Monthly Archives: January 2013

Working-Class Blues

British politics is in a funny place right now when it comes to the question of class, indeed sometimes one can feel like Alice in a looking glass world where nothing is quite what it seems. For thirteen years, from the election in 1997 through to their defeat in 2010, the British Labour Party spent a good deal of its time denying the salience of social class, or at least the continued existence of the working class. Reflecting their adopted prefix of ‘New Labour,’ the Party associated the language of class with an ‘old Britain’ of manual labour, dirt, and grime – manufacturing out, financial alchemists in. Rather like politicians in the US, the Labour Party was obsessed with the middle class or what was often described as “Middle England” — pollster shorthand for middle-, middle-class, centre-ground voters with little sustained commitment to any political cause or class identity. Even a Labour politician like former deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, a man with a serious working-class pedigree, conceded that even he was “middle-class now.”

As the left has sought to airbrush out its working-class heritage, recently something very strange has happened in the Conservative Party: some of its members have begun to talk in the language of class. A couple of weeks ago a new interest group was launched from within the Tory Party calling itself Blue Collar Conservatism, its website replete with images of row housing and looming smokestack. Its aim is to try and marshal the working-class vote for the Conservatives while at the same time denying that rhetorical space to the more progressive parties, most notably the Labour Party.

Blue Collar Conservatism treads an interesting socio-political line. It is obviously anti-Labour, but its existence owes a large debt to the contemporary image of the mainstream Tory party itself. We are now over two and a half years into the Coalition Government’s five year term.  The Government is made up the Conservatives, who form the largest single party in Parliament but lack an overall majority, and their junior partners the Liberal Democrats, who came third in terms of seats after Labour. The make-up of the Coalition cabinet makes for interesting reading, with roughly two thirds of its members being millionaires. Further analysis reveals that this group comes from a very narrow band of educational background; more than half its members were educated at fee paying schools and only five of the twenty-nine members coming from state schooling system. More interesting still is the incredibly narrow range of University education amongst this political elite, with two thirds having gone to either Oxford or Cambridge.

So what does Blue Collar Conservatism stand for? Well, while it doesn’t exactly attack the Cabinet for its elite background, it does sound an alarm that the Party is successfully being portrayed as elitist and out of touch. I highlighted this last year in a blog about a series of policy misjudgements which saw taxes being raised on working-class consumables. More recently, the Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell (multi-millionaire, Independent school educated and alumnae of Jesus College Cambridge) had to resign after being accused of calling police officers “F***ing Plebs” after they asked him to dismount from his bicycle while exiting Downing Street, an accusation he vehemently denies.

Blue Collar Conservatism by contrast seeks to highlight the ordinariness of many party members, including their MPs. Their website includes back stories of struggle and hardship that seek to redress the image of bacchanalian excess of their more privileged high-profile colleagues. Beyond this vaguely amusing image that harks back to Kathy Newman’s piece on the world conjured up by the TV series Downton Abbey last week, the Conservatives have more prosaically been branded as being out of touch with what concerns core ordinary/ working-class voters. As David Skelton from the think tank Policy Exchange says:

One of the absolute major issues for blue collar voters at the moment is the cost of living. Last year was the biggest fall in real incomes for about 30 years. And one of the Tories’ Achilles heels is that they are associated with unemployment and associated with de-industrialisation. This is why the Conservatives in particular have to address job creation and tackle unemployment in a lot of northern and Midlands towns.

Blue Collar Conservatism’s answer is to speak to and for that section of the working class that sees itself as striving aspirational manual workers.

On the face of it, this could be a clever tactic, as suggested by a much-discussed recent poll from the think tank British Future, which reported that almost 60% of Britons described themselves as working-class. Blue Collar Conservatism has already managed to enlist a third of the Parliamentary Conservative party, so its approach clearly has traction and potentially challenges the Labour Party’s ability to assume that it has the working-class vote in the electoral bag.

