Inequality Should Not Be the Only Rallying Cry for the Left

For the first century of its existence, the organized left mobilized around the “labor question”: who determines the what and how of production. For years, though, the Left has abandoned this question for a concern with inequality — at its own peril.

Industrial Workers of the World rally, May 1, 1914. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

“Inequality is the great moral issue of our time,” proclaimed Bernie Sanders, the undisputed champion of left-wing politics in the United States. Over and over again, Sanders has emphasized that the most important political and economic issues confronting the nation are its “extraordinary levels of income and wealth inequality, the rapidly growing concentration of ownership, the long-term decline of the American middle class and the evolution of this country into oligarchy.”

Evidence of economic inequality is embarrassingly abundant and has been accumulating for decades. Between 1989 and 2019, the total real wealth (adjusted for inflation) held by all families in the United States tripled from $38 trillion in 2019 dollars to $115 trillion. Great news — except that, as of 2019, the richest 10 percent of families held 72 percent of this wealth; those in the top 1 percent held more than one-third. Meanwhile, the bottom half of Americans held only 2 percent. Matters grew even more obscene during the COVID-19 pandemic as the misery of millions proved to be the good fortune of a profiteering elite.

Exacerbating this economic maldistribution is the racial hierarchy embedded in American life. The median wealth of white families is substantially higher than that of black or Hispanic families. Inequality, then, is a dual injustice; it is both a matter of economic inequity and a blocked opportunity for those on the wrong side of racial and gender divides.

Nor does inequality leave its mark solely on the division of wealth and income. As Sanders never tires of pointing out, money talks. Power gravitates to the centers of wealth — personal and corporate. Long before Donald Trump raised fears about the future of democracy, democracy was already on life support; oligarchy breeds plutocracy. Occupy Wall Street’s social arithmetic of the 1 percent and the 99 percent has become commonplace in our everyday vocabulary.

All of this makes the case that inequality is indeed “the great moral issue of our time,” and so, naturally, the preoccupation of the Left. But there’s more. Movements for racial and gender justice and equality have made it clear that formal equality — that is, equality before the law, the equality of rights that is supposed to attach to every individual — remains, as it always has in American history, unfinished business, notwithstanding constitutional amendments, various legislative acts, and court decisions.

No wonder, then, that the inequality question has absorbed the Left’s energies. The economy feeds the already well-fed. Democracy is more honored in the breach than in the observance. Invidious distinctions anchored in ascriptive identities undermine rights supposed to be universal and inviolable. And then there’s the Declaration of Independence. It presumes that equality is the default position of American society. How could the Left do anything else but find its reason for being in the struggle against inequality?

Yet for much of its history, well into the middle decades of the twentieth century, it was the “labor question,” not the question of inequality, that preoccupied the Left. Or, to put things differently, the Left treated the inequality question as derivative — that is to say, as embraced by the labor question.

Capitalism, the Labor Question, and the Left

During those bygone days, the Left, in all its great variety — the Knights of Labor, farmer-labor parties, anarchists, the Industrial Workers of the World, the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, and substantial portions of the labor movement — defined itself as anti-capitalist. That meant, first of all, attacking the exploitation of labor upon which the system rested. The labor question would only be answered once and for all when capitalism was supplanted by some other way of organizing social and economic life. The labor question touched metaphysical bedrock, calling into question the most cherished values of bourgeois society, including its vaunted individualism. Just how should we think of the self? George McNeill, a leading labor reformer during the Gilded Age, declared, “He who sells labor sells himself.”

Over the course of American history, the labor question has contained multitudes. It was never a matter of dollars and cents alone. The question was moral and political from the get-go; how could it be otherwise? Indeed, for many it was a question of how to overcome the identity of “mere worker” to rise out of servitude and become something fully human. At its most piercing, the labor question asked what it meant to be human and free.

Even in a culture so infected with an aversion to the existence of classes, not to mention class struggle, the labor question excited (or, in the case of ruling classes, terrified) the public imagination with visions of emancipation. One way or another, these reveries and more down-to-earth struggles were grounded on what was happening at the workplace, where capitalism gestated. There relations of servitude and domination, exploitation and accumulation, dispossession and immiseration originated and spread, plague-like, across the body politic and into the interstices of everyday life.

Endowing the labor question with this singular importance, the Left drew two conclusions: that the working class would serve as the principal agency of social transformation; and that all other social injustices — racial oppression, imperial war, poverty, patriarchy, xenophobia, and sexual repression — were symptoms of capitalism. Capitalism was the disease, and its abolition was the cure.

Inequality of rights and inequality in the distribution of wealth, on the other hand, might be addressed without challenging the fundamentals of capitalism. After all, civic and political equality were watchwords of bourgeois revolutions everywhere. The free market, according to its ideological defenders, assured economic equality, even and especially between wage earners and their employers, each party free to pursue its self-interest.

Nonetheless, and notwithstanding the fact that equality was by no means alien to bourgeois society, the Left stood at the vanguard of struggles against inequality. This was true of movements for civil rights, voting rights, women’s liberation, free speech, and labor rights. Capitalism, in the abstract, might not depend on racial discrimination, on restricting suffrage, on women’s subordination, or on suppression of elementary rights of free speech and assembly. But again and again, actually existing capitalism made use of those implanted hierarchies and inequalities; they might facilitate exploitation or help to undermine resistance to it.

In the eyes of the Left, these inequalities were not only morally repugnant but also impediments to unifying the struggle against capitalism. Extending the range of equal rights and democratic liberties would enlarge and strengthen the mobilization against capitalism. Struggles against inequalities would incubate fellow feeling among otherwise isolated groups of the oppressed and exploited; they would become schoolrooms of class consciousness.

Primordial Inequality

That was the strategy of the traditional anti-capitalist left. Inequality was scarcely overlooked. Indeed, capitalism was grounded in a primordial form of inequality between those who owned the means of production and those who didn’t. This relationship created a fundamental inequality: a dependency, a relationship of submission and overlordship. And so the St Louis Central Labor Union heralded Henry George’s 1886 New York mayoral campaign as a “battle cry for all enslaved toilers from the Atlantic to the Pacific.” According to the Knights of Labor, “the relation of employer and employed” implied “superiority and inferiority.” That’s why it was likened to slavery — “wage slavery.” The Knights conceived of itself as a brotherhood of all the working classes in which equality was assumed, while the ultimate goal stretched beyond that.

Frederick Douglass put it this way: “Experience demonstrates that there may be a wages of slavery only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery, and that this slavery of wages must go down with the other.” Ira Steward, leader of the eight-hour workday movement after the Civil War, talked about equality in a way distinctive to a proletarian movement peering beyond the horizon of bourgeois equality. The eight-hour workday would be the first step in raising wages toward “a more equal distribution of the fruits of industry,” which in turn would lead to a new emancipation where “the producer and the capitalist will be one.”

That idiom is impossible to imagine being deployed by much of the contemporary left. Just as inconceivable today is a left-wing echo of what McNeill, a leader of the Knights, took as an elementary truth: that there is “an inevitable and irresistible conflict between the wage system of labor and the republican system of government.” And McNeill, no socialist, went further:

It is war — war against the divine rights of humanity; war against the principles of our government. There is no mutuality of interests, no cooperative union of labor and capital. It is the iron heel of a soulless monopoly, crushing the manhood out of sovereign citizens. . . . The mob can be put down for a while; but the spirit of hate that now centers upon the great monopolies will soon extend to the government that acts as their protector.

Resistance to this distinctive form of inequality — this “slavery” — defined the traditional left. Nor was this resistance confined to the growing ranks of the proletariat, and nor was it necessarily socialist in the way it envisioned the future.

Smallholders — independent farmers, shopkeepers, tradesmen, artisans, industrial craftsmen, fishermen, tenant farmers, sharecroppers, doctors, and journalists — that is, all those still possessing or clinging to the means of self-support — feared the loss of their independence. They felt the precariousness of their social position. Prolific organizers, they joined the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, the Farmers’ Alliance, the Populist Party, and the anti-monopoly movement to stop the onslaught of industrial and finance capitalism.

Class consciousness was promiscuous, so that the Grange, for example, was formed to defend the “class interest of farmers.” Desire for equality was not so much about the distribution of goods and income as it was about maintaining a rough equality in the division of property. In Iceland, when people lost their land, they were thought of as “vacant men.” Many vacant men haunted the American outback.

