Working-Class People Hold Society Together: Class and COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted class inequalities. Commentators in the US, UK, and Australia are acknowledging that working-class people are more likely to suffer as a result of both the virus and the measures put in place to contain its spread.

Workers face increased risk of exposure to the virus because many have no choice but to be in regular face-to-face contact with people who might be infected. Workers in hospitals are at especially high risk, and while the majority of doctors might be middle class, most nurses, care assistants, cleaners, porters, and the people preparing and serving meals are working class. These front-line workers simply can’t stay at home.

Working-class people also have more difficulty accessing health care. In the US, working-class people often lack access to adequate health care, and they might not be able to afford treatment if they can get it. In the US, working-class people are also less likely to have sick pay and may have no choice but to go into work when sick. Existing health disparities put people of colour in the US at far greater risk of serious illness if they contract COVID-19. The UK and Australia have universal health care systems, but there are still discrepancies in access to treatment. In the UK, for example, Tory austerity measures have severely diminished the capacity of the National Health Service (NHS), so the system that cannot cope with the influx of infected patients despite the efforts of NHS workers. And racial disparities exist in these countries, too. Indigenous Australians are also at greater risk from the virus due to the racial gap in health outcomes.

Testing also reflects class inequities. While many working-class people don’t have access to tests, more elite members of society have had no trouble at all in getting tested and receiving immediate treatment. Prince Charles was infected and isolated himself at the royal family’s private estate in Scotland. No doubt he had excellent medical care available. In Australia the health system is less overloaded, but celebrities there have had no trouble getting tested even as others have had requests turned down.

Class differences also make for different experiences of quarantine, social isolation, and the recommended hygiene routines such as hand washing. Middle-class people are more likely to be able to work at home. Most have good internet access and space for at-home leisure activities such as home-gyms or gardens to escape to. Quarantine looks very different for people living in households with little physical space, and many cannot afford or don’t have access to the internet. The shift to online learning for school and tertiary students has really exposed the digital divide. And the guidelines on handwashing can only be met if people have access to clean running water and soap.

Add to all of this the millions of working-class people who have lost their jobs due to new restrictions on “non-essential” busineses. In Australia, the government announced that all bars and night clubs would close, and restaurants and cafes could only serve take out. Overnight, thousands were unemployed. More people were stood down by retail outlets, the travel industry (such as airlines), and other businesses no longer able to operate due to the restrictions or the sudden and unsustainable drop in trade. This sent thousands of people to Centrelink (the Australian social security offices) to apply for unemployment benefit. The system has been unable to cope with the mass applications, and people have been left without any income. The Australian government’s response in the form of a wage subsidy will help some, but not all, of the laid-off workers.

For working-class people, these inequalities come as no surprise. People on low incomes know only too well how easy it is to be down to their last dollar and understand the implications of precarity. Class divisions are only a surprise to people who have never struggled financially or experienced class discrimination.

At the same time, the crisis has shown that working-class people matter. As others have pointed out, society is learning to appreciate workers whose essential labour is usually taken for granted and ignored. Now the middle classes are realising that retail and delivery workers, cleaners, sanitation, and utility and transport workers are the ones who keep society ticking along. Without these workers everything falls apart. Can the same be said for some middle-class professionals?

The pandemic crisis has also shown how important is it for workers to be organised. Unions have played a big part in pressuring governments and industries to look after workers. In Australia, the union movement has been instrumental in arguing for a wage subsidy and pushing the government to extend them to all workers. Unions have also been lobbying big employers and industries to secure extra sick pay, to ensure that workers on casual contracts also have access to sick pay and carers leave, and to demand that  casual contracts be honoured even if workers are currently unable to work. In other places, workers have been calling wildcat strikes to demand safer working conditions or even for the shut-down of their workplaces.

We don’t know what the long-term effects of this pandemic will be, but it’s already clear that working-class people are essential for the running of our societies. The crisis is also showing more middle-class people how class works to create and reinforce inequalities, and it’s revealing the failures of the free market and neoliberalism. Whether this will lead to a change in the way economies are organised remains to be seen, of course. If nothing else, I hope this new recognition of the importance of working-class people will shift attitudes permanently.

Sarah Attfield, University of Technology Sydney, editor Journal of Working-Class Studies

 

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Class, Capitalism, and Coronovirus at Disney’s Newest Attraction

Last week the Coronavirus forced Disney to announce that its American parks are now closed indefinitely, resulting in the longest interruptions of any kind since they opened in 1955 (Disneyland) and 1965 (Walt Disney World). Disney has been on my mind because I made my first ever visit to Walt Disney World in Orlando on January 25th of this year, just as the first COVID 19 cases were being identified in the US.

