Human Tumbleweeds, Insecurity Culture, and the American Working Class

Conservatives, while opposing same-sex marriage, worry a lot about the decline of marriage among lower-income households, the still growing number of single-parent families, and the supposed social and economic fallout of children growing up in male-deprived, unstable, and morally feckless households. See Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, which asserts a simple causal chain beginning with what he sees as the moral fecklessness of lower-income whites.

Liberals, after decades of celebrating the increased freedom, especially for women, involved in higher divorce rates and the diversity of family forms, have recently taken up this concern. Though they assert that broad economic trends in the labor market are important causes, liberals also worry about what they see as disturbing levels of moral fecklessness.   See my criticisms of Andrew Cherlin’s Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America and Robert Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.

Sociologist Allison Pugh enters this social-science morality debate with a pretty strong moral sense of her own, but with a substantially more complex and insightful approach to both social science and morality – and also to the 80 actually existing people she interviewed. (Neither Murray nor Cherlin conducted their own interviews with the subjects of their moralizing.) Pugh’s new book, The Tumbleweed Society: Working and Caring in an Age of Insecurity, does not rely exclusively on the best-and-worst methods that Murray, Cherlin and Putnam use in contrasting the lives of elite middle-class professionals (Murray’s top 5%) with the least advantaged working poor (the bottom 20% in income and education).   Pugh develops this contrast as well, but in addition she talked with and explores what she calls “the stably employed” whose incomes are in the “middle five digits” – what some people call “middle class,” and others, “working class.”

Before looking at the stably employed, Pugh interviewed winners and losers in what she calls our “insecurity culture” created by a neoliberal market fundamentalism and the withdrawal of democratic government support over the past four decades.   The winners are upper-middle-class married couples with highly marketable professional skills, who benefit from and mostly revel in the lack of reciprocal employee-employer loyalty, changing jobs and geographical locations as new opportunities emerge for higher pay or more interesting work. Pugh finds that these couples erect a “moral wall” between their lack of commitment to employers, workmates and neighbors as they restlessly search for the “perfect job,” on one side of that wall. On the other side, however, they “settle for” the imperfect, often compromised relations within their marriages and seek to raise “flexible children” also unrooted in abiding relationships beyond their nuclear family.

The losers are what Pugh calls “the laid off,” encompassing both those with unsteady work and those scarred by being “let go” in the past while having (temporarily) steady work now but at lower pay and with worse conditions. For them, she finds, there is no wall between work and love, as the insecurity of work and income forces them into a series of unsteady relationships at work, among neighbors, and in their intimate lives. Among these victims of insecurity culture, she found two basic responses – a kind I’m-on-my-own declaration of independence where no commitments are expected or made, except to one’s own children, and a hyper-commitment to one’s duty to others, beginning with your own children but extending out to other family members, especially aging parents.

One of the joys of the book is how Pugh creates richly detailed individual portraits of both the independent and the duty-bound, showing their resilient ingenuity in coping with the constantly unsettling turmoil of their work lives, but also adopting belief systems and life strategies that reproduce and support a neoliberal system they expect to betray and abandon them.   There is no moral fecklessness here, just debilitatingly low expectations of the social support and basic economic security any decent society would provide. Both the independent and the duty-bound, Pugh contends, take on unrealistic levels of “individual responsibility” expecting nothing of employers, government, or other institutions – and all too often carrying expectations of betrayal and abandonment at work and in the larger society into their intimate lives with partners and other family members.

Though Pugh does not use the term, what both winners and losers lack is a sense of collective efficacy of even the modest sorts once provided by churches, unions, ethnic lodges, as well as by a more generous welfare state. The winners think they don’t need collective support and action, and in most respects, at least for now, they are right. But the vastly larger group of insecurity-culture losers in our tumbleweed society seem not even aware of collective efficacy as a possibility, and Pugh convincingly argues that their individual ingenuity in making the best of bad situations, often with heroic efforts, undermines both their own long-term efforts to survive and any possibility of effective collective action that could reverse the downward spiral of contingency, precarity, and insecurity rooted in the American workplace.

Unfortunately, Pugh does not continue this line of thinking when she turns to the stably employed, who she finds have much higher but reasonable expectations of what their employers owe them as well as higher but reasonable expectations of their partners and others in their social circles. The stably employed are also affected by our insecurity culture, but because it has not turned their lives upside down, they are more likely to resist it as best they can – both in thought and action. Based on their own experience, they do not expect to be betrayed and abandoned, and therefore, experience anger when they do experience or witness it, anger that often spurs them to push back in some form or other. But the stably employed in Pugh’s rendering, while committed to patiently nurturing immediate relationships at work and at home, seem not to have any broader sense of the value and efficacy of collective action than the tumbleweeds who are buffeted about by economic winds and workplace practices they think are beyond their control.

