Amplified Advantage: Why Education Is Not the Answer to Our Class Problems

Thirty years ago, after having dropped out of college after just one term, unable to pay for my dorm room, I was unsure if I would ever leave the working class.  Two years later I was a student at Barnard College, an elite small liberal arts college three thousand miles from my parents’ home.  To this day, I am not sure how I made that leap, but it was smoothed over by significant financial assistance from the college.  Unable to pay for my public university, I was able to graduate from one of the best private colleges in the country virtually debt-free.

Now I study higher education and its connection to what we call intergenerational social mobility, the movement (or lack of movement) between classes, comparing children and parents’ occupational outcomes over time.

I have some bad news.  While the path I took was not easy, gaining social mobility through college education is much harder for young people today.  Ironically, even as more children of the working class go to college, the educational attainment gap between the middle class and the working class continues to grow.

How can this be?  For one thing, the bar for “being educated” continues to rise.  As more people earn college degrees than ever before, the kind of college degree increasingly matters.  What type of institution?  What major field of study?  Also important is the level of education – in many fields a four-year degree is no longer enough to assure a middle-class salaried job.  You need a master’s degree, or even a PhD, for some work, even outside of academia.

Scholars of education (including sociologists like me) have known all of this for a while now, which is why so many of us have studied access to colleges and programs.  Colleges have struggled to open their doors to first-generation and working-class students.  They are paying more attention to ways of broadening access, sometimes pushed and shoved into doing so by state boards of higher education.  At the same time, budget cuts at public colleges and universities undercut many of these efforts.

But getting working-class students into colleges is only half the battle.  Keeping them and helping them thrive has proven difficult.  I explore some of the many reasons for this in my first book, The Burden of Academic Success:  marginalization, impostor syndrome, feeling out of place.  Even at open access two-year public colleges and universities that are the most open to working-class students, middle-class students predominate.

My experiences at Barnard reflect why that matters.  I rarely talked to anyone about my family, and, when I did, I regretted the ridicule, mockery, and disbelief.  I knew I was different.  Most of the time I was too busy juggling off-campus work and an overloaded academic schedule to care, but the isolated feeling was always lurking in the background.  If I hadn’t an abundant scholarship, I know I would have left.  As Tony Jack reminds us, “access is not inclusion.”

Getting working-class students into college and keeping them has proven difficult, but not impossible.  Successes – like me, Tony Jack, all the working-class academics out there —  do exist.  Here’s the real problem: even when we succeed academically, the gap between us and everyone else increases after we graduate, as Debbie Warnock’s remarkably honest account of her move into and through the academy so poignantly demonstrates.

In Amplified Advantage: Going to A “Good College” in an Era of Inequality, I demonstrate the many ways that parental resources and class cultures amplify the preexisting advantages of some students, even as colleges provide all students a solid education, expanded social networks, and useful cultural capital.  Based on a national survey of college students attending small liberal arts colleges, interviews, and a follow-up survey with recent college graduates, I found that colleges like Barnard did a lot of things well for their students.  Students generally had frequent interactions with faculty and peers, ample opportunities for doing research outside of class, abundant extracurricular activities, and a lot of institutional support for individual growth.  Given the quality of education and opportunity provided, the average $50,000 annual price tag for elite schools actually seems worthwhile, especially when low-income and working-class students receive sufficient financial assistance.

And yet, for all these colleges do to provide an equal playing field for students (all live on campus, everyone takes small classes, almost everyone is involved in useful extracurricular activities), once students graduate, their experiences and opportunities deviate sharply.  More elite students can leverage their advantages and resources in ways unavailable to other students.  They may, for example, take a risk on joining a start-up company, knowing that they have resources to fall back on if this risk does not pay off.  Others may rely on parental financial assistance to spend a year in New York City working at an unpaid internship or working for a nonprofit in a position that pays very little, expecting that such work will eventually pay off in a more secure and remunerative position.  Still others call on the friends and social networks of wealthy parents in the financial sector to ensure them high-paying jobs immediately after graduation, despite relatively shaky grades. Where elite students can afford to take big risks with potential big payoffs, knowing that the risk is ultimately ensured, working-class students’ choices are heavily constrained by circumstance and necessity.   Even compared with more middle-class peers, who may owe just as much in student loans, working-class students are much more likely to take jobs that they do not like and that do not match their skillsets in order to repay student debt. They may have accrued a ton of social and cultural capital while in college, but they can’t make use of it in the way of their peers.

