Category Archives: Contributors

The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class

Across the world, more and more people realize they are in the precariat – or may be soon – and that they are not alone. That is bringing a change of mood, from being defeated and dispirited to being defiant and demanding. Old sociologists may be bewildered, but precariat groups are moving from mass occupations to political re-engagement. They know there is no unified working class and do not want to go back in search of a phoney unity. We need an alternative progressive future, forged for and by the precariat.

Most fundamentally, the 20th century income distribution system has collapsed. The share of income going to profits has rocketed and will continue to rise, the share going to rent will rise even more. Real wages will continue to stagnate.

In pursuit of competitiveness, governments have implemented policies of labor flexibility, making labor more insecure, leaving millions without health care, pensions or other benefits. Governments have turned to means-tested social assistance and to workfare. The welfare state has withered.

Meanwhile, a global class structure has been taking shape, superimposed on national structures. At the top is a tiny plutocracy, many with criminal backgrounds. Their economic and political power is awesome; they have no responsibility to any nation state.

Below them is an elite who also gain from capital, some from what Thomas Piketty calls patrimonial capitalism. Below them is a salariat, with employment security, pensions, paid holidays, and other non-wage perks. They are what American scholars in the 1960s and 1970s expected to become the norm. But although a salariat will persist, it is shrinking.

Alongside it is what I call proficians, project-oriented, self-entrepreneurs, not seeking employment security. Many work frenetically, but suffer from burn-out sooner or later. They too are uninterested in defending wages. They obtain their money elsewhere.

Then comes the old proletariat, for which welfare states as well as labor relations and regulations were constructed. The proletariat was oriented to a lifetime of stable full-time labor, in which entitlements, ‘labor rights,’ were built up. But it is dwindling, along with its capacity, and even desire, to defend welfare institutions. Its achievements should not be romanticized. The proletariat favored and benefited from a sexist, often racist hierarchical laborism. Its labor unions epitomised that. There have been few more reactionary figures in American history, for example, than the old leaders of the AFL-CIO.

It is below the proletariat where the precariat is growing. It is not an under-class. That is the lumpen-precariat, victims eking out an existence in the streets, sad souls going to an early death. The precariat, by contrast, is regarded by global capital as pivotal, and the neo-liberal state is shaping it. Recent estimates suggest that the precariat makes up about 40% of the adult population in Japan, Korea, Greece, Spain, Italy, Australia, and Sweden, still seen as the nirvana of social democracy. The biggest precariat is in China.

Defining the Precariat

The precariat should be defined in three dimensions. First, it has distinctive relations of production. Those in it have unstable labor, in ‘flexible’ contracts, working as temps, casuals, ‘freelance,’ part-time, or intermittently for employment agencies. The most rapidly growing form of unstable labor is “crowd work.” Many commentators wrongly presume insecure labor is all that defines the precariat, and then dismiss it as nothing new.

There was always unstable labor. But today it is becoming the norm. Just as historians analyzed the process of proletarianisation as disciplining workers to the norms of stable labor, internalizing that as a duty, a compact with capital, so the precariat is being habituated to unstable labor.

Crucially, the precariat has no secure occupational identity, no narrative to give to their lives. And they have to do a lot of work that does not count and is not paid. They are exploited off the workplace as well as on it, outside working hours as well as in them. This is also the first working class in history expected to have more education than their jobs require.

Second, the precariat has distinctive relations of distribution. It relies on money wages, without pensions, paid holidays, retrenchment benefits or medical coverage. It has been losing those benefits, which is why conventional statistics understate growing inequality.

The precariat also lacks rights-based state benefits. That was heralded in Bill Clinton’s 1996 declaration that he was ending “welfare as we know it.” The punitive Wisconsin workfare model has since gone global. Meanwhile, with wages volatile and falling, the precariat lives on the edge of unsustainable debt. Debt has become a systematic mechanism of exploitation, as people struggle to maintain yesterday’s standard of living.

Third, the precariat has distinctive relations to the state. Those in it are losing rights granted to citizens, becoming denizens without civil, cultural, political, social, and economic rights. Increasingly, they are supplicants, pleading for benefits or services, relying on discretionary decisions of bureaucrats making moralistic judgments on whether their behavior or attitude is deserving.

These three dimensions produce a consciousness of relative deprivation, a combination of anxiety, anomie (despair of escape), alienation (having to do what they do not wish to do while being unable to do what they are capable of doing), and anger.

Varieties of Precariat

At present, the precariat consists of three factions, which is why it is a class-in-the-making, not yet a class-for-itself. The first faction consists of those falling into the precariat from working-class communities. They lack schooling and feel deprived by reference to a lost past. Their predecessors had employment security, pensions and so on. They want that past. Many listen to populists and neo-fascists attributing their insecurity to migrants and minorities. Across Europe and elsewhere, many are voting for nationalistic, xenophobic, and racist agendas.

The second faction consists of migrants and minorities, who feel denied a home, a viable present. Mostly, they keep their heads down, concentrating on survival. But when policies threaten even that, they rebel in days of rage (as in Stockholm in 2013) or join some fundamentalist cause. They are the ultimate denizens, denied rights everywhere.

