“At the very same time that America refused to give the Negro any land, through an act of Congress, our government was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest, which meant that it was willing to undergird its White peasants from Europe with an economic floor. But not only did they give the land, they built land grant colleges with government money to teach them how to farm. Not only that, they provided county agents to further their expertise in farming. Not only that, they provided low interest rates in order that they could mechanize their farms. Not only that, today many of these people are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies not to farm and they are the very people telling the Black man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. This is what we are faced with and this is a reality. Now, when we come to Washington in this campaign, we’re coming to get our check.”
- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The white working class is a primarily though not exclusively reactionary social formation. Based in Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States, the ‘white working class’ loosely has an ego, a consciousness of itself as white, even if its whiteness is defined only through the negation of those deemed not white. In other words, it has a semi-conscious sense of collective identity.
Throughout the course of Western capitalist accumulation, particularly beginning in the 18th Century, ‘whiteness’ developed. Like a small planet it attracted certain satellites into its gravitation pull. The expansion of whiteness became more necessary for the adequate dissolution of solidarity amongst oppressed people. Small scraps from the dinning table of industrialists, agricultural barons and political leaders created a petit bourgeois consciousness amongst the white working class, and other impoverished whites. The idea that ‘at least we aren’t that‘ led white peoples to have a clambering consciousness, and inspired the mythos of the self-made-self and hyper-individualism. Whiteness spread, like Moloch, it began to eat up all the European groups it could. In the Americas this was important for stabilising the US/European imperialist and slave projects. German, Irish, Italian, Polish, and so on all became – progressively – ‘white.’ As Europe was developing itself as itself, fashioning a looping, narrativistic and quasi-nativist European image, the US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada were keen to do the same. English language hegemony often accompanies whiteness as a social formation. The white working class has been interpolated, through the educational systems that excluded the function of teaching other languages, to view themselves as “native” to wherever they live, whilst all others are immigrant-outsiders. Entire areas became colonised and Native Peoples, African slaves and others without the white permit were moved to the periphery: economically, socially, spiritually and psychically. A (white) mass of the world’s population began to inject itself with the crack it had been given – whiteness meant, even for the poorest whites, ‘not being them.’ A crack in the social: a division that set up practices that last and are living with us to this very day. As Britain established itself as the global hegemon of the 19th Century, a further increase in white social formations took place. The massive genocide of the North American Native Peoples was well underway, the invasion and war against the Native People of Australia and New Zealand had begun, and the whole process meant deporting poor whites to these areas where they would be able to ‘make it’ or ‘reform themselves.’ These new worlds provided Europe’s white masses with an opportunity to break from the past, to create themselves anew, to develop a culture and create a small amount of wealth. Certainly people from Europe – sent by the British Empire and elsewhere – didn’t always ‘have it easy,’ but they were embarking on a social experiment at the expense of the ‘non-white’ Other. A very deadly experiment. As white flight from Europe happened these colonists and deportees expanded out into nexuses of what was becoming a shared identity. The wagons began to circle. Local barons in the colonies knew they had to keep white formations stable, to prevent any ‘mingling’ with Native Peoples or African slaves. They did this by dropping small amounts of privileges in the form of land, money and other chattels to poor and working class white people.
