Class and the English Riots

A few weeks ago, England erupted with protests that many saw as tied to the global economic crisis.  What began as a peaceful protest against the police, who had shot dead a suspect in Tottenham North London on August 6, rapidly spread across London and then to other parts of the country. Over the space of the next five days, Birmingham, Liverpool, and Manchester all experienced a wave of rioting and looting.

Politicians and commentators proceeded down a well-worn path of analysis and political point scoring. Most politicians were quick to blame “mindless thugs,” “gangs,” and “feral youth.”  They pointed to the lack of moral values in contemporary society, and the Conservatives, who are the senior partners in our coalition government, saw the riots as yet more evidence of their narrative of “Broken Britain” (conveniently ignoring the fact that other parts of Britain, such as Wales and Scotland, suffered no problems).

What was lacking, initially at least, was any mention of class. It appeared only in references to an underclass. Rhetorically this is a really useful piece of shorthand for the political classes in Britain, as I guess it is in the US. Talk of the underclass allows critics to blame society’s troubles on an ill-defined amorphous band of cultural stereotypes and folk demons.  It also allows for a wider sidestepping of questions of class and inequality that has been rising for the last three decades or more and is sure to increase further in the age of austerity. In this narrative, the riots are defined as the work of the work shy, the amoral, and the feckless; looting represents a mindless opportunism of those lacking a basic ethic of responsibility.

Any other mention of class takes the form of a kind of nostalgic lament for the working class of old. You remember, when the working class knew their place, worked hard, and got on with their lot without complaint. They, the old respectable working class, never complained about deprivation or went out and rioted.

When he was the leader of the opposition, David Cameron — now British Prime Minister — developed his party’s social policy around the concept or sound bite of “Broken Britain.” This was an interesting strategy and not without risk.  It allowed him to reclaim social policy for the Tory party and create a British version of compassionate conservatism. In this way, Cameron could blame the Labour government, which by that time had held power for over a decade, for all of Britain’s social problems. Rather than the solution, state intervention was identified as the cause of the problem. Labour was strangely quiescent in the face of these charges for a number of reasons. It had itself been largely silent on the question of class; it had also been, as one senior New Labour figure put it “relaxed” about the super rich.  But above all, the Party’s acceptance of Thatcherism and the wider neo-liberalism of the 1980s and 1990s meant that they were unable to develop a more critical analysis of deepening inequality.

In the wake of the riots, other voices that do want to talk about class and social and economic inequality have begun to be heard. At first this line of explanation was a difficult one for politicians and commentators as it was portrayed as a causal argument – poverty equals riot – and therefore easy to criticise as not all rioters were poor, and not all poor areas went up in flames. Gradually what has been emerging, I think, is a more nuanced account of the riots which begins to look harder at the nature of social inequality in Britain. This more self-confident attempt to talk about these issues emerges from a range of academics through to journalists.

In their wake, Labour politicians and some liberals one have begun to deploy these arguments themselves. The most high profile academic in the UK addressing inequality is the social geographer Danny Dorling (most recently in Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists), whose detailed reading of a range of materials places in long-term perspective the widening gap between rich and poor. Dorling is joined by journalists such as Polly Toynbee, who writes for the left of centre Guardian newspaper and who has been a longstanding voice for those left behind by neo-liberalism. Finally, the riots have thrust centre stage a young social and political commentator Owen Jones, author of Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class – whose book charts how the working class has been marginalized within political rhetoric and had its  problems ignored. While none of these commentators seeks to excuse civil unrest, they all, in fairly similar ways, explain the complexity of British society and its longstanding problems. All three recognize that contemporary social problems and community breakdown have their origins in the deindustrialization and subsequent joblessness in Britain since the 1970s and 1980s.

The hopeful development from the tragic events of early August is that class is once again beginning to be rediscovered in the political lexicon.  It is interesting to note that some commentators draw parallels between the unbridled acquisitiveness of the looters and the compensation paid to bankers and the fraud so recently committed by members of Parliament in their expenses claims. This may suggest the potential to shift the discourse about class, so that inequality is no longer seen as evidence of individual moral failing. It also might herald a shift in the vernacular where class can be really talked about and “working class” ceases to be a pejorative label. It might also allow those critical of the current government to pose two questions.  First, if Britain is broken, who broke it? And, secondly, if you didn’t like the organized working class of the 1980s, how do you like the disorganized working class now?

