Following Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election, we’re hearing a lot– far too much, we might argue– about poor whites and working class whites. The white-controlled media, the white-controlled Democratic Party (including Senator Bernie Sanders, who has been given a platform only on account of the Democrats), and many other whites on the political left, are placing a great deal of focus on poor and working class whites. Liberals seem to view this as a groundbreaking departure from what they believe is their normal plan (which has something to do with arugula, Subarus, and Hollywood); however, the (not so) new focus of liberals on blue-collar whites (hardworking, decent folks who drive pickup trucks and wave guns and Confederate flags) is, in fact, the same old ritual held every four years that Barack Obama hasn’t won a presidential election.
Democrats are entirely concerned with maintaining power (or regaining it), for which they cannot be blamed. Power is the most important thing. The problem with this intense focus on working class whites is that it reeks not only of desperation on the part of the white left, but, additionally, it has the all-too-familiar stench of white supremacy. Because power in the United States– a settler colony of Europe– has continuously been a matter of addressing the interests of the so-called white working class. That’s nothing new. It’s just plain old genocidal and colonial racism.
Throughout the history of this settler colony of Europe, the white working class has been a potentially revolutionary force against the oligarchical rule of rich whites. George Washington was not only the nation’s first President, he was its first millionaire. And he was far more successful putting down rebellions among dissatisfied soldiers of the colonies than defeating the British redcoats. The Shays Rebellion is an early example of restlessness and violence among whites who had fought against England in the interests of the white ruling class. And George Washington showed extreme disapproval toward this rebellion by veterans of the bourgeois “American Revolution” (a similar situation played out following the imperialist crisis called World War I, when 43,000 members of the Bonus Army marched on Washington, and were shot at by the police, before their shelters, and everything in them, were burned down by the military of the United States).
Just as the system of capitalism was created by Europe for property-owning white men (typically cisgender, heterosexual and able-bodied), the United States of America was formed as a national expression– a political entity– in the material interests of the bourgeois, white supremacist, transphobic, homophobic, and ableist ruling class. In order to create such a nation, it was necessary for this racist, patriarchal ruling class of Europe to have 1) land (stolen from Indigenous peoples), 2) labor and capital (the stolen work and lives of enslaved Africans) and 3) an influx of whiteness– that is, white people– who would defend the interests of this bourgeois hierarchy, motivated by patriotism, or (more practically) by our own interests of comfort and security.
President James K. Polk addressed these interests of the white working class in his “First Annual Message” of 1845:
“It is submitted to the wisdom of Congress to determine whether at their present session, and until after the expiration of the year’s notice, any other measures may be adopted consistently with the convention of 1827 for the security of our rights and the government and protection of our citizens in Oregon. That it will ultimately be wise and proper to make liberal grants of land to the patriotic pioneers who amidst privations and dangers lead the way through savage tribes inhabiting the vast wilderness intervening between our frontier settlements and Oregon, and who cultivate and are ever ready to defend the soil, I am fully satisfied.”
Working class whites– or “patriotic pioneers who amidst privations and dangers lead the way through savage tribes”— were a necessary human force, supported by the systemic violence of the military, for the “American” colonization of Oregon and the West. In exchange for their eagerness “to defend the soil” (which belongs to Indigenous peoples), whites were empowered by colonial capitalism to enjoy the material benefits of whiteness, and to be elevated as a class, or as “our citizens in Oregon” (not them– brown people– but us).
President Polk added that “it becomes the duty of Congress to consider what measures it may be proper to adopt for the security and protection of our citizens now inhabiting or who may hereafter inhabit Oregon.” Our citizens obviously does not refer to Indigenous nations, nor does it refer to Africans/Black people, who were banned from living in Oregon in the first Constitution of this state– on the threat of being publicly flogged if they did not leave.
The “security and protection” of working class whites has been a priority of the capitalist class from the beginning of Europe’s imperialist invasion of Africa and the Americas. Working class whites, like the white bourgeoisie, have shown no interest in overthrowing the colonial domination of occupied territories outside Europe. The white masses, no matter how impoverished, have continuously turned to the white capitalist class in order to gain access to the systemic power that is necessary for life itself, a power that is based on the colonization and subjugation of Africans, Indigenous peoples, and most of humanity outside Europe.
So, of course, it is in the interests of the Democratic Party– which is one wing of the white-controlled, bourgeois ruling class– to reach out to working class and “poor” (or impoverished) whites. However, any effort to appeal to white workers in the U.S. is simply a question of preserving power for the ruling class, and is anything but a departure from the usual aims of the capitalist system of the United States. And workers, in turn, are required to pledge loyalty to the white bourgeoisie– as well as allegiance to its flag and military– in order to receive a share in the benefits of colonial exploitation and the racist subjugation of the global proletariat.
This unstable arrangement of power means that, at certain times, the masses of white workers in the U.S. settler colony run to the Democratic Party for the material advantages of racist, capitalist oppression, and, at other times, run to the Republican Party. During neither time does the white working class organize for a total redistribution of land, wealth, and power among Indigenous peoples, Africans/Black people, and (in general) “people of color,” who make up the majority population of the globe (and soon the United States as well).
