Field Notes In Conversation
ADAM RENSCH with John Collins
The third book in the Field Notes series published by Reaktion Books in association with the Brooklyn Rail has just been published: No Home for You Here: A Memoir of Class and Culture, by Adam Theron-Lee Rensch. John Collins sat down with Rensch at his home in Chicago to discuss the book and its preoccupations.
John Collins (Rail): Why a memoir? You talk a lot in the book about how the political is not personal, and many Marxists are drawn to more “scientific” analyses of the issues of class politics and base and superstructure you look at in the book. What went into the decision to approach the problems from a more personal point of view?
Adam Rensch: I was initially very resistant to writing a memoir, especially one that satisfies the demands of the literary market. These sorts of stories, I think, function mainly to reproduce a neoliberal framework. Instead of asking us to look at exploitation, which is public and has nothing to do with how we feel about its victims, it encourages us to sympathize with trauma or pain on an individual level. I had tried for many years to write a traditional memoir about my father, but nothing materialized because at a certain point I began to experience a deep anxiety about the ways in which I was leveraging someone's pain for a market that only cares for such stories if they can turn a profit.
So, my initial draft had considerably less of the "personal," and was primarily a historical account of the broader shifts in the economy, the rise of the New Democrats, and the ways that class has been framed as an issue of culture or identity instead of a social relation. The problem with that version, however, is that it felt too broad, as though I was trying to offer some definitive material account of the last few decades. During the revision process, it became obvious that in fact my personal story was the precise realization of the history I wanted to tell about class and culture. The memoir format then became a loose structure onto which I could hang the arguments I really wanted to make. It also helps—I hope—broaden the audience. I didn't want to write a book for other Marxists, or academics. By intentionally calling it a "memoir," I could get people who want to read a book about pain to read a book about exploitation. With any luck, maybe they might realize they agree.
Rail: Home, as in No Home For You Here and You Can't Go Home Again, is obviously an organizing conceit of the book. Can you expand a little bit on what "home" might mean to the postmodern subject under late capitalism? You establish the lack of home as a fundamental problem for such people. What kind of "home" can we imagine for ourselves under capitalism, and do you think that is an essential concept to develop to lead us out of the capitalist framework?
Rensch: As I began writing, it became clear that "home" was something that worked on a number of levels. On the one hand, there is home as a literal structure where one resides. During the postwar boom between 1945 and roughly 1965, home ownership became the standard symbol of middle-class stability and prosperity. This, of course, was only possible given the broader relationship between labor and capital, as well as the arms race, that temporarily made our economy stable. It's where the fantasy of the middle class, at least as we know it, was really born. My mother's father built his home himself, and my father's father bought their home in the early 1960s for $10,000. Given the recent housing crisis, which had an especially hard impact on rural communities, this is far from guaranteed today. Indeed, the last years of my father's life in the mid-2000s were defined by his drift and homelessness.
My father was also homeless in another sense: symbolically, or dare I say spiritually. I don't mean this in a religious sense, although I believe religion is a natural source for those in search of meaning. I mean it in the sense that there was nothing that gave his life purpose. There was nothing deeper than the realization that the world as we had organized it was brutal and unforgiving. There was no stable underpinning—friends, community, a welfare state—that would offer a solid footing. This is precisely how the postmodern subject, as you call it, is defined: empty, unstable, etc. In some ways, my father's life is a marker for the major shifts that have defined our way of life. He was born in 1960 at the peak of postwar prosperity and died in 2007 at the heels of a financial crisis created, somewhat ironically, in part by the fragmentation of mortgages.
This is not to say we can just go back to 1960. You can't go home again, as Wolfe said, and such nostalgia is always somewhat reactionary. Social-democratic reforms would of course be hopeful steps toward a better society, but we cannot erect a politics on the back of a brief period that was only possible given the larger development of global capital at the time. So, I'm a little ambivalent on the utility of a concept like "home" in leading us out of capitalism. Obviously, I believe any socialist alternative would be one in which housing is guaranteed and the economy is structured in such a way that work is no longer an impediment to finding meaning or purpose, but in fact provides the material ground for it.
