“Are you that Sohrab Ahmari?” So asked a public-sector attorney as soon as I sat down for the “lawyers’ meetup” at last weekend’s Labor Notes conference in Chicago—the massive biennial gathering of labor unionists organized by the activist group and journal of the same name. I had picked that particular affinity group, held toward the end of the conference, because it was the closest one to my professional background as the holder of a law degree I never use.
“Yes,” I replied, adding in a desperate attempt to cut the tension: “the good one.”
Not even a chuckle. The lawyer screwed up her face and buried her eyes in her phone and began tapping away. I imagined her sending messages to friends along the lines of: Notorious theofascist Sohrab Ahmari is at Labor Notes. Once the group introductions were over, a younger trainee lawyer came up to ask me about my unusual career path. But before I could say much, the older lawyer interjected, “He’s a conservative. Yes, he believes everything you imagine he believes.”
She did this, she said, lest the young man be misled by me—into what, exactly? Now pressed to account for my presence as a man of the right at a conference of the left, I proceeded to explain that I support robust social-democratic limits against market behavior for the same reason I favor limits against individual autonomy in the cultural sphere. I blurted something about Leo XIII. The younger man was visibly befuddled by the idea that one could simultaneously oppose free-market ideology and liberal individualism. He soon left, because “I don’t give a fuck about reclaiming the right for labor.”
Fair, but he had now left me alone with the older lawyer, unremitting in her certainty that someone with my views doesn’t belong at Labor Notes. No doubt to get a rise, she said she views the right to terminate pregnancies as a component of “human flourishing” (not, in other words, as an unavoidable evil or a necessary tragedy). She was obviously intelligent, and supremely clear about her worldview, while I spluttered like a cornered political animal.
It was the culmination of experiencing, for two days, the full spectrum of the left’s weird cultural tics: A ludicrous mask rule and its attendant hypocrisies? Check. Pronoun stickers and a surfeit of lanky white boys in babydoll dresses? Check. Endless genuflection at the altar of racialized politics? Check. It would be tempting to take a single glance at all this and dismiss today’s labor left as one more bastion of toxic wokeness.
It would also be a big mistake, especially for those on the right newly (re-)awakened to the threat posed to our common life by corporate misrule and market exploitation.
Insofar as the labor movement seeks to democratize our economy, and to enhance the power of workers subjected to pervasive coercion in the workplace and the marketplace, it remains a profoundly decent, humane force. And notwithstanding the identitarian atmospherics, there was plenty of evidence at Labor Notes that the movement remains committed to such material aims—far more than can be said for the right, even under its new, “pro-worker” dispensation.
The cultural sociology of the Labor Notes conference itself could inspire an entire monograph. The official rules and messaging unfailingly upheld the orthodoxies du jour, but adherence on the part of the more than 4,000 rank-and-file attendees varied sharply by race, occupation, and industrial sector in important and telling ways.
Consider the Covid regime. Vaccination was required to register, but you can never be too “safe” these days, so masking was made mandatory for good measure. “Lovely to see all these masked faces here,” one moderator began his opening-day session, “and the lovely faces behind them.” Another moderator said something off-hand about “having gone through a pandemic” before quickly catching himself: “What am I saying? We’re still in the middle of a pandemic.” Thought-crime averted, phew.
Yet at many sessions and in public areas, some attendees entirely exempted themselves from the rule. At a moving workshop about organizing gig-economy workers, a large group of Latino cleaning ladies, ride-share drivers, and DoorDash deliverymen sat unmasked—the whole time. No one dared make the slightest effort to correct their super-spreader behavior.
At another workshop on new union organizing, the facilitator made clear that “we”—meaning the panelists—“won’t be taking off our masks.” But one panelist, a black flight attendant involved in the effort to organize her Delta colleagues, quite sensibly removed hers, at least while speaking. The rules permitted speakers to do so, but she was clearly defying the extra measure of caution self-imposed by her (mostly female) white and Asian co-panelists; blue-collar men, especially black ones, signaled their disdain by frequently wearing their masks at their chins or under their noses.
