restricted access 6. Crash, Collapse, and Catastrophe in Postindustrial North America
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— 149 — The End of the World as We Know It—Disaster Scenarios The world as we know it is soon to end, according to many, possibly most, North Americans. In the early twenty-first century, end-of-the-world discourse has burst forth from the lunatic fringe into excited conversations, face-to-face, from the pulpit, on the Internet, and on late-night talk radio. This paper examines four major disaster scenarios for the class specificity of their constituencies, preoccupations, symbols, prescriptions, and villains, as an arena for the development of class consciousness. I will discuss briefly the “end of the world as we know it” as a contrast set, then focus in on a vast, largely working-class discourse, the NWO or New World Order, an interlocking web of “conspiracy theories” with countless millions of adherents. Close analysis of message content demonstrates that each of these scenarios registers (if through a glass darkly) a strong analysis of particular class predicaments that, we can speculate, could remain otherwise unspoken in a dominant culture of class denial (Silverman 2007; Durrenberger and Doukas 2008). Together, I’ll suggest that examinaS I X Crash, Collapse, and Catastrophe in Postindustrial North America D i m i t r a D o u k a s — 150 — D i m i t r a D o u k a s tion of the crash, collapse, and catastrophe scenarios of the early twentyfirst century can tell us something useful about class “in itself,” as Marxians say, and class “for itself.” This distinction dates to The Poverty of Philosophy (1847). Proletarian status, Marx argues, arises from the bourgeoisie acting as a class “for itself,” in its own interests. The proletariat started out as peasants with customary claim to land, as Marx tells it. Many would have preferred to stay that way. They became an industrial proletariat through the political domination of industrial capitalists and united to pursue their own interests in opposition to that domination. The combination of capital has created for this mass a common situation , common interests. This mass is thus already a class as against capital , but not yet for itself. In the struggle, of which we have noted only a few phases, this mass becomes united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself. (1847 [1999]) Like Durrenberger and Erem’s “union consciousness,” Marx’s class for itself coalesces in, and can be identified by, a sense of “sides” in an oppositional relationship to capital (Durrenberger 1997, 2002). Although it is not a form of class consciousness that classic Marxist analysis predicted (and sought to shape), the NWO scenario, this paper suggests, promotes a sharpening working-class opposition to capital by exposing the abuses of an inaccessible , contemptuous “global elite”—perhaps in anticipation of struggle. By scenarios I mean shared versions of what’s going to happen in the near future, that affect how we plan and act in the present. Disaster scenarios are usually “underground” or “backstage” conversations, only rarely surfacing in the public sphere and major media. As a unit of analysis, each scenario represents a cluster of active conversations. Conversational threads stretch across class boundaries, but each scenario anchors to a particular class constituency and embeds particular class interests, because these scenarios project a future “we” must act on to survive. The model of class-specific disaster scenarios sketched below allows for a “middle class” delimited by sufficient education in the vocabularies of the dominant culture (“formal” education) to decode and participate in conversations that use those vocabularies.1 By setting the bar at educational attainment , with due respect for the material foundation required for educational attainment, this distinction outlines an etic “middle class” with an economic — 151 — C r a s h , C o l l a p s e , a n d C a t a s t r o p h e base in largely cultural capital.2 The asset of formal education can materially offset some of the insecurity associated with wage-earner status, and occasionally be parlayed into dominant-class status, but always at the risk of “falling” through the largely cultural middle-class/working-class border. Emicly, ethnographically, the “middle class” label can be extended even to relatively uneducated (“formally”), underemployed, and unemployed people, and often is in conversations among the “blue-collar middle class” (in filmmaker Michael Moore’s helpful phrase). The etic working class represented in this model, then, is basically the one proposed by sociologist Michael Zweig: people who labor (when...


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