Tag Archives: working-class culture

The Return of the Undeserving Poor

In the nineteenth century, critics and policy makers made a clear distinction between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor. The deserving poor worked hard, kept their homes and families clean, went to church regularly, maintained sobriety, and otherwise adhered to middle-class morals. They deserved help because their poverty was not their fault. But the undeserving poor had earned their poverty not only by refusing to work, or to work hard enough, but also by rejecting the middle-class model. If they were poor, it was because they hadn’t tried hard enough.

 

This should sound familiar to anyone who’s been reading op-ed pages lately. While no one has yet directly accused today’s poor people of being “undeserving,” scholars and pundits have been fretting about their morals. In Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010, Charles Murray argued that declining morality among the lower class (which as one reviewer noted, Murray was “too polite” to name) was creating economic and social dysfunctions. Robert Putnam traces similar patterns in his latest book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, though Putnam also notes the role of deindustrialization in shaping those patterns. But in response to Putnam’s study, David Brooks focuses on the moral issues rather than economics or policy. In many poor areas, he writes, “there are no minimally agreed upon standards for what it means to be a father. There are no basic codes and rules woven into daily life.” He suggests that we should hold the poor and working class “responsible” for their choices.

These and other commentaries suggest a shift in focus in American public discourse about economic inequality. Rather than hearing about the power of a few elites to influence policy so that they gain an ever larger share of wealth, and rather than analyzing how business and employment practices contribute to the stagnation and decline in wages – the kinds of issues raised by the Occupy Movement — the debate increasingly focuses on whether those who have less are victims of policies and business practices or of their own flawed morality.

 

Poor and working-class people, some critics argue, contribute to their troubles by not having stable marriages, giving birth to too many children from too many fathers, not being reliable workers, and over-indulging in drugs and alcohol. They focus on momentary pleasures rather than long-term planning, and parents aren’t sufficiently willing to sacrifice to improve their children’s lives. For commentators like Murray and Brooks, these behaviors are based in weak morality, not in social or economic conditions. The discussion echoes ideas that surfaced in the 1960s, when the Moynihan Report famously blamed the economic struggles of African Americans on the rise of the matriarchal family.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be concerned about the effects on children – and on the wider social fabric — of drug and alcohol abuse, household instability, or domestic and neighborhood violence. These are real problems, and they undermine children’s sense of security and connection and teach children to have low expectations for their futures, which in turn can contribute to problems in school. However, analyses that look only at the problems in poor and working-class communities miss important strengths that may not be visible to the more elite outsiders who conduct these studies and write the columns. They may miss the networks of mutual aid that help people survive when they lack other resources, and they undervalue the street smarts and resilience that children can learn from growing up amid struggle.

 

More important, they too easily dismiss the structural and policy causes of these patterns and underestimate the challenges of creating stability in an era when steady jobs are becoming ever more scarce. How can people establish stable home lives when so many jobs are temporary, poorly paid, and require workers to juggle constantly changing shifts at multiple work sites? One explanation of the instability of many poor and working-class households appears in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which outlines how instead of reducing drug use or the drug trade, the war on drugs ensured that many poor children grew up with their father in prison instead of in the home. As Alexander notes, after prison, fathers often can’t return to their homes or find stable employment.

Critics too often oversimplify both the causes and the debate. For example, Ross Douthat suggests a false and simplistic divide, claiming that those on the left blame poverty entirely on money, while those on the right blame it on morals. Putnam’s book makes clear that both the issue and the debate are more complex than this. But though he ties the social decline of the poor and working class to the loss of industrial jobs, he then suggests solutions that focus on strengthening families and education, suggesting policy changes that don’t address the larger economic causes. And in today’s political climate, his prescriptions reflect wishful thinking rather than realistic strategies.

 

To be fair, both Brooks and Douthat temper their concerns for the morality of the poor with calls for the elite to change, as well. As Brooks writes, “privileged people suffer from their own characteristic forms of self-indulgence: the tendency to self-segregate, the comprehensive failures of leadership in government and industry. Social norms need repair up and down the scale, universally, together and all at once.” Douthat offers an even stronger critique of the elite, though he still casts the problem in moral terms: “our upper class should be judged first — for being too solipsistic to recognize that its present ideal of ‘safe’ permissiveness works (sort of) only for the privileged, and for failing to take any moral responsibility (in the schools it runs, the mass entertainments it produces, the social agenda it favors) for the effects of permissiveness on the less-savvy, the less protected, the kids who don’t have helicopter parents turning off the television or firewalling the porn.”