In an increasingly unequal world, where elites outpace all others, reforming higher education from within won’t solve the problem. Class inequities shape students’ opportunities from before they enter college and long after they graduate. To the contrary, if we focus on education as the primary tool to level the playing field, we lose sight of the larger battle. As Andrew Sayer cautions, even reform efforts with egalitarian motives “are likely to be twisted by the field of class forces in ways which reproduce class hierarchy.”  In other words, the more we turn to education as a way out of class struggle, the more we may actually end up amplifying advantages of the few.

And we cannot afford to do that now. The time for ignoring the larger class struggle has passed, as we are all implicated in the game that is being played.  Simply put, expanding opportunities does not work because some players start off with extra resources, and they will use all the tools they have at their disposal to amplify their advantages.  Struggles might ensue over the value of those tools, which suit is “trump,” and which advantages accrue the most chips, but as the pot grows bigger and the stakes get higher, the game is still rigged against those who begin with fewer chips.  Do we want to keep playing this game?  Do we know how to stop?  It’s time to stop asking how we can get more people into college and start asking why it matters.

Allison L. Hurst, Oregon State University

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Re-Placing Class: Community, Politics, Work, and Labor in a Changing World

This week, we’re posting something a little different: the call for papers for this year’s Working-Class Studies Association conference. This year’s gathering marks the 25th anniversary of the conference that led to the founding of the Center for Working-Class Studies, the first interdisciplinary research, teaching, and outreach project focused on understanding working-class life and culture in the United States. Over the next seventeen years, the CWCS developed many projects, including Working-Class Perspectives. Like this blog, which presents ideas from academics, activists, and artists, the conference will feature a mix of voices, perspectives, and modes. Please consider joining us at Youngstown State University, May 20-24, 2020.


Call for Papers

Twenty-five years ago, the academic discipline of Working-Class Studies in the US was born in Youngstown, Ohio, as a group of scholars, activists, artists, workers, and practitioners converged around common goals of celebrating the working class in its diversity and complexity and to advocate for a politics of social justice and equity. This year the Working-Class Studies Association returns to the place the discipline began for the 2020 conference at Youngstown State University, at a time of rising social tribalism, class conflict, and politically calculated populisms. As the WCSA re-convenes in a place synonymous with working-class life, we hope to explore the following themes.

How can Working-Class Studies offer models for understanding the ways in which myriad local and global working classes intersect, cooperate, compete or are co-opted by other interests? What is the place of class as an instrument of either division or unification, both historically and now?  How do global, national, and local politics and policies exploit, ignore, or alternately, empower and enable workers? What potentials exist for solidarity amongst and within migrant, global, regional and local working classes?  How is diversity within the working class essentialized, fragmented, or, alternately, harnessed and maximized for social and political agendas? How can we reposition, or “re-Place” class in our current global politics as a site for effective action?

Further, what is the role of “Place” as geographical, social, psychic, and economic formation? How does “Place” defined by social, political and economic attributes, define community, which is underpinned by identity, ethnicity, status and power relationships? How does “Place” in these broad definitions provoke ways of thinking about the locations, spaces and places of the working class and Working-Class studies today?

We welcome proposals from multiple disciplines and perspectives: pedagogical, theoretical, creative, and professional. Themes and topics for papers, panels and presentations might include—but are not limited to:

  • Populisms, Diasporas, and Nationalisms
  • Intersectionality
  • Race, Capitalism, and Empire
  • Environmental Justice
  • Critical Race Studies
  • Policies and Politics
  • De-Industrialization
  • Global, Regional or Migrant Working Classes
  • Urban/Rural Working-Class life
  • The Cultural Politics of Class
  • Place and/or displacement of working-class communities
  • Labor now—Locally, Regionally and/or Globally
  • Class, Education, and Equity
  • Resilience, Resistance, and “Class Warfare”

The CWCS at Youngstown State welcomes proposals from academics and practioners across disciplines, community activists and organizers, and public scholars. Proposal abstracts for papers, creative works/exhibitions, and roundtables of no more approximately 350 words are due by Feb.20, 2020. Please email submissions to

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National Labor Relations Board Twists the Knife in the Heart of Unions and Workers

Nissan workers organizing in Mississippi

It may be hard to remember, but the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is supposed to ensure the right of workers to organize and safeguard the stated public policy expounded in the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which favors collective bargaining. Under the Trump administration, the NLRB is going out of its way to attack the Act. We are not talking about the usual thrust and jab common to any new administration. Trump’s NLRB and General Counsel are gutting the Act like a fish and then stabbing that knife into the heart of workers, their rights, and their unions.