The third group consists of the educated, mostly young. They suffer relative deprivation by being denied a future, a life of dignity and fulfilment. But they do not listen to neo-fascists; they look to recover a future, aspiring to create a good society based on equality, freedom, and ecological sustainability.

The Emerging Struggles

Fortunately, partly due to the mass protests in and since 2011, more people have come to recognize that they belong to the precariat, which is an essential starting point for a counter-movement. Among the third group, a feeling is growing that they are not just victims but can fight back. This part of the precariat wants to struggle for a transformative agenda designed to abolish itself through overcoming the conditions that define it.

However, the precariat is the new dangerous class because all in it reject mainstream political establishments. Many have not been voting. This does not mean they are politically apathetic, merely that mainstream parties and politicians have not understood their needs or aspirations.

The protests since 2011 have been mostly the actions of what historians call primitive rebels, symbolizing a time when the emerging class is more united around what it is against than around what it wants instead. But the protests are helping the precariat move closer to being a class-for-itself. It is ready to move to a struggle for Representation and Redistribution.

Unlike the old socialist project, the struggle will be for a redistribution of resources needed for personal development in an ecologically sustainable society: security, control over time, quality space (including the commons), liberating education, financial knowledge, and capital. All are more unequally distributed than income. The precariat has no security, no control over time, is crowded into impoverishing space and is losing the commons (cause of the Geci Park occupation), is subject to commodifying schooling, lacks financial knowledge, and is denied access to capital.

A counter-movement is taking shape. The precariat is re-engaging in democratic politics. After the neo-liberal dystopia, the Future is back on the agenda. The precariat must be the vanguard of a new progressive era.

Guy Standing

Guy Standing is a Professor of Economics, SOAS, University of London. He will present his new book, A Precariat Charter, at CUNY (November 4), the New School (November 5), and Cornell (November 7).

The Crisis of Labour: Class Politics in Scotland After the Independence Referendum

As we saw in the Scottish Independence Referendum on September 19, deindustrialization still affects political loyalties in Scotland. Social class influenced the way many people voted, and this has major implications for the future politics of Scotland and the UK. Although 55% voted to remain within the UK, the campaign for independence, Yes Scotland, won 45% and carried several areas that continue to feel the effects of deindustrialization (exacerbated by UK government austerity measures) particularly acutely — the largest city, Glasgow, the populous areas of North Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire in the west of Scotland, and the city of Dundee in the east. In North Ayrshire and Inverclyde, the results were within in a hair’s breadth between the two sides. These former industrial heartlands are also the constituencies that gave the Labour Party dominance in Scotland. As historian Chris Harvie observed in 1998: “It is this unknown Scotland, not in the guidebooks, away from the motorway, seen fleetingly from the express that holds the key to the modern politics of the country.”

All of the parties in Scotland – unionist and secessionist alike – deployed deindustrialization as a key motif in the Independence Referendum. In earlier UK and Scottish Parliamentary elections in 2010 and 2011 respectively, both the Conservatives and Labour held rallies at the site of the former British Steel strip mill at Ravenscraig, a significant national site of memory. Gordon Brown, the former UK Labour Prime Minister, signaled the importance of old industrial Scotland as a key battleground when he chose Loanhead miners’ club outside Edinburgh to launch his defense of the UK and to promise more powers for the Scottish Parliament. Brown received a warmer reception than his successor as leader of the Party, Ed Miliband, when the latter visited the former mining village of Blantyre, the birthplace of one of the founders of the Labour Party, James Keir Hardie. It has an added significance for the labor movement as the site of one of Scotland’s most legendary mining disasters. “Labour Tories,” quipped one resident, while another remarked,

We’re all ex-Labour supporters – but now they’re just Tories in red ties. Mr Miliband’s come up today to a place he doesn’t even know – he probably couldn’t even put a finger on a map of where it is. He told us two months ago he’d come up to Scotland and spend the last six weeks living here. But they never even told us he was coming to Blantyre today.

Such comments reflected the growing disaffection of Labour voters in Scotland. The scale of the potential crisis confronting the Party in Scotland is illustrated by the fact that 40 of the 59 Scottish MPs at Westminster sit on the Labour benches; loss of these seats could scupper any chance of Labour maintaining a UK majority. The Party is belatedly stirring to this threat. Eric Joyce, the Labour MP for another former industrial town, recently observed, “Unless dramatic measures are taken, and fast, Labour will continue to be punished for the strategic error of neglecting its machinery in Scotland and for taking voters for granted.”

What has prompted this crisis for Labour in Scotland, a country in which it has held a majority since 1945? In Scotland, as in the rest of the UK, the Party lost long-term members frustrated by Blair’s involvement in the Iraq War, privatization of public services, and the financial crisis. Added to this, Labour stood with the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties as part of the No campaign and supported the UK coalition’s austerity measures and attacks on welfare that further impoverish low income families, disproportionately located in these former industrial heartlands.

In contrast, Yes Scotland – which involved the Scottish National Party (SNP), the Scottish Greens, and the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), as well as a host of other radical platforms – mounted an explicitly broad based left-leaning campaign, placing social justice at the core of an independent Scotland, protecting the public sector and National Health Service from privatization, expelling the UK’s Trident armed submarine fleet from its base in Scotland, and having an independent foreign policy.