For petty producers, labor, property, and selfhood were conjoined. Capitalism posed an existential threat. It was predatory. “Monstrous monopolies” were “crushing the life out of the producing classes.” Partisans envisioned a cooperative commonwealth that would preserve their propertied independence while transcending the savage competitiveness of the “free market.” The goal was to “substitute cooperation for capitalism.” Exploitation and inequality would go down together.

Like insurgent proletarians, they, too, from their own distinctive vantage point, treated the labor question and the relations of production as paramount. “Slavery and Monopoly will go down together unwept into a common grave,” prophesized a spokesman for the anti-monopoly crusade. The inequality they worried about was an inequality of classes, and those classes were defined by their place in the system of production.

Extreme disparities in wealth and income, the striking inequalities in who had political power and who feared it, and the cultural disdain in which the lower orders were held by their social superiors naturally aroused the passions of the Left. A Knights of Labor editorial could have been written by Bernie Sanders: “Corporations of capitalists . . . are slowly but surely crushing out the manhood and liberties of the poor laborers, guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the land, by creating immense fortunes which enable them to buy up legislatures, sway judges and communities as they please.”

These inequalities, however, were themselves treated as the outgrowth of a system of production grounded in the exploitation of wage labor. Strikes, demonstrations, political campaigns, congressional hearings, journalistic exposés, church sermons, cartoons, and even novels and poems zeroed in on how these relations of production were degrading and dehumanizing and how they made a mockery of freedom and self-possession.

Equality and Its Limits

Exploitation and inequality are kindred but not identical phenomena. Formal equality, the equality of civil and political rights in the public arena among individuals, has nothing to do (in theory) with power relations rooted in that separate, private sphere of life where bosses command and employees obey. The rights it defends adhere to the individual, even if they can only be won by collective action. Equality of that kind is precious and has cost bloodshed to achieve. There are times when the propertied and powerful may collaborate with movements that seek to extend the social reach of legal equality and other times when they may stand opposed to them.

At no time, however, does the quest for formal equality reach deep enough to threaten the understructure of inequality upon which capitalism rests: there the question of inequality can only be addressed collectively, through the agency of class. This may violate the sense of individualism that infuses the struggle for formal equality. For this reason, the anti-capitalist left may help carry on the movements for bourgeois equality — but also illuminate their limits.

When it comes to economic inequality, which is the principal focus of the Left as led by Bernie Sanders, matters are different. Here capitalism is in the crosshairs of the movement. But that does not yet invoke a return of the labor question as the Left’s pivotal concern. Economic inequality in particular is focused on the way wealth is distributed, while exploitation is focused on the way wealth is produced.

Addressing economic inequality may go the way of mild or more radical reform. Taxing away piled-up wealth — both personal and corporate — is one way; price and rent controls are another. Capping the income of business executives or eliminating government subsidies and corporate tax exemptions can be part of that egalitarian agenda. Minimum-wage legislation or shoring up the right to join a union can work to reduce the maldistribution of income. More venturesome are proposals to take, for example, health care or housing out of the private sector entirely. Making them universally available public provisions no longer subject to the dictates of the market and profit-making would cure some of the sorest wounds of economic inequality.

Nowadays especially, elite circles are much more likely to oppose these forays in favor of economic equality than they are to balk at efforts to undo discriminatory practices directed at women or racial minorities; in fact, they often applaud these latter reforms, but not so the former. After all, even the most modest adjustments in the tax code or labor law, not to mention something as drastic as universal health care, constrain the accumulation of capital at a time when the global economy somersaults from one crisis to another. And the costs are not only monetary. Any of these or other economic reorderings enhance the political leverage of working people, undesirable from the vantage point of the power structure.

However, to be clear (as Bernie Sanders might say), economic equality aimed at the redistribution of income and wealth are not life-and-death matters for capitalism. Reforms of this nature have happened before, with the New Deal being the most noteworthy case. These reforms were adamantly resisted by some circles of the business community and their political enablers. Yet they also established a new framework for the resuscitation of capital accumulation after the Great Depression.

Today the Left sees itself as carrying on the struggle against these two forms of inequality — civic-political and economic. Equality has emerged as the “the great moral issue of our time.” If the labor question once commanded that status, it no longer does. To be sure, the Left cheers on the growing unionization movement. There, however, the question is about the injustices and inequities of the labor market, not about whether there should be a market for labor. The working class is no longer a protagonist of anything. It is not the principal subject of history. Some question whether it really exists — or if it did, it’s now dead.

How did this evolution, from the labor question to the equality question as the preeminent concern of the Left, happen? How did inequality emerge as the principal indictment of capitalism, supplanting the earlier emphasis on the moral and spiritual desolation accompanying exploitation? Why equality instead of emancipation? What might be the consequences of this shift? Can the drive for equality function to quarantine the labor question? The equalization of classes is not the abolition of classes. If the Left is not anti-capitalist, is it still a Left?

The Alchemy of the New Deal

When American capitalism entered what looked like its terminal crisis — the Great Depression of the 1930s — the labor question shifted the political center of gravity to the left. Anti-capitalist sentiments appeared everywhere. There was, one might say, an all-sided rage against the machine. Bankers and tycoons as a species were ridiculed: caricatured by cartoonists, pilloried and excommunicated by journalists, parodied by playwrights and painters and filmmakers. From on high, President Franklin D. Roosevelt promised to chase the money changers out of the temples of civilization and deal roughly with “tories of industry” and “economic royalists.”

There was much street action as well. Dispossessed workers seized shuttered coal mines and utility facilities. Evicted farmers reclaimed homesteads. Marches of the unemployed descended on factories, demanding work. Striking workers went so far as to seize and hold corporate property as their ultimate bargaining leverage. Political parties and movements from left and right — Huey Long’s “Share Our Wealth” clubs and Father Charles Coughlin’s Union Party on the one hand, farmer-labor parties on the other — skewered the debacle capitalism had created. Parties of the socialist left in particular grew in numbers and influence, especially the Communist Party.

Capitalism faced a legitimacy crisis. The labor question, in its most incendiary form, had reached its boiling point. It did not boil over, however.

Why that didn’t happen is beyond the scope of this essay. What did happen bears directly on how the Left eventually came to center its attention on the equality question and lose sight of the labor question, along with its anti-capitalist reverberations.

Mass consumption capitalism was the new form of political economy that made the New Deal go. Premonitions of such a reordering had surfaced earlier among economists, labor leaders, social workers, industrial engineers, progressive ideologues, and others. Arguably, modern liberalism, from the outset, was an ongoing search for solutions to the labor question that would stave off Armageddon and preserve the fundamentals of bourgeois society. Walter Weyl, founder of the New Republic in the pre–World War I years, in seeking an end run around the class conflict breaking out all over the country, suggested, “In America today, the unifying economic force, about which a majority, hostile to the plutocracy, is forming, is the common interest of the citizen as a consumer of wealth.” This new historical actor, the consumer, Weyl prophesized, “disinterred from his grave, reappears in the political arena as the ‘common man,’ the ‘plain people,’ the ‘strap-hanger,’ ‘the man on the street,’ ‘the taxpayer,’ the ‘ultimate consumer.’ Men who voted as producers are now voting as consumers.” Fair distribution, a new equality, would tame the power of the oligarchies. A new world seemed in the offing, one without plutocrats or proletarians — or so progressives at the turn of the century hoped.

Mere hope materialized amid the Great Depression. It provided the occasion, and the New Deal provided the institutional infrastructure — regulatory agencies, deficit spending, fiscal innovations, tax reform, new labor law, public works (dams, utilities, airports, tunnels, bridges), land resettlement and redevelopment projects, electrification, economic planning, and the rudiments of a social welfare apparatus — that turned earlier theorizing as well as local and state experiments into a national reality.

None of this would have happened without the pressure coming from the anti-capitalist left. But victory proved the anti-capitalist left’s undoing. Issues regarding how the economic surplus was distributed, ensuring that it was distributed more equally than before, and warding off the insecurity endemic to capitalist production cycles began to take precedence over how that surplus was produced. The shop floor remained a theater of intense combat. But equality in the distribution of what was conceived there became the point.

