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June 2024 Issue [Easy Chair]

“As If You Was a Insect”

“How little the real characteristics of the working-classes are known to those who are outside them,” lamented Marian Evans in 1856. She had reason to feel she knew better. The daughter of a Midlands estate manager, Evans grew up trudging along with her father while he collected rent from other tenants, repaired buildings, and oversaw fields, forests, and mines. As a bookish girl, she enjoyed access to the library in grand Arbury Hall—but when her father entered the big house on business, she sat with the servants in the housekeeper’s room.

Now a thirty-six-year-old literary bohemian in London, Evans had traveled far from the muddy lanes and hayricks of her native Warwickshire. First she shocked her family by rejecting orthodox Christianity; then she lost them altogether by living openly with a married man. By 1856, she was on the cusp of the most radical self-transformation of all, one that would make her the greatest novelist of the nineteenth century. Yet she hardly fled from the difficult questions about class she had encountered in the countryside. As George Eliot, she devoted the rest of her career to expanding the social world of English fiction: from the corseted dramas of Jane Austen, her moral imagination reached beyond mullioned windows to embrace the other 95 percent of the population—farmers, millers, carpenters, dairymaids, wheelwrights and wheelwrights’ wives—who were unlikely to be admitted at Pemberley except through the servants’ entrance.

Like many Victorians—from Dickens to Marx, who sometimes worked alongside her at the British Museum—Eliot thought a great deal about the working class. Her thoughts were not simple or always sympathetic, especially when they turned to the rural world she knew best. In particular, Eliot loathed the way that artists rendered the countryside as a laughing menagerie of red-cheeked peasant girls and bright-eyed shepherds: “No one who has seen much of actual ploughmen thinks them jocund; no one who is well acquainted with the English peasantry can pronounce them merry.” The child of Warwickshire could not disguise her contempt for the notion that rural workers were natural incarnations of goodness. Over one hundred fifty years later, we can only imagine the asperity with which Eliot would have greeted the idea that a rustic “heartland” is the storehouse of national virtue, whether in Britain or America: “The selfish instincts are not subdued by the sight of buttercups. . . . To make men moral, something more is requisite than to turn them out to grass.”

These days, metropolitans run little risk of idealizing America’s rural working class. In 2020, Donald Trump won 65 percent of rural voters. In many very rural, very working-class places—such as Rusk County, Wisconsin; Mingo County, West Virginia; or Choctaw County, Oklahoma—the number approached 70, 80, or 85 percent. While some progressives imagine that Trump voters in the countryside largely own auto dealerships and pleasure boats, a glance at Rusk, Mingo, or Choctaw—where per capita incomes range roughly between $21,000 and $32,000 per annum—shows the poverty of this conceit. Trump’s grip on rural districts has not been made possible by “salt-of-the-earth millionaires,” as one writer termed them in The Atlantic, but by the single largest demographic group in the American countryside—white voters without college degrees, in households earning well below the national average.

For much of the twentieth century, Rusk, Mingo, and Choctaw—like much of the white, working-class American countryside—voted Democratic, intensely so during the New Deal era and to lesser degrees as recently as the early Aughts. But since then, these voters have joined a larger national migration of working-class Americans away from the Democratic Party. And they have been joined by great numbers of non-white voters, including perhaps half the Hispanic electorate and an unprecedented share of black Americans, according to recent polls. In Choctaw County, this group likely includes a significant portion of the working-class Native population, whose Democratic allegiance is on the wane. Still, it is rural white workers—farmers, servers, haircutters, mechanics, cashiers and cashiers’ husbands—who are usually understood as the lead characters in this historic reversal of class and party loyalty.

The result is an urban intelligentsia that regards rural, working-class voters with perplexity and pious disappointment. These Americans, Paul Krugman points out, often live in states with low employment and “high rates of homicide, suicide, and births to single mothers.” Why on earth should they vote against a Democrat, who has “been trying to bring jobs to their communities”—however ineffectually—and turn to a Republican, who offers “little other than validation for their resentment”?