The Democratic Party and white liberals rely on a coalition of gays, women (feminists), “minorities,” entertainers, and academics, who are treated as distinct groups with separate interests rather than as overlapping identities– where all but one is white by default– in order to label themselves as “progressive.” However, the Democrats’ power lies in the support of working class whites: European colonizers across a continent stolen by the U.S. from Indigenous peoples through genocidal violence. Without the support of working class whites, the Republican Party alone would determine how the wealth of the capital-owning class is to be accumulated through the continuing colonial domination of North America (and Puerto Rico and Hawaii) and the neocolonial domination of the rest of the world outside Europe. Democrats belong to the capital-owning class too– Democratic politics are merely an alternate expression of bourgeois interests and ideology– but one of the contradictions between “representative democracy” and oligarchical rule is that the masses still determine who (between the two parties) will rule us for their own benefit. And so white people must be appeased.
The Democrats are desperate to find a path toward the magic number of votes– from the electoral college, not from actual voting people– and so the coalition which they wish to build must add up to a decisive majority. But there isn’t any way for Democrats to reach the greater number of electoral votes which will sustain (or regain) power for them, while, simultaneously, representing a working class movement that is truly progressive.
The map of the electoral college represents colonial genocide: vast territories of land stolen from Indigenous peoples. And this land means power— electoral votes. Whites in rural areas align with the Republican Party because this wing of the bourgeois ruling class (as opposed to the subtly racist Democratic wing) is more blatant in its efforts to uphold whiteness as a class interest, and whiteness is the one ticket to the wealth of capitalist colonization, which is based on the occupation of Indigenous land, fueled by the property value and productive force of enslaved Africans.
For this reason, a coalition of marginalized identities (including minoritized people of color) along with working class whites, when drawn in the context of racist, colonial “American” rule, cannot be the basis of a progressive movement against the wealthy oligarchy (“the one percent”). In order to seriously challenge the rule of the oppressive bourgeoisie of the United States, the white masses of European colonizers must reject “America” itself. A coalition of working class whites with “the gays, the blacks, and women” may add up to an electoral victory for the bourgeoisie (as in the case of Barack Obama’s two terms as President), but such a coalition simply does not add up when it comes to a principled movement against inequality, systemic violence, and capitalist oppression.
If we want to build a coalition of identities who will work toward the establishment of a system of power based on egalitarian principles, it seems absolutely necessary for white progressives to look outside the “American” identity, which is synonymous with white supremacy, patriarchy, colonialism and capitalism. The coalitions we should be looking to build are with organizations of African revolutionaries (in Africa, in the U.S. and everywhere else in the world), Indigenous revolutionaries, and working class movements in the nations of Latin America and Asia. Within the illegitimate borders of the U.S. settler colony, and, furthermore, within the bourgeois ideology of American exceptionalism, there are neither sufficient numbers of people nor consistent principles for the creation of a truly socialist movement toward equality, peace, justice and freedom.
The white working class and “poor” whites are not the answer– not for a global revolution against the forces of imperialist rule. Impoverished and working class whites are only the key, or the answer, as they have always been, to the further subjugation of people and planet by the white supremacist, patriarchal system of capitalism: its government, its businesses (big and small), its schools, media, and even its churches. For the entire system of the United States depends on the allegiance of European colonizers (whites) to its institutions and structures, and (perhaps more importantly) to the very ideal of “America” itself.
The framework of “America” holds together a coalition of reactionary forces whose only source of power can be found in the image of Europe superimposed on Indigenous land and people (folded over a continent like a giant white sheet), and in the unpaid wages (reparations) for an empire built through the colonial subjugation of Africans. Within this framework– within “America”– there isn’t sufficient revolutionary energy, and there just aren’t enough people with proletarian consciousness, to create an effective movement against the racism, patriarchy, greed, and violence of the capitalist class.
Any mass movement against capitalist oppression in which Europeans (whites) play a significant and beneficial role should begin by rejecting the “American” identity and re-imagining ourselves in globalist, anti-colonialist, anti-neocolonialist, and anti-white terms. The generic (white) working class is a dead-end road for any movement among Europeans that truly aims to qualitatively change the current power structure and redistribute its wealth. Any movement that centers working class whites within the framework of the “American” identity is just another Oregon trail, another bourgeois “American Revolution,” that will have been paved over the land and lives of Indigenous peoples and the colonized masses of the globe.
A principled, effective challenge to the racist, patriarchal, economically oppressive and violent system of wealthy, white, cisgender, heterosexual men must be re-framed in anti-colonial and anti-neocolonial terms, with objectives that center the basic survival and the revolutionary consciousness of the global proletariat– both inside and outside the illegitimate borders of “America.” The borders of “America” (literally and figuratively) create the monstrous shape of a racist, patriarchal, colonial system of violence, and hold in place a coalition of reactionary ideologies, along with the people who– through our “American” identity and our whiteness– embody and defend them.