Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Trouble with Work: Rethinking “Working Class”

Last month, I blogged about the challenges of teaching an analysis of the US class structure that recognizes our sizeable working-class majority and critiques the myth of the broad inclusive “middle class.”    I closed by questioning what’s at stake for us in posing this analysis and how effective it can be in the present moment for teaching and political organizing.   A number of you responded, including a forceful reminder that Karl Marx had some important things to say about classes.   A point well taken, since Marxism still provides, I believe, the most comprehensive account of how class operates in society, including culture, politics, and economics.

By leaving Marx out, I sidestepped his analysis of how class antagonism arises within the relations of production under capitalism, based on the exploitation of workers’ labor power.  I also avoided the complicated question of the status of middle classes in a Marxist account — a topic addressed, as another respondent reminded us, by sociologist Erik Olin Wright, who has written about the “contradictory location” of the middle classes, who share properties of both capitalists and workers.   Another commentator, Richard Butsch, described a college sociology course in which the concept of “ownership of the means of production” is used to explain relative class positions and life chances.    This approach would make clear that even workers whose income provides a middle-class “lifestyle” are working-class in relation to the means of production, which is owned by capitalists.

This is the case made by many of us in Working-Class Studies for the importance of deploying an accurate class vocabulary.  In “Politics and the American Class Vernacular,” Jack Metzgar wrote that the “task of working-class studies should be . . . to constantly probe what users [of the vernacular] mean when they say ‘middle class,’ and to use ‘working class’ consistently and rigorously to refer to all those purported members of the middle class who are not middle-class professionals.” Metzgar argues that this confusion over who is middle class matters because it negatively affects working-class interests in politics and public policy. I would add that the American class vernacular tells us little about how classes are formed and maintained within capitalism, much less about why class relations need to be radically transformed.   For that, we need the concept of the working class.

Using the term “working class” has important benefits, but I also want to pose some difficulties arising in its stress on “working.”

A prime benefit of the term is its recognition of the position of the working class as both a creation of capitalism and a source of resistance to it.  The key idea it contains is that this is the class that actually does the work, producing the goods and services society needs.  In Marxist terms, the working class sells the labor power from which the owners of the means of production extract the surplus value that becomes capital.  The workplace is then the primary location of the exploitation of human labor and of the subordination of the worker to the will of the capitalist.  Consequently, as Michael Denning puts it, “The workplace remains the fundamental unfree association of civil society.”

By the same token, it has also been the site of resistance through the collective refusal to work or the demand to alter working conditions.  Always, at work, whether we know it or not, we are engaged in a political situation, a struggle over power and freedom.  We are better able to explain this systemic class conflict, the argument goes, when we recognize the position of the working class within capitalism.

But are there also difficulties in our use of  “working class,” apart from its lack of currency in the popular vernacular?  “Working people” are after all not the only people who work: members of the professional middle class work pretty hard, as, I imagine, do some hedge fund managers.  Some of my students draw the ready conclusion that all who work are by definition working class, and conversely, that those who don’t are not.  Stressing the “working” status of this majority class can obscure the fact of joblessness and the distress it causes, as a recurring hazard of being working-class.   Furthermore, because unemployment often leads to poverty, unemployed workers become aligned with “the poor,” who in the American class vernacular constitute a separate non-productive class at the bottom of society. As Metzgar puts it, “The poor are in fact part of the working class, and poverty, near-poverty, and the fear of poverty are an endemic part of working-class life.”

Beyond this problem, there is a deeper difficulty with the concept of working class as it affects our capacity to imagine alternatives to the current regime of capitalist production, with its attendant unemployment and precariousness.   By naming work as the primary source of identity and value, we adopt the work ethic that legitimizes that regime, and we reinforce the subordinate position of the working class within it.   Working is what workers do; when they are not doing it they are deficient in their identities and in their social contribution.  Our personal worth is thus massively over-identified with the work we perform.  Conversely, the focus on the work we do delegitimizes the many other activities (cultural, social, familial, sexual, political) through which we create value, pleasure and freedom, for ourselves and others – all of which require time away from work.

Kathi Weeks develops this critique of the “work society” in The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics and Postwork Imaginaries (Duke UP, 2011).   Weeks asks, “Why do we work so long and so hard?”  –  particularly when most jobs are boring and repetitive, unfairly remunerated, and coercively bossed.   In addressing this question, she looks not only to the exploitive relations of production Marx analyzed, but also to the Protestant work ethic and its contemporary incarnations.  She shows how deeply the work ethic is embedded in our social thinking and how it serves the interests of capital by promoting our allegiance to work as “a basic obligation of citizenship.” She also demonstrates also how a “laborist” version of the work ethic has been adopted by the working class, to the extent that socialism came to represent “a vision of the work society perfected rather than transformed.”  In envisioning alternatives to the regime of the wage labor society, therefore, Weeks finds it “difficult to see how the working class can serve as a viable rallying point in the United States today.”   Similarly, “it seems unlikely that socialism can serve as a persuasive signifier of a postcapitalist alternative.”