Robot repair shop at Galaxy’s Edge

A Disney skeptic, I had agreed to visit Disney World with my extended family because of my sister’s love of all thing Star Wars. She wanted us to be among the first to experience the Rise of the Resistance, an extraordinary new ride that was built into Galaxy’s Edge, an immersive Star Wars world that has been open for less than a year. The Rise of the Resistance lived up to the hype, giving us a theatrical and participatory experience that positioned us as rebel fighters on a mission against the Nazi inspired First Order.

I returned from Disney World not quite a convert, but I was bowled over by the capital, the artistry, and the immense amount of labor and creativity that went into the making of Galaxy’s Edge. I also learned some lessons at Galaxy’s Edge that I think have some bearing on the Coronavirus pandemic we are experiencing.

Lesson #1: Fantasy requires reality. In this case, strangely, it’s a global working-class reality. Galaxy’s Edge is set in the fictional town of Black Spire Outpost on the planet Batuu, a once-upon-a-time trading hot spot that has been reduced to a post-industrial town for smugglers, grifters, and rebels. It’s the rust belt of the future. Big metal doors lead to nowhere and bits of abandoned industrial architecture are rendered in exquisite detail. There are piles of old metal suitcases, walls cracked to reveal a cache of ancient pottery, wire lockers containing old Rebel fighter uniforms, and an abandoned filling and repair station for defunct planetary jalopies.

The architecture of Black Spire Outpost is also deeply influenced by Middle Eastern cities, including Istanbul, Marrakesh, and Jerusalem. Erik Tiemens, a concept designer for Lucas Films, visited these cities “personally shooting nearly 3,000 reference photos to help inspire those earliest iterations.” Using these photos, the Disney Imagineers reproduced the effect of Middle Eastern marketplaces and densely packed housing. Electric wires and punk/grunge industrial grids are layered with lacy metallic Morrocan lamps, exposed brick, dwelling balconies, holes from laser gun battles, and tracks worn by grist mills.

Black Spire Outpost is a place for roustabouts, migrant workers, and political renegades. It’s an ironic setting, because Disney World is very expensive, now more than ever, and all the Disney goers I see around me are privileged. But Black Spire Outpost is a gritty, working-class town. And it’s beautiful. And it’s inspired by ancient, storied, cities that exist in the real world. And it’s fake. And it’s real.

Lesson #2: It takes a great deal of labor and capital to make Disney Magic. Walt Disney World alone employs more than 70,000 workers, though the company insists on calling them “cast members.” In 2018, they negotiated a series of pay increases that will establish a minimum wage of $15.00 per hour for everyone in the park. That’s a good start, but workers remain a long way from sharing in Disney’s huge profits. In 2019 the corporation netted more than 11 billion dollars.

Galaxy’s Edge took six years to complete and the labor of scores of designers and artists, musicians (John Williams composed new music for it), game designers and architects. It took 50 contractors and 5,500 construction workers to build the version in Orlando. Workers were sworn to secrecy, and there were “no leaks,” according to Disney, because the workers felt a ownership over the project. Like the great cathedrals and previous wonders of the world, Galaxy’s Edge is a massive works project.

It is estimated that the Taj Mahal would cost 100 million in today’s dollars, the Colosseum 435 million, and the Giza Pyramids 1.2 billion dollars. At a cost of 1 billion dollars per Disney park, Galaxy’s Edge is one of the most expensive, prodigious, three-dimensional, sense-transforming, creative and labor-intensive human achievements of the 21st century—and maybe in the history of the world. Galaxy’s Edge may well be our culture’s Giza Pyramids.

Lesson #3: We can do anything we want. Last week’s stimulus bill authorizes 2.2 trillion in spending. What will be the legacy of this spending? As long as we’re printing money, can’t we print money for Medicare for All? For the Green New Deal? For free college for everyone? For more Coronavirus tests? For 100,000 ventilators? For 500 billion hospital masks? What will be our nation’s Galaxy’s Edge?

As America has awakened to the reality of the pandemic some have argued that our only focus should be on fighting the disease, flattening the curve, and putting politics aside. With last week’s stimulus bill the GOP has been transferring wealth upwards to billionaires and large corporations, despite the bill’s bipartisan nature and some provisions that send stimulus checks to many Americans, boost unemployment funds and give money for hospital support.

In contrast to these approaches, Naomi Klein, Bernie Sanders, and others are arguing for a different approach: use the crisis to secure basic human rights that will make withstanding the next pandemic, and the crisis of climate change, possible. My trip to Galaxy’s Edge taught me that we can do anything we want if we put our trillions to it.

Surely if we can build the modern day pyramids we can fight the Coronavirus. Now all we have to do is join the resistance!

