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Talking about Class

Image by Gabriel Held

Here in America class is a force we all seem to feel on some level. At the same time, it can be damned hard to know class when we see it, and even harder to understand all the ways it shapes our society. The current state of politics has certainly muddled things further. But the good news is that all the post-2004 election chatter and hand-wringing has forced a kind of reckoning with the reality that class does exist. A sure sign of this reckoning is the New York Times’ recent ten-part series called “Class Matters,” which purports to map out the complex ways in which class influences lives across the country. Another is the rash of more directly political interventions, the most important being Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, the best-selling account of the Right’s populist takeover of Middle America.

In their own ways, both the Times series and Frank’s book fall short. A collection of extensively reported stories about men and women up and down the income and occupational ladder, “Class Matters” offers no insight into the relationship between class and power. When the series began, one felt the urge to shout, “It’s about fucking time!” When it ended, one was more inclined to mutter, “Well, that pretty much missed the point entirely.”  Frank’s well-written and well-timed analysis has good political bite to it. But is does cling to the old lefty assumption that, given the social divisions inherent to capitalism, working people will naturally come to think and act in their own material best interest. A critique of both accounts shows why class matters a great deal today, both in the obvious ways the Times’ studiously avoids examining, and in some of the less obvious ways Frank’s analysis, despite its good intentions, fails to pick up.

Class and Power

The introduction to the Times series offers some preliminary conclusions, and they are none too profound: for every working class American or penniless immigrant that “makes it,” there are many others that don’t. Moreover, the advance notice is misleading, for, after some 40,000 odd words, readers don’t really get a whole lot of hard evidence showing this to be the case. What readers do get is a collection of politically slippery “human interest” narratives which, taken all together, paint a rather sentimental picture. Readers were warned at the start to not confuse the story lines of a Horatio Alger novel with the real world, to not confuse the Myth of the American Dream with actuality. But the series itself is replete with the themes that made the Alger narrative so seductive, and therefore so important to the construction of the American Dream as a myth: the yearning for domestic stability, the contrasts of responsible and irresponsible wealth, the quest for plain old “’spectability,” as Alger’s original hero, Ragged Dick, called it.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t take seriously the hard struggles of the working class black woman (Angela Whitiker) whose story was told in the series’ last article, or the quite different kinds of insecurities and uncertainties faced by the women and men from upper echelons appearing in earlier installments. It’s just that on their own these stories don’t really say much about class. Indeed, the Times’ careful balancing of personal success with failure, the arrogance and superficiality of some with the vulnerability and authenticity of others, of hope carefree with hope forlorn, projects a world that, in its very intimacy, seems utterly disconnected with the systematic inequalities that underpin our economy and drive our politics.   

That the Times leaves unexamined such an obvious “class” issue like the present day imbalance of power between capital and labor only adds to the effect. In the 1950s, C. Wright Mills called the “power elite” those whose decisions and actions had actual consequences, good or ill, for men and women across the nation. The basic outline of the analysis suits our times—and so what if the plain language Mills used to address the reality of class rule is not fashionable these days. Is there any doubt as to where acceptable ideas of a properly administered economy and a properly conducted foreign policy, along with the men that implement these ideas, tend to come from? The sensibility behind the now-quaint phrase “what’s good for GM is good for America” lives on, certainly in boardrooms but also in the popular feeling that private capital’s increasing dominance over public decision is inevitable, if not at the same time a positive good. Surely, this is one reason why class matters, in the lives of the un- and under-employed, in the lives of those shipped off to Iraq, in the lives of tenacious working class women like Angela Whitiker.  

There is a cursory discussion of a broader shift in the culture and politics of class. We are told of how globalization has widened access to the consumer good life, about the downsizing of manufacturing and the rise of a service economy, about how fewer workers now belong to unions and more of them now vote Republican. Beyond a sidebar piece to the installment on the elite of Nantucket which documented the tidy sums the super-rich have garnered thanks to Bush tax-policy, the Times is not interested in exploring these trends much further.

There is nothing more on the great widening of the wealth gap, which began in earnest during the Clinton era, nothing more on the decline of union membership, nothing on what a union can or can’t do today for the members it has, and nothing about how union membership might (or might not) shape a worker’s political outlook. There is nothing on the power elite that has dismantled the New Deal standards of industrial relations, which gave some unions and therefore workers a modicum of political clout; nothing on how and why leading Democrats over the last three decades have joined in on the deregulatory fun instead of fighting for legislation that might empower more recent crops of American workers. There is nothing about the cross-party consensus on the beneficence of free markets that has, by any reasonable historical standard, pushed the political center of gravity well to the right, and nothing on the Iraq War and its impact on political and cultural sensibilities across the class spectrum. Nothing at all, in other words, on why one downsized autoworker from, say, Ohio voted for Bush, one from Michigan voted for Kerry, and some other kind of wage earner from somewhere else didn’t vote at all.    

Why Won’t Working People Think and Act Like a Class?

Frank is interested in such questions, and this shouldn’t surprise. He is a committed and analytically astute writer, so we get in What’s the Matter with Kansas? what we can’t really expect from the Times. His politics are known, given his editorship of the leftish Baffler and the success of his earlier lambasting of new economy triumphalism, One Market Under God.

The basic puzzle Frank sets out to solve is the transformation of Kansas from a breeding ground for late 19th century radicalism into the hotbed of righteous Republicanism it is today. The book is a case study of how through organizational élan and an effective appropriation of existing class resentments, conservatives are not only winning over states, but apparently turning the class basis of national party politics on its head. There’s no doubt that class matters in our society and in our politics, Frank says, and Democrats need to get their heads out of their asses and get back in the contest. It’s hard to argue with the sentiment.

The problem comes in at a deeper level of analysis. Like many on the left these days, Frank looks back fondly at the populist insurgency of the late 19th century and on the social democratic triumphs of the New Deal. But in doing so he also presumes that in these earlier times, working people realized their collective material (and therefore “real”) interests and took to politics accordingly, whereas today, they are too drunk on the Right’s “plain folk” cultural symbolism even to consider these interests, much less act on them in the voting booth. This may be a gambit on Frank’s part, designed to get issues of economic justice back into the national political discussion. If it is, there are tactical risks, for you don’t often get people to come your way politically by telling them what their interests are or should be. In fact it’s likely that they’ll walk off more convinced than ever that the left consists only of know-it-all elitist liberals.

More important here, the comparison doesn’t really hold up historically. The working class in this country has never been politically mobilized solely by appeals to commonly held economic interests. Other means of collective identification—ethnicity, gender, race, community, nation, in other words the whole categorical gamut of sociological and anthropological inquiry—have always been a part of the picture. There is a scene in John Sayles’s Matewan nicely illustrates the point. After Black and Italian strike-breakers have been brought in, union organizer Joe Kenehan struggles to convince native West Virginia miners that they should conceive of themselves as workers above all else. That way, Kenehan argued, they could see what they had in common with their non-white and non-American counterparts and put up a stronger front against the Company. In the end, the native miners closed ranks in the face of the murderous union-busting tactics of the Company. As on put it to Kenehan, a non-violent struggle toward that “Great Big Union” was a hard thing to stick to when most of his kind couldn’t “see past this hollow.” The genius of Matewan is that it debunks the great myth that working class consciousness is imminent, and as such more “real” than other kinds of collective identity.

The Relevance of Marx

Although he doesn’t mention it, Frank clearly appreciates and finds useful Marx’s general critique of capitalism. Indeed, his analysis in What’s the Matter with Kansas? takes for granted the basic imbalance of power, rooted in minority ownership and control of economic resources, that Marx saw as a basic determinant of social and political life. But the present-day relevance of Marx and the tradition of Marxist class analysis doesn’t end there.

While the Hegelian streak in early Marxism leads us to believe that, out of historical necessity (given the essential injustice of capitalist class relations), there would arise an organized, politically committed proletariat, when it came to analyzing concrete situations, Marx himself and later Marxists like Antonio Gramsci took nothing for granted in terms of how the class inequalities at the heart of capitalism might play out politically. Marx observed at the start of the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon that the “tradition of all dead generations weighs like an nightmare on the brains of the living.” Although this had a specific application in his analysis of revolution and counter-revolution in mid-19th century France, we should keep it mind. What it means is that, however well we grasp the empirical reality of class inequality in a capitalist society, the particular way in which that inequality is actually lived depends on cultural experiences which accumulate over time, experiences which root men and women in what we often call “traditional” habits and beliefs. That these habits and beliefs were often impediments to class solidarity doesn’t make them any less real, or for that matter, any less integral to effective historical and political analysis. To acknowledge this, as did Marx and then Gramsci still more explicitly (in his theory of hegemony), is not to slight the importance of striving to create a working class that knows full well where it stands and is ready to challenge the power of capital. It is to move toward a realistic assessment of such work’s potential for success, in a particular time and place.

In America today there seems to be little such potential. Since he finds the current situation so dire, Frank would probably agree. But there is nothing unnatural about the inroads Republicans have made into the working class. The history of the modern capitalist world provides plenty of evidence that subordinate classes are just as likely to become key constituents in reactionary political formations as progressive ones. After all, when the U.S. got FDR, Germany got Hitler and Italy Mussolini. And as Marx discovered, a disenfranchised French peasantry went over easily to Napoleon because it had no other real choice. In America today there is no much opportunity for the working class to effectively represent itself in politics. Therefore, to continue paraphrasing another famous line in the 18th Brumaire, it must be represented. We should not be surprised that the Republicans have stepped in, with the help of God, Family, and a Nation at War.


Richard Wells


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2005

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