An anthropologist looks at America’s growing proletariat

Summary: Here anthropologist Maximilian Forte looks at America’s changing social structure (the rise of the 1%, death of the middle class) using perspectives from Rome, Marx, and modern identity politics. It’s one of his best essays, worthwhile reading about America’s most serious problem (fracturing our social cohesion, making solutions of the others difficult or impossible).  This is the material that should shape Campaign 2016.



The Ultimate Proletarian and
the Neoliberal Condition

By anthropologist Maximilian C. Forte.
From Zero Anthropology
Reposted with his generous permission


Middle class to proletariat

The word “Proletarian” has acquired many layers of meaning over the centuries, possibly in part because the many, historically changing situations of proletarians became more complex. Since the advent of western European capitalism in the 16th century, proletarians were defined as “members of the lowest class”. By the mid-1800s, they were “the lowest class” composed of “indigent wage-earners”.

For Marxists, proletarians were defined by their relationship to production — they rented out their labour in exchange for a wage, with wages kept lower than the market value of what they produced, and were separated from what they produced since they produced for exchange, and not for their own use. Lenin’s vision of the future involved a dictatorship of the proletariat, in the socialist phase toward communism.However, as anthropologists have argued, there have been many different degrees of autonomous access to resources among rural proletariats worldwide, simultaneously involved in both production for use (subsistence) and for exchange (cash crops). Some advanced the term “polybian” to describe people with multiple sources of income, besides that earned from wage labour.

Finally, Immanuel Wallerstein cautioned that the ultimate aim of capitalism was not the full proletarianization of workers — that is, reduced to a total dependency on wage labour to sustain themselves, because that would ultimately make capitalists responsible for the welfare and reproduction of the workforce. That is hardly the first priority of those committed to the ceaseless accumulation of capital. The ideal is maximum profit, which means wages held as low as possible. One can depress wages when it is known that workers have other sources of sustenance, where either they have their own plots of land where they can grow their own food and/or participate in the so-called informal economy as hucksters.

But when proletarians have no alternate avenues, then the need for “a job” and for wages, is at an absolute maximum. One of the fatal flaws of neoliberalism is that it has reduced a great many of us to exactly this state of total dependency on capitalists, at the same time as they have shirked all social responsibility (minor philanthropic palliatives aside).

Editor’s note: One of the great innovations of the post-WWII is corporations’ pushing wages below sustenance levels, forcing employees onto food stamps and Medicaid.

The ultimate proletarian then is one that is truest to its original Roman definition: people who own nothing (without productive property) — who own nothing except the capability to make children. There is an almost anatomical shift in meaning here: for the Marxist, a proletarian is someone who owns the power in his/her two arms (the power to work); for the Romans, the proletarian is even less than that, someone who can produce offspring — the power is further down the body.

Editor’s note: Children have value to society, but they have little value to us. Hence the number of children in foster homes who were abandoned by their parents, the rise in shared custody (neither parent wants to carry the full load), custody battles where neither parent wants the child — and the relentless fall in fertility. After all, children are among — perhaps the largest — expenses other than basic food and shelter. it’s unclear what parents get out of the deal.

I am wondering then if the original definition is not in fact the more accurate one for describing the proletarians of contemporary, urban North America. (The proletarian, reduced to two hands, might remind some of the song by Barbara Dane, “Song of My Hands”: “What have I to be singing of, but of my only property, I’ll sing you a song of my hands”.)

In the urban environment, the many who are raised in apartments, or in houses with only a symbolic yard (if that much), and forced into long years of schooling as training to get “a job” — these are people, the vast majority, who generally have no independent access to productive resources. Public goods, formerly kept in the hands of the state, have been transferred to private interests. Natural resources, which by definition belong to the land (or oceans, lakes, and rivers), and which in turn would reasonably be the preserve of the public (all citizens), are instead harvested by a small number of corporate interests, who retain most of the profits for themselves.

