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

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Equal Opportunity Is Not Enough

We middle-class professionals are a crafty bunch, especially our intellectual elite.  One of our cagiest moves recently involves our expressions of concern about increasing income and wealth inequality in the U.S.  While eloquently expressing how guilty we feel about our privilege, we never come close to suggesting that some money be moved around.  “Redistribution” is either not in our vocabulary or “something we need to discuss,” which is our standard way of ending discussion by putting it off to an indefinite future.  But our craftiest move is how we routinely slip and slide in our discussion of the inequality of money (which is what income and wealth are) into ways to improve equality of opportunity.

Richard Reeves’s Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It is a reductio ad absurdum of this crafty slip sliding, but Reeves makes two important contributions.  First, he widens the target from the top 1% to the top 20% of households.  Second, he inadvertently demonstrates the absurdity of applying equality of opportunity to income classes and of understanding social mobility as simply about equalizing opportunities to be in that top 20%.  Worse, though a generous soul gently tweaking our class privilege, Reeves ends up recommending that the primary solution to equalizing opportunities is for our class to improve “human capital development” in the working class, including “home visiting to improve parenting”!

As misguided as I think Reeves is, Dream Hoarders is well worth reading because he pulls together a lot of recent research on how professional-middle-class privilege is being passed on across generations to such a degree that the U.S. has become an “hereditary meritocracy.”  In doing so, he shifts the focus from merely the top 1% of households whose average income tops $1.6 million to a much larger group ranging down to $121,000 a year (in 2016).  This is the top 25 million households, whom he rightly says are “the single most dangerous constituency to anger” because we are “wealthy enough to have influence, and numerous enough to be a significant voting bloc.”  While often humorously chiding his own behavior, he shows the wide range of ways middle-class professionals use our social and cultural capital to improve the chances of our children and grandchildren ending up in that top 20%.

He argues convincingly that that’s not fair and proposes a number of remedies that would make things somewhat more fair, such as eliminating legacy admissions to universities, forbidding unpaid internships, curbing exclusionary zoning, and rejiggering federal loans to make them more affordable for low- and middle-income college students.

But he is very chary when it comes to moving money around.  He wants to greatly improve K-through-12 public education, for example, but rules out spending a lot more money or reducing class sizes.  He even has a great little section on how federal income tax subsidies disproportionately benefit the top 20%, but concludes: “My point is not that we should tax our way to more income equality” but merely to illustrate “the fact that if we need additional resources for public investment, it is reasonable to raise some of them from the upper middle class.”  Note the weasel language here: the “if” leaves him uncertain about whether we actually need more money for public investment (as our roads and bridges crumble and our water systems sometimes poison children), but if we do, only “some” of it need come from the top 20%.  Reeves thinks he knows what will most piss off “the single most dangerous” voting bloc, and he tippy-toes around it.

Having excluded progressive tax reform and knowing that checking a whole series of class privileges like eliminating legacy admissions would not make much difference, Reeves has nowhere to go but to reform the working class’s “human capital formation.”  He seems to have no idea how fraught with conflict this has been in American working-class history.  From the Pullman Palace Car Company’s paternalistic rules for living in its company town to the Ford Motor Company’s infamous Sociology Department, workers have fiercely resented and resisted all attempts from people in authority who think they know how to make them better human beings.  If you want to convert the rest of the working class, including people of all colors, into Trump voters, systematic government “home visiting to improve parenting” among the bottom 80% is probably the way to do it.

It’s not that it couldn’t be helpful to have more parents reading to young children, more use of time-outs rather than spanking for discipline, or more parental involvement in schooling among working-class families. The problem is that the people doing the home visits would likely deliver a program that implicitly says the goal of life is to score well on written exams, go to college, and become one of those professional or managerial phonies so many working-class parents spend a lifetime trying to avoid or resist.  It may be hard to believe – and that’s a big part of the problem! – but many (probably most) folks  don’t want to be people like us, no matter how much they might envy our incomes and working conditions.