Krugman claims to be baffled by this churlishness. Others, armed with expert research, are ready to prosecute. On MSNBC, the authors of White Rural Rage: The Threat to American Democracy read out their heavy bill of indictment, with indubitable proof of guilt from some thirty different “polls and national studies.” It turns out, another pundit observes, that “most of the negative stereotypes liberals hold about rural Americans are actually true.” They are uniquely prone to election denialism and COVID conspiracy theories; they are a demographic less likely to support constitutional checks and balances and more likely to justify violent political action; above all, they are “the most racist, xenophobic, anti-immigrant and anti-gay geo-demographic group in the country.” “Here, you perceive,” Eliot once wrote of a depressed Midlands village, in words that might apply with no less force to Rusk, Mingo, and Choctaw, “a terrible stronghold of Satan.”

Eliot’s own depiction of England’s rural working class did not succumb to pastoral cliché. Her field laborers do not smile unless they have reason to: at a harvest dinner table in Adam Bede, “there was seldom any gradation between bovine gravity and a laugh.” And in describing rustic workers, Eliot did not shy away from the zoological; thus, for the typical English farmworker, “the slow gaze, in which no sense of beauty beams, no humor twinkles, the slow utterance, and the heavy slouching walk, remind one rather of that melancholy animal the camel.” German peasants who were susceptible to “communistic doctrines,” she wrote after the revolutions of 1848, had been “corrupted into bestiality.”

Yet even at her most severe, Eliot never stooped to simple snobbery. Victorian conservatism aside, her view of class, power, and character retained a materialist core not unworthy of her neighbor at the British Museum. “Slander,” one of her narrators notes, “may be defeated by equanimity; but courageous thoughts will not pay your baker’s bill, and fortitude is nowhere considered legal tender for beef.” As often with Eliot, the gentle smile in the expression does not detract from the sincerity of the sentiment expressed. Her attention to such matters of legal tender, from the unpaid debts of the Reverend Amos Barton to the financial fraud of Nicholas Bulstrode in Middlemarch, accounts for no small portion of the richness of her novels. In all nineteenth-century literature there is no more vividly concentrated image of rural economics than Alick, the tightfisted shepherd in Adam Bede, “throwing very small handfuls of damaged barley to the chickens, because a large handful affected his imagination painfully with a sense of profusion.”

Of course, Eliot did not reduce all human experience to barley and pence. Her materialism went deeper, the necessary complement of a philosophical imperative “to represent the people as they are.” The sentimental view of the English countryside disgusted her, not because it idealized boorish clods, but because it drew on an insulting and pernicious theory of society: “the miserable fallacy that high morality and refined sentiment can grow out of harsh social relations, ignorance, and want.”

Instead of issuing moral verdicts, Eliot traced material conditions. Her novels depict unique individuals making their own histories, but not as they please; not under self-selected circumstances, but within larger structures that cannot be shrugged off with a righteous cringe. “Now, it is all pretense to say that there is no such thing as Class Interest,” declares Eliot’s working-class hero, the “radical” watchmaker Felix Holt. “And this, again, has been part of the history of every great society since history began.” For Eliot, there is no escaping the blunt reality of class exploitation in the countryside. In Adam Bede, Squire Donnithorne pays a visit to the Poyser family, speaking in his “well-chiselled, polite way” about the possibility that they will be expelled from their farm. His manner, says Mrs. Poyser, “allays aggravated me: it was as if you was a insect, and he was going to dab his finger-nail on you.” As the critic Raymond Williams wrote, exchanges like these reveal not “simply an aspect of character but of character in a precise and dominating social relationship.”

Dickens was larger and Hardy was sadder, but Eliot remains the great Victorian novelist of precise and dominating relationships. And yet coercive power is not the only story. The Poysers and their class may be exploited and abused, but they are not mere victims. The open secret of workers’ relationship with the gentry, in Eliot, is that their labor makes its gentility possible. For Eliot as for Marx, it was obvious that the working classes were the true protagonists of history. Dorothea Brooke, the genteel protagonist of Middlemarch, reaches a critical decision by simply looking out the window and realizing that actual existence is everywhere except in her own parlor.

On the road there was a man with a bundle on his back and a woman carrying her baby; in the field she could see figures moving—perhaps the shepherd with his dog. Far off in the bending sky was the pearly light; and she felt the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labor and endurance. She was a part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining.