Rather than examining whatever lingering embers of collective efficacy there might be among the stably employed, Pugh focuses on their individual characteristics, again reporting wonderfully detailed life stories and complex moral sensibilities from her interviews.   The characteristics she favors are “pragmatism” and “the willingness to compromise” both at work and in one’s most intimate relationships. And though I regret the road not taken by Pugh, I found it refreshing that a rigorous sociologist would so forthrightly champion these kinds of middling-sort values against the never-settle-for-second-best pursuit of excellence that one repeatedly hears from the officially successful.   Her choice of words betrays a middle-class bias, I think, but her individual portraits reveal what many of us will recognize as “working-class realism” and what labor historian Lou Martin has called a “making do culture.”

Still, after so deftly placing individual tumbleweeds’ beliefs and strategies within a larger social-economic context, Pugh stops short by merely establishing the stably employed’s higher expectations of employers, government, and their friends and neighbors.   These expectations, as Pugh seems to imply, are a social psychological base for collective action as well as collective support, but she fails to pursue that possibility.   Given her basic framework, this additional inquiry would have been particularly valuable to labor, community, and political organizers who are busy trying to raise the general levels of collective efficacy among the population. Organizers have usually and sensibly focused on the least advantaged who have the most to gain from collective action. But given Pugh’s analysis, it might make sense to focus more attention on those middling sorts who “settle down and settle for” but who still have a strong sense that human beings should not be constantly tumbled like tumbleweeds.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies



Steinbeck and the Refugee Crisis

“No home no job no peace no rest”
— Bruce Springsteen, “The Ghost of Tom Joad”

As a British immigrant to the US, one key difference I notice between me and most Americans is that I did not read The Grapes of Wrath in high school. Actually, an informal survey reveals that some acquaintances settled for the Cliff Notes or the movie of John Steinbeck’s epic tale of Oklahoma farm families fleeing the Dust Bowl in the late 1930s for the false promise of work and plenty in California — rather than the 600-page text.

Having read it, I’m wondering why The Grapes of Wrath is probably the best-known novel of working-class life in the US, featuring on most top 100 lists of great American literature and earning Steinbeck a Pulitzer and eventually a Nobel Prize. What does it say about poverty, dispossession, migration, and survival in capitalism’s global hub that made it required reading for the nation’s youth?

A 1940 reviewer offers what has become the standard schoolroom answer: “It is the saga of an authentic U.S. farming family who lose their land. They wander, they suffer, but they endure. They are never quite defeated, and their survival is itself a triumph.” This is uplifting – and it has a basis in Ma Joad’s famous claim that “We ain’t gonna die out. People is goin’ on” – but it is less than half the story. And its implication that this is a uniquely American drama is at best anachronistic and at worst nativist: are the Joads “authentic” because they are white?

Since the novel is still on the curriculum, what are its assumed lessons for today? Might it speak to the global refugee crisis now unfolding, when masses of poor and working-class people are on the move, fleeing violence, famine, and environmental degradation in their homelands. Most of the migrants in the news are from war-torn Syria and North Africa. In the future most will be climate refugees (as many as 200 million by 2050, in some estimates) driven out by desertification, sea level rise, and “extreme weather events” like floods and typhoons — or the drought and dust storms that displaced the Okies.

In Reading the Grapes of Wrath (2014) Susan Shillinglaw draws the connection: “the Syrian picture seems not unlike the story of 1930s croppers in Dust Bowl Oklahoma at the mercy of California agribusiness.” Citing Thomas Friedman’s “Without Water, Revolution,” she notes the combination of anti-small-farmer politics and severe long-term drought as elements in the “lethal ecological mix” fueling that regional war.   The livelihoods of 800,000 farmers and herders were wiped out and the countryside evacuated. Assad’s tyranny and US military support for regime change have only made matters more desperate.

Europe is the current front-line of the escalating clash between relatively prosperous nations and those seeking refuge. On August 27 2015 — just one day in what has been a deadly summer for migrants worldwide — 71 people, mostly Syrians, including a family with four children, were found decomposing in a refrigerator truck abandoned by a highway in Austria. Another 200 refugees — from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Morocco, and sub-Saharan Africa, as well as Syria — drowned off a capsized fishing boat near the coast of Libya. The Mediterranean has claimed at least 2500 migrants’ lives so far this year.

A year ago, the US was the headline-grabbing locus of the refugee crisis, with 68,000 children, mostly from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico, detained entering the US without their parents and without immigration papers. Donald Trump promises to build a steel fence along the 2000 miles of the US-Mexico border and deport 11 million undocumented immigrants now living in the US. Not to be outdone in nativist fantasy, rival candidate Scott Walker also calls for a wall between the US and Canada. These proposals are popular with self-described “white nationalist” voters, suggesting that, as Trump’s advisor Roger Stone likes to say, “Hate is a stronger motivator than love.”

Steinbeck thought otherwise. Preacher Casy, a lead character in Grapes, “love[s] people so much, I’m fit to bust.” The novelist invited readers along on the Joads’ exodus in part so that we too could come to love them, their human peculiarities, their togetherness, their will to survive. And this is the appeal typically celebrated in the novel, from the earliest reviews to the most recent commentary. As Shillinglaw puts it, this is “not a novel of social reform” but “a message to the human heart,” provoking “empathy for working people.” But is this all the novel offers, and is it enough?

