The Changing Working Class

In the old progressive narrative of American culture, everyone would do better over time. The son of a miner with an 8th grade education would graduate from high school, and even if he got an industrial job, stronger unions and general prosperity would mean that he worked fewer hours than his father and earned enough to buy a small house.  His daughter would go to college and get a job as a nurse or a teacher, and her kids might keep moving up by attending a better college and getting a better  job. And surrounding the generations of this one imaginary family would be most other families, so that over time, the whole country would experience increasing prosperity and higher social status.  Maybe everyone wasn’t going to make it to the middle class, but most people would get there.  (Of course, there’s a troubling counterpart to this narrative that blames those who didn’t become middle class for failing, but that’s another story.)

But something, actually many things, went wrong over the past few decades.  I’ve written before about the growth of income inequality, citing Timothy Noah’s analysis that describes it as a long-term trend with multiple contributing factors.  Perhaps because of income inequality, surveys suggest that Americans no longer expect their families to keep moving on up.  So despite the expectation that we would all become middle class, the working-class is not simply a majority, it is a growing majority.   That’s true according to the analyses of academics like Michael Zweig, who describes most Americans as working class on the basis of the limited power they have in the workplace. In the 2011 edition of his book America’s Working Class Majority, Zweig finds  that 63% of Americans are working class, up from 62% in the original 2000 book.  It’s also true in terms of how people identify themselves.  While the General Social Survey for decades has  shown that over 40% of Americans identify themselves as working class, the 2010 version of the survey, which the GSS reruns every few years, show that 46.8% now identify as working class, the highest percentage since the early 80s.

The working class is also changing.  The term used to call to mind blue-collar unionized workers with no college education, but today’s working class not only works in a wide range of jobs, but many have at least some college.  These days, many people with college degrees settle for jobs that don’t require the credential, and others whose jobs do require degrees have lost the professional autonomy that, according to Zweig, defines middle-class jobs.  Indeed, one of the reasons Zweig sees the working class growing is because so many teachers and nurses are now, on the basis of the limited control they have over their own labor, working class.  Many people go to college because it seems like the most promising path to economic security, but that promise fades when they can’t find jobs and are burdened by loans.  Combine that with an economic crisis and long-term shifts in employment that leave increasing numbers with precarious work, as John Russo noted recently, and it’s clear not only that more people belong to the working class but that the working class itself is becoming more educated and less-steadily-employed.

There’s another likely change in the American working class, one that reflects the broader shift in racial demographics.  The Congressional Research Service documents a slight decline in the percentage of Americans who self-identify as white, a slight increase in those who self-identify as Black, and more significant increases in those who identify themselves as Asian or Hispanic, and its study projects these trends to continue over time. Even if we looked only at population numbers, the working class – which was never really “all white” — is almost certainly becoming even more diverse.

The racial diversity of the working class is also likely increasing because of patterns in education and income.  While Blacks are more likely to get some college than are whites, whites earn more bachelor and advanced degrees, and whites with BAs earn about $10,000 a year more than Blacks with similar degrees.  Hispanics are less likely to either go to college or earn a degree than either Blacks or Whites, though when they do, they earn more than Blacks.  Beyond reminding us that racial differences still matter in education and earnings, these figures suggest that Hispanics and Blacks may be more likely than whites to remain in the working class even if they go to college.

Diversity isn’t only about race, of course.  A number of sources, including the Public Religion Research Institute, suggest that working-class political attitudes differ by gender, by region, by religion, and by situation, among other things.  They note, for example, that the white working class was at least somewhat divided along gender lines in this year’s election and that white Protestants were more likely to support Romney than were white Catholics. Their survey also found that voters who had been on food stamps were more likely to support Obama in this election, while those who had not received such assistance were more likely to support Romney.

So what does all of this add up to?  On the one hand, if the working class is growing, it ought to have more clout, as voters and as activists.  We may well be seeing a difference in elections, but there’s a big difference between people leaning just enough toward the Democrats to re-elect Obama and having a strong or coherent political voice.  The gap between functioning as an electoral block and developing a working-class consciousness that would fire coherent activism may be even larger. While the Occupy Movement stood up (and sometimes laid down) for economic justice, it’s unclear what role working-class people or working-class perspectives played in that movement.

The diversity of the working class, in all forms, may present a challenge to working-class organizing.  This has always been the case, of course, and the history of the labor movement reminds us of how difficult it can be to create unity among a diverse working class.  Today’s workplaces no longer provide as many opportunities for workers to come together or recognize their shared interests, and in a tight economy, working-class people sometimes see each other as the competition.  Given those challenges and the way working-class perspectives are also always shaped by race, gender, religion, and place, it’s hard to imagine a widespread, sustained working-class movement for economic and social change, even though it is so clearly needed.

On the other hand, social movements are not the only agents of change. Simply paying attention to the way the working class is changing and growing makes a difference, since it requires us to think about how social class is not a fixed structure but one that responds to other social and economic changes.  That matters for academics but also for civic life.  Being aware of the growing presence and diversity of the working class might make the media, educators, policy-makers, and yes, even politicians, more attentive to the importance of including working-class perspectives in public discourse and policymaking.

Sherry Linkon

Icons of the Rich and Famous

Most agree that Newt Gingrich’s win over Mitt Romney in South Carolina had to do with what the pundits are calling “unforced errors” on Romney’s part—a series of gaffs, blunders, and obfuscations relating to Romney’s wealth, his unreleased tax returns, the fortune he amassed at Bain Capital (as well as how he amassed it), and his offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands. While in 2008 comedians compared Romney to the Muppet Guy Smiley, in 2012 Romney is looking more like a cartoon cut out of the corporate stereotype—the top-hatted villain in countless American political cartoons of the last 100 years.

While Gingrich is more of a hard scrabble upstart when it comes to his family story, he certainly belongs to the inner circle of the super rich today. And if you have been following Rachel Maddow’s coverage of Gingrich, you know that she has successfully argued that he is little better than a scam artist, using his run for president to sell books written by himself and his wife Calista and using his consulting firms as tax write-offs, for example. But whatever Gingrich’s millions or his ethical problems,  he has been able to paint Romney—with Romney’s considerable assistance—as the only nervous, goofy, out-of-touch super rich guy in the race.

As the Republican primary continues on its strange course, I am convinced that Occupy Wall Street deserves a great deal of credit for our ability to see Romney as a purveyor of “vulture capitalism.” While the idea of the 1% wasn’t even on the radar during the Iowa Straw Poll in August, since then the Occupy movement has shifted the conversation, and the blame for our current economic crisis, to the wealthy.  Even now that the Occupy movement has been forced into hibernation for the winter, it has resurrected the grammar of the iconic rich dude in all of his manifestations—a visual grammar with a rich and complicated history.  That image of the 1% has been applied most effectively in this campaign season to Romney. We’ve seen this hundreds of times, in articles and blog posts, and perhaps most iconically in this disturbing photo taken when Romney was the head of Bain Capital.

Given the pervasive use of the super rich caricature, I thought it might be useful to take a look at its cultural history. One of the oldest negative 20th century stereotypes of the rich is the fat cat. The term in its current usage, as an insult for wealthy businessmen, was first coined by Frank Kent writing for H.L. Menken in The American Mercury. By the 1930s the term was used to insult specifically those wealthy businessmen who bankrolled politicians. The fat cat in political cartoons is usually represented as an obscenely fat orange tabby cat standing on two legs. He is always masculine, humanoid, and he towers over everyone else in the image—all the while wearing a dark suit, a cigar, and a sneer. In recent years the fat cat has been used by political cartoonists and activists in the US and around the world. Wisconsin-based cartoonist Mike Konopacki has a nice fat cat, and here’s a larger-than-life inflatable fat cat strangling a worker at a protest in front the World Bank. The fat cat is not to be confused with the black cat, an image used by Progressive Era IWW cartoonists to symbolize worker sabotage and resistance which has been making a comeback by way of Occupy Wall Street.

The robber baron is a close cousin of the fat cat. He is always male, top-hatted, holding a cigar, usually fat, and often very tall in scale compared to other figures in the image. The modern day iconography dates back to the 1870s era cartoons of Thomas Nast, poking fun at Andrew Carnegie and Jay Rockefeller, but the term is much older. According to Wikipedia the term dates back to Germany in the Middle Ages, when powerful Catholic bishops were allowed to collect tolls from passing ships on the Rhine river, sometimes stringing iron chains across the river. At times they overstepped their boundaries, and were perceived as “robbing” more than their fair share of tolls.

The Monopoly Man got his start as “Milburn Pennybags,” the capitalist icon of the best selling Parker Brothers Monopoly game in the 1930s. Mr. Pennybags is in considerably better shape than his fat cat/robber baron brethren. He is trim, agile, and more benignly comic. Like them, he does wear a top hat and a tux coat, but he usually holds a cane and has a monocle. In recent years Milburn Pennybags has become a counter-revolutionary icon, especially in the hands of LA street artist “Alec.” The New Yorker seemed to be channeling a rioting horde of Milburn Pennybag-types with its cover mocking the 1% last Fall. According to internet rumors, Mitt Romney always chooses to be the top hat when he plays Monopoly.

When it comes to animated comic images of the super rich, we have many figures to choose from, including Scrooge McDuck, Mr. Magoo, and Mr. Burns from The Simpsons. But one of more unusual icons is that of the child millionaire Richie Rich. He was born out of the comic series “Little Dot” in 1953, and, according to Wikipedia, he was Harvey Comic’s most popular character for much of the 1960s and 1970s. Richie Rich is usually dressed in blue short pants, an Eton collar, and a large red bow. Unlike his adult counterparts Richie Rich likes to give away his millions. He was turned into an animated television cartoon in the 1980s, and a live action film starring McCauly Caulkin in 1994. In 2011 Ape Entertainment re-licensed Richie Rich, making him into a globe-trotting do-gooder.

There are almost no animated icons of the super rich in feminine form, except perhaps Cruella De Vil. She was created in 1956 by British novelists Dodie Smith (the daughter of a bank manager) whose novel about Dalmations was adapted by Disney in 1961. In the original story Cruella was a London heiress with a 6 million pound fortune (or 1 billion dollars today, according to Forbes Magazine). As a school girl she was expelled for drinking ink. It has been argued that some of De Vil’s extravagances were based on those of the actress Tallulah Bankhead. In the original story, she is married to a furrier who comes off as a hen-pecked husband, but in the Disney version she is definitely a single lady. Her name can be easily parsed. Cruella stands for “cruel,” and “De Vil” is “devil.” She is something of a fashion icon, copied recently by Lady Gaga, and for some inexplicable reason there is a facebook page called “people who think that Nancy Pelosi looks like Cruella De Vil.”

There are many more icons of the rich, of course, and some personal favorites include Thurston Howell, III from Gilligan’s Island, Bruce Wayne (Batman), Willy Wonka and Jed Clampett. But I was surprised to see that the idea of the filthy rich fictional character has become so embedded in our culture that for the last ten years Forbes Magazine has been tracking the fortunes of the 15 wealthiest rich icons. Daddy Warbucks, Santa Claus, Laura Croft, and Jabba the Hut have all appeared on this tongue-in-cheek list.

All this leaves me with more questions than answers. On the one hand I believe that attention must be paid to these burlesques of the super rich, if only to acknowledge that Americans have a penchant for ridiculing both the higher and lower orders in our comedic traditions. It is not just the blue collar bus driver (Ralph Kramden), or the nuclear plant worker (Homer Simpson) that is the butt of the joke in American culture. But for all the laughs we might have at the expense of the super rich, how is that they still have so much power? Is the comedic icon a mere distraction, like everything else in our culture, drawing our attention away from the streets and the voting booth? Or can the representation of the banker as ogre have genuine political impact on the American electorate? If Newt Gingrich becomes the nominee, will his status as a secret member of the “Van Dough” family finally be revealed?

What is your favorite icon of the rich and famous? And what do you think it means?

Kathy M. Newman

Hollywood and the Working Class

Last week one of the strangest stories to go viral in the first hours after riot police cleared Occupy Wall Street protesters from Zuccotti Park was the fact that dozens of celebrities were tweeting about the raid. Tweets from Alec Baldwin, John Cusack, Chuck D, Russell Simmons and Michael Moore were re-circulated in at least 8,000 news stories, blogs and other tweets. Journalists reported that the celebrity tweets were full of concern and outrage, as in this tweet from Mark Ruffalo “People in Liberty Park were pepper sprayed. Police beat women. Press pushed out so they could not witness the crackdown. Dehumanizing 99%#Ows.”

At virtually the same moment Time magazine mounted a slide show on its website of the five most “colorful” celebrity critics of Occupy Wall Street. At the top of the list was Frank Miller, author/illustrator of 300, Sin City and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns who called the protestors “a bunch of iPhone, iPad wielding spoiled brats who should stop getting in the way of working people and find jobs for themselves.” Also in the top five were Ben Stein, long time Republican-identified star of the game show Win Ben Stein’s Money and All Clear eye solution commercials, The View talk show host Elizabeth Hasselbeck, hyperbolic pundit Glenn Beck, and Frasier star Kelsey Grammer.

Though this recent news coverage of celebrity involvement in politics is almost parodically superficial, political celebrity is hardly the latest fad. Activism by actors is as old as Hollywood itself . As Steven J. Ross argues in his new book, Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics (2011), the power of Hollywood celebrities to effect real political change dates back to the first red scare in US history, when J. Edgar Hoover ordered FBI agents in to investigate left-leaning stars. In 1922 FBI agents reported back to Hoover that “numerous movie stars” were taking “an active part in the Red movement in this country.” These actors, the agents reported, were “hatching a plan to circulate ‘Communist propaganda…via the movies.’”

If The New York Times is right (and I hope it is) and Occupy Wall Street represents the legitimate beginnings of the third progressive movement in modern American politics, then Ross’s book is a timely reminder that we should treat celebrities’ involvement in politics seriously. With Hollywood Left and Right, Ross has produced a thoroughly researched, extremely readable, and fascinating account of Hollywood stars, on the left as well as the right, who have used their money, influence, and star power, as well as their considerable organizing and leadership talents to create, sustain, and shape American political movements.

Ross has spent much of his career finding the connections between popular films, film stars, and working class and left politics. His seminal Working Class Hollywood offered the counter-intuitive thesis that working class politics could be found in early silent films, and in this book Ross argued that unions were among the most enthusiastic early adopters of film technology for their cause.

With Hollywood Left and Right, Ross gives us ten engaging biographies of some of the most prominent and political Hollywood stars and moguls, from studio head Louis B. Mayer to Charlie Chaplin, Edward G. Robinson, Harry Belafonte, George Murphy, Warren Beatty, Charlton Heston, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

For readers like myself who did not grow up in the 1950s and 1960s, the biographies of Ronald Reagan and Jane Fonda are especially surprising. In the Jane Fonda chapter Ross explains how Fonda’s momentary lapse in judgment during a trip to Vietnam labeled her forever as Hanoi Jane, but Ross also shows why her long, committed political career should be seen in greater detail and complexity. Fonda was an important foot soldier as well as a leader and strategist for the New Left—an activist more committed to stuffing envelopes and knocking on doors than to becoming a high profile emblem of the cause. Likewise the stereotype of Reagan as an “actor turned politician” does little justice to Reagan’s long, sometimes contradictory, but surprisingly intellectual and well-thought-out transition from the silver screen to the presidency.

But what about Hollwood and the working class? What can Ross’s history of political celebrities tell us about this fragile and fascinating relationship? Ross shows at least three ways that political celebrities have connected to the working class over the last century:1) many political celebrities came from working-class backgrounds and/or had working class sympathies from a young age; 2) many political celebrities have played working-class characters; 3) many political celebrities, both left and right, have understood that their audiences were mostly working-class and have used the populist rhetoric of “ordinary Americans” to explain their political actions.

Of the Hollywood luminaries that Ross profiles, Louis B. Mayer, Charlie Chaplin, and Edward G. Robinson had the most hard-scrabble childhoods. Mayer, born Lazar Meir in the Ukraine, migrated to Canada in the early 1900s,where his father became a junk dealer. For London-born Chaplin, after his parents divorced he was “plunged into the harsh underbelly of Victorian London.” It was there, according to Ross, that the humiliation Chaplin suffered at the hands of condescending reformers and do-gooders was even worse than being cold and hungry. Edward G. Robinson was a Romanian immigrant whose parents sent their sons to America one by one, as they could afford to, after Robinson’s brother Jack was killed in Romania by an anti-Semitic mob. Robinson later attended PS 20 in New York City, living with his family in a “cramped Broome Street tenement flat.” And even stars like Reagan and Warren Beatty, who grew up in relatively middle-class homes, both suffered from having alcoholic fathers. Low down suffering, it seems, lurks in the biography of many a political Hollywood star.

Ross also writes about the way these political stars played working-class characters on the big screen. Ross explains how Chaplin created working-class characters, like The Tramp, who was not content with his station in life, and who even engaged in political struggle, however hilariously. Robinson played lowbrow gangsters throughout the 1930s, and he knew that the gangster motif appealed to working-class viewers who envied the gangster’s material success but who also judged the route the gangster used to achieve it. Belafonte, who also had a difficult immigrant childhood, played a labor leader in the film Island in the Sun (1957). Warren Beatty, who resisted many calls to enter politics as a candidate in his own right, played the radical John Reed, in the epic film Reds. Jane Fonda memorably played Gertie Nevels, the luckless working-class Appalachian mother in The Dollmakers (1984).

Finally, Ross writes about the way that Hollywood’s more political stars understood the classed nature of the film industry’s mass audience, and how some used populist rhetoric to describe their own political choices. Mayer, despite his conservative politics, or, perhaps because of them, understood that the movie industry was built on the “nickels of the working class.” Reagan and George Murphy, from the years they spent appealing to viewers at the box office as “B” movie stars, understood how to craft a message that would appeal to working-class Americans, even if the policies they campaigned for ultimately hurt those same people. “Americans really are conservatives,” Reagan argued on the campaign trail in the 1960s. “They pay their bills, they don’t run big debts.” Echoing this populist note, Arnold Schwarzenegger “warned Democratic and Republican politicians tos ‘do your job for the people and do it well, otherwise you’re hasta la vista, baby.’” Likewise Jane Fonda’s China Syndrome is about the way ordinary people rise up against a large corporation, demanding answers as well as change.

The most important lesson of Ross’s book is that when Hollywood stars become political, their rhetoric, and their activism, should be taken seriously. Though Ross certainly leans to the left himself, he admires the sincerity and the skill with which even right-leaning Hollywood politicos have operated. “They worked as hard at their politics as they did at their screen careers,” Ross argues. The “United States would be a far better place,” Ross, concludes, if each of us was willing to work as hard as these emblematic Hollywood luminaries.

But another, more subtle lesson of Hollywood Left and Right is that political movie stars have often understood that the working class—the 60+% of Americans who do most of the difficult and underappreciated work in our country—must be recognized for the productivity and consumer power they possess. From the ranks of the working class, and, especially, from the ranks of working-class immigrants, we have been given some of our biggest entertainers and stars. Their understanding of poverty, suffering, and solidarity can serve as inspiration to the rest of us, whatever our backgrounds.

Kathy M. Newman

Memo to the Occupiers

Occupy Wall Street has many on the left cheering.  That includes me, albeit with reservations.

As someone who devoted a good portion of his life to fighting  injustice—or as the late liberal icon and state legislator Robert Hagan was fond of saying “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable”—I have a natural affinity for the folks camped out in New York and other cities around the nation and the world.

On the other hand, as someone who has spent the past 24 years striving to affect change by working both inside and outside the “system” I listen to the white noise that’s emanating from the protesters and all I can say is: “Really?”

Really, you have managed to garner the attention of the media around the world and you can’t figure out what the hell it is you want?

Really, leaders of the protests—to the extent there actually are any—are offended that the media is even asking what the hell you want?

Really, the best answer you can give is this kind of mumbo jumbo as reported in the New York Times:

The General Assembly has already adopted a “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City,” which includes a list of grievances against corporations and a call for others to join the group in peaceful assembly. To many protesters, that general statement is enough, and the open democracy of Zuccotti Park is the point of the movement.

Really, if that’s the point, you guys should all pack up your stuff, grab a low fat, grande latte on your way out, and go home, because you’re wasting everybody’s time.  Worse yet, you’re actually helping the very comfortable miscreants you’re supposedly there to afflict.

Let’s be serious, anyone who thinks the traders and financiers walking around in $5,000 bespoke suits in the offices overlooking the protests gives a damn about marches, chants, signs, or the invective that’s hurled at them as they arrive and leave in their limos and Town Cars each day is, in a word, delusional.  I’ve dealt with people like them, they know they’re evil, they enjoy it, they revel in it, and believe me, they’re laughing at the protesters all day, every day, including on the weekends whether they’re at their Beach House in the Hamptons or flying off to the islands on their Gulfstream Vs.

In fact, when they hear words like these from the occupiers they literally laugh so hard that Dom Perignon flies out of their noses:

In Boston, Meghann Sheridan wrote on the group’s Facebook page, “The process is the message.” In Baltimore, Cullen Nawalkowsky, a protester, said by phone that the point was a “public sphere not moderated by commodities or mainstream political discourse.” An Occupy Cleveland participant, Harrison Kalodimos, is even writing a statement about why demands are not the answer.

Yup, I can see the boys at City Bank reading this stuff in the NYT and then saying: “OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOh we’re so scared of a public sphere not moderated by commodities” Give me a break.

Even someone as smart as Paul Krugman, whom I respect and with whom I usually agree, has been taken in by the “protest is enough” claptrap that, at least for the moment, defines OWS.

You see, until a few weeks ago it seemed as if Wall Street had effectively bribed and bullied our political system into forgetting about that whole drawing lavish paychecks while destroying the world economy thing. Then, all of a sudden, some people insisted on bringing the subject up again.

And their outrage has found resonance with millions of Americans. No wonder Wall Street is whining.

OK, Paul, Wall Street is whining, but guess what, they’re also winning.  That’s because they have bribed and bullied the political system, including the Obama Administration, into doing nothing either to punish them for the damage they’ve done to the economy or to stop them from doing it again.

While I’ll grant that the outrage being expressed does resonate with a vast majority of Americans, that outrage means nothing if it’s not converted into action that brings about real change.  That’s what turns a protest into a movement that fundamentally alters and improves the world we live in.

History provides many examples of how this works: Ghandi’s crusade to dismantle South Africa’s pass laws in the early 1900s; the labor movement’s battle to organize industrial workers in the ‘30s; Dr. King’s drive to secure passage of the Voting Rights Act and other civil rights statutes; the anti-Vietnam war movement that brought down LBJ.  Even this year’s protests in Ohio against SB 5.  All started as protests with clearly defined goals that turned into effective movements.

The same can be said for the Tea Party.  Derided as yahoos and know-nothings when they emerged to protest corporate bailouts and President Obama’s health care reform plan, they coalesced into a movement built on easily understandable demands: smaller government and lower taxes.  Their mantra was adopted by dozens of GOP Congressional candidates in 2010 and played a major role in ousting the Democratic majority.  Since taking power, the Tea Party members have been driving the legislative agenda in Congress—including killing virtually every initiative proposed by the President.

So, here’s some advice for the occupiers wherever you are.  Learn from history.  If you want Wall Street and the new Robber Barons to stop laughing at you, figure out the things they fear and hate the most, then make those things happen.

That’s a principle Tom Friedman of the New York Times grasped in a recent column.  He suggested that OWS demand that four reforms be imposed on the financial services industry.  Nice try, Tom.  Unfortunately, as you point out in the very same column, Wall Street owns Congress, having purchased it with $3.2 billion in campaign contributions over the past 20 years.  As long as that’s the case, it will be a very cold day in Zucotti Park and the other places the OWSers are congregating before the change they’re seeking occurs.

So what should the protesters demand or do?  Here’s two suggestions for starters.  First, fight for real campaign finance reform that reverses the Citizens United decision and takes the “For Sale” sign off the Capitol and the White House.  Renew the push for publicly financed campaigns started a couple of decades ago by folks like Fred Wertheimer.  Look, it’s a proven fact that politicians respond to the people who write the checks that finance their campaigns. So it’s logical to believe that if those checks come from Main Street rather than Wall Street the people with the power to reform the financial system might actually do it.  Now that’s something the fat cats will really hate.

Second, the protestors should head to Massachusetts and do whatever it takes to make Dr. Elizabeth Warren Senator Warren in January of 2013.  There’s no one Wall Street hates more, which should be motivation enough to support her campaign.  There’s also a practical reason: her willingness to fight for working families.  Elect her to the Senate where she can team up with a principled colleague like Bernie Sanders of Vermont and they can use the body’s arcane rules to grind business to halt—either to force passage of reform legislation or block bills that favor Wall Street.

Accomplish these two goals and the OWS will have taken a huge stride in going from “Really?” to really making a difference.

Leo Jennings

The Creative Class Joins the Working-Class

How is the so-called creative class faring in the ongoing economic crisis?  In three books published in the first decade of this century, Richard Florida argued that America’s future lay in metropolitan regions with a high density of “sexually diverse,” cultural, professional, and high-tech workers whose creativity would attract capital and spur future economic development. Recently, in articles in magazines like and The Atlantic, critics have been debating whether the creative class is undergoing the same economic transformations as the working class.

 Undaunted by the economic crisis and the subsequent, continuing jobless recovery, Florida continues to suggest that the answer to post-industrialization lies in the continued migration of the so-called creative class to a few cosmopolitan urban areas. The transformation in economic geography would produce winners and losers both individually and regionally based on the ability of communities to develop and attract human capital. His Martin Prosperity Institute has contributed to a report ranking nations on the basis of their investment in innovation and technology.  Of course, all of this reflects Florida’s neo-liberal view that such changes are part of the “natural economic order,” and he has consistently attempted to normalize the new emerging economic order.

But despite Florida’s claims, the creative class is not necessarily winning in the current economy.  Like industrial workers before them, they are being affected by the past 30 years of neo-liberal economic reforms characterized by deregulation, marketization, and liberal trade policy that yielded significant corporate profits from the subcontracting, outsourcing, and the casualization of work in unskilled and semi-skilled industries. As the past decade has made clear, corporations and governments have used those same strategies to make employment for skilled workers, including those in the “knowledge industries,” increasingly precarious.

This has been aided by a different model and language of work, drawn from the so-called “creative industries” — those areas where employees, often in the arts and more recently higher education, were willing to give up stable employment in hierarchical organizations and embraced – or at least accepted – contingent employment involving self-directed, entrepreneurial, and cognitive labor. Florida provided much of the language and rationale for that shift, and his ideas had an significant impact on public discussions of economic development and urban renewal. Further, his view had great currency with the growing ranks of mobile, privileged, educated workers who were willing to embrace the high-risk/high reward employment/worker model.

But Florida had relatively little to say about the real working lives of members of the creative class and the changing organization of work produced by the changes he predicted. In fact, as Scott Timberg argues in, the new creative class now shares the same working conditions as many on the other end of the labor market, especially those in the service sector that makes up the majority of today’s working class.  These conditions include uncertainty, temporary or intermittent employment, working in multiple jobs, and accepting jobs for which they are overqualified.  Creative workers, like many in the working class, are isolated from protective legal employment laws and are less likely to have benefits such health insurance, retirement plans, or paid sick leave. Put differently, young educated people, so popularly identified with the creative class, are suffering the same conditions as working and middle class families and could become what Business Week reporter Peter Coy has called a Lost Generation.

As work has eroded and become more episodic, not only does the creative class share the economic conditions of the working class, that group also now shares the working-class’s sense of alienation from American politics and antagonism toward the economic elite who have gained so much ground over the last decade. You need to look no further than the growth of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement.  On the streets of New York and in cities around the country, you see highly educated  young adults joining with displaced working- and middle-class people who believe the American Dream has become nightmare. They have been joined by public and private union members including 300 airline pilots marching in full dress uniform. All are rallying around their shared position as part of the 99% of Americans – a loose coalition much larger and more diverse than any single class.

What brings them together is a politics of resentment that is fueled by growing understanding and anger over the increasing economic inequality in the U.S.  While OWS has focused on Wall Street and government plutocrats, it is expanding and multiplying like an amoeba, in different directions politically and geographically. The issues driving people to occupy not only Wall Street but Public Square in Cleveland and a public park in Kansas City and a dozen other locations are not identical.  Each local group works independently, and they are focusing on issues ranging from the economy and war to agricultural and environmental policy,

As Kathy Newman said in Working-Class Perspectives last week, one of the great things about the OWS movement is its inclusivity. This should not be unexpected. Like the many middle class Americans, the creative class now shares the employment and economic conditions of working people and has shed their sense of difference and superiority over the working class. They now understand that despite the façade of self-direction and creativity, their economic position is every bit as uncertain and unfair as that of many retail, food service, and health care workers.  Just where this new amoeboid politics of resentment goes is anybody’s guess. But we can hope that it will become even more directed at those who are responsible for shaping the current national and global economic conditions that has now engaged and enraged so many people.

John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies

Upsetting the Apple Cart

Last week, a few days before Steve Jobs died of pancreatic cancer, a friend posted a critique of the Occupy Wall Street protesters on her facebook page, in which she basically slammed the protesters for preaching the gospel of anti-corporatism all the while plunking out tweets and status updates from their Apple computers.  My friend was irritated by the irony:  “If you want to change the system,” she wrote, “analyze first the way you live within it.”

I could see her point, but I found myself defending the protesters because they were making me happy.  I loved seeing the creative signs (You Know Things Are Messed Up When Librarians Start Marching), reading about the Human Microphone, and watching as the mainstream media seemed forced against its will to cover the movement.

Then, last Wednesday, October 5th, two startling things happened.  First, New York unions joined the protesters and swelled their numbers into the many thousands.  Hundreds of new organizations around the world covered the actions and thousands of news articles about the protests appeared on radio, television, newspapers, and online.  On the same day it was announced that legendary Apple co-founder Steve Jobs had died, and Apple devotees around the country mourned his passing on facebook and Twitter and by leaving flowers at the door of Apple stores.  Tweets from Occupy Wall Streeters supporters around the globe were mix of “RIP Steve Jobs” and “Occupy Together.”

How can we make sense of these outpourings of spontaneous action, in protesting and in mourning, that have gripped Americans over the last week?

Occupy Wall Street seems to have the most obvious political significance of the two, though the media are struggling to explain it.  The media messages about the protests can be boiled down into three basic narratives:

1)  The movement has no message.  This is a fascinating claim because in the age of instant communication I am not sure that any movement has been able to get its message out more quickly or more clearly.  The message is that 99% of Americans have far too little of the nation’s wealth.  (see Annie Lowrey, here, from Slate, examining the truth behind this claim).  The message is Make Jobs, Not War on Middle, Working Class and Poor.  The message is If I Had a Job I Would Not Be Here.  The message is A Better World is Possible.  True, the movement does not have a list of answerable demands.  But then again, while many have criticized the movement for not having any clear objectives, others have praised it for staying open and flexible.

2)  The movement is the left wing answer to the Tea Party.  I find this narrative somewhat more plausible.  There is something spontaneous, angry, funny, and absurd about the protests that bears some similarities to Tea Party protests (there are even some misspellings in the hand made signs—though not as many).  On the other hand, there is little evidence (so far) that big money is bankrolling the occupiers, as the Koch brothers and other have bankrolled the Tea Party.  In addition, the Occupy Wall Street movement is targeted at the financial system and not the government.  The message, in fact, is that the financial system has largely taken control of the government.

3)  The movement is the beginning of a new, legitimate movement on the left.  This is the narrative by which I am the most persuaded.  While I liked the movement immediately, I liked it even more when union activists started supporting the New York protesters with blankets and food.  My admiration increased again when union activists and members started marching with the protestors last Wednesday.

One of the best things about the movement so far is its inclusivity.  While political scientists, economists, and Marxist theorists debate who is or who is not working class (I am partial to Michael Zweig’s definition which finds about 66% of us to be working class), I feel included in the OWS protests even though I am an English professor at a prestigious university married to another white collar professional.  Because even though my husband and I make a better living than most, we are still solidly in the 99%.

As a result, Occupy Wall Street taps into the rage and frustration that I feel because the Pittsburgh school budget was cut and my son’s bus stop was moved to one of the most dangerous intersections in my neighborhood.  It taps into the rage and frustration that I feel when the students that I teach at Carnegie Mellon University can’t find jobs after they graduate while they are tens of thousand of dollars in debt.  It taps into the rage and frustration I feel when my friends in the labor movement cannot (yet) post information about basic workers rights on bulletin boards in the workplace.  It taps into the rage and frustration I feel when wages, rights, and benefits of union members in Wisconsin, Ohio, and dozens of other states are attacked. It taps into the rage and frustration that I feel knowing how many immigrant families in Alabama are struggling to stay together since the repressive anti-immigrant laws recently passed are now being enforced.

So what does all of this have to do with Steve Jobs?  Whose side would he be on?  Since his death many have written about his company’s dreadful labor practices, his relative lack of philanthropy, and his autocratic personality.  Nonetheless, when I heard the news last week that he had died I felt like I had lost someone who had meant something to me.  I even wondered if Apple products and advertising keywords, like “Think Different” and “Magical” and “Revolutionary” had inspired my activism and critical analyses over the years.  I used an Apple computer to make flyers for rallies and strikes when I was a graduate student/union activist.  I used an Apple computer to write my dissertation.  I used an Apple computer to store and share pictures of my children.  I am using an Apple computer to write this post.

If nothing else, we can acknowledge that Jobs helped provide powerful new tools, and for many a new sense of empowerment, for activism.  Thanks to Steve Jobs and thousands of ordinary people—all 99% of us across the country and around the globe—maybe the revolution won’t be televised.  But it will be tweeted.

Kathy M. Newman