Engaging the Unreachables

Those of us from white working-class families with people we know and love who voted for Trump have a special heartache over this year’s election.  Why do so many good people have such deplorable politics?  I mostly took a pass this election on arguing with family members, because it was convenient to avoid the emotion and hurt feelings that these arguments often generate, even though I know those hurts eventually pass into our stronger lifetime relationships without leaving significant scars.  I also didn’t work this time to help turn out the vote.  Why did I do that and what have I learned from it that might be useful to others going forward?

First, it is self-satisfying in the aftermath to blame Hillary Clinton and her kind of Democrats.  Pushed by us Berniecrats, she actually had a pretty good progressive economic program to run on. It wasn’t big enough to make the kind of transformational political and economic change we need (or to inspire people with a sense of possibility), but it was moving in all the right directions.  What I blame her for is the strategic decision to focus her campaign on Trump’s character vs. her character, his temperament and style vs. hers, rather than on their very different policy positions – especially class issues like the minimum wage and their tax policies, even the wonky class differences between a tax credit and a tax deduction for child care expenses — anything that would have shifted the political “debate” to substance rather than style.  Her ambiguous (and untrustworthy) position on trade and her lack of a larger economic vision or narrative had an impact as well, but I don’t blame her for that in the same way that I don’t blame frogs for being amphibious.  She is who she is, and she is representative of many professional middle-class Democrats whose hearts are in the right place, by my lights.

But, like those Democrats, Clinton’s presumption that “people” vote on character not policy condescendingly underestimates the political and economic intelligence of most voters, and especially “low-information voters.” Instead of “I’m a really good person and you can trust me,” what low-information voters need is well-articulated explanations for policy choices – not just facts or information, but arguments and rationales.

Complicated economic explanations can be challenging for a low-information, “poorly educated” voter to follow in the first instance, but not so much when you repeat and elaborate, as can happen in national political campaigns.  I know from three decades of teaching working-class adults that though you’re not going to convince many of them, you can complicate their thinking (which is the goal in my line of work), and, more relevant to politicians, you can win their respect.  That is, you’ll get some points for character for making the effort to explain and convince.  Engagement, real engagement, in arguing for your view as if convincing people mattered has political benefits beyond getting them to vote for you.  It also puts you in a better position to govern if you are elected, and it advances your political agenda for next time even if you’re not.

Though I knew better, I hoped that Clinton’s running on “Trump is an asshole” would be effective because he was so good at illustrating it, but it also undermined the perception of her character, getting her into a mud fight with a mud wrestler.  The polls, which as a data-driven middle-class professional I put altogether too much faith in, kept reinforcing my complacency.  So, like many of my friends, I also blame Nate Silver!  Clinton couldn’t motivate me, and Silver unintentionally led me to think that was okay this time around.  So, I got my excuses, but it’s on me that I didn’t put in the work.

The other mistake I made is that I overestimated the good sense of that part of the white working class I think I know, the so-called Blue Wall Rust Belt states from Pennsylvania to Iowa.  And I underestimated the necessity and importance of contesting for that good sense.

I didn’t underestimate the long-term, grinding pain of deindustrialization in those states – the social and economic dislocation of increasingly unsteady work at lower and lower wages.  Nor did I miss what Sarah Jaffe calls Clinton Dems’ “colossal misreading of a moment when rage at the establishment (of both parties) was simmering everywhere.”  I even expected the Blue Wall states would not match the relatively high levels of support white workers had given Obama in 2008 and 2012 (with actual majorities in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa in 2008).   But I did not expect the precipitous drops in both voter participation (except in Pennsylvania) and percentage support for Clinton vs. Obama. Clinton garnered from 10 to 21 points less support in these states than Obama had won in 2008.

My gripe with much of the punditry is that they so routinely mistake one part of the white working class for the whole, thereby stereotyping a class of people with whom they have little direct contact or knowledge.  I insist on the value of using a union organizer’s approach when discussing the politics of working-class whites.  Following Andrew Levison’s three-part breakdown, based on opinion research, one part are unreachable conservatives who can never be won over, but you must work to “neutralize” them in order to reduce their influence on others.  Calling them boilerplate names rather than engaging their arguments doesn’t accomplish that, however, and it may actually increase their influence.  Another part consists of solid supporters, and you need to enlist their activity and leadership in persuading “the persuadables,” which is the third part that Levison calls “on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand thinkers.”