During the eight years of the Obama administration, the NLRB had the opportunity to recast some contentious issues more favorably for workers and their unions.  Progress was made, though less than unions and organizers had hoped to see. Elections were processed more quickly.  Employers could not challenge a unit before the election, so they could not run out the clock and extend their campaigns through unnecessary hearings and fake challenges to specific jobs or bargaining unit descriptions.  The NLRB made a long overdue and significant update to the determinations for joint employer status, a key issue for franchises and their overlords like McDonalds.  Acknowledging joint employer control of the workforce would have finally made the primary, deep-pocketed company responsible for the labor practices of their franchisees.  Graduate student unions were allowed to be certified and protected under the Act.  Email communications by workers complaining about working conditions and organizing their co-workers were allowed and were protected, concerted activity within workplaces rather than solely company-controlled property, and Facebook rants were protected.

Three years into the Trump term, the NLRB now has three Republican appointees and only one Democratic appointee on the five-member board, and these Obama-era initiatives have either been rolled back already or are under attack. Things will not get better any time soon.  The last Democrat’s term concludes at the end of 2019, and it’s unlikely that a new member will be appointed in 2020. That leaves a 3-0 partisan board to steamroll over workers’ rights.  The decisions are guaranteed to become worse.

The actions of the Trump NLRB and the proposals of the current General Counsel go to the heart of generations of organizing practices and do so deliberately. For example, the NLRA specifies that “an appropriate bargaining unit” can represent workers. It does not require “a” single unit. But in the recent Boeing case emerging from the efforts to organize their South Carolina plant, the Board ruled against this time-honored definition, blocking the certification of a 178-member unit with the larger Boeing workforce.

Furthermore, the General Counsel Peter B. Robb has also proposed to flip the script on presumption of units in order to proceed more quickly to elections, a move that encourages companies to try to delay elections by challenging the unit and forcing a hearing.  He has also proposed a laundry list of reasons an employer can now use to challenge the majority of an incumbent union, forcing it to hold an election to prove its majority.

The General Counsel has also indicated he wants to stop the practice of unions filing charges to block unfair labor practices, known as “blocking” charges – usually actions by the company that taint the election conditions — during campaigns. This proposal is a total union-buster.  Instead of allowing the Regional NLRB supervising the election to postpone the voting while it investigates the charge, workers would be forced to vote in the poisoned conditions that the union opposed.  The election would proceed and results would be held “in the box.” If the charges were not found meritorious, the election box would be unsealed and the votes counted, presumably to the union and the workers’ peril.

Collective bargaining is also under attack.  One of the rock-solid foundations of bargaining prohibits employers from making unilateral changes once an organizing drive has begun. Any unilateral change could be a potential unfair labor practice and could lead to an election objection if it materially impacted the results.  Once a union was certified, the ban on unilateral changes meant that the company had to bargain with the union.  No more.  The NLRB wants to allow employers more leeway, turning upside down the rules governing what bosses can do under management rights.  The new rule seems to be “anything goes” for employers.

The NLRB reported another 11% drop in the filing of unfair labor practices in 2018.  The General Counsel for the Machinists has reportedly commented that we shouldn’t worry, because a lot of this will go away if Trump wins a second term.  Personally, I’m not feeling as secure about that as my brother machinist is.  Meanwhile, the Economic Policy Institute has suggested that the NLRB and the General Counsel have been following the work order set by the U. S. Chamber of Commerce point by point.

Does it matter?  Yes. However, because nothing better is likely to be legislated anytime soon, we need to hold onto everything we can in the current act.

Many unions and organizers have claimed that the failures to improve the protections of the NLRA are so serious that they are not filing for representation elections before the Board, but the statistics indicate otherwise. 1597 elections were filed in FY18 and another 1588 in FY08.  Workers are still organizing under the Act, and that’s a fact.

Like it or not, the NLRA provides both organized and unorganized workers some protections, despite weak and erratic enforcement.  In the contemporary workplace, workers need those protections more than ever.  The rights that remain are themselves organizing tools.

Wade Rathke, ACORN International



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Sanders or Warren? Populist-Progressivism or New Deal? Take Your Pick!

Despite their general agreement on specific issues, the two most left-wing candidates for the 2020 Democratic Party nomination, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have embraced different ideological markers.  Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist” and his near-miss 2016 primary campaign against Hillary Clinton helped spike the ranks of the Democratic Socialists of America (though he is not formally a member) to upwards of 50,000 members, including firebrand Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.  Warren calls herself a “capitalist to my bones” but one who recognizes that “markets need rules.”  Despite this distinction, both advocate for a single-payer (or socialized) health insurance system, stronger labor unions, a Green New Deal, $15 an hour minimum wage, free public college tuition, and extended childcare and family leave policies, not to mention sweeping immigration reform and gun control legislation.

