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Did Liberals Fail Because We Didn’t Pay Enough Attention to the Suffering of White Men?

Ok, I know I know — if you’re not a white man reading this, you might be thinking I spend most my life appeasing white men, they have enough attention already!

BUT! What IF by focusing a little more attention in this area for a moment, we could get to a more equitable society down the line? Like, imagine if you had a slow oil leak in your engine; you could just keep refilling the oil more frequently, saving yourself time in the short run but losing it in the long run. Or you could like, take the extra time in the short run to fix the leak, and then save yourself time in the long run when you don’t need to be stopping all the time to re-fill your oil. I’m saying, did a lot of the liberal movements loose momentum because they failed to “fix the leak” of white male disenchantment?

(Full disclosure, I have no idea how engines work I was just tying to create an example more relatable that programming, where I actually encounter this problem. It’s possible a slow oil leak in your engine would cause your car to explode or combust for all I know)

One of the most baffling things about our current situation, is that the majority of white men in the US support a conservative government right now, and I genuinely believe most white men would be happier living in a liberal society. Perhaps not the liberal society exactly as previously expressed in the US, but a society where:

  • You don’t die if accidental bad things happen to you (e.g. job loss or illness)
  • You have freedom of religion and personal expression
  • You have bodily autonomy, and your body is protected from being extorted by other people
  • You have significant social mobility and access to things like affordable education, if you want them; but you don’t need that to get ahead

The price of this society is:

  • You do not get to extort any other person’s body for your own wellbeing
  • Some degree of investment in communal infrastructure (e.g. taxes)

And, where I see this break down mostly for white men (apart from some squabbling over taxes) is the sanctity of bodily autonomy. So, yes, abortion is part of it — but, beyond that, we live in a society where coercing people into doing your bidding is tolerated.

Like, sure we don’t have slaves… anymore, but our institutions were built on slavery, and to some degree still require using exploitative labor to function.

As a thought experiment, imagine I’m born into a well to do family, and I inherit a plot of nice farmland. Now, imagine you were born with nothing, but you know how to work a farm. Let’s say I hire you to work my farmland, I sell the produce that you make, and I pay you just enough to live on, but not so much that you can eventually go and buy your own farm (especially true nowadays, as property prices are rising.)

That’s seen as totally ok in today’s society, but functionally, you are doing all the work, and I get to live for fee doing nothing simply because I happened to inherit land.

Now, let’s also say, the cost of getting an education/getting a new skillset is exorbitantly expensive, so you can’t expand your skillset, and that every other person who is willing to hire farmhands isn’t willing to pay more than me.

What do you do? What options do you have?

This is better than literal slave labor, because if I am extremely exploitative you do have the option of going to work on someone else’s farm, so that will keep my most outrageous abuses in check. However, the complete lack of social mobility — along with an extremely unfair division of labor and rewards — makes it (imo) kind of only one step above.

This is where I think America is right now; the vast majority of people are working as “wage laborers” for business owners who get a disproportionate share of the profits of a business. THIS is the biggest problem white men face (like the rest of us) I think, and deep down this is what is really driving white men to be unhappy. Many of them don’t have a way to make a life for themselves; even basic things that we used to take for granted — “getting a job, having a house and staring a family” the old school American dream are out of reach of many.

Yet, we don’t often acknowledge that the majority of white men in this country have this problem. We look at tweets like this and assume white men have it great, because the vast majority of people at the top are white men:

But, the vast majority of white men are not running fortune 500 companies. The average white man makes about 60k annually in the US (2020.) Now, of course, this is more than women (of all races) who make about 45k or Black people (of all genders) who earn around 41k annually, but it’s not much more. I mean, ok, it’s 50% more — but, let’s compare that to the top 1% of earners, who make about 500k annually in the US. The top earners make about 1000% more money than the people in the middle (and, remember, half of white men make less than 60k.)

All of which is to say, if you are a working class or middle class white American man, your incentives are likely very closely aligned with working/middle class people of other genders and races.