A lot has been written on the formation of whiteness. I do not intend this to be a survey of that work; however, the introduction above roughly sketches out what happened in the colonial peripheries of the British Empire after the late 18th Century. Of course, this was preceded by the brutal genocide of Native Peoples in the Americas and Africa at the hands of other European imperialists – French, Portuguese, Dutch, etc. All of this is relevant to my next point. During the post-WW2 ‘re-development’ and after the 1929 ‘New Deal’ massive amounts of small, incremental privileges were handed out to white working class people. The Left didn’t – and in many cases still doesn’t – seem to concern itself with this analysis. Why? Because the analysis of the 20th Century white working class leads to the uncomfortable truth that white working class people constitute the bulwark of reactionary politics. Examples abound: trade unions who refused to ‘allow’ the hiring of people of colour, Marxist groups like the UK’s Socialist Workers Party denouncing any mention of racism and its formations as ‘identity politics,’ a racist Trotsky-city council in Liverpool posturing against Thatcher whilst turning a blind eye toward its members racism, liberal administrators red-lining districts for white working class people where the public services were slightly better, white working class people moving out of major US cities into suburban life, etc. What is interesting is that despite a massive reversal in Industrial Era white formations – the dismantling of trade unions, the foreclosure crisis, fragmentation and disillusion of whiteness in the forms of social solidarity and anti-racism struggles, the end to certain types of de facto and de jure apartheid and segregation – is that whiteness still pervades the psychic register of those deemed white. The white working classes – whether they are working or not at the moment – have been imbued over generations to feel - on a material, spiritual and psychological level – that it is their right to have a job and consume goods. In fact, they – as a group – act as if the spiralling changes in dynamic post-modern capitalism are attributable to progressive social and political movements which have their major geneses in the 1960s and 70s. So a displacement of anger occurs. The white working class person is of the opinion that Black people are the oppressors; they feel as if white language is being censored; they view the Native Peoples as drunks, incapable of working, etc. In Europe, whiteness is tightening around certain bands; the not so new ‘non-white’ group to hate is the Roma people. These – incorrectly called Gypsies (for they were thought to be from Egypt when they are in fact from India) – Roma people are the new favourite nail to be hit, and hit hard by the white working classes in a post-2008 crash situation. Of course, the Roma people are no novices to being oppressed by their fellow European neighbours, but the financial collapse has allowed the far-Right to seize mainstream discourse amongst white working class people. Why is this so easy? White working class people are enemies of an international revolution. They are this because they have been formed as such. Providing our capitalist overlords with a buffer, the white working classes direct their anger- their sociopolitical thrust against immigrants, against Muslims, against Blacks, (in certain places) against Jews, and against social institutions that protect immigrants or any concept of homo sapiens beyond race.
The UK’s Socialist Party supports leaving the European Union – just as the British National Party and the UK Independence Party do – a policy that would put the lives of hundreds of thousands of EU migrants in an even more precarious position. In the US, Obama’s presidential success is touted amongst large sections of the white working classes as ‘evidence’ that Black people (along with Jews) have taken over the country. In Australia and New Zealand the demonisation of the Native People continues – as John Pilger shows in his documentary ‘Utopia.’ In Canada, huge oil and gas companies are threatening – and committing ecocide – in areas where Native Peoples live. These are simply recent developments. And the response from most of the white proletariat is a) I don’t give a fuck, b) tough luck, c) good, what do those lazy bastards do anyways? Here in the UK, emerging from the usual, more blunt miasma of white proletarian racism is the UK Independence Party, with its leader Nigel Farage who wishes to fancy himself as the new Enoch Powell. And UKIP is now the third largest party in Britain. (Update: As of the 2014 election it is the largest party in the UK). Its support: mainly white working class. On the UK’s trade unions, Unequal Comrades: Trade Unions, Equal Opportunity and Racism is a study that demonstrates the wide-spread white working class racism here in the UK. Its author, John Wrench, notes,
This leads us to the poor record of the trade union movement in this [race] sphere: to put it bluntly, black workers in this country have served the unions far better than the unions have served black workers. According to the features that are normally associated with trade unions: comradeship, solidarity and a desire to bring about improvements in the conditions of working people, this should not have been so. In reality, history shows the record of the trade union movement to be characterised at worst by appalling racism and often by an indefensible neglect of the issues of race and equal opportunity. Between the two world wars, there was an effective colour bar in British industry, supported openly by individual unions. Apparently the greater ‘tolerance’ which operated towards black workers during both wars was clearly understood by white workers and their unions to be temporary. For example, in the spring of 1919 about 120 black workers who had been employed for years in Liverpool sugar refineries and oil cake mills were sacked because white workers refused to work with them, and from 1918 onwards the seamen’s unions formally and openly opposed the employment of black seamen when white crews were available (Fryer 1984, p.299 & 298). Although such incidents are written off by trade unionists today as ‘history’, the uncomfortable fact remains that some of the most notorious cases of union hypocrisy and racism have occurred since the Second World War. Some of the most dramatic instances – those which have entered the labour movements’ chamber of horrors – (such as Coneygre Foundry, Mansfield Hosiery, Imperial Typewriters) are discussed below. In as much as such disputes surface only intermittently they too are dismissed within a couple of years as the ‘bad old days’, an attitude which ignores the enduring injustices experienced by black union members.
If we are to have a real, emancipatory and Communist social evolution – it will not be, it should not be, led by the white proletariat.