I want to suggest a different way of thinking about the elite’s role, focused less on personal morality and more on social responsibility. What might happen if the elite stopped pursuing profit at all costs and embraced the social responsibility of creating working conditions that foster stability for working families? What if instead of blaming the “undeserving poor,” they took responsibility for using their own power to change the conditions that create instability for poor and working-class lives?

Sherry Linkon

Class War and Sociology

I no longer get as angry as I probably should when I witness middle-class professionals engage in the kind of dismissive class prejudice that Classism Exposed so insightfully reveals almost every week. It is so common that in many middle-class settings I more or less expect a certain haughty ignorance of working-class people and their lives and, what’s worse, an astounding willingness nonetheless to make up stuff about “them” – sort of like discussing “the French” among Americans who, like me, have never actually known a French person. But I expect more from sociologists, especially those who take the time to write a book.

Andrew Cherlin’s Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America is in many ways an effective liberal counter to Charles Murray’s mean-spirited portrayal of the working-class family in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Both books are concerned with the decline in marriage among lower-income families and the negative effect they think this has on children. The percentage of mothers who were unmarried at the birth of their children is now nearly 41%, having doubled since 1980. Both Cherlin and Murray focus on the fact that out-of-wedlock births are much higher among lower-income than higher-income, college-educated families. Neither Cherlin nor Murray establishes that whatever negative effects there are on children are due to family form rather than low income itself. Instead, they focus on what they see as the causes of what both agree is a potentially disastrous trend. For Murray the decline in marriage is a result of a creeping moral rot – specifically, an ongoing decline in industriousness, honesty, and religion – among lower-income and non-college-educated people. For Cherlin the cause is a combination of working-class men’s outdated cultural commitment to a male-breadwinner version of marriage and a labor market that increasingly does not provide living-wage jobs that could support a traditional male-only breadwinner. For those interested in this topic, I recommend Cherlin’s Chapter 5.

The rest of the book, however, is a woefully simplistic digest of much better studies by historians and sociologists like Stephanie Coontz, Michele Lamont and Annette Lareau. Cherlin, for example, at several points assumes that all working-class men are both taciturn and patriarchal, a combination that seems to me hard to put together in one individual. Maybe this seems so outrageously false to me because I had a very talkative, bossy, working-class patriarch for a father while his older sister, my aunt, was a very talkative, only slightly less bossy, working-class matriarch. But surely a sociologist should understand without ever having talked with any working-class people that it is highly unlikely for a working class that includes tens of millions of people to have only one personality type!

There are many other breezy stereotypes built atop other stereotypes in Cherlin’s account, but he turns defensive and vicious in responding to Michele Lamont’s nuanced comparative studies of working-class and professional men in the U.S. and France. Lamont found that these men had starkly different systems of status and morality by class but only nuanced variations by nationality. In The Dignity of Working Men she writes: “For many professionals and managers I talked to, socioeconomic success and moral worth go hand in hand, the former confirming the latter. In contrast, when evaluating the upper half, most workers disentangle socioeconomic and moral worth . . . . . [critiquing] the moral character of upper middle class people, mostly by pointing to their lack of personal integrity, lack of respect for others, and the poor quality of their interpersonal relationships.”

Instead of trying to understand how different social classes might see the world differently and might place themselves differently within it, which is what Lamont does, Cherlin takes offense at how people like him (and me) are often characterized by both American and French workers.   Having taken offense, he could have argued that this view of professional middle-class people is inaccurate or, at least, an over-generalization or even a stereotype, but he doesn’t do that either. Instead, he sees only name-calling and answers with a sociologist’s fancier version of name-calling: “This morally based sense of dignity was a reactive identity: it was not constructed by people who had the option of taking high-paying management or professional jobs or who could easily find meaningful work.” Implicitly defending a middle-class “proactive identity,” Cherlin blithely assumes that all working-class jobs are both meaningless and experienced as meaningless and that given a choice everybody would choose a job like his. He goes on in the following pages to claim that “working-class men commonly define their self-worth against an ‘other,’ an outside group toward which they can feel superior in their work habits and personal responsibility,” implicitly assuming that middle-class professionals do not routinely do this as well. He goes on to point out that racism is widespread among white workers (while presumably absent among middle-class whites) and, finally, to claim that blue-collar men are stuck in an “older utilitarian self” and are having trouble adopting a more modern “expressive self.”

