Going offshore: horseplay, normalization, and sexual harassment.

Author:Diffee, Chris
Position:III. The Political Economy of White Working-Class Masculinity through V. Coda: The Sex-Based Hostile Environment Claim, with footnotes, p. 339-377
  1. The Political Economy of White Working-Class Masculinity

    As the previous section showed, the leading feminist accounts have tended to imagine sexual harassment as perpetrated by the enforcers of an abstract male order who embody the norms of an aggressive and capable heterosexual masculinity. Yet, as I have argued, particularly in cases of horseplay, the perpetrators of harassment take up an explicitly counter-normative mode of sexualized power towards other men. In order to understand the social dynamics behind such counter-normative acts, we must go beyond the horizon of gender hierarchy in order to explore the social contradictions lodged within the contemporary articulation of white working-class masculinity. To do this, we must turn back to the working-class male workplaces described in this Article's opening in order to better understand the shifting cultural dynamics and social investments that have shaped and reshaped these workplaces, as well as these workers, over recent decades. But it is important to note in advance that the intersectional analysis of white working-class man is intended to be exemplary rather than unique: it serves to demonstrate that any appeal to an abstract male order ignores the multiple, overlapping, and contradictory forms of identification that unfold along lines of race, gender, class, and sexuality (to name only the most obvious). Furthermore, this analysis is not designed to explain the historical causes of horseplay or any other form of sexualized abuse, but to apprehend the social meaning that such gendered acts have within our own historical context.

    With those caveats in mind, this section offers a historical account of how a specific organization of race, class, and gender associated with white working-class men has been reworked in conjunction with the broader economic, political, and social dynamics of the twentieth century. The white male worker took definition at the start of the century within the Fordist and Keynesian socioeconomic order that stretched from the New Deal to the Great Society and which helped to enable the institutions and attitudes characteristic of white working-class life. With the economic crisis of the late 1960s and early 1970s, this provisional order underwent a prolonged crisis that led to a fundamental restructuring of U.S. society, including a reimagination of the component parts of these workers' identities: virility, whiteness, and labor. The white male worker would survive into the 1980s as the political face of backlash, betrayal, and reactionary anger. Yet the white worker was also the unacknowledged offspring of the very post- 1960s identity politics he appeared to decry, constructed from the same cultural template as black power, second-wave feminism, and post-Stonewall gay liberation. As a point of social identification, then, the "white worker" now self-consciously bears the scars of economic decline, political disenfranchisement, and social victimization that position him, certainly no longer as a representative of gender norms, but as one of many competing figures for political redress in the post-civil rights era. As a result, even for white working men who remain within familiar working-class and unionized occupations, the broader social meaning of "white working-class masculinity" has inescapably changed due to the general dismantling of white industrial masculinity and its reanimation within a politics of resentment. Indeed, for a broad range of social actors that are not themselves white, working-class, or even male, a generic male power might continue to circulate as a symbolic resource: a cultural repertory of gender-specific acts able to provide a visceral (if temporary) sense of power when other avenues of social power appear foreclosed. (180)

    1. The Rise and Fall of the Industrial Working Class

      In order to grasp the growing contradictions in white working-class masculinity, we need to step back to understand how this particular segment of U.S. society could be seen as "normal" at all. For, in the decades after the 1880s as U.S. industrialization began in earnest, the large-scale arrival of Jewish and Catholic immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe stoked nativist fears of race suicide and led to these immigrants' exile to the outermost margins of U.S. society--forced into irregular employment in exchange for poverty wages, working in abject conditions by day and living in overcrowded one-room tenements by night. (181) Yet, following the social, political, and economic upheavals of the Great Depression, the New Deal, and World War II, the postwar era presented a time of long-awaited prosperity for this and other working-class groups. Under the emergent Fordist-Keynesian regime, the postwar settlement between labor and capital generated a period in which rising corporate productivity and profits were linked to cyclical increases in worker wages overseen by collective bargaining and the threat of work stoppage. (182) In contrast to the disastrous economic policies of the 1920s, which kept worker wages at subsistence levels and thus precipitated the crisis of overproduction in the 1930s, the postwar era created a dynamic system that synchronized mass production with worker wages and mass consumption. (183) The result was a massive reshaping of the white working class. During this period, perhaps a quarter of the U.S. population achieved middle-class status, including those semi-skilled white ethnic working families that formed the backbone of the industrial workplace. (184) Mass consumption of cars, houses, and household appliances was underwritten by national policies supporting home loans, tax relief for mortgages, and the subsidization of the federal highway system, which then rendered possible the exodus into the suburbs during the 1950s and 1960s. (185) New possibilities for educational mobility also reshaped the white working-class family through the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the G.I. Bill, which allowed almost eight million World War II veterans--half of all those serving in the war--free college education. (186) By the 1960s, over half of the high school graduates in more affluent states like California were going to college. (187) As a result of these postwar changes, by the early 1960s the social and economic realities of large sections of the white working-class had been significantly altered by their incorporation in the expanding cycles of Fordism. Whereas, only a generation before, working-class families had been trapped in dead-end, casualized jobs and living in rented tenements, a large proportion now enjoyed high-paying union jobs and homeownership, as well as the promise of a college education and even greater upward mobility for their children.

      Unfortunately, much of that advance stalled or was undone following the crisis of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The first indicators were economic. As early as 1966, U.S. corporate productivity and profitability had begun to decline and would continue to do so for the next fifteen years. (188) Domestic manufacturing, in particular, began to face steep challenges from Japan and Germany as these countries completed their postwar economic recoveries and sought to expand their export markets into the United States. (189) Oil embargoes imposed in 1973 in retaliation for support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War caused U.S. oil prices to spike 387 percent. (190) The following year, the short-term oil shortage was institutionalized as a long-term energy crisis as OPEC raised the price of oil among its member nations, causing the price of overseas oil to jump from $1.77 a barrel in October 1973 to $10 a barrel in early 1974. (191) In the mid-1970s, as the keenest pangs of the oil crisis receded and the sharp recession of 1973 passed, the country settled into the economic malaise of "stagflation," coupling the stagnant output of goods with the unprecedented growth of unemployment and inflation.

      Taken together, these changes signaled the growing inability of the Fordist-Keynesian system to remain master of the contradictory tendencies of the emergent global economy. (192) The corporate capitalism of postwar Fordism required large-scale fixed capital investments in the mass production of relatively uniform consumer goods--automobiles, televisions, refrigerators, washers and dryers--that presumed the insatiable growth of consumer demand. But after suburbanization slackened and the domestic durable market became saturated, (193) international competition eroded the remaining domestic market for American companies. By 1971 the United States imported more goods than it exported for the first time in the twentieth century. (194)

      For white working-class men, the effects of this crisis were particularly acute, as they eroded many of the hard-won gains of the postwar decades. As corporations attempted to restore profitability, the postwar compact between labor and capital was predictably abandoned. Initially, organized labor pushed back against inflation, new forms of automation, and the loss of rank-and-file control over workplaces. (195) But labor militancy could succeed only so long as there were profits to be shared. As the 1970s progressed and profitability continued to decline, American companies had little to lose from labor action. Facing economic stagflation at home and steep competition from abroad, American manufacturing fled to the open shops of the West and South. (196) At the same time, the number of workers in the manufacturing industry as a whole--the traditional core of union power--shrank as a percentage of the national labor force, further weakening union influence, even as the number of women, part-time, and service employees, largely outside of unions, continued to rise. (197) Unionization rates in the private sector dropped to twenty-two percent by 1979, and between 1973 and 1979 the number of days that...

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