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Who Is Working-Class, and Why It Matters

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Workers at a rally, mostly women, many Black, many wearing hospital scrubs.

Throughout U.S. history, class has been bound up with other forms of oppression—so the disenfranchisement of Black men after Reconstruction decisively shifted class relations.

Many political analysts, including some on the Left, are positing a radically new configuration of class in the United States. Their argument, reduced to its essence, is that the traditional markers of class are no longer relevant, and now the great divide is between those who have graduated from college versus the rest. It is further argued that this new class structure is reshaping our political party system in dramatic ways:  the Democrats are becoming the party of the educated, in addition to traditional constituencies among African Americans and single women. Conversely, the Republicans are becoming a party of the working class—defined as the non-college-educated—across traditional racial and ethnic lines (for a cogent example of this analysis, see Matt Karp’s “The Politics of a Second Gilded Age”).

I think this analysis is wrong in all respects.  We need an analysis of how class functions in the U.S. that is based in our distinct history of stratification (and division) along ethno-racial lines.  Beyond that, we need an accurate reading of the Democratic Party in particular, if we are to advance the struggle for a multiracial democracy against white nationalism.

The Democrats

Certainly, the bases of the two parties are in motion. As Karp points out, the Democrats have successfully invaded formerly Republican turf, pulling in large numbers of suburban white women. On the other hand, the numerical shift towards Republicans among rural whites in places like Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is jarring. But these large-scale electoral trends require a different kind of examination than many on the Left have provided: we should stop making or accepting flat pronouncements about “working-class” defection from the Democratic Party. There may be some, but it is an open question who is disaffected and why, and indeed how far back this alienation from the Party of the New Deal reaches. 

The Democratic Party has never been a party of the working class, and suggesting it once was, presumably because for many decades after the New Deal it received a majority of votes cast by waged workers, is reductive in the extreme.  At no point did the Democrats resemble a socialist, labor, or communist party in Europe or anywhere else, formations in which trade unions enjoyed a preponderance of power in party councils. From the 1930s through the present, powerful corporate interests have exercised a large, often decisive influence among Democrats, along with urban machines dominated by ethnic interests, and, until recently, white southerners of all classes.  Certainly, the trade union apparatus mattered—they got out the vote–but any examination of party dynamics indicates their role was always contingent and subordinate.

In the post-1945 era, for instance, extractive industries based in Texas and Oklahoma were central, via Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson of the former and Senator Robert E. Kerr of the latter, who, as head of the Finance Committee, controlled more pork than anyone else in Washington.  More recently, since the 1990s, significant elements of the tech and finance sector have bankrolled the Clintons’ grand plan to move the party to the center-right, away from any alignment with organized labor.  That the latter had been in free-fall since the 1970s is obviously relevant.

It is not enough, however, to assert that the Democrats have never been a “party of workers,” as Matt Karp describes them, let alone a party of the working class. We, as socialists, must refuse the insistence of professional pollsters, and the liberal media trailing after them, that “working class” is directly correlated to “non-college educated.” No Marxist I have read would make that assertion. For us, class is measured by one’s relation to the relations of production—what one does, and for whom, not the size of a paycheck, or educational credentials.

We must refuse the insistence of professional pollsters, and the liberal media trailing after them, that ‘working class’ is directly correlated to ‘non-college educated.’

The demographic pool of Americans without a bachelor’s degree includes millions of business-people (retail shop owners, contractors, farmers, home maintenance techs, computer programmers, and more) many of whom deploy capital to employ others.  They are not “workers” at all, unless one succumbs to elitist tropes equating “working class” with trucker caps, Carhartts, and certain food or music tastes.  This large stratum fits the historical definition of the petty bourgeoisie; indeed, throughout the advanced capitalist world, it has functioned as the social base for reactionary nationalism and nativist pseudo-populism. In the U.S., they flocked to the Second Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, and then Huey Long’s Share the Wealth clubs and Father Charles Coughlin’s National Union for Social Justice in the mid-1930s.  Why would we let mainstream corporate Democrats and their acolytes in the press, who share little with us other than opposing Trump, define these people as “workers?” (To be clear, we should not concede the petty bourgeoisie to the Right—there are many small-business owners, technicians, professionals and tradespeople who agree with us!)