Steinbeck had more in mind, as he later wrote: “these migrant people with their clear thrust are destined to be a large determining factor in the imminent social change. And I love them for it.”   Surely the “clear thrust” Steinbeck admired in his characters includes the “wrath” of his title: “In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy.” This anger is directed at the people and the power structures responsible for the economic catastrophe which combined with “extreme weather” to make them refugees and keep them impoverished.

The Grapes of Wrath is profoundly critical book. It blasts the interlocking systems of land ownership, finance capital, and political cronyism that dispossess the farmers. It shames the isolating self-interest of the owners and bankers (“For the quality of owning freezes you forever into ‘I’, and cuts you off forever from the ‘we’”) and the violence of their associations. And it demonstrates the consequences in pillaged farmland, decimated families, stillborn babies, and starving parents.

Equally clear in the narrative is the migrants’ “thrust” to do more than survive: the determination to push back against those systems and push forward into making a life of dignity in a place of their choosing. This is the essence of Tom Joad’s parting pledge to Ma as he goes on the lam near the novel’s end. If, as Casy told him, “a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but only a piece of a big one,” then dead or alive, Tom says “I’ll be everywhere – wherever you look. Whenever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Whenever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. . . An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise and live in the houses they build – why, I’ll be there.”

Tom speaks versions of these words – with their obvious resonance for our era of extreme inequality and police killings — in the coda of John Ford’s 1940 movie of the novel, and in the final stanzas of Woody Guthrie’s “Ballad of Tom Joad” and Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” Perhaps the enduring thrust of the story is the call to “be there,” to supply the missing response to the “imminent social change.”

We see one answer today in the groundswell of support by ordinary people across Europe for welcoming and hosting the migrants, while their governments discuss quotas and border enforcement, and some build razor-wire fences.  In this crisis, food, shelter, safety, and a human greeting are great gifts, as were the resettlement camps that welcomed a lucky few Okies in 1930s California. But Steinbeck’s novel also provokes other responses: a clear understanding of the forces driving out the refugees, as well as a vivid grasp of the meanings of home and homeland — and the trauma of being uprooted from them.

Nick Coles

The Return of the Undeserving Poor

In the nineteenth century, critics and policy makers made a clear distinction between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor. The deserving poor worked hard, kept their homes and families clean, went to church regularly, maintained sobriety, and otherwise adhered to middle-class morals. They deserved help because their poverty was not their fault. But the undeserving poor had earned their poverty not only by refusing to work, or to work hard enough, but also by rejecting the middle-class model. If they were poor, it was because they hadn’t tried hard enough.


This should sound familiar to anyone who’s been reading op-ed pages lately. While no one has yet directly accused today’s poor people of being “undeserving,” scholars and pundits have been fretting about their morals. In Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010, Charles Murray argued that declining morality among the lower class (which as one reviewer noted, Murray was “too polite” to name) was creating economic and social dysfunctions. Robert Putnam traces similar patterns in his latest book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, though Putnam also notes the role of deindustrialization in shaping those patterns. But in response to Putnam’s study, David Brooks focuses on the moral issues rather than economics or policy. In many poor areas, he writes, “there are no minimally agreed upon standards for what it means to be a father. There are no basic codes and rules woven into daily life.” He suggests that we should hold the poor and working class “responsible” for their choices.

These and other commentaries suggest a shift in focus in American public discourse about economic inequality. Rather than hearing about the power of a few elites to influence policy so that they gain an ever larger share of wealth, and rather than analyzing how business and employment practices contribute to the stagnation and decline in wages – the kinds of issues raised by the Occupy Movement — the debate increasingly focuses on whether those who have less are victims of policies and business practices or of their own flawed morality.


Poor and working-class people, some critics argue, contribute to their troubles by not having stable marriages, giving birth to too many children from too many fathers, not being reliable workers, and over-indulging in drugs and alcohol. They focus on momentary pleasures rather than long-term planning, and parents aren’t sufficiently willing to sacrifice to improve their children’s lives. For commentators like Murray and Brooks, these behaviors are based in weak morality, not in social or economic conditions. The discussion echoes ideas that surfaced in the 1960s, when the Moynihan Report famously blamed the economic struggles of African Americans on the rise of the matriarchal family.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be concerned about the effects on children – and on the wider social fabric — of drug and alcohol abuse, household instability, or domestic and neighborhood violence. These are real problems, and they undermine children’s sense of security and connection and teach children to have low expectations for their futures, which in turn can contribute to problems in school. However, analyses that look only at the problems in poor and working-class communities miss important strengths that may not be visible to the more elite outsiders who conduct these studies and write the columns. They may miss the networks of mutual aid that help people survive when they lack other resources, and they undervalue the street smarts and resilience that children can learn from growing up amid struggle.


More important, they too easily dismiss the structural and policy causes of these patterns and underestimate the challenges of creating stability in an era when steady jobs are becoming ever more scarce. How can people establish stable home lives when so many jobs are temporary, poorly paid, and require workers to juggle constantly changing shifts at multiple work sites? One explanation of the instability of many poor and working-class households appears in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which outlines how instead of reducing drug use or the drug trade, the war on drugs ensured that many poor children grew up with their father in prison instead of in the home. As Alexander notes, after prison, fathers often can’t return to their homes or find stable employment.