Kathy M. Newman, Carnegie Mellon University

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The Class System of Higher Ed Goes Online

Most American colleges and universities moved courses online over the last week. That shift highlights the class disparities of higher education. For example, at Georgetown, by the time the University President announced that classes were moving online, more than 30 full-time staff members from the teaching center and the center for classroom technology had prepared webinars, guides to using various technologies, and a full schedule of office hours and workshops to make the transition as smooth as possible. At Youngstown State University, the poorly-funded working-class institution where I used to teach, the  Institute for Teaching and Learning made similar preparations but with a staff of just five people. Their website includes a well-designed FAQ emphasizing both online pedagogy and equity, clearly recognizing that internet and even computer access may be difficult for the many working-class students enrolled. On the upside, unlike Georgetown, YSU extended spring break to give faculty, staff, and students an extra week to prepare.

It’s no surprise that an elite private university would have more resources than a chronically underfunded working-class state university. What’s troubling is how clearly that disparity does not align with the needs of either faculty or students. At Georgetown, full-time faculty typically teach two sections a semester (the story is different for part-time adjuncts, but I’ll get to that in a minute). Class also provides advantages for most Georgetown students (again, with important exceptions), who have benefited from private high school preparation, individual tutoring, and family lives designed to give them as much cultural capital as possible. High quality teaching won’t make as big a difference for them as it would for most of the students who attend working-class institutions, where faculty teach more courses and more students and have less access to support for teaching. At YSU, my colleagues and students succeed largely because of dedication – something that most have in abundance – but moving education online is a heavier lift and a greater risk for them.

Higher ed’s online shift has particular implications for the least privileged faculty. Many part-time faculty – the working-class labor pool of higher education — teach five or more sections, commuting between at least two different schools. Even where adjuncts are unionized, as most in the DC area are, this situation demands significant extra labor for which they are not being compensated. That this hits during the hiring season, when some have been preparing for campus interviews for full-time positions or are looking for new part-time gigs, just adds to the stress.

Many are also anxious about the move to online teaching means could reshape education after this crisis. Will more schools or students embrace distance learning? If so, what will that mean for faculty? Multiple professional organizations certify online courses and programs, and many review courses or provide certification for faculty. Will those standards be jettisoned if enough students succeed during this massive move to online learning? Faculty also worry about their ownership of the materials they’re creating. Guidelines from the National Education Association and the American Association of University Professors insist that faculty own their work, schools don’t necessarily follow those guidelines. The Grievance Chair of YSU’s faculty union, Gabriel Palmer-Fernandez, tells me that the Board of Directors there wants to retain the policy they insisted on when the University began developing online courses: that materials faculty create for online courses belong to the University, not to them. The advice of Rebecca Barrett-Fox seems especially apt in this situation: faculty should do a bad job of moving our courses online. Indeed, whether we do so deliberately or not, I think it’s just as likely that this year’s mass move to distance ed will demonstrate that faculty can’t do our work nearly as well online as we can in person.

But that doesn’t make us any less anxious, a response that cuts across categories of employment. When my department held a meeting on Zoom last week, my colleagues’ anxiety and uncertainty was clear even from a distance. This may be one area where working at a less prestigious institution could help, because state universities are more likely to be unionized. While a faculty union wouldn’t solve everything, and its powers are sometimes frustratingly limited, unions do provide support. I found myself thinking fondly this week about the YSU faculty union listserv, which provides a ready forum for faculty conversations across departments. As one professor there told me, sharing concerns has reduced his anxiety, and the listserv has helped faculty identify shared problems. Further, the union has a policy and a committee to manage faculty grievances, so they have a process for responding to problems.

Of course, students are wrestling with their own anxieties, and while some tensions affect students from all classes, the challenges are particularly significant for working-class students. Georgetown has kicked most students out of the dorms, requiring them to figure out how to get back to DC to get their things, even as public health experts encourage us all not to travel. For working-class, international, and LGBTQ students, closing the dorms doesn’t just present a problem of managing their belongings. It can leave them homeless. Some can’t afford to go home, some come from countries that have closed borders, and some – especially LGBTQ students — can’t go home because their families have rejected them. Imagine having to deal with that AND figure out how to navigate online classes at the same time. While some appreciate the structure and connections they’re getting by returning to class, others are too stressed out to deal with that.

This may be one advantage of attending a local or regional campus: if you get kicked out of your dorm, it’s easier to go home. On the other hand, home might not have the computer or technical resources you need to attend class online. Home might also be overcrowded and noisy, especially if other family members, including children, are at home with you. Add to that the stress of losing the job that pays your rent, buys your food, covers your tuition, and gives you whatever limited funds you have to pay for health care. Many of the students I taught at YSU worked in food service and retail, fields where workers are especially vulnerable right now. Higher education has never been a fully comfortable place for working-class students, and the current situation makes it even more challenging.