By sitting out the 2016 election within my own family, for example, I did not do the work of neutralizing the unreachables, which is who I usually argue with.  It seemed like a reasonable choice; why stir up old feuds if they are unreachable? But by not engaging them as I have in the past, I gave up what influence I might still have among the persuadables who listen in, “putting in their two cents” from time to time, often simply by asking a challenging question.  What’s more, I didn’t help the solid supporters amplify their voices, which they often do by distancing themselves from “the professor” even as they agree with me. In one instance a Hillary supporter mentioned after the election that she had kept largely silent because she didn’t think two of her daughters “would actually vote for that asshole.”  I made the same mistake.

I’m still puzzling over why such large majorities of non-college-educated whites voted for Trump.  But it looks like part of what happened in the Blue Wall States is that hundreds of thousands of white working-class Obama voters from 2008 just didn’t show up in 2016, thereby increasing the relative weight of the unreachables.  Sort of like me, they may have lacked enthusiasm for a flawed candidate executing an even more flawed campaign message.  Or, unlike me, they may have come to the actually very reasonable but terribly misguided conclusion that it really does not matter.

Jack Metzgar
Chicago Working-Class Studies

 

Posted in Contributors, Issues, Jack Metzgar, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Trumped Up Charges Against Evangelicals

Oops, they did it again! Those evangelicals ushered in yet another Republican president!  Britney Spears’s insight that some things just can’t be helped seems to apply to evangelicals and the way they vote. ABC News exit polls show that white evangelical Christians comprised 27% of all voters, and 81% of them voted for Donald Trump, accounting for 46% of his total support.  Hillary Clinton stands accused of ignoring evangelical voters; that only 9% of them supported her appears to confirm that charge.

But the devil’s home is in the details – and it is worth paying a visit now and then. Rather than blaming evangelicals for enabling a Trump presidency, we should recognize that evangelicals are not a monolithic bloc. The political transformation that many hope for will not occur unless we engage evangelicals in all their complexity. Before the election, the prospect of a Trump presidency for many evangelicals decisively shredded any remaining illusions that unity and common cause was possible in the evangelical fold. On October 6, Change.org published “A Declaration by American Evangelicals Concerning Donald Trump” by Evangelical Leaders, which rightly argued that a “significant mistake in American politics is the media’s continued identification of ‘evangelical’ with mostly white, politically conservative, older men. We are not those evangelicals. …We are Americans of African and European descent, Latino/a, Asian American, and Native American. We are women and men, as well as younger and older evangelical Christians. We come from a wide range of denominations, churches, and political orientations.” The declaration also emphasized a fundamental evangelical tenet that “our hope and allegiance rests in the person of Jesus Christ, Savior of the world, and Lord of our lives. That is why no politician, party, movement, or nation can ever command our ultimate loyalty.” In short, evangelicals can be captivated by politics but should not be captured by politics or politicians. The declaration from Evangelical Leaders demonstrates that American evangelicals are diverse and have differences in political perspective and emphasis. A monolithic view of evangelicals also ignores evangelicals of color, who, according to Kate Shellnutt of Christianity Today, are not differentiated in most national polls but represent 2 in 5 evangelicals overall.

The key theological issue for evangelicals is that if Christ was also truly human, as orthodox Christianity affirms, then evangelical Christians cannot abandon concern for humans and the planet without also abandoning their faith altogether. “We believe that the centrality of Christ, the importance of both conversion and discipleship, the authority of the Scriptures, and the ‘good news’ of the gospel, especially for the poor and vulnerable, should prevail over ideological politics, and that we must respond when evangelicalism becomes dangerously identified with one particular candidate whose statements, practice, personal morality, and ideology risk damaging our witness to the gospel before the watching world.” This election has forced a divided evangelical camp to reckon with the perennial question of how God works in the world. In this post-election context, how can Trump be an agent of God’s providential care for the world?

The trouble is this – conventional reporting about evangelicals always points to what evangelicals will do without asking what an evangelical is. Theology matters here. If evangelicals are not only defined by the church they belong to or by simple self-identification (as exit polls would have us accept), then the range for who can be an evangelical is considerably widened. And the potential for practicing multiple forms of political engagement increases. If African-Americans , Latino/as, Asian-Americans and Native Americans are eliminated from polling about evangelicals and presidential politics, you see what you are looking for – evangelicals, lemming-like, have followed Trump to the end of politics as we know it. Left out of the discussion, despite their relevance to the most pressing questions about race and class, evangelicals of color retain a formidable and potentially formative presence in the new politics that must emerge to avoid simply repeating the past.