Tim Strangleman

Strangleman is a Sociologist at the University of Kent and co-author of the  textbook, Work and Society: Sociological Approaches, Themes and Methods

Global Women Workers of the World, Unite!

The film version of The Help debuted on August 10th and set box office records for a film that was aimed at book club ladies.  It has earned 71.8 million at the box office in its first twelve days alone, rising to first place this last weekend over Conan the Barbarian and Fright Night.  The film is based on a bestselling 2009 novel by white Mississippi author Kathryn Stockett about two black maids and a young white woman who collaborate to tell the stories African American domestic workers in the Jim Crow south.  It is a fictional tale.  No actual exposé of black domestic workers was written by black or white women in the 1960s.  But the frame of the novel—the book within a book—gives the novel an air of authenticity that makes it appealing.  Especially, perhaps, to white readers like me, who might feel like we are being permitted to peek behind the curtain of a distant, repressive past.

The novel has been celebrated for two years straight, winning accolades from People Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, NPR, and The New York Times.  The film, too, has already garnered Oscar buzz, and the NAACP screened it at a packed theater in July, where, apparently, there wasn’t an empty seat or a dry eye in the house.

I settled down to read The Help earlier this summer to see for myself.  While I was not entirely won over by the novel, finding the villain Hilly Holbrook, who campaigns for segregated toilets at the homes where black women work, to be a racist sorority girl cardboard cutout, and the white girl who interviews the black maids, “Skeeter,” a little too weirdo-goody-goody, what got me to sniffling into a tissue was the relationship between the black maid, Aibileen, and her white charge, a toddler named Mae Mobley.  The girl child is ignored and possibly even emotionally abused by her birth mother, and Aibileen is there to soothe the child—to boost her ego and make her strong — even though she knows that Mae Mobley will likely grow up to be as racist and clueless as her mother.  I was intrigued to learn that the character of Aibileen was based in large part on the author’s own childhood maid, Demetrie (actually employed by Stockett’s grandmother), who comforted Stockett during an especially rough patch during which her parents got divorced.

Both the book and the film have drawn considerable fire from scholars, historians, a very smart and funny blog called acriticalreviewofthehelp, and dozens of African American leaders and journalists.  The criticisms are brutal, and, for the most part, hard to refute.  A clear-eyed statement from the Association of Black Women (ABW) faults the novel and the film for recreating the Mammy stereotype. One of The Help’s main characters, Minny, is a big, fat, soft woman with a surly temper who loves to make fried chicken.  Neither the book nor the film offers any suggestion that black maids, like countless other African Americans in the South and North, were organizing, voting, marching, and protesting.

The statement from the ABW also faults The Help for ignoring the problem of sexual harassment of black domestics by white employers.  Instead, The Help represents black male characters as by far the worst men in the story.  This criticism of The Help seems especially poignant this summer, as a recently released six-page story written by famed Civil Rights leader Rosa Parks hints at the likelihood that she barely escaped being raped by a white neighbor when she worked as a maid in the 1930s.

It is certainly fair to attack The Help on the basis that it distorts history, especially since Stockett meant The Help to represent real life in1960s Jackson, Mississippi.  But is the Civil Rights aspect of the story—done well or botched—the only reason for The Help’s popularity and influence?  I am not so sure.  As I have consumed these different versions of The Help I have been wondering:  have we really traveled so far from the nightmarish hierarchy and inequality suffered by women of color who lived in the Jim Crow south?  What is life like for “the help” in today’s world?

For answers, I turned to a work of non-fiction, Just Like Family:  Inside the Lives of Nannies, the Parents They Work for and the Children They Love.  The book, also published in 2009, reflects more than 100 interviews that author Tasha Blaine conducted with working nannies, three of whom she profiles in the book.  The hardships faced by these modern day nannies do not compare to that of black domestics in the Jim Crow south, but many struggled with similar problems:  forming loving bonds with the children but disagreeing with or disliking the children’s parents, being invited to family events but then being expected to perform as if they were servants, and putting up with the strange behavior of their employers—who were sometimes drunk, verbally abusive, or just plain mean.