Rail: You write movingly about your father’s alcoholism and your friend Kevin’s opioid addiction, both fatal. Today we are seeing a massive uptick in deaths of these kinds across all groups. What do you see as the relationship between late capitalism and substance abuse or addiction? And to what extent do you see this as a desired product of our system?
Rensch: I think the relationship between late capitalism and substance abuse is symbiotic. Substances like alcohol and opioids are an obvious palliative for the despair produced by capitalist alienation and material deprivation. At the same time, drugs are a market, from the massive alcohol and pharmaceutical industries to both domestic and international black markets. Added to this, of course, is our criminal justice system and a for-profit medical industry, each of which benefit from widespread addiction by transforming it into a problem that can either be punished by law or solved by the market. These industries also employ a significant number of people and generate serious profits, all while managing to treat addiction at the level of the individual. While there has been movement lately toward seeing it as systemic, the prevailing moral attitude toward addiction is one of personal failing.
In this sense, I think it’s quite desirable for the system to have widespread addiction — not in some conscious, conspiratorial sense, but in the sense that it offers explanatory power for those at the margins. It’s much easier to imagine people find themselves where they are as a result of poor decision-making than it is to accept that they were guided there, in some ways, by a complex system that necessarily pushes people to the margins to justify its origin story: just work hard, have discipline, and you will succeed. If you don’t, you have no one to blame but yourself.
Rail: Your book is a moving evocation of what it’s like to grow up as “white trash” and to try to leave that label behind. I was struck by the quotes you pulled from Tad Friend’s essay “White Trash Nation,” which evince a broadly cultural, individualist analysis of what white trash is and where it comes from. He sees white trash as being a set of choices that you make, an unrestrained “indulgence of the id.” But so much of what makes white trash is what a consumer consumes, be it Jeff Foxworthy or Applebee’s, or fashion from the Dollar Store. Certain brands of cigarettes, certain types of liquor, all these choices are envisioned in the system of production and consumption that we have, and indeed encouraged. Talk a little bit about the production of white trash as a sales demographic and the transference of responsibility for the act of, say, patronizing a strip mall, from the builder of the strip mall to the person who chooses to go there from amongst the limited options available to them.
Rensch: "White trash" as a label is a perfect expression of the way culture has replaced class as the lens through which we understand and engage with history. People use the term as though its meaning were self-evident, and the fact that we generally agree on what white trash means is crucial: how is it that a certain set of behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs can be subsumed under a label in such a way? For this to be possible, it requires a set of social relations that constantly reproduces those behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs in such a way that they appear to us as natural or self-evident. That set of social relations is capitalism.
Thinking relationally in this way, however, is counterintuitive to liberalism, which has a more static conception of the individual as a rational, autonomous monad responsible for his or her decisions. It sees effects of social relations as free-floating, divorced from any larger system that produces them. It sees the poor white guy eating, say, Papa John's pizza and driving a shitty truck with a confederate flag. It doesn't see or particularly concern itself with the massive operation that makes something like Papa John's a billion-dollar franchise, one that must necessarily exploit labor in the process. And while good liberals know Papa John's is “bad,” that John Schnatter is a bigot, the real problem for them is aesthetic: that people would choose to eat something so disgusting, and to support someone so despicable. Their politics thus becomes about consumer choices, “voting with your wallet,” as though people who eat Papa John’s should care about the difference between good food and bad food, or the difference between a pizza chain owned by a right-wing racist and one owned by a socially conscious liberal. In fact, there is no difference: relationally, they serve the same function, and exploit workers the same way.
All of this is incredibly beneficial to those in power, by creating a cultural division that effectively leaves class relations untouched. Meanwhile, those in power can tap into the resentment that this division fosters by encouraging poor, rural whites to think the problem with their lives is one of discrimination and not of exploitation: the problem is that coastal elites dislike their culture and look down on them for being trashy, not that a massive system of exploitation has pushed them to the margins of society.