In the coming weeks and months, amid various attempts to mitigate the effects of the Trump victory, fingers will point at evangelicals and strategies will emerge to counter their influence. But there should be close scrutiny of any attempt to shift blame to evangelicals for a Trump presidency. Evangelicals will not be silenced and they cannot be wished away. To rephrase Jesus slightly – the evangelicals you will always have with you. What we do not know is how and what kind of evangelicals will be among us. The joint study from the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and LifeWay Research concludes evangelicals are to be defined by what they believe. This is very significant. Consider the four major beliefs: the Bible as highest authority, the importance of personally encouraging non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as savior, the death of Christ on the cross to remove sin’s penalty, and finally, trust in Christ as the way to receive God’s gift of salvation. However one views these foundation stones of evangelical orthodoxy, like it or not, there is no iron chain that binds these doctrines to a particular political party, platform or program for action. The same Bible being accorded the same highest authority has been used to support or to abolish slavery, to criticize or uphold capital accumulation, to slash through or properly steward the environment. Evangelical belief in Jesus Christ as Savior has also been the basis for a gospel call for a regeneration and renewal of the social order. For evangelicals, the penalty of sin is not only about wayward individuals but also bound up in the very fabric of society. Advocacy of structural change to meet the challenge of sin at the societal level is not a strange idea for many evangelicals. Salvation is not only about eternity in a sweet by and by but also based in a redemptive process that Christians may faithfully engage in to transform the present order. Liberal Protestants usually get the credit for developing and spreading the social gospel, but the major social gospel proponents in years past saw themselves as evangelicals.

The startling events of the past week require the perspective that a wide sweep of history offers. As for any list of deplorables, one item would have to be any wholesale dismissal that evangelicals have been and will continue to be agents of societal transformation. Evangelicals have a universal calling based on a deep consciousness of and humility in being created in God’s image, diverse in class, race, gender and, increasingly, sexual orientation. This includes caring for and tending the planet as they share redemptive work on a planet beset with the effects of sin, including climate change. Of course, it is hard to reconcile these possibilities with exit polls that suggest American evangelicalism is the religious underpinning for Trumpism. The question is not whether exit poll evangelicals will wake up but whether they are truly evangelical, trading faithfulness to God for blind allegiance to a political party and a candidate.

As a construction worker in first century Palestine, Jesus was a member of the working class. His declaration that workers deserve their wages (Luke 10:7) and his overall emphasis on the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40) made clear whose side he was on. His point that the last will be first and first will be last is a politics of revolutionary inclusion. The Roman imperium in the first century and the American imperium in the twenty first century have never been allies of the working class. If Jesus were to return and take up his tools a second time, many evangelicals would readily organize with him in a struggle for universal workers’ justice – or could be persuaded to on the basis of the best traditions in evangelicalism. The idea of a new heaven and a new earth has always sat just behind the notion of a new world arising from the ashes of the old.

Ken Estey

Ken Estey is an associate professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College and the author of A New Protestant Labor Ethic at Work. His research centers on the intersection of politics and religion with a particular focus on labor and Christianity.

Posted in Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Memo to the Next President: Don’t Forget the Working Class

At the end of most US presidential elections, most Americans are ready to see the last of campaign ads, social media commentaries and tension-fraught news coverage. That’s even more true this year. But more than in most recent elections, we shouldn’t expect the frustrations and divisions that have surfaced over the past 18 months to disappear after the ballots have been counted. Tensions over class and race, especially, may die down, but they aren’t going away. If a new president will take them on, something good might yet emerge from this ugly election.

Although it’s true that working-class voters are declining in number, they have drawn increasing attention over the past several elections, in part because, as Ruy Teixeira and his colleagues at The Democratic Strategist have been arguing for a while, they remain a crucial demographic. And this year, the white working class has not only been recognized as a key voting bloc, it has been an active player, demanding that the country and its leaders recognize the economy does not work for many Americans.

Amid far too many reports that have pinned Donald Trump’s success on the white working class, this year’s election coverage also has drawn attention to real problems, many of them rooted in class and racial inequalities. If the next president wants to succeed she (or he) must address what design experts call “wicked problems” — big, complex issues that resist simple explanations or one-dimensional solutions. It won’t be easy.

The election has created the conditions for addressing the first of those: class resentment. I don’t mean the resentment poor and working-class people feel toward the wealthy. I mean the resentment they feel toward a government that doesn’t seem to care about them or have the will to address economic inequality. I’m also talking about resentment toward a public discourse that denigrates and blames working-class people for not being more like the middle class. WNYC’s On the Media provided a terrific overview of that discourse in a series of reports about common and problematic assumptions that shape reporting on poverty. As host Brooke Gladstone explained, reliance on these assumptions generates media that reinforces the idea that people are poor because they don’t work hard or because they make bad choices. No matter how much we might deplore some of the behavior and attitudes that have surfaced in the election, we can’t address the class-based cultural divide by dismissing poor and working-class people as “deplorables” who lack the critical thinking skills that college education provides.

