June 2012, Week 1


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Fri, 1 Jun 2012 20:04:38 -0400
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 Class Unconsciousness

 Stop Using "Middle Class" to Depict the Labor Movement

 By Nelson Lichtenstein


 George Orwell thought the precise and purposeful
 deployment of our language was the key to the kind of
 politics we hoped to advance. By that standard,
 virtually everyone--from the center to the left, from
 Barack Obama to Richard Trumka to the activists of
 Occupy Wall Street--has made a hash of the way we name
 the most crucial features of our society.

 Exhibit A is the suffocating pervasiveness with which
 we use the phrase "middle class" as the label we have
 come to attach to not just all of those who are
 hurting in the current economic slump, but to the
 entire stratum that used to be identified as working
 class. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka proclaims "it
 was the labor movement that built the middle class; it
 was the middle class that made America great," while
 out in Indiana, when the Republican-dominated state
 legislature stood on the verge of enacting a new set
 of anti-labor laws, a local unionist declared,
 "Fighting right-to-work legislation is about standing
 up for our middle-class values."

 The Obama administration has raised this conflation of
 working class and middle class to a fine art. Vice
 President Joe Biden, whose blue-collar roots in the
 gritty Pennsylvania coal country are quite genuine,
 presided over a "Middle Class Task Force" during his
 first couple of years in office; more recently,
 President Obama--in an effort to identify his policies
 with the Progressive-era social reformism of Teddy
 Roosevelt--used the phrase "middle class" twenty-eight
 times in his highly-touted Osawatomie, Kansas speech
 of early December 2011.

 So what's the problem? Who cares what we call
 something if we know what it means?

 But there is much difficulty with this rhetorical
 switcheroo. First, the phrase "middle class" is
 virtually indefinable in any fashion other than as a
 crude income calculus. To be middle class is to be
 comfortable with a certain basket of goods and a heart
 full of desires. As Biden's Middle Class Task Force
 put it: "middle-class families are defined more by
 their aspirations than their income." This is very
 much at variance with how we used to define the middle
 class. Historians and sociologists once distinguished
 between the old middle class and the new. The old
 middle class was comprised of self-employed
 proprietors and independent professionals who, in the
 nineteenth century, carried real social and moral
 weight in a society where farmers and craftsmen were
 also numerous. Then in the twentieth century, a new
 middle class of salaried white-collar workers seemed
 to constitute another relatively well-defined class
 and cultural cohort. But today, the middle class is
 defined entirely in terms of income. That may be
 useful for those seeking to push forward a liberal tax
 policy. But it's pretty useless when it comes to
 virtually anything else. Thus in the summer of 2011,
 during a strike of forty-five thousand Verizon
 workers, union publicists declared the struggle as a
 "fight to defend middle-class jobs." But this
 characterization enabled Verizon to run newspaper ads
 claiming that the $75,000 a year or more earned by
 telephone technicians made them part of the "upper
 middle class" and thus, apparently, not worthy of much
 public sympathy.

 Indeed, the 60 percent of households in the center of
 the American income distribution make anywhere from
 $28,636 to $79,040 per year. That's family income by
 the way, which means that these people are clearly
 struggling. By any standard, they compose an American
 working class--although most definitions in common
 usage today, certainly those put forward by most
 liberal Democrats, extend the definition of the middle
 class up to about $200,000 a year. At that point, we
 are talking about salaried professionals and
 moderately successful entrepreneurs whose income puts
 them in the top 10 percent of the American population.
 And if the 99 percent is taken as any sort of coherent
 grouping--and here even my comrades at Labor Notes have
 taken to calling for "Solidarity for the 99%"--then we
 are linking together the fortunes of those on food
 stamps with families whose income tops out at just
 over $500,000 a year.

 Second, when we focus on the middle class as an object
 of concern, we are necessarily marginalizing,
 neglecting, and denigrating those who fall below it,
 those out of the workforce, those chronically
 unemployed, those on welfare, those whose aspirations
 are not middle class at all. As Michael Zweig has
 pointed out in The Working- Class Majority: America's
 Best Kept Secret, when the working class disappears
 into an amorphous middle class, the working poor--a
 mere forty-six million strong--drops out of the
 picture. The right used to champion the middle class
 precisely in order to denigrate low-income people of
 color who were dependent upon government checks and
 services to sustain themselves. Should the left be
 doing that as well?

 But the main reason to begin using the phrase working
 class once again is that the contemporary category of
 middle class has no sense of agency, purpose, or
 politics--while the idea of a working class is (by
 virtual definition) a font of all of this. No need to
 sing "Solidarity Forever" here. The essential
 difference is that, in the Marxist tradition, working
 class is defined not by income, or consumption, or
 education, but by the near-universal extent to which
 members of that class sell their labor for their
 wages. Most members of what we, today, call the middle
 class do that as well. Conversely, it is important to
 understand what is wrong with a simple demonization of
 the 1 percent. It, too, is politically imprecise; some
 of those who fall into that income category may be
 filthy rich and snobbish, while others may be
 personally creative or frugal like, say, Steve Jobs or
 Warren Buffet. The "1%" of political significance is
 comprised of an active group of capitalists whose
 overweening power over central economic and political
 institutions is both the cause of our difficulties and
 the proper target of all those who work for them,
 either directly in the corporations they control or in
 a public sector starved by virtue of the political and
 financial power wielded by that same elite stratum.

 So how did we get tethered to this dysfunctional and
 retrograde metric, one not imposed by academic
 mandarins or right-wing politicians, but embraced by
 most liberals, leftists, and unionists?