The midst of a crisis might not be the best time to restructure higher education, but I hope we will learn a few lessons from all of this. The first is about the value of human connection, between faculty and students and among faculty. The most hopeful responses I’ve seen to this crisis have been messages of support and solidarity — among faculty and between faculty, staff, and students. From multiple “Pandemic Pedagogy” forums on Facebook to the collective community effort at Georgetown to find housing for students who’ve been evicted from the dorms to the choice most of my students made to continue working in collaborative teams, I see people trying to help each other. I also see plenty of critique of how higher ed works, from complaints about how quickly we’re having to revise our courses to concerns about how this affects faculty evaluations and promotions to how we’re supporting faculty, staff, and students with disabilities and much more. Perhaps solidarity and critique will come together and we will find opportunities and inspiration to push for changes to make higher education more equitable — even if we have to do that at a distance.

Sherry Linkon, Georgetown University

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Class and the Challenge of COVID-19

COVID-19, the coronavirus that is spreading across the world, is wreaking havoc on working people and their families.  Weeks after it burst onto the world scene, the end of this deadly threat is still not in sight.  Although it is clear that its death toll will not begin to approximate that of the lethal 1918-19 worldwide Spanish Influenza epidemic, early indications are that COVID-19 could end up inflicting even more economic and political damage than that earlier pandemic.  Its impact is likely to reveal with deeper clarity than we have seen in a long time the class lines that divide our society and the true costs of decades of deepening inequality.

There is no escaping the class dimension of the COVID-19 outbreak, for working people are most likely to be affected by both the virus and efforts to contain its spread.  The way they earn their livings necessarily exposes many workers to the risk of contracting the disease.  Some—such as nurses and homecare workers—put themselves at risk on the front lines caring for those who are ill. More than one-third of the 180 workers Life Care Center of Kirkland, Washington, the Seattle-area nursing home where 13 patients died of COVID-19, appear to have contracted the virus.  Other workers—including flight attendants, teachers, and food service workers—work in highly interactive settings where the virus could easily be contracted and transmitted.  If they do contract the virus, working-class people are more likely to die from it because they disproportionately experience one of the underlying medical conditions that makes COVID-19 much deadlier than the flu: heart disease, diabetes, and lung disease.   Moreover, if they feel ill, U.S. workers are more likely to delay seeing a doctor either because they lack health insurance or have high co-pays that discourage them from getting treatment.

Efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 also have a class dimension.  As the Chinese and Italians found, workplaces provide natural nodes of virus transmission.  In order to restrain the spread of COVID-19, the Chinese government adopted strict quarantine measures that prevented nearly 300 million migrant workers from returning to their jobs after Chinese New Year celebrations, shuttering that nation’s manufacturing economy for three weeks.  Italy did the same.  Fiat-Chrysler closed its Italian plants as the virus spread.  Manufacturing and service workers worldwide cannot “telework” as many white collar or professional workers worldwide are now beginning to do.  Hourly workers are far more likely to lose income than salaried workers during the coming weeks of “social distancing.”  The relief bill enacted by the House on March 14 guarantees sick leave to only 20 percent of American workers according to the New York Times.  Those still vulnerable include independent contractors or gig workers.  As San Francisco Uber and Lyft driver Steve Gregg explains, he is “not in a position” to stop driving despite suffering mild panic attacks over his fear of infection.  He must work to support his family.  Too many workers like Gregg are still in the position where they must decide between personal financial ruin and accelerating the spread of a deadly pandemic.

In their classic 1929 study Middletown, Helen and Robert Lynd observed that the class lines separating working-class from middle-class neighborhoods in 1920s Muncie, Indiana, were most visible before dawn: working-class homes were first to switch on their lights as their occupants rose to face the workday ahead, which started earlier than the 9 to 5 days of the “business class.”  In the weeks ahead, the class lines that divide today’s America might become most visible around who must still venture out to work and who can work from the safety of home.

Yet crises can also be opportunities.  For forty years, Americans have been subjected to the drumbeat of libertarian market fundamentalism, the endlessly repeated allegation that government action could only worsen problems.  “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help,” Ronald Reagan famously joked in 1986.  Who’s laughing at that line now?

Crises like the current one have a way of exposing the bad faith of unclad emperors and their minions.  If the impacts of just wars, depressions, and epidemics tend to be differentiated along class lines, they also give the lie to ideologies rooted in atavistic individualism.  While they demand expertise and intelligent leadership, crises of this kind cannot be resolved by “dear leaders” who issue dictates.  Both their courses and their consequences transcend the individual; they demand mass mobilization and collective action on behalf of the common good.

