May 18, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
No, Protests Are Not a ‘Class Struggle’
Not the one you think it is. Here's the real struggle.
I’d rather not talk again about the so-called protests being staged for the benefit of cable-news cameras. I feel I must, however, because public intellectuals like Peggy Noonan (respectable voices, unlike the click-bait bottom-feeders at Breitbart and Fox) keep insisting on two things. One, remaining misinformed about the nature, shape and power of socioeconomic class; and two, understanding these but pretending not to.
Noonan, of course, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Wall Street Journal. Last week, she wrote about the “class struggle” being revealed by a pandemic that has killed, as of this writing, over 91,000 people and unemployed 36.5 million others.
I’m so tired of people with no knowledge of the working class explaining working class politics to the real working class.
Noonan didn’t mean class struggle vis-a-vis inequities of access to health care (vast majorities of Covid-19 victims are people of color). She didn’t mean class struggle vis-a-vis a silent majority staying home and doing its part. She did, however, mean class struggle vis-a-vis white people “protesting” for the freedom to go shoe shopping.
Noonan’s dialectic is between the “overclass” (Michael Lind’s useful nomenclature) and “everyone else”—with the “everyone else” (we are asked implicitly to intuit) being a working class “pushing back” against state shelter-in-place orders, a working class that has lived “harder lives than those now determining their fate,” she said. “They haven’t had familial or economic ease. No one sent them to Yale. They often come from considerable family dysfunction. This has left them tougher or harder.”
When someone like Noonan explains class to actual working-class Americans, I’m reminded of a man who misunderstands sexism explaining sexism to women, or a white person who misunderstands racism explaining racism to people of color. It’s not only embarrassing. It’s not only disrespectful. There’s a depth of hubris and contempt that goes into such demonstrations, a contempt worsened by plausible deniability. It’s a form of gas-lighting, and it’s reasonable to believe the intent is to drive you crazy.
Let me offer an anecdote. I grew up in a trailer “park” in Yorkshire, barely a town on the western end of New York, south of Buffalo, with a human population smaller than the population of cows in the tricounty area. Trailer “parks” are cut into lots. Each lot has access to sewer, water and power. That’s it, though. It’s a wedge of land you rent but can’t develop or upgrade. Nor can you do a host of things, because each lot is subject to a host of rules legally enforced at the pleasure of the trailer “park”’s owner.
You might say that’s no big deal. Condos have rules too. Don’t like them? Sell and leave. But trailers do not appreciate in value. They depreciate. Selling means losing money, even if you bothered improving the interior. Yes, you can move them, but that’s an enormous expense. Mobile homes are almost never mobile. Condos are also not located, as the Stoehr family trailer was, next to a leach bed that bubbled and stank in hot months. Freedom to choose is central to a market economy. But once you’ve made up your mind to live in a trailer “park,” you can’t change your mind. You’re trapped.
Let me offer an anecdote explaining the real working class.
The landowner isn’t trapped. His freedom is boundless. Yet all he did was invest the bare minimum (water, sewer, power). Then he let the rents flow. The owner of our trailer “park,” Bill S., was a textbook example of a rent-seeker—a person or entity growing fat on rents without contributing good to broader society. While my family enjoyed the aroma of summertime shit, Bill S. and his family enjoyed an ostentatious mansion adjacent to riding stables, a fact that cemented forever in my mind that anyone with access to horses understands little to nothing about the working class.
Bill S. didn’t work (his profligate sons ran the business). So he ran for public office. To this day, he’s a Cattaraugus County legislator able to enact laws ensuring his freedom to seek rents from workaday families who virtually sign away their own freedom. Bill S. is a rural-dwelling non-college educated self-made man beloved of the Wall Street Journal with contemporaries all over the US—tiny feudal lords ruling tiny feudal fiefs. They suffer none of the burdens (or life-threatening dangers) of the working class but they have working-class credibility with the likes of Peggy Noonan, public intellectuals believing they are locked in a “class struggle” against America’s tyrannical “overclass.”
They aren’t. Not, anyway, in the way Noonan means. It’s not the working class, white or otherwise, that’s revolting against government control. The real working class, white or otherwise, needs government on their side, not off their backs. Without the power of government, they are politically powerless—the marker of the working class.
The people wanting government off their backs are the same familiar faces we have seen protesting “government overreach” since at least 2009—the tiny feudal lords, the petty bourgeoisie, the moguls of minor monopolies, the demi-captains producing little or nothing of value imagining themselves running with the big corporate dogs, whose political power is inversely proportional to government being of, by and for the people.
Noonan may not know what she’s talking about. Yet maybe she does.
If the point is driving you crazy, it works.
John Stoehr is the editor and publisher of the
, a newsletter about politics in plain English for normal people and the common good. He's a visiting assistant professor of public policy at Wesleyan University, a fellow at the
Yale Journalism Initiative
, a contributing writer for the
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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.