By using the language of ‘striving’ and ‘aspiration,’ Blue Collar Conservatism is potentially shifting the class vernacular in the UK.  This is an on-going process whereby the ‘respectable,’ ‘hard working’ members of lower socio-economic groups are split from those on welfare, whom the Chancellor recently described as ‘shirkers’ rather than as ‘strivers.’  Of course, labelling the poor as either ‘deserving’ or ‘undeserving’ is a rhetorical practice with a two-century pedigree.

The flaw in the Blue Collar Conservatism strategy might be its inability to go beyond thinking of the striving and aspiring working-class as anything other than being made up of isolated individuals. The Labour Party needs to rediscover a collective language of class that celebrates working-class achievement around mutual improvement and self-help, community activism and local citizenry. Much of what was and is good about working-class culture in Britain can be described as ‘striving’ and ‘aspiration,’ but the difference was that people realised that this was linked to a collective sense of endeavour and responsibility. Successfully shifting the vernacular back to highlight these qualities would help frame a different debate and create a new range of progressive possibilities for the idea of class.

Tim Strangleman

Upstairs, Downstairs, Downton: What Downton Abbey Can Tell Us about Class in America Today

In season two of Downton Abbey, the inimical Dame Maggie Smith (who plays the “Dowager Countess”) finds out that one of the family’s servants will be allowed to live out his final days (after suffering an incurable war wound) in the family’s lavish second floor quarters. The Countess is displeased by this and opines that “It always happens when you give these little people power, it goes to their heads like strong drink.”

If you are a fan of the show, one of the 7.9 million US viewers who watched Downton Abbey kick off its third season on PBS earlier this month, you know full well that the “little people” in this early 20th century British world—the kitchen maids, ladies’ maids, footmen, valets, chauffeurs, cooks, housekeepers, and butlers—have very little power. They scheme and scrap for the merest improvements in pay and job title. A few of them rise above their station, but class divisions are brutally enforced, and if anyone seems deluded with power by “strong drink,” it is the titled and wealthy upstairs residents who are served an impressive array of wines and spirits on a nightly basis.

I am a fan of the show, transfixed by the class differences represented in the series which tries very hard—from the dialogue, the sumptuous costumes, and the setting—to be about another time and place. But is it? Let’s look at a few of the myths that swirl around Downton Abbey and consider what we can learn about the real history behind the show— and about ourselves.

Myth #1. Noblesse oblige, the idea that nobility must act nobly, was an effective system for class management in late Victorian England. In Downton Abbey the nobles are incredibly kind to their servants. In one episode, Lady Grantham catches the kitchen staff setting up a soup kitchen (with stores from Downton Abbey) for unemployed WWI veterans. Instead of firing her staff, Lady Grantham offers to help. In another episode, as Lady Grantham is battling the Spanish flu, Lord Grantham starts a series of clandestine make-out sessions with the new maid, a war widow named Jane. She has a smart son but no connections to get him into a good school. Lord Grantham realizes that he cannot continue the affair, and Jane nobly resigns. But not before Lord Grantham gives her some financial and string-pulling aid that will help her son get a good education. In the world of Downton Abbey, servants are cared for, and sometimes even cherished.

But what about the real life English servants who toiled under the staircase in the first quarter of the 20th century? According to a California blogger the gap between rich and poor in England a century ago was frightful. The effects of poverty and malnutrition produced a five-inch difference in average height between rich and poor young men! As for the secret lives of servants, the long running British series Upstairs, Downstairs as well as Downton Abbey were both “inspired” by the real-life memoir of a servant girl, Margaret Powell, born in 1907. Her 1968 best seller, Below Stairs (recently released in the US), gave a much more negative and varied portrait of English employers. In one kind family, like that of Lady and Lord Dowell, servants received gifts of silk underwear at Christmas time. But the servants in Mrs. Hunter-Jones employ were issued thin straw mattresses (not a perk), older servants were “accidently” left out of family wills and left to age with nothing, and female servants were often impregnated by a male member of the employer’s family and cast out. Powell recalls, as one reviewer explains, “how easy it was for the master to manipulate the servant.”

