bases of the two-party system, and the American imperium’s changing role in the accumulative-territorial logics of global capitalism.

Once the specific weight of historical and structural conditions is taken into account, this can give us a better idea of how certain groups (say the white middle class in this case) have been incorporated into the aforementioned ideological-material projects and in turn are often the most enthusiastic purveyors of right-wing populist programs. As such, it is important to understand the production of classes in conjunction and coproduction with other social relations such as race, gender etc., and in their relation to wider projects of political-ideological hegemony (“American Dream,” “Make America Great Again,” etc.).

Again, a simple resort to race or “whiteness” obscures more than it reveals unless placed in the concrete and dynamic developments of class society and the contingent/conjunctural nature of racial ideology and practice.

To echo Barbara Fields, the point here is not “the meaningless task of deciding whether race is more or less ‘basic’ to historical explanation than other – and similarly reified – categories” but of “settling down to the more sensible task of trying to define and specify each one, recognizing their difference as well as their relationship and their joint indispensability to the result.” In contrast to the accusatory shrill of most analysis, the point is not to romanticize “white struggle” nor to justify the decision to vote for a proto-fascist as some kind of cryptic anti-capitalist revolt, but only to rationalize and understand these choices.

And this is because race or racism is not ontological but structural and historical; there is no such thing as race, racism or white supremacy outside of history and/or outside of interaction with other social relations (class, gender etc.). That is, there are certain social conditions in which longer-term cleavages which have been and are constitutive of the body politic are activated and re-articulated as they are being done now. In other words, the traditions of long dead generations really do weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

There is nothing inevitable or inherent about this process, and it can be reversed through dedicated political work (for example. unions, labor parties etc.). Intelligent scholarship and political work and organizing should be aware of historical (and geographical) specificity.

If Trumpism really is the Bonapartism of our times, perhaps the best we can hope for is that it will be followed by the Commune of our times. That this will require dedicated political work and difficult conversations among the left on the production of race, class, and space in the US is without doubt. Only if to make sure that the next time will not be farce.