Nearly all of this (and much more) appears to be simply made up. With no or very little evidence, Cherlin seems to feel entitled to simply imagine what workers must be like and to speculate about how their unconscious minds must work given what they actually have said to other sociologists. Worse, Cherlin takes generalized concepts based on extensive interviewing by others and turns these concepts into simple class character traits applicable to millions, with no nuances, variations or exceptions. But the way he comes unhinged at the kinds of things American and French workers sometimes say about people like us points to a much larger and more important problem – a professional middle-class blindness to other class cultures that in American social science can so easily turn into a kind of “there’s-only-one-right-way” cultural imperialism.

Middle-class professionalism is a strong and vital culture, but it’s still just a culture – with strengths and weaknesses, advantages and disadvantages – that can be enriched and improved by access to and engagement with other cultures.   There is a vital strain in American social science that has begun to explore these class cultural differences in an empirical and thoughtful way – including Working-Class Studies scholars Barbara Jensen, Betsy Leondar-Wright and Jeff Torlina, as well as the authors noted above and numerous others. But it is a minority strain in academia, where any expression of appreciation for the strengths and advantages of working-class culture tends to bring out the class warrior in even well-intentioned social scientists like Andrew Cherlin. That’s a fight worth having.

Jeff Torlina argues that the common sociological understanding of social classes as necessarily hierarchical is based on a systematic misunderstanding of how supposedly hierarchical occupations actually work together to get jobs done. He argues that social classes should be conceived as “arranged on a horizontal plane, each superior or inferior in some dimensions but not in others,” which is a fairly common way that blue-collar workers see it. Such an approach would turn American social science upside down, and thus is more than a bit utopian. But at the very least social scientists should agree with Torlina that any endeavor aspiring to be a science “cannot base its . . . categories only upon the cultural logic of the class represented by the scientists themselves.”

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

 

 

Precariat of the World Unite?

The term “Precariat” has been bandied around for some time now as a convenient catchall for a growing sense of employment insecurity in the U.S. and Europe. It has really gained traction in the wake of British social scientist Guy Standing’s 2011 book The Precariat, provocatively subtitled ‘The New Dangerous Class’. Standing argued that all Western countries were seeing a growing band of workers at the margins of the labor market. The precariat includes the young and old, the unskilled and unqualified who, for whatever reason, are locked out of ‘good jobs’ with higher pay, pensions and other benefits, and prospects of advancement. The book made Standing something of a darling of those fighting for better conditions or questioning some of the worst effects of neoliberalism in economic life. His ideas have been debated and scrutinized on both left and right of the political spectrum.

The success of The Precariat has led Standing to write a sequel, A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens. If his first book diagnosed the problem, this one offers a prescription for change in twenty-nine articles aimed at reforming work and the conditions that give rise to precarity. The ideas in Standing’s charter range from a complete redefinition of what counts as work to suggestions for reforming education.

Standing’s books have some profound implications for the way we think about the class system in general and the working class in particular. His initial volume’s subtitle ‘The New Dangerous Class’ echoed Marx and Engels’s ideas of the Lumpenproletariat – a dispossessed group at the very bottom of society who at times could be brought into the labor market as part of the reserve army of labor. In Standing’s twenty-first century version, the precariat has the potential to undermine working-class conditions in employment in similar ways and as a group has little or no connection to mainstream society. In his Precariat Charter, Standing attempts to forge new bonds between the precariat and the rest of society.

What I find most interesting about this latest book is what it says about work and what work can, and more importantly, cannot provide. Like a number of social commentators such as the late French social theorist Andre Gorz or British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, Standing seems resigned to the idea that work has little or no value for most people. Standing criticises politicians and unions for holding on to all work at any cost regardless of whether it is rewarding work or drudge labor, carried out simply for money. This attitude, he argues, compounds the problem of the precariat by creating the conditions where workers are seen as drones and are increasing conceptualised as denizens (people who reside in a place to work with few if any rights) rather than full and active citizens of a state. He calls, instead, for a radical recasting of economic life. Undoubtedly these are powerful ideas, and it’s especially important for someone with Standing’s profile to raise these issues and offer solutions to the problems identified.

However, when we dismiss unattractive drudge work as Standing and others do, we enact a kind of violence on those who are engaged in it, and, in the process, deny agency and voice –a working-class voice. For sure, in a perfect world all work would be incredibly meaningful and fulfilling all the time. But a number of writers take a working-class perspective and find value in basic manual labor. For example, in The Mind at Work, Mike Rose shows the skill and thought that goes into what many consider the most menial of jobs – waitressing. Other great writing on so-called low-end labor, such as Studs Terkel’s Working and the lesser known How to Tell When You’re Tired by U.S. author Reg Theriault, explores the cultures of work that emerge among workers in those jobs. Both of these volumes show workers as fully filled-out people who have ideas, opinions, aspirations, hopes, dreams, and fears. Rose, Terkel, and Theriault write about working-class people with whom you could share a beer. They seem like us, because they are people like us.