Although we have not chosen this moment, it is within our power to decide how to meet it.  We could deepen divisions and set off on the fool’s errand of building a “Fortress America,” as our wall-obsessed president urges by cynically labeling the contagion a “foreign virus.”  Or we could use it as an opportunity to build community, forge solidarity, revive internationalism, and renovate the crumbling edifice of democracy.

Working-class culture and workers’ movements have long carried within their DNA the antidote to what now threatens us.  The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us of the timeless truth of the principle once popularized by the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor, the largest workers’ organization in nineteenth-century America: An injury to one must be the concern of all.  If we embrace that time-honored ideal, not only can we reduce the potential lethality of COVID-19, we can begin to build a world more resistant to future plagues.

Joseph A. McCartin

Joseph A. McCartin is Executive Director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor & the Working Poor at Georgetown University.

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A Punishment with No End: The Journey of a Working-Class Criminal into Academia

We call ourselves the flower pot kids after the floral themed street names the local council assigned in a vain if well-meaning attempt to brighten up an otherwise dreary area. The council-owned social housing consisted of tattered prefabricated buildings from the very early post-war period in the UK. I recently found myself with some other flower pot kids reminiscing about days gone by and the fates of our peers. We also considered the progress that we had made in life despite our disadvantages. One of my friends looked at me and said, “You’ve not done too bad for yourself, Ed. You’ve done yourself proud”.  In many ways he is right, but it has come at a cost.

I grew up in a working-class town in Essex in the early 1980s where money was tight. I felt the stress and strain my parents were under, a shared experience among my friends and neighbours. But I was good at sport, especially cricket, and that won me a place at a grammar school in a neighbouring borough. But I was under no illusions why I was there. While my parents and I wanted me to be there, it put all of us under immense stress and strain — hidden injuries of class. The school was full of what I saw as affluent kids, and the pressure to compete and keep up materially was unbearable. When we couldn’t, that’s was when the othering came in to play. I was the outsider and constantly reminded of it.

So from a young age I wanted to escape the working-class world that I had grown up in. My route out was crime — drugs, violence, and all the other unpleasantness that followed. I was sentenced to 16 years in prison. Fear motivated my desire for education — the fear that unless I did something to improve my prospects, I would face a lifetime of crime and prison. Education helped me discover my passion , through a degree in Criminology and Psychology, followed by a master’s degree – all while incarcerated. I’m now a full-time PhD student on a scholarship and an Assistant Lecturer.

However, it was and still is a different fear that threatened my rehabilitation and my career in education: the fear others have of me. As a criminal man from a working-class background, I am a walking manifestation of the entanglement of welfare, crime, class, and society. The problem may be societal, but it casts a stain on my character and my being. The othering that I experienced in my youth because of my class background is replicated in adulthood as a working-class ex-prisoner/offender.

My working-class peers, whether fellow prisoners or prison officers, were unsupportive of my educational aspirations whilst I was in prison. Prison officers feared that I would use my newfound knowledge to somehow ‘game the system’ for my benefit. More punitive staff members resented me attending university, believing that someone in prison shouldn’t be allowed the ‘luxury’ of an education. A governor spoke of how some staff resented my opportunity because they were stuck in a dead-end civil service job until their pensions. I was being allowed to go from prison, where I should be punished, to university and then into secure employment with significantly better wage than they earned. Perhaps naively, I genuinely thought that people would support my progression and success, but instead I was feared and resented.

Both in prison and after, my criminal peers and childhood friends often question my identity, suggesting I’m not being true to myself or my people. I’m still the man who shares values, memories, experiences, and culture with those very people, but they see me as the working-class kid from Essex masquerading as someone he is not, someone from a different class and too good for them these days! This couldn’t be any further from the truth, but the scornful comments sting.

When I left prison, I hoped that this would all be a thing of the past, yet the stigma of both my criminal past and my class follows me into my new workplace. I again find myself dehumanised, seen as a ‘risk’ that needs to be managed and controlled by people with no commensurate knowledge or background in offender risk management.. I have to justify that I am no threat to staff or students or the reputation of my employers. My University has risk assessed me, fearing a backlash in the tabloid press if parents hear that their children are being taught by an ex-offender. This is  despite the prison service, probation, and numerous police assessments over the years that judged me as not presenting a threat. This didn’t stop the University from placing restrictions on my teaching duties.

But there is something else going on, and that is about class. I feel have to justify my existence, my behaviours and actions in the workplace.  I can’t participate in work activities the way I would like to. I can’t assert myself or speak in a tone that feels appropriate for the situation for fear that my past may influence people’s perceptions of me. I have to present a ‘dumbed down’ version of myself, a shadow. I live under the microscope every day, a victim of my past.  The same othered kid from the working-class background as a child has evolved into the othered man in adulthood.