Capitalism itself would survive and thrive so long as the rights of labor were observed, distribution of the social surplus was more evenly sorted out, and security was guaranteed. Those who might have thought reform was the royal road to revolution would have to think again or conclude that the revolution had happened: America was on the road to the classless society — the society of the universal middle class.

Mass consumption capitalism would do away with the gross inequalities of the Gilded Age that had intensely aggravated the labor question. Moral good sense alone called for reigning in the power and wealth of the mighty. More than that, however, raising the general standard of living was a strategic necessity, the exit ramp out of a dead-end economy. Long an unkept promise, abundance (what economists might call “effective demand”) — or at least an attempt at evening out the disparities of income and wealth that had characterized American society since the Civil War — was the operating premise of the new political economy. It provided the rationale for much New Deal reform, including the Wagner Act that protected the rights of workers to organize and engage in collective bargaining.

If the wheels were to turn again, everyone had to consume. Keynesian economic theorizing, which increasingly found a home in left-liberal thinking and policy prescriptions, was grounded on this premise.

Welfare economics in particular codified a new egalitarianism. Redistribution might be defended as a form of justice. Just or not, it was utilitarian, as in “a pound in the pocket of a poor man . . . created greater utility than that pound in the pocket of a rich man.” Indeed, in the land of the free, one thing was compulsory. The Journal of Retailing put it bluntly in 1955: “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption. . . . We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.” The Journal needn’t have worried. American society pursued this course with a vengeance.

More to the point, this imperative carried with it a cultural and even political egalitarianism, one that turned out to be both salutary and invidious. In its early decades at least, the New Deal order embraced a respect for the working classes — for their rights, their ways of life, their heritages, and their contributions to the well-being and creative energies of society. Wealth could become a social and political poultice, as Weyl noted: “Where wealth is growing at a rapid rate, the multitude may be fed without breaking into the rich man’s granary.”

On the dark side, however, it nurtured the kinds of invidious distinctions first observed by Alexis de Tocqueville, who noticed how America cultivated a race for equality of the sort Barack Obama alluded to nearly two centuries later: namely a “race to the top,” that is, an equal opportunity to become unequal. Economic growth, under this regime, could thus function both as a solution to inequality and as its irritant. Latent in its appeal was a politics of uplift as well as a politics of resentment.

No matter which form of equality predominated, economic equality itself became a watchword of the New Deal order. It was absorbed into the pores of organized working-class institutions and increasingly by the Left. This did not happen overnight. The insurgent labor movement of the Great Depression years made audacious forays onto sacred turf — audacious insofar as they challenged the basic power relations that define capitalism. There was talk of codetermination at the managerial level, and there was much more than mere talk about who was to control what went on at the level of the shop floor.

However, these matters receded from view rather quickly after World War II ended. Tensions over the day-to-day mechanisms of surplus value extraction continued, as they must always. But they were no longer high on the agenda of the labor movement as an institution. So, too, what has been characterized as the “social unionism” of the early Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) — a conscious, active commitment and sense of comradeship extending beyond the formal boundaries of the trade union to embrace the cause of working people more universally — faded away. The most powerful unions bargained to shore up their own private welfare states. The rest of the working class — women, African Americans especially, and the unorganized generally — was left to shift for itself.

Abundance is a potent persuader. The achievements of the New Deal order were impressive. They were material, to be sure, and also cultural and political. The Left deserved much of the credit. Under such circumstances, it might have seemed ungenerous, or too cantankerous, or even too dangerous for the Left to point out another facet — the underlying facet — of the new prosperity. In an earlier age, when the Left was fixated on the labor question, it would no doubt have observed, as Karl Marx did, “a system of slavery, and indeed of a slavery which becomes more severe in proportion as the social productive forces of labor develop, whether the worker receives better or worse payment.” That insight went missing from the Left’s outlook. In part, it was driven underground by the intensely hostile climate of the Cold War, which purged the organized labor movement of its radical cohort and cleansed the country’s political language of the grammar of resistance (the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 killed off what was barely breathing anyway, the Marxist dynamic of class conflict).

As the New Deal order settled in after World War II, the CIO and the satellite organizations of progressive politics that orbited around the labor movement accepted a foreshortened perspective. It might be characterized as “Gomperism” plus the state. For left-leaning intellectuals, and soon enough for a rising generation of New Leftists, this was a profound disappointment. The repercussions would deeply inflect the struggle for equality, especially the movement for racial equality. And it began an estrangement of the working class from the Left that continues, in altered form, today.


Samuel Gompers, once himself a socialist, had long since abandoned that crusade when, to refute the still potent socialist following within the American Federation of Labor (AFL), proclaimed that “the way out of the wage system is through higher wages.” Putting flesh on that bony aperçu, the AFL president explained that what the labor movement was after was more of the good things that the new system of industrial capitalism had to offer — material things, of course, but also “more school houses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures.” This is eloquent. As an appeal to achieve a level of economic as well as social equality, and to accomplish that through the mechanisms of collective bargaining, it might well have expressed the outlook of the labor movement that emerged out of the New Deal. One vital element was missing. Gompers eschewed politics and, generally speaking, wanted to keep the state at arm’s length from the labor movement. The New Deal state and the CIO (and later the whole labor movement) were, on the contrary, locked in an embrace that both depended on.

“Gomperism” plus the state was the passageway to the land of more. “More,” however, entailed giving up on older beliefs about the transcendent nature of the labor question. Surrender or reconciliation, or an even harsher revelation that the socialist promise had proven to be a lie, and a toxic one, circulated widely among liberal and left-wing intellectuals during the 1950s and 1960s. Studying the embourgeoisement of the working class became a cottage industry among scholars. Public thinkers weighed in as well, plumbing the metaphysical depths. Something had died; the corpse needed to be swept away.

To be fair, concerns about embourgeoisement had a long history. Friedrich Engels was known to complain about the British working class living off the booty of colonialism. Already at the turn of the century, Werner Sombart saw the hopes for an American socialism foundering on “shoals of roast beef and apple pie.” Vladimir Lenin and others identified a “labor aristocracy,” traitors to the cause. George Bernard Shaw, of all unlikely suspects, described trade unionism as “the capitalism of the proletariat.” Historians have traced the origins of this quest for middle-class status, the infiltration of middle-class values into working-class precincts, back to the late nineteenth century.

During the “golden age” of postwar capitalism, however, pondering the embourgeoisement of the working class elicited for some a sense of relief and even self-congratulation; for others, however, it brought a rather undisguised gloom, and for the bien-pensant, embourgeoisement expressed the wisdom of hindsight. The last amounted to a form of what’s been called “capitalist realism.” It was a reconciliation with capitalism as the far horizon of the possible that carried with it faint notes of regret. Common sense excised fanciful thoughts of social transformation. Irony and ambiguity silenced old passions.

Ferdynand Zweig depicted the working-class person this way: “The class struggle interests him less and less. The idea of the working class as an oppressed or exploited class or the romanticized idea of the working class as foremost in the struggle for progress and social justice, is fading from this mind.” This impressionistic view of the postwar working class was widely shared among the intellectual classes and provided the evidential substructure for more portentous findings.

Fellow intellectuals and scholars like Seymour Martin Lipset, Reinhold Niebuhr, Nathan Glazer, Daniel Bell, and others took a view similar to Zweig’s. Lipset, for example, concluded that “the fundamental political problems of the industrial revolution” no longer produced grand ideological disputes. Class struggle in America, to the degree such struggles still went on, occurred, observed Lipset, “without ideologies, without red flags, without May Day parades.” Niebuhr was pleased to report that collective bargaining had rendered “Western Civilization immune to the Communist virus.” In The End of Ideology, a book that commanded general interest and in particular inflamed the New Left just then coming onto the scene, Bell eulogized that “the old passions are spent” and “the old politico-economic radicalism . . . has lost its meaning.”

Liberalism, sometimes egged on by the Cold War, found these insights trenchant; they hinted at a kind of “end of history” avant la lettre. Raymond Aron announced that history had “refuted the exaggerated hopes placed in Revolution.” Judith Shklar observed that socialism “has not been able to recover the lost spirit of utopian idealism and is neither radical nor hopeful today.”

