This book about poor people is not basically about rich people

Some people really loved the Economic and Political Manuscripts of 1844, which Marx never published. I call those people alienation Marxists or sometimes species-being Marxists. Those from high socioeconomic backgrounds seem especially prone to becoming species-being Marxists, presumably because all the stuff about exploiting the proletariat is of little use to them personally.

Chris Maisano, from what I have read of him, seems to be one of these species-being Marxists. It’s all alienation all the time, and the rich and poor alike are suffering under capitalism. His piece in Jacobin today is perhaps the Platonic form of this kind of writing.

In the piece, Maisano leans heavily on a new book by Jennifer Silva about poor working-class youth to make points about people who are not poor working-class youth. In so doing, he misrepresents Silva’s actual thesis. Here is Maisano:

In her excellent new book Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, the sociologist Jennifer Silva analyzes the ways in which neoliberalism has radically transformed our sense of self. As Silva argues, the assault on working-class organizations and living standards has led many young adults to adopt a profoundly individualistic and therapeutic view of the world and their personal development. [emphasis mine]

This is not correct. Silva is not analyzing “our sense of self”, which presumably applies to everyone. She is not analyzing “many young adults.” She is analyzing poor working-class youth. Her book is about the issues affecting poor working-class youth. It is not about the issues affecting rich Wall Street bankers, which is what Maisano applies it to. It is not about middle class and upper class kids who went to top schools and are having a hard time with whatever. It is about poor working-class youth.

Maisano continues:

The scores of young workers that she interviewed for her study had no faith in politics or collective action to address their problems or to give their lives meaning. Instead, they deal with the traumas of everyday life by crafting “deeply personal coming of age stories, grounding their adult identities in recovering from painful pasts — whether addictions, childhood abuse, family trauma, or abandonment — and forging an emancipated, transformed, adult self.”

Silva did not interview “scores of young workers.” She interviewed 100 poor working-class youth. Maisano’s own quote should tip you off to this. The quote refers to how poor working-class youth, according to Silva, understand becoming an adult as a process of dealing with and working through trauma that in massively disproportionate numbers affects poor working-class children. In the place of normal markers of adulthood — whether getting a degree, or getting a permanent job, or getting a house, or getting a spouse — overcoming poverty-related trauma is what poor working-class youth identify adulthood with, says Silva.

It is pretty silly to take some given millionaire whose story is remarkable precisely because it appears to be so rare, join him with Silva’s analysis of a lower class youth, and declare that we are all one youth united together in alienation. The psychological plight of poor working-class youth that Silva is documenting is not analogous to the bourgeois ennui that species-being Marxists compare it to.

What we know of those with higher incomes is that they have it good. There is this weird strand on the left that imagines that the rich have it bad too. Capitalism is bad for them too. Their lives are alienated from community and species-being. No, they have it good, one weirdo Wall Street banker notwithstanding. That’s why they want to keep the system the way it is. It is better for them if the system stay the way it is. Acting like we are all in this together across socioeconomic groups because we are all harmed by alienation is contrary to reality. It is also bad politics because it diffuses attention away from the upper classes, the real enemies, and towards some nebulous system that we are all being oppressed by, bankers included!

Edit: I should not strictly say “poor” in the way I do here. Silva is dealing with kids from working class backgrounds. She does not provide their incomes, but, from her descriptions, I gathered that they were primarily poor or on the low-income spectrum.