Fear of Hygge and Working-Class Social Capital

One of the contenders for the Oxford Dictionaries’ “word of the year” in 2016 is the Danish word hygge (pronounced hoo-guh).  As defined by Oxford, it denotes “a quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment and well-being.” According to The New Yorker, hygge has “made inroads with an international audience” because it is often seen as the source of Denmark’s ranking as among the happiest places on earth in international surveys.

I sought to find out about hygge because various references to it seemed similar to my sense of key aspects of American working-class culture – namely, the priority given to the pleasures of simply “hanging out” with friends and family or, more broadly, what Barbara Jensen decades ago called a working-class preference for belonging vs. becoming.  Based on the handful of articles I read, I wouldn’t push this analogy between Danish national culture and American working-class culture too far.  But the anxiety hygge seems to generate among middle-class professionals for whom striving to achieve is the very core of life seems to confirm the stark opposition between working-class and middle-class cultures that Jensen laid out in Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America.

Hygge is wonderfully difficult to define, at least for the American and British writers I read.  It is strongly associated with certain physical objects like fireplaces, cocoa, old shirts, and candles.  But it is primarily an attitude of appreciating what some writers call “the small things of life,” not just a hot cup of cocoa by a fire in winter, but the “comfortable conviviality” of “relaxation with close friends or family.”  Some call it “the art of creating intimacy” or “coziness of the soul.”

The panicked reaction to such an attitude is typified by The Atlantic headline: “The Danish Don’t Have the Secret to Happiness: Something Is Rotten in the State of Denmark.”  The writer, Michael Booth, would not be happy in Denmark because it is too orderly and boring there – no street food or graffiti, no homeless people panhandling, and insufficient numbers of visible poor people to add spice and variety to urban wandering.  (In fact, 5% of Danes are poor, including nearly 3% of children, not nearly as spicy as our double-digit rates, with 20% of American children growing up in poverty.)  Booth is cagily over-the-top with this complaint, but all the writers endorse the satiric anti-individualist “Laws of Jante” as accurately describing Danish social norms.   Most of the laws counsel an egalitarian ethic similar to the one I heard growing up in a working-class family a while back: “Never think you are better than anybody else or that anybody else is better than you.”  Similarly, they counsel not to expect too much of yourself and to have generally modest expectations of life, while appreciating and making the best of what you have, above all, your family and friends.  Most Anglo-American writers find this stifling, a recipe for mediocrity, self-satisfaction, and complacency.  Life for them is a “journey,” always striving for self-improvement.

The Laws of Jante were articulated by a Danish rebel against the hygge culture, and many Danes dispute their sardonic exaggeration of Danish conformity.  A more positive version of hygge is articulated by Danish philosopher/psychologist Svend Brinkmann in Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze.  Without ever mentioning hygge, Brinkmann argues against individualist self-absorption and for a Stoic sense of character based on one’s obligations to others, advocating that “we forego our desperate preoccupation with the internal and self-development, and instead learn to connect in more appropriate and meaningful ways to the pre-existing relationships in our lives.”

Danish hygge in this version is not so much about coziness and relaxation as it is about centering one’s life around and giving priority to “pre-existing relationships,” what Jensen called working-class belonging in contrast to middle-class striving to become something bigger and better than you are so far.  Jensen sees Robert Putnam’s distinction between a bonding social capital and a bridging social capital as a class-cultural difference.  Bonding is “the kind of social capital that is at the heart of working-class communities – deep, loyal, we-are-part-of-one-another bonding.”  Middle-class bridging social capital, with its skill at networking, is “less personal” and more superficial, but “it can unite many people across wide differences,” and it “invites individuals into new communities and experiences.”

As Jensen suggests, both kinds of social capital have value, with both strengths and limitations.  The Economist, for example, was quick to point out that hygge, with its preference for bonding, makes it harder for strangers, like immigrants, to make friends and to feel welcome in Denmark, concluding: “If cultures are obsessed with the joys of relaxing with old friends, perhaps it is because they find it stressful to make new ones.”  It likewise could be said that those “obsessed” with networking among people they hardly know and have no intention of ever knowing very well may have a fear of intimacy.

Bonding and bridging are not incompatible with each other.  A person can bridge all day and then bond in the evening, as so many of us do.  But the dismissive defensiveness against hygge of Anglo-American writers indicates a cultural anxiety that fears relaxation itself as threatening the constant striving to perfect one’s self and to outperform others.  Hygge, I imagine, is relaxing not because of cocoa and fireplaces, but because you are with people who know you so well that you don’t have to bother with presenting yourself, with hiding what you perceive as your weaknesses and disabilities and “putting your best foot forward.”  It’s relaxing because you can just be yourself, warts and all, and still be accepted, still belong.  That this is seen as a threat to achievement, a dangerous siren call to complacency and self-satisfaction, suggests a professional middle-class culture that has lost confidence in itself and, as a result, is becoming more narrow, rigid, and cramped in its insistence that, in the words of Frederick Winslow Taylor, there is only one right way.

Then, too, much of the fear of hygge, as Anna Altman in The New Yorker points out, may be based on the “American” rejection of Denmark’s “high taxes and socialist ideas.”  Before snarkily dismissing it, Altman cites an alternative point-of-view:

“Perhaps Scandinavians are better able to appreciate the small, hygge things in life because they already have all the big ones nailed down: free university education, social security, universal health care, efficient infrastructure, paid family leave, and at least a month of vacation a year. With those necessities secured, according to [Meik] Wiking, Danes are free to become ‘aware of the decoupling between wealth and well-being.’”