Good leadership could address class resentment not only with better policies — more on that below — but also by taking it seriously. While claims that Trump’s support comes primarily from the white working class are problematic, both he and Bernie Sanders won votes this year because they addressed working-class people’s sense of being left behind by the economy and put down by the media. Both also recognized a simple truth about American culture: Class is a central and increasingly important divide. A good president will acknowledge that, but also will lead the way in fostering deeper and more critical conversations about the economic, social and cultural roots of those divisions.

Of course, the cultural divide reflects a very real and serious economic gap, and a good leader must be willing to talk about its sources and consequences — including the way contemporary global capitalism, neoliberal ideology and technology drive economic changes that deepen inequality. We need to create more jobs through infrastructure projects among other strategies. But we also need policies that address not only the quantity of jobs but also their quality — what they pay, how they are structured and how workers are protected from exploitation as well as physical and psychological injuries. Raising the minimum wage is just a start. American economic leaders need to look critically at the effects of the “gig economy” and rising precarity, a term some scholars have coined to describe the uncertainty facing many workers who can’t count on a regular paycheck. Instead of pushing for everyone to go to college, we need to focus on ensuring that the thousands of working-class jobs that our economy will continue to produce are good jobs. This doesn’t necessarily mean bringing back manufacturing. It probably does mean bringing back the labor movement, with a broader and more inclusive social unionism.

Inequality doesn’t stem only from employment, however. As Jack Metzgar has argued, we need tax policies that focus less on the persistent fantasy of trickle-down economics and instead put cash into the pockets of the working class, who will spend it. We could expand the earned income tax credit and increase credits to help families pay for child care, housing or college. We also need to take another look at health care. The Affordable Care Act was a step in the right direction, with in its emphasis on providing insurance to those who hadn’t had it previously, but it still relies on the private insurance industry. It’s time to develop a single-payer system that puts first the needs of ordinary people, not those of a profit-based industry.

Perhaps the most troubling problem that has surfaced in this year’s election is racism. While some have challenged stories that present racism as a white working-class problem, we also know that racism and racial divisions are real problems for working-class people. Racism is a class issue, in multiple ways. First, racial division undermines the class solidarity that could generate social change movements. It also distracts people from the real source of their problems — not other poor and working-class people, but the economic and political system that, as Guy Standing has suggested, is rigged against workers and what, in today’s economy, he has named the “precariat.”

At the same time, racism presents a threat to working-class people. While the profiling and anxieties that underlie police violence toward black people sometimes target middle-class (and upper-middle-class) African-Americans, working-class black men are probably at greater risk. Here, too, we need policies that more forcefully address racial injustice and divisions, to ensure that citizens are protected by the police rather than needing protection from them. But we also need policies that facilitate more racial interaction. Among the most interesting insights on this year’s election was Jonathan Rothwell’s analysis of Gallup poll data, which revealed that Trump’s strongest support came from white people living in highly segregated areas. Racism is a structural issue, not just a matter of morality or attitudes, and we need to address it with policies that challenge housing and education segregation and inequities.

None of this is easy, and these “solutions” are as limited as they are idealistic. I’m sure there are better ideas out there. Our next president needs to find them. She (or he) must pay attention — not only to the anger and frustration of working-class people but also to the complex nature of the problems that generate those feelings.

In 2008, Barack Obama’s campaign tried to keep his supporters’ momentum going by creating Organizing for America, which became Organizing for Action, a network of community organizing groups that largely faded from the national picture. This year, we need more.

Whatever the result of Tuesday’s election, neither the media nor the new president should stop talking about and listening to the working class. It’s time to move from campaign mode to action, from courting working-class voters to addressing the conditions of their lives.

Sherry Linkon

Note: This essay was first published by Moyers & Company.

Posted in Contributors, Issues, Sherry Linkon, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

It Is Rigged…and We Must Revolt

One of the most popular memes in Donald J. Trump’s campaign is his claim that the system — and more recently the election itself — is rigged.  After Hillary Clinton secured the Democratic nomination, Donald Trump made the following appeal to Bernie Sanders supporters. “It’s not just the political system that’s rigged. It’s the whole economy. It’s rigged by big donors who want to keep down wages. It’s rigged by big businesses who want to leave our country, fire our workers, and sell their products back into the U.S. with absolutely no consequences for them…. It’s rigged against you, the American people.”

While journalists and pundits discuss how economic restructuring and technology have left many of Trump’s supporters feeling left behind by the American economy, his statement that the system is rigged captures what many from in and around the precariat have long known intuitively. They are being screwed.  Rentier capitalism, in which governments and elites have created mechanisms that generate rental income flowing to the plutocracy while generating chronic economic insecurity for the rapidly growing precariat, and for part of the salariat as well.