Critics too often oversimplify both the causes and the debate. For example, Ross Douthat suggests a false and simplistic divide, claiming that those on the left blame poverty entirely on money, while those on the right blame it on morals. Putnam’s book makes clear that both the issue and the debate are more complex than this. But though he ties the social decline of the poor and working class to the loss of industrial jobs, he then suggests solutions that focus on strengthening families and education, suggesting policy changes that don’t address the larger economic causes. And in today’s political climate, his prescriptions reflect wishful thinking rather than realistic strategies.


To be fair, both Brooks and Douthat temper their concerns for the morality of the poor with calls for the elite to change, as well. As Brooks writes, “privileged people suffer from their own characteristic forms of self-indulgence: the tendency to self-segregate, the comprehensive failures of leadership in government and industry. Social norms need repair up and down the scale, universally, together and all at once.” Douthat offers an even stronger critique of the elite, though he still casts the problem in moral terms: “our upper class should be judged first — for being too solipsistic to recognize that its present ideal of ‘safe’ permissiveness works (sort of) only for the privileged, and for failing to take any moral responsibility (in the schools it runs, the mass entertainments it produces, the social agenda it favors) for the effects of permissiveness on the less-savvy, the less protected, the kids who don’t have helicopter parents turning off the television or firewalling the porn.”

I want to suggest a different way of thinking about the elite’s role, focused less on personal morality and more on social responsibility. What might happen if the elite stopped pursuing profit at all costs and embraced the social responsibility of creating working conditions that foster stability for working families? What if instead of blaming the “undeserving poor,” they took responsibility for using their own power to change the conditions that create instability for poor and working-class lives?

Sherry Linkon

Class War and Sociology

I no longer get as angry as I probably should when I witness middle-class professionals engage in the kind of dismissive class prejudice that Classism Exposed so insightfully reveals almost every week. It is so common that in many middle-class settings I more or less expect a certain haughty ignorance of working-class people and their lives and, what’s worse, an astounding willingness nonetheless to make up stuff about “them” – sort of like discussing “the French” among Americans who, like me, have never actually known a French person. But I expect more from sociologists, especially those who take the time to write a book.

Andrew Cherlin’s Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America is in many ways an effective liberal counter to Charles Murray’s mean-spirited portrayal of the working-class family in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Both books are concerned with the decline in marriage among lower-income families and the negative effect they think this has on children. The percentage of mothers who were unmarried at the birth of their children is now nearly 41%, having doubled since 1980. Both Cherlin and Murray focus on the fact that out-of-wedlock births are much higher among lower-income than higher-income, college-educated families. Neither Cherlin nor Murray establishes that whatever negative effects there are on children are due to family form rather than low income itself. Instead, they focus on what they see as the causes of what both agree is a potentially disastrous trend. For Murray the decline in marriage is a result of a creeping moral rot – specifically, an ongoing decline in industriousness, honesty, and religion – among lower-income and non-college-educated people. For Cherlin the cause is a combination of working-class men’s outdated cultural commitment to a male-breadwinner version of marriage and a labor market that increasingly does not provide living-wage jobs that could support a traditional male-only breadwinner. For those interested in this topic, I recommend Cherlin’s Chapter 5.

The rest of the book, however, is a woefully simplistic digest of much better studies by historians and sociologists like Stephanie Coontz, Michele Lamont and Annette Lareau. Cherlin, for example, at several points assumes that all working-class men are both taciturn and patriarchal, a combination that seems to me hard to put together in one individual. Maybe this seems so outrageously false to me because I had a very talkative, bossy, working-class patriarch for a father while his older sister, my aunt, was a very talkative, only slightly less bossy, working-class matriarch. But surely a sociologist should understand without ever having talked with any working-class people that it is highly unlikely for a working class that includes tens of millions of people to have only one personality type!

There are many other breezy stereotypes built atop other stereotypes in Cherlin’s account, but he turns defensive and vicious in responding to Michele Lamont’s nuanced comparative studies of working-class and professional men in the U.S. and France. Lamont found that these men had starkly different systems of status and morality by class but only nuanced variations by nationality. In The Dignity of Working Men she writes: “For many professionals and managers I talked to, socioeconomic success and moral worth go hand in hand, the former confirming the latter. In contrast, when evaluating the upper half, most workers disentangle socioeconomic and moral worth . . . . . [critiquing] the moral character of upper middle class people, mostly by pointing to their lack of personal integrity, lack of respect for others, and the poor quality of their interpersonal relationships.”