Finally, according to historian Jennifer Newby, the servants on Downton Abbey are far too clean and well rested to approach the standards of historical realism. Most servants of the period had limited access to bathing facilities, and they were forced to work from before dawn until long after dark with few breaks. Instead of getting their own servants’ party on Christmas day (as they are permitted in Downton Abbey), one servant whose diary Newby read described eating Christmas dinner “on the draining board, by the sink (again).”

Myth #2. The class hierarchies in Downton Abbey are a relic of a distant place and time. As a writer for Bitch magazine explained, “what Downton Abbey…offers for the modern viewer is the idea that, today, class differences have been overcome.” Indeed on Downton Abbey the bleak separation between “upstairs” and “downstairs,” the great divide in speech, dress, quarters and manner, seem utterly remote to our American sensibilities. We still believe that in America of all places a child born into a poor or working class family can rise—with relatively frequency—to become rich and famous (or at least middle class). Ironically, however, The New York Times reported just a year ago that social mobility in the United States is lower than it has been in decades and that it is lower in the US than in Canada and all of Western Europe. According to a study from 2006, only eight percent of American men born into the lowest fifth of American society were able to rise to the top fifth, compared to 12 percent in Britain and 14 percent in Denmark.

Myth #3. Americans don’t have servants. First of all, yes we did. In addition to the US being a slave holding society for more than 300 years, many 19th century immigrants to the US worked as servants, as Daniel Sutherland has shown.

And, second, yes we do. The 2010 the Census Bureau reported that there were more than 700,000 nannies alone working in the US, a number which is certainly much smaller than the actual number, since so many domestic workers receive pay “under the table” and/or are undocumented immigrants.  According to a shocking 2012 report on the state of domestic workers in the US today, 67 percent of live-in domestic workers are paid below their state’s minimum wage, and nearly half are paid less than is required to support a family. 65 percent do not have health insurance. Many work without contracts, without a day off, and with numerous work-related pain and illnesses—including sleep deprivation. They encounter unreasonable requests from employers, about which they remain silent: “91 percent of workers who encountered problems with their working conditions…did not complain because they were afraid they would lose their job.” These jobs are especially abusive, the report explains, because of the intimate nature of the work. The report described one awful (but not atypical story) of a live-in nanny who was given no bedroom of her own and was forced to sleep on a mattress on the floor—in between the children she cared for during the day.

Yesterday during his inauguration, President Obama said, “We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else.” But she does not—not today. In the US we have a large and growing underclass that has virtually no hope of advancement. We have servants that we mistreat as badly as any ruling class has ever done. And the noblesse oblige of Downton Abbey is either an aberration or a complete fiction—perhaps the most remarkable achievement of Julian Fellowes’s vivid, and narratively compelling, imagination. Through Downton Abbey we transport ourselves back to a glorious past that never existed, and, at the same time, we escape from own brutal, unequal, and empire-crumbling present.

If that strikes you as too extreme, consider this. The Earl of Carnarvon, the owner of Highclere Castle where Downton Abbey is filmed, and who actively campaigned to have the series filmed there because he needed the money, thinks that people love Downton Abbey because “they miss the feudal system…because the feudal system made people feel secure.” And if that sounds too extreme, consider this. Recently a group of economists determined that Tsarist Russia distributed its wealth more equally than we do in America today.

Perhaps I am being too defeatist? If so, I can’t help it. As the Dowager Countess says, “Don’t be defeatist dear, it’s terribly middle class.”

Kathy M. Newman

The White Vote in 2012 & the Obama Coalition

I’ve had it with “the white working class.”  Not the actually existing part of the working class that is white, which is composed of complex and interesting people most of whom don’t vote like I think they should, but rather the fictional character who got so much attention during this year’s election campaign.

The fictional character is a white guy who works in a decrepit factory or drives a truck.  He drinks boilermakers (not wine and never a latte) and is good at bowling rather than golf.  Depending on political point of view, he is a “culturally confused but good-hearted racist” or a “salt-of-the-earth real American who loves God and guns and hates both gays and Wall-Street bankers.”