And this is Reeves’s biggest, but illustrative mistake.  He is trapped in an equal-opportunity frame that is perfectly applicable for blacks, women, and other groups who have been and still are being denied equal opportunities in education and jobs, in where they live, or who they love.  But to apply that framework to income classes, as Reeves quite rigorously does, doesn’t and can’t work.  His singular goal is to equalize people’s life chances to be in the top 20% of income-earners while, as his subtitle highlights, “leaving everyone else in the dust.”  He is quite clear in explaining that this is how relative social mobility works across income quintiles: upward mobility for those born in the bottom four quintiles requires an equal amount of downward mobility for those born in the top quintile.  This is a worthy goal for those who aspire to a genuine meritocracy where pay is related to performance, but it will not and cannot do anything to reduce our outrageous and still increasing levels of income and wealth inequality – which, by the way, are reducing most people’s life chances day by day and year by year.

Absolute social mobility, on the other hand, is and always has been the more widely shared American Dream.  Sometimes referred to with the metaphor “a rising tide lifts all boats,” that’s but one way to achieve it.  Absolute mobility simply means getting ahead of where you were before, not necessarily getting ahead of others as you do so.  It means that the next generation will have a better life than their parents had – with more income and more free time for what you will.  Stronger economic growth as a “rising tide” can make that more likely, but only if it is shared across all income classes, which it was for the three decades after World War II, but hasn’t been for the last 30 or 40 years.

To achieve shared prosperity, we need to move some money around, starting with a more equitable tax system.  Taxing investment income the same as income you work for, collecting sales taxes on the purchase of stocks and bonds just as we do when people buy pants and soda pop, and taxing financial assets as well as property would simply be more fair.   But less class-biased taxes like these would also raise hundreds of billions of dollars to improve public schools and our rotting physical infrastructure and to fund increases in public subsidies for day care, family leave, public transportation, and many other public goods that would reduce daily living expenses – all of which would benefit all income classes, while disproportionately benefiting the lower income quintiles.  Reeves’s upper-middle class would get nicked a bit with these tax changes, but most of those hundreds of billions would come from the top 1% or 2% — because that’s where most of the money is.

A class-neutral tax system would be a significant move toward the kind of “equality of condition” Alexis de Tocqueville once thought was what made America exceptional.  And I’m betting that a majority of “the single most dangerous voting bloc” would sooner give up a few thousand dollars a year in taxes than the formidable array of privileges which Reeves so clearly shows help keep us and our progeny in our place.

Jack Metzgar

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Race AND Class, Then and Now

Just a few days after white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, my husband and I went to see Kathryn Bigelow’s film, Detroit. Set amid the 1967 uprising 50 years ago this summer, the film focuses primarily on the brutal torture and the murder of three black men by police officers that took place that week at the Algiers Motel. Because it so powerfully and intimately dramatizes the racial hatred and injustice that has defined far too much of this country’s history, the film was a fitting end to a terrible week. In an era when police officers keep shooting young black men whom they see as threatening, and when jury after jury acquits those officers, no matter how clear the evidence that their victims posed no threat at all, Bigelow puts us inside a sustained and horrific example of police brutality and, true to history, refuses us the relief of a just verdict. To see this film after the events in Charlottesville and the President’s disturbing insistence that the “alt-left” was as much to blame as the bigots bearing assault rifles, waving swastika flags, and chanting racist and anti-semitic slogans, was especially sobering. I was depressed before seeing the film. I could hardly move as the credits rolled.

We went to see Detroit in part because I had been studying fiction, poetry, and films about that city as I researched a book on deindustrialization literature. Detroit is the iconic Rust Belt city, and its deteriorating landscape and long-term economic and social struggles have drawn attention from photographers, filmmakers, advertisers, poets, and fiction writers. In many ways, stories about Detroit are typical of deindustrialization literature, centered on how people and communities continue to wrestle with the long-term effects of economic decline. But there’s one crucial difference: while all Rust Belt cities have been marked by racial division and injustice, more than any other city, Detroit is defined by race. Where other deindustrialized cities trace their transformations to plant closings, in Detroit, decline is almost always linked to the uprising of 1967 and the white flight that it spurred.

Yet, as Tom Sugrue has noted, the history of racial tension in Detroit began long before the riots, and it was always entwined with economic struggle. In the opening animation sequence of Detroit, we are reminded that the Great Migration of African Americans was driven by the economic hope of factory jobs, not by – or at least not only by – a desire to escape the Southern racism. African Americans coming to the city in search of good jobs faced segregation and discrimination, patterns that Angela Flournoy captures well in her 2015 Detroit novel, The Turner House. But as Sugrue has shown, both racial divisions and economic inequality grew when Detroit’s factories moved out of the city to suburbs like Warren and Livonia. The African Americans who burned buildings and looted businesses in 1967 were frustrated not only by racial prejudice but also by economic limitations, even though, as Sugrue points out, they were not “the poorest or the most marginal. It was folks who were slightly better off and slightly better educated and more tied into the city’s labor market than the poorest residents.” Detroit’s history reminds us that conflicts over race are often also class conflicts.

Fifty years later, African Americans still lag far behind whites economically. They have higher rates of unemployment, poverty, and incarceration, less access to good health care or education, and lower rates of home ownership and less wealth. When we say that Black Lives Matter, we’re not talking only about the right to be safe from police violence. We’re also talking about the right to earn a living, to have access to decent health care, to get a good education, and to vote. Like the African Americans who rioted in Detroit in 1967, African Americans today – along with many other people of color – have good reason to be angry, frustrated, and doubtful about the integrity of government officials, elected or employed.

While racism clearly exacerbates class struggles for African Americans, we also need to understand how class and race work together in shaping the ideology of white supremacism. Most working-class white people are not neo-Nazis, or do they identify with the alt-right. But it seems likely that many of those who claim that whites are the most frequent victims of discrimination, that immigrants are taking “our jobs,” and that Black Lives Matter is a terrorist organization are motivated in part by a sense of economic vulnerability. As Bryce Covert wrote in The New Republic, the “ethno-nationalist agenda” is, to a large extent, “about protecting white jobs and white people.” That some of the alt-right’s violence, blame, and bigotry comes as response to the economic shifts of the past fifty years, which have undermined the economic stability of so many working- and middle-class people, does not excuse it. But economic anxiety plays a role here, and just as with the economic and social struggles of people of color, some of that anxiety (though clearly not all) reflects real changes. Wages have stagnated, job security is hard to come by, home foreclosures continue, and pension plans have defaulted. These struggles affect not only people displaced from industrial jobs, but also many in the middle class. Indeed, like the African Americans who rose up in Detroit in 1967, many in the alt-right are employed and educated, and these groups are actively recruiting on college campuses.

Unfortunately, that the alt-right and many of its targets share class interests doesn’t offer much reason to hope. Don’t expect a multicultural working-class revolution any time soon. Instead, as Keri Leigh Merritt pointed out in a piece on the Moyers & Company blog recently, the elite are once again using divisions of race and ethnicity to foment conflict within the working class and distract us from their machinations. In his infamous interview with the American Prospect’s Robert Kuttner, Steve Bannon sneered that he had manipulated the left into staying “focused on race and identity,” allowing conservatives to claim ownership of the economic agenda. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr., suggests that this may explain Trump’s refusal to indict the alt-right: “dividing Americans along racial lines while fueling a fight on the left over identity vs. class politics will leave him a winner.” The pattern is reinforced not only by Trump’s nationalist economic rhetoric but also by the narrative, too often supported by those on the left, that blames the white working class for Trump’s election. And it is echoed in the insistence of some progressive commentators that the sole explanation for Trump’s popularity is racism.

To call commentaries that emphasize the role of economic anxiety “equivocating” or a simple refusal to “face the blatant racism that fueled [Trump’s] popularity,” as Roxane Gay does in a New York Times column, suggests that we must choose between race and class. Did racism play a role in Trump’s success? Absolutely. Is it the only cause? Of course not.

Some seem to think that progressives cannot do more than one thing at a time. If we’re organizing against racism and bigotry, presumably, we can’t also advocate for economic justice. If we focus on the economy, we must not care about racism. But to create real change, we need to push for solid strategies for economic justice AND stand up against hatred and for a more inclusive, more equal America. Can we do both at once? As Obama told us, yes, we can. We must.

Sherry Linkon

A version of this piece appeared last month on the American Prospect blog.

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Karl Marx Makes a Comeback

Several months ago the Communist party in Russia updated their visual propaganda by giving three of their most controversial icons—Lenin, Stalin, and Karl Marx—a makeover. In their new poster series, Stalin looks handsome and serious in a puff of vaping smoke; Lenin looks like a college student or a hacker, hunched over a bright red laptop; and Marx looks like a rock star in a red t-shirt and a black leather jacket. Marx has a copy of Das Kapital tucked under one arm and is vowing, “I’ll be back.”

Ironically, Marx really is back and not just in Russia. Since the global financial collapse of 2008 Marx has become a pop icon across the globe. His image can be found graffitied throughout the world as well as on t-shirts, and mugs. Marx is for sale in a number of unusual forms, including a piggy bank and floating Marx head stickers, while in Germany you can get a credit card with Marx’s face on it, and in Japan you can buy a set of Mountain Man action figures based on Marx, Mao, Lenin, and Thoreau.

Over the last decade, Marx has also made a comeback as a serious intellectual figure. In the fall of 2008, as the global financial crisis was starting to be felt and understood, The Guardian reported on the increasing demand for his books: “‘Marx is in fashion again,’ said Jörn Schütrumpf, manager of the Berlin publishing house Karl-Dietz which publishes the works of Marx and Engels in German. ‘We’re seeing a very distinct increase in demand for his books, a demand which we expect to rise even more steeply before the year’s end.’”

Two best-selling biographies have also appeared, Mary Gabriel’s Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution (2011), a stunning, page-turning re-evaluation of Marx that incorporates much of his family life, as well as Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life (2013), which makes the argument—belied by the popularity of the biography itself—that Marx was more important to his own time than to ours.

In his widely-read book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013), the French economist Thomas Piketty – himself sometimes hailed as a modern-day Marx – encourages economists to “take inspiration from [Marx’s] example.” Meanwhile, David Harvey, a mild mannered CUNY professor, has achieved cult status with his popular online lectures that help the average reader make their way through the hundreds of pages of Marx’s Capital, volumes 1-3.

What’s driving this resurgence of interest in Marx, as kitsch but especially as a serious thinker about economics, class, and inequality? I see a few factors here.

1) The global financial collapse of 2008 made Marx’s critique of capitalism look fresher than ever. Marx predicted cycles of collapse and consolidation, and his analysis explains how inequality deepens during times of capitalist crisis. His predictions have played out as we have seen the top .1% profit from the housing collapse of 2008 while the rest of us have suffered. In the lead up to the election last year, for example, Trump was accused of having cheered on the housing crisis of 2008, because it meant that he and his cronies could buy up scads of cheap real estate that have since risen significantly in value.

2) The collapse of Communist regimes, from the USSR, to the capitalist makeover of China, to the opening of Cuban borders, has everyone proclaiming the death and failure of communism as a political and societal toolkit. Ironically, it may be that if communism is less of a world-wide threat, then Karl Marx, as the official godfather of communism, is seen as less threatening as well.

3) The post-Cold War generation views socialism and communism more favorably than during any time since the Cold War A scholar at Tufts University has hypothesized that millennials, born into the worst job market since the Great Depression, are more skeptical of capitalism than their parents. According to this same researcher, millennials see Scandinavian countries as models for democratic socialism, rather than current or former communist countries like Russia and China.

Whatever the reasons, Marx’s comeback coincides with his impending bicentennial. On May 5, 2018, Karl Marx will be 200 years old and his magnum opus, Capital, will be 151.This year and next there are tributes and celebrations for both Capital and its author across the globe. York University held a celebration of 150 year of Capital last May with scholars from around the world; Trier, where Marx was born, is planning an entire year of events as is the Marx Memorial Library in London. This Berlin based website, Marx200, is keeping a running tally of these events and adding to them daily.

Here in Pittsburgh, at Carnegie Mellon University’s Humanities Center, we are taking stock with our own year of events. Marx@200, running from the fall of 2017 through the summer of 2018 will feature lectures, workshops, performances, an art show, a symposium, and a conference. The celebration kick-offs on Thursday, September 14th with the Mid-Atlantic premier of The Young Karl Marx, a film by the Haitian director Raoul Peck, who was nominated for an Oscar for I am Not Your Negro. You can keep tabs on what we’re doing here.

For the last 60 years Marx, communism, and socialism have gotten a pretty bad rap across the West. Marx has been seen as an apologist for the kinds of imperialism, genocide, and repression in communist countries over the last 100 years, even though The Communist Manifesto provided a synthesis of the revolutionary European thought of 1848— not a blueprint for totalitarianism.

But capitalism, it would seem, has outdone itself in the 21st century. Inequality is worse than ever before, and the US is ruled by a capitalist oligarchy. Suddenly, Marx is cool again, but mainly because he was, and remains today, one of capitalism’s most astute critics. Happy Birthday Karl, and thanks.

Kathy M. Newman

Posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, Kathy M. Newman, Labor and Community Activism, The Working Class and the Economy | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Valuing a Lost Work Culture

Late last fall I visited Stoke-on Trent, a city in the North-West of England which was once the epicentre of the UK’s huge pottery industry, now fallen on decidedly hard times. Local artist and academic Neil Brownsword, who had begun his working life in the pottery trade, acted as my guide around the city and the various sites of its industry – some newly established small workshops suppling niche markets, but mostly I saw the abandoned remnants of a once great industry. The highlight of the trip was the call we made on Rita, a friend and collaborator of Neil’s, who had worked as a china flower maker in the Potteries for thirty years. Over coffee in her kitchen, we talked about the pottery industry both in its heyday and through its decline and large scale closure in the late twentieth century. Rita had begun her working life at fifteen, in the early 1970s and was put to work training to make the delicate clay flowers used to decorate certain types of fine chinaware.

I grew up in a house where the ‘best china’ rarely if ever got used. My mum is still proud to keep it on show in a display cabinet. These ordinary functional china pieces were the closest my parents came to owning ‘art’. I never gave much thought to those pieces, but in Rita’s warm and inviting kitchen, but now I felt guilty for never considering the manufacturing process that created the pieces or the flowers that decorated them. Talking with Rita gave me a glimpse into a strange but now lost world. It also started me thinking about how we underestimate the importance of art in everyday life, and the relationship between art and labour.

RitaDuring our visit, Rita asked if I would like to see her make some flowers, and she then started to roll and shape, poke and pull at small amounts of grey china clay. Using just the right amount of material every time, her hands became a blur of seemingly unconscious activity while Rita continued to talk to Neil and me. At the end of each process, Rita would casually drop the finished flower on top of a growing pile of others made earlier. The first couple of times she did this I was shocked. I didn’t realize that they were part of an installation Neil had commissioned Rita to create, so I mistakenly assumed that these beautiful objects were simply being wasted. Rita’s work and the pile of discards started me thinking about her craft and the extent to which what she did, and what she had done on the job, was ‘art’ or simply labour.  What was the dividing line between these two social forms? Was there a clear line at all?

As Rita continued to work she told us more about her working life. She described her first day on the line, learning, by one failed attempt after another, how to make basic flower shapes, and, through practice, to ensure each was of a consistent size and shape. Rita reminisced about the female supervisor, who was at first deadly strict with her new charges, brutally discarding the multiple failed attempts at the specified flowers. Initially Rita had wanted to give up, but a mixture of family pressure and well-timed encouragement from her supervisor made her realise that she possessed the talent and ability to succeed in her new trade. Rita described beautifully her respect mixed with fear for the woman who taught her to make her first flowers. After a while, this changed to a far warmer relationship as the trainee proved herself capable, worthy of attention, and so the bond could form.

Rita’s story of her early working life is at once unique to her but also shared. She described the socialisation into economic life that many working-class people share. Of course, the material conditions vary enormously. The type of work clearly adds an important dimension, and the people we work with make a huge difference. However, there is a common experience of people socialised into work culture in traditional industries that transcends these differences.  What Rita described, and what I have been lucky enough to record in my work and to read in the autobiographies of countless workers, is the process of being and becoming, of maturing in and through one’s work. Fundamentally, though, this is a social activity, for what Rita and many others describe is the act of creating the social, of forming social bonds and relationships.

We often take these experiences for granted. They are, after all run of the mill encounters in the workplace. But in looking back at early work experience in later life, people are often more able and willing to reflect on the complexity of earlier interaction. It is perhaps only then that this early socialisation into work takes on a more complex hue. We may not have enjoyed the process of learning a new job. Indeed, we may have hated the work and loathed the people in charge of us. It is the passage of time that reveals a more rounded sense of what was at stake, what was of value.

Rita’s story, like the countless examples from my own research, reminds us of the surprising commonality of working-class life across time and space, but it also reveals the positive values hidden not so deep in working-class culture. As I have written here before, workers have good reason to feel nostalgia for these experiences. But what about contemporary workers? Will the jobs and industries that working-class people ‘enjoy’ in contemporary society provide contexts that will nurture a vibrant culture in the future? Work today is more likely to be described using words like insecurity, precarity, fissuring and instability, words that reflect poor soil on which to grow the kinds of bonds and relationships that people like Rita and millions of others long knew. Today’s work culture seems distinctly different from what Rita recalls, and we should look at it critically, noting what working-class people have lost as work has changed. But this does not mean that people no longer seek meaning and connection at work. As scholars, we should look for evidence of how people humanise their lives now. It is worth asking, is there still an art to working-class labour?

Tim Strangleman

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Getting Over in the Heart of Dixie

When people think about progressive battles in the U.S., they probably don’t think about Alabama. Instead, the state is known as the home of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the kind of conservative, populist politics that led Drew Pendergrass of the Harvard Politics Review to describe the Trump phenomenon as “The Alabamafication of America.” The state also has a reputation for political scandal. In recent years, two governors and the state House speaker have been involved campaign finance fraud, bribery, and other ethics violations. Then  there’s Conservative Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who was suspended for telling state probate judges they could ignore the SCOTUS marriage equality decision – and who is also running for Sessions’s seat in the Senate.

But despite this “Alabamafication,” progressives here, including many working-class people (who now make up the majority of the state’s population), have ramped up the fight for economic justice. And there’s plenty to fight about. A few weeks ago, CNBC ranked Alabama as the  “worst” state in the U.S. to live in. Working-class Alabamians navigate a formidable obstacle course toward the “American Dream”:

Yes, Alabama has a multitude of serious problems, but it also has plenty of assets. Alabama’s 132,000 miles of rivers and streams, along with its geology and warm climate, nurture the highest level of biodiversity east of the Mississippi. Our culinary diversity embraces many barbeque creations, including a unique white sauce that produces the best chicken and pork you ever put in your mouth. Forrest Gump numbers among hundreds of famous Alabamians. Music artists the world over travel here to achieve the “Muscle Shoals Sound.” Mardi Gras originated in Mobile (1703), not New Orleans (1730s).

Along with all this, Alabama the Beautiful is home to several social justice organizations. Montgomery is ground zero for much of the key work of civil rights groups, and it is also the birthplace of Morris Dees’ Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). Both work tirelessly to end racial injustice by tracking and prosecuting hate groups and by remedying inequities in the justice system, respectively.

Alabama Arise staff and volunteers lobby lawmakers, speak at committee hearings, and attend legislative sessions.

In addition, diverse comrades in Alabama, including Southern Scots-Irish “Crackers” like me and working-class Black Belt Blacks, are uniting to fight economic oppression. One focal point for our efforts is another state asset: Alabama Arise, a nonprofit, non-partisan grassroots coalition of congregations, community organizations, and individuals. Arise consists of Alabama Arise, a 501 (c)(4) advocacy organization formed in 1988 and Arise Citizens’ Policy Project, a 501 (c)(3) research and organizing group founded in 1994. Arise defines its mission as “promoting state policies that improve the lives of low-income people.” Through policy analysis, statewide organizing, and citizen advocacy, Arise envisions an Alabama where all people have resources to reach their full potential, people participate actively in their own governance, and the state government promotes the common good and respect for each person’s humanity.

Kimble Forrister became Executive Director of Alabama Arise in 1991, when the organization had 60 member groups and a mailing list of 170 donors. Now the membership rolls have grown to 150 groups and 1,094 donors, as well as over 5,000 Facebook likes and some 2,400 Twitter followers. Early on, Arise worked on tax reform and welfare issues. In the early 1990s, Alabama provided the nation’s lowest monthly welfare benefit for a mother of two at $118, but Forrister recalls that Arise lobbied state lawmakers to raise the amount to $215. Later, Arise worked to raise the income tax threshold for a family of four from $4,600 to $12,600, and their efforts led to the first tenants’ rights law.

As Arise grew, Forrister reallocated its staff and funding to provide balance between organizing and advocacy initiatives. Currently, Arise employs two policy analysts, two organizers, a communications director, a development director, and an executive director. Members prioritize issues at annual meetings, which draw about 250 people – attendance that has more than tripled from 80 over the past decade. Staff have used listening sessions with low-income clients to identify key elements of welfare reform. Those sessions revealed that in order to transition from welfare to work, people needed “jobs, child care, and transportation.” In addition, clients pointed out the need for second chances for those released from prison. Based on these conversations, Arise focused on restoring SNAP (food stamps/Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) and TANF (welfare/Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) benefits to ex-felons, as well as narrowing the list of crimes that denied them the franchise.

Partnering with organizations such as Greater Birmingham Ministries, the Federations of Child Care Centers of Alabama (FOCAL), and Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, Arise strives to make progress on what Forrister describes as “key issues like health care, predatory lending, criminal justice issues, and housing.” Stakeholders collaborate to develop strategies and tactics to enact successful campaigns, including this year’s issue priorities:

  • Adequate state budgets, including a push for tax revenue increases and Medicaid expansion;
  • Tax reform, including ending the grocery tax and restructuring income tax;
  • “Ban the Box,” removing criminal history checkboxes on job applications;
  • Death penalty reform, increasing indigent defense funding, instituting an execution moratorium, and abolishing judicial override (in which judge’s sentencing decision supercedes a jury’s);
  • Housing Trust Fund, garnering sufficient funding to sustain the Housing Trust Fund set up in 2012;
  • Minimum wage effort, raising state wage above federal level;
  • Payday/title lending reform, instituting tighter industry regulations; and
  • Public transportation, allotting state money in order to obtain Federal matching funds.

In light of recent victories such as banning judicial override (see “death penalty reform” above), Forrister remains optimistic. He believes that long asleep Alabamians have “become woke,” in part because of the election. “After the 2016 election,” Forrister says, “activism flourished in a number of Alabama cities.”

Looking at efforts around healthcare, Forrister sees a “spirit of collaboration, from agency staff to providers to advocates.” Teamwork helped make Alabama the first state to offer health insurance to children in low-income families (CHIP), convince courts to overhaul child welfare, and design a non-profit structure for Medicaid and long term care (a model Arise and lawmakers are teaming up to implement).

If Alabama activists can “get over” and achieve such gains, imagine what could happen in other communities when citizens join forces. Find out what is happening in your community and get involved. When we all do better, we all do better.

Helen Diana Eidson

Helen Diana Eidson is an Assistant Professor of English at Auburn University in Alabama, whose research deals with working-class rhetorics, social movements, and community literacy. She is writing a rhetorical biography of Stetson Kennedy (1916-2011), a folklorist, journalist, and historian whose 70-year career spanned labor, civil rights, peace, and environmental movements.

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The Dual Economy

In his new book The Vanishing Middle Class, MIT economist Peter Temin provides a short and accessible take on this country’s deeply unequal economy, which he argues now represents two different Americas. The first is comprised of the country’s elite workers: well-educated bankers, techies, and other highly skilled workers and managers, members of what he calls the “finance, technology, and electronics sector” (FTE)—the leading edges of the modern economy. A fifth of America’s population, these individuals command six-figure incomes and dominate the nation’s political system, and over the past half-century, they have taken a greater and greater share of the gains of economic growth. The other America, what he calls the “low-wage sector,” is the rest of the population—the dwindling ranks of clerks, assemblers, and other middle-income workers, and an expanding class of laborers, servers, and other lowly paid workers.

Drawing on the work of the Nobel Prize-winning economist W. Arthur Lewis, Temin describes this new reality as a “dual economy,” where the fortunes of the first America are all but disconnected from those of the second. Free trade and technological advances allow the FTE elites to make more money, pay lower prices, and enjoy an integrated global market’s many conveniences, even as those trends sweep aside many of the good jobs that the rest of America relies upon. Increasingly isolated, elites have little reason to care about less affluent communities, and much reason to want to reduce their taxes, so they tend to favor stripping away the safety net and pulling public funds from the schools the poor and middle class depend on. The American educational system, which used to be an engine of upward mobility that lifted many children of parents with few means into society’s upper echelons, has been split into two systems—separate and unequal.

Temin’s idea of a dual economy focuses our attention on how, if left unchecked, the workings of the market economy lead to disaster for those Americans stuck in the low-wage sector. FTE industries are booming, and capitalists seek to eke out even greater returns on their investments by lowering the cost of labor. In doing so, they have strong incentives to push down the wages and benefits of the bottom 80 percent of workers—importantly, even those who have nothing to do with their industries. The reason for this callousness toward the low-wage sector is pragmatic: a glut of underpaid or unemployed workers at the bottom makes their own workers so grateful to have decent jobs that they accept lower wages. In other words, what’s good for Silicon Valley and Wall Street is not good for ordinary Americans—and that’s a feature, not a bug, of the current system.

In his previous work with Frank Levy, Temin described how the Treaty of Detroit—a landmark contract reached in 1950 between General Motors and the United Auto Workers—epitomized a postwar economy of job security and high wages that raised the well-being of all workers, including those with little education (a central theme of my own book). In Temin’s new book, one of the most vivid illustrations of the changed reality that now faces America’s working class comes when he describes the situation of newspaper delivery workers:

Most of us do not think about how the paper gets to our door in the morning, but paper delivery has evolved into a grueling nocturnal marathon for low-income workers who work invisibly at the edge of the economy. Delivery drivers are classified as independent contractors rather than employees; they therefore do not get guaranteed health care or retirement savings. They work 365 days a year for pay that makes ordinary jobs look good, and they have to find a replacement if they need to take a day off. Many of them work at another job during the day to support their families. More and more working people are being forced into working conditions like these.

The day-to-day drudgery of today’s delivery driver is a symbol of the low-wage sector: work that children on bicycles used to do is now expected to support families, but with all the risk of success and failure piled on the workers themselves, who toil in the early morning hours, unseen by those they serve. And it is telling, too, that these conditions occur in an industry that is itself struggling to survive in the face of technological and economic changes.

Like Richard Reeves in his book Dream Hoarders, Temin doesn’t think we should only dwell on the top 1 percent of earners and their extraordinary ascent over the past few decades. As much as this group has made out like bandits in our unregulated Wild West economy, Temin’s focus on the FTE sector makes clear that a larger fortunate fifth of America has been benefitting immensely from the status quo, too. At the same time, a strength of Temin’s book is his in-depth discussion of how the top 1 percent has far outpaced the rest of the elite as well—largely due to their outsized political influence. He explains that a view of American democracy as an arena where the public clashes on important social issues, and the majority winner justly enacts policy, is simply naïve. In the real world of politics, people with money “invest” in politicians who then do their bidding—and the top 1 percent have more to invest than everyone else. In turn, racial prejudice (which he discusses at length, almost exclusively referring to bias against African Americans) weakens whatever public support exists for a stronger safety net for low-wage workers by casting the beneficiaries as undeserving outsiders.

By concisely and insightfully sketching out the contours of the modern economy, Temin’s book helps us to understand why workers in auto plants and office cubicles alike have fallen behind in recent decades. Their pursuit of the American Dream has been halted by stagnant wages and declining employment. Their working conditions have worsened thanks to the end of job security and management’s unchecked control in the workplace. The roots of their problems aren’t just economic, however, as his discussion of politics makes clear. Temin emphasizes how institutions like labor unions and government no longer push the economy toward a widely shared prosperity—as they did in mid-twentieth-century America, and as they still do in parts of Europe today. The implication is that, with the proper support, they can do it here again.

Recognizing that labor unions in America have been all but stamped out in many sectors, Temin seems to pin his hopes on government intervention on behalf of ordinary workers, particularly to promote high-quality, broadly available education and training. This hope, however, seems very much at odds with the gloomy picture of a corrupt and unresponsive political system he sketches out for much of the book. In other words, as compelling as his diagnosis of the problem is, he doesn’t say much about how to bring about the sort of democratic renaissance that could solve it.

But these are the big, unresolved question in our politics today. Can unions can be revived, and thus provide a countervailing force to restrain the excesses of corporations? To what extent can union power be replaced by the organizing of the so-called alt-labor movement—worker centers and nonprofit networks working outside the formal union-management negotiating process? And what role can social movements, knitted together through grassroots organizing, play in making sure the country’s political system starts responding again to the popular will?

We academics tend too often think in technocratic policy terms. We typically want to devise the innovative policies and then assume that a can opener of bold government action could open up the system to change. We find it hard to imagine concrete and practical strategies that activists could actually use (though sociology has been better than most disciplines in offering such advice, and nonacademic research groups are increasingly taking on this role). Intellectuals’ most important contributions to social change have been ideas, ways of looking at the world that inform and inspire action. But as I argue in  Cut Loose, scholars should also consider the political and cultural context when we propose policies.

While Temin could do more of this, his book provides a useful framing of the problem for those who want to fix it—dusting off the “Two Americas” rhetoric of a past political moment and reworking it for an even more unequal age.

Victor Tan Chen

Victor Tan Chen is an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and the founding editor of In The Fray magazine. He is the author of Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy and, with Katherine S. Newman, The Missing Class: Portraits of the Near Poor in America.

Posted in Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments