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(en) US, The Virtuous Middle, and more

From <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>(Mike Kramer <mkramer666-A-yahoo.com)
Date Mon, 22 Nov 2004 08:58:02 +0100 (CET)

A - I N F O S N E W S S E R V I C E
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Friends and Comrades, The Bring the Ruckus* website has been updated with
four new articles.
- Concede Nothing to Bush: Black Consensus Remains Intact - From The Black Commentator
- Voting for Malcolm X - By Joel Olson
- The Two Party System: A White Supremacist Structure - By Steve Martinot
- The Virtuous Middle - By Joel Olson, which follows below.
For the full text of these articles and more info on BTR, go to http://www.agitatorindex.org/

---- The Virtuous Middle - by Joel Olson - November, 2004
November 3 was a difficult day for my liberal friends.
Many were deeply depressed by the narrow but sound
victory of their arch-enemy, George Bush . Others were
defiant, claiming that the elections had been stolen
yet again, their anger fueled by internet conspiracy
theories about rigged voting machines in Ohio. Either
way, they just couldn’t believe that Bush had been
re-elected. “How can Americans be so stupid?” one of
them exclaimed to me. Another half-seriously suggested
that educated people should get more votes than
uneducated people, because “idiots” couldn’t be
trusted with the full franchise. That day I read about
movie stars who refer to the area between L.A. and New
York as “flyover states,” i.e. places you fly over but
never, ever visit. I kept thinking about how these
comments came from people who genuinely saw themselves
as on the side of “the little guy.”

When I heard these liberals talk I got angry, too—at
them. I’ve lived most of my life in a “red” state. I
don’t fear conservatives and I don’t think they’re
idiots. I agree with them on many things, such as
guns, suspicion of government, and distrust of
liberalism. More importantly, though, I was angry
because once again the anti-Bush left, in its
arrogance and self-righteousness, entirely missed the
good news about this election.

This election proved once again that Americans hate
elites. This hatred holds the best opportunity and the
greatest challenge for radical politics in the United

Yet the anti-Bush left fails to see this, and
therefore hands the opportunity to organize around
this anti-elitism over to Christian fundamentalists.
In so doing, liberalism’s irrelevance is assured for
another four years.

Anti-Bushers can’t understand why working class whites
continuously vote for Republicans. How can these
people vote against their economic interests and side
with the rich scum who run the Republican Party, they
ask. They must have been fooled by the devious GOP,
they reason. Either that or they’re idiots.

This analysis is wrong. To get a better picture we
have to ask a different question. Instead of wondering
why middle America sides with the elite we should ask
which elites do they hate?

What is an elite? In the United States, the answer is
not as straightforward as it might be elsewhere. Like
everything else in this country, Americans’ concept of
an “elite” passes through the prism of race.

As the political scientist Judith Shklar argues, since
the 1820s the majority of Americans have defined
citizenship as a sort of “virtuous middle” between
aristocratic elites above and the rabble below.
Aristocratic elites arrogantly stand over and try to
oppress the middle, while the rabble which primarily
meant slaves at first, and then came to mean primarily
Black people tries to drag the middle down into
poverty and a life of ill repute. The virtuous middle
resists attempts from above and below to degrade them
by creating a morality that defines them as the “true
Americans” and that lets their interests stand in for
the interests of the entire nation.

Historically, this virtuous middle has consisted of
the white middle and working classes. In the 1830s the
elite above them were bankers and speculators, people
who (unlike the virtuous middle) did not produce
anything useful toward the development of the nation.
The rabble below them consisted mainly of slaves,
people who (unlike them) lacked independence and were
“lazy.” In fact, seeing oneself as not a slave was the
primary ingredient in demonstrating that one was a
productive citizen, i.e. a member of the virtuous
middle. “Black chattel slavery stood at the opposite
social pole from full citizenship and so defined it,”
writes Shklar. “The value of citizenship was derived
primarily from its denial to slaves, to some white
men, and to all women.”

Today the base of the virtuous middle is still white
folk. You can see this in who voted for Bush: 58% of
whites and 62% of white men. The idle elite has gone
from bankers to academics, artists, entertainers,
big-city liberals, and others who don’t seem to put in
an honest day’s work. And the core of the “rabble”
still consists of Black people, who to this day are
implicitly defined as a people who do not productively
contribute to this society. Frequently other peoples
of color and queers are added to the list.

In the 1830s the virtuous middle embraced the
“producer ethic.” It held that only those who produced
for the republic should have a say in it. Bankers,
speculators, and (for some incredible reason) slaves
were considered people who did not produce and
therefore should not be distrusted. The ethic the
virtuous middle embraces today is called “moral
values.” It is a deliberately vague term but
essentially holds that society should protect their
interests economically, politically, and socially, and
define them as “American interests.” Many in the
virtuous middle also believe the basis of society is
the nuclear family (father, mother, children) and that
society should be organized in accordance with a
literal interpretation of the Bible.

Frequently, the virtuous middle sees the elite and the
rabble as in cahoots. Big city liberals want to tax
the middle in order to give free school lunches to
Black kids and undocumented immigrants. Hollywood
holds up the gangsta as a role model. Academics praise
“difference” and moral relativism in defense of the
cultures of oppressed groups. This alliance of the top
and bottom, in the mindset of the virtuous middle,
threatens to squeeze the middle out of existence by
destroying “family values.”

These “family values” emerged in response to the
“culture wars” of the 1980s and early 1990s. These
wars were between those who favored a more plural
society in terms of race, gender, and sexuality and
those who feared the fall of white domination, which
they referred to nostalgically as “tradition” or
“Western civilization.” The rise of peoples of color,
women, queers, and “postmodernists” to positions of
influence in academia and other places, they claimed,
was contributing to the decline of traditional
morality because these groups celebrated welfare
queens, immigrants, transsexuals, and the poor rather
than trying to reform them. This talk of “moral
decline” let whites who feared losing their dominant
social status protest it in a “politically correct”
way, but the point was clear enough.

>From this brief overview we can see that American
citizenship has always consisted of a curious mixture
of equality, privilege, and anti-elitism. All American
citizens are political equals, giving the poor citizen
officially the same political and social status as the
rich. Yet American citizenship has also been a form of
privilege that distinguishes full citizens from those
who are not, such as slaves, Black people,
undocumented immigrants, and queer couples.

This simultaneous sense of equality and privilege is
the most significant contradiction of American
citizenship. But the seeds of radical transformation
lie within this conception of citizenship. In addition
to equality and privilege, it also produces a strong
sense of anti-elitism because virtuous citizens resent
the idle, non-productive elites above them, while the
rabble more or less correctly understands its class
position in relation to elites and the virtuous

Here’s where the question “what kind of elite?”
becomes important. Today, it’s typically not economic
elites because the virtuous middle, captured by the
American Dream, wants to join them. Instead, ever
since the culture wars the virtuous middle has come to
distrust the cultural elite: academics, entertainers,
cultured liberals, and blue-state snobs who “think
they are better than us.” The virtuous middle smells
the elitism of these people a mile away, and they hate
them for it. We should applaud their good sense.

Of course, by any standard many “red state” suburban
whites are elites themselves. After all, they are more
educated, earn more, spend more, and enjoy more
political power than the majority of Americans and the
vast majority of people worldwide. Yet because they
have successfully defined themselves as the majority,
the virtuous middle does not consider itself an elite
but instead the “heart” of America, by which they mean
middle class and morally upright. They are thus able
to define the “norm” of society and determine who or
what falls outside of it: Hollywood liberals, the
urban poor, abortion, gay marriage, affirmative
action, secularism. (That’s why millionaire and Yale
grad Bush is a “regular guy” who believes in God and
lives on a ranch, while millionaire and Yale grad
Kerry is an elitist who defends abortion and
windsurfs.) The virtuous middle demands policies that
protect its privileged status and calls them “family
values,” all the while presenting themselves as
martyrs besieged by cultural elites who threaten their
morality, political elites who threaten to tax their
wealth, and the rabble who threaten to decay society
from below.

