Much of the whining about the American working class falling victim to neoliberal globalization is rooted in American exceptionalism. Everyone else has supposedly reaped a windfall from neoliberal free trade. It is a narrative with very little sympathy for, or solidarity with, the victims of globalization around the world - particularly in Africa.
In the aftermath of the US presidential election, I have been trying to re-understand this country that I have adopted as my own. Shocked and humbled by the outcome of the election, and as a lifelong student of the human condition, I've been trying to better understand the economic and cultural anxieties of the white working class, a group that assumed a mythical factor in pre- and post-election political conversations.
For six years, I lived in Michigan, a state whose working class has arguably suffered more than any other from the outsourcing of American manufacturing. I was therefore not entirely uninformed about this reality of a socioeconomic demographic that has been left behind by the unbridled transition from a localized industrial economy to a globalized, de-territorialized one. I returned to Michigan last summer and toured Detroit and its suburb to confirm for myself the media hype about a so-called Detroit comeback.
On the same trip, I drove through the rust belt state of Ohio and beheld the lingering post-industrial economic blight. I returned from the trip disappointed at the seemingly intensifying postindustrial meltdown, and by the deteriorating conditions of those displaced by the forces of global recession and globalized and automated manufacturing. So even before the election, I had been reflecting on whether or how the Midwestern white working class could regain its economic place in America. What I didn’t realize was the depth and breadth of the working class resentment and sense of alienation.
Since the election, I have sought reeducation on the frustrations of this mythical class in America. To this end, I have enjoyed reading the treatise of some of my colleagues and friends on the blind spot of progressive politics, on how progressives living and acting in a bubble have missed the growing disconnect between Democratic politics and the working class. Some of these arguments strike me as overly lionizing white working class and as excusing the xenophobic scapegoating of some of its members. Nonetheless, as a non-native born American, I have learnt a lot from these commentaries. I now realize that there is and has been a groundswell of white working class discontent, which the euphoria of progressive accomplishments has obscured or dismissed.
Much as I’m in general agreement with the need to recognize the American working class victims of globalization and to reinsert them into Democratic politics, I have two enduring, unresolved quibbles with the current discourse of white working class animus.
1. American working class exceptionalism?
Much of this narrative of American working class victimhood in the orbit of globalization is rooted in American exceptionalism, the idea that the American working class in the industrial belt of the country has been peculiarly victimized by globalization. Much of this claim rests on the notion that the American working class is the only loser of globalization, and that everyone else — non-working class Americans and citizens of countries that function as cheap labor reservoirs — has reaped a windfall from neoliberal free trade. This is another facet of American exceptionalism, the exceptionalism of victimhood, if you will. In this narrative, there is very little sympathy for, or solidarity with, the victims of globalization in the decimated industrial centers of Ilupeju, Kaduna, and Kano, in Nigeria. There is very little self-reflexivity, and much navel-gazing.
I conduct much of my academic research in Nigeria. I travel almost every summer to Northern Nigeria, where I see the ruins of industrial complexes and textile factories that used to employ hundreds of thousands of low-skill workers. In the last 15 years, free trade globalization in the form of a flood of cheap Asian manufactured goods has caused the factories to close, taking with it the livelihoods and dignities of many working families. Several of my own relatives who used to work in the textile factories of Kaduna and Kano were victims of this massive economic displacement. Some have died of hardship, shame, and heartbreak.
And yet, when the plight of the American working class is discussed, there is little mention of these Other victims of free trade globalization, those victims located in the Global South. Instead, the discussion is cast in the binary of American losers and third world winners. Everyone outside the American industrial heartland, including my displaced working class cousins in Kaduna, is portrayed as a beneficiary of globalization, as a zero-sum profiteer from the destruction of the American industrial working class. Citizens in the countries of the Global South are posited as undifferentiated, monolithic members of an evil cabal ripping off the American worker and benefitting from his dispossession. Whether they are in Mexico, India, China, or Nigeria, they are categorized uniformly as the beneficiaries of outsourcing, as “those who are taking our jobs.” There is no effort to differentiate the outsourcing hubs of India and the outsourced factories of China and Mexico from the countries of Africa, where neoliberal globalization has arguably done the most damage.
Poor infrastructure and the paucity of skilled manpower prevented and continue to prevent the relocation of factories and offshore technology jobs to Africa, exposing the continent to globalization’s worst impact and robbing it of its benefits. This reality of deindustrialization without the offset of technology outsourcing of the type that India and other countries have enjoyed is the crux of the African encounter with neoliberal globalization. Yet, there is little recognition of this far-flung non-white victimhood in lamentations of the American white working class about others benefitting at its expense. There is no distinction between African countries, which have not “stolen” American jobs and have had multiple industries destroyed by the same forces of free trade globalization that decimated the American rust belt, and countries hosting offshore factories.