In place of class struggle, Weeks proposes a struggle over the politics of work itself, which would encompass the goals of both freedom in work and freedom from work.  Since, as Marx wrote, “waged work without other options is a system of ‘forced labor,’” the solution to current economic problems would not then be full employment, on either a capitalist or state-socialist model, but in Weeks’s terms, “an alternative to a life centered on work.”   Resources for such “antiwork politics” and “postwork imaginaries” can be found, she suggests, in the theories and projects of European autonomous Marxists and their “refusal of work,” and of 1970s American feminism with its critique of the gendered labor of social reproduction – which, although unwaged, is essential to capitalist production.

Weeks is also interested in rehabilitating the practical usefulness of utopian thinking. She discusses proposals that offer alternatives to a life dominated by work, such as the 30-hour work week and the provision of a guaranteed basic income to all.  These proposals are utopian in that they envision a profound transformation of the work society in the direction of greater equality and freedom.  But they are not therefore impractical.  I don’t have space to recite the times and places in which these projects have been proposed and tested – a Google search took me well beyond Weeks’s examples.  But clearly there is not now – if indeed there ever was – an authentic need for all capable adults to engage in long hours of alienating labor.  Advances in technology and productivity suggest that basic needs could be met if all those who wish to work worked far fewer hours and if the products of their labor were more equitably distributed.    But then, what would the working class (and the middle class for that matter) do if they weren’t working (or looking for work) all the time?  Imagine the possibilities!

Nick Coles

Stereotyping the White Working Class

As I’ve pointed out in previous blogs here, here, and here, Democratic politicians led by President Obama have consistently claimed that they are resolutely for a catch-all “middle class,” even as Democratic political strategists, operatives, and pundits publicly worry about losing too many votes among a “white working class” that has no place in the politicians’ messaging.

They worry because, within a simplified racial + class breakdown of the electorate, the white working class (typically defined as white folks without bachelor’s degrees) is both the largest group of voters (about 2 of 5 in 2008) and the one that votes the most lopsidedly Republican.

Democrats typically win people of color by huge margins (about 80/20, or by 60 percentage points in 2008), while losing the much larger group of whites by smaller margins (about 12 points in 2008).  Among white voters, Dems have recently been coming close to breaking even among whites with bachelor’s degrees (Obama lost by only 4 points in 2008 among this “white middle class”), while continuing to lose the “white working class” by much larger margins (18 points in 2008).  If the President does too much worse than that among working-class whites (say, getting only 35% of their votes vs. 40% in 2008), Mitt Romney will be our president.

This three-part breakdown of the American electorate is much too simple, of course, and it is disheartening for those of us who dream of (and have worked for) the kind of working-class solidarity that could change basic economic and political power relations in this country.  But simplified conceptual schemas are inevitable and necessary in organizing the overwhelming complexity of social reality, and this crude combo of race and class is better than the schemas that preceded it, which grossly overestimated the size and suburban character of the “educated middle class.”  It at least recognizes that there is a working class and that not all whites are middle class or affluent.  It is also practically wise for Democrats to be concerned about winning a larger slice of this part of the electorate.

But there’s the rub.  Democrats cannot do better among working-class whites if they envision them as a uniform group that thinks and feels the same way everywhere, as the political pros quite often do.  That is, an overwhelmingly middle-class and upper-class set of politicians, operatives, and pundits appear to have so little direct experience of working-class people of any color that they consistently fall into stereotyping that clouds their vision and often insults the voters they are trying to persuade. At a San Francisco fundraiser in 2008, President Obama articulated the stereotype with unusual clarity (and nuance if you listen to the whole speech) when he expressed some empathy for those who “cling to their guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment.”

There are white workers who cling to their guns or religion or their racism and nativism – I could give you some names and addresses!  But there are many others who do not.  It seems as if sophisticated, very well-educated people whose vocation involves electoral politics should recognize that within a demographic category including nearly 50 million voters, not everybody thinks and feels the same way.   Start with the 40% nationally who vote pretty consistently Democratic in presidential elections.  Why do they do that?  How are they different from those who vote consistently Republican or the group that goes back and forth?

These are the questions Andrew Levison recently addressed in an article posted on the Democratic Strategist blog, “The White Working Class is a Decisive Voting Group in 2012 – and Most of What You Read About Their Political Attitudes Will Be Completely Wrong.”  Using the 2011 Pew Political Typology survey that asked voters to choose between “liberal/progressive” and “conservative” policy statements, Levison found that about 26% of white working-class voters were “progressive true believers” and 27.5% were “conservative true believers.”  The largest group, at about 46%, however, is what Levison calls “ambivalent/open-minded.”  These may be congenital “moderates” or “low-information voters,” but Levison focuses on something he has directly observed among white workers – a willingness to acknowledge truth in both of two contradictory positions.  These are people, he says, “who do think quite seriously about issues, but do so in a fundamentally different way than do ideologically committed people.”  He calls them “on the one hand, but on the other hand” thinkers (emphasis added).

The answers in the Pew survey are interesting and insightful in themselves, but Levison’s willingness to wade into the complexity of white working-class political thinking and to come out with a clarifying (if necessarily simplifying) analysis is especially rewarding.  There is rarely a clear majority of those who “strongly agree” with either of the two statements presented by Pew, but there are some.  For example, 53% strongly agree that “Immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and healthcare,” while another 53% strongly agree that “Business corporations make too much profit” and 70% that “Too much power is concentrated in the hands of a few large corporations.”  Levison finds that the largest group of working-class whites are “cultural traditionalists,” but that “The genuinely consistent white working class conservatives – the Fox News/Talk Radio” hard-line ideologues – represent only about one fourth of the white working class total.”

Stereotyping is always based on taking a part to be a whole.  It is often said that there is “an element of truth in stereotypes.”  There is not.  Rather there is a subgroup within the stereotyped group that fulfills the stereotype.  It may be large, even a majority, or it may be small, but it is always a mistake to think that any part is the same as the whole.  Once committed to a stereotype, observers tend to see only those parts that confirm the stereotype and to ignore evidence that doesn’t fit the expectation. That’s why Levison’s analysis is so valuable.  It confirms that a large part of the white working class fulfills the “culturally conservative/economically populist” stereotype popular among political pundits, while never losing sight of the part that is progressive both culturally and economically and the part that is consistently conservative on both fronts.

The one thing I would add to Levison’s analysis: these different political types are not equally distributed across the country, as any national survey and reasoning about it tend to suggest.  The size and character of the white working-class vote varies greatly from state to state.

Nobody cares, for example, that whites without bachelor’s degrees gave John McCain 6- and 10-point majorities in California and New York in 2008 – first, because they are a relatively small group in those states (27% and 29% respectively vs. 39% nationally), and second, because these states are safely Democratic based on strong majorities among large groups of voters of color and whites with bachelor’s degrees.   Maryland, Washington, D.C., and the part of Virginia where many national media workers live are similar.  My guess is that the national media tends to mistake these parts for the whole.  They don’t mistake Alabama’s average-sized white working class, which gave Obama only 9% of its vote in 2008, for the whole.  But they do tend to project their parts of the country onto many other parts where it does not fit.

Most importantly, in the Midwest battleground states – Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin – whites without bachelor’s degrees were the majority of voters in 2008.  Democrats cannot win in those states with Alabama-type margins going to the GOP, and they will struggle with California/New York-type margins (as they did in Missouri and Ohio in 2008, losing the first and winning the second by narrow margins).  Fortunately, working-class whites in Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin not only do not fulfill the racial + class stereotype, in 2008 they reversed it.  In all three states, President Obama won majorities among this group, as he did in 11 other states, including important “leaners” like Oregon and Washington.

I’m hoping Levison’s analysis, placed as it is in an important source of independent Democratic strategizing, may pull Democratic politicians and operatives away from their stereotypes of working-class whites.  Levison urges Dems to focus on the “on the one hand, but on the other hand” thinkers and to make their case fully and frankly, and I would add, in some detail.  This rather than bobbing and weaving so as not to offend a “typical conservative white worker” who is but part (though admittedly often a loud part) of a much larger and more complicated whole.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

 

 

Take Back Your Vacation

Perhaps you have seen this television advertisement? A plump, mousy woman in a khaki skirt, a yellow top and an emerald green sweater jumps up on her desk. She addresses her co-workers, using her telephone as a megaphone: “Can I have your attention? I have 47 vacation days. That’s insane.”