Thinkers on the Left, while not sharing in the schadenfreude that sometimes lurked beneath the dispassionate pronouncements of their liberal counterparts, basically agreed with them. The end was nigh or had already arrived when it came to the labor question as the driving force of history. The best-known version of this judgment was the remarks of C. Wright Mills in his “Letter to the New Left,” published in the New Left Review in 1960. Mills did not, like the liberal savants of the day, give up on socialism or seek to inter the utopian imagination. The issue, for Mills, was rather who might be the agency bearing the burden of socialist revolution into the future. He concluded that, in the case of the working class, “the historic agency (in the advanced capitalist countries) has either collapsed or become most ambiguous.” He was puzzled that some in the New Left still clung to that hope, despite the fact that in his view, at least, “such a labour metaphysic . . . is a legacy of Victorian Marxism that is now quite unrealistic.” It was a forlorn hope in Mills’s view, as the working class had lost its historic status as the “Necessary Lever.”

Other left-leaning commentators explained what had happened. Often they pointed the finger at the consumer culture midwifed by the New Deal order. Alasdair MacIntyre remarked, “The stick of work and the carrot of television, these mark out how so-called consumer capitalism has additional techniques for limiting and holding the worker down.” MacIntyre went on to say that “The institutions of the labour movement partly become institutions of bourgeois society and partly become part of private rather than of public life.”

Dwight Macdonald had for a long time skewered the demoralizing effects of mass-produced popular culture. So had European Marxists like Theodor Adorno and their refugee cothinkers in the United States. Herbert Marcuse argued that the proletariat was no longer revolutionary because industrial society had managed to satisfy their needs and manipulate their expectations: “The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment.” In Britain, Richard Hoggart zeroed in on the instruments of mass communication as the places where the axioms of a classless society were promulgated and widely distributed.

During the postwar years in Britain, Stuart Hall had picked out the darker shades of the new mass consumption economy and culture, noting how its egalitarian ambitions also incited “social envy — a desire to become ‘middle-class’ in style of life.” A culture that encouraged, even demanded, perpetual striving, was inimical to any collective sense of advance. On the contrary, it fostered instead a modern form of property-holding democracy in which equality lubricated the mechanisms of a ubiquitous individualism.

Hall was at great pains to draw the narrow limits within which this class conversion experience happened. Still, he noted its effects on making the working class more susceptible to corporate talk about raising productivity to keep the firm afloat. In a word, he concluded that mass consumption “has become the most significant relationship between the working class and the employing class.”

Confirmation of this view came from the horse’s mouth. George Meany, president of the newly merged and politically purged labor movement, the AFL-CIO, made it bluntly clear that “We do not seek to recast American society in any particular doctrinaire or ideological image. We seek an ever rising standard of living.” Remarks of this kind were taken as an explicit repudiation of any missionary intent on the part of the leadership of the labor movement, as indeed they were. But they also functioned as evidence in left-wing circles, along with a sorry, mounting record of malfeasance, for a sociological view of the labor bureaucracy as “managers of discontent,” brokers of labor power — that is, as vital role-players in stabilizing the New Deal order. The traditional labor question arose out of the power dynamics on the shop floor. The postwar labor bureaucracy helped move matters off that incendiary terrain, channeling discontent into demands for more cash while collaborating with management to raise productivity, or what might more impolitely be called the rate of exploitation.

From the standpoint of equality of distribution, it was a plus; hence scholars have characterized this “golden age” as one of unprecedented income compression, a narrowing of the income and wealth gap. From the standpoint of the labor question and the invested anti-capitalist hopes of the Left, the picture was dispiriting. For decades, as Slavoj Žižek has commented, the failure of the proletariat to accomplish its historic mission was “the great defining problem of Western Marxism.”

At ground level, however, amid all these lamentations and final judgments, embourgeoisement turned to be far less self-evident than assumed. Again and again, sociological studies, ethnographies, and other scholarly research found evidence of classlessness, of the melting of the working class into the middle class, to be thin at best. Investigations, especially in Britain and the United States, reported that class-inflected identities remained in place, even as levels of education and styles of consumption drew closer. Values, however, did not. Nor did a sensibility fade away among working-class people that their families and communities were distinctly different than and looked down upon by their social superiors. Moreover, the “bourgeois proletariat,” if it existed in any sense, led a life supported by a heavy load of debt (a condition still in force today, when 29 percent of payday borrowers earn less than $25,000 and 52 percent earn between $25,000 and $50,000). Credit exercises a discipline intrinsic to working-class life. As Vivek Chibber has noted, citing Marx, what sometimes appears as passivity or even contentment is more the result of the “dull compulsion of economic relations” endemic to capitalism — a twilight zone halfway between rebellion and prudential concern for what’s been won.

All this was the import of books like The Hidden Injuries of Class by Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb, studies by John Leggett, stories by Harvey Swados (“The Myth of the Happy Worker” especially), and a host of less well-known scholarly articles designed to test the thesis of embourgeoisement. Class still mattered, they concluded. Working life remained demeaning for many, resignation the mood. But they also found that experience at work had diminished in importance; what was happening in the marketplace mattered more. The politics of “more” did not so much dissolve the boundaries of class as it did recenter attention on which class wasn’t getting its fair share.

Whited Skin Privilege and the Politics of Racial Equality

Whether true, false, or half true, theories and clinical studies of embourgeoisement signaled an estrangement of the Left from the working class. It would become more and more pronounced over time. Not all of the Left, to be sure — remnant communist and socialist parties and sects kept alive an old faith. Elements of the New Left probed for ways to introduce their anti-capitalism into the workplace. Indeed, to the extent that anti-capitalism was for a time an operative premise of New Left thinking, it purported to explain embourgeoisement as a deft corporate stratagem. And to the degree that the New Left invested most of its energies into the antiwar movement, a current of anti-imperialism kept capitalism in its sights.

Nonetheless, a sense that the working class had sold out, so to speak, became a pervasive undercurrent of the counterculture and large segments of the New Left that inhabited the same cultural space. Since the working class might now be perceived as having dissolved itself into the middle class, its fate was no different. The animus felt for all the prevailing conventions of the status quo — marriage, monogamy, patriarchy, sexual inhibition, deadening conformity in everything from dress to music to political opinion, a pervasive hypocrisy, obsessive consumerism, knee-jerk patriotism, nine-to-five work routines, social climbing, the whole suburban gestalt — zeroed in on the blue-collar assembly-line worker just as it did on the white-collar man in the gray flannel suit.

The United States, not the Soviet Union, had become a classless society, and the picture was not edifying. While it carried a sting, this blanket condemnation by way of cultural contempt was not fatal, however. What proved to be was born out of the heroic struggle for racial equality, an irony painful to contemplate.

You might be complacent. You might have abandoned your historic mission, assuming you knew you had one. You might have gone missing in the bottomless pit of your private life. All this was dismaying. But what was unforgivable was your “white skin privilege.” This became (and for many, it still is) the principal indictment of a working class — the white part, that is — whose embourgeoisement became poisonous thanks to its bone-deep racism.

Without the movement against American apartheid, the New Left is inconceivable. Segregation was the most obnoxious evidence of postwar liberal hypocrisy at home. Many who would become leaders and activists of the New Left (Students for a Democratic Society in particular) came of age politically as participants in civil rights protests, not only in the South but across the country. College campuses, where the New Left was born and nourished, became sites of recruitment for the freedom movement. A tactical repertoire of nonviolent direct action was imported from the front lines in Mississippi and Alabama to the calmer climes of the Ivy League. Most of all, the civil and political disenfranchisement of a whole people convinced many a budding new leftist that something was systemically wrong with American society. But was that system capitalism?

While the New Left was new, the civil rights movement was old. Over the years, it had taken many forms. In the period leading up to the explosions of the 1960s, the civil rights and labor movements were intertwined. This was emphatically the case during the halcyon days of the CIO, during the Depression and into the immediate postwar era. The question of formal, legal equality and the labor question were considered inseparable. The emancipatory desires that inflamed that insurgent labor movement also unsettled the ancien régime that had governed race relations for generations. Black workers flooded out of the South and into the industrial heartland. There they joined the new unions, whose reach was deliberately ecumenical, and at a moment when they had not yet solidified; they were still combat organizations, fluid social creations where old identities, including race-based ones, could liquefy — not vanish but intermingle with the broader currents of social subordination and rebellion.

Not entirely, of course. Segregated unions remained. Barriers to membership remained. Leadership remained Caucasian. Even the most audacious of the unions were tainted by racial privilege. Hierarchies of wages, opportunities for promotion, degrees of security — all remained pockmarked by racially inflected accommodations and inequities.