However, Labour’s problems in Scotland also stem from the legacy of deindustrialization in Scotland and the associated shift in political loyalties in these former industrial heartlands. As Jim Phillips and I have argued elsewhere, deindustrialized communities, such as in the coalfields, continue to be plagued by the social legacy of the closures. Deindustrialization and its impacts over time have exercised a profound effect on the shifting working-class political loyalties in Scotland from the late 1960s onwards. Labour has subsequently, and hurriedly, assembled a plan to support development initiatives to regenerate former industrial areas. It is recognizing too late that the heartlands can no longer see a promised land in Labour pledges. As the late Marxist historian Eric Hosbawm observed in 1978:

… If the labour and socialist movement is to recover its soul, its dynamism, and its historical initiative, we, as marxists, must … recognise the novel situation in which we find ourselves, to analyse it realistically and concretely, to analyse the reasons, historical and otherwise, for the failures as well as the successes of the labour movement, and to formulate not only what we would want to do, but what can be done. We should have done this even while we were waiting for British capitalism to enter its period of dramatic crisis.

The thousands of working-class voters who engaged in grassroots debates during the Scottish referendum, and the broad left, have recognized the potential for greater democracy and empowering communities against global capitalism. The Labour Party has not. As a result working-class voters have deserted the Party in droves for the prospect of a more socially equitable society wedded to traditional “Labourist” values. As the Scottish socialist, and one of the leaders of the Upper Clydeside Shipbuilders (UCS) work-in in 1971-2, Jimmy Reid famously observed when opting to support the SNP in 2008, “It wasn’t so much that I left Labour. I felt that they left me.” Reid died in 2010, but seven of his fellow leaders from the UCS work-in came out in support of Scottish independence. That says much about where working-class political loyalties now lie in Scotland. While these concerns are surely shared by many voters in England, the electoral system for the Scottish Parliament (unlike Westminster) has facilitated greater representation for the Scottish Greens and the SSP, alongside the SNP.

In the days since the result – with the unionist parties of the Conservatives and Labour reneging on their vow of new powers – there has been a flood of former Labour voters to pro-independence parties; within 24 hours of the result, the SNP, the Scottish Greens, and the SSP, respectively saw 5000, 2000, and 1000 new members join up. Within a week, the SNP added over 39,000 new members, and Scottish Green membership rose by 375% on 2013. Amongst those deserting the Labour Party will also be a section who voted No in the referendum based on the assurances given them by the Party leadership that the Scottish Parliament would be given more power to promote social justice and protect public services. A Yes Alliance of the SNP, Scottish Greens and SSP now plan to vote tactically at the UK, and Scottish Parliamentary, elections in 2015 and 2016, to oust unionist party candidates standing for seats in Scotland. Already pollsters are speculating that Labour could lose more than half of their Scottish seats to the SNP in next year’s General Election.

Scottish working-class voters increasingly see their future lying within a separate state and with alternative parties who share essentially “Labourist” values, which the Labour Party has long since abandoned. We may well be witnessing the not so strange death of Labour Scotland.

Andrew Perchard

Andrew Perchard teaches history at the University of Strathclyde and is a member of Academics for Yes.

Climate of Change: Students, Naomi Klein, and the People’s Climate March

I was one of the hundreds of thousands filling the streets of New York for the People’s Climate March, September 21, 2014. I was there with a dozen students from my freshman composition course, in which we are reading and writing about climate change and what we can do about it. One thing they wanted to do was march – something only a couple of these eighteen-year-olds had done before. So I procured a university van, found sleeping space at a Quaker Meeting House, and drove us to the Big Apple. (Another fifty Pitt students chartered a bus to get there.) In the van we had Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, which is the central text for our course, though I can’t claim it got much attention during the trip: the students spent more time chatting, napping, texting, DJ-ing, and singing along than studying.

Klein is far from alone in pointing out that unless we transition rapidly from reliance on fossil fuels to renewable energy, our planet and our lives are imperiled by atmospheric warming, ice melting, oceans acidifying and rising, resource depletion, and extreme weather events resulting in floods, fires, and droughts. Scientists, writers, and actors from James Hansen to Bill McKibben to Leonardo DiCaprio have made this case with conviction. We also know, as Klein carefully explains, that it is technically and economically feasible to supply 100% of the world’s energy needs with water, wind, and solar power by 2030, if we had the necessary political will and collective vision to mitigate carbon emissions and avert catastrophe.

What is new and powerful in Klein’s project is indicated in its subtitle, Capitalism vs the Climate. She unfolds the essential contradiction between capitalism’s imperative for ever-increasing extraction of resources and consumption of goods and the climate’s requirement that we give up digging, drilling, and burning, and learn to live on less. This entails not just alternative energy but a deep ideological and structural change, away from the dominant “free market fundamentalism” of our era. This is, as she puts it, “the revolutionary power of climate change.”