In contrast, because they lack voice and agency, the workers Standing’s two books seem somehow distant. Reading his books, I don’t feel like I have anything in common with the people he describes, however worthy they are of my attention. This may be the product of the book’s big picture ambition, but I find it problematic.

Precariat_Charter_coverThis stance towards the subjects of Standing’s writing extends to the covers of both books. While in A Precariat Charter, the subjects are obviously protesting actively, on both covers the workers’ faces are digitized out, so we literally cannot see them as fully human. And on the cover of the original book we gaze upon three young guys in Hi Viz jackets slumped against a wall eating a fast food meal, images that speak to resignation, passivity, and defeat reinforcing one of the themes of the first book.

tumblr_lo50e28RP31qe6laxI applaud Standing’s commitment and passion in raising the profile of workers at the margin, but it’s important that we don’t just see working-class people as passive victims of neoliberalism. Often it is precisely workers occupying the lowest rungs of the labor market who exercise both voice and agency. After all, the labor movement on both sides of the Atlantic drew its strength in part from precisely the sectors of the economy and the types of workers that Standing defines as the precariat. So I want to propose one more article for Standing’s charter: the recognition of a shared humanity working-class people hold in common.

Tim Strangleman

Highway or River?

Is life more like driving on a highway or rafting down a river?  Do we choose a destination and then try to find a way to get there?  Or do we simply react to the varieties of experience presented to us, from dangerous rapids to calm stretches with time to look around, without knowing where the river is taking us?

I have presented this as a forced-answer either/or question to students to see if those from middle-class origins are more likely to choose the highway analogy and those from the working class, the river.  By and large they do, though nowhere near uniformly and not without a lot of ambiguity about how to define their class origins.

The discussions this initiates are much richer than I can convey here, but in general the highway analogy emphasizes that as individuals we choose our own destinations, subject to change over the life course, and it’s up to us to find our way, to set our goals and achieve them.  Conversely, the river analogy de-emphasizes goal-setting and emphasizes the need for alertness and responsiveness to what is immediately before us.  At least the way I present it, the highway analogy overvalues official knowledge while the river analogy overvalues direct experience.  The highway requires lengthy periods of preparation and planning – before getting on a highway or at chosen stops along the way.  But if life is a river, you’re already in it (and can’t get out), and you need to learn as you go – both from others in your particular raft and from experience.  Others (parents, teachers, and mentors) help you prepare for the highway, but then students envision driving alone.  Rafting down a river, on the other hand, conjures a group where individuals need an easy responsiveness not only to the river but to others in the raft.

While I’m pretty sure life is much more like a river, to me both analogies make sense and are fruitful ways of trying to picture basic assumptions people make about how to live as they live their lives – and these assumptions tend to correlate with class background and/or current class position.  Those from the college-educated and relatively affluent middle class tend to choose the highway analogy because they are inclined to believe that they are – or should be – masters of their own destiny.  Those from working-class and poverty-class backgrounds would like to be masters of their own destiny too, but they’re skeptical that such mastery is realistically available to most people, and meanwhile they had better pay attention to what is immediately before them, including relationships with others they count on and who are counting on them.

Whatever you think of these life analogies, they are a way to point to different assumptions, expectations, and predispositions that seed different ways of acting and being in the world – different cultures that are likely to misunderstand each other if they are unaware that others have different expectations and assumptions.   Highway people may tend to see river folk as passive, strictly reactive, and (famously) incapable of delaying gratification – and given the relatively insignificant role they give to the force of circumstance, they also tend to be highly judgmental.   River people, in turn, while often willing to defer to highway-drivers, are inclined to exaggerate how distant, humorless, unresponsive, and “cold” they are.   They also regularly worry that highway-drivers are “out of touch,” “lack common sense,” and are dangerously over-confident or “arrogant.”

Different cultures are bound to misunderstand each other, but the misunderstandings can be fewer and of less consequence when people are aware of the differences.  When Englishmen visit Italy, in a much-used example, they expect rather dramatic differences in ways of doing and being, and thus are more likely to learn from and enjoy the exposure – or at least to suspend judgment.   Awareness of cultural difference allows one to recognize the strengths and advantages of other cultures and the weaknesses and disadvantages of your own.