Still, it is hard to exaggerate the transformation of African American working-class life by the economic democracy advanced by the CIO. In the South, the new labor movement was the “lamp of democracy,” a beacon of class-based rights consciousness. Social justice, economic democracy, and collective rights (as distinct from but not necessarily at odds with the rights of the individual) established a fresh way of reacting to the inequities and iniquities of modern life. This was true for millions, among them the peons and dispossessed fleeing the American gulag. For a time, the struggle for civil rights was conducted within that framework. Civil rights had to be simultaneously economic rights, collective rights, and the rights belonging to the working-class tout court, or they would fail at freedom.

That heritage remained alive as the movement crested; hence the March on Washington as one for “jobs and freedom.” The godfather of the march, the labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, first thought of calling it the “Emancipation March for Jobs,” echoing Frederick Douglass’s view that Emancipation Day would outlast July 4 as the country’s most sacred holiday because it commemorated a more fundamental realization of freedom; after all, as Douglass saw it, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July” but “a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation”? John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, in his heavily censored speech on the Washington Mall, still managed to call to mind the “hundreds of thousands” not there that day “receiving starvation wages, or no wages at all.” What was needed, Lewis declared, was a “serious social revolution.”

Lewis was not alone. Sections of the labor movement were principal organizers and sponsors of the march, notably including Bayard Rustin, a civil rights and labor leader who was also a socialist. Others, leaders both within the ranks of the civil rights movement and without (Malcolm X particularly), expressed their unhappiness with the drift of Martin Luther King Jr’s famous speech for its invoking the sophistries and hollowed-out banalities of the Declaration of Independence, its emphasis on “the dream” and on the formal equality of rights as salvation. Precious indeed might be the right to live, eat, go to school, work, and play where you chose; invaluable, too, the right to vote. But impoverished and exploited sharecroppers knew, and the ghettoized urban poor knew, as, for that matter, did King (both before and at the march and with growing vehemence in the closing years of his life), that emancipation depended on a deeper overhauling of the structures of power and wealth.

Once axiomatic on the Left, this conviction weakened in favor of another, one more compatible with liberalism generally and less threatening to the powers that be. The problem wasn’t capitalism. It was something more primordial: in a word, “white racism.” This revelation was made official in the Kerner Commission report on the causes of ghetto uprisings of the mid-’60s. And it soon enough became cultural gospel.

This led to some widening of the social safety net, and to the War on Poverty, which for all its benefits never for a moment dreamed of taking on capitalism — on the contrary. It also opened up once exclusively white precincts of political influence to a new milieu of African American power brokers. To some considerable degree, as politicians and social service bureaucrats, they supplanted those traditional “managers of discontent” in the black community: preachers, teachers, and other “professionals.” Meanwhile, the militancy and sometimes martial demeanor of Black Power advocates were radical in appearance but not systemically so, unless the “system” under attack was “white racism.” Equality, in the case of the new black middle class, was at the same time a pathway to equity — shareholders, not expropriators.

Last, but not least, the conviction that an inbred universal racism, both institutionalized and especially pervasive in the diseased minds of the hoi polloi, transported a boatload of guilt onto the campuses of the New Left. Feelings of guilt were a natural enough emotional reaction for a young, white, overwhelmingly middle- and upper-class grouping deeply disaffected from their privileged upbringings. This is to say that the social composition of the Left then reconstituting itself was distinctly different than the kind of people who once inhabited left-wing circles. This sea change in who populated the Left would have long-term repercussions.

It’s true that, whether speaking of the traditional or the New Left, there was always present a smattering of intellectuals in flight from upper-class families. Otherwise, however, the ranks of the Left had, in the past, been drawn from the working classes: the rural dispossessed, immigrants, de-skilled artisans, endangered petty bourgeois, ex-slaves. Here guilt was scarce; anger about the exploitative relations of production was more common.

Anger and a sense of outrage were hardly missing from the emotional repertoire of the New Left. The horrors of the Vietnam War and the daily brutality and dehumanization Jim Crow depended on were searing indictments of the liberal order and aroused the ire of the New Left. Cozying up to corporate America and complicity in the Cold War by the labor movement’s leadership invited New Left denunciations. Mike Davis accused the labor movement of “abandoning the majority of the American working class.” The war in Vietnam, moreover, directed that outrage against American imperialism in general. In that way, anti-capitalism coexisted for a time with a more anodyne emphasis on equal rights and the race question. So, for example, although the New Left became increasingly disenchanted with the working class — the white working class — it imagined anti-capitalist alliances with the black poor, and with not just the poor at home but with the colored races of the rebellious colonial world. And although it is entirely possible to be anti-imperialist and pro-capitalist — postwar decolonialization struggles proved that over and over again — this was not true about the New Left.

For some time, then, anti-capitalism and a more conventional racial and, later, gender liberalism coexisted. And why not? After all, capitalism, through its law of value, assumes equality — the equality of individuals — as an abstraction, to be sure. In its actual functioning, however, it is compelled to create hierarchies: some racial, some not, some new, some borrowed and transplanted from older species of subordination. Hierarchy is in its nature; equality may be necessary one day and expendable the next. There can be what China Miéville calls a “permeable membrane” between contesting particular aspects of the system and questioning the system as a whole. But it is also the case, as Nelson Lichtenstein has pointed out, that a single-minded concentration on individual rights may be used (and has been used) by powerful institutions, including the Supreme Court, to undermine or cancel out the collective rights won in bitter battles by the labor movement.

What shifted the balance more decidedly toward the struggle for racial equality, toward an ideology of “rights” and away from the labor question, was an admixture of white, middle-class guilt about its inherited privilege, a righteous fury about liberal hypocrisy when it came to this enduring insult to its own official beliefs, and an animus aimed at those, particularly white, working-class people whose embourgeoisement seemed to embrace and defend the allegedly privileged status their color afforded them. Abetting this gravitational undertow was the supplanting of an older black anti-capitalist political tradition by a “rights” consciousness congruent, if more militantly articulated, with the emerging liberal consensus about the ubiquity and primal nature of white racism.

Evidence of this piled up. Widespread hostile reactions from working-class communities and unions to busing, affirmative action, low-income housing projects, police review boards, and other government initiatives to equalize opportunities and lessen discrimination amounted to prima facie evidence of “white privilege.” Here embourgeoisement found its most toxic expression. So too did it turn ugly in the blue-collar anger, some of it violent, directed at the antiwar movement. Nation trumped class. George Wallace’s popularity in Democratic Party primaries showed up not only in the South but in working-class enclaves in Michigan and elsewhere in the industrial Midwest.

Racial resentments helped drive these outbursts. Nasty and dangerous, they were manipulated by political elites and local demagogues. For the Left, the liberal enemy of yesterday became, implicitly, today’s ally in the righteous struggle against discrimination and privilege. Across a widening divide, for white working-class populations protective of their own increasingly precarious hold on material security (not to mention their social identity, no matter its parochialism), the liberal benefactor of yesterday became the “limousine liberal” enemy of the here and now. Accusations that policies devised by liberal elites to remedy discrimination and poverty were to be paid for, in one way or another, by working-class people were, in some large measure, true.

Just as it is today, and as it was during the formative period of fascism in Europe, racism can be a form of class struggle carried on by other means, however perverse. That is why, for example, German communists and socialists competed with the Nazi Party for the allegiance of the working and lower-middle classes fed up with capitalism. Faced with a milder form of that dilemma, an anti-capitalist left might have responded not only by condemning racial scapegoating but with demands to expand the realm of public goods — like education, housing, and health care — and to do so at the expense of capital revenues. “Privilege” was real, but it was meager and bitter. Solidarity was its principal casualty. Without giving up the struggle against discrimination, an anti-capitalist left might have approached the crisis with that in mind.

But the Left was fast losing its anti-capitalist bona fides. After all, the battle to end discrimination, however ethically just, is not a form of anti-capitalist politics per se; nor are various forms of that struggle — diversity, for example, which can lend justification to meritocracy. Fighting against all forms of oppression and exclusion may or may not take an anti-capitalist turn. That depends, in part, on how resolutely capital needs and is prepared to defend specific forms of hierarchy. Mainly, it relies on the presence of a Left immersed in the working classes of all colors and genders.

“Identity politics” in its formative years, in the days of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), for example, or to some extent of the Black Panthers, or of the socialist feminists of the ’70s, embodied this recombinant, revolutionary politics. However, as Asad Haider has suggested, “identity politics” drifted into a less turbulent zone where “society would be fair if 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources so long as the dominant 1% were 13% black, 17% Latino, 50% female, 4% or whatever LGBTQ.” This is the vantage point of liberal society generally and “woke capital” in particular. “Woke capital” today is not a myth but a recognition that, under the right historical circumstances, formal equality may be strategically useful, just as under other conditions capital accumulation may depend on racial discrimination or other forms of subordination.

During the closing decades of the last century, the Left increasingly defined itself in these terms: multiculturalism, affirmative action, identity politics, equality before the law. To that degree, it ceased to be a Left. Instead, it became the vanguard of reform within the framework of bourgeois society, pushing to extend the horizon of rights to embrace more and more of the excluded.

The New Left, in the main, evolved in this direction. The eruption of working-class insurgencies in the early 1970s was welcomed by all the usual suspects on the Left, including the sectarian left and those not inconsiderable numbers who had decided to make long-term commitments to organizing. But the great risings of the ’70s made little enduring impact on the general drift of the New Left in the direction of liberal anti-racism and formal equality more generally. Might this be a matter of class? Might it be, as Walter Benn Michaels put it, that identity politics was not an “alternative to a class politics but a form of it”? Michaels, along with Adolph Reed, has persuasively argued that the emphasis on diversity and inclusion expresses the desires of rising middle classes within an evolving capitalist political economy. However warranted, seeking that kind of recognition and the rewards it entails does not constitute a challenge to capitalist inequality but can function instead as its legitimation. Subject to correction, the system is fair.

The Embourgeoisement of the Left

Having graduated from college, most of the remaining Left stayed there. Or else their degrees prepared them to leave and join what has become known as, since the publication of the seminal article on the subject by Barbara and John Ehrenreich, the “professional-managerial class.” Ideas don’t follow inexorably from social position. To be sure, a fragment of the Left ensconced on college campuses continued to engage in socialist theorizing, in radical reexaminations of the relationship between race and capitalism, patriarchy and capitalism, and, of course, about the relevance or irrelevance of Marxism. But no one would characterize these circles as constituting a movement. When, in the mid-1990s, the labor movement showed signs of life, promising to organize the unorganized, left-wing academics tried forging an alliance. But common ground remained the labor movement’s call to “raise all boats,” to revive the New Deal, not move beyond it.

And it would be just as shortsighted to dismiss the significance of shifts in the social location and lived experience of people and their political and ideological inclinations. The social distance between those who composed the traditional left from the nineteenth century through to the New Deal era and the campus-based and white-collar milieu that composed the lion’s share of the Left for at least the next half century is hard to exaggerate and is important. The Ehrenreichs’ article suggested, on the contrary, that that distance might be closing, predicting the proletarianization of that professional-managerial class (PMC) world; two working classes might converge and take on capitalism.

Prophecies on the Left, like all prophecies, come and go. So, for example, an anticipation of the Ehrenreichs’ forecast that knowledge workers, and technology workers in particular, might constitute a “new working class” with the capacity to shoulder the historic burden dropped by the old working class briefly attracted New Left interest in the ’60s. The Ehrenreichs’ prediction about the PMC came, went away, and has come back again.

Most would agree that, for a long time, there were few, if any, signs that the Ehrenreichs had it right. The PMC was an admittedly motley array of mid-level managers, administrators, techies, academics, engineers, media people, social welfare bureaucrats, teachers, IT innovators, and nonprofit policy wonks whose relationships to power and authority were ambiguous at best. They were more into their own advancement — committed meritocrats, individualistic in temperament and aspiration, and not without a certain sotto voce elitism and self-righteousness. Messengers of progress, the PMC nonetheless embraced what have become modern conventional values about achievement and flexible adaptation. Seekers of opportunity, they were believers in mobility not merely as a career path but as the pathway to freedom as an existential position. Heavily degreed, they inclined toward social engineering rather than class conflict, an outcome in accordance with their own expertise in emotional self-management.

All that made poor raw material for a movement based on class, on a different kind of individualism that found liberation and the flowering of the self through fellowship rather than in an icy, if egalitarian, isolation. Equality of this sort, the kind that improves your chances in the “race to the top,” was axiomatic in the world of the PMC, as it is for bourgeois society, even if so often violated. Those denied that opportunity — racial minorities, women, the sexually unconventional — should be championed. After that, the race is on.

Struggling to get to that point meets with harsh opposition, requires bravery and endurance, and nurtures a sense of group solidarity. Nonetheless, its deeper aspirations express the lived experience of the “class” and do not, as a rule, cross over into an anti-capitalism; often quite the contrary. They resemble turn-of-the-twentieth-century progressive reformers who sought a purified capitalism that was incorruptible, without hypocrisy, where mediation and expert planning would lubricate what was otherwise a fractious world of contending social classes. No one on the current scene better conveys this outlook than Elizabeth Warren. In a Democratic Party that depends increasingly on the votes of the more affluent sections of the PMC (in the 2018 midterms, Democrats won every one of the country’s twenty richest congressional districts), Warren’s very brief lead in the 2020 primaries rested on a demographic composed of those earning $100,000 a year or more.

Viewing the world that way was delusional and perhaps self-consoling. Corruption and hypocrisy are not, after all, imperfections but rather genetic; capitalism originates in and continues to depend on serial acts of primitive accumulation that are illegitimate and corrupt by nature. And the equality it trumpets is a foundational hypocrisy as it rests on a bedrock of irremovable inequality.

Still, moral outrage about inequality was genuine and deeply rooted. Inherently unstable and evolving, capitalism keeps reproducing intramural conflict. This is not only true of the everyday war of capital against capital. Capital craves change, if not systemic change, even while resisting it. Social layers, swept into the orbit of capital, immersed in its ethos yet left without the recognition, control, and status that bourgeois life promises, engage in struggles to right that wrong, to be treated as equal. They might be called the left wing from within.

Outbursts of that kind are driven by capital’s inherent compulsion to reinvent itself. Arguably, then, the more recent fixation on equality and inequality was abetted by underlying shifts in the political economy. The growth of the service economy and its emphasis on marketing and distribution, the explosion of higher education, and especially the exponential expansion of the FIRE sector (finance, insurance, and real estate) and later the IT sector did their work. PMC jobs mushroomed.

Financialization in particular, as both an economic and a cultural phenomenon, encouraged a fixation on the realm of circulation, on the exchange of properties (securities and real estate especially), and away from the sites of value production. Wall Street became the new Pittsburgh, producing carloads of collateralized debt obligations, debenture bonds, credit default swaps, mortgage-backed securities, and a host of other arcane financial derivatives. It was the place that seemed to make the economy go. And, after all, exchange is the land where equality reigns, or is supposed to; it concentrates the mind on equivalents. No coercions should intrude into this realm; if they are prohibited or extinguished by rigorous regulation, each self is equally able to pursue his or her interest through exchange.

Conversely, financialization was accomplished at the expense of the old industrial economy. Along with it went large chunks of the labor movement, the main carrier of the labor question (the labor movement descended into a prolonged defensive hibernation). Deindustrialization made that world vanish. It went abroad or into a rural invisibility at home. The sphere of production and its fraught relations of power and exploitation were that much more easily lost sight of. Moneymaking was delinked from production, from employment and productivity. Attention swung to those arenas where the material is dematerialized, where land and labor are capitalized, collateralized, and traded. It’s a Wall Street state of mind, which was infectious across a broad social terrain, including the offices, ateliers, classrooms, think tanks, and policy shops of the PMC.

An economy dominated by finance, one that systematically devoured the industrial musculature of the past, that eviscerated the labor movement as so much collateral damage in the process, and that beggared an already parsimonious welfare state generated a pornographic redistribution of wealth in favor of the rentier class. Eventually these gross inequalities caught the attention of the left-leaning elements of the PMC.

