The Rust Belt Blues: Discontent and the Working Class

“Freud spoke about Unbehagen in der Kultur, the discontent or unease in culture; today, thirty years after the fall of the Wall, the ongoing new wave of protests in liberal democracies themselves (whose exemplary case is the gilets jaunes in France) bears witness to a kind of Unbehagen in liberal capitalism, and the key question is: Who will be most salient in the articulation of this discontent? Will it be left to nationalist populists to exploit it? Therein resides the big task of the Left: to translate the brewing discontent into a viable program of change.”

—Slavoj Žižek, Heaven in Disorder

I read Zizek more as a True Crime journalist writing tabloid philosophy for the masses in most of his essays. He’s right of course, the populist Right has a unified stance even if for us on the Left its ludicrous. The Left on the other hand has no message at all in the populist sense of feeding the beast of our discontent. The elite progressives of New York cultural milieu and our comic parade of social media spar in farce against Hollywood and Pop Politics seeking to bring down straw men rather than producing a message that will shape a future worth living in. Our academic left seems passe and bland, spouting philosophical humbug to each other in podcasts and specialized journals that no one reads but themselves. All our supposed protest movements died a decade back, and most of the Left is sectioned off in silos of race, gender, economic, or some other isolated battle for specific segmented goals. The day when we had a metanarrative that had weight and would speak to both the discontented Left and Right seem to have washed away. All that’s left is media puppets seeking to instill the profit margin with sensationalism and resentment in the populace rather than home in on some actual message that could pull us together and shape our future. So, yea, I agree with Zizek “the big task of the Left: to translate the brewing discontent into a viable program of change.” Can they, do it? Will they be able to speak to the discontent of all Americans or will they continue to foment hate and derision without any actual content and message of change? Let’s face it the political progressives, the neo-liberal face of progress is caput, their comic has-beens whose support of the upper-class liberal rich Oligarchs of their own disposition has left the people in the Rust Belt behind to die in the squalor of a dead world. We need change but change that is for the real working class who’ve been dumped in the trash-bin of history like so much rust and decaying ruins. No wonder the populist Right with their calls of nostalgia for a bygone Pioneer America seem to rouse the masses of those workers in middle-class and working classes alike, offering in their slogans of nostalgic wonder years with “a path back to the brave, pioneering spirit that made not just survival but explosive growth and visionary changes possible in America.”1

What does the Left offer but more antagonistic rhetoric and shibboleths of a dead world of economics and recriminations against anything and everything these days? Where is our voice? Who will speak to the people desperately in need of help out there in the rust belt?

  1. Charlie Kirk. The MAGA Doctrine. HarperCollins.