This is not a free market economy, but an unfree one. Financial and non-financial assets have risen and accrued disproportionality to the elite. Productivity increases but workers lose out as wages and benefits decline.

Five currents drive this unfree market.  First, governments have constructed elaborate trade regulations investment agreements that protect intellectual property rights and regulate economic activity.  One result has been a soaring number of patents and copyrights, which are often bought by large corporations. Those companies also trademark goods and services, guaranteeing themselves super profits and income for decades to come.

This winner-takes-all market is not driven by market forces but by the regulatory apparatus, including the undemocratic Investor-State Dispute Settlement process by which multinationals can sue governments for any policy change that corporations believe harms their prospective profits. The system is further rigged because those corporations get to appoint the judges, corporate lawyers who adjudicate via confidential proceedings that do not have to draw on precedent. Such regulations give corporations economic power far beyond what any individual holds. Imagine if you could sue government for prospective harm from any policy change!

Second, most countries have engaged in a ‘competitiveness’ game by which they indulge in beggar-my-neighbour fiscal policies that give oligarchs and multinationals incredible subsidies to encourage them to relocate or to stay.  Such practices include selective tax systems as well as the widespread use of tax havens, tax avoidance arrangements, and access to low interest loans. Here again, the vast unearned subsidies go directly to the rich, not to the precariat or most other workers. This mechanism for inequality transfers income from the precariat to the elite and to financial intermediaries.

Third, a less appreciated form of “rigging,” is the steady commercialisation and privatisation of the commons, public spaces, natural resources, and services built up by and for the people over many generations. Often in the name of austerity, much of the commons has been given away, and more is planned, at discount prices to commercial interests. The accelerated depletion of public natural resources is having devastating ecological costs. It is supplying more rental income to the elite, and the loss is adding to the insecurity of the precariat.

Fourth, despite predictions that it would improve working lives, the ongoing technological revolution has generated a new elite, part of it controlling rent-sucking apps and so-called platforms that are shaping the tasker labour force. Uber is now the largest transportation company, but has no cars. Airbnb is the largest hotel chain, but owns no properties. Despite this, they take 20% or more from every transaction within their operations. While they promise people new ways of earning money, they contribute to wage stagnation. Those who own the platforms make millions on the labour and property of others, while those who do the labour have no control over what they own – their bodies, cars, or homes. This is rentier capitalism.

Finally, our democracies have been put up for sale. Plutocrats are allowed to fund politicians and parties, and PR companies make huge amounts from manipulating elections. Many of those who enter politics use it as a revolving door to lobbying, board appointments, and other means of extracting income from the sectors they help to privatise, deregulate, or remake. Sadly, one can document all this with ease.

Yes, the system is rigged — by an evolving form of capitalism that undermines genuine ‘free trade’. Rising inequality is fomenting anger and desperation. A revolt is coming, but its direction is uncertain. Part of the precariat consists of people who have fallen into it from old working-class communities and families. They tend to look back and feel deprived. Some long for imagined “good old days”. This part is easy prey for neo-fascist populists who play on their fears and insecurities. In the U.S. right now, their leading harlequin is Donald Trump.  In France, it is Marine Le Pen. In Britain, they tended to vote for Brexit.

Such types are creeping closer to gaining real power. They will not be stopped by scorn alone. We need a progressive alternative that can appeal to all factions in the precariat, but particularly to the young educated part. Fortunately, a more progressive form of revolt is beginning to bubble up. It will focus on building a new income distribution system suited to the 21st century, one in which the economic gains are captured for the citizenry, not for the oligarchy. While they may seem an unlikely coalition, defenders of free market capitalism, socialists, ecologists and other progressives have a common interest in helping this new system emerge.

Guy Standing

Guy Standing is professorial research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He will be presenting his new book, The Corruption of Capitalism: Why Rentiers Thrive and Work Does Not Pay, at the New School of Social Research in New York on November 1.

Posted in Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

A Future Nobel Literature Prize for a Working-Class Rapper?

Reactions were mixed to the announcement that songwriter Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Some literary aficionados were outraged that a popular musician had won the prize (rather than a novelist or poet), while others were delighted that the literary potential of song writing had finally been acknowledged at such a high level. Some criticisms pointed to Dylan’s position within the popular music canon, pointing out that he is yet another western, white man whose elevation to Nobel Laureate status reinforced white, western patriarchal hegemony.

While I was never a fan of Dylan, not for any particular reason, he has had a huge influence and impact. His music has often been political, and in the 1960s spoke to young people hoping for change and a more equitable and just society. Now that a songwriter has been recognised for his literary talents, has the space opened up for future Nobel Laureates to be drawn from other popular music genres?

The poetic qualities and linguistic dexterity of rap music have been noted by many critics. Rappers play with language in sophisticated ways, and their lyrics draw from a variety of sources in a complex intertextuality. Like Dylan, rappers often include messages in their work, and their songs have operated as anthems for marginalised youth. Many rap lyrics focus on working-class life and speak directly to working-class youth (as well as some of us old people!). The impact of rap has already been huge. Will fans look back in 40 years time and reflect on the influence and impact of rap on their lives? I expect so.

A future Nobel rapper might well come from the working class, and I can think of a number of rap artists who should be considered. While talented rappers come from all parts of the world, I’m singling out UK grime artists for special attention because they have become an important part of British popular music in the last fifteen years, even though they have, for the most part, remained underground. The underground subcultural status of grime artists (despite the Mercury Prize being awarded to grime artist Skepta in 2016) has contributed to a fear of the potential power of the music (something older fans of Dylan might recall from anxieties about rock and roll in the 1960s), compounded by the fact that the majority of UK grime artists are Black or from ethnic minorities. These young artists rapping about racism, police harassment, and inequality in a powerful and direct manner have created a fair amount of moral panic in the UK, with grime venues regularly shut down by police and grime blamed for violence and anti-social behaviour.

While a number of artists merit attention, if I had to choose a few for special mention the list would include Wiley, Dizzee Rascal, Lady Leshurr, and Riz MC. Their lyrics display complex language play often involving combinations of Cockney London, African, Caribbean, and South Asian vernacular (a dialect known in the UK as Multicultural London English). They are experts at rhyme, simile, metaphor, puns, and complicated meter. They use references from British popular culture, literature, and history, and their lyrics are self-reflexive, placing themselves and working-class experiences at the centre of their songs.

Some of the artists provide social and political commentary in their songs. Wiley’s ‘My Mistakes’, for example, tells the story of the empowering effects of creative practice, including how his life was changed by picking up the mic. Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Sirens’ focuses on police harassment of young Black men, while Lady Leshurr’s ‘Queens Speech 4’ celebrates the London multicultural dialect (particularly relevant in the current era of Brexit inspired anti-immigrant sentiment in Britain).

One of my current favourite artists is Riz MC, a London rapper (and actor) of Pakistani descent. Riz MC tackles racism and Islamaphobia from the perspective of working-class ethnic minorities. His skilful rhymes provide insight into life in an immigrant community, the kinds of discrimination immigrants face on a daily basis, and how this impacts what it means to be British. His 2016 track ‘Englistan’ tells a powerful story of the liminal position he occupies. He is English, though some in the UK would not see him that way. The video highlights this sense of living between cultures through the soccer shirt worn by Riz. One half of the shirt sports the English soccer team’s colours and the letters ‘ENGL’, and the other half reads ‘ISTAN’. Set in various working-class communities, the video also draws attention to discrimination and alienation while making the multiculturalism of working-class communities visible. This contradicts some of the rhetoric around working-class people being overly racist, and it demonstrates quite clearly that working-class people in the UK are ethnically diverse (in the mainstream media, working-class is often associated exclusively with white people). ‘Englistan’ also refers to poverty, surviving on welfare, consumerism, and colonialism, and the song brings working-class people of different ethnic backgrounds and faiths together in opposition to the ruling class.

It’s possible that UK grime artists might reject an establishment award such as the Nobel Prize (much like Dylan himself), but I’d like to think that regardless of whether elite prizes are awarded, the stories and music of working-class rap are properly appreciated for their cultural significance and life-changing potential. Grime artists in the UK are working-class scribes, and their work deserves to be acknowledged.

Sarah Attfield

Posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, Sarah Attfield | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

The Extraordinary Ordinary Working Class

When Theresa May stood on the steps of Downing Street earlier this summer, after succeeding David Cameron as Prime Minister, she did something extraordinary: she used the phrase ‘working class’. Not for May the mealy-mouthed ‘working people’, ‘hardworking families’, or some such combination. This was full on, max strength ‘working class’. Last week May went even further and used the phrase ‘working class’ not once but nine times in her Conservative conference speech, the nearest thing we have in the UK to a State of the Union address from our political head of state. To be fair these eighteen words were part of a near 6,000 word speech to the party faithful, but they were not tucked away in esoteric parts of the text. They were peppered through it from the first to last paragraphs, and always prefaced with the word ‘ordinary’. No one could miss these words; they were front and centre of the new PM’s platform.

This is significant in a number of ways, and it creates some interesting problems for politicians of left and right in the future. Most significant is simply that May used a phrase that had almost disappeared from the mainstream political lexicon.  Since the Thatcher decade of the 1980s onward, politicians of all stripes have shied away from using the overt language of class. For the right, the term reminded people of economic and social difference and therefore growing levels of inequality, while the left sought to occupy the fabled middle ground of British politics, which was imagined to be classless. Tony Blair’s former deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, himself from very humble origins, famously claimed that ‘we’re all middle-class now’. During this time the idea of the working class got edged out, not only of political discourse, but increasingly from popular culture, replaced by the rhetoric of the ‘chav’, a kind of semi-feral version of the dangerous and idle working class which political journalist Owen Jones explored so well in his 2010 book, subtitled ‘the demonization of the working class’.

So what is behind this turn back to class? A number of things may be at play here, most of them political. First, May has been very keen to distance herself and her new administration from the elite image that dogged Cameron’s leadership. While he surrounded himself with members of the so-called Notting Hill Set, named after the exclusive part of West London favoured by the rich and powerful, May’s front bench originate from slightly more diverse backgrounds. Openly acknowledging the working class and taking an interest in their issues therefore helps May claim a more egalitarian stance.

Second, this return to class may be a response to the rise and success of UKIP, whose leader and prominent members have been unafraid to use the term working class in order to prise disenchanted traditional Labour voters away from their spiritual home. By using the term herself, May is seeking to attract these same disaffected Labour voters while appealing to UKIP members and supporters, many of whom voted Conservative in the past.

In addition, May’s Conservative Party wants to camp on the centre ground of British politics by effectively side-lining the Labour Party. Since the election of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, the Conservatives and most of the UK mainstream media have sought to portray the Labour Party as on a leftward march to electoral oblivion. Even before the recent problems of Labour, some on the right have long tried to appeal to voters by reinventing the Conservative Party as ‘Red Tories’, or ‘working-class blues’, most recently echoed in ‘A New Workers’ Party’, a piece in the right of centre political magazine The Spectator.

Another aspect to all this might offer a crumb of comfort to those of us interested in working-class issues. For all the political posturing involved,  this class rhetoric does make working-class people, their culture, and the issues that they care about visible again. However cynical May’s use of the phrase — and it’s interesting few of her cabinet colleagues use the term– she uses it while also raising important issues for working-class people, such as education, housing, low pay, insecurity, and work. It will be interesting to see the extent to which her administration’s policies actually tackle these same issues.

At the same time, whether May or her speech writers know it or not, many people still identify with the label working class. In surveys on class identity in 1964 and 2005, those who identified as working-class fell only from 64% to 57%, despite of massive changes in the occupational structure of the UK. Perhaps May recognizes that being working-class still has currency. Many people are proud to identify themselves as working-class.

Perhaps it is only a Conservative leader that could talk so overtly about the working class without risk of being labelled as a class warrior or accused of indulging in the politics of envy. The sincerity of May’s rhetorical move will be tested by the actions of her government but, nonetheless, the use of the term working class is anything but ordinary, and the Labour Party should take note. It might do well to redevelop its own language of class before it loses more of its base.

Tim Strangleman

Posted in Contributors, Issues, Tim Strangleman, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Shakespeare and Working-Class Students: The Value of Irrelevance

In these tough times for higher education, English departments almost routinely begin each year reviewing grim reports of decreasing numbers of majors.  This sparks hand-wringing, soul-searching, and the inevitable conclusion that we must “market ourselves better” to show the “practical” applications of an English major—and to make our offerings more “relevant.” A sub-committee is often formed, and faculty toss around ideas about how better to ‘brand’ English.  These conversations take place all over the country, at all kinds of institutions, but for the public access university, funded according to how many students not only enroll but also complete, these numbers matter.  These universities also serve the majority of first-generation and working-class students. .

Yet, as a former working-class, first-generation college student turned academic, this privileging of practicality, what our administration calls “relevant education” (as in career focused not culturally relevant) has long given me pause.  When my department had that conversation recently, I suggested that instead of going down this road one more time, perhaps we could “brand” the English major as driven by passion rather than practicality.

You can imagine the response: colleagues scoffed at my apparent naiveté (or stupidity) in suggesting that we market ourselves by highlighting our irrelevance.

But I want to make the case that irrelevance — that is, the pursuit of knowledge with no discernable practical application, or even blatantly personal connection — is critical for providing working-class and first-generation college students with the intellectual skills that will ultimately afford them real mobility. Irrelevance has also become less and less available to students like ours. The value of irrelevance become clear in a workshop I recently I co-organized at The Shakespeare Association of America’s annual meeting with Sharon O’Dair, one of the sharpest critics of class, status, and the profession that I know. “Working-Class Shakespeare(s): Shakespeare in Class and Class in Shakespeare” explored the implications of Shakespeare as synecdoche for literary studies and “literate culture” more broadly, why Shakespeare matters for working-class students, and what this means in for pedagogy and critical practice.

Participants, almost all of us academics from working-class backgrounds, contingent faculty, graduate students, or, a combination of these, many working at regional, second-tier, and access institutions, took up a series of questions: Does your institution have a discernable class and/or status ‘marker’ (i.e. selective, access, open admissions, etc.)? Do you teach students whose class differs from yours?  If so, how do you negotiate that difference?  Does such difference affect your learning expectations and outcomes for your students? Your pedagogy?

Amid the varied responses, an interesting thread emerged: an uneasy awareness that, given the institutional pressures of publicly funded institutions to graduate as many students as possible, faculty work expectations at access institutions, and the preparation and work pressures of students, working-class and first generation students often learn a different kind of Shakespeare than their counterparts at elite institutions.

Participants carefully discussed how working-class students oftenattend college in order to get out of the “working class” – economically for sure, but also culturally.  The seminar left me with a new understanding of how many of us at regional, access, and even flagship institutions, may have unintentionally internalized what is, ironically, a classist paradigm—that our students are only here to get jobs, and narrow skills training is the best way to get them.

The seminar discussions further revealed that, for some, educating working-class students means teaching differently from how we might teach the sons of lawyers or stockbrokers. We want to validate the perspectives from which many of us  come and accommodate the pressures our students face. This is well and good, and even politically and/or morally right, but it can sometimes also lead us to avoid rigorous methodologies, which in turn could hamstring those we aim to propel forward. Several participants said they felt pressured to teach less theory, for example, or to relax writing assignments or adjust grading criteria, all in the name of helping students complete their degrees and thus improve their economic opportunities.  Of course, working-class students (like most students) do see college as a vehicle for upward mobility, but many also see college as a means of feeding their intellectual curiosity, and this is often more precious to them than to students of privilege.

We aim at practicality and relevance in a well-intentioned effort to bring our working-class students into the fold, but our attention to practicality and ‘where our students are’ may hamper their capacity for real, dynamic social mobility. The real critical and intellectual value of literary study is that it develops curiosity and appreciation for what seems completely irrelevant.

Ironically, it’s these irrelevant and impractical thinking habits that might just provide the “skills” students need to become leaders in an interconnected, increasingly complex, global economy. In a recent piece, Scott L. Newstok says the best advice for students transitioning from an overly tested, standardized, primary education to college is to think more like Shakespeare. Newstok argues that, while the early modern education Shakespeare would have received was constraining by today’s standards, its emphasis on ways of thinking allowed Shakespeare and others to thrive as collaborators, innovators, and critical thinkers. Newstok suggests that “the best way to prepare for an unforeseen future is to learn how to think intensively and imaginatively,” citing, among others, Abraham Flexner’s notion of “the usefulness of useless knowledge.”

I love Newstok’s piece, not only because I’m a Shakespearean but for  the ideals it embraces. Yet, as any English major knows, audience matters. Newstok’s treatise is adapted from an address to students at Rhodes College, a selective liberal arts college, with an annual price tag of $44,942. So while Newstok extols the virtue of liberal education at Rhodes, the state administrators who govern public access institutions in many states, like Ohio, would certainly view his message with skepticism.

Ohio’s public education policy has increasingly entrenched inequality and reproduction of a status quo that, as Eric Alterman explains, treats college as a business, while appearing to “want a docile proletariat who will work for them, without unions or any hope of upward mobility.” Institutionally, the bifurcation of vocational preparation and intellectual enrichment fosters an educational class division, as access publics become stringently focused on the former, while elites and selective colleges foster the latter. This division, coupled with the application of the neoliberal consumer paradigm to the public institution, ultimately damages working-class students, who overwhelmingly filter into these institutions where they become  the victims of class inequity that reproduces stratification and exclusion. As the public system by default reproduces class structures that prepare one group (students at elites and private colleges) to lead, and another to (my students) to follow.

Faculty, too, become victims in this neoliberal model. In the top-down, bottom-line, business model, faculty are disenfranchised from governance and distanced from their intellectual work by a never-ending series of accountability tasks dictated by middle management, who are themselves often responding to demands that they prove the relevance and efficiency of state universities.

Relevance and practicality by definition assume a norm, a status quo, and those of us who were drawn to the academy and to Working-Class Studies because both seemed to have the potential to challenge hegemonic systems of inequality, must always remain watchful that we are not internalizing the imperatives of a ruling class, even as we hope to weaken its grip.

Tim Francisco

Tim Francisco is the Director of the Center for Working-Class Studies and a Professor of English at Youngstown State University.

Posted in Class and Education, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues | Tagged , | Leave a comment