A Working-Class Memoir Challenges the “Culture Wars”
Adam Theron-Lee Rensch’s memoir is a deep examination of the meaning of class in America’s postindustrial hinterlands that shows how it is distorted by useless and misleading culture talk. Foregrounding economic disparities and class politics is now a matter of survival for the Left.
J. D. Vance couldn’t have published Hillbilly Elegy at a more auspicious moment. It landed right in the middle of the 2016 presidential campaign, when pundits and journalists were groping for explanations of why Donald Trump, of all people, seemed to appeal so effectively to the down-and-out precincts of rural and small-town America. The book sold millions of copies, instantly turning Vance into the media’s white-trash-splainer of choice. He was initially one of the leading “Never Trump” Republicans, but in the contest between principle and ambition, the latter quickly won out. Vance bent the knee to the man he once called “America’s Hitler” and parlayed Trump’s blessing into a burgeoning political career. After winning Ohio’s Republican primary in May, he may become the state’s next US senator-elect in November.
If you really want to understand what’s happened to America’s postindustrial hinterlands, Vance’s book will not help you. That’s not the point of it. Hillbilly Elegy is, as I described it in a review essay for Catalyst, “a vicious little book, a litany of well-worn complaints against the intemperate and shiftless poor disguised as a hardscrabble personal narrative.” Its main value lies in demonstrating how conservatives have seamlessly redeployed their racist attacks on the black poor against poor whites, who, in Vance’s telling, are suffering not because the economy has left them behind but because their culture encourages social decay and moral degeneracy. It’s a load of bullshit, a mockery of human suffering that’s done nothing but make Vance rich and advance the odious political project of his patron, the Silicon Valley techno-fascist Peter Thiel.
Like Vance, Adam Theron-Lee Rensch is a son of the Buckeye State who’s published a memoir on class and culture. But that’s where their similarities end. His new book, No Home for You Here, is not likely to become the source material for a star-studded Netflix movie. It’s much more serious than that. Rensch’s book is a genuinely moving personal narrative about the author’s struggles to navigate between two worlds: the bleak, working-class life he tried to escape from and the well-heeled, big-city cultural scene he sought refuge in, only to find himself back where he started — and with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt for his troubles. It is also a deep examination of the meaning of class in America, and a call for a class politics capable of reaching beyond the ranks of the young, urban, and credentialed — to people like Rensch’s friends and family, many of whom turned to drink, drugs, political reaction, or evangelical Christianity for solace from their pain. This is a memoir with a sociological imagination, one that links personal troubles to public issues in honest and well-crafted prose.
The book’s subtitle is “A Memoir of Class and Culture,” and the relationship between these two processes is central to Rensch’s project. More specifically, he is interested in displacing the culture wars — which he views as an intramural conflict between different fractions of the capitalist class — with a new politics organized around economic conflict. On this score, Rensch’s argument is pointed and scathing: “The claim that class politics is ‘economically reductionist’ because it privileges labor over identity and culture should be recognized for precisely what it is: red-baiting.” It’s difficult to fault his call for a politics that pits working people, across all their potential lines of difference, against the bosses. What’s less clear, however, is how it might be possible to change the subject of conflict from “culture war” to “class politics” in the present political context — or whether there is such a bright line separating these categories to begin with.
What Do We Mean by “Class Politics?”
For Rensch, class is not a matter of aesthetics or culture, or even income, but of the kind of work you do and whether you own any capital. He is particularly interested in deconstructing the notion of the “white working class,” a label he rightfully rejects as “a useless, misleading term” grounded in an aesthetic conception of class rather than a properly materialist one. Such a conception precludes the construction of class politics, which Rensch defines as “a coalition of workers who recognize that they have more in common than their divergent identities might lead them to believe, and that the wielding of their collective power against their common enemy — the capitalist class — is how they liberate themselves from oppression.” To do so, the working class must become, in the old Marxist idiom, a class for itself with “clearly defined and broadly shared” interests across lines of race, gender, sexuality, religion, and national origin.
These injunctions are, on one level, entirely unobjectionable. They represent the traditional socialist aspiration to solidarity, the recognition that an injury to one is an injury to all. The practical process of building that coalition of workers is, unfortunately, extremely complicated. Such formulations tend to imply that the process of defining people’s material interest is straightforward and unambiguous, when it very often isn’t. The political sociologists David Weakliem and Julia Adams prudently note that “material interests, whatever they might be, necessarily involve interpretation rather than a simple recognition of facts.” This has always been a challenge for socialist and left-wing movements looking to build working-class support. As Claus Offe and Helmut Wiesenthal argue in “The Two Logics of Collective Action,” any successful workers’ organization has to overcome that individuality, forge a collective identity among them, and at least partially redefine their material interests in noneconomistic terms. In that sense, class politics necessarily entails a certain kind of identity politics and a culture of solidarity. Otherwise, the group will crumble at the first sign of intimidation or inducement.
The massive expansion of higher education is just one of the developments complicating the identification and pursuit of common material interests among working people. The share of employed civilians who have had at least some postsecondary education has reached 70 percent, with 45 percent attaining at least a bachelor’s degree. The occupational structure has shifted extensively from blue-collar to white-collar and service occupations. Nearly half of all employed civilians are in professional, management, business, and financial occupations, and the level of educational attainment in these groups is very high. This has driven a major increase in the proportion of credentialed, white-collar workers in both the private and public sectors, while the ranks of production workers have shrunk relative to the dizzying array of occupations grouped under the heading of “services.”
Any viable left-wing political project in this context has to be based on a coalition between the burgeoning ranks of “sociocultural professionals,” which includes teachers, nurses, and social workers, and less-credentialed wage earners in clerical, service, and manufacturing occupations. These two broad groups tend to share an interest in and preference for economic redistribution, but this is not the only consideration to take into account. The political scientists Herbert Kitschelt and Philipp Rehm, in their study of shifting partisan identification patterns among white Americans, find that sociocultural professionals with lower incomes tend of be more supportive of redistribution than those with higher incomes. Since sociocultural professionals have become one of the core constituencies of the Left throughout the advanced capitalist world, this poses a challenge to effective coalition building within the working class. Moreover, the potential fault lines running through the progressive coalition are multidimensional. As Kitschelt and Rehm observe, while less-credentialed wage earners agree with many professionals on a redistributive economic agenda, “they are far from the libertarian [cultural] zeal of the rising social category pushing for redistributive demands, (young) high-education/low-income social and cultural professionals.” These dilemmas may be easier to manage in a proportional representation system, where members of these various class fractions can simply vote for different parties without fear of wasting votes or playing the spoiler. Here in the United States, however, these tensions are forced into one of two big coalition parties, which in turn generates intraparty conflict that can confuse and demoralize voters.
Rensch is aware of these tensions. He notes that the growth of new economic sectors created new groups of potential voters for the Democratic Party to court, which meant that “the traditional demographics of the working class, especially poor white workers, no longer fit into the party’s electoral strategy.” There’s no doubt that the Democrats’ recent political trajectory was driven, to a significant extent, by conscious strategic decisions on the part of party leaders and their consultants. Even so, the “Third Way” politics of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Gerhard Schröder was an attempt to grapple with the political challenges posed by the decline of social democracy’s traditional industrial base in places like Rensch’s northwest Ohio. Socialists and progressives were certainly right to oppose their agenda, but we failed to advance an alternative program that was more politically effective. The Left is starting to find its way toward a new project with hegemonic potential. But after years of nonengagement with mass politics, we are lagging dangerously behind the far right, and it is not clear that we will ever get there.
Change the Subject?
As noted above, economic questions do not constitute the only dimension of political conflict. The so-called “second dimension” of social-cultural issues is enormously salient in contemporary politics, often overshadowing the economic questions that comprise the “first dimension.” How should the Left confront this dilemma? Rensch essentially proposes to change the subject. He argues that:
Most of the culture wars are being fought between individuals who belong to essentially the same economic class (they would almost have to be, given how small the capitalist class is). The real difference, then and now, is not an actual class divide, but rather an ideological difference and the competing cultural ideals this difference produces.