It isn’t very difficult to discern the meaning behind these disparities: The masking was largely for the cultural recognition and gratification of white and (generally) female attendees associated with public-sector unions and more progressive private-economy unions. Few apparently feared getting infected, let alone seriously endangered, by the unmasked Latina cleaning ladies and farm workers. By the same token, no one seriously expected these latter groups to comply; the rule wasn’t meant for them.
The same went for the pronoun stickers, which were strongly encouraged but not required. “We’re including pronoun stickers to let others know what pronoun we want used when referring to us,” the program instructed, “and so we do our best not to assume anyone’s gender. . . . Help us make our labor spaces respectful of troublemakers of all genders.” Old-fashioned labor idioms like “industrial brothers” had likewise given way to gender-neutral, and rather bloodless, terms like “industrial siblings.”
But again, it was clear that the pronoun game was largely played for the sake of the more progressive layers of the labor movement. Burly teamsters of whatever race were far less likely to flash their pronouns or use rainbow lanyards than, say, organizers trying to unionize service workers or adjuncts in higher education.
These patterns should be familiar to anyone who knows his way around the labor movement today, in the United States and across much of the developed world. (The contrasts appeared especially stark at Labor Notes, owing simply to the sheer number of attendees and convergence of left energies.) Yes, workers in industrial sectors engaged in tangible labor are likely to be older, male, and culturally conservative, while those engaged in “softer,” information- and service-oriented labor tend to be younger, female, and culturally progressive. At the new-organizing workshop, for example, a young Starbucks employee decried how the union-busting law firm hired by the coffee giant had “traumatized” her colleagues, words one can’t imagine crossing the lips of an earlier generation of labor activists.
Here’s the thing, though: The fact that a younger worker holds an expensive humanities degree that has proved useless in the labor market; that he—or, more likely, she—uses upspeak, awkwardly twisting her declarative sentences into interrogative ones; that she refuses to accept the end of the masking psychodrama; that she dutifully parrots the latest in gender ideology and Ibram X. Kendi Thought; and so on—none of this invalidates her claims for workplace justice. Nor can it serve as an alibi for low wages, job precarity, and lack of access to decent health care and other benefits. And yet many on the right today, including the supposedly pro-worker New Right, point to these cultural dynamics to excuse their fundamental indifference to labor’s cause.
In doing so, New Right types make several missteps, all resting on superficial cultural observations, rather than a serious analysis of America’s class structure in 2022. For starters, they narrow the definition of “working class” to precisely those burly teamsters, carpenters, electricians, railroad hands, etc., while arbitrarily excluding many other wage-laborers simply because they hold lousy degrees and progressive opinions.
At its worst, this tendency bizarrely classes adjunct professors and the like among the ruling class, while oligarchs like Elon Musk are made out to be working-class heroes, of a kind, simply because they defy some progressive orthodoxies. Often, this account of class in America traces back to crude readings of James Burnham’s theories on the managerial elite, many of which were falsified by history while the author was yet alive (the capitalist class didn’t, in fact, fail to refresh itself, as Burnham predicted, and anyone who imagines the largest holders of capital to be “passive” victims of their h.r. managers doesn’t know the first thing about, say, Jeff Bezos).
America’s class structure isn’t all that complicated. Those who wish to map its contours would be better served by examining things like labor markets and capital flows than critical theory. Roughly speaking, there is the top 0.1 percent, the largest owners of capital; the top 1.1 percent, composed of Wall Street executives and other high managers; and the top 5 to 10 percent of professionals who service the assets of the first two groups.
The bottom 90 percent, meanwhile, comprises blue-collar workers, nonmanagerial workers, non-college-educated workers, and downwardly mobile college-educated ones. That last group is the target of much right-wing ire, because its members often share the cultural views of the upper 10 percent. Indeed, those who work in media, information, and education often serve as the frontline enforcers of elite ideology.
