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.