These are the basic premises of Betsy Leondar-Wright’s new book Missing Class: Strengthening Social Movement Groups by Seeing Class Cultures.  Leondar-Wright surveyed and interviewed participants in 25 different social-justice groups and directly observed the groups’ meetings and actions, carefully correlating “class trajectories” with the roles people played in their groups and with their different approaches to solving various common problems.  (“Class trajectories” combine both class background and current class position with a person’s orientation toward the future – e.g., intentional and unintentional upward and downward mobility.)  She purposely chose groups with diverse memberships and found that small-group interactions revealed a certain deftness with recognizing and dealing with racial, gender, and movement-tradition differences, but were amazingly unaware of class cultural differences.  Her argument is that “missing class” both creates unnecessary problems and misses vital opportunities for drawing on the full array of class-cultural strengths within these groups.

A rare combination of empirical rigor and insightful storytelling, Missing Class is chock full of situations and problems social justice activists will recognize, often with new insight into the crazy multicultural mix of race, gender, class, and movement tradition in the variety of groups Leondar-Wright examines.   As I read, it occurred to me on multiple occasions that social justice groups, including bigger ones like some unions, provide relatively rare opportunities where different classes experience one another within contexts where awareness of  racial and gender cultural differences is well above the norm for most American social settings.  That is, there is a base of multicultural experience that should make it easier for us to see and benefit from our class culture differences.  This may in fact be a kind of competitive advantage on the Left, especially as the younger generation of organizers and activists are so much less sectarian and self-righteous than my generation was.

Leondar-Wright’s class categories are more nuanced (and, therefore, closer to the messiness of social realities) than my simple middle-class/working-class binary.   But besides being a handbook for “strengthening social movement groups,” Missing Class is an effective assault on the cultural hegemony of the professional middle class in America – and specifically on that wing of American sociology rooted in the 1980s classic Habits of the Heart, which so firmly asserted that there is no “genuinely working-class culture” and that “[e]veryone in the United States thinks largely in middle-class categories.”

I have no problem with the highway-drivers being our preferred national culture, and surely the working class could benefit from some broader goal-setting and a more expansive sense of possibility and confidence in the future.   But unchecked, unnourished by other more realistic and less confident cultures, I fear the highway-drivers are increasingly out of touch and dangerously arrogant.  From “school reform” to foreign policy, they have a tendency to make things worse by being blind to, or at least grossly underestimating, the force of circumstance.   They need to learn from rafters who have more daily (actually much too much) experience of the force of circumstance.  Together we might simultaneously better negotiate and reduce that force.

On the evidence of Missing Class, such grand cross-class coalitions may be emerging within those tributaries, both here and abroad, that are becoming increasingly strong and insistent that justice must be social.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

Still Learning from the Scholarship Boy

2014 is still young, but we have lost a handful of British working-class scholars and activists who have been pivotal for working-class studies and politics, starting with cultural studies legend Stuart Hall, who died in February. In March, Tim Strangleman noted that we lost two British politicians who have been especially important voices for the working class, Tony Benn and Bob Crow. And in April we lost Richard Hoggart, the infamous Leeds “scholarship boy” who was orphaned at eight but managed to study and work his way into an elite British academic class. He was one of the original founders of the Birmingham Center for Cultural Studies and his important 1957 work, The Uses of Literacy, is one of the founding texts of working-class studies.

Richard Herbert “Bert” Hoggart was born in Leeds in 1918, where his father, a veteran of Boer war, died just two years later. Hoggart was raised by his mother until he was 8, at which point his mother died of tuberculosis. At Hoggart’s mother’s funeral, an aunt quipped that “orphanages are very good nowadays,” but fortunately for Hoggart, he was sent to live with his grandmother.

Though Hoggart failed math, he eventually won a scholarship to Leeds University.  He served in North Africa during WWII, and after the war he applied for nine assistant professorships and one job in the John Lewis department store. Eight universities turned him down, but the University of Hull hired him, and Hoggart he stayed there for 13 years. After an influential book on W.H. Auden in 1951 and The Uses of Literacy in 1957, Hoggart started the Birmingham Center for Cultural Studies in 1964 and hired Stuart Hall as his deputy director.

Hoggart’s legacy is important for us, because without Hoggart, it could be argued, there would be no working-class studies. The Uses of Literacy, exemplifies some of the core ideas and approaches at the heart of our field, starting with the idea of taking the working class and its culture seriously. As Sue Owens notes, The Uses of Literacy, “put the working class on the cultural map, not as objects of middle-class scrutiny but as people with a culture and a point of view of their own.”

According to Stuart Hall, Hoggart defined culture as “how working-class people spoke and thought, what language and common assumptions about life they shared, in speech and action, what social attitudes informed their daily practice, what moral categories they deployed, even if only aphoristically, to make judgments about their own behaviour and that of others —including, of course, how they brought all this to bear on what they read, saw and sang.”  Hall’s summary would serve as a good description of much of the work now being done within working-class studies.

In The Uses of Literacy, Hoggart also provides a blueprint for the working-class academic memoir, the kind of writing that acknowledges that those who are born into working-class families but ascend to academia never completely shed a certain psychic pain and sense of dislocation. Hoggart wrote about how the scholarship boy is cut off from his parents and his community by the community’s perception that “E’s bright.” This kind work today is represented at its best by Barbara Jensen’s Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America and the essays in This Fine Place so Far from Home: Voices of Academics from the Working Class.

Hoggart’s work seems especially relevant in post-economic collapse America. While the Britain of his youth was terribly class bound, perhaps we are nearly as class bound today in the US, where class mobility is at an all time low. And, though class mobility was a necessity for Hoggart personally, it was also a sore spot. He hated prejudice against working-class people, but he did not celebrate the absorption of working-class culture into mainstream, Americanized consumer culture. He hated rock n roll, 1950s British “milk bars” (what in the US we called the soda counter in a drug store), and Hollywood films.

Oddly, Hoggart was at once a cultural conservative, privileging literature and literary criticism, and an institutional radical. In founding the Birmingham Center for Cultural Studies, he cleared the way for literature’s decline as the primary focus of English departments. According to the British writer Michael Bailey, “Hoggart argued that ‘the methods of literary criticism and analysis’ ought to be made ‘relevant to the better understanding of all levels of writing and much else in popular culture, and of the way people responded to them.’”

Though Hoggart was an institutional radical, he was not an activist. He claimed that he was different from E.P. Thompson in that he tended to “be a bit leery of people making public causes in the streets.” He wasn’t a public protester, and he had strong feelings about those who were: “The hairs rise on the back of my neck when I see a group of teachers chanting.” He believed he could make his greatest contribution as a writer.

In this sense, Hoggart has made an important contribution indeed, with such books as Teaching Literature (1963), Higher Education and Cultural Change (1966), Contemporary Cultural Studies (1966), Speaking to Each Other (1970), Only Connect: On Culture and Communication (1972), An English Temper (1982), and most recently, Mass Media in a Mass Society: Myth and Reality (2004).

Interestingly, Hoggart argued that the common thread in his written work was the idea that everyone has the right to be heard: “Their common source is a sense of the importance of the right of each of us to speak out about how we see life, the world; and so the right to have access to the means by which that capacity to speak may be gained. The right, also, to try to reach out to speak to others, not to have that impulse inhibited by social barriers, maintained by those in power politically or able to exercise power in other ways.”

Hoggart is now gone, just a few years shy of what would have been his 100th birthday (in 2018). But how many of us, and how many of our working-class students, today have a voice because this tenacious scholarship boy dared to transcend his class and then continued to fight for the right of working-class people to maintain and study their own way of life?

Kathy M. Newman and Sherry Linkon

 

Out of a Different Furnace

When I first saw a print ad for Scott Cooper’s latest film, Out of the Furnace, I was excited that someone had made a film of Thomas Bell’s 1942 novel, Out of This Furnace.  While the film, set in Braddock, focused on a local steelworker, and written by Cooper and Brad Inglesby, has much in common with the novel, the differences reflect not just different historical moments but also different ideas about working-class life.

Cooper claims that he didn’t know about the novel when he came up with the title for the film.  Once he learned about it, he kept his title despite the possibility of confusion, because, he explains, both the community and Christian Bale’s character “come out of the furnace.” Other than the usual images of decaying buildings and abandoned plants that have become iconic in documentaries and fictional films set in deindustrialized places, we see little explicit evidence of how Braddock has been shaped by the rise and decline steelmaking.  Bale’s character, Russell Baze, is represented as embodying the positive values fostered in working-class communities.  He “comes out of the furnace” with a firm commitment to family and an inner strength that serves as the film’s load-bearing beam. But in the novel, what emerges from the furnace is not just tough individuals or a strong sense of community, but something far more important: a union.