FEMEN protester at the Quebec National Assembly
FEMEN protester at the Quebec National Assembly, protesting “mon utérus, ma priorité” (30 April 2015).

Our bodies, our selves

The only “territory” left to the ultimate proletarian, the only “property,” is one’s skin, one’s genitalia, one’s body. This at least partly explains why so much value is vested in the politics of skin, genitalia, and bodies: the ultimate form of enclosure means one has been divorced from every resource except one’s own physical self. The body is the final frontier, the last stand of the proletarian.

Editor’s note: The health care system allows corporations to extract a form of rent from our very bodies. The far higher health care costs in the US vs. those of our peers — producing only similar outcomes — shows how they’ve exploited this power.

Reduced even from “bare arms” to just “making children,” the final form of enclosure pushes the ultimate proletarians back into their bodies, as distant as possible from all productive resources. If the body as a whole is now their only allowable form of “property” — because they were born with it, and capitalists have not yet figured out a way to alienate persons from their own bodies — then the basic “currency” is skin. A body, is conceived as one’s private property thanks to bourgeois constitutional notions of individual rights, which are designed to protect private property. As David Harvey writes in his 2014 book, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (p. 41)…

“What is remarkable, however, is the lengths to which capital has gone to extend the reach of an individualised private property rights regime deep into the heart of biological processes and other aspects of both the social and the natural world in order to establish proprietary rights”.

Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism
Available at Amazon.

In the same text (p. 187), he comments on capitalism and gender imagery: “in some instances they [capitalists] certainly do not hesitate to attach signs of class and even more emphatically seductive gender images to the qualities of their products”. Again, this is skin, that of the gendered body, used as a mark of “distinction” (Pierre Bourdieu).

The only “sovereignty” left to the ultimate proletarians is what they claim over their own bodies — such that self-determination is reduced to matters of contraception: “my uterus is my business”. Such people have little else to boast about, and may find the concept of “sovereignty of nations” to be so big, abstract and distant, that they even scorn it — thus missing the whole point of their own exclusion and reduction. Defeated, they retreat into their own uterus.

Skin also serves to store value, to make comparisons between one’s skin and others (a form of exchange), and is the basis for making claims. Restitution and reparation for crimes against the skin become substitutes for production, or for the fruits of production that were stolen. Skin is instrumentalized in the struggle for access to wealth and income, especially where skin is central to struggles for recognition and respect. Skin becomes a kind of money, as it starts to symbolize something other than what it is (mere epidermis) and becomes a measure of status and social position. It can even accrue “interest” — that is the value of a particular type of skin (or body) can increase over time. As we also know, historically certain skin (colour) was deemed more credit-worthy, and benefited from racial lending practices.

Two kinds of proletariat. Similarities and differences.

Not all proletarians are alike, of course, neither as individuals nor as whole “groups”. In gross terms, there are at least two types of ultimate proletarians, the differences between them being a matter of degree, which sometimes is so great that it appears to be a difference in kind.

One consists of those who are exclusively, even desperately focused on earning a wage, gaining any employment, and worrying about how to feed their children. These are the “blue collar” proletarians, who in the US live on as little as $2.00 a day — rock bottom. How they display themselves in public is not an important concern. They have little time, and few resources, to engage in obsessive self-fashioning. They don’t have websites where their name is the core of the URL. These proletarians may be either urban and/or rural.

The other group of proletarians, most commonly identified as “white collar” are exclusively urban. They too live deprived of independent access to resources. They are permitted a more comfortable lifestyle sustained by credit but are still dependent on others for professional employment (as the highest position to which they can realistically aspire). Minus wages and occupations, what ultimately differentiates the two groups is the difference between food stamps and credit cards.

The Queen - Round 1

Beyond that, the differences become harder to discern, since there seem to be unexpected role reversals. For example, the first proletarian (blue collar) gains an income purely because of the power in his or her body. Yet their personal, individual body politics are minimal when compared to others. The most we ever hear from them in terms of identity politics, concerns the identities of others, usually dreaded others.

The second group (white collar) relies less on their own bodies, because they have access to more schooling needed for professional advancement (most of our university students come to mind). These seem less focused on the identities of others as their main concern, but are intensively fixated on their own bodies, and how to regulate and adorn them.

These are two different sets of identity politics, the first generating a monolithic group politics with less individual concern for their own individual bodies, while the second produces a more cosmopolitan orientation while being absolutely fascinated with their individual appearance. They are so “me” focused, that ethnicity strikes them as too gauche, too backwards — they proclaim themselves anti-nationalist and pro-mixture, because what matters for them is no longer ethnicity as much as meficity: the specificity of me.

Members of the first group may ridicule members of the second for being affectatious, superficial, and trendy. Members of the second may ridicule those in the first group for being yokels, bumpkins, “white trash” mocked as hideous to even look at.

How individualism divides us

They are both united, and yet differentiated, by their disposition towards “individualism,” so highly valued in US culture. The first group likes individualism as long as everyone is essentially the same (a contradiction), where individualism becomes a code for the working class bravado of relying on yourself, asking for no favours or handouts, and building a home with your own hands. For the urbanites, individualism means marketing yourself as different, as unique, and they thus highly value customization and upgrades, as well as their right to speak loudly about their pride in their difference.

The new pronouns

For the first group, what predominates is a sense that there can only ever be just two genders, and it’s highly sexed gender: male/man, female/woman. The second group…well, what can we say…they seem to have invented 56 genders, and a mass of incomprehensible pronouns, with a huge gulf between gender and sex — one more degree of enclosure. The lifestyles and self-definitions of the second group are routinely lampooned in the very clever, very critical comedy series “Portlandia”.

The first group has suffered a long history of discrimination and disdain, to be feared as creatures of horror (even cannibals), or they are ridiculed like the “Cletus figure” in “The Simpsons” — a sure sign of how, even now, it is still socially acceptable in the US to engage in classism-racism when speaking of “white trash” and “trailer park” people.

Systema Naturae
Available at Amazon.

The barbarians attack, again

The first group of ultimate proletarians represent a “return of the savage” in North America, and particularly in the US. We are back to stories of the European wild men of the forest, named in Carl Linnaeus’ 1758 text Systema Naturae, from which the extract below was taken. In Jacob Pandian’s 1985 book, Anthropology and the Western Tradition, he describes the traits associated with the primal wild man (from the wild men of medieval European forests, to Native Americans after colonization): “Cannibalism, abnormal physical features, insatiable sexuality” (p. 38). The wild men of medieval Europe were said to “roam” on the “outskirts of civilization” (p. 52).

The “white trash” of the “trailer parks” are cast as nationalist, xenophobic, reactionary, and anti-cosmopolitan. They are blamed for wanting a piece of something that they can call their own, and for protecting what little they have — it’s the elitist blame that is truly reactionary, as it represents an attempt by the defenders of the status quo to quash rebellion from the margins.

Wild Man
Woodcut from “The Regal and Ecclesiastical Antiquities of England, London 1793.

Again, this is the wild man returned, which as Pandian noted was symbolized “to conceive of irrationality, disorder, chaos” (p. 38). The word “savage” is itself derived from salvaticus in Late Latin, an alteration of silvaticus meaning “wild,” as in literally “of the woods,” from silva meaning forest or grove. Such people of the woods were cast as “ungovernable” and “indomitable”. Such savages were seen as living…

“outside of order, outside of society…a woodland being who is hypersexed and endowed with super-normal physical powers. The savage is a cannibal, half beast and half human.”

The wild man was “excessively sexual, lurking in the woods where he waited to seize, carry off and defile civilized women, and to devour innocent babies” and he was usually “naked” (Pandian, 1985, p. 63).

(I will have more to say about the second group, the precarious cosmopolitan urbanites, aspirants to the mythical “middle class” sustained by credit and credulity, in a separate essay.)

Politics of identity; politics of goods

As I have argued over the years elsewhere, what we call “identity politics” and “material politics” are fundamentally intertwined. The awful success of identity politics, and I really do mean this pejoratively, is in its ability to distract its politicians from the real roots of their bodily, self-fixation. Since the body is real and tangible, it is not difficult to raise the body above all else. Body fixations, joined with individualism and rights, produce a narcissism that refutes all questioning.

In most cases, it would seem clear that the identity politics of the ultimate proletarian were produced by political acts of exclusion, resulting in economic subordination. From that, it appears that there is a material base for the politicization of identity. Historically, we have known primarily of such cases, where political economy produces the material basis of identity politics — think for example of the expropriation of indigenous lands, or the enslavement of Africans, or the sequestration of women in certain spheres of the economy. It is not difficult to see how a material-determinist perspective might be persuasive here. However, I tend to follow Pierre Clastres, in seeing political action as the first basis for economic exclusion, something which the market cannot produce in and of itself. In addition, it is politics that can sometimes create new economies of identity.

It is also possible to produce an economy from an identity position. For example, you can create (even if it’s small) economic growth by fiat, by declaring for example that transgender people have certain rights. This is political and legal action, stemming from the state, and not the market. In doing this, it inevitably results in the bureaucratization and professionalization of transgender movements, with permanent offices, staff, dues, and expenditures.

On the state’s side, an additional layer of bureaucracy might be formed, to monitor, regulate, and report on transgender people. In academia, new positions are created, along with new courses, journals, and conferences. Journalists then cover transgender stories, and some in the entertainment industry might feel the time has arrived for more movies on transgender issues. Transgender celebrities are created, and find themselves invited to sit on all sorts of boards. Suddenly what was a small legislative act, produces employment and creates opportunity for investment.

—————————— Watch for the next chapter ——————————

Maximilian ForteAbout the author

Maximilian C. Forte is a Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal. He is the author of numerous books, most recently Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa (2012) and Emergency as Security (New Imperialism) (2013).

See his publications here; read his bio here. He writes at the Zero Anthropology website, one of the of the few with an About page well worth reading.

Anthropology after empire is one built in part by an anthropology that is against empire, and it need not continue, defensively, as a discipline laden with all of the orthodoxies from which it suffers today. Indeed, the position taken here is that there can be no real critical anthropology that is not simultaneously critical of (a) the institutionalization and professionalization of this field, and (b) imperialism itself.

Anthropology, as we approach it, is a non-disciplinary way of speaking about the human condition that looks critically at dominant discourses, with a keen emphasis on meanings and relationships, producing a non-state, non-market, non-archival knowledge.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts by Maximilian Forte, about social class, and especially these…

  1. For Thanksgiving, Walmart shows us the New America,
  2. Why Americans should love Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings – we live there,
  3. Why Elizabeth Bennet could not marry Mr. Darcy. Nor could your daughter.
  4. Learning not to trust each other in America, and not to trust America.
  5. Our future will be Jupiter Ascending, unless we make it Star Trek.
  6. Complaints about air travel are the cries of a dying middle class.
  7. When marriage disappears: rising inequality as the threat to the family.


5 thoughts on “An anthropologist looks at America’s growing proletariat”

  1. FM: “children are among — perhaps the largest — expenses other than basic food and shelter. it’s unclear what parents get out of the deal.”

    The parents will hopefully get grandchildren, which can be a great blessing.

    1. Pluto,

      Many people think so. But the crashing fertility numbers suggest that many people believe grandchildren are insufficient rewards for the cost and effort of childrearing. Especially as American’s mobility means that you might seldom see them.

  2. Large Article. Required me to read numerous times, slowly.
    Many paragraphs are full in themselves:
    EG: “One of the fatal flaws of neoliberalism is that it has reduced a great many of us to exactly this state of total dependency on capitalists, at the same time as they have shirked all social responsibility (minor philanthropic palliatives aside).”
    Good Editor notes, too.

    Good to see Anthropology being used in this way.


  3. Pingback: What Is The Meaning Of Entertainment Websites | Meanning TOP

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