Miseducation and the Working Class

A couple of weeks ago my daughter passed the ‘Kent Test’, the exam ten year olds in my area sit in order to stream them for their secondary education. In our town, the options are stark.  Those who pass, like my daughter, get to attend some of the best state schools in the whole of England.  Those who ‘fail’ and don’t have alternative means go to the local secondary school which has been in what is euphemistically called ‘special measures’ for a number of years now. This school has seen turnover in teachers and the management team and struggles on just about every educational indicator.

In most of England, the 11+ test, as it is universally known, was done away with four decades or more ago.  The test and the grammar/ secondary modern school binary system persist in a few local authorities, almost always Conservative controlled. In Kent, the test allows the top 20 percent access to a very privileged education, and unsurprisingly, those students do well, as they are the most capable at that age. For the remaining 80 percent, however, the experience is qualitatively different. Without a critical mass of academically able students, the secondary modern schools do not perform well in league tables, government reports that measure success in terms of final grades rather than ‘value added’. In turn these schools find it harder to recruit good staff who will stay in post for any length of time, further damaging the perception of the secondary modern’s status. There are some exceptions to the rule, but non-grammar schools are seen as the option for those with no other choice.

Reviving and expanding the grammar school system has long been at the top of the Conservative Party’s wish list in England and was a central plank of the ill-fated election manifesto fought earlier this summer.  For conservatives, the grammar system rewards merit, talent, and hard work and thus demonstrates individual worth and achievement. The system also appeals to the idea of social mobility that emerged during the post war period. The exam, which kids sit in September of their final year of junior school, is supposed to be preparation proof. Ideally all the children taking the test do so on a level playing field.

The reality is completely different. The system is clearly riddled with class privilege, weighted heavily in favour of the middle classes and their off-spring and against working-class kids. Let me explain. My daughter, along with thousands of others in her cohort, have been preparing for the test for almost two years. This preparation involves resources, what sociologists label ‘capital’ – economic, social, cultural, and political. In Kent, an entire industry of after school clubs, private tutors, and crammers has sprung up to service middle-class parents’ desire to give their children an edge. These families have an enormous advantage. They have the money to pay for tutors and extra-curricular activities, and they often have more time to take kids to these events, and they can furnish students with mock exam papers to help kids practice for the test. These resources make the system heavily classed, long before kids enter the room to sit the test.

As a result, most middle-class students sit the test, while many working-class parents decide, for various reasons, that they don’t want to put their children through the ordeal and run the risk of their being labelled as failures. And class privilege does not stop there. If a child doesn’t do well enough to win a place in a grammar school, there is an extensive appeals procedure. Here, again, middle-class parents can flex their capital, and if that route fails, most can afford to send their children to private school, opting out of the state system altogether.

While the grammar system has limited reach in England, it does expose a growing educational divide in the country which reaches from preschool through to further and higher education in the wider UK. The scandal in the education system has been brutally exposed in a brilliantly angry book by recently retired Cambridge University professor Diane Reay. In her book Miseducation: Inequality, Education and the Working Classes, Reay weaves together the results of decades of research and a pile of educational statistics.  She is fantastically well placed to write this book, having been raised in a large working-class family, the daughter of a coal miner.  She was one of the lucky ones to earn a place at her local grammar school in the 1960s, when the system was universal. She went on to college and to teach for two decades in the progressive inner London school system of the 1970s and 80s. After completing a PhD in sociology of education, she eventually became a professor of education at Cambridge, the most elite seat of learning in the UK if not the world.

If Miseducation were just an academic account of class inequality, it would be a great book, useful in so many ways.  But it is more than that. Reay combines a relentless series of data illustrating how class works with the voices of the kids caught up in a system that fails them. In addition, Reay reflects upon her own experience of the system from the inside, as the optimistic bright school girl enduring classed put downs, the undergraduate who felt like a fish out of water, and the Cambridge professor who was regularly told she had ‘made it’.

In my own writing, I trace both what Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb talked about long ago as the ‘hidden injuries of class’ and what I call the ‘hidden rewards of class’. Reay’s book reveals many ‘injuries’ but few if any ‘rewards’. Miseducation is an account of the long cold class war being waged against working-class families, denying generation after generation of kids the chance of decent education while blaming them for the paucity of their aspiration. As my daughter enjoys her final year in junior school, she can look forward to a privileged secondary education even as the remaining 80 percent of her peers, children of 10 and 11, have already been labelled as failures. A miseducation indeed!

Tim Strangleman

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Economic Nationalism and the Half-Life of Deindustrialization

In a 60 Minutes interview in September, Steven Bannon touted his form of economic nationalism and suggested that Democrats like Senator Sherrod Brown and U.S Representative Tim Ryan understood his economic vision, even if they didn’t agree with him. It was fitting that he name-checked Brown and Ryan, as both come from Northeast Ohio, where the history of deindustrialization began 40 years ago this fall. On September 19th, 1977 — known locally as “Black Monday” — Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced that it was shutting down, kicking off a wave of steel mill closings that would displace more than 40,000 area workers basic steel and steel-related industries.

At the time, some explained deindustrialization as part of the “natural economic order.” Borrowing the term from Joseph Schumpeter, economists and business leaders saw the closings as part of an evolutionary process, a form of “creative destruction” that caused temporary hardships but would lead both capital and labor to more productive activities.  While commentators acknowledged that the process was difficult and uncomfortable, they insisted that the ultimate outcome would be economic growth and a higher standard of living.

Eager to validate such promises, local leaders brought in an array of speakers, including Irving Kristol and Michael Novak from the American Enterprise Institute, who gave public lectures at Youngstown State University. Both insisted that the Mahoning Valley would prosper over time as new industries took root and workers retrained for new jobs. It was all part of what Novak called The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism.

But as time passed, the Mahoning Valley continued to decline economically and to lose population. Journalists and scholars stopped asking “when will Youngstown recover?” and started trying to explain what was wrong with this community. Some blamed the region’s decline on political corruption, union contracts that gave workers too much, or the out-of-date skills of the local workforce. By the 1990s, the idealism of creative destruction had been replaced by the politics of resentment, perhaps most clearly represented by Congressman James Traficant, the first modern politician who voiced a version of economic nationalism and has sometimes been compared with Donald Trump.

The politics of resentment were also fueled by a parade of presidential candidates, each promising to address the problems caused by economic restructuring, and each failing to do so. The most infamous of those was Bill Clinton, whose support of NAFTA, the war on drugs, and welfare reform still generates resentment from voters in this area. As Hillary Clinton learned last year, deindustrialized communities have long memories.

In places like Youngstown, many people still remember what life was like when employment was high, jobs paid well, workers were protected by strong unions, and industrial labor provided a source of pride – not only because it produced tangible goods but also because it was recognized as challenging, dangerous, and important. The memory of what it felt like to transform raw ore into steel pipes and to be part of the connected, prosperous community that work generated still haunts the children and grandchildren of those workers. They long for the sense of purpose that industrial labor brought, even as they stock shelves at Walmart, wait tables at Applebee’s, and try to persuade strangers to make donations from a cubicle at the local call center. They resent not only the instability of largely part-time jobs with uncertain schedules and below-the-poverty-line wages but also the politicians and experts who insist that they should either stop whining, go to college (which for most would involve taking on significant debt), or move away from their homes and families to someplace with more and better jobs. Even more, they resent the educated big city elites who view them as exotic or foolish holdouts from a bygone era. That resentment emerged as support for populism in the 2016 election, and for too many it fuels racist and anti-immigrant positions.

In our 2002 book Steeltown USA: Work and Memory in Youngstown, we wrote that Youngstown’s story was America’s story. That seems even more true today, as Americans struggle to adapt to the growing precarity of work and to a changed political landscape. As Youngstown marks the 40th anniversary of its first major mill closing, people here understand that deindustrialization did not end in 1977, or even in 1982, when Youngstown Sheet and Tube closed the last of its local mills. They know that deindustrialization has a half-life. Like toxic waste, its potency decreases slowly, and it continues to cause harm – to individuals, to communities, and, as Americans increasingly recognize, to the nation as a whole.

Yet it is also worth remembering this: the first response to Black Monday in 1977 was not despair or resentment. It was activism. Busloads of local residents went to Washington to demand assistance from the government. Churches, civic groups, banks, and unions worked together to devise a plan for the community to buy and manage the mills. That part of local memory has faded, but the populism it reflected has returned.

Like the economic changes since the late 1970s, the politics of resentment will not disappear any time soon. New technologies and artificial intelligence will likely displace even more Americans, and workers no longer buy old promises about creative destruction or the great potential of a knowledge economy. The memory of an era when working-class jobs were good jobs has not yet faded, but neither has the hope that new policies will bring back good jobs. In the half-life of deindustrialization, Bannon may be right that traditional party affiliations will give way to a political contest between right-wing and left-wing populist movements, each promising – as so many politicians have before – to create real change for working people.