The pivotal moment in the film, when its narrative shifts from tracing the slow decline in the lives of two working-class white men in a declining steel town into a tale of revenge, is a fairly quiet scene at the police station, when Police Chief Wesley Barnes (Forrest Whitaker) explains the challenges that he and New Jersey police face in tracking down the menacing Appalachian drug boss Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). Barnes doesn’t have jurisdiction, and in rural western New Jersey, there’s a long history of suspicion of and resistance to law enforcement.  Regardless of whether this claim is realistic, the explanation highlights the limited power of institutions. Working-class men are, the film seems to suggest, on their own, and the last third of the film follows Russell and his uncle Red (Sam Shepard) as they pursue DeGroat on their own.  Once they track him down, law enforcement steps in, only to reveal its inadequacy again.  As DEA agents in full gear march toward the now-abandoned drug house, DeGroat is shooting up somewhere else.  In the end, Russell insists on doing the job himself, luring DeGroat to Braddock, tracking him through an abandoned mill, and finally shooting him with a deer hunting rifle.

Law enforcement isn’t the only institution that doesn’t work in this film. Corporations care only about getting cheaper steel, while the U.S. Army ignores both the economic and emotional needs of soldiers like Rodney, and unions are not even mentioned.  The only institution that works at all is the local bar, and even there, the only help available is corrupt and ineffective. The bar owner’s loans support Rodney’s gambling, and the fights he arranges accomplish nothing except getting himself and Rodney killed, which sets up the revenge plot at the end of the film.  The idea that institutions are ineffective in supporting working-class people is not new.  As John Russo and I argued in writing about local responses to deindustrialization a decade ago, that explains why working-class people don’t trust institutions. Jennifer Silva finds a similar attitude in her recent study of young working-class people, and a recent entry in the New York Times’s series on inequality, Joseph E. Stiglitz notes that people have lost “faith in a system that seems inexorably stacked against them.”

In a way, of course, that do-it-yourself attitude reflects working-class culture.  Psychologist David Greene highlighted the centrality of self-reliance in an essay on the “matrix” of working-class identity: “Whatever one needed, whatever the situation or task called for, you could make do. . . . If you needed it or wanted it, it was up to you to find it, fix it or build it.”  Cooper makes a point of this in a scene where Russell engages some low-level drug dealers by way of an admiring conversation about their restoration of a classic car. That self-reliance is also central to Russell’s character. Early on, when he learns that his brother owes money to the bar owner, Russell steps in to pay off Rodney’s debt.  We also see it when Russell is released from prison after a manslaughter conviction; one of his first acts is fixing up the house he and his brother have inherited from their father.

We’re a long way from Out of This Furnace, which celebrates not only the resilience and family commitments of steelworkers but also the potential power of collectivityAfter describing how steelworkers and their families survived poverty, mill accidents, and illness through internal strength and mutual support, Bell ends his novel with the formation of the Steelworkers Organizing Collaborative in the late 30s.  Writing in 1942, he couldn’t have known how much unions would improve the lives of steelworkers, nor could he have predicted the demise of the industry or the union’s inability, ultimately, to protect workers and their communities, like Braddock, from the ravages of deindustrialization.  By the time Cooper conjures up the story of the Baze brothers, not only is the local mill about to close but the union is so irrelevant that it is never mentioned.

Both Bell and Cooper recognize the commitment to family and the strength of character that might emerge from economic struggle and hard work. Both recognized that working-class people can’t count on employers to look out for them.  But Bell believed that workers and their communities could protect themselves by standing together, while Cooper suggests that self-reliance is the only option, even if it isn’t a good one.

Out of the Furnace is not a great movie, and reviewers have noted a variety of flaws, including its reliance on working-class stereotypes and the emphasis on violence and revenge.  But it’s worth watching, especially alongside a reading of Out of This Furnace. 

If we read the film in light of Bell’s romanticized vision of working-class collectivity, we recognize that what has been lost is not just jobs and opportunity but the basis for hope.  If we read the novel with the film, we might be reminded that the only real hope lies in people working together to stand up for the right to a decent life.

Sherry Linkon

Redefining Grit: New Visions of Working-Class Culture

A few weeks ago, Jack Metzgar wrote here about how proud he was when his grandson won the “Lunch Bucket Award” for his hard work in football practice, hard work that paid off in the team’s performance but didn’t make Max a star player at game time. Metzgar argued that the working-class grit his grandson displayed has value for all of us.  Researchers agree, but recent approaches suggest some different ways of thinking about grit, and their insights suggest important and troubling changes in working-class culture.