If you think it is crazy to see a connection between a historical novel about black maids and present-day child care arrangements, consider this:  a national organization, Nanny Biz Reviews, organized a series of “Nannies Nights Out” during the days after The Help opened.  They encouraged nannies to see the film together and to use the outing as a way to network and have fun.  While some found this preposterous, others commented online that they could relate to the maids in The Help more than any other fictional nannies.  As one commented, “[T]here are still parents out there that want to treat all of us regardless of heritage, as second or third class citizens….Maybe for some it is to see how far we have come, and then on behalf of others to remember there are still ways to go.”

In the meantime, in New York State, which boasts one of the largest nanny populations in the country (the official estimate alone is 200,000), legislators last summer finally passed a series of laws aimed at improving the pay and working conditions of nannies.  The “Nanny Bill” is significant because domestic workers, who were excluded from the National Labor Relations category of workers in 1935, have long toiled with low and/or under-the-table wages. Domestic Workers United, a New York union thatfought hard for the “Nanny Bill,” estimates that more than 50% of their members work more than 60 hours per week, and 26% live below the poverty line.  The Nanny Bill gives domestic workers the right to days off, overtime pay, and holidays—similar to other workers.

The question of class is just one part of the contemporary nanny problem. Race, gender, and national status are part of the mix as well.  In their book Global Woman (2003), Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russel Hochschild write about the ways in which an underclass of third world women have become the nannies, the maids, and the sex workers for the developed world.

So perhaps The Help is wildly popular in part because it makes us feel better about ourselves.  Look how far we have come now that we don’t see maids as property to be passed along to our children as if they were slaves!  But be careful if you find yourself leaving the theatre on too much of a joyous, Civil Rights high.  We still have not solved the problem of childcare in this country—and global women have stepped in to fill the gap.

Viola Davis, the actress who may well win an Oscar for her brilliant portrayal of Aibileen, said, “The most revolutionary thing you could do is humanize the black woman.”  What can we do, right now, to humanize those who toil as “the help” today?

Kathy M. Newman

The Working Class and the Great Capitulator

When I began writing this piece its focus—and the act that earned Barack Obama the moniker “Great Capitulator”—was his decision to cave into Republican senators and Wall Street fat cats and withdraw his nomination of Elizabeth Warren to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  The CFPB, conceived by Warren in 2007, was a key component of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill and has been vilified by big money interests and their toadies in Congress from the moment it was proposed.

Professor Warren, who chaired the TARP Oversight Committee and was fiercely critical of the too-big-to-fail banks and brokerages that raked in billions in bailouts funded by working-class tax dollars, is widely recognized as the nation’s premier consumer advocate and most persuasive voice for reform of the financial and credit markets. Along with being an outspoken fighter for working-class families victimized by predatory lenders, Warren is the Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law at Harvard, where she has taught bankruptcy, contract, and commercial law since 1992.  By any measure she was, as Mr. Obama noted in announcing her appointment, the person most qualified to chair the CFPB.

Republicans and Wall Street shared that view, as was made obvious by their vehement opposition to her nomination.  The last thing they wanted was a loud and coherent voice for reform—especially because the only other regulators with enough guts and independence to speak truth to Wall Street’s power, the FDIC’s Sheila Bair and the SEC’s Mary Schapiro, no longer held their positions.  It seems Mr. Obama, who appears to cower in the shadow of Alan Greenspan and Robert Rubin, didn’t want to hear her voice either.

While his surrender on health care, his abandonment of the Employee Freedom of Choice Act, and his decision to “stimulate” the economy by directing more money to Wall Street than Main Street were all slaps in the face to working-class Americans, I was prepared to argue that allowing the GOP and the financial industry to kill Warren’s nomination was the most egregious of the cowardly acts that have characterized this presidency, because it ended any hope that the institutions who are blithely destroying the American Dream would finally be forced face a worthy adversary with a bully pulpit who knew how to use it.

Man, was I wrong.

I was wrong because the Faustian bargain Mr. Obama struck with John Boehner and the modern day Know Nothings who comprise the Tea Party in order to gain an extension of the nation’s debt ceiling makes his previous betrayals seem piddling.  And don’t be mistaken, the betrayal doesn’t lie in the fact that he caved on the issue of whether deficit reduction should be achieved via spending cuts alone or through a combination of cuts and revenue increases.  It lies in the fact that he engaged in the debate at all.