In making this case, Klein addresses the “bad timing” whereby the climate crisis — which requires a collective response from an informed public and national governments — has emerged in the era when ascendant neoliberalism has undone government regulation, privatized the public sphere, promoted personal greed, subverted democratic processes, and, for good measure, mounted a massive disinformation campaign about the effects of globalized capitalism on the climate. She argues for the role of government in “planning and banning,” and in reviving public ownership and local power generation. But she also makes clear that moving “beyond extractivism” – an economic system based on removing ever more raw materials from the earth – to a system based on stewardship and shared resources requires not just policy and legal changes but “confronting the climate denier within”: our overindulgence in the goods capitalism delivers. We need to accept and promote “degrowth.”

While “degrowth” is the prescription for affluent industrialized nations, vast swaths of the world’s population already have less of the food, clean water, and energy they need to live on. Many of the poorest nations are also on the front lines of the climate catastrophe, having contributed least to the carbon emissions that are causing it. “Climate justice,” then, implies class justice: supporting efforts at development, especially in the global South, that meet local needs sustainably and equitably, rather than following the “pollute first / clean up later” model of the industrialized North (and most recently China) with its severe inequalities in wealth and life-chances. Klein argues that the prime culprits in overheating the planet should make payments, generated through carbon taxes and other redistributive schemes, to the poorer nations most affected. Payments to keep their carbon in the ground could be invested locally in sustainable agriculture and renewable energy and in preparing for the climate disasters headed their way. In all of these initiatives “the overriding principle must be to address the twin crises of inequality and climate change at the same time.”

I hope This Changes Everything takes its place alongside Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century as one of the key books of the decade, since it illuminates the other side of the capitalist coin brilliantly – not only its generation of ever-increasing extremes of wealth and poverty, but also its depletion of the earth’s “carrying capacity” for human and all other species. Reading her provides a powerful experience of connecting the dots, getting the full picture of what we’re up against and the full scope of the necessary and possible transformation.

In making her case for this [re]evolutionary transition, Klein critiques the false hope represented by several “green” trends: the alliance of some environmental groups with corporations to get them to change their ways, the intervention of green billionaires whose bottom line always trumps their environmental leanings, and delusional geoengineering schemes for seeding the oceans, blocking the sun, and such.   Real hope comes from the resistance of front-line peoples across the transnational climate conflict zone she calls “Blockadia,” as well as from from divest-and-invest campaigns, and the many alternative economic and energy projects she outlines, from Nigeria to Bolivia to Germany to the tribal lands of US and Canadian indigenous people.

Her account of these campaigns and initiatives is a pleasure to read. Klein tells stories and explains complex issues with the lucidity of the best non-fiction authors, combined with the passion of a muckraking journalist. She is an impeccable researcher, but she is willing to be a visionary also, claiming the right to “dream in public” – as she shows many other people doing in the book. For instance, in oil-soaked Louisiana where coastline is rapidly succumbing to ocean rise, Anne Rolfes, founder of the environmental justice Louisiana Bucket Brigade, says: “There once was an institution in this part of the world that had economic, social, political control, and people thought it couldn’t be beat. But slavery was brought down, and the oil industry can be, too.”

Klein argues ultimately that it will take a mass social movement to achieve the twin goals of averting climate catastrophe and living on the planet more equitably. She concludes that Abolitionism provides the closest model for the struggle we need to be about, precisely because of the depth and scope of the economic, social, and political changes required and the intense resistance to be expected from those with most to lose. The ideology of extractivism relies on a relationship of ownership and exploitation of the earth and its resources which mirrors slavery’s relationship to the subjugated human body and its labor.   I don’t know how many of us chanting in the streets of New York — “What do we want? Climate Justice! When do we want it? Now!” — quite grasped that we are engaged in what Klein calls the “unfinished business of liberation.”

But my students, carrying their homemade signs and surrounded by a mass of wildly diverse peers on the march, sensed they were part of something powerful and hopeful. Here’s a sampling of their written comments about it:

  • “While we were marching with 311,000 other people through the streets of NYC, our collective power seemed immense.”
  • “I have never seen such unity, passion, and energy in such a quantity.”
  • “People from all over the world came together to fight for what they love, for what we all have in common.”
  • “The People’s Climate March is only the beginning in my eyes. If change does not happen soon, the people of this Earth will continue to speak out and take action.”

In that struggle, I’m glad they have a book that provides the critical analysis and the models of change we need in this “decade zero” for the climate.

Nick Coles

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Working-Class Hero Explains How to Save our “Wounded Colossus”

Bob Herbert had no childhood dreams of becoming a journalist. As he explained in a recent interview, he grew up in Montclair, New Jersey, in an African American family that he once described as “working-class with a middle-class sensibility.” In the early 1960s he joined the family upholstery business and made good money—enough to buy a coveted Thunderbird while he was still in high school. But then the US government drafted Herbert and sent him to Korea (instead of Vietnam, thank goodness), where he worked in military intelligence. When he returned home, he decided he wanted to be a journalist, and, apparently, (my aspiring writer students will blanch to read this), all he had to do was call the New Jersey Star Ledger. It helped that he was super smart.

Herbert moved up quickly in the newspaper world. He went from the Star Ledger to the New York Daily News, where he was a reporter and then an editor. In 1992, he started an eighteen-year stint writing a bi-weekly column for The New York Times. During this period, he also worked in television, as a founding panelist of Sunday Edition in New York. He was also a national correspondent for NBC in the early 1990s and a regular guest on The Today Show and NBC Nightly News.

Throughout his career, and especially at The New York Times, Herbert became known as a champion of ordinary people, especially working people, black people, women, the impoverished, and the downtrodden. Famed NYT columnist William Sapphire used to tease him: “How are the people doing this week?”

But Herbert did not see himself as on the “working-class” beat or the “race” beat. He was simply writing out of the concerns that he had always had, concerns that grew organically out of his own life experience: “I have always thought about the concerns, desires, and aspirations of working people: poor, middle-class, working-class. Isn’t it funny that we have a separate category for poverty? Aren’t poor people also working people?”

But Herbert was conscious of filling one key gap at the Times. He noticed that for the most part, “the press tended to cover issues and events from the perspective of people in power.” By contrast, he explained, “I always tried to [do the opposite].” Instead, Herbert focused on “the victims of crime, victims of the system, victims of racism.” Anyone stuck with the “short end of the stick.”

Herbert also noticed that newspapers and their readers were practically allergic to talking about class: “We talk very seldom about class is this country, because class is so entwined with race…People are very uncomfortable talking about one for fear that it will lead to the other.”

In 2011, Herbert stepped down from the Times and went to work for Demos, a public policy organization whose name means “the people” and which works for an America “where we all have an equal say in our democracy and…in our economy.” For the last several years Herbert has also been working on a book, which, he jokes, is about the least sexy word in English: infrastructure. Originally titled Wounded Colossus, a reference to Emma Lazarus’s Statue of Liberty poem, “A New Colossus,” Herbert’s book is now called Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America.

Infrastructure may not be sexy, but it is fundamental: we depend on the safety of our roads and bridges, the cleanliness of our water and air, the functionality of our energy grid, and the efficacy of our public schools. Herbert argues that we used to take pride in building up our infrastructure, as when the Tennessee Valley Authority brought water and electricity to millions in the South, or when the WPA improved bridges, roads, parks, and trails, or when Eisenhower gave us the interstate highway system we still enjoy today. How did we lose our way? And what has been (and what will be) the human cost?

Losing Our Way tells, as promised, some gripping and intimate stories about people for whom our de-investment in infrastructure has been catastrophic. Herbert introduces us to Mercedes Gordon, a young woman, recently promoted at work and engaged to the love of her life, who suffered life-changing injuries when she drove over the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis as it was collapsing. In telling Gordon’s story Herbert highlights our failure to invest in our roads and bridges, lamenting that we know how to fix them and we can afford to but that “[w]e just don’t.”

We also meet an Afghanistan war veteran, Dan Berschinski, who lost both legs when he and his platoon stepped on a land mine in Kandahar Province. An irony emerges as Herbert meditates on how war impacts our national spending. As the theorist Elaine Scarry has noted, we think of killing as the goal of war. But Scarry argues that the “central activity of war is injuring and the central goal of war is to out-injure the opponent.” Given our devastating wars in the Middle East, with more than 50,000 soldiers wounded, as our veterans age and worsen, the war will cost exponentially more as time wears on. Herbert points out that the most expensive year of WWI compensations payments, for a war that ended in 1918, was 1969!

Herbert ties these very personal stories to a more collective story about a group of parent activists in Pittsburgh, PA, and especially blogger Jessie B. Ramey, who has led the demand for the return of state education cuts on her blog and in the streets since the January of 2012. Herbert explains that the 1 billion in education cuts in Pennsylvania were part of a national trend of education defunding in the wake of the great recession. But Herbert also makes a metaphorical connection between his other stories and the story of education activism. If Gordon and Berschinski lost their actual legs in their devastating accidents, the education cuts, in Ramey’s words, were similarly catastrophic: “They were cutting the legs out from under our system and we knew we had to fight back.”

But how does focusing on the crumbling American infrastructure highlight issues of class? Herbert reminds us that fixing infrastructure problems creates jobs. The New America Foundation, Herbert points out, shows that 1.2 trillion dollars of infrastructure investment would create at least 5 million new jobs—more than all the jobs created since the start of the great recession. Here in Pennsylvania, we’ve lost nearly 30,000 teachers and other school personnel to Governor Tom Corbett’s education cuts.

If you are anywhere within driving distance of Pittsburgh this week, you can see Bob Herbert in person and buy a signed copy of his new book. Herbert is launching his national book tour in Pittsburgh, and those of us who have been fighting for public education, along with many others, will be there to hear his message, and, equally exciting, to see our own movement for education justice featured in his book.

Herbert is one of the few opinion leaders with a national platform who understands that “[o]rdinary people in America are not heard, and that’s insane, when we’ve come through this communication revolution.” Herbert hopes that “readers will see themselves in the stories about people who are struggling, and who are learning how to fight back.”

Herbert’s message is ultimately one of hope: we may have lost our way, but we’re not utterly broken. We can, and we must, through democratic action, make our wounded colossus new again!

Kathy M. Newman

Our Overeducated Workforce: Who Benefits?

There are two “college jobs” (jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree) for every three “college graduates” (people 25 or older with a bachelor’s degree). What’s more, according to projections by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, this will not change much in the future as low-wage jobs grow somewhat faster than “college jobs,” while “college jobs” grow more slowly than the number of “college graduates.”

This blog has been an outlier in reporting this set of facts – see here, here and here. So while our readers should not be surprised by the recent report of the Federal Reserve of New York that “one in three college-educated workers typically holds a job that does not require a degree,” the mainstream media should be shocked.

Given these facts from official sources, it is a mystery how our leaders can go on and on about our growing “knowledge economy” and the necessity for everybody to go to college so they can get a good job.  One out of three college graduates now is not going to get one of those good college jobs; if everybody gets a bachelor’s degree, then about four out of five will not get a “college job.” It’s just arithmetic. How can President Obama very mistakenly say “the best anti-poverty program around is a first-class education” as two-thirds of jobs now and in 2022 will require only a high school diploma or less and most of these jobs pay low or very low wages? How is it that major newspapers, like the Chicago Tribune, still have headlines warning of a “shortage of educated employees”?

I don’t usually assume that there’s a conspiracy involved when our elite opinion-shapers purvey a widespread conception that is so out of whack with the facts.  I expect a certain level of class blindness among middle-class professionals (especially at the upper levels) on a wide range of subjects, and my expectations are only rarely disappointed. I think many of my lefty friends are too quick to attribute such mismatches to a kind of all-seeing executive committee of the ruling class that is purposely and systematically purveying propaganda that serves their interests.

But this past year I was interviewed by a documentary filmmaker, Jennifer Schuberth, who convinced me that I was looking in the wrong place for a conspiracy. Since the practical effect of having too many college graduates for the number of “college jobs” is to put downward pressure on the wages of those jobs, I figured any intentional design would require some kind of unwieldy conspiracy among employers. Schuberth, who is a Ph.D. anthropologist, has done some tracking of money flows, however, and she makes a pretty good case that the propaganda that blinds us may be orchestrated by the largest purveyor of college-student loans, Sallie Mae. You can watch her 12-minute doc Poorer by Degrees here. (I am one of the talking heads, but Schuberth’s editing and graphics have made me more lucid than usual.)

Sallie Mae, officially the SLM Corp., donated nearly $1 billion to found the non-profit Lumina Foundation, whose mission is “To increase the proportion of Americans with high-quality college degrees, certificates and other credentials to 60% by 2025.” Lumina gives money to various media outlets, think tanks, higher education associations, and universities to advance this mission. Lumina President and CEO Jamie Merisotis and Chief of Staff Holiday McKiernan are popular keynoters at gatherings of higher education administrators. Merisotis, for example, told the Oregon Higher Education Symposium that “[e]conomists and labor experts are quite clear” that the existing higher education system is not producing enough college graduates. Likewise, McKiernan emphasized to the Middle States Commission on Higher Education that “[e]xperts agree” that “by 2020 65% of jobs in America will require some form of postsecondary education.”

In these speeches when Lumina executives cite “experts” who “agree” and are “quite clear,” they actually refer to only one expert, Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, which is a major recipient of Lumina funds. Carnevale is also the source for the headline cited above warning of a “shortage of educated employees,” and he was the go-to guy for The Wall Street Journal to attack the NY Federal Reserve study as “wildly inaccurate.”

Carnevale authored a 2013 study, Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements through 2020, that purports to refute the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ occupational projections. BLS is not just an expert on this subject, it’s the premier expert. That does not mean BLS is right and Carnevale is wrong, but it does make it hard to see how Lumina executives can say “experts agree.”

Here’s the disagreement: BLS says the total number of jobs requiring “postsecondary education” of any sort is 33% now and will grow to 35% by 2022 (jobs requiring bachelor’s degrees will grow from 22% to 23%; those requiring associates degrees and other postsecondary credentials from 11% to 12%). Carnevale says the total is now 59% and will grow to be 65% by 2020, but he has an unusual definition of “college jobs.”

Carnevale dispenses with the BLS’s tedious job descriptions based on surveys of more than a million employers. Instead, he uses well-respected public opinion surveys and finds that many college graduates with jobs that BLS says do not require bachelor’s degrees tell surveyors that they are paid more than non-college-graduates doing the same or similar jobs. Carnevale thinks that when this happens, that person’s job should count as a “college job”: “Employers are still willing to pay more for the college degree – a symbol of a worker’s attainment of the knowledge, skills, and abilities that improve productivity.” Thus, if a barista at Starbucks with a college degree makes more than a barista at Starbucks who does not have a college degree, then that should count as a “college job” because the first barista has benefitted economically from his/her college education.

Well, that is one way to look at it, and a very creative one! But I’m glad the BLS doesn’t count that way. The NY Fed didn’t use Carnevale’s approach either, and as a result, found that though college graduates as a whole average substantially higher incomes than those without college, in 2013 one of four college graduates earned $27,000 or less.

You can probably guess how Sallie Mae, the giant of the college-loan industry, benefits from Carnevale’s reading of the need for more and more “postsecondary education” and from the Lumina Foundation’s mission to double the proportion of higher-educated workers. But watch Poorer by Degrees anyway. It paints a disturbing portrait of how some folks make money by exaggerating the American Dream.

Jack Metzgar
Chicago Working-Class Studies

The Culture of Success

This semester I am teaching a freshman seminar on the college novel. We started with This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald’s bizarre, Princeton-set contribution to the genre. The main character, Amory Blaine, starts life in Minneapolis with many material advantages. But his doting mother is an alcoholic, and his father washes out as a salesman. Amory is a failure: in college he goes on alcoholic benders and then flunks his end-of-the-year exams. This forces him off the editorial board of the Princetonian, and soon after he drops out of college completely.

The novel, which hews closely to Fitzgerald’s own life, also chronicles Amory’s failed relationships, including his relationship with the Southern belle Rosalind, the most Zelda-like character in the novel. Rosalind rejects Amory because she doesn’t want to live like “squaw” on his measly advertising salary of $275 a month (about $60,000 a year in today’s dollars). At the end of the novel Amory takes the rap for a friend who brought a single woman to a hotel (thus violating the Mann act), quits his job, loses his mother and his father figure Monsignor Darcy to death, and, in the last line, he names his only true accomplishment: “I know myself and that is all!”

I asked students in the seminar—11 women and one transgender student, three-quarters of them born abroad and representing perhaps a new global elite—what they thought of Amory’s trajectory. They agreed that he had mostly failed by end of the novel, but they also believed that he had gained wisdom, and that he had become a better person.

I also asked my students to define success for themselves. Their answers surprised me. One wrote that success was “not only academic success.” One defined success as “accomplishing my goals,” but with the caveat that “my goals can vary and not be traditionally defined.” One wants to “have a family and a job I love.” Another wants to learn Chinese, to play the guitar, and to have time for travel, music, and photography. One wants to “do something important.” One wants to “learn to cook.” One wants to find her voice. They wrote words like “satisfied,” “happy,” “friends,” and “family.”

As advocates for working people, how do we define success? Is there a contrast between our definition of success and how my students at Carnegie Mellon University define it? I also wonder about this as a parent when I find myself fighting with my 10-year-old and my 7-year-old—yet again—about tests, homework, and music lessons.

I worry about both my students and my children when I think about how the great recession has made our culture more competitive than ever. Is success for our children defined by striving, sacrificing, foregoing sleep, battling eating disorders, getting yelled at when they can’t focus during their violin lessons, getting the best grades and test scores, needing Ritalin, winning the most competitions, contemplating suicide, participating in the most activities, getting into the best schools, needing anti-anxiety medication, getting a high paying job, and then starting the cycle all over again for their children?

If you think I’m exaggerating, here are some stats about college life from the blog Challenge Success: Suicide is the 4th leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 10 and 24. In a recent survey of Stanford students, 12% had suicidal thoughts. According to a 2006 study of students attending two northeastern universities, “17% reported that they purposely injured themselves at some point in their lives,” and 70% of those said that had done so multiple times. In other cases college debt has led to suicide. Even younger teens in the US are buckling under the pressure, such as the three stressed out teens from Newton, MA who killed themselves in the span of just a few months.

What if, instead, we define success like this post, which went viral this summer, on how to give our kids a 1970s style summer? The writer, Melissa Fenton, advocated for the joys of imaginative play, wandering the neighborhood, drinking straight from the hose, doing just OK in school, being curious, watching cartoons, getting lost in a book, riding a bike fast on a dirt path, catching tadpoles, hanging out with friends after school.

What if we defined success in those terms? That kind of success could mean finding an affordable college that’s a good fit, or maybe not going to college at all, wandering the country, traveling the world, growing up, finding one’s path, working with dignity for some reasonable amount of money, and maybe (or maybe not) starting the cycle all over again for their children.

On the other hand, if families like mine—comfortable and certainly middle class— adopt the tenets of “slow parenting,” will my children become lazy, listless, and unfocused? Will they fail to get into a good college—or into any college? Will they end up without resilience, or with a bad work ethic? Will they drop precipitously into the working class?

Then again, would that be the worst thing in the world?

Indeed it might not be. Barbara Jensen argues powerfully for the existence of different cultures associated with working and middle class parenting in Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America. Jensen argues that working-class families privilege kinship and community over striving and the pressure cooker of high expectations. When I’m being honest with myself I, too, want kinship and community for my children more than I want them to have glorious and exalted careers.

It could be argued that my lament is that of the privileged. Challenge Success, the national organization that raises many of these same questions, is centered at Stanford University, and some of the parenting sessions held there, in the heart of Silicon Valley, attract some of the wealthiest and most successful parents in the country.

But the paradigms associated with middle class success since the great recession, especially in the realm of education, while stressful for families like mine, have been crippling for the poor and the working class. Education reformers, using the rhetoric of “grit” and the tools of testing, standardization, and austerity, have been gutting public schools, creating charter schools that harshly discipline poor black and brown children, and re-segregating public education. Today in the South and the Southwest of the United States more than 70% of public school children are poor.

The rhetoric of “grit” in particular has been used to argue that children who are poor have more experience with failure, and thus more potential to succeed. The truth is something different. Poverty creates a negative climate for learning—from factors such as lack of pre-natal nutrition, to lack of exposure to reading and vocabulary for toddlers, to the way in which the violence and insecurity of poor neighborhoods causes PTSD and rewires a child’s brain. These become staggering disadvantages to overcome within already underfunded and overburdened schools. Poverty, currently affecting 45 millions Americans, doesn’t foster grit. Instead poverty makes it harder to achieve success—no matter how we define it.

So how do we fight for more people to have access to the American Dream and, at the same time, challenge the accepted pathways to that dream? Can we challenge the culture of striving, overwork, and competition that is making our students and our children miserable, even suicidal? We want more people to be more successful, but don’t we also want to challenge the culture of success?

Kathy M. Newman

Precariat of the World Unite?

The term “Precariat” has been bandied around for some time now as a convenient catchall for a growing sense of employment insecurity in the U.S. and Europe. It has really gained traction in the wake of British social scientist Guy Standing’s 2011 book The Precariat, provocatively subtitled ‘The New Dangerous Class’. Standing argued that all Western countries were seeing a growing band of workers at the margins of the labor market. The precariat includes the young and old, the unskilled and unqualified who, for whatever reason, are locked out of ‘good jobs’ with higher pay, pensions and other benefits, and prospects of advancement. The book made Standing something of a darling of those fighting for better conditions or questioning some of the worst effects of neoliberalism in economic life. His ideas have been debated and scrutinized on both left and right of the political spectrum.

The success of The Precariat has led Standing to write a sequel, A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens. If his first book diagnosed the problem, this one offers a prescription for change in twenty-nine articles aimed at reforming work and the conditions that give rise to precarity. The ideas in Standing’s charter range from a complete redefinition of what counts as work to suggestions for reforming education.

Standing’s books have some profound implications for the way we think about the class system in general and the working class in particular. His initial volume’s subtitle ‘The New Dangerous Class’ echoed Marx and Engels’s ideas of the Lumpenproletariat – a dispossessed group at the very bottom of society who at times could be brought into the labor market as part of the reserve army of labor. In Standing’s twenty-first century version, the precariat has the potential to undermine working-class conditions in employment in similar ways and as a group has little or no connection to mainstream society. In his Precariat Charter, Standing attempts to forge new bonds between the precariat and the rest of society.

What I find most interesting about this latest book is what it says about work and what work can, and more importantly, cannot provide. Like a number of social commentators such as the late French social theorist Andre Gorz or British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, Standing seems resigned to the idea that work has little or no value for most people. Standing criticises politicians and unions for holding on to all work at any cost regardless of whether it is rewarding work or drudge labor, carried out simply for money. This attitude, he argues, compounds the problem of the precariat by creating the conditions where workers are seen as drones and are increasing conceptualised as denizens (people who reside in a place to work with few if any rights) rather than full and active citizens of a state. He calls, instead, for a radical recasting of economic life. Undoubtedly these are powerful ideas, and it’s especially important for someone with Standing’s profile to raise these issues and offer solutions to the problems identified.

However, when we dismiss unattractive drudge work as Standing and others do, we enact a kind of violence on those who are engaged in it, and, in the process, deny agency and voice –a working-class voice. For sure, in a perfect world all work would be incredibly meaningful and fulfilling all the time. But a number of writers take a working-class perspective and find value in basic manual labor. For example, in The Mind at Work, Mike Rose shows the skill and thought that goes into what many consider the most menial of jobs – waitressing. Other great writing on so-called low-end labor, such as Studs Terkel’s Working and the lesser known How to Tell When You’re Tired by U.S. author Reg Theriault, explores the cultures of work that emerge among workers in those jobs. Both of these volumes show workers as fully filled-out people who have ideas, opinions, aspirations, hopes, dreams, and fears. Rose, Terkel, and Theriault write about working-class people with whom you could share a beer. They seem like us, because they are people like us.

In contrast, because they lack voice and agency, the workers Standing’s two books seem somehow distant. Reading his books, I don’t feel like I have anything in common with the people he describes, however worthy they are of my attention. This may be the product of the book’s big picture ambition, but I find it problematic.

Precariat_Charter_coverThis stance towards the subjects of Standing’s writing extends to the covers of both books. While in A Precariat Charter, the subjects are obviously protesting actively, on both covers the workers’ faces are digitized out, so we literally cannot see them as fully human. And on the cover of the original book we gaze upon three young guys in Hi Viz jackets slumped against a wall eating a fast food meal, images that speak to resignation, passivity, and defeat reinforcing one of the themes of the first book.

tumblr_lo50e28RP31qe6laxI applaud Standing’s commitment and passion in raising the profile of workers at the margin, but it’s important that we don’t just see working-class people as passive victims of neoliberalism. Often it is precisely workers occupying the lowest rungs of the labor market who exercise both voice and agency. After all, the labor movement on both sides of the Atlantic drew its strength in part from precisely the sectors of the economy and the types of workers that Standing defines as the precariat. So I want to propose one more article for Standing’s charter: the recognition of a shared humanity working-class people hold in common.

Tim Strangleman