Sunday, June 02, 2013

The American Working Non-Class

Paul asked a while back about the state of the working class in the United States, and the room for organic intellectualism in American life. I should say right out front that nothing I say here is particularly hard and fast, or based on deep insight, or even more than one possible speculation, but perhaps some of it may provide food for thought. I will start with a slogan-ish hyperbolic statement, one that I think nonetheless makes an important point, particularly when one starts adding the nuances: there is no American working class.

Now, obviously there are American workers, and obviously there are people who do working-class jobs. The point of the claim, though, is not to deny these truths but rather to deny that working-class population coheres together as a class, either for action or in terms of others exploiting it. This is one reason, I think, for a common feature of American economic life, which is that no one is sure who is working class and who is not. Statistically the working class in America tends to be identified in two very different ways: hourly wage or no college degree. Neither of these fits the other very well, and given the way people approach work in the U.S., lots of people who we would not elsewhere consider working class fit into both groups. You can be independently very wealthy, for instance, and technically fall into one of these groups; and, likewise, it's not uncommon at all for there to be a couple in which one person falls into one of the groups and the other doesn't. That's statistics. But there's not really much else to identify a working class. We have scattered working-class communities, but American local mobility -- the tendency to move somewhere else entirely for work every once in a while -- is so high, that these are more exception than rule; they tend to be confined to industries with a very well-defined geographic placement, and even then people move in and out so freely that there's very little to bind these communities together except in very unusual cases. You could try using unions as a proxy, but not all unions in the U.S. are exactly working-class unions, and union membership is a weird thing in the U.S.: large sectors of the population are very suspicious of unions, because they regard them as yet one more group of people getting together to bully other people.

Further, self-identification as working-class is very weird in the U.S. It's not difficult to find corporate executives who consider themselves working class because they work sixty hours a week, even though they make a six-figure salary doing so. It's difficult to figure out the reasoning behind this, but I'm pretty sure the idea is one in which 'working class' is being opposed to 'leisure class'. On the other end, most people who would usually be considered working class, don't consider themselves working class; they consider themselves middle class. One thing one eventually learns is that when people talk about middle-class America, they are talking about almost the entire population, because almost everyone gets counted as 'middle class' by default. You have to be extraordinarily wealthy or extraordinarily poor for anyone to think that you are stretching by calling yourself 'middle class'. Americans going abroad are often baffled by what gets counted as 'middle class' in other countries, because 'middle class' in America really means something like 'what you'll be if you're not very lucky, or very unlucky, or very lazy' (contrary to what seems to be a common assumption, I don't think Americans in general believe that people become very rich by hard work rather than luck; Americans just tend to be suspicious of the idea that it's unfair to have unusually good luck -- in attitude we're very much a lottery nation). There is also no stigma to being middle-class in America, and lots of people who would be counted as belonging to the working class elsewhere count themselves as middle class in the U.S.

The situation is complicated even further, I think, by the fact that there seems to be a very clear rural/urban split in the working-class population of the United States. The two do not function very much alike at all. Politically they play very different roles, and have very different lines of political influence. My suspicion is that in general the rural working class has much more clout than the urban working class, but I have nothing to prove this. Part of this is possibly structural: our system of government represents rural America better than urban America, because it represents largely rural states at least as well as more heavily urban states. Part of it is cultural, our tendency to think of ourselves in Jeffersonian terms as a productive people of the land. As far as I can tell, this doesn't make people more likely to become farmers or miners or fishermen, but there's a broad admiration for people who are, or who work directly with people who do. I don't think urban working class is romanticized as much as rural working class is.

All of this is just a long-winded way of making the point that there are working Americans doing working-class jobs, but there's not really much of a working class in the U.S. It's nearly invisible to itself and nobody specifically targets it for exploitation (a difficult thing to do in a society where most people can count themselves as middle class automatically) so there's little pressure to recognize itself in this way. It's more acceptable to talk in such terms these days, but the U.S. comes out of a history that has a far more vehement rejection of the very idea of class warfare than most nations do, and after a certain point class tensions started seeming to a lot of people like very minor things compared to racial tensions. To the extent that unions manage to accomplish much, it is usually not by beating class warfare drums, which sounds suspiciously collectivist and therefore anti-middle-class to the many working Americans who think of themselves as middle class, but by piping out songs of individualistic self-sufficiency.

This leads into the question of organic intellectualism in the United States. I think there's a fair amount of this for the rural working class, because we actually have a long history of intellectual articulation of the values, needs, and interests of the rural working class, although surprisingly little of this involves explicit recognition of it as a working class. I think there is next to none for the urban working class. The urban working class has no real voice, as a whole; it has very little coherence as a class, is unable to form significant communities in the modern-day American economy except by accident, and outside of a few pockets seems much more poorly represented at the political level. This doesn't mean, of course, that there are no places in the U.S. that are the exception; in a society like ours there will certainly be exceptions for this kind of thing.

So it seems to me, anyway. It should be reiterated that I might not know what in the world I'm talking about here. The U.S. is a very, very large country with a very, very large population; if one relies on personal experience, one can only get a very impressionistic glimpse of it. Normally you'd supplement with statistics -- but for reasons noted above the statistics of the American working class are very tricky-tricky to interpret, and I simply don't have the background to avoid all the pitfalls. So I've nothing to fall back on but guess and speculation based on what I've seen.


  1. Jennifer Fitz10:35 PM

    The other thing that throws us is social mobility. By way of example: My grandparents-in-law were born and raised dirt farmers. They got off the farm and did working-class jobs (built water plants, cut hair). But their kids went to college. Their grandkids have masters degrees. Meanwhile, Friend of mine from church is a 1st-generation immigrant, barely speaks English, definitely would be considered "working class" . . . except her daughter's one of the top math and science students in the state.

    No matter what job *you* do, no matter how provincial your accent, it's hard to count yourself as working class if your kids are firmly in the upper-upper end of "middle."

  2. branemrys7:41 AM

    Very true. You can virtually guarantee that, if not your children, at least your grandchildren will be in a different economic position than yourself (and, of course, there are differences among in-laws, etc.) so to the extent that we can identify a working class, it is mixed in pretty thoroughly with every other class; only the extremely rich and the extremely poor really separate out of the mix.


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