At one point disavowed, the Ehrenreichs’ earlier prediction gained new traction. This remains ever more painfully true. Lower levels of the PMC did indeed begin to suffer the material and psychological tribulations of proletarianization. Apparent across a broad range of occupations, it was emphatically the case in health care, higher education, media, the culture “industries,” and even among tech workers. Union organizing drives began showing up in alien quarters. The PMC of its “yuppie” years was decomposing. With the near collapse of the global financial system in 2008 and the prolonged economic downturn that followed, the movement for economic equality developed alongside and sometimes in concert with ongoing struggles for political and civic equality.

The Politics of Greed

Greed long predates capitalism; it’s in the Bible, after all. Bernie Sanders, in dwelling on the inequality of income and wealth distribution, frequently indicts the greediness of today’s robber barons. Examples proliferate on a daily basis — enough that they make the original Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century seem positively civilized by comparison (Henry James’s bon mot that the Belle Époque in France had managed the journey from savagery to barbarism without even a stopover at civilization is more than ever apt about America today). Politically it is a potent accusation, evoking a just anger. And it is entirely in keeping with Sanders’s main point: that inequality is the moral question of our time. Of course, even before Sanders took center stage, Occupy Wall Street had already introduced its own riveting moral arithmetic: the 99 percent and the 1 percent. And along with and thanks to Sanders, a socialist movement resurrected itself, one that bends toward the inequality question.

Appalling as it is, greed does not amount to a systemic criticism of the capitalist order; in some ways, the system still depends on the opposite: a fiercely competitive regime, enforced by finance, even though the institutions subjected to that discipline include the largest business agglomerations on earth. The costs of surviving that regimen are mainly borne by the working classes of the world: wage laborers, contract workers, tenant farmers, peons, slaves, migrants, gig workers, defrocked PMCs — a veritable menagerie of free and unfree laborers, not to mention multitudes of incarcerated, involuntary workers. Right and effective as it is, that moral impeachment of greed and inequality does not quite touch down on this, the home base of exploitation.

It comes close, however. All the dilemmas of working-class life have been aggravated by the predatory workings of rentier capitalism, by a system wobbling from one asset bubble to the next. There is way too little housing, and what there is costs way too much to rent or buy. Same thing for health care. Debt keeps families afloat as well as the whole economy of consumer capitalism. But the debt is insupportable. On the one hand, these crises appear at points of economic distribution where capital circulates, not where it is first formed. On the other hand, the working-class movement has always contested the power of capital to extract profits in this realm.

Movements to do just that have appeared everywhere. Bernie Sanders, in calling out this maldistribution and trying to make a politics of it, has lent the fight a distinctly working-class character and an implicitly anti-capitalist one. With respect to health care in particular, but by inference in the case of higher education and on other matters, the aim is to make certain goods public goods — to take them out of the marketplace, where capitalism’s calculus rules.

Less tangible but more striking is Sanders’s language. For well over half a century, any reference to the “working class” was more or less stricken from public discourse. Some made fainthearted attempts to restore pale replicas — “working families” being the most common and deliberately amorphous. Over and over again, Sanders invokes the “working class,” unvarnished, to redeclare that, after a long hiatus, class matters. More concretely, and at every chance he gets, Sanders lends his unequivocal support to union organizing drives and strikes. And all of this occurs together with a forthright defense of the struggles for individual rights: black lives, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, and so on.

Yet something is amiss or missing or both. The cause of civil and political rights fits comfortably within the Democratic Party; in fact, it defines its mainstream. Not so when it comes to matters of class; the Biden administration and most congressional Democrats (not to mention their patrons in the corporate world) made that crystal clear when it came to squashing railroad workers’ right to strike. Rhetoric aside, the basic electoral strategy of the Democratic Party veers sharply away from class politics, unless appealing to the class interests of the PMC is taken for its equivalent. For the most part, however, the Sanders phenomenon exists within the Democratic Party. This is a problem whose resolution is unclear and likely to become more acute if the labor question becomes more insistent.

Arithmetic presents another conundrum. Occupy Wall Street posed a standoff between the 99 percent and the 1 percent. The Sanders movement echoes this now and then. That capacious span leaves more than enough room for whole social groups who haven’t the faintest interest in or sympathy for the working classes and their desires; often enough to the contrary. Implicit in this moral math is the supposition that the 1 percent are greedy (which many may be). Greed is a potent accusation to level against the enemy. But from the standpoint of the labor question, it is off message. Wipe out greed, and the world of dehumanized exploitation carries on. Zeroing in on greed may feed on resentment, a politics alien to the socialist zeitgeist. Moreover, the emphasis on greed, while it comports well enough with righteous demands for economic justice, stays on this side of socialism. After all, the New Deal was an exercise in this kind of redistribution.

Perhaps that is all that’s possible, or possible now. An old bromide that many still subscribe to today advises that the Left should stand squarely on the left side of the possible. But who is to decide what’s possible? That’s a distinctly poignant question now, because aside from what might be amiss in the movement as presently constituted, there’s the looming matter of what’s missing.

From Embourgeoisement to Marginalization

When today’s left refers to the multicultural and multiracial working class someday becoming (certainly not yet) the sea in which it swims, it really means a working class made up of people of color. Signs of this already exist in political and community-based organizations. Some delve into issues of class but more often into issues of recognition and identity and rights, and for some, the “membrane” is “permeable.” Generally speaking, however, this desire to root oneself in the multiracial and multicultural working class remains aspirational. It is a worthy aspiration.

Living beyond the horizon of that vision is the white working class. The Left, such as it is, has no purchase on that world. Nor, in some ways, does it really want one. This is not true of Sanders or Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Sanders deliberately pitches his demand for economic equality so as to embrace the whole working class. But the political calculus of the liberal left generally does not.

Once, the working class was forsaken by an earlier left due to its embourgeoisement. Today, on the contrary, it exists, in the minds of many, as hopelessly marginalized, living on the outside of bourgeois normality, a resentful, racist, demoralized lumpen mass; in a word, it’s the enemy, or at least the accomplice and shock troops of the real enemy.

There is some truth along with some irony to this transformation. Deindustrialization was a social and psychological devastation as well as an economic one. Embourgeoisement of the organized (and by no means entirely white) working class, if ever such a thing existed at even the most superficial level, could not survive the plague of financialization and the transmigration of industry abroad. Or, if it did so, it took the form of resentment about a promise broken; the essential class bargain inscribed by the New Deal was over. Its distributional egalitarianism (what the labor movement had become fond of calling “raising all boats”) and the invidious compensations it encouraged were no longer viable or cost-efficient — that is, tolerable.

One compensation purportedly remained: “white skin privilege,” no matter how barren that may have become for those millions stranded in the ghost towns and desolate countryside of Middle America. Movements heavily invested for years in racial rights and identity naturally perceived things that way. Racial animosities, implicitly or explicitly expressed by the disaffected from white working-class precincts, were proof enough. For all intents and purposes, these became no-go zones.

Proofs could also prove uncomfortable, however. On the one hand, the struggles against racism and sexism, if carried to conclusion or even only part of the way, could function to legitimate liberal capitalist society; they do function that way and are celebrated that way. The unsavory discontents simmering away in no-go America, however, call into question that legitimacy, either by castigating the whole liberal ruling class and its political enablers, banks, corporations, and media, by regurgitating white nationalist fantasies about the way we once were, or both.

Hence the telling peculiarity of allegedly race-conscious, white-working-class regions voting twice for Barack Obama — the slogan “yes we can” seduced many with the idea that something big was in the wind — and then, disillusioned once again, pulling the lever for Donald Trump in 2016 (according to one survey, one in ten Sanders supporters voted for Trump). And during the primaries that same year, poll after poll found that undecided white working-class voters in regions weighted with “Reagan Democrats” were choosing between Sanders and Trump, having ruled out the same old, same old in the flaccid middle.

With obvious justification, the Left has applauded and supported and mobilized the movements for racial and gender justice, seeing their energy and passion as inspiring signs that a long era of acquiescence had ended. And it had.

But restiveness on the populist right came earlier — it might be dated to the Tea Party, which set off tremors a decade before Trump took power. Dismissed by the Left as astroturf confections of rich reactionaries, they proved again and again to have deeper grass roots than that. Much of that unrest arose among middling classes, especially among small businesspeople and wannabe entrepreneurs frustrated by the administrative or regulatory or welfare state. But it also stirred an uprooted, deindustrialized white proletariat undergoing the stresses of downward mobility, a loss of “privilege” if you will, declining life expectancies, even life in a deproletarianized dead end, a shorter life of no expectations.

The mortality rate for working-class whites has risen steeply over the past quarter century, narrowing the racial gap, even closing it entirely for some age groups. Deaths due to drug addiction, alcoholism, suicide, liver disease, and mental illness, especially in economically distressed counties and in rural areas outside coastal cities, show the same pattern: a plague of “deaths by despair.” Rates of child poverty among white kids quadrupled between 1970 and 2000.

Here liberal platitudes carry a stench. They highlight and enumerate the woeful behavior and attitudes of the down and out: drug addiction, irregular employment, family dysfunction, bad eating habits, subpar education, child neglect, social isolation, the instinct to strive gone missing, a lack of what it takes generally. Sounds familiar. Once upon a time, abject conditions like these were used to depict the circumstances and dilemmas facing African Americans particularly. This early version of profiling was greeted with outrage by the traditional left. It helped redouble efforts directed against capitalism and its exploitations and oppressions.

Back then, liberal elites reacted differently. They launched a “war on poverty.” Poverty was reconceived, best understood as a realm separate from the workings of the economic system, in which a “culture of poverty” reproduced symptoms of characterological and familial failure. Even bona fide leftists like Michael Harrington were persuaded such a culture existed. In The Other America, Harrington treats “Negro poverty” as “unique in every way,” a condition that grows out of “a subculture” that could “reproduce itself for years to come.” Elements of early Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) invested efforts in trying to capture the new war on poverty apparatus. One might call this an end run around the breakdowns in the process of capital accumulation that the labor question had so tirelessly concentrated on.42

Poverty, once diagnosed as deriving from exploitation at work, was strategically reconceived as happening to those excluded from work or unable to adapt to the cultural imperatives of the modern workplace. Family disintegration, in particular the decline in marriage, previously viewed as a symptom of the stresses of proletarian life, was refigured as its cause.

And it may be of some surprise to contemporary left-wing understanding that this diagnosis was not first applied to black workers but to white migrants from Appalachia settling in the industrial cities and towns of the Midwest during and after World War II.

Transplanted rural, dispossessed Southerners-cum-industrial-workers displayed, to the gaze of liberal policymakers and academic researchers, all the dysfunctional behavior responsible for keeping them down, shut out of the race up the ladder, that twenty years later would be notoriously applied to the black poor in the Moynihan Report. Inhabiting their own neighborhoods, these migrants lacked ambition, were too clannish, lived in squalor, reveled in overly erotic music, were indifferent to education, were poor housekeepers, went to disrespectable, ramshackle churches where they spoke in tongues; in a word, they were ill-disciplined and unfit. Today those traits are deployed to profile not just one regional segment of the imperiled white working class — rednecks from the old Confederacy — but that world tout court. Hillbillies all, sometimes known as the “deplorables,” became the default perspective of a liberal left that has lost all contact with that social universe.

From the other shore, where the beleaguered live, this diagnosis is viewed as class condescension on the part of a social milieu made up of phonies and suck-ups, people who see their jobs as road maps to status, upward mobility, and “self-actualization,” rather than as something to be endured.

Treating the white portions of the working class as both privileged and debased at the same time has become a license to dismiss a population that, after all, still comprises the bulk of the proletariat, especially among those residing somewhere between the two coasts (working-class whites accounted for 44 percent of all voters in 2020). If the abject conditions and the racializing of those conditions by liberal elites once evinced outrage from the Left, they no longer do, when fingers are pointed instead at the alleged transformation of white working people into demoralized hillbillies.

This is one consequence of the abandonment of the labor question and the Left’s long immersion in the politics of identity and equality.

Another is the flattening of the social and moral imagination. Once the Left reckoned with the deep psychic and characterological wounds the experience of proletarianization left in its wake. If you are treated as something less than human, you are apt to act that way — to give up on hope, to savage others in order to make it through. Oppression wouldn’t be oppression without that happening. Bertolt Brecht advised to always begin from the bad side.

From that perspective, the socialist movement, arising out of and in the face of that grim experience, promised a form of personal as well as social redemption. But first it had to take account of the dark side, the “abyss” as depicted by Jack London, for example. The indictment of capitalism had to include precisely the ugliness. Exploitation and oppression were not schoolrooms of virtue.

Today the nonsocialist, “progressive” left is doubly incapable of that empathy and that clear-sightedness. It is singularly invested in the awakening struggles for racial and gender equality, in judgmental moralizing, as the summa of its reason for being. On the one hand, virtue is assigned to a mythic race or gender, its social complexity and hierarchies ignored, antipathetic disfigurements washed away. On the other hand, the enemy is reduced to no more and no less than a living racial anathema.

Instead, a more complicated politics of ressentiment animates these working-class communities that can’t be reduced to racist stereotyping. It amounts to a kind of inversion of the politics of inequality. In Ohio, for example, a campaign aimed at public sector unions highlighted the underlying envy. The unions were to be opposed “because they want even more from us. Better pay and benefits than us. Better job security than us. Better retirement than us. All paid for by us.” An abiding sense of losing ground powers up the politics of resentment. Nor is that sense of things illusory, and nor is invoking it merely another form of dog whistling by demagogues on the Right.

Wounded pride mixes with anger and a thirst for revenge about the contempt with which elites do indeed treat these aliens; a subspecies of the ignorant, the bigoted, the misogynist, the superstitious, captives of the conventional — in a word, as unequal, as inferior, yet somehow as beneficiaries of privilege. Reacting defensively to the freestyle individualism of their social superiors ironically often ends up positioning the working classes as the last bastions of old-form bourgeois values — hard work, discipline, responsibility, fidelity to the family — even as the material wherewithal and psychic stability to sustain them evaporates, and even while the haute bourgeoisie long ago abandoned those values, except rhetorically. A one-sided view of this phenomenon may treat it as symptomatic of a craving for authority, but this ignores the streak of rebellion against authority that runs through the same passed-over people.

Max Scheler, the first to theorize “ressentiment,” observed that it “must be strongest . . . where approximately equal rights (political and otherwise) or formal social equality, publicly recognized, go hand in hand with wide factual differences in power, property, and education.” This is the setting in which the proletariat exists. On the one hand, its fate cries out for revenge or is a temptation to hunker down within its own communities of rough equality and survive. On the other, it may go to war and seek transformation. The currents run together or side by side or clash.

Authoritarian populism draws its energy from this stew of sentiments. Restorationist impulses (a return to patriarchy, calls to duty and self-reliance, nostalgia for small-town life, yearnings for law and order) stand on one side. On the other, there is a hostility to middle-class elitism, to the welfare state bureaucracy with its implicit holier-than-thou attitudes and its explicit judgmental surveillance, and to the Olympian circles of finance and industry, which have, with great imperial indifference, turned the accumulated wherewithal of working-class life into roadkill.

Socialism as well as fascism may breed in this soil. Both hold out the prospect of something fundamentally different to replace the prevailing order. Growing restiveness and militance among all the working classes — young, downwardly mobile PMCers, frustrated rank-and-file trade unionists, precariously positioned gig workers, and people employed at critical nodes of the economy from the railroads to long-haul trucking to warehousing — suggest new possibilities. The percentage of the unionized remains static. And while the incidence and size of strikes is up, it still compares poorly with earlier periods. But a shift in the zeitgeist also seems undeniable. Class matters again. What goes on inside the black box of the workplace is suddenly opening up to public scrutiny. Rights are at stake, and they are collective rights. Carefully cultivated illusions of corporate fellowship (Walmart’s “associates”) and equality are supplanted by the stark reality of the autocracy of property.

Demands for a just share resonate in a culture already accustomed to the arithmetic of the 1 percent and the 99 percent. Sometimes this emphasis on distributional malfunction colors left-wing analysis of political life as if the struggle did not so much pit class against class as the rich against the poor. So, for example, voters earning more than $50,000 are excluded by definition, in some left analyses, from the working class — when in fact great numbers of auto, steel, railroad, airline, and other workers earn more than that. For a socialist left, more than “more” is always at stake. There is power and who ultimately wields it, for one thing. And deeper still, there are matters of dependency, solidarity, and emancipation.

Declared dead seventy-five years ago, the labor question abides. It is a worthy competitor to the politics of resentment. To mount that challenge, however, the Left has to cross into the no-go zones and stop gaslighting the working class with taunts of “white skin privilege.”