As Warren demonstrates, one obviously does not need to don the ‘socialist’ mantle to compete for the affections of what Paul Wellstone once called the “democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” So why has the term ‘socialist’ acquired a mass following among many who, before the past few years, would have called themselves ‘progressive,’ ‘left-liberal,’ or ‘radical democrat’?  After all, as recently as the late-1990s, writer George Packer described how his dispirited encounter with the DSA “acquainted me with the pathos of left-wing activism in twilight.  It was marginal, pedestrian work, based on the eternal postponement of gratification…Sometimes, at a forum or board meeting, I would look around at the dozen or souls who had ventured out into the cold on a weeknight and wonder what made us do it? Why did we spend our lives on this stuff?”

Twenty years later, the program that DSA founder Michael Harrington called the “left wing of the possible” has become a hot ticket. So how is it that an invocation of ‘socialism’ or even near-socialism in Warren’s case can suddenly stir such fervor?

For many, the 2008 economic collapse exposed the dangers of global capitalism in its neoliberal, deregulatory phase for working people. The Democratic Party, even under Obama, had no answers — other than more free trade agreements — to the continuing slide of working-class incomes. That set the table for Sanders’s surprise showing in the 2016 primaries, which also built on the energy of the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011.  The same deep-set frustrations, alas, also helped fuel Trump’s victory.  While the president’s open racism, scapegoating of immigrants, and flagrantly unethical behavior in office now provide sufficient grist for some Democrats to seek a moderate, arguably “more electable” candidate, progressives draw a different lesson from Trump’s ‘faux-populist’ appeals to white working-class voters.  Both Warren and Sanders argue that only a program that addresses the structural inequality of wealth and power across race and class in American life can rally a convincing majority behind the Democratic Party.

While their goals are similar, Warren and Sanders draw on overlapping yet distinct traditions of American radicalism. Warren might be called a populist-progressive after the two major reform movements of the (first) Gilded Age. Like the populists (farmers and workers arrayed in the People’s Party of the 1890s) who attacked the “monopoly power” associated with banks and railroads, Warren identifies the political influence of big business as the source of “corruption” undermining American democracy.  Her remedy for the structural inequalities built into corporate capitalism relies heavily on government “regulation,” a tool more favored by the middle-class progressives who followed the populists. From mandating worker representation on corporate boards to limiting lobbying and corporate influence over federal agencies, through her trademark “wealth tax” on ultra-millionaires, Warren’s proposals not only reverse the deregulatory push that has dominated our politics since the 1980s but recall in vision and scope nothing so much as Teddy Roosevelt’s quixotic New Nationalist campaign of 1912 for federal stewardship of the private marketplace.

Sanders emerges from the democratic-socialist tradition, rooted in the great democratic uprisings of 1848 and the socialist revolutionary creed of Karl Mark and Frederick Engels that spread gradually among working-class ranks across Europe and was first institutionalized in Germany’s Social-Democratic Party in the 1890s. The socialist critique always stressed class injustice rather than the foibles or corruption of individual malefactors. Although militarized class struggle and even a violent seizure of power still found adherents in an authoritarian backwater like Russia (where the Bolsheviks triumphed in 1917) or amidst the most marginalized of workers (as in the vision of the American IWW), by the beginning of the twentieth century, for most socialists—including the American icon Eugene V. Debs–“revolution” meant a political victory starting at the ballot box and then extending to the ‘socialization’ (or nationalization) of the major means of production. While failing to advance much on their structural demands, Debs’s pre-World War I followers enjoyed some success at the municipal level (as did Sanders in Burlington, Vermont).  In Milwaukee, for example, socialists presided over a graft-free administration that gave city workers the eight-hour day, expanded public education, and sponsored free concerts in a new ring of public parks. Between war-time repression and the decline of craft unions, however, the American movement shriveled to little more than a moral protest.

By the mid-twentieth century, Western European socialism embraced a ‘reform capitalism,’ buttressed by Keynesian fiscal policy and a strong labor movement, with wealth generously redistributed via tax, health, and welfare policies as well as free higher education.  “Social democracy”, a kind of cross between New Deal-style welfarism and state-centered technocratic planning, became the main left alternative across Europe.  Yet the movement did not inspire an American counterpart.  Except among some militants in the civil rights, feminist, and subsequent new social movements, socialism, in both thought and deed, all but disappeared as a force in American public life.