Instead of trying to understand how different social classes might see the world differently and might place themselves differently within it, which is what Lamont does, Cherlin takes offense at how people like him (and me) are often characterized by both American and French workers.   Having taken offense, he could have argued that this view of professional middle-class people is inaccurate or, at least, an over-generalization or even a stereotype, but he doesn’t do that either. Instead, he sees only name-calling and answers with a sociologist’s fancier version of name-calling: “This morally based sense of dignity was a reactive identity: it was not constructed by people who had the option of taking high-paying management or professional jobs or who could easily find meaningful work.” Implicitly defending a middle-class “proactive identity,” Cherlin blithely assumes that all working-class jobs are both meaningless and experienced as meaningless and that given a choice everybody would choose a job like his. He goes on in the following pages to claim that “working-class men commonly define their self-worth against an ‘other,’ an outside group toward which they can feel superior in their work habits and personal responsibility,” implicitly assuming that middle-class professionals do not routinely do this as well. He goes on to point out that racism is widespread among white workers (while presumably absent among middle-class whites) and, finally, to claim that blue-collar men are stuck in an “older utilitarian self” and are having trouble adopting a more modern “expressive self.”

Nearly all of this (and much more) appears to be simply made up. With no or very little evidence, Cherlin seems to feel entitled to simply imagine what workers must be like and to speculate about how their unconscious minds must work given what they actually have said to other sociologists. Worse, Cherlin takes generalized concepts based on extensive interviewing by others and turns these concepts into simple class character traits applicable to millions, with no nuances, variations or exceptions. But the way he comes unhinged at the kinds of things American and French workers sometimes say about people like us points to a much larger and more important problem – a professional middle-class blindness to other class cultures that in American social science can so easily turn into a kind of “there’s-only-one-right-way” cultural imperialism.

Middle-class professionalism is a strong and vital culture, but it’s still just a culture – with strengths and weaknesses, advantages and disadvantages – that can be enriched and improved by access to and engagement with other cultures.   There is a vital strain in American social science that has begun to explore these class cultural differences in an empirical and thoughtful way – including Working-Class Studies scholars Barbara Jensen, Betsy Leondar-Wright and Jeff Torlina, as well as the authors noted above and numerous others. But it is a minority strain in academia, where any expression of appreciation for the strengths and advantages of working-class culture tends to bring out the class warrior in even well-intentioned social scientists like Andrew Cherlin. That’s a fight worth having.

Jeff Torlina argues that the common sociological understanding of social classes as necessarily hierarchical is based on a systematic misunderstanding of how supposedly hierarchical occupations actually work together to get jobs done. He argues that social classes should be conceived as “arranged on a horizontal plane, each superior or inferior in some dimensions but not in others,” which is a fairly common way that blue-collar workers see it. Such an approach would turn American social science upside down, and thus is more than a bit utopian. But at the very least social scientists should agree with Torlina that any endeavor aspiring to be a science “cannot base its . . . categories only upon the cultural logic of the class represented by the scientists themselves.”

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies



The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class

Across the world, more and more people realize they are in the precariat – or may be soon – and that they are not alone. That is bringing a change of mood, from being defeated and dispirited to being defiant and demanding. Old sociologists may be bewildered, but precariat groups are moving from mass occupations to political re-engagement. They know there is no unified working class and do not want to go back in search of a phoney unity. We need an alternative progressive future, forged for and by the precariat.

Most fundamentally, the 20th century income distribution system has collapsed. The share of income going to profits has rocketed and will continue to rise, the share going to rent will rise even more. Real wages will continue to stagnate.

In pursuit of competitiveness, governments have implemented policies of labor flexibility, making labor more insecure, leaving millions without health care, pensions or other benefits. Governments have turned to means-tested social assistance and to workfare. The welfare state has withered.

Meanwhile, a global class structure has been taking shape, superimposed on national structures. At the top is a tiny plutocracy, many with criminal backgrounds. Their economic and political power is awesome; they have no responsibility to any nation state.

Below them is an elite who also gain from capital, some from what Thomas Piketty calls patrimonial capitalism. Below them is a salariat, with employment security, pensions, paid holidays, and other non-wage perks. They are what American scholars in the 1960s and 1970s expected to become the norm. But although a salariat will persist, it is shrinking.

Alongside it is what I call proficians, project-oriented, self-entrepreneurs, not seeking employment security. Many work frenetically, but suffer from burn-out sooner or later. They too are uninterested in defending wages. They obtain their money elsewhere.

Then comes the old proletariat, for which welfare states as well as labor relations and regulations were constructed. The proletariat was oriented to a lifetime of stable full-time labor, in which entitlements, ‘labor rights,’ were built up. But it is dwindling, along with its capacity, and even desire, to defend welfare institutions. Its achievements should not be romanticized. The proletariat favored and benefited from a sexist, often racist hierarchical laborism. Its labor unions epitomised that. There have been few more reactionary figures in American history, for example, than the old leaders of the AFL-CIO.

It is below the proletariat where the precariat is growing. It is not an under-class. That is the lumpen-precariat, victims eking out an existence in the streets, sad souls going to an early death. The precariat, by contrast, is regarded by global capital as pivotal, and the neo-liberal state is shaping it. Recent estimates suggest that the precariat makes up about 40% of the adult population in Japan, Korea, Greece, Spain, Italy, Australia, and Sweden, still seen as the nirvana of social democracy. The biggest precariat is in China.