Sherry Linkon and John Russo

A version of this commentary appeared in September on the American Prospect blog.

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The Precariat: Why a Basic Income is Vital

We are in the midst of a global transformation orchestrated by powerful financial interests espousing an ideology of market liberalisation, commodification, and privatisation. The global market system they advocate increases economic and social injustice, including widespread precarity. In the face of this transformation, how can we create new systems of regulation, distribution, and social protection to achieve a more just society?

Central to the transformation has been the owners’ control of physical, financial, and intellectual property from which they overwhelmingly benefit. Unlike the post-war period when shares of income going to capital and labour were roughly stable, in today’s globalised economy, the income distribution system has broken down irretrievably and the share of rentier capital – that is, income from rents, trusts, and subsidies rather than production or trade — has risen sharply.

This economic transformation has enormous implications for a growing class, the precariat. I define this group as a class because it has distinctive relations of production, relations of distribution, and relations to the state. And it is the precariat that will define the counter-movement in the global transformation.

The precariat faces a life of unstable, insecure labour. As we have seen with Uber, Task Rabbit, and other new non-traditional work structures, casualization has been extended by indirect labour relations in the ‘concierge economy’, while online crowd labour in platform capitalism and on-call contracts has spread. Within the next decade, a majority of transactions may be of this type, as labour brokers and apps become more ubiquitous. The old relations of production, built around direct employer-employee relationships, may become the exception.

Many commentators define the precariat simply on the basis of insecure labour, but this misses an important element: the precariat lacks an occupational identity. Further, these forms of precarious work involve increasing amounts of work-for-labour – think of the time an Uber driver puts in to maintaining a car — that is neither recognised statistically nor remunerated. In addition, many do jobs that require less education than they have.

The precariat is also defined by distinctive relations of distribution, in particular exploitation that undermines social income. Precarious workers rely mostly on money wages, which have been falling in real terms while becoming more volatile and unpredictable. They are also losing non-wage benefits, such as paid leave, medical leave, and occupational pensions, which provided labour-based security for old proletariat and, at this point, still do so for salaried workers. Statistics based on money income ignore these losses, and so they understate inequality.

To compound their insecurity, the precariat has lost rights-based state benefits, which increasingly require recipients to meet means tests. This results in a poverty trap, because moving from benefits to a low-wage job often brings only marginal income increases. And if someone loses a job, they don’t begin receiving benefits immediately, creating what I call a precarity trap. The combination means that taking a short-term job brings a small extra income but also raises the prospect of losing income altogether for a while after the job ends.

Yet it is the precariat’s distinctive relations to the state that are most crucial to understanding this growing class. Members of the precariat are losing rights of all kinds – civil, cultural, social, economic, and political. They are reduced to supplicants, without rights, obliged to be obsequious to gain income or benefits and dependent on bureaucrats to make discretionary judgements in their favour. This is humiliating, intensifying feelings of insecurity. These rights are also forms of social income, and their loss represents extra costs of living for the precariat. This, too, adds to inequality in ways that conventional income measures ignore.

The precariat has been hard hit by the collapse of the old income distribution system. It will be even harder hit by the advance of robotization, which will bring more people into the precariat. Robots may not cause mass unemployment, as many in Silicon Valley predict, but they will be disruptive. Wages will decline, and occupational structures will become more fragmented. The salariat will become part of a growing precariat of para-legals, para-medics, fractionals, and the like. The only people who will benefit are a few elites, whose incomes come from rents and investments.

At that point – and it is coming soon – economists and politicians will either have to accept yawning inequality and all the social and political risks that this entails or build a new income distribution system in which wages will play a smaller role. The base of a new system should be a basic income, funded by taxing the rentier income of the elites.

A basic income is a modest amount paid regularly to each individual legal resident (or ‘citizen’). It is a non-withdrawable economic right, without behavioural conditions. This would have several beneficial effects, including acting as an incentive to work in more ecological ways, such as in reproductive or care work rather than in resource-depleting labour, and improving mental and physical health. To afford a basic income system, governments would tax income gained through financial, physical, and intellectual property. Taxes for the majority would not rise, and public services would not be adversely affected. In a basic income system, everybody shares in the collective wealth generated in the economy.

A basic income will be the anchor of the system, but it should also provide supplements for those who have extra costs of living, such as people with disabilities or parents of infants, and to assist those with below-average earning opportunities. The system will still include wages and insurance benefits, as well as income from normal profits from productive activity.

Sooner or later, basic income will be seen as the only sustainable course. That, in turn, will enhance social justice, freedom, and basic social and economic security.

Guy Standing

Guy Standing is a Professorial Research Associate, SOAS, University of London. He is the author of numerous books, most recently Basic Income: A Guide for the Open-Minded and The Corruption of Capitalism: Why Rentiers Thrive and Work Does Not Pay. He will discuss the books at a seminar in Columbia University on October 26, 2017.




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Budgets and Values: How Republican Cuts to College Loan Forgiveness Will Harm the Working-Class

This summer, a Pew Research report attracted significant attention in media, policy, and academic circles because it revealed that for the first time, a majority of conservative Republicans believe college is hurting our country. The report reflects a political climate that is increasingly anti-intellectual and anti-institutional. While it may not be surprising, the poll suggests that college and class are becoming increasingly stratified and polarized in our national conversations and in public policy.

According to the study’s authors, “A majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (58%) now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country, up from 45% last year.” The number of Republicans without a college degree who believe universities help America dropped 20 percentage points in just the last two years. The decline for Republicans with a degree was 11 percent. That’s a point worth repeating: this dramatic decline occurred over a period of only two years – about the life cycle of the presidential primaries and campaign, and it appears among both college educated and non-college educated respondents. It is striking that this trend does not apply to Democrats, 72 % of whom say universities are good for the country.

This study has spawned many debates and analyses over what the findings mean. Is this a reaction to highly publicized free speech struggles on campuses that have become a staple of conservative media? Or is it due to presidential candidates’ escalating anti-intellectualism? Or does it stem from increasing college costs and debt with little certainty of economic return? I’d argue that all of these causes contribute.

A more important question is this: how might this pervasive Republican anti-higher education sentiment shape policy, and what consequences might this have for working-class college students and other vulnerable populations?

The budget proposals floated by the President and the House GOP suggest that Republicans are stoking anti-college sentiment to justify austerity. As Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education under President Obama, once said, “budgets reflect not just numbers but our values,” and although President Trump’s budget proposal, America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again, is more ideological wish list than likely policy, it makes clear how he and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos conceptualize the role of public higher education. The House GOP’s plan for a Balanced Budget for A Stronger America similarly misses the complexities of the current institutional landscape. Taken together, these proposals amplify inequities of class already in play at America’s colleges and universities.

While the plans would cut different amounts from education programs, they converge around a market logic about the cause of rising student debt, which disproportionately affects low income students and students of color, the claim that colleges have raised their fees because there’s too much loan money available. The House report places blame on the government’s role in the student loan system: “As Washington has guaranteed students easy access to student aid dollars, which flow to colleges and universities, students have seen tuition and fees increase.” The claim is based  on The Bennett Hypothesis, which suggests that the more federal money available, the higher tuition will rise, actually freezing out the poorest students.

That hypothesis and the policy proposals it generates ignore the cuts to higher education by state legislatures across the nation, which have triggered tuition hikes and shifted the burden of college costs on to the students and their families.. This funding is slowly being replenished in some states, but still remains almost $10 billion below pre-recession levels.

Based on their claim that the availability of federal aid causes a tuition “bubble,” both the House and the President propose to  freeze the maximum Pell Grant, the award that subsidizes the poorest students, at its current level of $5,920. They would also cut $3.3 billion from the Pell Grant’s surplus, which is meant to cover future cost hikes. In addition, in the name of “streamlining” the student loan process and the “confusing” array of repayment options, the Trump proposal would eliminate subsidized Stafford loans, meaning students would have to pay interest on loans while still in school.

The Trump proposal is also especially hard on graduate students. Although the plan increases the percentage of income all student borrowers pay under Income Based Repayment Plans from 10 % to 12.5%, it decreases the years before the debt is forgiven for undergraduates from 20 to 15. It also increases the number of years to loan forgiveness for graduate students from 20 to 30 years.

Trump’s plan also eliminates the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Plan (PSLF). Established in 2007 by the Bush Administration, the PSLF allows college graduates who work for qualified nonprofit or government organizations to have their student loan balances forgiven after ten years or 120 consecutive payments. The program currently involves 553,000 people, and the first round of debt forgiveness is to begin this year.

While these proposals are deeply troubling as a whole for working-class and under-represented students, targeting graduate education for these students has some disturbing long-term implications, not only for these graduates but also for a wide swath of Americans disadvantaged by class, race, and gender.  Typically, PSLF borrowers work as lawyers, social workers, and teachers, employed at public institutions and non-profits. The program encourages public service by offsetting the often high-costs of specialized training to compensate for the often below average salaries in non-profits and government service. Despite the myth of the privileged public servant, public sector workers with master’s degrees earn 31% less and those with doctorates 21% less than their private sector counterparts.

In other words, PSLF encourages service-minded students to pursue professions that they might not have considered because of the debt they accumulate earning the degree. Some research suggests that the working-class students who would benefit from this might be even be more well suited that their more privileged peers to pursue public service, because that they value “interdependence,” prioritize giving back to their communities, and can act as role models for others.

By dismantling one mechanism for working-class students and students of color to enter public service, these proposals ensure that fewer professionals from diverse socio-economic backgrounds will be working on the ground and in the trenches to advocate for the needs and rights of traditionally marginalized populations. At a time when worker’s rights, minority rights, and equal opportunity are increasingly being challenged, we need professionals in law, public policy and social services who understand and can advocate diverse viewpoints.

It’s worth noting that the Pew study also shows that the more Republicans make, the less positive they are about higher education. Of those with salaries of $75,000 or more, only 31 % see college favorably, while 46% of those making less than $30,000 see college as positive for the country. In other words, mistrust of higher education is highest among people who wield the most economic and social power, many of them college educated themselves. Those who design and implement policies that undermine higher ed are also among our most highly educated: 66% of lawmakers have some type of graduate degree. Perhaps, as James Kwak has suggested, they are defunding higher ed in order to maintain their own socio-economic status.

Even if it isn’t about protecting the status quo, the proposed policies on higher ed, especially the Republican proposals to cut support to lower-income students pursuing public service, will do real harm to poor, working-class, and otherwise marginalized people – both those who want to go to college and those they might serve after graduation.

Tim Francisco

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

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Cleaning Up the Lease Option Mess in Working-Class Housing

Home ownership may be the most iconic emblem of economic stability for American families, but the pursuit of that goal has drawn too many working-class families into the deceptive agreements knows as “lease option purchase contracts.” To understand the impact of these contracts, visit Youngstown’s South Side, as organizers with the ACORN Home Savers Campaign have been doing, talking with people who signed leases with Vision Property Management.

Picture this: About a third of the lots in the neighborhoods are empty, some the site of demolitions so recent that you can still smell the dirt. On other two thirds, about half of the houses are abandoned and in disrepair, if not all but destroyed. In some cases, parts of them have collapsed.

The occupied houses have their own issues, but they bear the hallmark signs of occupancy: children’s toys, trash cans at the side of the house, lawn chairs on the porch if not a car in the driveway and lights on. Many need work, including all of those owned by Vision or one of its associated corporations. In some cases, they need major repairs.

When organizers knocked on the door of one of those houses, the skeptical woman who came to the door first tried to get rid of them. But when the organizers repeated their mission, to learn about her experience with Vision, her face changed.  “Hold on,” she said. “I’m going to come out to talk to you guys.”

And for the next 15 minutes, she talked about how she had just lost her job and, for the first time, fallen behind on her payments.  She was stuck.  She had made payments for three years.  She had made thousands of dollars worth of repairs during that period to make the home habitable.  Her situation was precarious now.  By the terms of the “lease option” she could be evicted for nonpayment and lose the house, her down payment, and everything she had worked to achieve. She was clear: she needed to get out of this lease and get on a better track to home ownership.

Her agreement wasn’t a contract for deed, but a “lease option purchase.” Rent-to-own, lease option purchase agreements, and similar instruments involve the opportunity of ownership as well as the burdens of repairs, but owner-occupants only secure the title to a home if they maintain the lease.  Desperation meets exploitation in the perfect definition of a potentially predatory transaction.

Stories like this led ACORN’s Home Savers Campaign to organize local committees in Youngstown, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Atlanta to demand Vision renegotiate their leases.  This organized community pressure led to direct negotiations with the company that recently produced a breakthrough agreement to help residents like those on the South Side of Youngstown move from lease option contracts to full ownership and mortgage financing.

First, ACORN had to be convinced that Vision was willing abandon its dangerous “as is” policy of allowing potential owner-occupants to live in housing that was inadequate and potentially unsafe.  To satisfy this demand, the company created a detailed lease-checklist that had to be completed and inspected prior to occupancy. Under the new protocol, most of the major repairs made at this home would have been completed before occupancy, not while our South Side Vision owner-occupant was living under the roof.  Before and after pictures were required.  Timelines for repairs were stipulated and calendared.  Monthly payments on the lease were geared to less-than-market terms to help owner-occupants afford to cover minor repairs.  All conversations were recorded to assure complete understanding of leases prior to execution.

The Memorandum of Understanding between the campaign and Vision then directed that payment records be forwarded to credit agencies so that owner-occupants could develop the credit rating necessary to qualify for conventional mortgages.  The MOU also mandated that Vision create a system to verify the owner-occupant’s out-of-pocket expenditures for repairs to assist in loan approvals. In addition, Vision agreed to develop a system to allow consumers regular access their payment record, balances, and “lease credits” (money set aside monthly by Vision for their closing costs, down payment, or lowering purchase price).  To address the lack of clarity in the original leases, the parties agreed within the next sixty-day period to a line-by-line review and rewrite of the documents. The campaign was especially pleased about this provision, because no one we had met was clear on what they had signed.

The agreement also mandated several pilot programs, one in central Arkansas and the other in the Detroit area, each with 100 properties, where ACORN and Vision would partner to convert the leases to mortgages on an accelerated basis.  Another pilot in one of the organizing cities, possibly Youngstown or Detroit, would identify low-and-moderate income families interested in becoming homeowners, provide housing counseling to repair their credit scores, assist them in putting together a plan to save the down payment, and plan for sustainable ownership. Simultaneously we would work with land banks to match the families with properties that Vision would acquire and repair, so that once these homeowners qualified they could convert to a convention mortgage.

Will these pilots work?  We won’t know for a while.

But given what the Home Savers Campaign found—that rent takes a larger and larger percentage of monthly income, eviction rates are soaring, and a credit desert has forced lower-income families out of the home ownership market since the Great Recession — an agreement with the largest lease purchase option company in the country is an important victory.  These reforms will help the thousands of families currently caught in lease purchase options with Vision.  The agreement prioritizes converting bad contracts into deals that make home ownership a reality — and that’s absolutely a win.  That the campaign also forced Vision to partner with community based efforts to match families that need homes with homes that need families is also a great benefit. Locally-based door-to-door organizing efforts like these might chart a path towards a better future for working-class families in many cities like Youngstown.

Gary Davenport and Wade Rathke

Gary Davenport is the Project Coordinator at the Mahoning County Land Bank in Ohio, where he manages the residential side lot program, strategic acquisitions, and special projects. Before joining the Land Bank, he organized residents in Youngstown to pass the foreclosure bond, legislation that insures abandoned homes against blight.

Wade Rathke is best known as Founder and Chief Organizer of ACORN from 1970-2008, and continues to serve as Chief Organizer of ACORN International working in 13 countries.

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Calling Luther to a Labor Ethic

October 31, 2017 will mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s defiant act of protest against the Church. Protestants around the world will call to mind Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses on the door of Wittenberg Castle Church. The apocryphal image of Luther with a mallet and a manifesto dramatizes his world-changing challenge to the hierarchy of the Church. He emphasized that salvation from sin is through God’s grace, faith not human effort, the word of God not fallible priests or a corrupt Church bent on benefitting from the sale of indulgences. What does this distant anniversary of a theological controversy have to do with the labor and class issues of our time?

Luther’s challenge to the Church’s monopolization of access to God was not an arcane theological matter. It was a “call out” to the working people of his day. He reminded his readers that God calls all people, priest and printer alike, to their vocation, to their calling.  As he wrote three years after the events at Wittenberg, “priests, bishops, and popes, possess no further or greater dignity than other Christians.” For Luther,

a shoemaker, a smith, a farmer, each has his manual occupation and work; and yet, at the same time, all are eligible to act as priests and bishops.  Every one of them in his occupation or handicraft ought to be useful to his fellows, and serve them in such a way that the various trades are all directed to the best advantage of the community.

In short, workers are just as worthy as priests in God’s heavenly economy. While not as radical a reformer as some later rebels against what we now know as the Roman Catholic Church, Luther’s appreciation of the trades, working people, and his theological defense for the equality of all before God remain worthy of commemoration.