So it is telling that when Sanders explained what he meant by socialism in a June 2019 talk at The George Washington University, he chose not to revive its early twentieth-century Glory Days. Instead, he linked its meaning with New Deal liberalism. “If there was ever a moment when we needed a new vision to bring our people together in the fight for justice, decency, and human dignity, this is that time,” the Vermont senator said. “[We] must take up the unfinished business of the New Deal and carry it to completion.”  Picking up on the “second Bill of Rights” that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had proposed in 1944, Sanders emphasized every American’s right to a living wage, health care, education, affordable housing, a clean environment, and a secure retirement. “We must recognize,” he concluded, “that in the 21st century, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, economic rights are human rights. That is what I mean by democratic socialism.”

While they draw on different historical roots, Warren and Sanders offer remarkably similar platforms. Both are keepers of a progressive reform flame that went out in a political surrender to deregulation, bipartisanship, and the exercise of military might abroad.  Warren’s “capitalism” will likely appeal to as few big capitalists today as did populism and progressivism to the likes of Standard Oil at the turn of the twentieth century. Sanders isn’t proposing Debsian socialism but rather a version of the New Deal re-outfitted for new life.

So will voters go for Bernie Sander’s democratic socialism or Elizabeth Warren’s democratized capitalism?  The difference is likely more in the wrapping than the contents. To switch metaphors, both contestants are fishing in the same waters with different lures.  In either case, progressives will learn soon enough whether they joined another campaign that got away.

Leon Fink

Leon Fink is editor of Labor: Studies in Working-Class History at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor and, full disclosure, a member of DSA and occasional contributor to both the Sanders and Warren campaigns.

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Counting on Class: The Continuing Appeal of Meritocracy

Neither faith in nor critiques of the idea of meritocracy is new. Michael Young’s famous 1958 book The Rise of Meritocracy argued that class privilege and advantage were likely to be amplified as financial and cultural capital passed across generations in families. Each new generation would benefit from existing structural advantage created by their parents and even grandparents. They might be talented individuals, hardworking and driven to succeed, but they would owe their achievements in part to a myriad of inherited class advantages. Young intended the title of his book as a satire, but for many, it seems to promote the ideal of egalitarian opportunity.

A recent rash of books critically revisit the ideas in Young’s now six-decade-old book. In The Class Ceiling: Why it ays to be Privileged, Sam Friendman and Daniel Laurison provide a wonderfully accessible account of contemporary class analysis in the UK, examining the complex ways in which class influences life chances. The authors leaven the numbers with fascinating vignettes from the field showing how successful middle-class professionals are sometimes aware of their own class privilege. As one put it, “I was lucky to have a following wind”. The book does not offer a crude demonization of privilege. Instead, the study gets to the heart of how talent and hard work don’t sufficiently explain how good jobs get allocated. Often times, as The Class Ceiling shows, it’s the lucky breaks that already privileged people enjoy that allow them to achieve yet more success.

Take ‘Mark’ for example, a successful TV executive in his late thirties. Mark relates to Friedman and Laurison his own ‘following wind’. The son of successful educated professionals, he was privately educated before gaining a place at Oxford. While he was at Oxford, Mark’s parents paid for him to go on a holiday to New York to do research for his undergraduate dissertation. He stayed in Manhattan for free in an apartment owned by a contact his father had met on the side-lines of a rugby match.  This same contact then provided Mark with an introduction to the television industry. The upside of the anecdote is that Mark is full aware of his privilege and luck.

The Class Ceiling is peppered with similar tales of advantage and their mirror image, such as the pairing of Nathan and Jim. Nathan’s CV is littered with prestigious roles in TV and film.  He attributes his success to “just working incredibly hard” and “making good decisions” like turning down jobs he didn’t believe in.  As he explains, “No job is worth sacrificing yourself for”. Jim, by contrast, has decided to leave the acting profession after ‘sacrificing’ himself and his career by taking the kind of parts Nathan can afford to avoid. Jim’s working-class origins still constrain him in his forties.  He struggled so hard to get into the acting profession, but the typecast jobs he has to take ultimately end up damaging his career and lead to offers drying up altogether. Class both constrains and enables after all.

The old formula so loved of politicians and defenders of the status quo that success can be reduced to Talent + Hard Work = Success is well and truly nailed by The Class Ceiling and its intimate stories of success and failure, which show how the safety net allows some to take chances and enjoy opportunities.  What emerges is a profound story of wasted, unrealised talent for those from working-class backgrounds.

This theme is picked up in another important recent book, The Meritocracy Trap by Daniel Markovits. For Markovits, meritocracy isn’t working for either the losers or the winners. For middle-class families, the stress involved in ‘making it’, even for those with privilege, involves constantly monitoring children’s progress, pushing them to excel in a bewildering array of extracurricular activities so that they can compete for the jobs or opportunities in the future. The Meritocracy Trap highlights the effect this has on both parents and their off-spring, creating profound and enduring anxiety and mental health issues. I wrote about my own experience of using middle class cultural and economic capital in terms of my own kids in a previous blog. The solution for Markovits involves radically improving education for all social classes to take away incentives to leverage class privilege in schools and colleges.