Rather than lending credence to the specious argument that the deficit is the most pressing economic problem facing the nation today, the president should have said that the best, the only way to deal with our long term fiscal dilemma is to grow our way out of it by doing what it takes to put people back to work.

He should have embraced the philosophy that has guided Democratic presidents for nearly 80 years: that tough economic times call for more spending, not less. Spending on infrastructure projects, the development of alternative energy sources, research and development, job training and education.  He should have demanded that we invest in America’s greatest asset: Americans.

Instead, by embracing the ridiculous notion that cutting trillions in spending is the cure-all for what ails the body politic, the Great Capitulator has all but guaranteed that the investment needed to fuel both recovery and deficit reduction will never be made.

Whether wittingly or unwittingly—and it’s hard to say for sure which because this administration has a penchant for committing tactical errors as well as for turning its back on its core constituency—Mr. Obama has now put himself in a rhetorical box that will make it impossible for him to credibly argue that the government should spend money to stimulate the economy, even as working-class families find themsevles staring into the barrel of double-dip recession.

While some may compare Mr. Obama’s decision to join the Republicans in attacking the deficit to Bill Clinton’s partnering with Newt Gingrich to substantially alter the welfare system, there is one very critical difference between the two: Mr. Clinton never abandoned the core Democratic principle that government had an essential role to play in making life better for the American people.

Mr. Obama, for reasons known only to him, has done exactly that.  He is now in league with idealogues whose real goal has nothing to do with reducing the deficit and everything to do with dismantling what’s left of the social safety net that has been woven by a succession of Democratic presidents and Congressional leaders since 1933.

In so doing, he has abandoned the constituency that played a key role in his 2008 victory and renounced the principles and philosophies that constituency holds dear. Throughout 2010, Working-Class Perspectives warned Democrats for ten months that they could not expect working-class support and that people would stay home. Guess what happened.


The Democrat operatives running the Obama reelection campaign calculate that the working class has no place to turn politically, and they are trying to gather narratives to place a positive spin on his capitulation.  No doubt, how the members of the working class, people of color, seniors, women, and union members react to this latest betrayal may well determine who occupies the Oval Office in January of 2013.


If it’s not Mr. Obama, the Great Capitulator will have no one to blame but himself.


Leo Jennings

Mountains or Jobs: A False Question

In June, I was lucky enough to be among some 250 protestors who walked for five days from Marmet, West Virginia, fifty miles south to Blair Mountain.  We traced the path coal miners had taken in 1921, which culminated in the Battle of Blair Mountain where several thousand coal miners fought the forces of Sheriff Don Chafin, including private detectives, mine guards, and deputized men.  The miners marched to liberate fellow workers living in oppressive company towns and to unionize the southern West Virginia coalfields.  Chafin’s forces repelled the miners, and Blair Mountain became a powerful symbol of the coal industry’s violent, repressive tactics.  Now, Alpha Natural Resources (formerly the notorious Massey Energy) will soon destroy Blair Mountain if we do not stop them.

On our first day, after marching about eleven miles, we arrived at John Slack Park in Racine where a small crowd of nearby residents gathered to shout obscenities at us and try to intimidate us.  We pitched our tents and ate our dinner while coal trucks and members of the volunteer fire department drove back and forth, blaring their horns for hours.  As I went to our group’s portapotty in the parking lot, a man drove by in a truck and called me a “mother***er.”  Then, at ten o’clock p.m., the Boone County Commissioner and the county police notified us that if we did not leave the park we would be arrested and put in jail.  The verbal commitment local officials had given our organizers had been revoked.  Welcome to coal country.

Appalachia Rising, a coalition of environmental and historic preservation groups, organized this march to protest the impending destruction of Blair Mountain.  The organization announced that we were marching to end mountaintop removal (MTR), to strengthen labor rights, and to support sustainable union jobs.  We did not aim to end all coal mining.