As a demographic category that divides white voters without bachelor’s degrees from those who have that “middle-class” credential, the “white working class” concept makes sense to me, but only if its use fulfills two conditions that the political media apparently cannot manage:

  • First, that we always keep in mind that “white working class” is a demographic category that clumps together more than 45 million voters who share two characteristics and only two – race, as conventionally defined, and the absence of a bachelor’s degree.  The category includes women and men of all religions (and varying levels of religious commitment) and regions. They come from big cities, suburbs, small towns, and isolated shacks in all parts of the country.  It includes Bill Gates and other fabulously rich people who never completed bachelor’s degrees, and it leaves out the many factory workers, truck drivers, waitresses, and retail clerks who did. That is, like all concepts, “white working class” is a convenience for getting a hold on the big picture, but it grossly simplifies a much more complex and varied social reality.  We need to constantly remind ourselves that there is not now, never has been, and never could be a “typical” white working-class person.
  • Second, that as a demographic category for the purposes of electoral analysis, “white working class” is valuable only as part of a comprehensive discussion of the white vote in U.S. elections.

I’ve made the first point before, more than once.  Here let me concentrate on the second by detailing my conclusions about how the concept has played out in the 2012 presidential election.

After much pre-election discussion of how the “white working-class” would vote, the major news media who commissioned the massive election-day exit poll have not reported on their websites how this group actually voted.  In fact, the websites listing that information — voter-category by voter-category, state by state — in 2012 have less than 1/10th the information that CNN had (and still has) on its web site for 2008.   But here’s what I can report based on what is available on Fox News, CNN, and the New York Times, plus some numbers from reporters who have access to the poll’s internals – most importantly, “The Obama Coalition in the 2012 Election and Beyond” by Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin.

  • Class in itself had almost no impact on how people voted for president in 2012.  The middle class (folks of all shades and colors with at least a bachelor’s degree) voted 50/48 for President Obama, and the somewhat larger group of voters with no bachelor’s degree, the working class, voted 51/47 for the President.  Thus, because the middle and working classes voted basically the same, class by itself did not matter.
  • Race, on the other hand, makes a huge difference in how people vote.  Nonwhites (Black, Hispanic/Latino, Asian and Other) voted a little more than 80% for Obama while only 39% of whites did that – a difference of more than 40 percentage points.  Both the middle class and the working class gave Obama slight majorities based primarily on nonwhite voters who offset his 20-point loss among whites.
  • Among whites, the white working class is far from unique in giving Mitt Romney substantial majorities.  Nationally, working-class whites gave Obama only 36% of their vote, but middle-class whites, though slightly more favorable at 42%, also gave Romney a large majority.  Other demographics within the white vote show similar patterns.  Though there are important differences among white voters, most white demographics vote strongly Republican.  For example:
    • Women gave Obama a 55% majority, but not white women, who voted 56/42 for Romney.  White men, on the other hand, were even more strongly for Romney (62/35).  The gender gap is actually bigger among Blacks and Latinos than it is among whites.  Black women voted 9 points more for Obama than their male counterparts; Latino women, 11 points more, and white women, 7 points more.
    • Obama won a bare majority among Catholics (50/48), but lost white Catholics by 19 points – which, however, is a lot better than he did among white Protestants who he lost by 39 points.  On the other hand, Obama won substantial majorities among whites who self-identified as non-Christian or as having no religion.
    • Obama also famously won big (60/37) among young people aged 18-29, but the majority of whites in this age group voted for Romney (51/44).  On the other hand, no other white age group gave Obama more than 39% of their vote.
    • Where whites live matters a lot.  There were no exit polls in some states this year, and so far there is no breakdown of voters by both race and education (as there was in previous years).  From what we have, however, it is clear that the national white vote of 39% for the President hides a lot of variation – whites in Vermont and Alabama vote very differently (66% vs. 15% for Obama in 2012), as do whites in Iowa and Missouri (51% vs. 32% for Obama).  Likewise, whites in large and medium-sized metropolitan areas (250,000 and above) vote more Democratic than whites in the small-town and rural areas of the same states.

Though shrinking as a proportion of the population and thus of the electorate, whites are still a very large majority (72% of the 2012 electorate), and the 39% of us who voted for President Obama provided the bulk of his votes in 2012 (36 million vs. 29 million from nonwhites). But our voices would not have been heard without strong turnouts (against formidable efforts at voter suppression) and lopsided votes for Obama among nonwhites.  On the other hand, their voices would have been drowned out – and worse – without us.  That’s what a multiracial coalition looks like.  Though its weakest link, the white working class is a significant portion of the coalition, and not just in the Midwest battlegrounds.  Of Obama’s 65 million votes in 2012, 30% came from whites with bachelor’s degrees and 25% (more than 16 million) came from those without them.

Part of the reason progressive Democrats have focused on the white working class over the past decade is that among whites, they are much more likely to benefit from progressive economic programs than middle-class whites – programs like universal health care, enhancements of earned income and child tax credits, infrastructure spending, green manufacturing, and unemployment benefits and food stamps.  This has not worked yet to produce more white working-class voters for Dems, at least not at a national level, but the logic is good because all these programs disproportionately benefit working-class Blacks, Latinos, and Asians as well.  And that basic approach, as qualified and compromised as it has played out in practice, is working so far politically, if not economically.  As Teixeira and Halpin conclude:

President Obama and his progressive allies have successfully stitched together a new coalition in American politics, not by gravitating toward the right or downplaying the party’s diversity in favor of white voters.  Rather, they did it by uniting disparate constituencies – including an important segment of the white working class – behind a populist, progressive vision of middle-class economics and social advancement for all people regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.

I find the Democrats’ obsessive use of “middle class” irritating, and I’m not sure they’ve articulated anything I want to call “a populist, progressive vision” (as opposed to some of their actual programs), but it is worth appreciating the enormous accomplishment, however fragile and flawed, of what Teixeira and Halpin call “a multiracial, multiethnic, cross-class coalition” that put Barack Obama in the White House for a second term.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

Shout Working Class

Nearly 18 years ago, at the closing session of a conference on Working-Class Lives at Youngstown State University, we posed this question: if there were a Center for Working-Class Studies, what should it be doing?  We heard over 100 suggestions, ranging from “create a bibliography” to “start the revolution.”  Many of the recommendations focused on education, including a plea from a local steelworker for us to advocate for and provide a good education for working-class children like his.  Others emphasized public policy advocacy, working with unions, and helping to create spaces for working-class art and literature.

That year, a group of YSU faculty created the Center for Working-Class Studies, with modest funding from then Provost James Scanlon, who challenged us to get other faculty involved. Over the next dozen years, the CWCS organized five more conferences that laid the groundwork for the formation of the Working-Class Studies Association in 2006. We sponsored a lecture series that brought scholars, activists, and artists to Youngstown, where they spoke not only to the usual academic audiences but also to community groups, unions, and schoolchildren.  We collected oral histories with workers from the GM Lordstown plant, created an online archive of materials reflecting the many different ethnic and racial communities of the Mahoning Valley, called Steel Valley Voices, and published many articles and books about the working-class history and culture of this area.

With the generous support of the Ford Foundation, the Center was able to expand its programming.  Workshops for Ohio teachers and consultations with local schools helped bring attention to working-class history and literature into K-12 education, while an innovative “teaching on turns” project made college education accessible to steelworkers, whose constantly changing schedules made getting to traditionally-organized classes difficult.  We created a graduate certificate in Working-Class Studies and offered a focus within the MA program in American Studies at YSU.  Center members engaged journalism students at YSU in reporting on working-class people and issues.

In collaboration with the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative, we sponsored an interracial, cross-class community reading group to study mass incarceration.  With the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, we helped lead community discussions on class and race. The CWCS also created an extensive online resource collection featuring digital exhibits about working-class life, resources on working-class literature, and materials on teaching about social class as well as links to materials about labor and class from dozens of other projects, libraries, and organizations. We conducted opinion polls, helped journalists from around the world report on working-class voters and the continuing struggles of deindustrialized communities, and established this blog.