Even so, the task of radicals is not to denounce the
anti-elitist sentiment of the virtuous middle as
ignorant or hypocritical. Instead, we need to redirect
this anti-elitism by redefining the concept of “elite”
and finding ways to encourage a chunk of this virtuous
middle to see its interests as lying with the rabble,
not economic elites or family values. But doing so
requires a new political vision rather than leftist

The world of the virtuous middle is rapidly changing,
particularly for whites who have always relied on
their racial privilege to get them through tough
times. These privileges are no longer as obvious and
dependable as they once were. The result is political
uncertainty, particularly in a post-9/11 climate. The
anti-Bush left sees unemployed coal miners in West
Virginian voting for Bush because of terrorism and
moral values and thinks that the miners are idiots for
voting against their economic interests. But this view
fails to recognize that class interests are always
bundled with other interests, desires, and fears.

The GOP played on the virtuous middle’s fear of
falling in social status, successfully bundling the
economy, gay marriage, abortion, and terrorism as all
part of a larger attempt to tear at the social fabric.
Of course this view is wrong, but that’s not the
point. The point is that people rarely think only in
terms of class interests. Class permeates every aspect
of our lives, but our lives do not entirely boil down
to class. Any successful politics that fights to win
over a chunk of this constituency needs to acknowledge
that. The right understands this much better than the

Thus, we should take the battle to the “values” front
rather than run from it. “Family values” has a
material basis in white privilege. We need to take on
this ideology by challenging this privilege and
presenting a new set of values.

Where is the source of a new values? Don’t count on
the liberals to find it. In diving toward the virtuous
middle, Democrats in 2008 will run as far away from
the rabble as they can, while still counting on their
votes. This is opportunistic and disgusting, but it’s
also typical party politics. We shouldn’t expect them
to behave any better.

Instead, the basis of such a politics lies in the
rabble itself. Black people, for example, have a much
clearer sense of who the real enemies of freedom are
than the virtuous middle. Gay marriage, which was such
a successful “wedge issue” among whites and even many
Latinos, had almost no effect on the Black vote, which
once again went for the Democrats by a nine-to-one
margin. (For more on this, see the article from the
Black Commentator, “Concede Nothing to Bush: The Black
Consensus Remains Intact”.) The issues that motivated
the Black vote? As usual, they’re almost all class
issues: jobs, racial justice, health care, etc.

The basis of a radical political vision lies here. The
challenge is to get this middle to see elites in the
same way as the rest of the working class does.
Meeting that challenge means criticizing the virtuous
middle frankly, but not dismissing them entirely.

Republicans see vindication from November 2. Democrats
see despair. The anti-Bush left sees an idiotic
American public. We new revolutionaries should see
opportunity. We should marvel at the sophisticated
thought processes of Americans, whether from the
middle or the rabble, and seek to consolidate and
shift it toward a politics of freedom.

The great revolutionary C.L.R. James liked to say that
no people were better prepared for a classless,
stateless society than Americans. Their inherent
suspicion of elites is one of the main reasons for
this, he argued. But he always knew that real
democracy lies with the rabble and that the challenge
was to convince the white working class to abandon its
privileges, identify with the Black working class, and
struggle against economic elites with them. This
election shows that our task today is pretty much the

Joel Olson is a member of Bring the Ruckus. His new
book, The Abolition of White Democracy, has just been
published by the University of Minnesota Press. You
can reach him at joelo@agitatoindex.org.
* [Ed. Note: Bring the Ruckus is an antiauthoritarian
anticapitalist social struggle organisation/network.]

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