She looks around earnestly, and one of her co-workers, an African American woman, glances up uncomfortably, as the office “Norma Rae” continues on her soapbox: “I have been saving them and earning them for what. To be a bridesmaid? We come in day after day. That ends now. Let’s take back our summer. Who is with me?” She scribbles “Vacation Now” on a piece of paper and holds it up for all to see. A lone man claps for her, nervously, and a white male co-worker, who has been watching the scene from his private office, lowers his window shade. The thirty-second advertisement is over, and the sponsor flashes on the screen: “Only Las Vegas. VisitLasVegas.Com.”

This ad is one of many right now, from various companies, that encourage workers to do a number of “radical” things, like use their vacation days or take a lunch break. In a television advertisement for McDonalds, one worker stands up defiantly and announces she is going to lunch. A female co-worker warns her, “Those days are gone now.” But an Asian American co-worker stands up and pulls off his employee badge. “I’m going with you. I don’t want to be chicken. I want to eat it.” An Applebee’s campaign features an inflatable decoy to make it look like you are sitting at your desk so you can sneak out to lunch.

These ads have received much attention. The New York Timesdevoted an article to them, and bloggers have been weighing in as well. Most agree that the advertisements are a cynical ploy to tap into worker frustration in order to sell the worst kind of corporate fare—McDonalds, Vegas hotel chains, Applebee’s, and Gold Peak Tea (which is offering a competition for $100,000 for “one year off” from your job).

Of course, cynical manipulation is the business of advertising, and these ads are particularly good at it. The VisitLasVegas.Com series presents a cast of white-collar workers who are trapped in cubicles, chafing under the tyranny of the trilling ring of the office phone or the constant ping of the email. One employee, when awarded a certificate for never having taken his vacation days, throws a monster fit, kicking over plants and ripping up his prize. Another employee who can’t stand his job executes a dramatic getaway—using a grappling hook to rappel through the ceiling tiles. The ads are quite funny, and they pound away at a singular theme: your job sucks, and you must find a way to get to Las Vegas.

It is easy to see these ads as an attempt by corporations to turn employee dissatisfaction—up sharply since the recession—into profit. As Harry Katz, dean of the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations argues, “It’s an effort by management to co-opt the Occupy Wall Street spirit and redirect it to promote its product.”

On the other hand, as I argued in my first book, Radio Active: Advertising and Consumer Activism, there is always the teensy weensy possibility that ads like these might get people thinking about doing something truly radical. Isn’t it possible that in playing on consumers’ sense of being beaten down by their jobs, these ads have to ignite a modicum of resentment against the system?

Perhaps a more persuasive argument is that these ads work like a cultural trap door. As much as they might seem to re-direct worker dissatisfaction—they also do much to reveal it. And hiding behind the humor in these advertisements are some surprising truths about the 2012 American worker.

1) We don’t take lunch breaks. 65% of American workers eat at their desks, according to a recent study by a company called Right Management. Within the corporate world there are two schools of thought on this issue. One group, represented by a company called the Energy Project, argues that workers are more productive when they take a real lunch break. According to their  website, Energy Project has helped companies like Google keep their workers from burning out. At the other end is a corporate treatment like that reflected by a recently settled lawsuit, , involving a woman who was fired by Target for taking her lunch break late three times over 18 months—once by two minutes. She won $275,000 in damages.

2) We don’t use our vacation days. Right Management found that the average American worker leaves 11 unused vacation days by year’s end. Why is this? The survey revealed that workers are afraid of getting fired. John de Graaf, director of the organization Take Back Your Time, wonders why the US is so different from other Western countries. “This is the only wealthy country in the world that does not guarantee any paid vacation time,” de Graaf said. “Every other country understands that this makes people healthier and creates a better workforce.”

3) We don’t (or can’t) call in sick. Only one third of the lowest paid 25% of working Americans get compensated if they have to stay home sick. Even in the private sector, only 60% of American workers have paid sick leave. Who has the best sick leave policies? Most unionized workers, and, especially, unionized government workers—like teachers, cops and firemen—whose pay, benefits, and right to belong to unions have been especially under attack in the last year.

4) We get fired for whatever. If you work for Chick-fil-A, you might be fired if you don’t attend your boss’s weekly prayer breakfast, even after you donated a kidney to your boss. And here’s another great list of things you could be fired for, including shaving your head, wearing a Packers’ tie in Chicago, and tweeting a joke from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. You can keep up with these and other outrages at Corey Robin’s blog.

When I watch these ads, I am compelled to think more deeply, and depressingly, about the current state of the American worker. I am personally shielded from many of these outrages, as a tenured professor at a prestigious university. But I will confess that I do often work on vacation. I am writing this post a few hundred feet from a wild rocky beach on the Pacific Coast. But before I run off to play with my kids, let me close by wishing you the best possible summer vacation, or just any vacation, during these dark times for American workers.

Kathy M. Newman