All of this might seem like bragging, but the point is simply to say that we have worked hard to make the Center for Working-Class Studies a dynamic, multidimensional project.  We’ve done some good and important work.

And now the Center is closing.  Over the past month, John and our administrative assistant, Patty LaPresta, with help from colleagues in the American Studies and History departments at YSU, have packed up the books, sorted through files, and moved dozens of photographs, posters, maps, and a/v materials to the Youngstown Historical Center for Industry and Labor.   The Center is closing because we have left YSU.  Sherry began a new position at Georgetown University in August, and John just retired.

But the real reason the CWCS is closing is not that we left YSU.  It’s that YSU left us. The administration at YSU was not willing to provide continued funding.  Had they been willing to create one position to replace our two positions, we could have hired a creative, activist academic organizer to continue this work.  They chose not to do that.  Some have suggested that our visibility as faculty union leaders and political activists may have contributed to that decision.  The official version is simply that the resources are not available.

We appreciate all of the kind words and support you’ve provided over the years, and we know that many of you share our sadness and anger at the Center’s demise. We hope you will also share our commitment to continuing to work with and for the working class.  As Jack Metzgar wrote in the fall newsletter of the Working-Class Studies Association, the Center may be gone, but Working-Class Studies is not.  Here’s what will continue.

First, we will continue to publish this blog, offering commentary on working-class lives, culture, and politics.  Since we began in 2008, the blog has received almost 300,000 page views, and it gets about 30,000 hits each week.  Last year, it was read by people in more than 100 countries.  It’s been listed as a Washington Post staff pick, cited in dozens of other blogs, and reblogged by the United Steelworkers, Portside, and others.  The most widely read piece, an early blog on “Stereotyping the Working Class,” has almost 18,000 hits – many more readers than anything we’ve ever published in an academic journal.  Put simply, people are listening, and we hope they will continue to do so.

Second, the endowment fund originally created through donations from many colleagues and supporters, as well as our own contributions, will now become the CWCS Legacy Fund.  It will provide continuing support for exhibits, research, and other projects on the working class at Youngstown State University and projects of the Working-Class Studies Association.  This ongoing work, most of it based in YSU’s Center for Urban and Regional Studies and the Youngstown Historical Center for Industry and Labor, will ensure that students, scholars, and organizers have the resources to keep asking critical questions about the issues facing workers and their families in the Mahoning Valley.  If you’d like to contribute, you may do so by downloading and sending in this form.

Third, the Working-Class Studies Association has already taken on much of the work started at the Center.  The WCSA organizes annual conferences, publishes a newsletter, and starting in January, a new WCSA website will become home to many of the online resources we created at YSU.  If you’re not already a member, we urge you to join and become active. Better yet, organize a session for the WCSA conference this June in Madison, reaching out to colleagues who haven’t previously participated.  The deadline for proposals is January 14.

Finally, the most important thing any of us can do to ensure that Working-Class Studies continues is exactly what Joe Hill told us decades ago:  don’t mourn, organize.  Teams of faculty and local activists around the U.S. and beyond have the potential to create many more centers for working-class studies.  Begin with small steps.  If you’re a student or academic, invite a guest speaker to campus, or just show a film, and announce the event widely.  Get the names and contact information of everyone who attends, and get a discussion going about shared interests and possibilities. If you’re an artist or writer, follow the lead of folks like John Crawford and Larry Smith and organize anthologies or magazines to help make working-class voices heard – and send a link to your work to the editors of the WCSA website, so we can list it.  If you’re an activist or organizer, advocate for attention to class as part of local, regional, and national debates about policy.

And whoever you are, whatever you do, follow the advice of former Youngstown steelworker John Barbero, who explained that after the mills closed, he made it a point to keep “shouting Youngstown.”  Now it’s our turn.  Shout working class.

John Russo and Sherry Linkon