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.

9 thoughts on “The Rust Belt Blues: Discontent and the Working Class

  1. One of the things the Panthers got right was the breakfast program and building institutions in the community to materially help struggling people. They tied that to revolutionary struggle and internationalism. Panther groups started all over the country, and they attempted to coordinate. Good plan, not always the best implementation. But of course, their biggest challenge was the empire, who brought the full force of the establishment and its thugs down on them and crushed them like an ant.
    A similar thing has happened to the left writ large. Though as I mentioned recently, the left has had many unforced errors along the way, which helped them lose this last iteration of the class war much faster than many thought possible. As I also mentioned, the left labors under many erroneous bits of conventional wisdom about what it can and cannot do. For example, they think it’s actually a positive to remain atomized because they think it makes it less possible to be crushed. Before you can tell them that they’ve already been crushed, they will say the magic phrase, “diversity of tactics.” Well, tactics are important, but if they’re happening without first being a unified force building power with goals, plans, action, and yes, leaders, tactics will fall short every time.
    That is just one of many examples. Until the left can slough off the yoke of thoughtless conventional wisdom, it won’t even really be able to properly get started again.
    I believe the way out is to materially, physically, help struggling people. There are good people doing this on the left now, from feeding people to stopping evictions and organizing renters, etc…, mostly anarchists actually. Some of these projects are highly organized and doing a lot of good. Unfortunately, very often the people who are being helped are not being organized in any way, so a lot of it ends up just being charity. Even worse, the groups across the county (and the world) are not often connected in any meaningful way, and they are definitely not part of a larger struggle/movement etc…
    So, in theory, unifying and coordinating, and expanding what’s already happening would be a good start. You see other aspects of the problem when you try to imagine these anarchists and say, the dsa, unifying in common cause…
    Again, these are all just brief examples, but the key is actually doing something in a coordinated way instead of thinking about how to “educate the masses.” If people are working together to help other people while building institutions and a movement, the education will happen – and it will happen in both directions.
    Well, as I tried to sketch out, you see how this is impossible under the current constellation of the left and while they operate under erroneous conventional wisdom. Yes, it’s not just that. I could write a book on the problems of the left, but I’m just hinting at what could be a way back and a way out. There are some open doors, but at the moment, when you swing the door open, you are faced with a brick wall. I’m not interested in talking about hope in this context. All I know it’s that there are tens of thousands of people out there who are doing things, and there are millions who want what would be considered radical change, so the tinder is there, but there is not a match in sight.

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    • As Zizek would put it: it’s the “hope of the hopeless”, the apocalypse happened yesterday and yet we continue as if nothing had happened or could happen living our deaths as if they were our lives. Wandering in a psychotic nightmare realm in which our lives are being sucked dry by vampiric forces of this economic monstrosity of a civilization. Welcome to the desert of the Real as he’d put it…

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      • Yep. That’s essentially why i said I’m not interested in hope. Every living thing has always faced its own apocalypse; so in one sense, the apocalypse has always already happened, over and over and over…In the most practical sense, I still care about other people and I care about my own ability to have something resembling the remainder of a decent life. While we can’t avoid our own personal apocalypses or the one that is evolving rapidly, political actions that have “worked” in the past still have some power, and the more of that the better as far as I’m concerned.
        I was taking to a former mill worker the other day. Here couldn’t organize his last workplace and eventually got another job in a union shop. His life is better. That happened. Is it perfect? No. Will he face his own personal apocalypse no matter what happens in the greater evolving apocalypse? It’s guaranteed.

        I’m pretty familiar with Zizek. He revels in philosophy, but, even being the egoist that he is, he still cares about the well- being and circumstance of others and hasn’t used philosophy to obviate action. Of course he is old now, so I don’t think many would begrudge him doing whatever he wants – but he is still engaged, and he is still thinking about what is to be done…

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      • Egoist? His philosophy of Subject and World is not based on any sense of personalism or ego but on the Hegelian notion of that form of dialectic. Max Stirner and Fichte were egoists in that sense, but Zizek… no… you must be reading into his flamboyance and jouissance a perversity that is not there. 🙂

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      • Oh, and if you’ve gotten anything out of Lacan, I’d like to know, because the grains of sand I was able to keep in my palm, are pretty, pretty small… ; )
        There, I think I tricked the emoji system. We’ll see in a moment…

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      • Let’s face it you have no taste for higher thought, no urge to read the ancients and moderns in philosophy so how would you understand a French purveyor Freud who turns everything into a part of the linguistic turn? I understand you can’t make heads or tails of philosophy, but that after all is your problem and choice. How would I explain something to someone like yourself who has no interest? I can’t, and wont. 🙂

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  2. I’m not saying his philosophy is a philosophy of egoism, I’m saying he personally is an egoist. He has essentially said it about himself.

    I’ve read a fair amount of philosophy and literature – psychology, sociology, history, and on and on. It seems like that should be obvious by now, but I guess I’ve been a little too folksy and avoided allusions. Oh, well, doesn’t matter. No one has ever been able to tell me why Lacan is revelatory or great, so I’ll add you to list. No worries.

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    • No, you’ve stated more than once you’re not interested in it. I have nothing to go on but what you say. I’m not a mind reader, nor do I read into what people say by some form of miraculous ‘intuition’. I see Zizek as a comic trickster who contradicts himself, overturns the mainstream Hegelians and Lacanians at every turn of the hyena’s laughing cry. He’s fun to read but most of the time he leaves you with the feeling he is lost in his own sophistry hoping someone will pull something out of his verbose impenetrability. There are insights to be had but they are for the most part hidden among the linguistic rush of his untamed mind.

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