In this view, the culture war is a spectacle that, intentionally or not, draws people’s attention and energy away from economic questions and therefore undermines the development of class politics. It is certainly true that political actors should seek to fight on the terrain that is most favorable to them, but we don’t always get to choose which issues become salient to a mass audience and which don’t. Whether we like it or not, if the Right succeeds in making something like drag queen story hour a salient political issue, this needs to be met head-on instead of sidestepped or downplayed. If this is what people in your town are fired up about, trying to talk to them about Medicare for All instead probably isn’t going to work — to say nothing of our moral obligation to defend people under attack by reactionaries.
More important, it is not always easy to differentiate neatly between “class politics” and “cultural” issues. In one passage, Rensch considers the question of whether working-class people who vote for Republicans on cultural grounds are acting against their own interests. “If they have an interest in, say, ensuring people don’t get abortions,” he stipulates, “then they know quite well why they are voting for the politician they support. If that is what matters to them, not taxing the rich or funding public institutions, then the contradiction disappears.” Quite true, but where does this leave us? “We may not like their stance on abortion, but to frame it as simply ‘the reason’ they vote for austere economic policy — even if that is the case — concedes enormous political ground from the outset,” Rensch argues. “Instead of declaring them a lost cause, we should be convincing them that such austere policies are as unjust as abortion, or whatever issue motivates them. Otherwise, they will find their notions of justice and fairness quite readily from other sources.”
No working-class person should be written off as a lost cause. But doesn’t this formulation concede enormous political ground in its own way? The implication here seems to be that the Left should maintain a principled commitment to an issue like abortion rights without emphasizing it politically, or even concede these positions to conservatives for tactical purposes (e.g., “as unjust as abortion”). With Roe v. Wade now reversed, this approach isn’t even satisfactory from the standpoint of class politics, narrowly defined. Women with means in states where abortion is banned will keep terminating their pregnancies safely, no matter what the courts say, while working-class women face the prospect of risky procedures or forced birth.
It is certainly true that “culture war” clashes are often conducted in ways that divorce them from political economy, which in turn renders it impossible to practically address the sources of social oppression. In that sense, the Left has to reject the terms on which these conflicts are currently conducted. But we cannot bracket the fact that our approach to “bread-and-butter” economic questions necessarily entails a challenge to social hierarchies that many working-class people currently accept. How do we address this in ways that build solidarity with people who might not already hold progressive views on various social questions? I don’t presume to have a definitive answer to this question, but the dilemma suggests a general approach that is materialist and class-rooted and that also takes a clear position against social oppressions. This is not without its challenges in strategy and political alliances, and there will always be tensions. But this is the only way to build and sustain that coalition of working people which is the sine qua non of political advance. Rensch’s conception of class politics has its limits, but he is ultimately right to contend that culturalizing the working class means we lose sight of a basic fact: “Thinking about class in terms of work rather than income or culture is advantageous because it highlights the major disparities in power that structure American society and reproduce inequality.”
No Home for You Here is a compelling work by an excellent writer. While reading it, I was reminded of one of my favorite passages from the speeches of Eugene V. Debs:
If you go to the city of Washington, you will find that almost all of those corporation lawyers and cowardly politicians, members of Congress, and mis-representatives of the masses claim, in glowing terms, that they have risen from the ranks to places of eminence and distinction. I am very glad that I cannot make that claim for myself. I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks. When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks.
Adam Theron-Lee Rensch reckons honestly with the desire to “rise from the ranks” that all of us from similar backgrounds have felt at one time or another, as well as the feelings of shame and guilt that come with the attempt to act on it. It is true that you can’t go home again, but you can renounce the drive to run away from it. Those of us who have been lucky to acquire useful skills and credentials can put them to good use in bridging the gap between the worlds we straddle, in being the connective tissue linking the different segments of the political movement we seek to build. This is as close to “home” as we will be able to get, and that is more than close enough.