What We Talk About When We Talk About Class
In the early 2000s, I spent many nights at the now defunct Emma St Bar & Grill, a truck stop diner located just off I-75 in Findlay, Ohio. Open twenty-four hours, it offered cheap, greasy food and bottomless cups of coffee. Plastic ashtrays stuffed with cigarette butts adorned all of the tables, and above the kitchen counter hung a row of televisions playing a close-captioned stream of cable news, game shows, and professional sports. A group of us, college students in our early twenties, would gather at the diner for conversations that often lasted until two or three in the morning, flooding our bodies with nicotine and caffeine as we debated politics and made bad jokes. Joining us, many nights, were a handful of men we’d befriended, regulars who’d come to our table in search of a lighter, or a lone cigarette, or maybe just old-fashioned human interaction. Like most of the diner patrons, they were white, middle-aged men working unstable or low-income jobs. At least one collected disability, and all of them seemed to have permanently acquired the expressions that only years of bad luck can forge.
It was here, in this diner, that I first began to think seriously about class. I had always considered myself “socially conscious,” a term that encompassed actions like protesting the Iraq War and creating overtly political works of art, but issues of class had taken something of a backseat to critiques of race, gender, sexuality, and religion. It wasn’t that I lacked awareness of class so much as I lacked a sufficient concept for a structural category that often remains paradoxically invisible. Despite having grown up very poor myself—or, perhaps, because of this—I didn’t actively think of myself as poor. It had been naturalized, to an extent, as just the way things were. I was no different than anyone else in my community, my $6.25 an hour job was enough to pay for my Parliament habit and a $300 rent. But as I grew accustomed to sitting with these men in that diner, I couldn’t help but recognize that, for all of our many similarities, a substantial difference remained in place. Although I had a $400 checking account balance and regularly borrowed money from my boss, no one would have looked at me and seen a profoundly impoverished person, an individual whose bad habits and moral failings had prevented his chances at material success. I was an outsider in truck stop culture, a college-educated liberal touring another way of life. The men around me, however, with their missing teeth and broken gaits, belonged here. They were the lonely, down-and-out men vilified in popular media. They were white trash.
Implicit in this recognition is a complicated question: How is it possible that such judgments are possible? How is it that, by and large, we all roughly mean the same thing when using the expression “white trash”? Though not explicitly stated, this is the guiding question of Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. Thoroughly researched and well-documented, Isenberg’s genealogical account of white poverty is engaging and, at times, illuminating. By complicating the ideological mythos surrounding America’s founding and its subsequent development, the book provides an important counter-narrative that attempts to restore class to its proper place in our society’s history. “Independence did not magically erase the British class system,” Isenberg writes in the introduction, “nor did it root out long-entrenched beliefs about poverty and the willful exploitation of human labor.”1 Conservatives and Tea Partiers hold up America as a bold experiment in freedom, a classless society giving everyone an opportunity to succeed, but the reality is that such freedom and opportunity was always reserved for a particular class. This becomes most evident in Isenberg’s treatment of beloved figures Jefferson and Franklin, whose disregard and even outright contempt for the poor conflict with patriotic notions of liberty and equality inseparable from their legacies as founding fathers. Franklin envisioned a system that kept the impoverished moving to unoccupied land so that class “would be in a state of flux and adjustment, as people spread outward and filled the available territory.”2 Rather than a truly classless society, Franklin’s was one not different from the one we have now: class is disguised, geographically, by being pushed out of view. Jefferson, similarly, envisioned a class system tied to land, one that “resembled a slice of earth on an archaeological dig.”3 The bottom layer of this soil, the poor whites, he described as both “rubbish” and “the lowest feculum of beings called Overseers, the most abject, degraded, and unprincipled race.” In this light, his well-known remarks about revolution are understood not as a progressive call to dismantle systems of power, but a tilling of the soil, a “process of regeneration, removed from human agency and, most important, devoid of class anger.”4 Divorced from their radical aura, Franklin and Jefferson appear in Isenberg’s account as baldly aristocratic.
In its best moments, White Trash… approaches something like an exposé, a well-intentioned work of scholarship designed to shed light on an unpleasant, even taboo subject. While not entirely scandalous, its willingness to broach American history from the perspective of a shamefully impoverished population is undoubtedly what gives it commercial appeal. In the words of James Agee, whose influential Let Us Now Praise Famous Men makes an appearance in the book, it is an ostensibly left-leaning critique “written for all those who have a soft place in their hearts for the laughter and tears inherent in poverty viewed at a distance, and especially for those who can afford the retail price.”5 From this point of view, Isenberg’s work is a success, and there are indeed many moments deserving of praise. The book talks openly and pointedly about race and class, highlighting the overlooked role of class politics in the Civil War and the belief held by many that slavery was less a problem for slaves than it was for unemployed whites, whose idleness and inability to compete with slave labor led to the many bad habits now associated with white trash. And in a succinct, important remark with much relevance today, Isenberg lays bare the effects of war on impoverished communities: “Wars in general, and civil wars to a greater degree, have the effect of exacerbating class tensions, because the sacrifices of war are always distributed unequally, and the poor are hit hardest.”6
The book also examines, importantly and in great depth, how white poverty has been routinely exploited as both a political instrument and a pop culture commodity, a fact that haunted Agee and his own attempts at offering an account of white poverty during the Great Depression. The book’s publication thus couldn’t have been more perfectly timed to coincide with our present political climate. It was not by accident that Donald Trump chose a trucker hat to market his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.” That decision was calculated, an appeal to Trump’s base of white, working-class men, many not so different than the men I once sat with in the diner. The trucker hat has long been a cultural marker of this demographic, associated not only with long-haul truck drivers but farmers and others associated with rural life. In the simple act of adorning that hat with his slogan, the billionaire television personality symbolically switches class positions—except, not really. Trump remains the same ruthless capitalist, with or without the hat, just as the Clampetts, the fictional family portrayed in The Beverly Hillbillies, remain white trash despite their sudden increase of wealth. As Isenberg notes, “The Clampetts may have bought a mansion in the heart of Hollywood, but they had not moved even one rung on the social ladder. They didn’t even try to behave like middle-class Americans.”7 Of course, that the Clampetts still “behave” like hillbillies is precisely the point, and is in fact necessary for the comedy to retain its plausibility. Had they transformed themselves completely after receiving their fortune, adopting new attitudes and habits, the show would not only have lost its appeal, it would likely have failed to become a television show in the first place. The entire plot is premised on the failure of class mobility, suggesting that for the creators of the show, and the viewers buying into its implicit logic, class is about more than just having money. It is about behaviors, and attitudes, and appearances. It is about culture. As Isenberg states directly in the book’s epilogue, “Class has never been about income or financial worth alone. It has been fashioned in physical—and yes, bodily—terms.”8
This conception of class largely determines the book’s historical narrative, arising from various accounts of poor white communities from America’s founding to our contemporary moment. “Waste,” “trash,” “rubbish”—the words used to describe those in abject poverty are of course indicative of their material conditions, and by extension the conditions of their minds and bodies. For the Quaker elites in the 18th century, “Class was about more than wealth and family name; it was conveyed through appearances and reputation.”9 It goes without saying that those unable to maintain those appearances occupied a disadvantaged position in society, one that led to very traits and behaviors seen by the privileged as proof of inferiority and poor breeding. Later, early 19th-century squatters “came to be associated with five traits: (1) crude habitations; (2) boastful vocabulary; (3) distrust of civilization and city folk; (4) an instinctive love of liberty (read: licentiousness); and (5) degenerate patterns of breeding.”10 Similarly, “The backwoodsman and cracker had a telltale gait that accompanied his distinctive physiognomy.”11 In other words, by tying class to what can be purchased or accessed or cultivated, either through wealth or reputation, it becomes more about what one has than about what makes possible one’s position within the overall structure of society. Isenberg may well recognize the failure of identity politics to adequately account for impoverished white communities when she says that some “can choose an identity, but many more have an identity chosen for them,”12 but she nevertheless makes the same mistake by often conflating class with identity. By broadening class to include things like bodily traits and reputation, the concept ceases to have a unifying structure and ultimately loses its meaning. Class, instead, becomes a series of family resemblances based upon variousindicators of privilege—or, what Wittgenstein would call characteristic accompaniments. It may very well be true, for instance, that those we call white trash lack things like sufficient income and access to education, and are often “crude” or morally compromised. But are these things, in themselves, what constitute class, or is it just that, by virtue of their class position, many come to share similar traits?
This confusion becomes especially apparent as Isenberg’s account of white trash, and class generally, comes to the end of the 20th century. Examining the crisis of authenticity that began in the 1970s, one driven by notions of identity that were very often class-based, she writes, “An inherent paradox added to the confusion over the nature of cultural identity. Modern Americans’ largely blind pursuit of the authentic, stable self was taking place in a country where roots could be, and often were, discarded. In the American model, assimilation preceded social mobility, “which required either adoption of a new identity or assumption of a class disguise in order to insert oneself into the desired category of middle class.”13 What is striking about this passage, on the one hand, is that it is absolutely correct, and indeed still profoundly relevant. It describes a dramatic shift in conceptions of identity and class that made them curiously fungible categories. As Isenberg notes, assimilation preceded social mobility, which is to say that what mattered was less about class than about the appearance or performance of class. This undoubtedly holds true today: while sitting in that truck stop diner, what mattered wasn’t that we were all workers, that we all shared a similar relationship to the rapid circulation of money being used as capital. What mattered was that, as young college students, we had learned how to look and talk and act middle-class, and the other men around us hadn’t, or simply didn’t care enough to do so.
On the other hand, if it is true that one really can perform class, or assume a “class disguise,” then it follows that class can’t be reduced to this performance. To think that class is just about appearance, or education, or having nice things—or, for that matter, a certain income—is to subsume a complex social relation into a simple predicate. If thinking abstractly, for Hegel, is “to see nothing in the murderer except the abstract fact that he is a murderer, and to annul all other human essence in him with this simple quality,”14 then it is equally abstract to see nothing in class except appearance, or a paycheck. Ultimately, in her attempt to figure out what we talk about, and what previous generations have talked about, when we talk about class, Isenberg emphasizes the effects of class structure without providing a coherent concept of class itself. She opens the book by saying that class is “economic stratification created by wealth and privilege,”15 ignoring the fact that this begs the question: wealth and privilege can’t create class, because they are only possible in a society structured by class. And what are wealth and privilege, anyway? What do they mean? She uses the terms as though they should be obvious, without recognizing that wealth is only wealth within a particular economic system. A million dollars is only “a lot of money,” and only has considerable value, if most people can’t have access to it. If everyone had a million dollars, the value of that money would be considerably less—though, don’t let the obviousness of this counterfactual cover up the fact that “everyone having a million dollars” is only possible in a society structured very different than our own.
The same holds true for the “stigma of landlessness”16 she claims still haunts white trash communities today, a stigma that despite whatever correspondence it might have to reality nevertheless assumes an economic system where such stigma can actually make sense within the social order. And while Isenberg is not wrong to highlight the importance of cultural markers of class, her failure to show how these markers became commensurate with a concept of class itself—and in fact stand in place of a concept—is symptomatic of broader discussions of what class means. Throughout much of White Trash..., white poverty is treated as something that exists but isn’t structurally produced (and, crucially, reproduced). Class is a given, not a condition of possibility, for the market-based economy brought over by European settlers. That is, while Isenberg often rightfully connects the evolving category of white trash to broader social and historical forces, she falls short of articulating this class position as fundamentally relational. White trash doesn’t just arise from a collection of traits certain populations share, and have shared over time, from low income and wealth to various cultural markers like lack of education, poor hygiene, and crude habits. White trash arises from a surplus population of workers who, after much discipling of labor, have found themselves at the margins of an economic system that have forced them there to maximize profit.
At times, Isenberg almost seems to grasp this. In a great chapter, “Taking Out The Trash,” she turns to the writing of Richard Hakluyt the younger to show how the colonial vision for settling the New World necessarily involved an expendable population to perform menial labor and establish it as a “place where the surplus poor, the waste people of England, could be converted into economic assets.”17 This logic inevitably led to the institution of indentured servitude, which blossomed in the early 17th century during the tobacco boom. Servants were bought as property by wealthy planters and often worked to the point of death, unable to ever escape their class position. What resulted, according to Isenberg, was an economic system that worked to reproduce these social relations: “Class divisions were firmly entrenched. The ever-widening gap in land ownership elevated large planters into a small, privileged faction.”18 In other words, the New World wasn’t just an aggregate of individuals, a select few of whom were very wealthy. The “small, privileged faction” maintained itself through its dependence upon servitude in a manner not dissimilar to Hegel’s master-slave dialectic: the poor class of “waste people” only existed in relation to the land-owning planter class, and vice versa. In a footnote in the first volume of Capital..., Marx, channeling Hegel, writes that these kinds of determinations of reflection are “altogether very curious. For instance, one man is king only because other men stand in the relation of subjects to him. They, on the other hand, imagine that they are subjects because he is king.”19 White trash, we might say, only become white trash by standing in relation to society in a particular manner. Just as there is nothing inherent to a king that makes him a king, only his relationship to his subjects, there is nothing inherent to what we call white trash that makes them white trash. There are only the social relations that constitute and reproduce a multitude of identities.
The question that follows, and which folds back to the earlier question of how judgments of class are possible, how we can all roughly mean the same thing when talking about white trash, is: what are these social relations? In the third volume of Capital..., Marx writes: “The capitalist process of production proceeds under definite material conditions, which are, however, simultaneously the bearers of definite social relations entered into by individuals in the process of reproducing their life. Those conditions, like these relations, are on the one hand prerequisites, on the other hand results and creations of the capitalist process of production; they are produced and reproduced by it.”20 Taken together in their totality, he adds, these relations are “precisely society, viewed according to its economic structure.” Social relations, then, are not personal like, say, friendships and familial relations. They are productive, tied to particular forms of exchange and labor. At its most basic, it is the way I relate to a cashier not as a person only but as a consumer, and how she relates to me as a worker, someone “just doing her job” (likewise, how she relates to the owner of the business as an employee and the owner relates to her as her employer, who determines the wage for which she will exchange her labor). In doing so, as Marx points out, we reproduce those relations: she is a cashier only as long as I and others continue to be consumers, and I am only a consumer as long as there are businesses that employ cashiers. This is not an intentional mode of reproduction, something we choose to do, but rather a mode of reproduction enacted by going about our daily life. Merely by waking up, going to work, shopping, commuting, each one of us participates in maintaining the social relations that structure society.
This might seem overly technical, but the point is that, when taken together as a totality, these otherwise unquestioned relations constitute the capitalist economy, and thus provide a concept of class not reducible to things like physiognomy, behavioral traits, or even income. In short, it is the way these relations hang together, and not their identities, that constitutes class. At the very end of the third volume of Capital..., Marx address this when he asks, quite directly, “What makes a class?” He first proposes “the identity of revenues and revenue sources,”21 given what he calls the three great social classes—wage-laborers, capitalists, and landowners—receive as the source of their income. But Marx quickly complicates this formula, showing that such a definition of class is still too abstract and can be fractured to the point of losing its meaning: “From this point of view, however, doctors and government officials would also form two classes, as they belong to two distinct social groups, the revenue of each group’s members flowing from its own source. The same would hold true for the infinite fragmentation of interests and positions into which the division of social labor splits not only workers but also capitalists and landowners—the latter, for instance, into vineyard-owners, fieldowners, forest-owners, mine-owners, fishery-owners, etc.” At this point, the manuscript ends, so where Marx would have taken the answer to the question of what makes a class is, unfortunately, impossible to say with certainty.
What can be said, and what is relevant to so many contemporary discussions of class, is that by and large we are confused as to what the word “class” really means. Or rather, we use it to mean many different things, and thus its use is confusing, misleading, and more than occasionally wrong. Looking above, it’s clear that I have also been loose with my use of the word “class.” So, to pose Marx’s question once more: What is class? At its most abstract, which incidentally is how it is often used, a class is simply a mode of categorization that groups together various particulars under a universal heading. The so-called creative and intellectual classes are two of the more prominent examples that reveal just how little “class” means when used this way: Noam Chomsky is a member of the intellectual class, but so is David Brooks, and Slavoj iek, and Jonah Goldberg. Likewise, all that ultimately connects a designer working on the next overpriced gadget for Apple and a university poet struggling to express a universal truth is the equally abstract buzzword connecting all members of the creative class: “innovation.” (And “innovation,” of course, despite whatever benefits it provides, is always a mask for capital to maximize profit.)
By the far the most ubiquitous use of class is with respect to wealth and income. We use phrases like “lower class,” “working class,” “middle class,” and “upper class” as though what they denote should be self-evident. A working-class man, for example, makes x amount of money, while a middle-class man makes y amount of money and has z amount in savings. But this, too, remains abstract, the nebulous distinction between classes reduced to an arbitrary quantity. I may even go so far as to say that such terms, while useful in discussing various kinds of privilege, also have very little to do with class itself. As a Ph.D. student at a public university in Chicago, for example, my income is about $17,500, which means I live at roughly 150% of the federal poverty level. A number of professors at my university, meanwhile, make well over $200,000 a year. To many, this is a difference in class, evidenced by the substantial gap in our yearly earnings. In fact, this is a simply a difference in income. These professors may be able to purchase nicer things, and live more comfortably, but is it this fact alone, a quantity or sum of currency, that produces and reproduces our social relations? To say that class is the difference between income brackets is to again beg the question of how such a difference is possible. “Making a lot of money” is often a bogeyman for good liberals and leftists, whose blind opposition to all things “bourgeois” prevents them from seeing in wealth anything but the injustice of class warfare. The problem is that such an emphasis on the abstract quantity of wealth one might have usually does nothing to criticize the social relations that make such inequality possible in the first place. I may be envious of professors at my university for living more comfortably than I do, but unless they are using their money as capital—which is to say, to produce profit, and not merely to consume—my envy misses the point. I am critiquing privilege, not class, and while these things often go together they should not be conflated.
In this sense, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America is an inaccurate yet appropriate title for Isenberg’s study. It may not provide a coherent concept of class, but it offers a comprehensive account of how class has been imagined and discussed, often in problematic ways. (Knowing what class is not, I might add, is just as crucial for knowing what class is.) As I mentioned earlier, what is especially revealing, and worthy of treatment on its own, are the ways in which class and race have been routinely wedded in attempt to naturalize class, thus divorcing the effects of social relations in a capitalist economy from the relations themselves. In her discussion of the 1962 film adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird, Isenberg asks, “Does race trump class, or does class trump race?”22 A well-educated black man is accused of raping a white trash girl, thus setting up a revealing dilemma for the audience of its time: Tom Robinson’s blackness complicates his class status, while Mayella Ewell’s whiteness is complicated by her shameful impoverishment. But Robinson, despite being a black man in the South at that time, is always configured to be the good guy for the audience. It is the white trash Ewell family and their response to the courtroom verdict that ultimately establishes the link between race and class: they are a bad breed, their poverty not produced by an economic system of labor exploitation but by genetics, a conception of class that has the added benefit that the audience can respond to it with a shrug of the shoulders and a glib “there’s just nothing you can do about that.” Some people, by this logic, just are white trash.
Such thinking still haunts us today. In the enormously popular Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer, the Avery family are viewed by most in the community as white trash. They are poor, uneducated, and living on the margins of society (despite, ironically enough, owning and operating their own business). Suspicions of immoral behavior surround them, thus making them easy targets, as the series reveals, for law enforcement in need of a villain. One individual, in an e-mail revealed during trial, describes them as a “one branch family,” a tree that needs to be cut down. “We need to end the gene pool here,” he says, rehashing centuries-old views about white poverty as life that is not worth living. But does such a life lose its value because it fails to acquiesce to our cultural demands, or does it lose its value because it simply isn’t “productive” for society?
Isenberg hits the nail on the head when she ends her study with a powerful statement about white trash: “they are who we are.”23 In this, she couldn’t be more correct. We may often talk as though they belong to a special class, but we all participate in this society, reproducing its conditions of possibility each and everyday. From the perspective of capital, which cares only for profit, we are all essentially trash, bodies that have been “converted into economic assets.” The line that separates white trash from everyone else is thus less about class as such than about what privilege that is denied does to the social relations that structure class. “What would happen,” Henry Wallace asked, ““if one hundred thousand poor children and one hundred thousand rich children were all given the same food, clothing, education, care, and protection?” To which Isenberg responds: “Class lines would likely disappear.”24 In fact, it would take much more than this to eliminate class, but the sentiment nevertheless holds its meaning. Naturalizing class through race or genetics or physiognomy, confusing what one has for what one is, implicitly suggests that class is fixed, that social relations can’t be changed. While flawed in some respects, Isenberg’s book makes explicit that social relations can be changed, and for this reason is an important book.
- Nancy Isenberg. White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. (New York: Viking, 2016), 14.
- Isenberg, White Trash, 66.
- Isenberg, White Trash, 102.
- Isenberg, White Trash, 97.
- James Agee. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998), 14.
- Isenberg. White Trash, 173.
- Isenberg. White Trash, 236.
- Isenberg, White Trash, 315.
- Isenberg, White Trash, 72.
- Isenberg, White Trash, 112.
- Isenberg, White Trash, 115.
- Isenberg, White Trash, 269.
- Isenberg, White Trash, 270-1 (emphasis mine).
- G.W.F. Hegel, Werke. (Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main: 1969), bd. 2, 578: “Dies heißt abstrakt gedacht, in dem Mörder nichts als dies Abstrakte, daß er ein Mörder ist, zu sehen und durch diese einfache Qualität alles übrige menschliche Wesen an ihm [zu] vertilgen.”
- Isenberg, White Trash, 1.
- Isenberg, White Trash,14.
- Isenberg, White Trash, 21.
- Isenberg, White Trash, 28.
- Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes. (New York: Penguin 1976), 49, note 22.
- Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 3, trans. David Fernbach. (New York: Penguin 1981), 957. (emphasis mine)
- Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 3, 1026.
- Isenberg, White Trash, 254.
- Isenberg, White Trash, 321
- Isenberg, White Trash, 317