Strangers and Enemies

Strangers in Their Own Land elicits sympathy for white workers but fails to identify the class forces responsible for their plight.

Horacio Villalobos / US National Archives

Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right is the talk of many on the liberal and progressive left. In the book, the reader will travel deep into the solidly red state of Louisiana where Hochschild spent five years doing sixty interviews with Tea Party supporters and conservatives of a variety of stripes, many of whom give their support to Donald Trump by the book’s conclusion.

Hochschild is motivated by what she refers to throughout the book as “The Great Paradox,” by which she means how people, many of whom are low income and working class, come to abhor the federal government, scorn the social safety net, and vote unwaveringly for candidates who implement policies which harm workers and the environment.

While certainly not a novel premise or original question, what sets Strangers in Their Own Land apart from similar works is its sympathetic orientation and Hochschild’s challenge to herself to breach the “empathy wall.” Rather than ask “What’s the matter with Louisiana?” Hochschild allows those in the book to narrate what she refers to as their “deep story,” the “feels as if it’s true” story that shapes their worldview.

Troubled by studies that suggest political party allegiance is now more divisive than religion, cultural background, or any other social category, she befriends a range of working- and middle-class people and works to construct a rich and empathetic portrait. Without disavowing critical interpretation, Strangers in Their Own Land uses an ethnographic approach to allow us to begin to appreciate the social forces that shape how workers in red-state communities see the world.

But for all its novelty and timeliness, the book misses an opportunity to address the liberal left’s abandonment of large sections of the American working class. By not fully grappling with how certain forms of identity politics among the white working class have been made amenable to neoliberal capitalism, Strangers In Their Own Land  lacks the broader critique of neoliberalism that is necessary to build working-class unity.

The Great Paradox

“The Great Paradox” is nothing new. Much ink has been spilled over the supposed exceptionalism of the American working class, or, more fruitfully, historicizing the lack of a social-democratic or labor party in the United States. In certain respects, Hochschild’s book is the latest installment in this series. The issue which illustrates the paradox most forcefully, and originally sends Hochschild on her research endeavor, however, is environmental degradation.

Louisiana is one of many sites in the American South beset by large resource extraction operations and pollution-generating industrial and chemical processing facilities. Home to “Cancer Alley,” an eighty-five-mile strip with some 150 industrial plants, Louisiana now has the second highest incidence of cancer among men in the country.

Moreover, the social costs of new industrialization coupled with lax regulation are not confined only to the health of the human population. The externalities of treating the earth’s resources as free gifts to capital are also borne by the surrounding environment.

In the book, we are introduced to Mike Schaff, one of the last remaining “refugees” of Bayou Corne, a small community of 350 people, and now home to a thirty-seven-acre sinkhole thanks to Houston-based drilling company, Texas Brine. Ignoring both the recommendations of the firm’s own experts and state regulations, the company had drilled 5,600 feet beneath the bayou into a geological formation referred to as a “salt dome,” ostensibly in order to store toxic chemicals used in oil drilling, fracking, and plastic manufacturing.

When a Texas Brine drill pierced the side of a cavern inside the dome, the pressure sucked down water, trees, and all else in its wake from the surface, while splitting up oil and natural gas as well as threatening the aquifer responsible for supplying local drinking water. This episode is one among numerous examples of the disregard shown for the environment, workers, and community alike in the regulation-averse red state.

Yet those enraged, and in some instances drawn into activism, over the harm done to fellow workers and family members, as well as their local environment by rapacious companies, direct much of their disdain not at those companies but at government.

Throughout the book, workers describe the Environmental Protection Agency as a kind of alien force with a logic of growth all its own, a job-killer with an overriding mission to protect and expand the privileged positions of coddled and elitist bureaucrats. State government fared no better in their assessments. The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality routinely allows companies to discharge hazardous material into waterways, had failed to inspect many plants, and was unsure whether many companies were in compliance with state regulations at all, according to an EPA report.

In response, Schaff blamed “more bad government” and asked, “Why raise salaries?”.

Implicit in this critique of the state is an expectation that business will be unaccountable and profit-oriented, while government ought not to be. Government is “paid” to protect citizens and the environment, yet seems to do neither. The contempt directed at government stems from its accountability failure.

Yet rather than understand this as an outcome of the neoliberalization of the state, workers in the book see the failure as all the more reason to trust business and distrust government. Rather than “an open-and-shut case for good government,” Hochschild’s narrators see government’s failure as cause for its further dismantling.

Look to the Third Way

Hochschild is at pains to get to the root of this surprising conclusion. But it is here where she misses an opportunity to direct needed criticism — not at Republicans and business-friendly conservatives, but at Third Way Democrats, the more obvious targets of her interlocutors’ anger.

That the state uses tax money to attract capital and subsidize investment is not news to the workers in the book. Seeing this as part of the costs of doing business, and as basic for job creation, they are willing to accept it. And while also willing to admit the necessary and positive services the state provides when pressed by Hochschild, Schaff and others view government as an intruder, “a nosy big brother” regulating petty areas of life.

Again, there is a certain truth in this presentation. A regulatory state that in the daily lives of workers seems to care more about whether they are wearing safety vests when fishing than whether companies pollute the water supply is not one likely to garner much popular support.

Where Hochschild misses an opportunity is in questioning how the liberal left in America has done its part to produce this political orientation.