The American working class does not have these big things nailed down, and their preference for belonging is more likely influenced by the fact that it’s cheaper and doesn’t require cash or a credit card.  In addition, in a belonging culture that is better at bonding than bridging, “pre-existing relationships” are not “the small things of life” but the big ones.

Jack Metzgar

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Have We Been Had? Why Talking About the Working-Class Vote for Trump Hurts Us

Like many of my friends and colleagues who study class and are worried about the increasing economic inequality of this country, I was at first overjoyed that the recent presidential election would force us to reckon with the subject of class. Usually ignored, working-class people were now becoming subjects of a national conversation.  And we’ve seen some fine discussions from folks like Joan Williams, Konstantin Kilibardo and Daria Roithmayr, and Jack Metzgar.

Unfortunately, the discussion too often tips over into pity and blame, and I think we should be very careful to guard against this.  I would like to make two suggestions.  First, we should challenge the those who claim that the “white working class” voted for Trump. That’s both empirically mistaken and strategically misplaced.  Second, we should pay attention to how this conversation plays right into the hands of a long-standing conservative discourse that pits “middle America” against out-of-touch elites.  That we who write articles, analyze data, and blog about politics and class are the elites people are warned against should not come as a surprise, but we should avoid participating in the “let’s figure out what is wrong with white working-class voters” game.

First, who really put Trump in the White House?  The short answer is, many of us did.  I don’t think we will have the full answer for quite some time.  We still don’t have any data on occupation and the 2016 vote.  We can look at American National Election Studies (ANES) data from November 2016, however, to compare the vote by income and education.  The top bars on the chart below show all ANES respondents, the second whites only.  Trump had the edge among white people without a college degree, although less so among middle-income voters than the poor or the rich (he did really well among rich white men without a college degree).  This is a small sample, however, one that doesn’t include any poor whites with a college degree (who do in fact exist!)

This data doesn’t show the white working class overwhelmingly in support of Trump. Not more than half of the working class even voted, so to say that the “white working class” gave us Trump seems more than a little overstated.

Second, elite hand-wringing about the vote plays right into a narrative long spun by conservatives to mobilize resentment among those who feel analyzed and scorned, so as to shift attention away from actual conservative policies.  Decades ago, conservative writer Samuel Francis claimed that the New Deal was nothing other than “a power grab by the liberal elite, whose life-styles, aspirations, and values” were “Bound together, rationalized, and extended by what may be called the ‘cosmopolitan ethic.’” Francis emphasized the “open contempt” this ethic held toward “the small town, the family, the neighborhood, the traditional class identities and their relationships – as well as for authoritative and disciplinary institutions – the army, the police, parental authority, and the disciplines of school and church.”

Clinton’s election narrative echoed these ideas.   She wanted liberals to see this election as a referendum on race and inclusion, and anyone who was against her was deplorable or being used by deplorables.  As Sharon Sullivan has argued, “one of the main ways that white class hierarchies operate is through the production and display of white middle-class moral goodness.”  Have you noticed how infrequently rich whites are called out for being deplorably racist?

Honestly?  This election wasn’t a referendum on anything.  We had no good candidates to choose from.  We didn’t choose either one of them.  Millions of Americans sat out the vote (or were pushed out, but that is another story).  And each of the millions of people who did had their own reasons for casting their vote.  Most likely we’ll never be able to get to the bottom of how much racism, sexism, and other prejudices motivated voters in this election.  (On a side note, is it really that surprising that a critical mass of white people respond to racist dog whistles?)  Yes, we need to try to understand the attraction of a strange man who seems to appeal to our worst instincts and desires, but not at the risk of failing to come together to continue the fight for a better world for all of us.  Politicians manipulate.  Let’s stop focusing on who is manipulated and why and focus instead on making sure this doesn’t happen again.

I would suggest that the main reason we are currently focused on the working-class vote, and not, say the professional-managerial vote, or the rich white male vote, is because these people are respected to make decisions.  In contrast, pundits and analysts have always questioned ability of working-class people to make decisions.  This is just another way the educated left is playing into a conservative narrative of condescending liberal elitism.

Here’s the problem as I see it.  If Trump’s supporters came from all sections of the (white) American electorate, the narrative of working-class support of Trump diverts us from the real story, which is much more ordinary.  One party — a party that denies climate change, that wants to rollback protections for workers and the planet, that is willing to sacrifice millions of lives to the Moloch of economic growth — has managed to suppress its opponents’ votes (the majority of poor and working-class people do not vote), spin a story of a liberal media being out of touch with “regular Americans,” and lead kind-hearted but possibly naïve liberals everywhere to once again fear the (white) working class.  Neat trick.  any Leftist coalition will be destroyed by fear and mistrust.

It has been a very long time in this country since we had a party that was both about and for the working class (have we ever?).  Instead, our parties appeal to mythic constructs about identity.  It is much easier to appeal to white workers as white than as workers in such circumstances, especially when the candidate of the party that historically championed labor is also ignoring labor and putting her foot in her mouth with classist remarks.  This is how we lose.