Why then did so many people have signs that read “Coal Keeps the Lights On” and “Coal Feeds My Family”?  Why did so many shout “Go home, treehuggers!” and “Get off welfare!”?  I had followed the issue of MTR from a distance, from my new home in southwestern Pennsylvania.  Like so many, I had to leave West Virginia to find a job, and I have great sympathy for those who are clinging to their jobs.  But I realized that the counter-protestors believed that the issue of MTR boiled down to a single choice: jobs or the environment.  We—the wild-eyed radicals—were on the side of the environment, and they—the working class—were on the side of jobs.

It did not take much research for me to figure out how some people arrive at this conclusion.  First, the media fuels this notion.  For its story on the march, the Wall Street Journal headline read:  “Coal-Town Puzzle: Mountain vs. Jobs.”  And CNN reporters who followed the march the whole week came to a similar conclusion.  The preview for their one-hour special—scheduled to air August 14—intercuts footage from an anti-MTR rally with another rally sponsored by the Friends of Coal where a speaker shouts:  “Whose jobs?”  “Our jobs!” respond the people.  CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien captured some of the poignancy of the march in her blog but simplified the issue in her title which reads:  “Environment vs. Jobs in the New Battle of Blair Mountain.”

The coal companies have also done their best to encourage local residents to see this struggle as one of jobs versus the environment and working people versus treehuggers.  In 2008, Jason Bostic, spokesperson of the West Virginia Coal Association, said that if the state legislature passed a ban on valley fill (meaning filling valleys with blasted earth) then the “economic devastation would be equal to a modern-day Great Depression.”  And in June, during the March on Blair Mountain, Bostic said:  “If you save Blair Mountain you’ll watch the entire social and economic structure of that community dry up.”

Finally, many of West Virginia’s politicians have also oversimplified the issue of MTR down to jobs or the environment.  On July 21, U.S. Senator Joe Manchin criticized the Environmental Protection Agency for issuing water quality guidance that acknowledges the harmful impacts of MTR and states that the EPA will work with state governments and companies to “protect our nation’s waters and people’s health.”  This EPA guidance is not legally binding, but Manchin, choosing to speak for the people of West Virginia, issued a statement that read in part:  “Since the EPA hasn’t listened to the people of my state on this issue, I know that West Virginians would tell them that this guidance puts our workers in the coal industry in a tough position, jeopardizing their jobs, our communities and our state’s economy.”

The jobs-versus-the-environment question is false for several reasons, especially in the case of MTR and the March on Blair Mountain.  First, the “environmentalists” and the “workers” are not two separate groups.  Many of the marchers were from West Virginia, many from the coalfields, many from miners’ families, and some were even former miners.  And just as many people in the coal towns supported our march as opposed it.

Second, corporations do not have the best interests of local communities in mind.  As my friend and Mingo County resident Wilma Lee Steele recently observed, it is the coal companies who have been destroying communities in southern West Virginia.  MTR often requires companies to buy up whole towns—houses, schools, and all.  Those who remain see their property values drop to nothing, their water and air polluted, streams eradicated, and health problems explode.  People who think that MTR will help them preserve their families and communities are forced to ignore the destruction MTR coal companies have left in their wake and are forced to pretend that their jobs are sustainable.

The biggest fallacy in this particular environment-versus-jobs myth is that MTR creates jobs.  In fact, MTR destroys jobs.  One of the reasons coal companies use MTR instead of underground mining is because it eliminates workers.  Furthermore, the counties with MTR activity also have among the highest rates of unemployment and poverty in the Appalachian region.  To add insult to injury, MTR only recovers a fraction of the coal that underground mining can retrieve.  If we were to force companies to solely mine underground (safely and responsibly), the environmental impact would be lessened, mining jobs would increase, and more of the coal seam would be mined.  Companies that say otherwise are focused on short-term profitability, not the long-term health and stability of coalfield communities and residents.

Finally, we have to acknowledge that working people have often had to bear the brunt of any change in policy or laws, including free trade agreements, spending cuts, andenvironmental regulations.  We need to do a better job of foreseeing economic dislocation, planning transitions, and building sustainable economies.  But I assure you, coalfield communities and working people will not be better off if we leave these important tasks in the hands of company executives.

Lou Martin

Lou Martin is an assistant professor of history at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, and he researches rural-industrial workers in the twentieth century.