Reviewed by June Ann Jones
An eye-opening cultural analysis, No Home for You Here shows how the definition of the ‘working class’ pervading the popular imagination in the past few decades obscures this group’s identity primarily as workers. Adding to the growing genre of cultural analysis on small town USA, this book easily finds its place on the shelf next to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (2016) and Robert Putnam’s Our Kids (2015), though Rensch’s unique contribution avoids drawing sweeping generalizations about the region in which he grew up. Instead, this refreshingly accessible book tells the very personal and self-reflective tale of how Rensch came to really understand class as Marxists do, as a relation of capitalism. If revived, this definition of class could reinvigorate and refocus how workers and their allies approach building a world in which they can truly belong, a home. At only 170 pages, this book is easily tackled by a wide audience and lacks the academic jargon that might otherwise alienate a mass readership. Many readers will see themselves and their loved ones described somewhere in these brutally honest and relatable pages.
A regular contributor to the Brooklyn Rail, Rensch consolidates many of his previously published musings on his own intellectual development and realization of class consciousness in this book. Using the all-powerful (and sometimes problematic) ‘we’ at the end of the book, he clearly intends that the readership should include those about whom he writes (the working class). Rensch’s observations of his own family and hometown hum with energy, perhaps hoping to awaken the class consciousness of his own readers.
Taking his lead from Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again (1934), Rensch dismisses the old myth that the US was ever a ‘home’ for the working class. Returning to Ohio in 2010 after living in New York City and reading Marx in coffeehouses, Rensch describes how his first impression upon arriving back in his childhood home in his twenties was contempt and shame. Rensch had to recalibrate his view of what he once thought of as his home. Home, Rensch reflects, can be understood in several ways – from geographical birthplace to one’s childhood community – but mostly it describes ‘an idea, a promise of stability’ wrapped up in nostalgia and a psychological need to belong to somewhere (13). Rensch’s diagnosis of the present time is that people ‘no longer feel at home, and many others have never found the home they thought they were promised’ (15). This complements his own ambivalence about where he belongs and where he wants to belong in the class structure.
Ultimately, Rensch admits that he was ‘held captive by culture and by [his] own desperation to belong’ (121). By showing the difficulty of walking between what has been construed as two different worlds (i.e. the urban-rural divide), Rensch realizes that this is in reality only a distraction from the real divide between the working class and the capitalists who perpetuate the precarious existence and all the preventable tragedy that comes with it. While Rensch could go further in acknowledging the precarity of both classes, the working class is the primary subject of this book.
Readers familiar with Marx are aware that the group the media, politicians and even individuals themselves call ‘working class’ are not always what Marx had in mind when he described the proleteriat. In the US, the working class is a socio-economic category often associated with one’s academic degree and income. Influenced by Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America (2016), Rensch clarifies that class has ‘nothing to do with how we look or act, or how we might identify ourselves culturally’ but instead class is ‘material, centered around how work comes to define and guide our lives in a myriad of ways – the “work” of the working class’ (20). In other words, Rensch uses an undeniably Marxist definition of class, and the deciding factor for whether or not one should be counted as a member of the working class is the ownership of capital. Thus,
class division is primarily between those who control and allocate economic resources (banks, corporations, stockholders, and the sympathetic representatives they fund) and those who must sell their labor power in exchange for a living (workers). (20-21)
While this conception of class is not news for readers of the Marx and Philosophy Review of Books, Rensch feels the need to clarify this because of the way in which politicians, pundits and academics have failed to distinguish the working class from the middle class based on material differences and instead have fallen into the fallacy of defining class by subtle cultural markers, such as the brand of one’s clothes or one’s unsophisticated grammar. This makes me wonder if Rensch would take issue with books such as Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler’s Prius or Pickup?: How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide (2018), in which liberals and conservatives are shown to have affinities for particular brands and cultural artifacts. My guess is that this only narrowly misses Rensch’s accusation, since the difference between liberals and conservatives is not exclusively a matter of class. However, research characterizing the split between Democrats and Republicans (the two parties of the capitalist class) as the ‘great divide’ in US politics is likely more part of the problem than neutral. Even if someone chooses Dunkin Donuts over Starbucks, it doesn’t make them a champion of the working class. Again, culture is getting in the way of class. For Rensch, the greatest divide in the US is between workers and employers. If the workers were to realize this, cultural markers of group affinity would matter little. After all, Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks both exploit the working class.
In opposition to those who seek to build a broader understanding of class (i.e. Thomas Yates’ Can the Working Class Change the World? (2018)) in order to build coalitions, Rensch is calling for a narrowing and a sharper definition to redirect current political discourse. It is only in this narrowing that genuine solidarity can emerge, based on the common experience of being a worker (i.e. of being exploited). Culture serves to confuse who is on whose side in an antagonistic class struggle. In fact, one of Rensch’s explicit main goals is to trouble this prevailing definition of ‘working class.’
The book is organized into seven chapters, pairing vignettes from Rensch’s life and observations about the larger political context in which these moments took place in space and time. In chapter one, Rensch describes his return to Ohio after living and getting a graduate education in New York City. He reflects on moments from his childhood in the 1980s and 1990s in which he slowly learned his place in the hierarchy of (allegedly) meritocratic capitalism. This was a time when even children felt divided by their parents’ class status. Rensch’s own parents worked for wages, mainly as a factory worker and a realtor, placing him squarely in the working class.
Chapter two contains an extended reflection about the emergence of ‘whitetrashiness’ on the political stage and how this stoked an imaginary cultural divide that obscured real class divisions. Class became about being ‘classy’ and ‘cultured’ instead of about work. Rensch describes how he himself attempted to distance himself from the cultural pariah that is the ‘redneck,’ the ‘hick’ and ‘white trash.’ Rensch even describes shying away from telling his academic colleagues where he was from in anticipation of their prejudice against people from the Midwest as being provincial and backward. Rensch’s best defense against people assuming he was a ‘redneck’ he assumed was to maintain the signature aloofness of the urban intellectual.
By the end of chapter three, Rensch has clearly argued and shown evidence for his main thesis which is that the class war between the ‘establishment’ and the ‘working class’ staged by political elites is nothing more than a squabble over ideological differences of people from the same class, inter alia capitalists. Republicans and Democrats are mostly catering to the middle class in attempts to broaden their base and collect campaign contributions. All the while, the real class struggle is in the workplace, between workers and bosses, those who own capital and those who must make their living on wages.
Rensch makes the material condition of the real working class visible in his many, often eerily familiar and sometimes tragic descriptions of his own family and friends’ bad luck as people born into a world without class mobility. In perhaps the most heartbreaking chapter (chapter four), Rensch describes his final memories of his father before his sudden death in his mid-forties. This chapter’s subtle insights into the connection between precarity of labor and alcoholism strikes a chord. The cultural assumptions that fault those who fail to find jobs, to stay sober and to become ‘respectable’ are the ideological smokescreen that obscures how much the realization of the American Dream is more often a matter of luck that it is of ‘hard work.’ It is of note that many of Rensch’s most interesting reflections on the toll that working class precarity takes on individuals happen in conversation with his father’s own editorials published over time. This is best exemplified in chapter five when Rensch comments on what he sees as his father’s growing feelings of ‘alienated detachment’ to a world that promised him (at the very least) a job and couldn’t even give him that.
Chapters six and seven describe Rensch’s own journey as a hopeful ‘young intellectual’ and how the myth of meritocratic success led him to take on enormous student loans and end up living back with his family in Ohio. Some formative moments are revealed, for example when Rensch discovered his futile resentment towards wealthier working class people (i.e. managers), those he said who often are seen as being better off but in fact living in the same exploitative relation to capital as others workers. Again, the relation to capital matters most here.
As a memoir, one of this book’s most powerful contributions is its privileged and unobstructed look at the complex lives of individuals who are often analyzed as a statistic rather than a person with hopes, dreams and heartbreak. The news stories (many of which Rensch cites) in the aftermath of the 2016 US election betrayed a general and widespread lack of being ‘in touch’ with rural and working class lifeworlds. Academics are also regularly accused of reenacting an exploitative and extractive power dynamic with their research subjects. While this is not something Rensch explicitly states, he does include a particularly disturbing anecdote about when his professor asked him to photograph the ‘beauty’ of his own father’s ‘self-destruction’ (121). This hints at the callousness of the ethnographic intention and the sadistic fascination with documenting tragedy. While scholarly self-reflexivity is called for more and more, Rensch’s memoir offers an example of how to balance telling a story with challenging one’s own assumptions and prejudices.
The personal, nuanced-yet-straightforward understanding of the working class No Home for You Here offers matters for anyone who wants to understand not just US politics as it currently plays out, but also the prospects for an emancipatory politics in the future. While Rensch’s stories are mindfully specific, the implications of his conclusions are widely applicable to scholars, activists and, perhaps most importantly, members of the working class who are on their own journey toward class consciousness. Let Rensch’s book be a reminder: class is not about culture – it’s about capital.
16 October 2020