Barbara Ehrenreich on the New Right rhetoric of producers vs. nonproducers

Reagan 1980

An excerpt from Barbara Ehrenreich's 1989 book Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class in which she looks at the New Right developing the rhetoric of cross-class alliance between the ruling class and blue collar workers, against the then expanding, largely liberal, Professional Managerial Class and the poor.

In his 1975 book The Making of the New Majority Party, New Right strategist William A. Rusher revealed the hidden basis of the emerging class alliances. A wealthy Yale-educated attorney and publisher with an interest in wine-tasting, Rusher is one of the New Right’s most enthusiastic proponents of working class populism. America, he announced, is no longer divided between the haves and have-nots, but between the “producers” and the “nonproducers.” The producers are the blue-collar people who make things, plus the capitalists who generously and thoughtfully pay them to do so. Hence there is an obvious affinity between the very wealthy and the working class. Together they produce. And together they support everyone else--the swelling population of nonproducers.

In Rusher’s scheme, the poor fit entirely into the category of nonproducers, living idly off the dole. (The existence of the “working poor” who make up over 40 percent of the poverty population over th age of fourteen, is seldom acknowledged by the right. Indeed, nothing could be more destructive to “traditional values” than the realization that, for millions of Americans, hard work does not pay.) But the poor are not the only nonproducers:

The great central fact that looms over the America of the mid-seventies is the growth, in the past 25 years, of a whole new economic class [of nonproducers]....They are neither businessmen nor manufacturers, blue-collar workers or farmers. Instead, the dominant members of the new class form a “verbalist” elite.

The goal of the New Class was to “run the United States,” an aim in which they were supported by their “huge and apparently permanent welfare constituency.” The affinity between the New Class and the poor now made perfect sense: both groups are parasitic, sly, and at odds with the “basic values” held by the producers--haves and have-nots alike.

Labeling the New Class nonproducers made good populist sense, for, as we have seen, this is how working-class people tend to see middle-class professionals anyway--as people who do not work, at least not in any serious, constructive manner. The right had already had some success in tapping resentment against “lazy” welfare recipients, and perhaps hoped to turn the same kind of rentment against the New Class. “Mr. Rusher is right,” a commentator wrote in the _Conservative Digest_. “The honoring and rewarding of work must become the basic economic principle of the new [political] party.” He regretted, however, that there was still too much blue-collar “apathy” about the New Class’s threat to big business.

From a capitalist point of view, the New Class does, on the whole, earn its keep quite nicely. Even the most woolly-headed “verbalists” are capable of filling a variety of essential capitalist functions: writing advertising cop for new products, teaching others how to comport themselves in a complex and hierarchical society, or like Rusher and other intellectuals of the New Right, writing pseudo-populist defenses of big business. Whether out of self-interest or a clearer understanding of the New Class’s role, the neoconservatives had never gone so far as to suggest that their own class was parasitical and hence expendable. But this was the inescapable drift of Rusher’s analysis. “The producers of America,” he wrote, “the businessmen, workers, and farmers have a common economic interest in limiting the growth of this rapacious new non-producing class.”

Here an ominous tone creeps in. Why just “limit the growth” of this useless and scheming class? Without specifying exactly what should be done to them, Rusher listed three “targets for the right: First would be the welfare recipients; second, the leftist students and their professors (not that leftists of any kind were a significant force by 1975), “And then,” he warned, “it will be the turn of the other non-producers who have recently learned to live, as a matter of right, off the generosity of working Americans.”

Posted By

Comrade Motopu
Dec 10 2017 06:25


  • The producers are the blue-collar people who make things, plus the capitalists who generously and thoughtfully pay them to do so. Hence there is an obvious affinity between the very wealthy and the working class.

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