Counterpoised to the capital-serving, small-government Republicans is a Democratic Party that, when in command of the federal state, more closely approximates her notion of good government. Quickly passing over criticisms of the federal government on such things as “over surveillance, the declaration of war in Iraq, letting off Wall Street speculators,” her treatment of the Clinton-Obama Democrats is mild to nonexistent.

Yet it is precisely the coupling of neoliberal policies, which promote capital’s interests at the expense of workers and an elitism viewed by those in the book as disdainful of their culture, beliefs, and intelligence that helps generate the feelings animating their “deep story.” Perhaps more troubling is her description of Silicon Valley as a blue-state example of the more enlightened way that liberals have met the challenges of global capitalism.

For the liberal left, the best approach is to nurture new business through a world-class public infrastructure and excellent schools. An example is what many describe as the epicenter of a new industrial age: Silicon Valley — with Google, Twitter, and Facebook and its environs, as well as the electric car and solar industries.

Such a presentation, stripped of the necessary critique of Silicon Valley capital and the neoliberalism of Third Way Democrats, does little to help us build the necessary bridges to those workers presently on the conservative side of the divide.

The Deep Story and the “Line Cutters”

Behind all that she was learning about her research subjects’ lives and opinions, Hochschild claims, was a “deep story.” Through a sympathetic, yet critical, account of this story, she claims that we can better understand what motivates and structures the symbolic world of her “Tea Party friends.”

To grasp the “subjective prism” of the deep story, Hochschild uses a metaphor, that of a line.

You are patiently standing in a long line leading up a hill . . . along with others who are also white, older, Christian, and predominantly male . . . Just over the hill is the American Dream . . . [Y]ou’ve waited a long time, worked hard, and the line is barely moving . . . You’ve suffered long hours, layoffs, and exposure to dangerous chemicals at work, and received reduced pensions . . . You haven’t gotten a raise in years, and there is no talk of one . . . And after all your intense effort, all your sacrifice, you’re beginning to feel stuck.

Look! You see people cutting in line ahead of you! . . . Who are they? Some are black. Through affirmative action plans, pushed by the federal government, they are being given preference for places in college . . . jobs . . . Women, immigrants, refugees, public-sector workers — where will it end? Your money is running through a liberal sympathy sieve you don’t control or agree with.

By their own definition, those standing in line are not racist. They don’t use the racist slurs and have no direct animosity toward racial minorities. But, as Hochschild points out, “Missing from the image of blacks in most of the minds of those I came to know was a man or woman standing patiently in line next to them waiting for a well-deserved reward.”

Whither Class?

Those standing in the line seem to lack a language of class that could pose an alternative explanation to what’s holding up the line. As workers in the book understand it, people who don’t look, pray, or talk like them — people liberals seem most concerned about — are the beneficiaries of an unequal system. Here Hochschild fails to connect the dots.

She refers to government equity policies as “an expression of class conflict,” noting her “curious use of the term.” Instead of showing how the withering away of class as a unifying concept, and the rise of forms of identity politics compatible with the class inequalities of neoliberalism, have failed to bring workers together around a shared political project, she argues that her “Tea Party friends” see the federal government as favoring one class over another.

A deeper analysis would entail us coming to terms with the reconciliation of neoliberalism and identity politics. As Adolph Reed Jr contends, “[Identitarian politics’] effacement of class as both an analytic and strategic category dissolves working people’s interests as working people.”

Instead, we are left with a “groupist discourse of diversity and opposition” which does not unify workers, and in the case of Hochschild’s study, does the opposite: creates in them a vision of the world in which class unity is unthinkable. Or worse, a world in which “Trump [is] the identity politics candidate for white men.”

Those who had doubled down in the Clinton camp during the presidential election offered a particularly illuminating example of this. Some commentators in the liberal media seemed determined to show that Trump’s popularity was the result of newly awakened racism and sexism — not the hollowing out of American manufacturing or the downward mobility and precarious working conditions of an alarming number of American workers.

But asking whether racial animosity or working-class suffering was the primary motivator for Trump’s rise was always, in a certain sense, the wrong question anyhow — as if the two can be disentangled. Treating the two as separate phenomenon is an historical abstraction.

As Theodore W. Allen shows, following the tradition of W. E. B. Du Bois, white racial privilege has always been about disorganizing the working class, particularly in the American South. Racial scapegoating is a ruling-class strategy deployed by those who seek to maintain their wealth and power and prevent broad class alliances from forming and effectively challenging them.

For this reason it is not enough to argue that class struggle and not racial or cultural homogeneity is the prerequisite for a more social-democratic United States. The issue is rather to grapple with the fact that American ruling elites have been able to marshal other social cleavages to stymie working-class unity.

The outcome of this long historical process is that some white workers, such as those for whom Hochschild has such empathy, come to vehemently reject social-democratic policies that would be to their benefit, because they believe such policies only help “line cutters,” the racial minorities and women that liberal elites care about. It is the job of the Left to organize in ways that can overcome those sentiments through building working-class unity, while still being attentive to historical legacies of racism and sexism.

The Left must overcome this problem and figure out how to resist forms of inequality in such a way that the centrality of class is not lost, and the task of building working-class power is central. Indeed, building such power is a prerequisite for overcoming the issues Hochschild encounters in Louisiana and that workers face everywhere.

Strangers In Their Own Land is the kind of sympathetic work that needs to be done across the political divide to reach those workers whose material interests should place them on the Left. But building such alliances first requires a clear understanding of what divides us, before there can be a strategy for political unity.