To recoup, the capitalist class unleashed an attack against working people. Real wages, especially for the unorganized majority, have been cut; speed-up, lack of safety and other declining conditions have become a fact of life at work. In addition, the quality of life: of social services, of the cities, of the natural environment has decayed….The all-too-evident flight of capital only hammers this point home. Working class people feel powerless, hostage to the needs of capital accumulation and profit.
In this situation it is understandable, though not defensible, that sections of the working class should try to protect themselves at the expense of the weaker sections. This is the main source of the drift to the right in the working class. The process is not always conscious. But insofar as people are really unable to act as a class and are not taking on the capitalists, they are unlikely to adopt a class struggle world view to solve their problems. There is then every temptation to see society as made up not of two classes in opposition but of individuals competing on the market. This outlook does correspond to one aspect of capitalist reality: for workers are not only collective producers with a common interest in taking collective control over social production. They are also individual sellers of labor power in conflict with each other over jobs, promotions. etc. This individualistic point of view has a critical advantage in the current period: in the absence of class against class organization, it seems to provide an alternative strategy for effective action—a sectionalist strategy which pits one layer of workers against another.
It appears possible for the stronger sections of the working class to defend their positions by organizing on the basis of already existing ties against weaker, less-organized sections. They can take advantage of their position as Americans over and against foreigners, as whites over and against blacks, as men over and against women, as employed over and against unemployed, etc. In so doing, working people may act initially only out of what they perceive to be their most immediate self-interest. But over time they inevitably feel the pressure to make sense of these actions and they adopt ideas which can make their actions reasonable and coherent. These ideas are, of course, the ideas of the right.
–from Johanna and Robert Brenner, “Reagan, the Right and the Working Class,” Against the Current, 1981 (H/T Verso Books)