Does the Working-Class Vote Against Its Own Interests?

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 Part of the media campaign surrounding the mid-term election results in the US has been a revisiting of the theme of the supposed “conservatism” of the working class in the US. According to many bourgeois analysts of the left, the Republican victories in the Mid-Term elections were largely the result of white working class voters deserting the Democrats in droves and voting for Republicans and the Tea Party. According to this meme, the Democrats suffered their most devastating losses in the old industrial Rust Belt of the Upper Mid-West. These traditionally Democratic areas, where union density has traditionally been high, have been an increasingly difficult electoral constituency to predict. Republican George W. Bush’s two election victories were made possible in large part by his ability to win Ohio’s electoral votes; a state with a large concentration of industrial workers, many of whom are union members. According to the dominant narrative on the bourgeois left, the working class is suffering from a profound case of “false consciousness” in which it votes for politicians who act against its economic interests. The conclusion is that the industrial working class cannot be trusted to act in a socially responsible manner. It is open to manipulation by right-wing demagogues. For the bourgeois left, the working class is potentially very politically dangerous.

This argument is not particularly new and has its roots in the New Left of the 1960s and 70s, when many politically radicalized students grew frustrated with the working-class’ supposed quietism and decided to take matters into their own hand in a series of “exemplary actions.” Today, this theme has been expressed primarily by the left of the Democratic Party who have trouble accepting the purported reality that many working-class people vote Republican instead of Democratic, just as the Republican Party has turned hard to the right and advocates many openly anti-working-class policies, such as abolishing unemployment benefits, privatizing Social Security, busting the unions and redistributing income upwards through tax cuts to the rich.

Thomas Franks’ 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas? [1]is the best-known expression of left Democrats’ frustration with the working-class. In a moment of honesty, Franks admits that many working class people’s abandonment of the Democratic Party is a result of their growing realization that the Democrats offer no real alternative to Republican economic policies for working people, so they therefore vote on other issues such as culture and religion instead in order to feel as if their voice has been heard. [2]
So how do we as Marxists respond to this idea pandered by bourgeois leftists that the working class now acts hopelessly against its own interests? First, when these leftists talk of the working class they have only a small part of the proletariat in mind. Basically, they are referring only to the white industrial working class.[3] This leaves out the vast majority of people in the modern capitalist economy who are compelled to sell their labor power in order to survive, but who don’t necessarily work in a factory or belong to a union. Most of these workers don’t vote Republican.
Moreover, focusing only on those people who show up to vote, these bourgeois left analysts fail to consider the vast number of working people who are so disengaged with the bourgeois political system they don’t even bother to cast a ballot. When these workers are considered the grim image of a socially regressive working class is put into an entirely different context.
Moreover, from a Marxist perspective, we don’t deny that under capitalism workers demonstrate a false political consciousness. If workers’ didn’t display this false consciousness in their daily lives as atomized and alienated individuals, capitalist society would be unable to reproduce itself and the revolution would be imminent. Clearly, this is not the situation today. Revolutionaries understand that working class consciousness is not something that can be measured in an opinion poll or an electoral plebiscite. On the contrary, it develops over time along with the class struggle. It spreads in a subterranean manner from struggle to struggle and from generation to generation, popping up at one moment in one place only to disappear and emerge elsewhere. The goal of revolutionaries’ intervention in this class struggle is to promote the conditions under which these spontaneous struggles can develop into a concerted and unified assault on the bourgeois state itself, which must by definition compel the working class to reject all bourgeois political parties: Democratic, Republican or whatever the form.
Nevertheless, there is an element of real concern in the bourgeoisie about the growing tendency of certain sections of the working class to support Republicans in elections. This is seriously complicating the ruling class’s ability to manipulate the electoral process and is leading to unpredictable and often undesirable electoral outcomes. Moreover, this process threatens to undermine the traditional ideological division of labor between the bourgeois parties, with the Democrats finding it increasingly difficult to enroll the working class behind their campaigns. Indeed, in the campaign for the Mid-Term elections it at times appeared that the Tea Party was leading a kind of populist opposition to the Democrats from the right, based on a simultaneous opposition to “big government” and Wall Street bail-outs. Developments such as this represent a new political situation for the bourgeoisie. A situation it is finding increasingly difficult to manage and which seems to really scare certain factions of the ruling class.[4] This is all the more evidence of the bankruptcy of bourgeois electoral politics and the need for the working class to reject all bourgeois parties by struggling on its own class terrain in defense of its living and working conditions.
Henk 01/04/10

[1] Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter With Kansas? (New York: Metropolitan Books) 2004.
[2] The charge that the working class is culturally and socially conservative is a question we should make an effort to return to in the future.
[3] An interesting debate has been raging for some time now among bourgeois pollsters and political analysts about how to identify the working class in polling and election data. Formerly, the consensus was to identify the working class as the lowest third or fourth of the income distribution. However, today there is a growing trend to specify the working class as those who lack a college degree. Of course, from a Marxist perspective either definition is entirely inadequate and misses the vast majority of people who sell their labor power in order to earn a living.
[4] The pages of The Nation and other left-wing bourgeois periodicals and blogs have been replete with comparisons of the current social situation in the U.S. to that of Weimar Germany and of the Tea Party to German and Italian fascists. Certain factions of the U.S. bourgeoisie seem to be growing concerned not just about the viability of the Republican Party as a responsible party of government, but of the very health of the democratic mystification itself. We should work to deepen our analysis of this trend in bourgeois thought. Does it reflect concern over a real threat to the bourgeois democratic apparatus or is it mere propaganda seeking to tie the working class to a defense that apparatus?