 When Jacob Riis published How the Other Half Lives in
 1890, his dank portrait of urban poverty emphasized
 not just the inadequate income of that population but
 the entire ethnic/occupational work life of the
 Bohemian cigarmakers, the Italian ragpickers, and the
 Jewish garment workers which he studied. This
 conflation of poverty, powerlessness, and
 working-class occupation continued into the Depression
 decade. When FDR delivered his famous "Forgotten Man"
 speech in 1932, he did not use the phrase "working
 class" to describe those at the "bottom of the economy
 pyramid" but he did make clear that they were "the
 forgotten, the unorganized but the indispensible units
 of economic power" whose rescue and mobilization could
 restore prosperity.

 Rescuing the "Forgotten Man" entailed empowering
 class-based organizations--the labor movement, first of
 all--and a government prepared to take its side in the
 struggle against that era's "1%." Indeed, it is
 precisely for that reason that business conservatives
 and others hostile to an activist New Deal strove
 mightily to purge "working class" from our common
 vocabulary at about the time that the Cold War abroad
 and McCarthyism at home made suspect any references to
 the "class struggle." Their success proved so great
 that liberals and progressives felt constrained to
 adopt much of the right-wing discourse. Thus when a
 young radical did use the phrase "class struggle" at a
 United Automobile Workers' educational camp in the
 1950s, ex-socialist Roy Reuther is reported to have
 snapped "Don't use that kind of sectarian Marxist crap
 in this school."

 Moreover, by the time Roy's brother, Walter Reuther,
 had emerged as a powerful spokesman for the labor
 movement, the conflation of working-class occupations
 with dire poverty and dysfunctional family life had
 been broken. This did not mean that all those
 increasingly well-paid autoworkers and steel workers
 were middle class. They still got their hands dirty,
 faced recurrent layoffs, and (according to the U.S.
 Bureau of Labor Statistics) had just enough income to
 buy a used Chevy once every four years and pay the
 (government-subsidized) mortgage on an exceedingly
 modest house. Their status was rising in these early
 postwar years; they constituted an army of "labor,"
 organized labor, not yet affluent, but a stratum of
 society that was both powerful and, in Reuther's
 words, had "fairness and equity and morality on its
 side." Here is the way Reuther approached some of the
 same themes that animate Occupy Wall Street today: "We
 don't begrudge one penny that these corporation
 executives are paid. We know that when corporation
 management makes a contribution to the economic
 well-being of the country . . . they are entitled to a
 just reward for their economic contribution. But we
 say that when workers make their contribution they,
 too, are entitled to just compensation."

 What began as the purging of "working class" and
 "class conflict" from the postwar political and social
 imagination, over time, underwent an even more toxic
 evolution. It opened the door to a right-wing
 redefinition of the (white) working class and its
 conflation with those who constituted the middle
 class. Before the late 1960s, conservatives were far
 more likely to deny the existence of a class hierarchy
 than fetishize one class in preference to another. But
 in his search for a seductive new polarization that
 would boost Republican electoral fortunes in the early
 1970s, President Nixon took possession of the
 Rooseveltian language that identified a vast,
 underappreciated stratum and turned it on its head. He
 singled out for censure a new and alien elite
 comprised of those professional, educational, and
 governmental elements of the population that had once
 given ideological and cultural coherence to the old
 Roosevelt coalition.

 The liberal New Dealer Senator Paul Douglas had first
 coined the term "silent center" as representing all
 those millions of working Americans unappreciated and
 overlooked by the nation's actual economic elite.
 Nixon and his speechwriters took that sense of neglect
 and resentment and gave it a sharp cultural thrust by
 morphing the New Deal construction into his famous
 "silent majority," which Nixon defined as "the
 millions of people in the middle of the American
 political spectrum who do not demonstrate, who do not
 picket, or protest loudly." Thus did Time magazine
 declare as its 1970 "Man of the Year" the "Middle
 Americans," defined as "a state of mind, a morality, a
 construct of values and prejudices and a complex of
 fears." Within a couple of decades, we'd get one
 variation on this right-wing construction after
 another: from the moral majority, the Reagan
 Democrats, NASCAR Dads, Sam's Club Republicans, and
 even the "white working class" which, in the political
 imagination of most Republicans (and some Democrats),
 constitutes a voting bloc of conservative white males
 who have long since abandoned the party of FDR.
 Although both conservatives and liberals deploy the
 phrase "middle class" to describe low- income people
 who work in large organizations, right-wingers--such as
 Sarah Palin and Charles Murray--are, today, more apt to
 also use the phrase "working class" to describe this
 vast stratum, largely because they feel far more
 comfortable than most liberals in defining class in an
 almost exclusively cultural fashion.

 Of course, the Republicans have never been serious
 about defending the material interests of those they
 denominate "middle class," even as they fed the more
 socially conventional among them culture-war red meat.
 Liberals and labor should therefore appropriate for
 themselves the defense of this stratum, now abandoned
 in all but name by the conservatives. But the habit of
 loosely referring to an amorphous middle class won't
 help mobilize people for the "class warfare" the right
 decries but nevertheless wages with a calculated

 Obfuscation of this sort will only mislead and
 confuse. We need to reconstruct a sense of class
 dignity and destiny for all those whose work fails to
 provide social recognition or economic well-being. We
 need to restore some definitional precision to those
 who truly do constitute America's working-class
 majority. Unionists and those who advocate on their
 behalf need to use the kind of language whose emotive
 power and historic resonance match the political
 audacity of those who occupied both the Wisconsin
 statehouse and the Wall Street parks. To speak on
 behalf of the working class is to begin to educate
 millions of Americans to the realization that their
 future is linked to their own capacity for
 organization and empowerment.


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