Even so, the wages of that last cohort have remained stagnant for about 30 years, all the more painful for a generation brought up to believe that a college degree is the pathway to a stable life. By any serious material measure, no one in the bottom 90 percent can be counted a part of the ruling class. To suggest otherwise is to stretch the notion beyond recognition. Yet so much of what passes for “class analysis” on the New Right is premised on the notion that the college-educated precariat is in the driver’s seat of the national economy, of politics and culture.
These pseudo-Burnhamite theories of class are not only unempirical, they also fail to pass muster with the more class-conscious among the tangible workers celebrated by the right. Simply put, if you are an industrial laborer who wants better wages and health care, you are attending Labor Notes (or gatherings of your local central labor council), not a New Right gabfest. And that says something.
None of this is to whitewash the corrosive effects of what Sahra Wagenknecht calls “lifestyle leftism” on the labor movement: its obsession with boutique sexual causes; its corrupt bargain with the subsidy-hungry green wing of capital, to the detriment of workers in manufacturing and low-income consumers; its ever-more-inane language policing; its stances on questions like immigration and transnational governance that are often scarcely distinguishable from those of neoliberal elites.
The educated precariat has its own material and cultural interests, ones that are often inimical to those of the “old” working class. Nevertheless, a solid share of the tangible working class recognizes enough of a material affinity between its interests and those of the labor left to stick around. If the recent strike wave sweeping the labor force is any guide, that share is growing, and growing more militant, even as the Democratic Party hemorrhages working-class voters.
The teamsters at Labor Notes might roll their eyes at the mask rules, but to whom should they turn if they want to realize the promise of the New Deal, which is finally to empower workers in the face of powerful economic interests that otherwise hold every card? To Bari Weiss, Andrew Sullivan, Bill Maher, and other neoliberals now recoiling from the cultural ramifications of the very policies they once promoted? To a “conservative” legal movement that gave the upper hand to employers in every significant industrial flashpoint in the past two generations? To a New Right exercised by the cultural pretensions of woke capital, but not the material predations of capital as such?
No, they turn still to the actually existing labor movement, its shortcomings notwithstanding.
Those shortcomings are real enough, and they risk tactically hobbling the movement just when swaths of the working class have had it with lifestyle leftism. Yet for the lawyer incensed by my presence at Labor Notes, the commitment to gender ideology, sex-worker liberation, and the like were nonnegotiable. If there are any moral indignities associated with such phenomena, she believed, none is inherent to them—all arise, rather, from capitalist relations of production, which, once done away with, would give way to more just and rational relations, on the factory floor as much as the porn casting couch.
In a last ditch attempt at persuasion—note to self: These never work—I mentioned how actually governing Communist parties have often proved quite culturally conservative.
“I know. I oppose them on that.”
And what about social-democratic parties in the 20th century, which until relatively recently held fast to an ideal of family life still squarely situated within the Christian frame?
“I have a critique of them, too.”
We shook hands and parted ways. The whole conversation put me in mind of a meme recently tweeted by online wit Aimee Terese. It shows a fortress on a hill offering such blessings as a living wage, health and job security, retirement benefits, and so on—the best of the old left’s material aspirations. But below the hill lies a gauntlet of other things, which must be passed through to reach the prize: “Drag Queen Story Hour,” “puberty blockers,” “insane censorship,” “BLM riots,” “crime surge,” “Covid psychosis,” and so on.
Segments of the left maintain the cultural gauntlet, inadvertently or not assisting the mainstream, neoliberal right in keeping the fortress of material security inaccessible. Nothing is easier for the liberal right than to keep political contestation at the level of culture, to point to the left’s insanities and jeer, “Here, here’s your worker’s movement.”
But the gauntlet isn’t, in fact, the whole of the labor movement. Far from it. Even at Labor Notes, the vast majority of sessions were devoted to things like wages and pensions and collective bargaining and the threat of monopoly and private equity and the gigification of labor. My right-wing confrères will think me naïve, but I’m convinced if these material issues received even a modicum of earnest—as opposed to culture-war-geared—attention from the New Right, it could help get workers some ways up that hill, an eminently just cause in itself and one that could weaken both the lifestyle left and the neoliberal right.