Yet the father of Lutheranism was not the father of democracy nor the first labor organizer. Luther’s notion of vocation did not allow for movement from the fixed station that God created, as he understood it, for each one of us. While some have identified Luther and fellow reformer John Calvin as laying the groundwork for capitalism, Max Weber argued a century ago against the “foolish and doctrinaire thesis” that “capitalism as an economic system is a creation of the Reformation.” Weber further cautioned against transplanting a theological notion of calling to a modern work context. As he noted, “The Puritan wanted to work in a calling, we are forced to do so.” The iron cage keeps us in our place. This cage is Weber’s way of showing how a Protestant ethic can be distorted in contemporary workplace relationships. This ethic included, for Weber, a valuation of work, thrift, industriousness, self-control, temperance and fortitude. On the surface, such values seem unassailable. A “Protestant work ethic” that emphasizes the value of hard work, a phrase often but mistakenly attributed to Weber, is usually paired with giving a fair’s day work for a fair day’s pay.

Of course, many working people understand that a “calling” is often a proxy for exploitation and a means to extort more labor. Whether one calls it a Protestant ethic, a Protestant work ethic, or simply a work ethic, this five-century-old legacy of equating work with divine purpose also afflicts laborers in an increasing number of professions. Precarious and uncertain now, professional positions once thought to be secure, valued, and respected are beset with unpredictable schedules, low pay, and no benefits. Adjunct professors know this new mode of working-class life all too well. Professionals who inhabit the aura of a calling and value their work accordingly are all the more subject to manipulation and exploitation. For instance, the care for other human beings would seem to be free of at least some aspects of capital. But the intensification of the work pace in the professions coupled with expanded managerial and fiduciary oversight creates a new work-world long familiar to other workers: maximization of return on investment regardless of the damage to other human beings.

The idea that one should have a “good work ethic” is ingrained in the American psyche. Bill Clinton stated it well:

We’ll think of the faith of our parents that was instilled in us here in America, the idea that if you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll be rewarded with a good life for yourself and a better chance for your children. Filled with that faith, generations of Americans have worked long hours on their jobs and passed along powerful dreams to their sons and daughters. Many of us can remember our own parents working long hours on their jobs and then coming home and helping us with our homework. The American dream has always been a better life for people who are willing to work for it.

The question is what to do when the other side plays by a competing set of rules inherently structured to undermine workers who have faith in this work ethic, this American dream? That is, in workplaces shaped by capitalism, hierarchies are created (just as the Church generated them in Luther’s day) in which some people have more value because of their rung on the corporate ladder. Be it the Church or capital, both formations bend people to their logic and will.

In the weeks leading up to Reformation Day, we should ponder the theological framework that has shaped centuries of thinking about the meaning of work. We can no longer insist that work be re-enchanted with the aura of a “calling” or the halo of being co-workers in God’s creation. An ethic that simply values diligence and work as signs of obedience to God’s created intent is a dangerous morality.

Instead of a work ethic that draws upon the horizontal relationship between workers and managers, a labor ethic must be developed that sustains relationships of lateral solidarity between workers. A labor ethic does not value industriousness for its own sake nor does it prize a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. Rather, a labor ethic attempts to shape the content and pace of one’s work even as it seeks to maximize the benefits from one’s labor. It operates as resistance within workplaces shaped by capital and seeks to transcend those workplaces with cooperatives and other forms of worker ownership and self-determination.  A labor ethic is a distant descendant of Luther’s valuation of earthly work. Given the effects of capitalism on human labor, the cobbler and the smith, once relatively free to practice their calling are now swept up or away by tsunamic forces (pace Marx). Above all, the priority in a labor ethic is always about workers who must practice and investigate the concrete meaning and practice of solidarity among themselves.

A labor ethic is meant to be a re-formation of the reformation ideal of valuing one’s work. In a post-secular age in which neither religion nor secularism has unquestioned primacy, the meaning of work is always up for interpretation. Some find work to be a source of meaning as such, others find work to be meaningful only insofar as God wills it as co-creative work to redeem a sinful world. One legacy of the Reformation is that reform can never be a final action but is always a process. A labor ethic urges on that process through its essential element of protest and contestation to turn the cage of work into a realm of freedom and self-determination. A labor ethic retains the legacy of attention to human work but without the theological context. But this ethic is mindful that a humble monk formulated a theology of reform. Now, reform must be in the hands of workers, believers and unbelievers alike. They may even decide that reform is not enough.

Thus, a labor ethic must always insist on one word from the Reformation however. A labor ethic must cultivate protest and protesting. Like the Protestants of old in the heady days of the Reformation, workers who wish to cultivate a labor ethic will have to be permanently engaged in protest, the “emphatic declaration and affirmation” (Oxford English Dictionary) of their interests. Their lives and their livelihoods depend upon it – word and deed unified for reform or revolution. Here they must stand, they can do no other.

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, Work | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Activist Art in Working-Class Communities

The impacts of government sell-offs of public housing on working-class communities are highlighted in new documentary film released in the UK. Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle (2017), features experts and politicians, but at its heart are the working-class people affected by forced evictions and the loss of communities. The filmmaker, Paul Sng, is committed to telling working-class stories. His previous feature documentary, Sleaford Mods – Invisible Britain (2015) follows a British punk band, The Sleaford Mods, on a tour of some of the working-class areas of Britain hit hard by the Tory government’s austerity agenda. Dispossession has been screened across Britain and has received positive reviews. This important exposé of the housing crisis in Britain (or what is referred to in the film as a ‘tragedy’) highlights the very real and tangible effects of reductions in public housing. I’ve written before about the importance of public housing, including the positive aspects of these communities. Watching the continued sell-offs, demolitions, and forced relocations of public housing tenants is heartbreaking – and, for someone who grew up in a public housing community, personal.

Paul Sng’s film makes a significant contribution because it highlights working-class life and demonstrates the value of public housing, which is ignored or denied by those responsible for the sell-offs. The sale of public housing has been described as social cleansing, but it also benefits developers. Once public housing tenants are moved out, the estates are often redeveloped for wealthy private buyers whose presence changes the fabric of the community. Many of the homes in the private developments have been bought by investors who then charge high rents for the properties – at rates beyond reach of the original tenants. Public housing estates were never intended for wealthy people. They were built to provide working-class people with the dignity of life that comes with housing security.

With the new wealthy owners and tenants comes gentrification. Neighbourhoods change as working-class residents are priced out. The small number of original tenants rehoused by councils in the local area watch as their old estates are handed over to wealthy people. The infrastructure of the old community makes way for these new residents. Old pubs close, community centres shut down. Laundrettes (laundromats) disappear; popular cafes (caffs as they used to be known in London – serving cheap but home cooked food) turn into expensive coffee shops. And ‘art’ begins to appear.

I am a big fan of art, always have been. My auto-didactic working-class father introduced me to the world of art as a young child, and I’ve always been aware of its classed dimensions. While many people have been excluded from the official art world, isn’t it a positive to be able to find art in working-class communities? Surely the appearance of street art democratises art, making it free and accessible? Technically, yes, and artists have often lived in low-rent areas, and they can benefit a neighbourhood. But art is also a sign of gentrification. It tends to appear along with rising rents, contributing to a ‘cool’ and ‘arty’ vibe. Small boutique galleries open in the closed-down businesses that used to serve the working-class community. Too often, the creative arts are dominated by middle-class people, and the art presented in the small galleries and even street art projects commissioned by councils and companies is not likely to be created by working-class artists. Art galleries filled with the work of middle-class artists attract other middle-class people, shifting the local demographic as it becomes more affluent and whiter.

If working-class people object when boutique galleries replace the old barber shop or corner store, or if they don’t celebrate street art installations, they may be accused of misunderstanding art or not appreciating its value. Many working-class people love art, but not when it represents gentrification or the covering up of corporate interests taking over public spaces. They understand that private companies often sponsor art to ‘improve’ the look of a neighbourhood and boost local property prices. Developers use the presence of art to sell the neighbourhood to investors. This process has been called ‘artwashing’.  When public housing is sold and redeveloped, new privately owned spaces (theoretically for public use) often include street art. But who is it now for? The original working-class residents, or the new middle-class owners and renters? Even Richard Florida (who famously championed so-called ‘creative cities’) has admitted that artists contribute to gentrification.

But working-class people have used art to protest against social cleansing and to assert their presence in neighbourhoods earmarked for redevelopment. In Sydney, Australia, residents of two public housing towers in inner-city Waterloo, both scheduled for demolition, recently collaborated on an art installation called ‘We Live Here 2017’. Volunteers helped residents place colourful LED lights in their windows and light the blocks up at night to show that the towers contain people and homes. This is art as protest rather than art as serving corporate interests.

Paul Sng’s film and the installation on the Sydney estate demonstrate how art is being used to tell working-class stories that highlight the impacts of social cleansing. These projects show how the sale of public housing by conservative governments in Britain and Australia is an assault on working-class people. Through film and art, they show the value of working-class experiences and insist that working-class stories must be told.

Sarah Attfield

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