The Trouble with Work: Rethinking “Working Class”

Last month, I blogged about the challenges of teaching an analysis of the US class structure that recognizes our sizeable working-class majority and critiques the myth of the broad inclusive “middle class.”    I closed by questioning what’s at stake for us in posing this analysis and how effective it can be in the present moment for teaching and political organizing.   A number of you responded, including a forceful reminder that Karl Marx had some important things to say about classes.   A point well taken, since Marxism still provides, I believe, the most comprehensive account of how class operates in society, including culture, politics, and economics.

By leaving Marx out, I sidestepped his analysis of how class antagonism arises within the relations of production under capitalism, based on the exploitation of workers’ labor power.  I also avoided the complicated question of the status of middle classes in a Marxist account — a topic addressed, as another respondent reminded us, by sociologist Erik Olin Wright, who has written about the “contradictory location” of the middle classes, who share properties of both capitalists and workers.   Another commentator, Richard Butsch, described a college sociology course in which the concept of “ownership of the means of production” is used to explain relative class positions and life chances.    This approach would make clear that even workers whose income provides a middle-class “lifestyle” are working-class in relation to the means of production, which is owned by capitalists.

This is the case made by many of us in Working-Class Studies for the importance of deploying an accurate class vocabulary.  In “Politics and the American Class Vernacular,” Jack Metzgar wrote that the “task of working-class studies should be . . . to constantly probe what users [of the vernacular] mean when they say ‘middle class,’ and to use ‘working class’ consistently and rigorously to refer to all those purported members of the middle class who are not middle-class professionals.” Metzgar argues that this confusion over who is middle class matters because it negatively affects working-class interests in politics and public policy. I would add that the American class vernacular tells us little about how classes are formed and maintained within capitalism, much less about why class relations need to be radically transformed.   For that, we need the concept of the working class.

Using the term “working class” has important benefits, but I also want to pose some difficulties arising in its stress on “working.”

A prime benefit of the term is its recognition of the position of the working class as both a creation of capitalism and a source of resistance to it.  The key idea it contains is that this is the class that actually does the work, producing the goods and services society needs.  In Marxist terms, the working class sells the labor power from which the owners of the means of production extract the surplus value that becomes capital.  The workplace is then the primary location of the exploitation of human labor and of the subordination of the worker to the will of the capitalist.  Consequently, as Michael Denning puts it, “The workplace remains the fundamental unfree association of civil society.”

By the same token, it has also been the site of resistance through the collective refusal to work or the demand to alter working conditions.  Always, at work, whether we know it or not, we are engaged in a political situation, a struggle over power and freedom.  We are better able to explain this systemic class conflict, the argument goes, when we recognize the position of the working class within capitalism.

But are there also difficulties in our use of  “working class,” apart from its lack of currency in the popular vernacular?  “Working people” are after all not the only people who work: members of the professional middle class work pretty hard, as, I imagine, do some hedge fund managers.  Some of my students draw the ready conclusion that all who work are by definition working class, and conversely, that those who don’t are not.  Stressing the “working” status of this majority class can obscure the fact of joblessness and the distress it causes, as a recurring hazard of being working-class.   Furthermore, because unemployment often leads to poverty, unemployed workers become aligned with “the poor,” who in the American class vernacular constitute a separate non-productive class at the bottom of society. As Metzgar puts it, “The poor are in fact part of the working class, and poverty, near-poverty, and the fear of poverty are an endemic part of working-class life.”

Beyond this problem, there is a deeper difficulty with the concept of working class as it affects our capacity to imagine alternatives to the current regime of capitalist production, with its attendant unemployment and precariousness.   By naming work as the primary source of identity and value, we adopt the work ethic that legitimizes that regime, and we reinforce the subordinate position of the working class within it.   Working is what workers do; when they are not doing it they are deficient in their identities and in their social contribution.  Our personal worth is thus massively over-identified with the work we perform.  Conversely, the focus on the work we do delegitimizes the many other activities (cultural, social, familial, sexual, political) through which we create value, pleasure and freedom, for ourselves and others – all of which require time away from work.

Kathi Weeks develops this critique of the “work society” in The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics and Postwork Imaginaries (Duke UP, 2011).   Weeks asks, “Why do we work so long and so hard?”  –  particularly when most jobs are boring and repetitive, unfairly remunerated, and coercively bossed.   In addressing this question, she looks not only to the exploitive relations of production Marx analyzed, but also to the Protestant work ethic and its contemporary incarnations.  She shows how deeply the work ethic is embedded in our social thinking and how it serves the interests of capital by promoting our allegiance to work as “a basic obligation of citizenship.” She also demonstrates also how a “laborist” version of the work ethic has been adopted by the working class, to the extent that socialism came to represent “a vision of the work society perfected rather than transformed.”  In envisioning alternatives to the regime of the wage labor society, therefore, Weeks finds it “difficult to see how the working class can serve as a viable rallying point in the United States today.”   Similarly, “it seems unlikely that socialism can serve as a persuasive signifier of a postcapitalist alternative.”

In place of class struggle, Weeks proposes a struggle over the politics of work itself, which would encompass the goals of both freedom in work and freedom from work.  Since, as Marx wrote, “waged work without other options is a system of ‘forced labor,’” the solution to current economic problems would not then be full employment, on either a capitalist or state-socialist model, but in Weeks’s terms, “an alternative to a life centered on work.”   Resources for such “antiwork politics” and “postwork imaginaries” can be found, she suggests, in the theories and projects of European autonomous Marxists and their “refusal of work,” and of 1970s American feminism with its critique of the gendered labor of social reproduction – which, although unwaged, is essential to capitalist production.

Weeks is also interested in rehabilitating the practical usefulness of utopian thinking. She discusses proposals that offer alternatives to a life dominated by work, such as the 30-hour work week and the provision of a guaranteed basic income to all.  These proposals are utopian in that they envision a profound transformation of the work society in the direction of greater equality and freedom.  But they are not therefore impractical.  I don’t have space to recite the times and places in which these projects have been proposed and tested – a Google search took me well beyond Weeks’s examples.  But clearly there is not now – if indeed there ever was – an authentic need for all capable adults to engage in long hours of alienating labor.  Advances in technology and productivity suggest that basic needs could be met if all those who wish to work worked far fewer hours and if the products of their labor were more equitably distributed.    But then, what would the working class (and the middle class for that matter) do if they weren’t working (or looking for work) all the time?  Imagine the possibilities!

Nick Coles

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4 Responses to The Trouble with Work: Rethinking “Working Class”

  1. Lynne Leahy says:

    I grew up in working class family with working class values. I am so grateful. At 24 I was a single mom, a high-school drop out, and a welfare recipient. I looked around me. I saw men getting jobs and supporting their families. I needed a job to support my family. I visioned that I was a man and I walked into interviews knowing that I could deliver. I would be a good employee. I wasn’t so worried about minimum wage – I just wanted a chance. I wanted to prove myself.
    Attitude is everything. I got a job, I performed better than most and I moved up the ladder.
    When I reached the top of that ladder I jumped off and found another ladder. I started my own business. I just sold my last business for several million dollars. My 2 kids are my best friends. Both of them know how to work and how to provide for themselves and their families. And we are all so happy. A happy, joyous life depends on what you give not what you get.
    I am a testament that social welfare programs do work. People do pull themselves up and out.
    lynne@fearlessvisionproject.com

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  2. Doug Manley says:

    An important discussion, given the pre-occupation of current journalists and politicians with the Middle Class, when it is clear the phenomena they are addressing are related to the Working Class. The vernacular use of the Middle Class terminology effectively makes the Working Class invisible, and thus thwarts access to the usual avenues of addressing social change.

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  3. Roy Wilson says:

    Nick,

    A very interesting analysis. Although you touch upon the issue, I wonder if it is possible to theorize work to any extent independent of the class relations involved. The commentators you cite who suggest a defocusing on work seem to be addressing the idea of work as exploitation. Is it possible, short of “the revolution” (or in spite of it), to carry out un-exploited work. Based on my naive reading of Marx, it should be possible (if not probable).

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  4. Rick Rowlands says:

    What would they do if not working? Well we can take our cues from low income hoising projects where there is a higher percentage of non working people living. Crime, drugs, domestic disputes, vandalism, graffiti etc. are what people reduce themselves to when not engaged in some productive activity. Humans must not work only for an income, but because it gives our lives purpose, and occupies much of our time so that we cannot engage in destructive behavior. It is naive to think that people with more free time will become writers, poets, painters and the like. If that were the case our inner cities would be ripe with art museums and literary masterpieces.

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