In the lexicon of white working class victimhood, everyone outside America is a winner while the American factory worker is a loser. It is an adversarial interpretation of a neoliberal free trade ideology that has left a trail of victims across the world. It is a righteous, self-absorbed victimhood that fails to reckon with the entwinement of the fates of the world’s many working peoples, including exploited factory workers in China, Mexico, Bangladesh, and the Philippines. Across the world, many peoples struggle, like members of the American working class, to maintain some dignity amidst the ravages of neoliberal globalization.
Because of its foundation in insular ignorance, unreflective American working class victimhood fails to inspire empathy among many progressives, who see in it echoes of American arrogance and white American entitlement. In seeing the globalized economy solely in zero-sum terms and in refusing to entertain the fact that those portrayed as “taking American jobs” are victims of the vast neoliberal restructuring of the global economy, the American working class commits the same isolationist error as Americans who presume that American interests are synonymous and coterminous with global interests, and that others always gain when Americans lose.
Thinking only in terms of one’s narrow, localized interest stems from American exceptionalism, an arrogant postulation that is unintelligible to many of us with roots elsewhere. It is also foreign to many native-born Americans of color who are better able to recognize non-Western victims of globalization and to thus develop a more nuanced articulation of American working class discontent.
2. You can’t have it all
The other puzzle for me pertains to the expectational universe of the American working class. Whatever you think of the ongoing restructuring of the global economy away from unskilled to skilled and automated labor, it is something that everyone has to come to terms with, and adjust to.
With a new knowledge economy bearing down upon us, and with industrial automation all but eliminating the stabilities of working class industrial life, is it still realistic to hold on to the old working class dream of forging a respectable middle class and pensionable factory career on the strength of a high school diploma? This is a question that working class Americans who dream of a return to the dignified factory workforce of their fathers’ era have to confront without emotion.
In the wake of the textile factory closures in Kaduna in the early 2000s, and seeing my relatives lose their jobs, I remember thinking about whether their lack of a college education or specialized skills hadn’t already rendered them vulnerable to the vagaries of an increasingly interconnected economy. I considered whether this failure to keep pace with the educational and vocational requirements of a new economy, rather than globalization itself, was the main causal factor in my relatives’ sudden loss of livelihood and their inability to find alternative economic pathways.
Most people don’t like the direction of the knowledge-based, postindustrial economy but they have adapted to it in order to survive. A failure to adapt and an angry desire to return to an elusive industrial economy of the past may open the door to politicians who promise to “bring back the manufacturing jobs,” but a realistic approach will have to reckon with the reality that an industrial economy of the type that provided millions of Americans with middle class employment security in the past may never be fully recovered. The bleeding can be halted and productive transitions to alternative economies pursued, but a complete reversal of the impact of neoliberal globalization seems unlikely. Working class Americans, like the displaced industrial workers of Nigeria, have to make peace with this reality.
A second aspect of this point is that there is a fundamental contradiction at the heart of working class narratives against globalized free trade. In exchange for job losses and factory relocations, Americans, including the working class, have enjoyed the benefit of cheap, foreign-manufactured goods. Whether this is a fair exchange for destroyed livelihoods and the lost dignity of the working man is a legitimate debate to have. But, like most things in life, you cannot have it both ways. You cannot love the cheap goods from China and Mexico, which have helped sustain the consumerist predilections and lifestyles of poor and middle class Americans and then rail against the factory relocations that make the goods cheap. You cannot insist on the inward flow of foreign-made cheap goods while demanding the dismantling of the global economic infrastructure that makes the flow possible. Doing what you desire will undermine the availability of and access to cheap goods made in labor-cheap countries. This tradeoff may be hard, but working class Americans have to accept the necessity for it.
This is a contradiction that also plagues globalization’s losers in Nigeria. As Nigeria’s textile factories closed under the weight of free trade globalization, the country was flooded with cheap Asian textiles. Access to cheap textiles may not compensate for the closure of factories and lost income but Nigerians love the cheap goods from Asia and, unfortunately for them, no realistic nationalistic economic program can reverse industrialization in Nigeria without harming access to cheap Asian goods. A difficult tradeoff is a necessary outcome of any ameliorative economic configuration.
The American working class has to abandon the expectation that factory jobs can come back in the form in which they left without sacrificing access to cheap foreign-made goods. Perhaps, in this regard, it can take a cue from displaced working classes in Nigeria and other African countries, which have made pragmatic, if painful, adjustments to the new global economic order.
The American working class can learn from countries like Nigeria, where anger at neoliberal globalization’s damages has neither generated knee-jerk isolationist and protectionist sentiments nor inspired economic xenophobia.
It is obviously not the responsibility of the American working class to give voice to the grievances of victims of neoliberal globalization in other parts of the world, but an awareness of the global spread of neoliberalism’s damage will temper the current rhetoric of reactionary, aggressive victimhood. It may also open the door to forging transracial and transnational solidarities to defeat neoliberalism’s broader global agenda. For if this agenda is going to be thwarted, it’s going to take a transracial solidarity of global working classes to do so, not a localized nationalist and insular economic reaction.
* Moses E. Ochonu, PhD, is Professor of African History, Department of History, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, USA.
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