by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
Holy moldering Marx, the working class is back! Drawn out of hiding by the Donald and Bernie. Cheerleaders for the Ownership Society who pushed subprime mortgages and equity draining as a substitute for NAFTA-gone jobs are aghast. As are devotees of identity politics. Solidarity Forever? Screw it. An overarching concept like class, with its multi cultural inclusiveness, could undermine decades of hard work fanning social divisions.
As for snobs on both sides of the political divide, for them it’s a real knuckle-drag to see the return of the “great unwashed”. Yes, West Virginia– there still are folks who use that phrase. Or think in its terms. That many of them are no better off economically or secure in their futures than the Morlocks they imagine and despise matters not. Illusions of superiority are as comforting as a baby’s blankie.
So– where has the working class been hiding? Answer: in plain sight. Only the term “working class” disappeared, not the actual people.
In an infamous scene from Sex & the City, the gals are discussing their sex lives (did they ever discuss anything else?) while getting a pedicure in a Korean nail salon. Miranda, a high-powered attorney, is dating a bartender. Charlotte, an art gallery manager with a wealthy husband, says the relationship has no future because a bartender is “working class”. The gals all laugh at such an archaic concept. Then the camera pans down to show the Korean women kneeling at their feet…
The term “working class” began fading out in the 1970’s; its erasure has been helpful politically to both left and right. The boon to the right is obvious; no working class means no need for organized labor. Not saying that not using the term is the sole reason unions have shrunk to a ghost of their former selves– just that it’s harder to organize people when they can’t name the group with whom their economic interests lie. And when that increasingly nameless group is made to appear ridiculous, boorish, and bigoted the organizing gets even harder. I mean, who wants to identify with–
Ah, Archie. The creation of liberal TV god Norman Lear, blue collar Archie ruled the sitcom world in All in the Family between 1971 and ’79. Talking trash with little cash. The latter wasn’t a sympathy factor, just another indicator of Archie’s social inferiority. Some claim Archie was an anti-hero and that white viewers secretly identified with him while pretending to scorn. But anti-heroes, after decades of cultural presence, tend to segue into respectability. So why does the term ”Archie Bunker” remain an insult?
Archie Bunker was an ugly stereotype. One that was allowed to stand because its target, the working class, was no longer deemed worthy of respect. Also because those being targeted were ambivalent about identifying as “working class”. Doing so flew in the face of middle class aspiration. Plus, the term was an ideological one associated with communism, our Cold War enemy, and in this country with hoary political groups still fighting the Stalin v. Trotsky wars. Many such groups featured the word “workers” in their titles. Comrades dressed the part, circa Woody Guthrie. The New Left called these groups “Old Left”. By 1971 their worker-centric influence had dwindled to an echo.
Not so New Left influence. Thanks to their piggy-backing the counterculture, rads of the New Left were hip and happening. Their cultural judgments carried weight. And from them, the working class got no respect.
Few groups on the New Left called themselves “worker” anything. In New Left minds, American workers had been corrupted by the success of organized labor and were now part of the problem not the solution. They had houses, cars, and televisions. Refrigerators full of beer. Cupboards stuffed with white bread. They worked in factories that belched pollutants and/or produced gas-guzzlers that carried people away from urban slums to suburban tract homes with lawns. (The New Left, with its amazing ability to intuit hidden motives, knew the exodus was really about racism not lawns.) But the biggest sin was support for the Vietnam War. That most working class people had kids, siblings, spouses, or friends fighting the war was no excuse. In Vietnam, the USA was Hitler. Which made all its supporters back home “good Germans”. Something New Left activists took great moral pride in not being.
Back to Norman Lear. Creator of Archie Bunker. Wealthy as hell but still an ace identifier of all things working class ugly, Lear has denounced Donald Trump. No surprise. Trump’s blue collar supporters are often called Archie. “Meathead” aka Rob Reiner, liberal son-in-law of apocryphal Archie, has also delivered a finger wag. Apostle Meathead spreading his Creator’s Word…
One Last Thing
Thankfully for fans of the TV working class, Archie Bunker wasn’t the only blue collar guy to grace sets in the 70’s. There was also Detective Columbo of the LAPD. Underestimated. Rumpled. Smoking a cheap stogie, driving a beloved beater. Unlike Archie, Columbo never talked politics. All he did was ask homicide suspects gazillion nagging questions. Relentlessly. The payoff being his nailing arrogant elite types who thought they could get away with murder.
When I look at the people cheering Trump– and Sanders– at rallies in post-industrial places I don’t see the face of Archie Bunker. I see Columbo bringing it home. I can almost hear it…
“One last thing. Nothing important. I just need to clear up a few small details. It won’t take long. I know you need to get on with ruling. But first, can you tell me where you were when American jobs were being exported, cheap labor was being imported, and working class/middle class incomes were stagnating?”
Everybody into the beater!