Defining the Precariat

The precariat should be defined in three dimensions. First, it has distinctive relations of production. Those in it have unstable labor, in ‘flexible’ contracts, working as temps, casuals, ‘freelance,’ part-time, or intermittently for employment agencies. The most rapidly growing form of unstable labor is “crowd work.” Many commentators wrongly presume insecure labor is all that defines the precariat, and then dismiss it as nothing new.

There was always unstable labor. But today it is becoming the norm. Just as historians analyzed the process of proletarianisation as disciplining workers to the norms of stable labor, internalizing that as a duty, a compact with capital, so the precariat is being habituated to unstable labor.

Crucially, the precariat has no secure occupational identity, no narrative to give to their lives. And they have to do a lot of work that does not count and is not paid. They are exploited off the workplace as well as on it, outside working hours as well as in them. This is also the first working class in history expected to have more education than their jobs require.

Second, the precariat has distinctive relations of distribution. It relies on money wages, without pensions, paid holidays, retrenchment benefits or medical coverage. It has been losing those benefits, which is why conventional statistics understate growing inequality.

The precariat also lacks rights-based state benefits. That was heralded in Bill Clinton’s 1996 declaration that he was ending “welfare as we know it.” The punitive Wisconsin workfare model has since gone global. Meanwhile, with wages volatile and falling, the precariat lives on the edge of unsustainable debt. Debt has become a systematic mechanism of exploitation, as people struggle to maintain yesterday’s standard of living.

Third, the precariat has distinctive relations to the state. Those in it are losing rights granted to citizens, becoming denizens without civil, cultural, political, social, and economic rights. Increasingly, they are supplicants, pleading for benefits or services, relying on discretionary decisions of bureaucrats making moralistic judgments on whether their behavior or attitude is deserving.

These three dimensions produce a consciousness of relative deprivation, a combination of anxiety, anomie (despair of escape), alienation (having to do what they do not wish to do while being unable to do what they are capable of doing), and anger.

Varieties of Precariat

At present, the precariat consists of three factions, which is why it is a class-in-the-making, not yet a class-for-itself. The first faction consists of those falling into the precariat from working-class communities. They lack schooling and feel deprived by reference to a lost past. Their predecessors had employment security, pensions and so on. They want that past. Many listen to populists and neo-fascists attributing their insecurity to migrants and minorities. Across Europe and elsewhere, many are voting for nationalistic, xenophobic, and racist agendas.

The second faction consists of migrants and minorities, who feel denied a home, a viable present. Mostly, they keep their heads down, concentrating on survival. But when policies threaten even that, they rebel in days of rage (as in Stockholm in 2013) or join some fundamentalist cause. They are the ultimate denizens, denied rights everywhere.

The third group consists of the educated, mostly young. They suffer relative deprivation by being denied a future, a life of dignity and fulfilment. But they do not listen to neo-fascists; they look to recover a future, aspiring to create a good society based on equality, freedom, and ecological sustainability.

The Emerging Struggles

Fortunately, partly due to the mass protests in and since 2011, more people have come to recognize that they belong to the precariat, which is an essential starting point for a counter-movement. Among the third group, a feeling is growing that they are not just victims but can fight back. This part of the precariat wants to struggle for a transformative agenda designed to abolish itself through overcoming the conditions that define it.

However, the precariat is the new dangerous class because all in it reject mainstream political establishments. Many have not been voting. This does not mean they are politically apathetic, merely that mainstream parties and politicians have not understood their needs or aspirations.

The protests since 2011 have been mostly the actions of what historians call primitive rebels, symbolizing a time when the emerging class is more united around what it is against than around what it wants instead. But the protests are helping the precariat move closer to being a class-for-itself. It is ready to move to a struggle for Representation and Redistribution.

Unlike the old socialist project, the struggle will be for a redistribution of resources needed for personal development in an ecologically sustainable society: security, control over time, quality space (including the commons), liberating education, financial knowledge, and capital. All are more unequally distributed than income. The precariat has no security, no control over time, is crowded into impoverishing space and is losing the commons (cause of the Geci Park occupation), is subject to commodifying schooling, lacks financial knowledge, and is denied access to capital.

A counter-movement is taking shape. The precariat is re-engaging in democratic politics. After the neo-liberal dystopia, the Future is back on the agenda. The precariat must be the vanguard of a new progressive era.

Guy Standing

Guy Standing is a Professor of Economics, SOAS, University of London. He will present his new book, A Precariat Charter, at CUNY (November 4), the New School (November 5), and Cornell (November 7).

Summer Reading from Working-Class Studies

A cultural anthropologist from the “Southeast Side” of Chicago whose family is still living the half-life of deindustrialization three decades after the mills shut down.  A community organizer, journalist, teacher, actor, and musician who also writes poetry in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  A day laborer in Oakland and Baltimore who while waiting for work was taking field notes as a sociologist.  And a daughter of the Arky part of Arkansas reporting on poverty in the Ozarks.

These are the four winners of the Working-Class Studies Association’s awards for the best work of 2013.  Together they ably represent our diverse field both in subject matter and method, as they focus on different parts of working-class life while insisting on combining direct observation and experience with book learning and the wider contexts it can bring to immediate experience.