The side of the wealthy exploits the classism of the other side, and wins voters by doing so, even as it pushes for policies that favor the few and harm the many.  They have been doing this for a very long time.  This is how they win, and we play right into their hands.

We’ve been had. We need a new narrative.  We need to recognize the working class for who it is.  It is us, white, black, and brown.  It is the person who works three jobs and can’t afford healthcare as well as the worker with a union job, the person living in subsidized housing as well as the suburbanite who is hoping her job doesn’t disappear.  The working class is the American people, our democratic polity, native-born and immigrant, gay, straight, and transgender.  We don’t all look alike, and we certainly don’t all think alike. But we are all harmed by a politics that seeks to divide us.  No, they didn’t vote Trump.  Americans like us did.  And we all need to fix it.

Allison L. Hurst

Allison L. Hurst is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Oregon State University and the author of two books on the experiences and identity reformations of working-class college students, The Burden of Academic Success: Loyalists, Renegades, and Double Agents (2010) and College and the Working Class (2012).  She was one of the founders of the Association of Working-Class Academics, an organization composed of college faculty and staff who were the first in their families to graduate from college, for which she also served as president from 2008 to 2014.

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Profiting from the Working Class: How the Opioid Epidemic Echoes the Mortgage Crisis

For the second time in a decade, a group of Fortune 500 companies are engaged in a con game that is devastating working-class families and the communities in which they live. The first scam, which involved predatory lending and the sale of worthless mortgage-backed securities, led to the collapse of the U.S. housing market and the near-meltdown of global financial markets in 2008. In its wake, nearly ten million American families lost their homes, millions more lost billions in equity and were left broke and hopeless. Many of the victims are still struggling to rebuild their lives today.

NBC News photo

As with predatory mortgage lending, the ongoing opioid and heroin abuse epidemic began quietly and went undetected by regulators and law enforcement officials until evidence of the carnage it was causing began piling up at their feet. One of the most widely-discussed reports came from economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, who identified rising death rates among middle-aged whites, especially those from the working class, tied in part to overdoses. And while the housing crisis and the opioid/heroin epidemic were both spawned by corporate greed, there’s one significant difference: the victims of the drug epidemic aren’t attempting to rebuild their lives. They’re dead.

The similarities between the two scams are striking and disturbing. Like the bankers who created the mortgage crisis by marketing unsustainable investment tools that exploited homebuyers, the pharmaceutical companies that manufacture opioids engaged in a concerted and highly successful effort to convince physicians and pharmacists to hand out dangerous and highly addictive drugs, including OxyContin and Vicodin, as if they were jelly beans.

How successful was that marketing campaign? Very. As the Charleston Gazette-Mail noted in an explosive report on the epidemic, between 2007 and 2012 pharmaceutical companies sold 780,000,000 hydrocodone and oxycodone pills in West Virginia. That’s 433 pills for every man, woman, and child living there. Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Florida, and New York have also been flooded with these drugs.

The drive to convince doctors that opioids could be safely prescribed for the long-term treatment of chronic pain without substantial risk of addiction was led by Purdue Pharmaceutical, the manufacturer of OxyContin. As reported in the American Journal of Public Health,  Purdue funded self-serving studies that produced fudged data, distributed that data to thousands of physicians, pharmacists, and nurses during conferences held at luxury resorts, more than doubled its sales force, and paid reps who produced increased OxyContin sales $40 million in bonuses. As a result, Purdue’s owners, the Sackler family, jumped to Forbes Magazine’s list of America’s wealthiest families with a net worth of over $14 Billion at the end of 2015.

Two other factors also contributed to the exponential growth in opioid sales. First, Purdue concentrated its efforts in regions of the country populated by blue-collar workers and the economically disadvantaged because they assumed that patients in those areas were less educated and more likely to place blind faith in medical providers. The Gazette-Mail series on the epidemic demonstrated the companies were correct. While opioid addiction has increased in all demographic groups, the Centers for Disease Control reports the largest increase among whites who earn between $20,000 and $50,000 a year.

But the epidemic was also made possible by the total failure of regulators to recognize what was happening. Despite rules requiring drug distributors and pharmacists to report unusual orders of controlled substances to regulators, billions of pills continued to flood markets across the U.S. for years. No one said a word until the bodies began to pile up and the evidence began to show growing addiction rates among middle-class whites. When regulators did finally act by cracking down on doctors who were over-prescribing pain meds, many addicted patients turned to heroin dealers.

Anyone who has read The Big Short or seen the movie that chronicled the mortgage lending scam will recognize the tactics used by Purdue and the other pharmaceutical manufacturers: create a market for a faulty product, pay once-responsible people lots of money to foist it off on unsuspecting customers, and sit back and reap billions in profit. But the consequences are quite different: victims of the former lose their homes, victims of the latter lose their lives.

It is possible, however, that the U.S. Justice Department will treat this scam differently. In the aftermath of the 2008 housing meltdown, not a single senior banking executive was indicted, convicted, or jailed for the massive fraud committed on the American public. Instead, the feds spent billions to bail out the finance industry and offered only slight assistance to the millions of Americans who lost their homes, their savings, and their dreams.

State attorneys general filled the vacuum by launching investigations and filing civil lawsuits that the U.S. Department of Justice eventually, albeit reluctantly, joined.  While many of the largest banks paid billions in fines and penalties using bailout money supplied by the very taxpayers who had been defrauded and funds that should have been distributed to shareholders, the Obama Justice Department and Attorney General Eric Holder declined to prosecute anyone.  The cozy relationship between Wall Street fraudsters, regulators, and prosecutors, symbolized by Holder’s post-AG work at the white shoe law firm of Covington and Burling, discouraged criminal enforcement efforts that many legal observers say should have been initiated. As a former Senate investigator put it, “Everything’s fucked up, and nobody goes to jail.”

Not surprisingly, homeowners were stunned and outraged when they learned that the billionaires who had stolen their houses were allowed to walk — or Lear Jet or yacht — away scot free.  It’s also not surprising that many of these historically Democratic voters were excited by Donald Trump’s promise to hold Wall Street accountable for raping Main Street.

The Trump administration and AG Jeff Sessions have the opportunity to do better. As evidence of a major corporate fraud piles up and as overdose rates increase in big cities and rural communities in Ohio and other states, Sessions must decide whether to prosecute the corporations whose actions caused the epidemic. So far, despite a professed desire to reignite the war on drugs, the president and his AG have been silent on the matter.

That is why we were encouraged when Republican Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, at the urging of Democratic elected officials and the plaintiff’s bar, recently filed suit against the pharmaceutical companies responsible for Ohio’s severe opioid crisis and resultant deaths. The theory of the case is obvious: drug companies, led by Purdue, systematically and intentionally used fraud and deception to convince doctors, third party payers including the state’s Medicaid program and Worker’s Compensation System, and patients that opioids were safe and effective.  As a result, patients became addicted to opioid medications that contain the same active ingredient as heroin, which put their lives in danger.

While we applaud DeWine’s decision, and we’re glad he included a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) claim in the suit, the foreclosure crisis taught us that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the United States Department of Justice are the only law enforcement agencies with the resources and power to pursue and prosecute a case that involves a massive fraud that impacts the entire nation.

Unfortunately, Sessions and the DOJ appear to be focused on prosecuting and jailing street-level heroin dealers and users rather than the executives at Purdue and the other opioid manufacturers who knowingly touched off the deadly heroin epidemic. This strategy isn’t just doomed to fail, it echoes the Obama administration’s decision to lockup low-level mortgage brokers but allow Wall Street executives to cash million-dollar bonus checks and head to the Hamptons for the summer.

We remain hopeful that Sessions will surprise us all by deciding to criminally prosecute the pharmaceutical executives who created the opioid crisis. If he does, a clear and for once positive distinction will be drawn between the Trump and Obama administrations. But if he doesn’t, if he instead prosecutes the men and women in blue jeans and plaid shirts who are buying and dealing heroin rather than the bespoke suit-clad executives who set them up to become drug addicts, the Trump administration will be repeating the mistake made by Obama’s with one stark distinction: they’ll be letting murderers off the hook.

And that’s certainly not the way to make America great again.

Marc Dann and Leo Jennings III

Marc Dann served as Attorney General of the State of Ohio and now leads the Dann Law Firm, which specializes in protecting consumers from various forms of predatory financing. Leo Jennings III is a leading Northeast Ohio political consultant and media specialist.

Posted in Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Leo Jennings, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Religious Liberty: (Not) For All

Freedom of religion is a central idea in the United States. Most descriptions of U.S. history emphasize flight from religious repression as the main motivation for colonial settlement. The U.S. Constitution enshrines the idea of freedom in the very first line of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Proponents argue that religious liberty means that everyone may participate in a free “marketplace” of religious ideas and practices. Neither atheists nor believers pay taxes to support a state church. Believers are free of taxes on property and activities associated with their church, temple, or mosque. In this open market, the benefits are said to be spread evenly – from the rich to the poor, from the 1% to the working class. However, institutional actions in the name of religious freedom can have negative consequences for working-class people.

No one seems to question whether individuals should be free to follow their conscience or to practice the religion of their choice (or no religion at all). But how should we evaluate religious freedom claims for institutions, especially when they involve workers, services, and public funds? Discrimination in certain employment practices is generally non-controversial. For instance, a church would not be subject to discrimination claims if it refused to consider rabbis as candidates for its pastoral leadership.

But other employment cases are not as clear cut. For example, in the unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision, Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (2012), the Court not only recognized a “ministerial exception” to employment discrimination laws, but extended it. Cheryl Perich, a teacher at Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, filed suit claiming that the school violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). She became sick and was on leave for several months. Upon her return, she faced pressure to resign but refused to do so, and the school terminated her employment. In the court case, the school successfully argued that she functioned as a minister in that context. In the ruling, the court valued the religious freedom doctrine over Perich’s medical condition and ADA regulations. The long-term consequences of this ruling remain unclear. How much deference will the courts give to  religious organizations rather than to employees?

Courts have also applied the principle of religious freedom to for-profit corporations.  For example, Hobby Lobby, an otherwise secular corporation owned by Christians, won its bid to avoid providing contraceptive care to its workers. As I wrote earlier this year, “the application of the doctrine of religious liberty to Hobby  Lobby means that the religious beliefs of five corporate owners take precedence over the beliefs and interests of nearly 13,400 workers in 535 stores across the country. Further, the ruling grants religious freedom to the corporation, giving it legal status as a ‘person’ whose rights must be protected as well.”

Religious freedom cases also affect working-class people beyond the workplace. In April, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments over whether a church was eligible for a grant from a state program aimed at non-profits. Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Missouri sought a grant from a state program aimed at resurfacing playgrounds with recycled tires. The state initially denied Trinity’s application on the basis of Section 7 of the state constitution, which stipulates that “no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion.”

What could possibly be wrong with fixing a playground? After all, although it is on church property, children from the community around Trinity Lutheran may use it as well. Just the week before, on April 13, the new Republican governor of Missouri, Eric Greitens issued a statement supporting the church’s claim: “Before we came into office, government bureaucrats were under orders to deny grants to people of faith who wanted to do things like make community playgrounds for kids… That’s just wrong… We have hundreds of outstanding religious organizations all over the state of Missouri who are doing great work on behalf of kids and families every single day. We should be encouraging that work.”

The controversy at Trinity Lutheran Church is much bigger than their playground. Will the Roberts court use this case, despite the governor’s announcement, to strike down Missouri’s bar on direct state aid to religious institutions – and in the process also overturn similar prohibitions in 37 other states? A broad ruling could have significant consequences, including direct public funding for private, religious schools – most of which are Christian. That may be one rationale for the suit over the playground grant. The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), Trinity’s legal representation, states on its website that the “Christian community gained growing awareness that the threats to its freedom were multiplying. The legal system, which was built on a moral and Christian foundation, had been steadily moving against religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family. And very few Christians were showing up in court to put up a fight. By funding cases, training attorneys, and successfully advocating for freedom in court, Alliance Defending Freedom changed that.”

Trinity Lutheran Church is a member congregation of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, a conservative evangelical denomination, well to the right (theologically and politically) of fellow Lutherans in the larger, more liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Trinity’s physical location is a few miles from Columbia’s downtown but a million miles from its most economically challenged neighborhoods. The census tract in which Trinity is located has an average income of just over $78,000, while two census tracts to the east, average incomes barely reach $12,000. Trinity’s census tract is 86% white while Columbia as a whole is 77% white. The poverty rate for all of Columbia is nearly 25% against the state average of almost 16%.  In this case, the distribution of public funds is not only diverted directly to a church but a congregation that is already in an economically privileged neighborhood. The cost to refurbish Trinity’s playground won’t break Missouri’s bank. And perhaps the church does not minister only to its most proximate neighbors but also draws people from around an economically challenged city.

But this case suggests what might be heading our way: in the name of religious freedom, scarce public funds, those very funds on which the working classes most depend for public services, might be diverted toward private ends that benefit those who already have more resources, ends that may not enhance the common good. The case of Trinity Lutheran Church might only be a playground now, but it could be the plaything for those who want to redistribute public funds for the direct benefit of religious bodies. How will public institutions fare, the ones that working-class people depend upon most, if they are starved of funding as public dollars move into the hands of private institutions that are already unburdened by any taxation?

Religious liberty claims have been given significant deference in the United States. As these U.S. Supreme Court cases suggest, it has become very difficult to set limits on institutions that claim exemptions on religious liberty grounds. In the interests of individual workers and the working class in general, these limitations serve to preserve people’s well-being in the workplace and beyond. But the struggle to do so will be incredibly difficult unless economic justice can also be recognized in public policy matters. For now, though, private religious concerns are using the principle of religious freedom to set the public agenda.

Ken Estey

Ken Estey is an associate professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College and the author of A New Protestant Labor Ethic at Work. His research centers on the intersection of politics and religion with a particular focus on labor and Christianity.

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Is Class Really Forgotten?: Working-Class Studies Association 2017 Awards

Over the last week, I’ve read a couple of pieces in which elite academics highlight their discovery of the importance of class, both noting how the topic has been neglected by academia and ‘the elite’. In a Financial Times interview with American Law professor Joan Williams, FT staffer Simon Kuper says that Williams’s recent book, ‘White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America’,  examines a topic that American progressives have ignored: class. The FT piece came quickly off the heels of an article in Harvard Review entitled ‘Harvard’s Class Gap: Can the academy understand Donald Trump’s “forgotten” Americans?’  In it Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, makes a similar point about the academy’s neglect of all things classed. Both articles are at once welcome and annoying for anyone in Working-Class Studies. Welcome because any attention to class in a mildly sympathetic way is a good thing, right? But it’s annoying to see our research on class once again be ignored, side-lined, or deemed not up to snuff.

But this is also the time of year when the Working-Class Studies Association announces its annual awards. Each year we attempt to find and reward the best examples of work in the field, which collectively show that writing and thinking about class is alive and well in North America and elsewhere in the world. Over five separate categories we recognise the academics, journalists, filmmakers, artists, and creative writers producing exceptional work on working-class life, history, and culture.  As past president of the Association, I had the pleasure of organising this year’s awards. I also get the pleasure of announcing the winners.

This year’s CLR James Award for Published Book for Academic or General Audiences was won by Angela Stuesse for her book Scratching Out a Living: Latinos, Race, and Work in the Deep South. In their comments the judges described the book as ‘timely, beautifully-written, and deeply researched activism-based ethnography about the poultry industry in the American South.’ One wrote that ‘Stuesse demonstrates how workers are exploited and divided on the basis of racial and ethnic identities within the context of neoliberal globalization’, while another called the book ‘a model of engaged scholarship. Without underestimating the difficulties her research reveals that the basis for inter-racial working class solidarity among African Americans and Latinos in the South does indeed exist in the newest “new” South.’

The Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing recognized Workers Write: Tales From the Construction Site, edited by David LaBounty. Full of praise for Workers Write the judges commented that the book ‘gets at the very heart of what working-class art, working-class creative writing, looks like. It comes from varied perspectives, speaks in diverse voices, but both the perspective and the voices have at base an engaging depiction of work and the worker’s life.’ One wrote that

The short stories and poems in this collection are snapshots of the experience of work and its place in a wider social life. Scenes from everyday life, tangible descriptions of work, tales that blur autobiography and imaginative purpose – each story finds its own character through this theme. The writing is consistently good throughout, across a diverse range of styles, highlighting not just the talent of the authors but of the editor’s eye. It is a book that gives expression to working class creativity: its intrinsic relationship to having to hold down a day job and pay the rent, an expression of labor in writing, and a testament to the labor of writing itself.

Another wrote that the collection gave ‘voice to the working class in a clear, authentic way. These multi-genre selections are grounded in the reality of working-class existence.’

This year, the John Russo & Sherry Linkon Award for Published Article or Essay for Academic or General Audiences is being given to Diana Garvin for her article ‘Singing Truth to Power: Melodic Resistance and Bodily Revolt in Italy’s Rice Fields’, published in the academic journal Annali d’italianistica. One judge called it ‘An ambitious interdisciplinary and intersectional project that centers the voices of working-class women in Italy during the Fascist period.’ Another described it as

A superb article, indeed one of the most compelling that I’ve read for some time. It is beautifully written, theoretically trenchant, and deeply insightful as it re-presents the archive voices of the Mondine women through a careful and compassionate scholarship that itself speaks truth to power through its account of the women’s singing of truth to the power of exploitative practices of productivity and womanhood under Italian Fascism. As such, this article – of all the excellent material submitted – occupies the unique space of working class studies as I see it: that is, it brings deep and humane attention to the material interconnections of gender, class place and history as they impact on lived experience, and it does so with an impeccable balance of creative awareness, persistently probing intelligence, and scrupulous outrage. Wonderful!

The Studs Terkel Award recognizes projects in Media and Journalism, and this year it went to journalist Gabriel Thompson for his article ‘Dark Meat’, part of a series called The Grind from the online magazine Slate. This series featured a number of excellent pieces, but the judges chose Thompson’s article for its ‘informative and engaging narrative’, which ‘brings home the personal side of poultry industry’s gaming of industrial accident rates and its efforts to increase line speeds via Dept. of Agriculture’s regulatory authority.’ Another noted how the piece ‘Makes the reader viscerally feel the pain of workplace injuries and overwork. Damning of the poultry and insurance companies and the workers’ comp system and OSHA. It illustrates how employers get away with mistreating workers with government collusion.’

Finally, this year’s Constance Coiner Award for Best Dissertation goes to WCSA conference regular Jackie Gabriel. Commenting on Gabriel’s dissertation, ‘Manufacturing Precarity: A Case Study of the Grain Processing Corporation (GPC)/United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 86D Lockout in Muscatine, Iowa’, one judge wrote, ‘I found this study on precarious jobs and precarious workers to be a fascinating and useful take on how job loss and re-employment works in the Heartland. The meteoric rise of the use of the offensive lockout by employers makes this case study of the longest lockout in US history to be especially appropriate for examination. It is a strong rumination on the relationship between workers, local unions and national headquarters.’ Another wrote that Gabriel  ‘had produced ‘brilliant work’, and said that ‘this is a classic tale of blue-collar workers being dominated by the power of the owning class, but in this case the workers held onto their dignity and, in the long run, their skills and their rewarding productive labor.’

Congratulations to all those who won awards this year and to the many others nominated for them. We created these prizes to mark the excellent work going on in Working-Class Studies and to make them more visible. Across the five awards, we received forty-five individual nominations. Each of these shows that there is a burning desire to reflect on class experience, inequality, and injustice, and that there is a substantial audience for work on class in varied media. Perhaps the more elite commentators who claim a silence on the topic of class should take the time and effort to discover the rich material reported on and recognised here.

Tim Strangleman

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Springsteen’s Born to Run: Memoir as “Repair”

Few rock music memoirs have caught the attention of esteemed novelists such as Richard Ford, whose New York Times review of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run (2016) exalts the musician as not simply an extraordinary artist and showman but a literary writer who “paradoxically” hails from the “humblest” of American locales.  Over the last four and a half decades, Springsteen has been branded America’s working-class troubadour—at once an ‘every man’ and singular artist whose song catalogue has been compared to the best of Whitman and Steinbeck (not to mention Bob Dylan).  His boisterous tales of the Jersey shore and more intimate Guthrie-esque portraits of post-industrial America are beloved in no small part because they tell truths from Bruce’s own life story and give voice to largely forgotten communities. Given his music’s definitive autobiographical components, what does Springsteen accomplish by publishing a 500-page version of his life saga?