In The Rise of Meritocracy, Young described precisely the ‘following wind’ that Friendman and Laurison talk about in The Class Ceiling seven decades later. Sheer talent and hard work wasn’t then, and isn’t now, going to allow those further down the social scale the chances they need to really succeed. One of my colleagues who researches drugs policy has this neat formulation that politicians ‘need to follow the available evidence, not what people would prefer to be true’.  This is also true for commentators who defend the common sense view of meritocracy that talent and hard work will out. In study after study, social scientists repeatedly show that class and other forms of stratification get in the way of merit. Privilege, or the lack of it, shapes individuals’ merit, and it can undermine someone with great talent and commitment, or give someone an extra push. So what do we do in the face of the enduring attraction of meritocracy? It helps to keep repeating the inconvenient truth to anyone that will listen. Books like The Class Ceiling and The Meritocracy Trap help enormously by making complex arguments accessible to a wider public, providing the numbers but also giving names and faces to what those the numbers represent.

Tim Strangleman, University of Kent

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En Guerre: Populism and a Plant Closing in France

Stéphane Brizé’s En Guerre (At War), released in France in 2018 and in the United States this July, tells the story a car factory closing in Agen, a small company town in the southwest of France.  In this grim and painfully realistic dramatization, viewers witness many of the predictable and formulaic features of corporate industrial relocation, combined with the impending specter of joblessness that looms over the community in question. North American audiences will see many parallels between this film and accounts like Julia Reichert’s documentaries The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant (2009) and American Factory (2019), Amy Goldstein’s award-winning non-fiction book Janesville (2017), and the voluminous recent coverage of GM closures in Detroit-Hamtramck and Lordstown.  The uncertain future of the Nissan Sunderland plant in the Northeast of England provides a similar reminder of the present and ongoing turbulence created by transitions in the auto industry.  In this context, En Guerre represents a useful instructional tool, yet from a cinematic standpoint it leaves little room for novelty or surprise.

In the tale in question, German-owned Perrin Industries calls on workers to accept a scheme that would reduce their incomes by paying them for thirty-five hours but requiring them to work forty hours and forego bonuses for the next five years. Despite state subsidies to remain in Agen, Perrin decides two years later that the facility is no longer competitive. While local management offers platitudes like “we’re all in this together,” the company initiates plans to close the plant, displacing its 1,100 workers.  Union leader Laurent Amédéo, a robust and salty family-man played by Vincent Lindon, leads workers in a lock-out, demanding a meeting with the Perrin CEO.  Lindon, like many of the characters, bristles with intensity, conveying the gravity of what is at stake.

The film focuses on the ensuing escalation of this conflict and the thwarted efforts of Amédéo and his comrades.  When Amédéo visits company headquarters in Paris, young company officers tell him that the chairman will not see him and that he should return to Agen, but to “have a great day.”  Government officials are sympathetic but assert that they cannot tell a company not to close with any legal authority.  “We support you and your movement,” the workers, now obtaining a growing measure of media coverage, are told.  At a meeting between the German CEO and the union, the executive exclaims that he loves France – “I own a house here!” ­– before coldly asserting that the workforce is not performing and that if there are no other jobs in Agen then perhaps they should consider moving elsewhere.  When he is assaulted and bloodied by protesting workers, who flip his car as he leaves the premises, the movement to rescue the plant begins to unravel.

En Guerre explores the tough choices union officials and workers must make in the face of impending closures and the fractures in solidarity that threaten to emerge. Brizé probes these questions with vim and sympathy.  But the film too often relies on familiar tropes of neo-liberal capitalism – like executives who explain that “refusing to see market realities is like demanding a whole new world” – that have been parodied in popular media since at least the collapse of Enron and even more since the 2008 financial crisis.  No politician anywhere on the spectrum professes to be a fan of plant closures, even if some actively support the economic model that encourages them.  Merely to critique the callousness of shareholder-driven corporate manufacturers that shift around production is, in 2019, somewhat shallow and banal.  Most of the audience knows this already.

Had Brizé’s fictional car factory not merely been closing but rather relocating to Morocco, then the virtues of the dogged French proletariat might have really been put to the test.  Had workers received the outspoken support of Marine Le Pen’s Front National, again not an unrealistic scenario, then the director would have been forced to confront the political challenges that working-class communities face across Europe in the wake of industrial decline and right-wing insurgency, from Campania in Southern Italy, to Saxony and Brandenburg in Eastern Germany, to the protestant sections of Belfast.  But Brizé does not grasp that nettle, living instead in the moment and process of plant closure, rather than navigating the broader and more complex ways that working-class communities are actors in the political fallout once the initial anti-closure consensus has disintegrated. Some blame corporate executives or national politicians when communities decline, but others point the finger at Central European migrants or Syrian refugees.