Christine Walley’s Exit Zero: Family and Class in Postindustrial Chicago won the Association’s C.L.R. James Award for Published Book for Academic or General Audiences.   Now an associate professor of anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Walley was 14 years old when the steel mill where her father worked was the first of a series of mills and related factories that shut down in Southeast Chicago.    Employing ethnographic and other anthropological methods, she recounts her family’s and neighborhood’s history across a century of industrialization and deindustrialization, revealing stories that counter and undermine what she calls “the hegemonic narrative” of the immigrant and working-class experience in America.

Judges praised Exit Zero for “its combination of rigorous critical enquiry and vivid personal reflection.”  One judge said: “We have many books on deindustrialization, but this one stands out for the effective way it uses family memoir to demonstrate what was lost.”  Another judge, more elaborately, explained: “Methodologically, this is a great example of someone working within a particular academic discipline . . . but recognizing that . . . disciplinary expectations for research are too limiting to honestly describe a class-inflected situation” – and went on to praise Walley for the way she dealt with “the tension between the expectations for a certain kind of articulation in academia, and the directness, or even bluntness, of working-class vernacular.”

Walley and her husband, Chris Boebel, have nearly completed a documentary film, also titled Exit Zero, which covers some of the same stories in a different medium.  It will be released sometime in the coming year.  For other activities around the book and the movie, see The Exit Zero Project web site.

Hakim Bellamy is the first-ever poet-laureate of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and his first book of poems, Swear, won the WCSA Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing.  Bellamy is well-known in Albuquerque as a community organizer and journalist and is now a teacher, musician, and actor as well as a poet.  Swear was published by Working-Class Studies pioneer John Crawford’s West End Press.

Many of the poems in Swear are fiercely political, as Bellamy comments on current events, taking special inspiration from Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy movement.   But his politics are wide-ranging, including a vivid protest against public school budget cuts that eliminate the arts:

you excommunicate us from your classrooms

because we are not your trinity

of science, math and history

we are the intersection

crucified on your standardized “X”

. . . . .

you make lamb out of your flock

sentence them to seven deadly periods

and a hot lunch

 In the section “Letter to Hip Hop,” which contains a third of the poems, Bellamy celebrates the presence of poetry in public space:

so the poet left the sanctuary

                  back to the curbside pulpit

                  where pain

                  and worship

                  both have to be louder than the traffic


WCSA judges praised “the strong and uncompromising voice of this poet” and “poems that directly confront the social conditions and spit out rebellion.”  One judge simply said: “Bellamy’s depiction of the class divide is a punch in the gut.”

The WCSA John Russo & Sherry Linkon Award for Published Article or Essay for Academic or General Audiences went to Gretchen Purser for her article in Labour, Capital and Society, an interdisciplinary journal, published in English and French, that “provide[s] an international mix of perspectives on labour struggles.”   The article, “The Labour of Liminality,” details the practices of day-labor corporations in “a well-entrenched, multibillion-dollar industry” that makes its money by making work ever more precarious for “a predominantly homeless, and formerly incarcerated, African-American workforce in the inner cities of Oakland and Baltimore.”  As part of her research, Purser worked as a day laborer in both cities. She draws vivid portraits of and testimony from day laborers as they wait, sometimes fruitlessly, to be transported to a few hours of poorly paid work.   Purser is now an assistant professor of sociology at Syracuse University.

Monica Potts’s cover article in The American Prospect, “What’s Killing Poor White Women?” won the WCSA Studs Terkel Award for Media and Journalism.  The article builds on a study that found that while most Americans are living longer, the life expectancy of white women who have not completed high school has declined by five years, from 78 years to 73.  The researchers do not know why this has occurred over the last two decades, so Potts went to northern Arkansas, where she grew up, to talk with the numerous white women without high school diplomas there.   One of the judges said of Potts’s article, “The story of Crystal Wilson is gorgeously told and I like the way the writer weaves together the narrative with study findings.”  Others praised it as “very moving,” “powerful, sensitive, and forthright” and for showing “the ways in which poverty can impact all aspects of life.”  You can see more of Potts’s work at The American Prospect.

The high quality and variety of the numerous entries for this year’s awards testify to the growing importance of Working-Class Studies as a field.  As our award-winners do, most of our entries challenge “hegemonic narratives” in a society that often denies the existence of social class while routinely overlooking, stereotyping, and/or reductively simplifying working-class life and experience.  We have a long way to go to right the balance, but these books and articles provide road signs on the various paths forward.

Jack Metzgar

WCSA Past President





Highway or River?

Is life more like driving on a highway or rafting down a river?  Do we choose a destination and then try to find a way to get there?  Or do we simply react to the varieties of experience presented to us, from dangerous rapids to calm stretches with time to look around, without knowing where the river is taking us?

I have presented this as a forced-answer either/or question to students to see if those from middle-class origins are more likely to choose the highway analogy and those from the working class, the river.  By and large they do, though nowhere near uniformly and not without a lot of ambiguity about how to define their class origins.