So. Why the hell aren’t white guys lining up round the block to support the liberal agenda?

Well, imagine you’re a working class white guy in the lower 50% of white male earnings — heck, let’s say you’re a trucker (trucker is a largely white male working class profession.) Truckers earn about 45k annually (or they did before the pandemic, so let’s go with that for simplicity.) You have an extremely important, highly time consuming job. You know it’s important, and you know if all the truckers evaporated off the earth tomorrow that the entire US would completely shut down, people would die; it would be a massive catastrophe.

Yet, you also know (on some level) that you’re not getting paid enough for the value of what you are performing. Entire empires are build on the back of truckers, and yet, most truckers don’t receive any value or wealth from the empires their labor supports. Presumably, this grates at you a bit.

Now, you come look at the liberals, and what are they saying? Let’s check out that tweet from earlier: “We need more women CEOs! We need more Black CEOs!” and you’re just like… fuck, this doesn’t help me at all, why the hell do I care how many CEOs are women? I can’t afford to pay my medical bills.

The point that has been lost by the liberals is that we are creating an America with no social mobility, and this is hurting white men just as much as it’s hurting everyone else. Yes, women, POC, and other discriminated against people have an extra little special helping of pain, but the big problem affecting us all, is that the modern day “property owners” (today, this could be a virtual business, not a physical property) are able to exploit our labor by taking advantage of the fact that most of us will never make enough to invest in our own property.

The vast majority of us are trapped as farmers working the land for someone who was born with more money than us.

NOW — where this gets tricky is, why do I think liberal policies are better than conservative policies at promoting social mobility?

And, the answer to that question is, even if there was some nuanced discussion to be had around this in the past, the American right has descended into a religious theocracy, and theocracy is about solidifying power into the hands of a few. It’s about finding a few “chosen ones” to elevate above the masses, because they’re “closer to God.”

This isn’t about religion on a personal level; it’s about why we keep religion out of politics — because it’s extremely easy to abuse. The reason it’s easy to abuse, is there is no way to prove who is an agent of God. You basically just have to trust what people say.

Joel Osteen said if I gave money to his church, I would be rewarded ten fold with financial success in my own life so I gave them a thousand dollars. (For the record, I have personally visited the Osteen megachurch in Texas, and yes, they did explicitly promise you would get more financial prosperity by giving them money.)

I didn’t get the money Pastor Osteen said I was going to get, I must have sinned and displeased God.

Theocracy (especially Christian theocracy) is “infallible” because you can always blame lack luster results on the sins of people involved. In this way, leaders can no longer be held accountable for the repercussions of their actions, because they always have the “God’s plan” get out of jail free card and the “you’ll go to hell” threat for disobedience. It’s why religious institutions often end up being the most abusive, they prevent objective evaluation of the ruling leaders.

This isn’t to say that Christianity or any other religion is necessarily wrong, just that when religion and government institutions mix, you have a society ripe for exploitation.

If things go on long enough, theocracy begins to look like monarchy (most monarchies were forms of theocracy where the King — occasionally Queen — claimed to have the right to rule over a large group of people because he/she was ordained by God.)

And, in case it’s not clear, monarchical (or oligarchal) societies are terrible for social mobility; the primary goal of people in the upper echelons of these societies is to cement their family as a permanent fixture of the ruling elite.

I’d get into the details of this more, but that’s probably a post for another day — but, how does all this land on white guys?

Well, this is a threat to all of us, including white men. And, white men feel this; most white men I know are low key obsessed with money because they believe that money is a path to freedom of some kind. Fair enough, right?

The question becomes, why were so many white men taken in by the right when the right is actively looking to turn the vast majority of them into modern day surfs?

And the answer is, many white men believe their freedom will come on the backs of women and POC. It’s a hard truth to swallow, but it’s a historical reality. People love to complain that “racist and sexist” attitudes drove Trump voting (and, the data sure makes it look like that’s true) but this doesn’t answer the question, why are white men drawn to racist and sexist attitudes?

I think part of the reason is, most of us cannot conceive of a society that is equal, and has social mobility available for all. Historically, the social mobility of white men has replied on trapping other people — especially Black people — as a permanent labor underclass. If Black people manage to escape this perpetual underclass, who will replace them?

One of the big problems liberals have, is they aren’t presenting a utopian image of a more fair society; they’re presenting a future where we still have a deeply stratified society, but a diverse rainbow of oppressive overlords keeping the plebeian masses down.

It actually reminds me of one of my favorite paragraphs in The Wretched of the Earth

The gaze that the colonized subject casts at the colonist’s sector is a look of lust, a look of envy. Dreams of possession. session. Every type of possession: of sitting at the colonist’s table and sleeping in his bed, preferably with his wife. The colonized man is an envious man. The colonist is aware of this as he catches the furtive glance, and constantly on his guard, realizes bitterly that: “They want to take our place.” And it’s true there is not one colonized subject who at least once a day does not dream of taking ing the place of the colonist.

Frantz Fanon. The Wretched of the Earth

What this really brought out for me, is that when we are oppressed, we have a temptation to imagine our perfect society as one that is identical to the one we live in, except that we are at the top of the hierarchy.

We want to take take our oppressors places, not create our own world.

For instance, as a young woman, I used to imagine myself making it to the top of a very male career ladder and excelling in male professions. I would show them! I thought to myself, I can be just as smart as any man.

When I graduated school and started work, I did in fact enter a profession that was like, 90% male and it was a decently paid one (programmer.) It was also very white; I had landed in the white male utopia! Money, privilege, and power would surely flow my way!

I quit after like, 8 months, and as I was leaving, I wondered to myself, how do so many men put up with working like this? I was basically working in a massive cube farm, on a 20 year old project where my work had effectively no impact, but was still difficult enough that I had to devote large amounts of concentration to it regularly, so I couldn’t think about other topics. I was miserable; I actually used to go for walks by myself and cry regularly. And it was my first inkling that, maybe life isn’t so hot in the white male camp either.

But, because I’d been raised to believe in our current capitalist system, I couldn’t really imagine a world other than the one we were in. Success meant being the best in the system as presented. It means, being the CEO, or the CTO, and ruling over all your minions.

Doesn’t it?

Well, it doesn’t have to.

I talked about this a little bit in my piece Modern Workers Lack Adult Freedom, but effectively, we could be finding small scale ways for people to build their wealth assets during their working lives. One of the main issues modern workers face, is they never own anything associated with their own labor; the companies they work for own everything. I think, effectively, this is exploitative, and we should be finding ways for workers to build up assets based on the fruits of their labor (stock options, for example, is one way workers in tech companies can be rewarded — but, there can be issues with this, and there are probably more ways.)

If someone works for 50 years and is never able to accumulate wealth despite being moderately responsible then they have been exploited by their employers.(I reject the argument you need to be extremely responsible, because I think the American Life game should be geared so that the majority of people can succeed.)

When we dive into the needs of white men, what we actually see, is they are deeply intertwined with primary needs of almost everybody in the US right now. Creating more social mobility, allowing more people to accumulate wealth would basically improve the lives of… well, just about everyone. (Except maybe the very rich, which is why they fight things like this.)

The thing is that, white men and oppressed classes tend to diverge into different ideologies based on one single cognitive mistake, and that mistake is, the belief that our current system is fixed, so we need to rig the existing game to get to the top.

White men will try to rig the game by diving into old prejudices that initially favored them, whereas oppressed classes will try to rig the game by affirmative actioning their way into places of historical power. (I’m not saying affirmative action is bad, but rather, it is not a sufficient solution to structural inequality.)

What we need, is more people finding ways to change change the underlying rules of the game, specifically to allow for larger degrees of personal agency. Increasing forms of wealth generation for the working and middle classes is one way to do this, but it’s not the only way; it’s just a highly appealing one because lack of wealth is currently what keeps some people trapped by the wealthy. I could try to think of some more, but frankly, I’m recovering from covid right now and my brain just hit the wall.

If you have any ideas, let me know!

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