I’m a Brit sitting in the middle of an amphitheatre in Warren,Ohio waiting for Joe Biden to do his bit at an election rally. It is a beautiful, hot fall day, the sun is shining, and the site is filling up with people of all ages, colours, and classes. There are kids from local schools given the morning off to take part in a little piece of history. In the front and scatted through the crowd are labour people, made obvious by their bright uniform tee-shirts, some yellow, some purple. The air is filled with chatter and various upbeat pop songs. I am waiting for the Springsteen song which I’ve heard in the ten second election coverage clips I have seen on TV back home.
After a time the speeches start, each one building up expectations for the main event. Each reflects in different ways on the same themes, on work and what has happened to it, war and the desire to end it, the need for unions, and, and this is what strikes me most — class. All of the speakers, without exception, are talking about class. I am pleased to hear it, surprised even at the regularity of its appearance. However, this is America, I have to remind myself. They do things differently here, and this is just as true with the issue of class. Because for all of this talk of class, that pesky pronoun ‘middle’ always gets in the way. It has to be inserted, so that what the speakers say can be acceptable to both those present as well as those who may view snippets of the speeches later. Sitting through one speech after another I wait for the working class to get their place in the sun. At one stage I heard about ‘hard working families’ or ‘working poor,’ but I waited in vain for the ‘working class.’ All of the speakers acknowledged the labour people in front of the stage. All of them note the need for a strong union movement, but its role seems to buttress the middle class by ensuring that enough good jobs were created, ones with health care and pensions. In a classic reversal of Marxist ideas, where the bourgeoisie became their own gravediggers, it struck me that working people were now abolishing themselves in order to create and sustain a viable middle class.
This is all obvious for Americans. You know by heart the semantic gymnastics that politicians have to go through to not remind those who are living on what are objectively low incomes in the industrial world that they might be part of a working class. And while it is true that the political vernacular in the UK rarely uses the term ‘working class,’ many people still think of themselves in those classical classed terms. When interviewed many British people will not offer up a classed identity, but when prompted many, say 30-40%, will regularly see themselves as working class and unashamedly so. This figure has changed surprisingly little since social scientists asked people about class matters in the 1960s when Britain still had a very large manufacturing base of traditional industries and the communities that served them. Often times now people avoid class in their vernacular – they use proxies such as ‘normal’ or ‘ordinary.’ For many the term ‘middle class’ still comes with the kind of negative linguistic baggage that I am guessing the term ‘working class’ does for people in America. This is one reason why the governing Labour party in the UK has been given such a fillip by the recent events in the global economy. This is, I think, because people read these events in class terms. The corporate greed exposed by the sub-prime crisis and the credit crunch is what you expect from ‘them.’ For the great mass of ‘normal’ or ‘ordinary’ people, these events are yet another illustration of the City reverting to type, and some take vicarious pleasure in stories of bankers losing their jobs, or at least failing to earn enough to heat the swimming pool.
The next day, I watched the presidential debate on primetime TV, which seemed to be largely about Joe the Plumber. Joe seemed to be doing a lot of work in McCain’s narrative: at once standing for an ordinary working American, while at the same time encapsulating middle class entrepreneurship. In the UK, an appeal to feel sorry for someone earning over $250,000 (£130,000) would elicit little sympathy. While there are many who earn considerably more than the average income of around £30,000, by the time you reach the giddy heights of a quarter of a million dollars many fewer people can identify or even aspire to that figure. Did McCain, in using Joe as an ordinary figure actually damage his campaign by highlighting the gulf between his own understanding of class and those of the working class majority? Perhaps John McCain’s legacy might be to shift popular views of class in the USA.
Tim Strangleman, guest blogger
Strangleman is a Sociologist at the University of Kent and co-author of a new textbook, Work and Society: Sociological Approaches, Themes and Methods