The discussions this initiates are much richer than I can convey here, but in general the highway analogy emphasizes that as individuals we choose our own destinations, subject to change over the life course, and it’s up to us to find our way, to set our goals and achieve them.  Conversely, the river analogy de-emphasizes goal-setting and emphasizes the need for alertness and responsiveness to what is immediately before us.  At least the way I present it, the highway analogy overvalues official knowledge while the river analogy overvalues direct experience.  The highway requires lengthy periods of preparation and planning – before getting on a highway or at chosen stops along the way.  But if life is a river, you’re already in it (and can’t get out), and you need to learn as you go – both from others in your particular raft and from experience.  Others (parents, teachers, and mentors) help you prepare for the highway, but then students envision driving alone.  Rafting down a river, on the other hand, conjures a group where individuals need an easy responsiveness not only to the river but to others in the raft.

While I’m pretty sure life is much more like a river, to me both analogies make sense and are fruitful ways of trying to picture basic assumptions people make about how to live as they live their lives – and these assumptions tend to correlate with class background and/or current class position.  Those from the college-educated and relatively affluent middle class tend to choose the highway analogy because they are inclined to believe that they are – or should be – masters of their own destiny.  Those from working-class and poverty-class backgrounds would like to be masters of their own destiny too, but they’re skeptical that such mastery is realistically available to most people, and meanwhile they had better pay attention to what is immediately before them, including relationships with others they count on and who are counting on them.

Whatever you think of these life analogies, they are a way to point to different assumptions, expectations, and predispositions that seed different ways of acting and being in the world – different cultures that are likely to misunderstand each other if they are unaware that others have different expectations and assumptions.   Highway people may tend to see river folk as passive, strictly reactive, and (famously) incapable of delaying gratification – and given the relatively insignificant role they give to the force of circumstance, they also tend to be highly judgmental.   River people, in turn, while often willing to defer to highway-drivers, are inclined to exaggerate how distant, humorless, unresponsive, and “cold” they are.   They also regularly worry that highway-drivers are “out of touch,” “lack common sense,” and are dangerously over-confident or “arrogant.”

Different cultures are bound to misunderstand each other, but the misunderstandings can be fewer and of less consequence when people are aware of the differences.  When Englishmen visit Italy, in a much-used example, they expect rather dramatic differences in ways of doing and being, and thus are more likely to learn from and enjoy the exposure – or at least to suspend judgment.   Awareness of cultural difference allows one to recognize the strengths and advantages of other cultures and the weaknesses and disadvantages of your own.

These are the basic premises of Betsy Leondar-Wright’s new book Missing Class: Strengthening Social Movement Groups by Seeing Class Cultures.  Leondar-Wright surveyed and interviewed participants in 25 different social-justice groups and directly observed the groups’ meetings and actions, carefully correlating “class trajectories” with the roles people played in their groups and with their different approaches to solving various common problems.  (“Class trajectories” combine both class background and current class position with a person’s orientation toward the future – e.g., intentional and unintentional upward and downward mobility.)  She purposely chose groups with diverse memberships and found that small-group interactions revealed a certain deftness with recognizing and dealing with racial, gender, and movement-tradition differences, but were amazingly unaware of class cultural differences.  Her argument is that “missing class” both creates unnecessary problems and misses vital opportunities for drawing on the full array of class-cultural strengths within these groups.

A rare combination of empirical rigor and insightful storytelling, Missing Class is chock full of situations and problems social justice activists will recognize, often with new insight into the crazy multicultural mix of race, gender, class, and movement tradition in the variety of groups Leondar-Wright examines.   As I read, it occurred to me on multiple occasions that social justice groups, including bigger ones like some unions, provide relatively rare opportunities where different classes experience one another within contexts where awareness of  racial and gender cultural differences is well above the norm for most American social settings.  That is, there is a base of multicultural experience that should make it easier for us to see and benefit from our class culture differences.  This may in fact be a kind of competitive advantage on the Left, especially as the younger generation of organizers and activists are so much less sectarian and self-righteous than my generation was.

Leondar-Wright’s class categories are more nuanced (and, therefore, closer to the messiness of social realities) than my simple middle-class/working-class binary.   But besides being a handbook for “strengthening social movement groups,” Missing Class is an effective assault on the cultural hegemony of the professional middle class in America – and specifically on that wing of American sociology rooted in the 1980s classic Habits of the Heart, which so firmly asserted that there is no “genuinely working-class culture” and that “[e]veryone in the United States thinks largely in middle-class categories.”

I have no problem with the highway-drivers being our preferred national culture, and surely the working class could benefit from some broader goal-setting and a more expansive sense of possibility and confidence in the future.   But unchecked, unnourished by other more realistic and less confident cultures, I fear the highway-drivers are increasingly out of touch and dangerously arrogant.  From “school reform” to foreign policy, they have a tendency to make things worse by being blind to, or at least grossly underestimating, the force of circumstance.   They need to learn from rafters who have more daily (actually much too much) experience of the force of circumstance.  Together we might simultaneously better negotiate and reduce that force.

On the evidence of Missing Class, such grand cross-class coalitions may be emerging within those tributaries, both here and abroad, that are becoming increasingly strong and insistent that justice must be social.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies