A Class on Class

I recently graded 32 final projects from my course on working-class literature at the University of Pittsburgh.  The assignment had invited students to use whatever forms of writing or other media would allow them to express what they had been learning in the course and how it applied to their lives.  These projects were (mostly) a pleasure to read, but they also offered insights into the perplexing question of what my students think about “class” and how that may or may not resemble what I think I have been teaching about it.

For instance, family history projects often included stories of hard work and sacrifice paying off for future generations, leading to claims about core working-class values.   “The Struggle from Pain to Pride” was one title, “Working Class Has Class” another.  Some of the workplace narratives, on the other hand, demonstrated powerlessness and exploitation on the job: “Accident at the Mill” and “Late Shift,” for example.  Some of the cultural analysis essays treated class as a matter of “lifestyle,” unrelated to work and readily changeable by choice or circumstance.   In one or two papers, students described class as a system that in fact works: societies need hierarchies and class ranking provides the incentive for upward mobility.

In many projects, there was quite a bit of slippage in students’ use of the concepts “working class” and “middle class.”  This is hardly surprising given that 24 of the 32 students identify as middle class, according to a survey I gave early in the term, on which their choices were poor, middle class, rich, working class, or other.  The 8 who did not check “middle class” nuanced their responses as follows: 4 as “working middle class,” 2 as “poor working class,” and one each for “upper middle” and “99%.”  No-one checked “rich.”

The class terminology I have deployed in my courses draws on Michael Zweig’s analysis in The Working Class Majority: America’s Best Kept Secret, the second edition of which was published in January 2012.   Looking at occupations and the economic, political, and cultural power, or powerlessness, of the people who perform them, Zweig identifies three major classes: a US working-class majority of around 63%; a middle class of professionals, managers, and small business owners making up about 35%; and a capitalist class of 2%.  In Zweig’s updated analysis, the working class now includes a large number of nurses and teachers, whose labor has been substantially deskilled through corporate management practices.

Of course, class is much more than a position within a structure of inequality.  It is also an experience lived out within a specific set of relationships, as E.P. Thompson explained in his introduction to The Making of the English Working Class:

[Class is] an historical phenomenon. . . something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships.  And class happens when some [people], as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other [people] whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs. The class experience is largely determined by the productive relations into which [people] are born — or enter involuntarily.

The linked ideas that class relations are necessarily antagonistic — based on opposing interests and feelings — and that people are implicated in class experience “involuntarily” are often resisted by my students.  And their sense of being largely middle class may have a lot to do with this resistance.

For even in a course on “working-class literature,” they are likely to share the belief we find everywhere else in the culture: that if there was a working class it is now largely “history,” having been replaced by a vast middle class, with a small sector of the rich above and the poor below.  This is serious distortion of the actuality Zweig describes.  But, as Jack Metzgar has pointed out in his important article “Politics and the American Class Vernacular,” the myth of the broad middle class has massive appeal and impressive staying power. As he explains, “The egalitarian ethos inherent in this notion of middleness has been seen as peculiarly ‘American’ and essential to democracy by political sociologists from Alexis de Tocqueville to Alan Wolfe.”

It appears again, for instance, in Time magazine’s July 2, 2012 issue, which features a lead article by Jon Meacham on “The History of the American Dream.”  In it Meacham recycles the claim that 90% of Americans self-identify as middle class.   This claim is likely based — Time does not cite its sources — on a finding published in the mid-1990s by democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg.  According to Metzgar, the notion of a 90% middle class was thoroughly debunked by S.M Miller in his 1995 article “Class Dismissed,” in which he pointed out that surveys do not usually offer “working class” as a possible self-identification.  Metzgar notes that, when given that option, in surveys conducted by the National Opinion Research Center, 46% of respondents identify as working class and 46% as middle class, with 5% “lower” and 3% “upper” class.

The American class vernacular is routinely re-inscribed in popular consciousness during election seasons, as we are seeing again this year.   I just received another fundraising appeal from Barack Obama, urging me to join him in reclaiming “the basic bargain that built the middle class and the most prosperous nation on earth.”  In fact, according to the Legatum Institute’s 2011 index, Norway is the world’s most prosperous nation, if prosperity is defined to include both wealth and wellbeing.   By this accounting the US comes 10th, behind Canada and all the Scandinavian countries.   Whatever the facts, it is clear that the nationalistic concern with being the greatest nation on earth – as if geopolitics is a sport and what matters most is our standing in the league tables – is deeply linked to the myth of the inclusive middle class, and that this class is assumed to have a right, as Americans, to expect increasing prosperity.

As Zweig, Metzgar, and others have pointed out, the trouble with the myth of the vast inclusive middle class within our national imaginary is the resulting disappearance from public view of the actually existing and vastly diverse American working-class majority.   This is in fact the population that has been so battered by the Great Recession and by the neoliberal political and economic tide that fostered it.   These are the “folks” Obama tells me he hears from every day “who are out of work, have lost their home, are struggling to pay their bills, are burdened with debt, are underemployed or worried about retirement.”

In a typically mis-titled article in the November 2011 Atlantic,Can the Middle Class Be Saved?”  Don Peck points out that from 2007 through 2009 employment levels for the professional middle class remained essentially unchanged, whereas 1 in 12 non-managerial (i.e. working-class) white collar jobs disappeared, along with 1 in 6 blue collar jobs.  Meantime, according to Peck, “from 2002 to 2007, out of every three dollars of national income growth, the top 1 percent of earners captured two” dollars — and this effect has only accelerated since then.  On this evidence, it is the working class that needs to be saved, or to save itself.

And yet, in her important new book The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics and Postwork Imaginaries (Duke UP, 2011) Kathi Weeks draws this discouraging conclusion about the radical potential of a political critique founded on the concept of the working class:

The problem is that while the oppositional class category of the industrial period—the “working class”— may accurately describe most people’s relation to waged labor even in a post-industrial economy, it is increasingly less likely to match their self-descriptions.  The category of the middle class has absorbed so many of our subjective investments that it is difficult to see how the working class can serve as a viable rallying point in the United States today.

Given that we always have this uphill battle to establish the salience of the term working class, I’ve been wondering lately whether it is worth the effort we expend, in our scholarship and teaching, in repeatedly pushing the boulder to the top of the hill, only to see it roll down again.  What’s at stake for us in posing an analysis based upon a more accurate accounting of US class structures and relations?   How viable is such an analysis as a resource for political critique and action in the present moment?  And how useful is it for teaching students about their place in the world and the prospects for their interventions in it — starting with, but not limited to this November’s elections?

Next month, I’ll take up these questions in light of the challenges to class analysis posed by Weeks and others.   In the meantime, commentary from readers would be most welcome.

Nick Coles

Against Pursuing Excellence

I am not against excellence.  I just think it’s over-rated as an aspiration.  In fact, I think aspiration itself may be over-rated.

When I see excellence — when I’m competent to recognize it (and in many fields, like science and opera, I am not) — it is thrilling and heartening, as a friend once said, to realize what the species is capable of at its best.  Excellence is by definition rare, and the kind of excellence that thrills, rarer still.  It is not just a little better than “good.”  It’s way better in a way that stuns ordinary expectations, and expands them.  So the more excellence there is in the world, the better.

But that doesn’t mean we should pursue it.  First, doing so has a strong tendency to lead to a wicked combination of hypocrisy and lower standards.  As a professor at a fourth tier university that has recently scrambled up to the third tier, I’ve sat through a lot of commencements where speakers have tried to inspire graduates to “always pursue excellence, and never settle for second best.”  I love that university in an immoderate way, and have from my first day of teaching there.  I love the students too.  But they are not pursuing excellence, and they’ll have to work very hard, with great discipline and persistence to get something close to “second best.”  I’m confident that most of them will, that their education has improved their chances, and that most of them will appreciate getting into the neighborhood of the second best, but I fear for those who genuinely pursue excellence and even more for those who think they have achieved it.

Second, there is no evidence that pursuing excellence actually leads to it.   Based on the testimony of many great artists, for example, excellence more often happens if not by accident, then through a combination of circumstances where the conscious pursuit of excellence is not one of the circumstances.  An extraordinary talent or “gift” is often one of those circumstances, as is determination and focus in pursuit of a specific goal – curing cancer or perfectly expressing a complex feeling or thought in the hopes that others might recognize it.  “Things just all seem to come together” in a way – luck, strategic help from friends and colleagues, a muse or collection of muses — that is beyond the will of the artist or scientist or carpenter or statesperson.

My main gripe with pursuing excellence, however, is the way it necessarily encourages competition among individuals.  Excelling means measuring ourselves against others, and this tends to undermine our focus on doing a good job. That is, trying to excel can distract us from what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, as we pause to rank ourselves against others doing something similar.

Most of us figure out fairly early in life that excellence is not in our range of capability, but the drumbeat of a culture that insists on excelling and not being second best leads us to try anyway.  Sometimes this trying makes us better than we might otherwise be, but more often, I’m convinced, it leads to an unhealthy concern to out achieve others, to feel diminished by their accomplishments, and to be constantly reevaluating our self-worth in relation to our perception of others.  This leads to a certain broken sadness, if not clinical depression, alternating with an exaggerated and exaggerating tooting of our own horn – ostensibly to impress others, but mostly to approve ourselves.  This high-stakes competitiveness with others takes our eye off the ball, undermining whatever chance we may have of achieving excellence, which in most human endeavor requires a little help from our friends.

Though probably overdrawn in this brief space, such a phenomenon is characteristic, in my view, of professional middle-class culture in early 21st century America.  The original ethic of professionalism was to establish certain minimum standards for an emerging profession and then gradually improve them.  It was a collective endeavor to elevate the level of the profession, which elevation would help not only those in the profession, but everybody — indeed, it would advance the species. (These were standard claims of middle-class professionals in the Progressive Era.  See From Higher Aims to Hired Hands for how even the professionalization of business management was originally rooted in such claims.)  Status was always an (overly) important concern, but it wasn’t atomistically individualized the way it is now.  Today’s resume-builders often actively disrespect their profession in order to individually stand out in their superior pursuit of excellence.

Fortunately, working-class culture is still a healthy, if beleaguered, antidote to the dominant middle-class one, and I have been fortunate to spend my life teaching working adults who “just want to be average” in a program that is reliably good at helping them achieve that goal.  Working hard and doing a good job, “pulling my weight” and “doing my part” – not pursuing excellence – are the core motivating values that working-class people feel bad about when they don’t live up to them.  Being outstanding is not only eschewed, it is actively feared, and the culture has subtle and not so subtle sanctions against it.

The problem is not only that the dominant middle-class culture is more dominant than ever or that its characteristic individualism is turning into an other-directed caricature of itself.  Rather, the extreme levels of income inequality we have now reached make the working-class way dramatically more economically punishing.  My students often have to at least mimic a phony pursuit of excellence if they are to provide for themselves and their families.  The worse things get, the more they are told not to sell themselves short, to set their sights high, to aspire to become whatever you want to be (unless, of course, you just want to be yourself).  Our crazy levels of economic inequality also foster a winner-takes-all culture. Winners should get not just all the honor and the glory, but most of the money and the power.  Losers should aspire to do better.

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger document the devastating effects income inequality has on everything from reduced social mobility and health (both physical and mental) to higher levels of crime, teen pregnancy, infant mortality, and drug and alcohol addiction.  One of the most surprising results they found is that the more unequal a country is, the higher the aspirations children report and the larger the gap between aspirations and actual opportunities.  Conversely, the more equal a country’s incomes are, the more children report low aspirations – while doing better in education and all other indicators of social well-being.  The correlations Wilkinson and Pickett found among the richest countries in the world allow the conclusion that high aspirations lead to lower educational achievement – that is, that pursuing excellence actually makes a society less likely to achieve it.  This accords with my own observation and experience.  A culture that encourages people to “work hard and do a good job” leads to greater personal integrity, better mental health, and higher actual performance levels than the false counsel to “pursue excellence and never settle for second best.”

Jack Metzgar

American History without the Working Class — Again!

As interesting and insightful as American Prospect reviewer Sarah Igo makes it seem, I am not going to read Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character by Berkeley sociologist Claude Fischer.

According to Igo, Fischer is a “master of synthesis, sifting through hundreds of studies of local communities and the lives of ordinary men and women . . . to arrive at what he sees as the defining arcs of American culture from the colonial period to the present.”  And, she says, the book displays “sensitivity to the experiences of disparate Americans but also comfort with broad generalizations.”  As I will explain, the timing is perfect for such an effort.  And even if many of the “broad generalizations” turn out to be too broad, or even flat-out wrong, they should be usefully provocative for anybody who is trying to understand current American culture and who believes, as I do, that past is always prologue.

But Igo critically (if too forgivingly) reveals a key premise of Fischer’s “synthesis” that makes me dismiss this social history out of hand.  Fischer straightforwardly equates “American character and culture” with “middle-class culture” and makes no apology for doing so because, he says, “the American middle class lives and promulgates the distinctive and dominant character of the society.”

I’ve seen this before.  In fact, it is still a widely accepted academic convention that, as the authors of Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life premised in the mid-1980s, if you understand the American middle class you understand Americans in general because “the middle class . . . has so dominated our culture that neither a genuinely upper-class nor a genuinely working-class culture has fully appeared.”  Books like American Manhood and American Cool make similar claims, often admitting a certain narrowness in their prefaces, but then proceeding recklessly to treat their version of middle-class culture as synonymous with the distinctively “American.”  Peter Stearns, for example, not only admits a middle-class narrowness in his introduction to American Cool, he further lets the cat out of the bag by granting that “[l]ike many studies of the middle class, it is biased toward evidence from Protestants in the North and West.”

I can see why publishers would not want more descriptive titles using unwieldy terms like American Middle-Class Manhood in the North and West, but this is more than a matter of deceptive marketing.  The actual practice of excluding working-class culture from the discussion is what Benjamin DeMott has called “middle-class imperialism,” which is less about actual economic and political domination than it is about middle-class scholars simply mistaking a part (their part, our part) for the whole, thereby maintaining their/our cultural domination.  The professional middle class in America is culturally dominant, in my view, even though we are economically subordinate to a ruling class and somewhat less politically subordinate but in a more complicated way.

Though I’m open to debate, I’m basically okay with the cultural predominance of the professional middle class.  If we have to choose among cultures, I’d choose – indeed, I have chosen – the middle-class one.  But middle-class imperialism that mistakes our part for the whole of American culture is the same kind of illusion as James Baldwin pointed to in the 1960s when he said, “If I’m not what the white man thinks I am, then he has to find out what he is.”  If working-class culture is not simply a discount version of middle-class culture, like hand-me-down clothes; if it has its own internal logic, constellation of values, and distinct history, as well as its own internal contradictions; if working-class culture influences middle-class culture as well as being influenced by it – then middle-class Americans misunderstand ourselves, as well as the larger society, when we mistake our part for the whole.

The concept of a “dominant culture” within a society presumes that there are other cultures different from the dominant one – Protestants in Italy, for example, or Catholics in England, Kurds in Iraq, or new and recent immigrants in all countries.  You cannot understand a dominant culture by excluding reference to the ones it dominates, how and why it predominates, and how it influences other cultures even if you think they have no influence on it.  What’s more, wouldn’t it be important in understanding middle-class culture to know what it is in the middle of – traditionally, between capital and labor, between a ruling and a working class?  Isn’t this middleness fundamental to its character and culture?

The standard scholarly convention does not dispute these, or any other, notions of social structure.  It just assumes that the other classes ain’t got no (genuine) culture that isn’t fundamentally defined by the middle class.  I don’t know enough about the ruling class to say how “genuine” its culture is, but if Working-Class Studies has done nothing else, it has shown that there is a genuine working-class culture that is very different from the middle-class one.  And as Barbara Jensen, Annette Lareau, Betsy Leondar-Wright and numerous others have argued, this culture has many valuable aspects that compare favorably to middle-class character and culture, as well as some that don’t.   Most of us in the field, whether in our family lives, as teachers, culture workers or activists, have experienced the kinds of culture clashes that would be impossible if there were only one genuine “American” culture.

Made in America is an attempt to restore the kind of “consensus” view of American history that finds unity in diversity at the very core of our national character.  The civil rights, women’s and other social movements of the 1960s and ‘70s destroyed this view, aided in academia by African-American Studies, Women’s Studies, Chicano Studies, Queer Studies, the New Labor History, and others who insisted that attention be paid to those who had been excluded from the official understanding of our world.  This buffet banquet of diversity may by now have overemphasized our differences from one another, making it a good a time to try again to find what it is that unifies us, or could.  That’s why I was looking forward to this book when I first heard about it.  Though it is unfair to criticize a book I have not read, I know this isn’t the book I was looking for because you cannot find unity in diversity if you start out by eliminating most of the diversity – namely the majority of actually existing Americans who are not middle class.

Jack Metzgar. Chicago Center for Working-Class Studies

Welcome to the Working Class

As the financial industry celebrates its recovery from the Great Recession with huge bonuses, attention has turned increasingly to jobs.  But that’s not a new concern: over the past three decades first the working class and then the middle class faced unemployment caused by economic restructuring and globalization.  Back in the 70s and 80s, when working-class people were losing thousands of blue collar manufacturing jobs that paid middle-class wages, many economists brushed the problem aside, insisting that new forms of work would soon replace disappearing blue-collar jobs.  Industrial workers and their unions knew better 30 years ago.  They’ve long warned that economic restructuring, globalization, and unfair trade laws would result in the loss of the middle class.  Today we’re learning that they were right.

With the jobless recovery of the early 2000s and the ongoing unemployment crisis of today’s recession, the middle class is discovering that sociologists Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb were accurate when they suggested that what it means to be middle class is to be just one job away from poverty.  In Fear of Falling, Barbara Ehrenreich explored the impact of this decline on individual consciousness.  But it is only within the last decade that people who thought they were safely middle class have come to understand the episodic, anxiety-ridden, contingent, low-wage-and-benefit life of many in the working class.

And that experience seems likely to become permanent reality for many.  Unlike in past business cycles, the middle class has not been able to recover so far, despite increases in productivity and stock prices. In “America Without a Middle Class,” Elizabeth Warren documents how the de facto unemployment rate, credit debt, “underwater” mortgages, increased use of food stamps, personal bankruptcies, and the loss of pensions and health care have all dramatically increased.  Middle-class households have depleted their savings and are increasingly accruing debt to pay for college, health care, and other expenses.

The situation continues to worsen.  The latest monthly Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Report shows an additional 85,000 jobs lost. As the U.S. population grows, the need for jobs increases.  The economy would need 100,000 new jobs just to keep up. In other words, the net effect puts us 185,000 jobs behind where we need to be to stay even with current misery.  To make matters worse, 600,000 gave up looking for work and so were not even counted in the official unemployment rate.  Over the last decade, the data shows no net creation of new jobs.

Some experts believe that the decline in jobs will only continue. For example, Alexandra Levit predicts significant losses in a number of key industries between 2008 and 2018:  semiconductor manufacturing(33.7%), motor vehicle parts manufacturing (18.6%), printing and related jobs (16%), apparel manufacturing (57%), newspaper publishers (24,8%), mining support jobs (76,000 or 23,2%), and the postal service (13%). Corporations are moving many of these jobs offshore or replacing them with technology rather than paying middle class wages and benefits. The economists are right that new jobs are being created in place of these.  But as Jack Metzgar discussed last week, most of the new jobs offer even lower wages and benefits and require less education.

Since private sector jobs cannot or will not be replaced in significant numbers, working people will have to rely on government spending to fill the gap.  The first Obama stimulus, while important (see The Stimulus at Work), has clearly proven insufficient. The limits of this approach can be seen in California, Illinois, and New York.  No wonder business leaders like Warren Buffet, economists like Paul Krugman, and others are calling for second stimulus directed more at creating new jobs.

While many approaches have been offered, the Economic Policy Institute has outlined a simple plan to create jobs and stem the unemployment crisis. It contains five major themes: strengthening the social safety net (including unemployment compensation, COBRA health coverage, and nutrition assistance); providing additional fiscal relief to state and local governments; making renewed investments in infrastructure including transportation and schools; supporting direct creation of public service jobs; and establishing a new tax credit to employers who create new jobs.

No doubt, we need stronger government leadership in creating the jobs that will expand the so-called recovery from the financial sector to the jobs sector.  But making real, lasting change requires something more:  a reexamination of the neoliberal ideology that has been responsible for current economic crisis that is moving so many from the middle class to the working class.  As a recent Special Report in The American Prospect suggests, nothing short of an complete overhaul involving industrial, trade, and foreign policy will do, especially involving the revival of American manufacturing.

Why manufacturing? As Richard McCormack has found, the loss of a single manufacturing job in a single large manufacturing plant, such as the GM Moraine Assembly in Dayton, can result in the loss of 15 additional jobs in the local community and through supply chains – job losses that affect both working- and middle-class workers.  But it’s not just that lost manufacturing jobs have wide-ranging effects.  It’s also that manufacturing jobs, unlike the low-wage service jobs Metzgar wrote about last week, are more likely to pay a liveable wage and provide decent benefits.  Manufacturing jobs can be good working-class jobs, working-class jobs that can in turn help rebuild the middle class.

With a new stimulus package and a revitalized manufacturing sector, the Great Recession may – like the Great Depression before – provide the ideological stimulus to create a more humane economy that is supportive of the working class.  We need such a shift now, especially as the working class increasingly includes thousands who once thought they were solidly middle class.

John Russo