Some clarifications on class and Trump's shock troops

Proletariat? Yes. Immiserated poor? No. Why is this so difficult?

Some predictable confusion has engulfed discussions about the Trump supporters who invaded DC’s Capitol yesterday and their economic class. This is in part because everyone is working with idiosyncratic definitions of class these days, though it’s also because some have been reinventing their ideas about class ad hoc for the sake of political point scoring. For example, many of the same folks who spent last year telling us that contractors are part of the “overclass” are now telling us that the contractors who have shown up to this protest are engaged in some kind of worker’s revolt.

There’s no way to systematically untangle all of these threads, so I’m just going to make a few disorganized points:

1) Once again, the standard left theory of “economic anxiety” is not that poor people go reactionary because they are the immiserated poor. This is mostly a strawman set up by identitarian reductionist liberals who are not interested in understanding our position. The standard left explanation is that reactionary politics can become inflamed when workers who are well off — who liberals would call “middle class” — face the danger of downward mobility. Marxists insist that instead of engaging in internecine warfare with other workers, we should defend ourselves against the dangers of precarity and immiseration by making common cause against capitalism. But if you reject that solution, then reactionary politics against other workers is an increasingly probable and dangerous outcome.

2) If we are going to understand what happened yesterday through this framework it is important that we get the terminology (or at least the underlying concepts) right. On one hand, we need to distinguish workers — who, under capitalism, are all ultimately subject to increasing economic precarity — from the bourgeoisie, which is not. This is a class distinction, defined by different relationships to capital and the means of production. On the other hand, however, we also need to be able to distinguish among workers who, at any given moment, may be experiencing very different material conditions despite their identical class position. This is the only way you can avoid the common liberal equivocation between workers and the immiserated poor.

3) Once we make these distinctions, and bearing in mind that demographic generalizations are always dangerous, I think we can speak clearly about who these protesters were. Were most of them the bourgeoisie? Obviously not, simply because very few people are actually the bourgeoisie.

Were they the poor then? This doesn’t seem very likely, either. The poor in the US are overwhelmingly disengaged from politics; they aren’t spending the insane amount of time consuming boutique right-wing infotainment that these protesters clearly consume; and they aren’t taking several days off of work for a field trip to Washington DC, a city where few poor right-wing people actually live. Just a glance at this crowd makes it clear that these are the same people who always show up for this kind of protest in DC: well-off Republican contractors and apparatchiks from the nearby suburbs, and the sort of activists who have the time and disposable income to visit the Capitol. The overlap with Trump’s hardcore base of beautiful boaters is obvious, and the endless succession of protesters who have since been identified as lawyers, doctors, and small business owners don’t exactly contest this.

The confused and mostly definitional arguments that have emerged since yesterday about Trump’s supporters only affirm the need to use these terms with some minimal and clarity. Talk about “the petit bourgeoisie” or “the professional managerial class” or “the overclass” or “the middle class” can obviously have some provisional explanatory value, but used fast-and-loose, or interchangeably with the terms of a strictly Marxist analysis, they corner us into ridiculous arguments like “all of these protesters were extremely rich” or “they were all actually poor.”