Perhaps the most talked about recent definition of grit comes from the work of educational scholar Angela Lee Duckworth and her colleagues, who define grit as maintaining  “effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress.”  Based on this research, Duckworth has created a “grit scale” that focuses on an individual’s ability to commit to and keep working at difficult tasks.  You can take a short online survey to determine your “grit score,” answering questions about how likely you are to stay focused on a project you’ve begun rather than being distracted by new ones.

Duckworth doesn’t tie grit to social class at all.  Quite the contrary.  She argues that grit cuts across different contexts and people. She also reveals her class perspective when she assumes that individual success and achievement are everyone’s highest priorities. Indeed, her entire project focuses on finding out whether and how to develop grit in young people  to help them succeed.

Duckworth’s grit is different from Metzgar’s.  He defines grit as the willingness to show up every day and work hard because it’s the right thing to do, not as a means of advancing one’s own position.  That working-class version of grit has roots in the collective nature of industrial labor and the experience of living on the economic edge.  In industrial workplaces, getting a job done safely often requires collaboration, and being part of a large workforce or an active union invites workers to see themselves not as isolated individuals but as part of a group — or a class. Once upon a time, most workers lived near their jobs, with neighbors who worked in the same factories.  When families and communities face economic struggle, because of low wages, lay-offs, or occasional strikes, people have to rely upon each other to get by. Solidarity was part of community life, not just the workplace.

Not anymore. As Nikki Lewis, Executive Director of DC Jobs for Justice, explained at a recent forum at the Kalmanovitz Initiative on Labor and the Working Poor, the structure of work today makes solidarity elusive.  Most jobs today are in small-scale workplaces, with staggered schedules and little collaboration.  Unlike industrial workers, service industry workers often view their jobs as temporary, expecting to move on to something better – a hope that might not be realistic but that keeps people from investing in relationships or a work-based identity.  Workers have little opportunity to talk, in part because when they leave work, they are often heading in different directions, not going home to the same block.

But surely working-class family values remain, right?  According to sociologist Jennifer Silva, that, too, is changing.  For her book, Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, she interviewed young adults from working-class backgrounds about their movement from youth into adulthood, and what she found is distressing. The traditional markers of adulthood – steady employment, marriage, buying a house, having children – have become so difficult to achieve in the post-industrial economy.  That combined with the cultural power of public discourses of self-help and individualism led  the people Silva interviewed to define themselves based on their ability to overcome personal hardships.  They told stories of recovering from abusive or dysfunctional family relationships, of their own or their family members’ recovery from addiction, of surviving homelessness, and of struggling through school while working multiple jobs and raising kids.  For them, adulthood means not just working hard to get by financially but also  managing emotional challenges.

Even more troubling, Silva’s research identified two related themes in the way these young people talk about their relationships with others and their political views.  Individually, she argues, they have learned that they can’t count on anyone else.  Family, friends, co-workers, teachers, and the government have all let them down.  They have come to believe that the only way to survive is to be emotionally self-sufficient and distant.  Most also hold conservative political views, believing that if they have gotten by without help, so should everyone else.  Many of Silva’s white interviewees expressed resentment toward immigrants and people of color, who, they believe, have received undeserved support and sympathy.  Despite lived experience of economic and social struggle, the young working-class people Silva studied embrace a neoliberal vision of self-reliance and suspicion of institutions of all kinds.

That’s yet another form of grit, but it isn’t about either success or commitment to others.  It’s all about the individual self. The people Silva interviewed believe in working hard and persevering, and they would probably embrace Duckworth’s vision of grit as the basis for success, even though their own grit has brought them few tangible benefits.  They might well reject the idea of working-class grit, viewing anyone who worked hard for the sake of others, or who valued family and community over individual survival, as a fool.

I find the sort of grit Silva describes both depressing and frightening.  The stories she tells are often sad, and the working-class culture she describes has little in common with the version many of us embrace as strong and resilient.  Understanding this, Silva ends her book with a story that offers some hope.  She introduces us to Wally, who seems to be the only person she interviewed who has responded to his economic and personal struggles by becoming what he describes as a “revolutionary.”  While his peers blame themselves for “lacking the tools they need to navigate their futures,” Wally believes in “equal opportunity, social solidarity, and risk-pooling.”  Instead of turning inward, he is “rallying his coworkers to form a union at the grocery store, protesting neighborhood gentrification, organizing sit-ins and protests on May Day, and fighting for universal health care.” Unfortunately, Silva offers no explanation of Wally’s activism.  What makes him respond by trying to change the system rather than trying to heal his own wounds?

At least part of the answer is good old-fashioned, do-the-right-thing, work-hard-for-the-good- of-others, working-class grit.