Born to Run reads as a challenging mixture of several memoir subgenres: 1) working-class life writing—specifically, a variant of deindustrialization personal narratives; 2) music celebrity memoir; and 3) disability life narrative.  Springsteen’s bombshell revelation of his long-term battle with what appears to be bipolar illness erupts a third of the way through the book, disrupting the familiar unfolding of his rise to superstardom. No one in his inner circle knew about his condition except for his manager Jon Landau and, eventually, his wife and band member Patti Scialfa. Yet while this destabilizes his autobiographical claims, it also frees him to double down on the rewards of autobiography as a tool for social change.  His vulnerability finally allows him—and us—to interpret anew the connections between his life, his art, and political resistance. As he becomes more comfortable with exposing his “brilliant disguise,” Springsteen comes to function as a kind of ghost writer for his own text. He confronts what has haunted him throughout his past and re-envisions his future.

As with nearly every other aspect of his life, mental illness is intimately connected to his father.   Doug Springsteen has achieved legendary status in his son’s music due to their acrimonious relationship, and his own untreated paranoid schizophrenia emerges as another potential ‘inheritance.’  This disclosure forces us to re-examine one central preoccupation of the text:  Springsteen’s rise from a “working man’s son” to a multi-millionaire icon. Working-class and disability life narratives merge in his depiction of that fraught transition as a material and psychological metamorphosis that never quite holds.

As his devout fans know all too well, the “Boss” rejected his father’s life path from an early age.  He hardly romanticized the grinding, often demeaning jobs available in Freehold, NJ.  But while his realized dream of rock stardom clearly serves as a central outlet for his manic energy and artistic ambitions, the memoir reveals that Bruce envisions musicianship as physical labor.  His sweat-drenched, four-hour concerts insistently announce his work ethic.  In the memoir, two striking boyhood memories invoke his father’s complex legacy in shaping Bruce’s liminal class position. The first recalls bringing a modest lunch to his father working on the factory floor, where the din prevents them from hearing each other.  The second functions as a rhapsodic ode to his father’s delivery truck, which makes a similar “metallic roar” as he proudly drives with his ‘pop’: “I’m riding with the king. My dad has taken me to work. Oh, what a world it could’ve been” (260-61).  These twin vignettes encompass both the estrangement and enthrallment of his classed identity formation, his father equal parts cautionary tale and proletarian hero.  As an adult, ‘putting on the working man’s shirt’ came to feel duplicitous once Springsteen ‘hit the big time,’ but he is repeatedly driven to revisit the neighborhood of his youth–not simply as a sentimental touchstone of his ‘past’ but, as he comes to see, a perpetual community that throbs inside of him.

As Tim Strangleman and Sherry Linkon note of deindustrialization narratives, the children of mid-twentieth century manual workers face a profoundly transformed local landscape and often describe their own grief, anger, and nostalgia over what their families have lost.  Born to Run functions in part as a working-class autobiography because his class heritage–and its literal erasure in his hometown’s closed factories–equally informs his polarized sense of self. The book’s photographs of Springsteen’s favorite local music clubs—his teenage haunts and stages–serve as their own kind of postindustrial memorials of workingclass cultural spaces that no longer exist.  As he looks back on the threshold of his profoundly transformed class circumstances, he recalls: “I didn’t want out. I wanted in. … I wanted to understand. What were the social forces that held my parents’ lives in check? … I was determined to be the enlightened, compassionate voice of reason and revenge” (264).

However, the memoir reveals that he only gradually reckons with the gendering of this ‘reauthenticated’ class self.  Studies of deindustrialized communities pinpoint the loss of traditional masculinity, along with class pride, when manual labor vanishes. Springsteen frequently associates being off the road with bouts of depression, and given his understanding of stage performance as a highly masculinized mode of labor alongside his E Street ‘brotherhood,’ he may also have experienced his non-touring life as a kind of emasculation.  He recalls his father’s taunts of being feminine or ‘queer’ when he was a long-haired, introspective teenager. “When my dad looked at me,” he writes, “he didn’t see what he needed to see” (28).  But he also recognizes that his father actually saw the qualities that he himself repressed due to normative gender codes that held sway at the mill and the tavern. Still, it takes him far too long—into his late thirties–to understand that women are actually human beings.

After retrospectively grappling with his illness, his fame, and his fear and disrespect of the feminine, the memoir finally foregrounds a narrative mode of healing–what Springsteen calls “repair”:

In my twenties, as my song and my story began to take shape, I searched for the voice I would blend with mine to do the telling.  It is a moment when through creativity and will you can rework, repossess and rebirth the conflicting voices of your childhood, to turn them into something alive, powerful and seeking light.   I’m a repairman.  That’s part of my job.  So I, who’d never done a week’s worth of manual labor in my life … put on a factory worker’s clothes, my father’s clothes, and went to work. (414)

Earlier in the autobiography, we glimpse what initially seems a far more literal mode of repair: young Bruce joins his grandfather for their weekly “trash night,” where they search garbage bins for broken radios to fix at his grandfather’s shop.  He watches the process—‘exchanging bad tubes for good’–and waits for the coming transfiguration:  “that instant when the whispering breath, the beautiful low static hum and warm … glow of electricity will come surging back into the dead skeleton of radios we have pulled from extinction” (8-9).  As Springsteen wistfully notes, in that space and moment, “the resurrection is real.”

The scene, however, also clearly anticipates a later, more arduous job of reclaiming apparent ‘detritus’ to rebuild a psyche, reclaim a life, from a multitude of “conflicting voices.”   Figuratively taking on his father’s uniform, Springsteen adopts the working-class practice and aesthetic of  “salvage,” drawing from a host of competing influences and experiences to “will” his own recovery into being—and with it, that of his familial and class community.  He “seeks light” by drilling down into the “darkness” of his private past and, most importantly, in his willingness to be publicly vulnerable about what he has found.  Turning once more to his father, he recounts the troubled lessons that propelled so much of his life’s arc:

The rigidity and the blue-collar narcissism of ‘manhood’ 1950s’-style.  An inner yearning for isolation, for the world on your own terms or not at all. You always withhold some thing, you do not lower your mask. … The rituals of the barroom. A misogyny grown from the fear of all the dangerous, beautiful, strong women in our lives crossed with the carrying of an underlying physical threat, a psychological bullying that is meant to frighten and communicate that the dark thing in you is barely restrained (413).

Through telling the ‘underside’ of his life story—to his analyst, his wife, and finally his readers–the Boss comes to embrace the domestic, and ultimately self, intimacy he once found terrifying. Born to Run culminates in Springsteen’s most significant achievement: recognizing deep, unguarded emotion not as weakness but as a valuable form of knowledge, interpersonal ethics, and perhaps a more meaningful form of class politics.

Pamela Fox

Pamela Fox teaches women’s and working-class literature and culture at Georgetown University.  She has written about British working-class novels, American country music, and most recently, Jackie Kay’s transracial adoption memoir writing.

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Will the British Working Class Stand Up and Fight Back?

I spent my teenage years in 1980s Thatcher’s Britain. Working-class people struggled in a grim environment. Three million people were unemployed, local services and the NHS were underfunded, and attacks were launched against unions (as a result of the miners’ strike). A culture of greed and excess characterised the City of London (the financial centre of the country). Life was hard, people suffered, many lost their homes and lived in cardboard cities in Central London. Towns faced pit closures and working-class people lost their main source of income and identity. Race riots broke out due to racism and police intimidation of Black Britons. The mainstream media’s coverage of the Falklands war whipped up xenophobia and nationalism. Angry people felt unheard by their elected representatives.

When I think back to the 1980s in my working-class neighbourhood, I remember unmaintained public housing, under-resourced schools, long waiting lists for medical treatment, heroin addiction, rough sleepers, and disenfranchised youth. Ideological attacks were launched at any ideas perceived as ‘lefty’ and empathy was withdrawn from people receiving welfare. This was a far cry from the clichéd pop culture imagery of the 1980s as big hair, shoulder pads, leg warmers, and Duran Duran (although pop culture offered some powerful responses to the times). Young working-class people felt alienated from parliamentary politics – who was listening to the unemployed youth and kids still in school facing such uncertain futures? No one, it seemed. Many of my peers lost faith in the main parties (including Labour). I don’t remember any of my friends talking about voting in the general election of 1987, when the Tories, still led by Thatcher, were returned in their third consecutive win.  Arguably, this election saw Labour move away from the left and towards the centre. But for the Tories to be returned so convincingly, many working-class people must have voted for them. Why did so many vote for a party that put their interests last?

I left the UK in 1992 and started a new life as an immigrant in Australia. But I still identify as British and have maintained my links to my homeland. I’ve been watching events there since I left and have felt particularly angry at how working-class people have been harmed by the policies the Tories implemented since they regained power in 2010. It feels like the 1980s again, but much worse. The unemployment rate may be lower (at 4.8%, from a high of over 11% in the mid-1980s), but it seems that the government has found ways to exclude people from the official figures, so the picture isn’t complete. And the prevalence of short term and casual contracts means high levels of precarity among those who do have jobs, who often earn minimum wages.

Savage cuts have hit public services hard, and an increasingly under-funded NHS is struggling to keep up with the demand for health services. Schools are in disrepair, local services are almost non-existent, with youth centres, libraries, and local programs designed to improve quality of life diminished or disappearing. Public housing is being sold off to private developers and tenants evicted. A cap on housing benefits has forced people on low incomes and receiving welfare to move out of London and relocate hundreds of miles away from family, friends, and support networks. Changes to rules for welfare have drastically reduced or even suspended people’s incomes. People cannot afford to buy food and must queue up for food bank assistance. Homelessness is on the rise, with the numbers of rough sleepers in cities increasing significantly – a reality that can’t be ignored, because they can easily be seen on the streets. Austerity measures have hit working-class people very hard.

What, then, will working-class class people in Britain do when the country goes to the polls on June 8th? Many commentators have analysed the rise of anti-politics and the increasing shift of support from so-called establishment politicians to their populist contenders. The Brexit vote, the election of Trump, and the increased vote share of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party in Australia have all been blamed on disillusioned white working-class voters who feel ignored by the mainstream political parties. But the working-class is diverse in terms of race and ethnicity, and some analysts have suggested that the rise of populist politics globally is much more complex. For example, many Trump, Brexit, and One Nation supporters are middle-class and affluent (although they are predominantly white).

Will the British working class take stock of Tory policies since the 1970s and decide that enough is enough? Will they insist on being heard? Will they fight back through the ballot box? Can Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party provide working-class people with real representation? Has his party done enough to win back working-class voters? Most importantly, will working-class people actually enrol to vote and exercise their democratic right? I’m worried that if history repeats itself, working-class people who make it to the polling booths could once again vote in a Tory government. The consequences of five more years of austerity are too awful to contemplate. My greatest hope for Britain at the moment is that this time, working-class people stand up and fight back!

Sarah Attfield

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