Released in France in July 2018, En Guerre debuted just over a year after the election of Emmanuel Macron as the president of the republic, and just months before the commencement of the grassroots gilets jaunes ­– yellow vest –  protests in November.  Initially a revolt against rising fuel prices, the ongoing gilets jaunes movement, which has been fading in recent months, attracted supporters of both left-wing and right-wing parties around a loosely defined collection of mutual grievances: against the wealthy, punitive tax policies, austerity measures, and, yes, so-called “political elites,” including some or all elected officials depending upon whom you ask.  But the totemic subject of their ire was the president himself. Brizé’s sentiments overlap with those of the gilets jaunes.  “The idea of the world that Macron defends is a brutality without name,” he observed in May 2018.

But the vain young president and his bracingly masculine handshakes are quite easy to dislike, and he is widely disapproved of in France, even by many who voted for him in the final round to avert a Le Pen presidency.  Such a diversity of the French population may hold mutual antagonisms, but reach widely different conclusions in identifying the most cogent remedies.  En Guerre provides a fast-paced and energetic depiction of the implications of the free movement of capital within the European Union without engaging with the destructive nationalism that has been unleashed by the numerous demagogues intent on benefitting from such circumstances.

Brizé’s critique of twenty-first century corporate mobility may have been fresh in 2005, but it fails to break new ground in explaining how working-class communities process industrial decline in 2019.  It is wishful thinking to contend that a conversation on job loss can be narrowly defined as a debate on the movement of capital without touching on immigration, too. The internal contests between ideas of nationalism, multiculturalism, xenophobia, and identity, conversations buoyed by a surfeit of false information on social media and the fusion of physical and virtual discourse are as real as and as bound to define the future landscape of a community as those between a German executive and a French union.  The logic of neoliberal capitalism might close down a factory, but a series of angry rallies against fictitious Asian rapists and pedophiles or a brutal attack on a pride parade will ensure that it never re-opens. The European working classes face a multitude of painful political and cultural challenges, and as admirable as Brizé’s solidarity and commitment to the blue-collar worker may be, this is not a time for the romanticism that En Guerre ultimately delivers.

Patrick Dixon, Georgetown University

Patrick Dixon is a research analyst at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor and the managing editor of Labor: Studies in Working-Class History.

Posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Labor and Community Activism, The Working Class and the Economy | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

White Middle-Class Racism

What do you picture when someone refers to the “Trump’s base”? If you’ve watched television coverage of his rallies or read any of the dozens of articles in which reporters and commentators try to explain Trump’s appeal, then you probably imagine white people wearing “MAGA” hats and t-shirts chanting “Lock her up” or “send her back” in an arena in a mid-size Midwestern or Southern city. You might assume they include laid-off industrial workers, residents of declining cities or rural areas who view immigrants as a threat, people who spend their weekends at gun shows, and uninsured people who resent the “government intrusion” of the Affordable Care Act.

This image might come to mind when you read that polls show support for Trump increasing when he tweets racist jibes at women of color in the U.S. Congress or calls a black Representative’s district a “rat and rodent infested mess.” While some shake their heads in frustration at these poor foolish dupes, some also feel some empathy. It isn’t their fault they were “left behind” by the global economy or laid low by the exploitations of the opioid scandal. They just aren’t smart enough to see that they’re being manipulated.

As several recent articles have pointed out, this story is wrong – though it’s probably reassuring to educated urban middle class and elites. It suggests that the problem with this country lies somewhere out there, among people who can easily be labelled as racist, xenophobic, homophobic, old-fashioned, and most important, working-class.

If you detect some exasperation here, you’re right. We’ve been talking regularly with reporters about working-class voters – by which they almost always mean whites – since 2007. Then, reporters called to ask whether white industrial workers would vote for an African American or a woman. Now they’re asking why white working-class people would be drawn to Trump’s anti-immigrant, racist, and sexist bravado.

We could say plenty about the complicated relationship between racism and the white working class, but there’s more to the story of white racism. While Trump does attract significant support from the white working class, middle-and upper-class whites are also an important part of Trump’s base. After all, if Trump’s support among Republicans rises after his racist outbursts, that includes the core of the party, and they tend to be whiter, more rural, older, and more religiously conservative than Democrats. They are also at least slightly better off. Democrats win more votes from people with college degrees, the most commonly-used basis for pollsters to talk about class, but they also win more lower-income voters. Republicans take the lead – as Trump did in the 2016 vote – among those with incomes of $50K or more.

