A Class on Class

I recently graded 32 final projects from my course on working-class literature at the University of Pittsburgh.  The assignment had invited students to use whatever forms of writing or other media would allow them to express what they had been learning in the course and how it applied to their lives.  These projects were (mostly) a pleasure to read, but they also offered insights into the perplexing question of what my students think about “class” and how that may or may not resemble what I think I have been teaching about it.

For instance, family history projects often included stories of hard work and sacrifice paying off for future generations, leading to claims about core working-class values.   “The Struggle from Pain to Pride” was one title, “Working Class Has Class” another.  Some of the workplace narratives, on the other hand, demonstrated powerlessness and exploitation on the job: “Accident at the Mill” and “Late Shift,” for example.  Some of the cultural analysis essays treated class as a matter of “lifestyle,” unrelated to work and readily changeable by choice or circumstance.   In one or two papers, students described class as a system that in fact works: societies need hierarchies and class ranking provides the incentive for upward mobility.

In many projects, there was quite a bit of slippage in students’ use of the concepts “working class” and “middle class.”  This is hardly surprising given that 24 of the 32 students identify as middle class, according to a survey I gave early in the term, on which their choices were poor, middle class, rich, working class, or other.  The 8 who did not check “middle class” nuanced their responses as follows: 4 as “working middle class,” 2 as “poor working class,” and one each for “upper middle” and “99%.”  No-one checked “rich.”

The class terminology I have deployed in my courses draws on Michael Zweig’s analysis in The Working Class Majority: America’s Best Kept Secret, the second edition of which was published in January 2012.   Looking at occupations and the economic, political, and cultural power, or powerlessness, of the people who perform them, Zweig identifies three major classes: a US working-class majority of around 63%; a middle class of professionals, managers, and small business owners making up about 35%; and a capitalist class of 2%.  In Zweig’s updated analysis, the working class now includes a large number of nurses and teachers, whose labor has been substantially deskilled through corporate management practices.

Of course, class is much more than a position within a structure of inequality.  It is also an experience lived out within a specific set of relationships, as E.P. Thompson explained in his introduction to The Making of the English Working Class:

[Class is] an historical phenomenon. . . something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships.  And class happens when some [people], as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other [people] whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs. The class experience is largely determined by the productive relations into which [people] are born — or enter involuntarily.

The linked ideas that class relations are necessarily antagonistic — based on opposing interests and feelings — and that people are implicated in class experience “involuntarily” are often resisted by my students.  And their sense of being largely middle class may have a lot to do with this resistance.

For even in a course on “working-class literature,” they are likely to share the belief we find everywhere else in the culture: that if there was a working class it is now largely “history,” having been replaced by a vast middle class, with a small sector of the rich above and the poor below.  This is serious distortion of the actuality Zweig describes.  But, as Jack Metzgar has pointed out in his important article “Politics and the American Class Vernacular,” the myth of the broad middle class has massive appeal and impressive staying power. As he explains, “The egalitarian ethos inherent in this notion of middleness has been seen as peculiarly ‘American’ and essential to democracy by political sociologists from Alexis de Tocqueville to Alan Wolfe.”

It appears again, for instance, in Time magazine’s July 2, 2012 issue, which features a lead article by Jon Meacham on “The History of the American Dream.”  In it Meacham recycles the claim that 90% of Americans self-identify as middle class.   This claim is likely based — Time does not cite its sources — on a finding published in the mid-1990s by democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg.  According to Metzgar, the notion of a 90% middle class was thoroughly debunked by S.M Miller in his 1995 article “Class Dismissed,” in which he pointed out that surveys do not usually offer “working class” as a possible self-identification.  Metzgar notes that, when given that option, in surveys conducted by the National Opinion Research Center, 46% of respondents identify as working class and 46% as middle class, with 5% “lower” and 3% “upper” class.

The American class vernacular is routinely re-inscribed in popular consciousness during election seasons, as we are seeing again this year.   I just received another fundraising appeal from Barack Obama, urging me to join him in reclaiming “the basic bargain that built the middle class and the most prosperous nation on earth.”  In fact, according to the Legatum Institute’s 2011 index, Norway is the world’s most prosperous nation, if prosperity is defined to include both wealth and wellbeing.   By this accounting the US comes 10th, behind Canada and all the Scandinavian countries.   Whatever the facts, it is clear that the nationalistic concern with being the greatest nation on earth – as if geopolitics is a sport and what matters most is our standing in the league tables – is deeply linked to the myth of the inclusive middle class, and that this class is assumed to have a right, as Americans, to expect increasing prosperity.

As Zweig, Metzgar, and others have pointed out, the trouble with the myth of the vast inclusive middle class within our national imaginary is the resulting disappearance from public view of the actually existing and vastly diverse American working-class majority.   This is in fact the population that has been so battered by the Great Recession and by the neoliberal political and economic tide that fostered it.   These are the “folks” Obama tells me he hears from every day “who are out of work, have lost their home, are struggling to pay their bills, are burdened with debt, are underemployed or worried about retirement.”

In a typically mis-titled article in the November 2011 Atlantic,Can the Middle Class Be Saved?”  Don Peck points out that from 2007 through 2009 employment levels for the professional middle class remained essentially unchanged, whereas 1 in 12 non-managerial (i.e. working-class) white collar jobs disappeared, along with 1 in 6 blue collar jobs.  Meantime, according to Peck, “from 2002 to 2007, out of every three dollars of national income growth, the top 1 percent of earners captured two” dollars — and this effect has only accelerated since then.  On this evidence, it is the working class that needs to be saved, or to save itself.

And yet, in her important new book The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics and Postwork Imaginaries (Duke UP, 2011) Kathi Weeks draws this discouraging conclusion about the radical potential of a political critique founded on the concept of the working class:

The problem is that while the oppositional class category of the industrial period—the “working class”— may accurately describe most people’s relation to waged labor even in a post-industrial economy, it is increasingly less likely to match their self-descriptions.  The category of the middle class has absorbed so many of our subjective investments that it is difficult to see how the working class can serve as a viable rallying point in the United States today.

Given that we always have this uphill battle to establish the salience of the term working class, I’ve been wondering lately whether it is worth the effort we expend, in our scholarship and teaching, in repeatedly pushing the boulder to the top of the hill, only to see it roll down again.  What’s at stake for us in posing an analysis based upon a more accurate accounting of US class structures and relations?   How viable is such an analysis as a resource for political critique and action in the present moment?  And how useful is it for teaching students about their place in the world and the prospects for their interventions in it — starting with, but not limited to this November’s elections?

Next month, I’ll take up these questions in light of the challenges to class analysis posed by Weeks and others.   In the meantime, commentary from readers would be most welcome.

Nick Coles

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9 Responses to A Class on Class

  1. Pingback: The Trouble with Work: Rethinking “Working Class” | Working-Class Perspectives

  2. bubbamuntzer says:

    The first US presidential election I paid attention to was in 1988 when Michael Dukakis, after spending the whole campaign trying to run away from the term “Liberal” which Ronald had spent the past eight years successfully demonizing, ditched his script in the last week and began making speeches based on economic populism and began gaining in the polls. And today we can connect Barak Obama’s leads in the state and national polls to his success in identifying Mitt Romney as a member of the economic elite, despite spending his first term sucking up to that elite.

    The point is, people understand economic interests and class no matter what the terminology is. We may prefer to use working class because it helps us analyze things and/or we may have sentimental attachments to the term.

    It would be nice to be able to educate people so as to make the term meaningful to them as the one commenter does with with his students, and I think that is necessary. Meanwhile there are other ways to convey our meaning.


  3. Beau Driver says:

    I really enjoyed this article. I am a grad student who is just starting my studies of working-class history in earnest, but I feel compelled to leave a comment.

    I spent a large portion of my 20s working in “call centers” providing service to customers for several different corporations, and I would challenge anyone to say that these companies do not employ people from the “working class.” Long gone are the spindles and sewing machines from the early portion of the 20th century; however, these companies employ, to a significant degree, non- college educated females in their 20s-40s. In many ways this is the make-up of the female working class of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

    The disconnect is that many of these people think that because they work in a air-conditioned building and because they return to a home with sprinklers and a yard at night that they are not, in fact, working class. this is the error. Many people have commented on the fact that the US has moved from a manufacturing to a service industry, and thus, these are the new factory workers. They produce service, many time in a distinct and motherly tone.

    These are the women and men that tend to suffer from repetitive stress injuries,” work long hours, and garner little pay in the same way their parents did in shoe factories and by working piece work from home. It’s all just a matter of self-identification in my mind. Many of these people, faced with the same work, may have identified as “working class” in years past.



  4. Richard Butsch says:

    It has long been common in surveys in the US for Americans to identify themselves as middle class. As Lewis and Jhally concluded from their study of black and white, middle and working class audiences for The Cosby Show, Americans lack a vocabulary to talk about social class, so it’s little wonder that they are confused.

    Even in most sociology intro textbooks, most of the discussion of class centers on income difference, which lends itself to translating class into upper, middle and lower income. Median family income in the US is roughly between $50,000 and $60,000, and has been stuck there for a decade, (Try living what most people imagine is a middle class life on that money!) A goodly number of families with classic working class jobs, especially if there is more than one in the family – as is the case for most families nowadays – would qualify as middle income, statistically. But that hardly makes them middle class as that is imagined in terms of lifestyle!

    So, for my students in Intro Sociology, I take a slightly less common approach to teaching social class. I start with a definition of social class based on ownership of the means of production.This distinguishes between people who have to sell their labor to work for someone else who then owns what they produce, and people who own tools and raw materials (or the money to buy them) to which they can apply their own labor and then sell what they produce to someone, and a third group who have so much money they can obtain so many tools and so much material that they can hire other people to do all the work and simply live off what is produce. (Of course nowadays such income producing wealth has been abstracted from actual tools, raw materials and workers’ labor, and appears as forms of financial instruments).

    Based on that I focus not on income but on income-producing wealth
    to distinguish between those who must sell their labor for income and
    those who live off income from their wealth. Equity on one’s home is wealth but does not produce an income if you are living there, so it is not income-producing wealth.

    Also retirement is seldom based on income producing wealth. The vast majority of retirees do not live off income from wealth, but from the “deferred wages” of Social Security and Medicare (both of which primarily require having had a job) and a few with defined benefit pensions.

    Then I explore what it cost to live on median family income,
    and if there is any probability of becoming rich (the “American Dream”).
    and what people can or cannot afford in terms of housing, health care, education, etc. Given the median income you can guess what’s the probability. Just do a budget and see how much you could expect to save year in and out from $50,000! A rule of thumb used by financial advisers recommends that to retire on $50,000 a year, one should have a million dollars of income producing wealth – and that is based on optimistic assumptions.

    Having laid the foundation of definition and the reasons for it, based on the realities of choices in life or lack thereof and of costs, then I talk about lifestyle and values that are compatible with (not determined by) those conditions.

    Working class values, described properly rather than negatively (as did much of the humor of Blue Collar Comedy Tour, as well as equating working class with the non-union South), are actually quite appealing to most Americans and students – and they are not southern or Republican. They are working class values. Prominent among them is priority to family and friends over self-interested success seeking, and a general sympathy and willingness to help unfortunate others.



  5. Mike aLEXANDER says:

    I have a huge problem with this whole analysis of class that completely ignores the real question which is your relationship to the means of production. Anybody out there ever heard of a guy named Karl Marx? Why people dont know what class they belong to is because there is NO SUCH THING as a “middle class”. It was made up and fostered by the ruling class to confuse the issue and they have done an excellent job. What ever your concept of self is thats all it is,a concept. You can betray your class it , but not escape it.


    • Roy Wilson says:


      You might find the work of Erik Van Olin Wright of interest. He is an avowed Marxist who has made a number of attempts to define the middle-class in Marxist terms.



  6. When I was teaching college a few years ago, one of the books that I required my students to read was; “Rivethead, tales from the assemblyline,” by Ben Hamper, who had been a GM worker in Flint, MI. The book is a classic and tells the story of assemblyline workers’ experiences making cars in the 70’s and 80’s. My nontraditional older students had no trouble picking up on the themes in the book, but the students who were born after Jerry Ford, seemed to not get it at all. The education system in this country has done a job on the idea of workers, working class and social justice being presented in a manner that is not slanted or demeaning towards those folks, and ideas.


  7. Roy Wilson says:

    I once taught a course for undergraduates aspiring to teaching careers. I had small groups present material related to various chapters in the course text. One such group did a boffo job treating the class-related aspects of schooling, except for one small fly in the ointment. One of the presenters – one of the best, most class-conscious – described the show “Roseanne” (as in Barr/Arnold) as in instance of a “middle-class” family.

    Many people wish to study “the” working-class, but few want to “be” working class (at least in the view of others).


  8. This is one of the most thought-provoking articles I have read on working-class issues. The student perspectives on class structure are fascinating. The article clearly describes the disparity between the working-class mythology and the downward trends in wages and status. Analyses of class structure and relations are important but will have little transformative power unless we find a way to engage the working-class in this dialogue.


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