What I cannot help but feel is the ‘violence of class’. The othering that has dogged my entire life due to my class has acted as the catalyst for both the good but more profoundly the bad that I have perpetrated and experienced in my life. Class has underpinned my criminality and its injurious nature complicates my progression from that identity in the present day. Justice was served when I was sentenced to imprisonment, yet injustice punctuates my life since my release.

Ed Schreeche-Powell, University of Kent

Ed Schreeche-Powell is a PhD candidate and Assistant Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Kent. His MA thesis in Criminology examined ‘Peer Support and Well-Being: Exploring the Impact of Peer-Led Induction on Male Prisoners,’ and he recently contributed an auto-ethnographic chapter to the book ‘Degrees of Freedom’ (Policy Press) regarding the experience of distance learning in custodial settings and the interaction with the offender identity. 

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Class Anxiety: Parasite and Joker

A couple of weeks after the South Korean film Parasite won both Best Foreign Film and Best Picture, Donald Trump went on what the Washington Post called a “nationalistic cultural” rant about the film’s awards. He was upset that a movie made in Asia, in Korean, was named the best film in the U.S. The Democratic National Committee responded by pointing out that Parasite revealed “how oblivious the ultrarich are about the struggles of the working class,” a jab at Trump’s supposed populism. The DNC also noted that watching it would have required Trump to read subtitles for two hours, a point the film’s distributor echoed, tweeting that this was understandable because the President “can’t read.”

Trump’s response might have been intended to encourage xenophobia among his base, but it also reflects an important theme of Parasite that most reviews have ignored: elite anxiety about the working class. That anxiety has surfaced in the many studies and reports over the last decade that have tried to make sense of the seemingly exotic, incomprehensible working class of middle America.

Scholars and journalists have spent time in working-class communities, interviewed hundreds of working-class people, and reviewed studies by experts about how economics, politics, and social patterns influence each other. They’ve produced dozens of books and articles, and readers have embraced these works, searching for some explanation of a culture that seems to be gaining power. Writers and readers alike genuinely want to understand the working class, whose life experiences and worldviews seem so foreign.

Of course, the questions we ask don’t just shape what we choose to investigate or read. They also reflect our perspectives. Along with their curiosity, many in the elite also view working-class people with contempt and even fear. They worry about the political and social changes that seem to be rooted in working-class resentment. Brexit threatens the British economy, and Trumpism seems to be destroying American democracy. White supremacists have killed more than two dozen people, most of them Black or Latinx, in shootings in malls or houses of worship. Where did all this working-class resentment come from?

Both Parasite and Joker, another award-winning 2019 film, reflect those anxieties. Joker shows how a lifetime of abuse and disdain transforms a vulnerable working-class boy into a gleeful incarnation of evil whose followers take to the streets, setting fires and rioting in clown masks. In Parasite, a working-class family’s initially amusing insinuation into a wealthy family’s household takes a turn to violence.

Reviews of the two films have been decidedly different. Some critics were put off by Joker’s gratuitous violence, while others dismissed it as no more than “pernicious garbage,” a “miserabilist manifesto,” or a “descent into madness.”  Fans posting on sites like IMDb found the film more appealing. One described Joker as a film about how “an average man” beset by “mockery, bullying, neglect” and “daily life pressures” can go mad. In contrast, reviewers described the multiple Oscar-winning Parasite as a “class warfare thriller,” driven by a screenplay that is “doggedly on-point in its themes of class resentment and economic warfare.” While Parasite takes on class more overtly, both films reflect the recent interest in – and anxiety about – working-class resentment.

In different ways and to different extents, both reveal how economic inequality translates into cultural conflict. In Joker, Arthur Fleck’s madness is fueled by cuts to the public health system, so he can no longer afford the medications that keep his mental health problems in check, but also by the contempt of mainstream society, represented by a late-night TV show host who makes Arthur’s truly awful attempt at stand-up comedy the butt of repeated jokes. At first, Arthur is excited by the attention from someone he idolizes, but by the time he appears on the TV show and admits to having committed an infamous murder, he fully understands that he is the object of disdain. The wealthy Thomas Wayne expresses that contempt explicitly earlier in the film: “Those of us who have made something of our lives will look at those that haven’t as nothing but clowns.”

Parasite offers its own view into the struggles of working-class daily life, without the overlay of mental illness. Early scenes show how the Kim family scrapes by in their sub-basement apartment on low-wage piece-work, reduced to crouching next to the toilet to access public Wi-Fi. Their elite businessman boss insists that workers remain respectful and avoid “crossing the line,” and he complains that the workers smell like “old radishes.” But while his disdain may be less nasty than Thomas Wayne’s, both films make clear that the elite have no idea what workers’ lives are like. Instead, they view the working class as inferior, unpleasant, and problematic.

While these films make a point of showing us the world through working-class eyes, they also highlight elite anxiety about class. The clown agency where Arthur Fleck works seems innocent enough early in Joker, but after he kills three stock brokers on the subway, that mask takes on a more sinister meaning. Once masked, workers all look alike – a move that makes tangible the lack of attention to differences or individuality in the way employers often view the workforce. Workers’ seemingly happy faces and the apparent acceptance of demeaning working conditions and low wages mask their anger and resentment. They wear masks that, as Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote over a century ago in his powerful poem about how African Americans navigate white society, “grin and lie.” As professional middle-class readers encounter working-class individuals in books like Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Tightrope or Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland, they are probably becoming ever more aware of how much struggle and anger lies behind the masks that workers put on.

Bosses may view workers with contempt, but as Parasite suggests, the working class is much savvier about their bosses than the bosses are about them. The workers understand that it’s easy for rich people to be nice, because “money works like an iron, smoothing out the creases of life.” The bosses, however, are completely taken in by the working-class family’s performances of expertise and experience. The wealthy couple complain about their newly-hired chauffeur’s body odor, but they don’t question his credentials. And, of course, they have never noticed the guy secretly living in their basement.

These films reassure elite viewers that working-class people are likely to take their anger out on each other, often before they take aim at those who look down on them from above. Both films feature violence among workers. Early in Joker, Arthur is beaten up by a group of Black teenagers, young men who probably share his class position. His first act of violence is shooting the wealthy jerks on the subway, but he also murders two of his co-workers, men who have failed to demonstrate anything like class solidarity. For all of Parasite’s attention to class conflict, it major conflict is among workers, pitting the first housekeeper and her husband against the family of interlopers. After a very brief gesture toward solidarity, as the two families trade pleas for mercy and understanding, their interactions turn violent. They battle for the limited power they can grasp in a house where neither truly reigns. Their conflict continues until one finally realizes that his real enemy is the head of the wealthy family.

In a period marked by economic inequality and social divides, these films show both sides of the class war. By presenting working-class characters whose experiences seem extreme, either because of mental health or abject poverty, they invite viewers to empathize but perhaps not identify with the working class. By highlighting elite contempt for the working class, they reinforce F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lesson that the rich are different from you and me. But they also make visible the anxieties that not only the very wealthy but many in the professional middle class feel about the working class – a group whose experiences and views seem not only foreign but also potentially dangerous.

Sherry Linkon and John Russo, Georgetown University

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Precarity Goes to the Movies

Two recent events, vastly different in scale and importance, nonetheless point to the importance of the concept of the precariat, a relatively new coinage for the class of exploited, underemployed and temp workers of the world. The Oscars’ celebration of the South Korean film Parasite foregrounded what even mainstream critics in the New York Times and the Washington Post called a “class war” between the comfortable rich in glossy mansions and the precariat, a miserable underclass who live in Seoul’s gross banjiha or semi-basements.

The other event, the pandemic of the latest coronavirus COVID-19 that, among other horrors, curtailed the yearly—and only–vacation of hundreds of millions of Chinese migratory workers, who would normally travel home to the countryside from the industrial mega-cities in which they are similarly stuffed in overcrowded living conditions in dormitories and squalid apartments.

All over the world these workers of the precariat face remarkably similar working conditions, although they labor under many different titles: zero-hour contracts (United Kingdom), casual employment (Australia), low-hour contracts (Ireland), mini-jobs (Germany), subcontracted labor (India), non-hukuo migration (China), and McJobs or the gig economy (United States). We can hardly pretend that these workers are invisible: they are “illegal immigrants,” fast-food workers, Uber and Lyft drivers, retail clerks, day laborers, landscape workers, migrant workers, child laborers, farm laborers, seasonal workers, house cleaners, nannies, domestic workers, hotel and motel workers, carwasheros, tech workers, adjunct professors, convict labor, recycling scavengers, and so-called “guest workers.”

The precariat are everywhere, a vast global workforce defined by their transitory and tenuous relationship with employers emboldened by declining union membership numbers and the cost-saving outsourcing of labor by corporations and government entities alike. Guy Standing, former director of the Socio-Economic Program of the United Nations International Labour Organization and the leading chronicler of the precariat, examines how their lives are marked by the lack of health and safety regulations, job training, and stable income. As he argues in his 2011 book, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, the precariat has replaced the traditional proletariat with “a new mass class … characterized by chronic uncertainly and insecurity.” They “consist of millions of people relegated to bits and pieces living, in and out of casual flexible jobs, unable to build an occupational identity.” They are “wanted by the global market system” but are not simply a lumpenproletriat or underclass. They are even more vulnerable because they have no collective voice in their workplace and no short- or long-term job protection.