So while some of his white working-class fans might respond with open approval to Trump’s racist appeals, it’s also probably true that many of his more educated, better-off supporters embrace it as well. Some might tolerate the President’s nasty remarks because they appreciate his tax cut or his anti-abortion, pro-business Supreme Court nominees. But many of his policies, like his tweets, reflect racial resentments that appeal to a wider range of voters than class stereotypes suggest.

Some appreciate Trump’s racism because it violates social rules they find limiting. As Kevin M. Kruse suggested in a New York Times op-ed, Trump voices the resentment  many white voters – of all classes — feel  about not being able to say what they think about women, people of color, and LGBTQ people. They genuinely don’t get why some of what Trump says is racist. Instead, they rankle at the idea that it’s never acceptable for white people to criticize people of color. For many, Trump’s statements reassure them that they are not racist, they’re just not “PC.”

This points to a core problem in discussions of racism: the focus on individual attitudes rather than on structural inequities. To call someone racist is to judge their character. To hate people of color because of their skin would be racist, and only bad people are racist.

Amid discussions about whether or not Trump is racist, we forget that racism is structural. Hating people of color isn’t a prerequisite for investing in a system that provides most white people with better health care, better educations, more power in the workplace, higher incomes, and more opportunities to get ahead and secure a comfortable life. As Richard Reeves argues in Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It, many well-educated, well-off people seek out opportunities to pass their privileges on to their children. We don’t think that’s racist. We think it’s good parenting. After Nikole Hannah-Jones’s New York Times commentary arguing that white people’s rejection of school busing in the 1970s and 80s reflected resistance to having their children go to school with black people, several white parents wrote in to insist that they weren’t racist. They just wanted their children to attend a better school. Yet the school in the white neighborhood was likely better because of higher incomes of white families and the higher property values in white neighborhoods, and the children who attend that school deal with less day-to-day anxiety and disruption than those in more challenged neighborhoods.

Those economic conditions reflect racial disparities reinforced by government and business practices. Did white parents create those economic conditions? Not directly, though they probably helped elect the politicians who implemented the policies, and they might not recognize how those policies reinforce racial inequalities and divisions.

They believe in meritocracy.  If the system is fair, as they believe it is, then whatever getting ahead they eked out reflects their intelligence, abilities, and hard work, not a system that is rigged or unequal. They may well see Barack Obama’s two terms as President as proof: if America elected a black man, doesn’t that show that the deserving can rise despite racism? So why should we believe that racism keeps others down?

Yet as a 2018 report from the Economic Policy Institute shows, African Americans continue to lag far behind whites in every economic category, from education to income to home ownership, unemployment, and incarceration despite their rising education rates and incomes. Perhaps Trump’s white supporters base their vision of the black experience in America on what they see on TV, which today offers more and more positive images of people of color, especially African Americans, than a few decades ago. In recent years, in part because of Black Lives Matter, the rise of white supremacist activism, and anti-immigration efforts, racism and racial inequality have become center stage issues in American politics. Yet during the same period, the white middle-class have seen their wages stagnate, their jobs become less secure, and their children struggle to achieve the trappings of middle-class life. That breeds resentment.

A faith in meritocracy may also explain why instead of blaming corporations or Wall Street for not raising wages or for cutting jobs, many white middle-class voters hold on to the belief that good business principles require companies to make those choices. They worry about how to pay for their children’s or grandchildren’s college tuition but don’t question Republican cuts to state funding for education. They wonder if their children will ever find good jobs or afford to buy homes of their own. Yet they hold on to the hope that they or their children will someday be in a position to reap the benefits of conservative tax policies.

To be fair, Democratic voters also make choices that shore up their economic and racial privilege, though they might be somewhat more likely to wrestle with their decisions or to acknowledge the inequities. Republicans seem more likely to support pro-business policies and tax cuts, while Democrats believe that everyone will do better if we ensure more opportunities for those without their advantages.

Of course, it’s easier for candidates to criticize Trump as a racist than it is to critique structural racism. And dismantling discriminatory policies, from school funding to zoning ordinances, will require hard work that will challenge middle-class and elite voters across the political spectrum. If Democrats want to do more than talk about racist attitudes, they need to take on the injustices built into the system.

Sherry Linkon and John Russo, Georgetown University

A longer version of this piece appeared on Newgeography.


Posted in Class and the Media, Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Issues, John Russo, Sherry Linkon, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , | 4 Comments