Rail: It seems worth interrogating how we distinguish between, on the one hand, “white trash” as a certain kind of identity and another identity that might be viewed as more hard-wired or inescapable (Black, gay, woman). These distinctions have also been used throughout history to diminish the categories they encompass, and have been through the same cycle of double recuperation, i.e. by the subject and then again by the corporate antagonist. But it seems to me in the discourse we have few people who would class them as the same type of identity. What do you think accounts for that and do you think it’s a useful way to proceed?
Rensch: I think what you're getting at is the fundamental tension in something like liberal identity politics. If you believe that things like racism, sexism, and transphobia offer explanatory power for why certain groups are oppressed, or why there is a racial and gender wealth gap, you need someone who is actively doing the oppression. In this model, it isn’t really possible to oppress poor white people, so they are effectively to blame for their own condition. In fact, they become the perfect villain because the educated liberals who buy into this sort of politics see working-class whites as inherently reactionary and authoritarian.
The real threat of this politics, as Walter Benn Michaels has pointed out, is that it understands inequality as a result of discrimination instead of exploitation. By this logic, if you correct racism and sexism and any other form of bigotry, what you have is in fact a perfect neoliberal market where everyone fails or succeeds solely on the basis of how well they play the game, and there is no one to blame for the outcome. And in a certain sense they aren’t wrong: capitalism is a system of relations, and it is those relations that are the problem, not the people who find themselves caught up in them (even if those people are objectively despicable). Then again, to arrive at this conclusion you have to actually think about class as something other than educational pedigree or annual income, or even think about class at all.
Rail: You talk in the book quite a lot about debt as a repressive social relation, serving the manifold purpose of maintaining the working-class subject’s precarity while maintaining the balance of consumption and of course yielding obscene profits to the financial class. We know that in the international arena, the Greek counterexample notwithstanding, indebtedness can be a position of great power (to wit, the US national debt) but we don’t see much organization of private debtors in the US as yet. What do you think of the potential for debtor organization as a site of radical resistance to the existing financial regime?
Rensch: Someone like Donald Trump leverages the amount of debt he holds against institutions to his advantage, and it is part of the reason he has achieved so much power. In theory, debtor organization could function in a similar way, but I admit I am cynical about this in practice. Organization is extremely difficult, especially as those institutions with considerable power to lose would do everything they can to prevent it. We are already seeing the reemergence of debtor prisons in some states, as well as Betsy DeVos seeking to restructure student loan debt so that it cannot be canceled on a mass scale as Sanders has called for on the campaign trail. Now, assuming we could organize around debt, the next question is whether those in power would actually accept or even acknowledge our demands. I think the key is to consider what those demands would be, and how we could leverage debt collectively in a way that would pose a significant threat to the present balance of power. At the moment, I'm not sure what this would look like, exactly, but I think as a general rule a successful working-class movement needs to understand what tools are at its disposal, and how to use them strategically.
Rail: You discuss your own "reaction" against religion in America, which has been deeply associated with the conservative worldview. At the same time, you clearly describe the benefits your mother secured by joining an evangelical Christian church, both material and also less tangible ones. Faced with the explicit degradation and devaluation of the human, from our technotheist popular culture to our universities where "humanities" departments are being cut left and right, many feel that religion is the only place left to turn. This is hardly surprising when you look at humanity's traditional relationship to religion and spirituality prior to the past 50 years. What's your current relationship to spirituality, and how do you see it working in America now? Is there space for such ideas and traditions in the Marxist revolutionary framework?