In the last twenty years, I have studied how the precariat are presented in both feature and documentary films. Using a broad definition of cinema, I have explored not only the traditional genres of labor documentaries and working-class feature films, but also other genres especially relevant to precarious work, such as epidemic cinema and films of catastrophe, as well as other forms of artistic expression, such as video games and films made for art installations and political protests by non-traditional filmmakers. I analyze 300 of these texts in my new book, The Cinema of the Precariat: The Exploited, Underemployed, and Temp Workers of the World (Bloomsbury).

When we consider the visual exploration of filmmakers of radically different backgrounds and intentions, we realize that the precariat has not been so invisible after all. Many of us know, for example, the classic television documentary, Harvest of Shame, Edward R. Murrow’s pioneering televised exposé of the migrant workers’ plight in 1960. That program launched an extended series of television documentaries, from 1960 through the 1990s, that I see as the first series of films about the precariat, though the term had not yet been coined. These films included white, African-American, and Latino migrant workers and farm laborers. At least six major programs, from What Harvest for the Reaper? (1968) through Children of the Harvest (1998), used Murrow’s model of investigative journalism to expose the scandalous conditions of this substantial arm of the precariat and their devastating effect on their families.

The closing years of the twentieth century engendered another kind of massive migration in China and other developing countries, as workers both from within and without urban centers tried to survive austerity programs that eliminated economic safety nets. Between 1970 to 2009, as many as 340 million rural workers were crowded into edge cities and satellite factory towns, working upwards of sixteen hours a day for low pay to generate the Chinese economic miracle of economic growth. Numerous films have chronicled these exploited migratory workers. Lixin Fan’s Last Train Home (2009), for example, follows a single family on a visit home after working for fifteen years in a garment factory in Guangdong Province only to return to find their factory shuttered because of the 2008 world financial crisis.

Other films document how desperate workers in South American countries had no choice but to move into shanty towns among massive garbage dumps to recycle plastics dumped in ever-increasing mounds of trash. For example, Recycled Life (2006) reveals a forty-acre ravine called the Guatemala City Dump, possibly the largest in the world, where hundreds of scavengers, the guajeros (from guaje or “a thing of little value”) recycle millions of pounds of paper, plastic, and metal. In White Train (1993), we see hundreds of cartoneras (the recyclers, literally “the cardboard people”) gleaning the trash of Buenos Aires and transporting their finds on unmarked special trains to the recycling centers.

Films about the recycling of discarded plastics and metals from electronic equipment in China and Southeast Asia and ship-breaking in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh reveal the dangerous and life-threatening tasks the precariat engage in a desperate race to the bottom. Plastic China (2017) focuses on one of five thousand small home factories in the province of Shandong where plastic garbage is transformed into recyclable pellets. On a different and massive scale, workers swarm over discarded ships in select “shipbreaking” ports in the Indian subcontinent, as in Graveyard for Giants (2014). We see Bangladeshi workers suspended hundreds of feet in the air, blowtorching pieces of an old freighter: “Is this a way to live?” one asks the filmmaker.

Looking beyond films that explicitly consider precarious labor, I think we also gain insight on the precariat through film genres and video games that are not so obviously focused on working-class topics. Epidemic cinema has located the spread of diseases among the precariat at least since the 1950s when Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (1950) dramatized an outbreak of plague among the precariat and the lumpenproletariat in New Orleans. Much more recently politically-conscious video game makers have been influenced by traditional filmmakers to offer games in which players have to identify with the precariat to survive or “win.” In the videogame Fort McMoney (2013), modeled on the fracking boom-town Ft. McMurray, Canada, players “walk” around the town, interview workers, and participate in decisions about the city’s future.

The title—and subject matter–of Parasite suggests, like epidemic cinema, that the precariat is a threat to the oligarchy of the 1%, epitomizing the class divide that leaves the 99% struggling for decent pay, health benefits, and job security. The Cinema of the Precariat also devotes separate chapters to the films that demonstrate the 1%’s capitalist drive for profits and economic dominance and that chronicle the rise of alt-labor and the drive to organize the unorganized of the 99%.

While films about the precariat are not new, filmmakers have begun to show the need for new films that will, like Murrow’s Harvest of Shame, make the precariat visible in the 21st century. It seems fitting that the documentary Food Chains (2014) returns to Immokalee, Florida, where Murrow began sixty years ago, to document new organizing drives among migrant labor and to take up the fight for workers’ rights again.

Tom Zaniello

Tom Zaniello is a film and media scholar who has written several books on films about work and class, including Working Stiffs, Union Maids, Reds, and RiffraffThe Cinema of Globalizationand The Cinema of the Precariat

 

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