Do we believe anything like this anymore? In America today, the thought of rural workers provokes a different set of reflections from those of us ensconced in good liberal society. On MSNBC, we may look at them as if they were insects who might be advantageously dabbed out with a fingernail before November 5, 2024. Or they may inspire a doleful sort of sympathy: Alas, these unfortunate souls, stripped of their jobs and dignity by the march of Capital, who now have nothing to give except their resentment.

What is more difficult is to conceive of manual laborers—let alone rural, Trump-voting American workers—as a source of our own wealth and comfort. To the extent that urban liberals appreciate this logic at all, it drifts toward dim and distant thoughts about supply chains, and perhaps the dark origins of the iPhone in a Chinese factory or Congolese cobalt mine. Seldom does it lead back to Rusk, Mingo, or Choctaw Counties. If anything, the argument travels in the opposite direction: as Krugman conscientiously reminds us, “there are huge de facto transfers of money from rich, urban states like New Jersey to poor, relatively rural states like West Virginia.”

The twenty-first century’s protagonists of history, according to white-collar common sense, do not sweat in fields or factories, much less carry bundles down country roads. The involuntary, palpitating life palpitates elsewhere now. It flashes and darts through a vortex of global finance, trade, and engineering, somehow producing AI search engines, coronavirus vaccines, and the blockchain, all without the input of a single mud-stained worker.

This may be pure ideology. But it carries a political odor, and surely has something to do with the kind of hardy perennial one so often sees in the New York Times: why do the democrats keep losing the working class?

It also marks a distance from the wicked old Victorian days, when, as Ray Davies of the Kinks sang, “Life was clean / Sex was bad, called obscene / And the rich were so mean.” At least the Victorians had respect. They feared the action of an empowered mass of workers, “the steam that is to work the engines,” as Felix Holt says, poised to announce its own class interest and become “the masters of the country.”

Today we have come to pity or condemn an unproductive working class, which cannot recognize its own interests. Sometime after 2016, the phrase “economic anxiety” became an unlikely punch line for liberal pundits, who saw it as a bogus euphemism for the raw bigotry that fueled Trump’s support. The joke, apparently, is that any worker who did not vote for Hillary Clinton could not possibly have had material concerns to worry about. “It seems to me,” wrote one Vox journalist, “that many of these people haven’t been left behind; they’ve chosen not to keep up.”

Rather than “communistic doctrine,” we now associate the masses with its ideological opposite. the polls prove it, announces The New Republic: many republicans love fascism. Hillary was right all along; the American countryside is an overstuffed basket of deplorables. A nation of liberal Dorotheas looks outside its collective window to the roads and fields beyond and simply shudders.

Eliot, unlike Marx, professed few answers to the problem of class in the nineteenth century. Yet there is something in her vision, its materialism and its idealism too, that might serve us. A chapter in Adam Bede served as something like a manifesto for her democratic art:

There are few prophets in the world; few sublimely beautiful women; few heroes. I can’t afford to give all my love and reverence to such rarities. . . . It is more needful that I should have a fiber of sympathy connecting me with that vulgar citizen who weighs out my sugar in a vilely assorted cravat and waistcoat, than with the handsomest rascal in red scarf and green feathers.

There is no reason to idealize today’s rural American workers any more than the shepherds and weavers of Warwickshire. Harsh social relations generate resentful social subjects; the polls prove it. But if romanticization is bad, exoticization is worse. Workers in hard-hit rural places still make the expensive products that keep society good, from weatherproof windows (Rusk County) and timber for hardwood floors (Mingo) to the pecans (Choctaw) one might find in the aisles at Whole Foods. Republican farmers, carpenters, and haircutters still move the world with their labor, no less than Democratic digital professionals do. Underneath the partisan fear and loathing, “a wide and arduous national life” still murmurs on, linking city and countryside, crossing lines of race, gender, and culture, waiting to take hold in our politics. American workers are not merely victims of that life but the literal creators of it.

“We are the 99 percent”: Remember that foolish old slogan? It never made sense as sociology; its distortion of productive relations amounted to a crime against historical materialism. Yet as a kind of democratic aspiration, it suggested a different path into political struggle. Conjuring a community defined by shared interests rather than shared values, it proposed a call to arms, not for the marginalized, the oppressed, the ethical, or the just, but for the vulgar, vile masses ourselves. We have come a long way since then.

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