Rensch: I am not spiritual in any meaningful sense, but it’s obvious that religion has provided a crucial safety net for millions of people in a country that lacks even a paltry welfare state, and whose community relations have been fractured by neoliberal atomization. I also think that any working-class movement in this country needs to meet people where they are, and avoid taking its cues from predominantly educated activists. The reality is that many people value spirituality and religion, and telling them they are wrong, or stupid, or reactionary—even if they are—is not going to create anything like class solidarity. At the same time, it’s true that our enduring and emotionally-charged culture wars are deeply influenced by religious belief, and this can and has functioned as a barrier to class consciousness. And yet, there is also a long tradition of religious radicalism that has been influenced by socialist thought and incorporated its emancipatory goals into its practice, so I am not convinced that Marxism and religion are necessarily at odds, even if I understand the limitations in place. I’m sure a significant number of leftists believe religion and its hierarchies have absolutely no place in a socialist society, and would accuse me of apologetics that sneak in reactionary tendencies, but I’m fine with that.
Rail: With the ongoing Uberization of the world, and the increasing levels of precarity even for highly paid and educated workers, do you see the contradictions within the so-called “middle class” resolving themselves in the near future? Do you think the ever-tightening ratchet of capitalism and the declining rate of profit could ever produce a "radical middle class," or produce a working-class consciousness amongst the professional class?
Rensch: I doubt anything like this could happen in the near future, and have a hard time imagining the professional class could ever become radicalized in any meaningful sense. Their class interests, and indeed their very existence, depend on their role as the gatekeepers of knowledge, which they have used to secure their place as the managers of capital. They are deeply invested in maintaining class relations as they stand now, even if they happen to pity the plight of wage-workers and get on board with social-democratic reforms that seek to decommodify large sectors of the economy. In a truly classless society, many of their jobs wouldn’t exist, and those that would remain would not provide the sort of cultural and material power that they provide now. I think it’s possible that individual members of the professional class could be radicalized, and in fact many radical intellectuals are members of the professional class. I don’t doubt some of them would gladly give up their position to create a more just society. But I doubt the professional class as a whole will achieve class consciousness of the sort that would align them with workers. At the risk of being reductive, I think most educated professionals are too narcissistic.
Rail: We're in the midst of a very hotly contested election. What outcome do you think is likely? What do you hope for? and if Sanders were to go all the way, what would be next for the movement to revolutionize society?
Rensch: As it stands now, I think Sanders will head to the convention with a significant plurality of pledged delegates, but it’s unclear if he will have enough to prevent a brokered convention. Obviously, I hope he does, and that he is ultimately the nominee to face Trump in November.
A brokered convention isn’t unlikely, however, and if it happens it’s going to be a mess. Right now, you have Klobuchar, Buttigieg, Bloomberg, Biden, and Warren trying to cement themselves as the centrist candidate. Biden and Warren are tanking in the polls, and Buttigieg and Klobuchar both lack viability at the national level. The biggest threat at the moment is Bloomberg, whose astonishing power and wealth allow him to effectively purchase sweeping advertising buys and hire a massive foot operation to canvass for him. Bloomberg wants a brokered convention, if only so he can influence superdelegates to pick him or someone else over Sanders during the second round of voting. The other centrist candidates, despite their obligatory calls for unification, are undoubtedly hoping to be chosen as the compromise candidate in this situation. So, even if they drop out, you can be certain they will not endorse Sanders or encourage their delegates to throw their support behind him. If a brokered convention does happen, and the party picks someone else despite Sanders having a significant plurality of delegates, Trump will win in a landslide and the Democratic Party will be destroyed. The latter is not necessarily a bad thing, but I would prefer it to happen in the course of a Sanders win, which would hopefully expose third-way Clintonism as the fraud that it always was.
Assuming Sanders wins, and I think he has a good chance if he focuses his messaging and doesn’t allow the activist wing to alienate the working class, the real danger is assuming the work is done. It won’t be. Sanders is smart enough to know that organization must continue, and he also knows he will face significant opposition from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress. All of this makes a Sanders victory a hopeful step toward something like a social democracy, but even in a best-case scenario where Sanders accomplishes everything he wants to accomplish, there will still be major class disparities that need to be addressed. Social democracy should not be the end goal, but I think it can provide a material basis for something more revolutionary.