Equally important is the flipside to this deep misunderstanding that class correlates to educational credentialing. Right now, there are vast numbers of people with college degrees who are definitely working-class.  All kinds of institutional employers, especially those in the “non-profit” sector like my college, require a B.A. degree for skilled clerical jobs.  For that matter, does anyone want to insist that nurses, one of the most militantly class-conscious sectors of today’s proletariat, are somehow not “working-class” because they have at least one, often several, college degrees? And then there are the thousands of baristas, a visible precariat; we should scoff at the notion of separating them into two different classes because some finished college and some did not.

The ‘class-in’ and the ‘class-for’

There is another basic confusion with how many Leftists talk about “the working class.” There is no such thing as a unitary, coherent working class outside of specific historical contexts. Under certain conditions, a bloc or even a majority of proletarians become class-conscious, a classfor-itself. A key instance of this took place in late eighteenth and nineteenth century England where, as argued in E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, men and women pushed off the land into factories constituted themselves as a new kind of class.

Otherwise, all we have is the class-in-itself, no more than an analytic or sociological category, defined by individuals’ common relation to the relations of production, in this instance via waged work. The class-in-itself is not a political category at all, and confusing the class-for with the class-in will lead you down a blind alley, just waiting for “the workers” to realize their true interests, a la Thomas Frank and other left-populists (as in “what’s the matter with them?”).  This is exceptionally true in the U.S., where at every point in the past 400 years class identity has been refracted through a spectrum of “free,” less-free, bound, and enslaved (including penal) labor.

In the actually existing world of material-political relations, we encounter not entire classes (ruling, middle, working, perhaps professional-managerial) but multiple, overlapping working-class fractions, some of which are organized into power blocs with fractions drawn from the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie. That was Nicos Poulantzas’s core insight in Political Power and Social Classes, hardly displaced in the present.  And yet we are still being exhorted into believing in an objective, singular class identity muddied up by that old bugaboo, “false consciousness” (“identitarianism,” in Matt Karp’s analysis). As if white supremacy can be pushed off to the side so easily!

For most of U.S. history, it is impossible to talk about a coherent, self-conscious working class. Instead, as David Gordon, Richard Edwards, and Michael Reich showed in their classic Segmented Work, Divided Workers: The Historical Transformation of Labor in the United States, workers in this country have always been both grouped and stratified along lines of race, ethnicity, and gender, with various forms of bound and unwaged labor occupying the lower tiers of that hierarchical structure.

On occasion in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, assorted groups of workers came together in city or state as working-class movements, but these were usually predicated on excluding workers not-white (with the short-lived Knights of Labor an honorable exception). The CIO, especially its Communist-influenced unions, challenged the color line in the late 1930s and 40s; it firmed up again in the 1950s, however, as millions of white workers moved into segregated suburbs and sent their children to universities (Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit is a classic account of this process). Now, in the post-industrial era, we see an extraordinary profusion of class fractions, including occupational groupings defined largely by gender and cutting across race and ethnicity—think of nursing home attendants and housecleaners. 

The confusion over how class functions in the U.S. becomes even greater if one succumbs to the notion that class is a function of income or wealth. Here’s a personal example:  the UPS driver representing what’s left of the unionized private sector is emphatically working-class even if, racking up massive overtime under COVID conditions, she, he, or they make 50% more than a senior public school teacher or a professor like me, professionals who are indubitably not working-class. 

A second Redemption

We should consider the political implications of posing a permanent distinction between “class” as an objective fact and what Matt Karp calls “geography, race, religion, ethnicity and culture—in a word, ‘identity’.” He asserts that in the Gilded Age, “the grievances of millions were channeled into passionate but sterile identity politics. Does any of this sound familiar?” I must ask then: what are today’s “passionate but sterile identity politics”: Black Lives Matter? MeToo?  The campaigns to protect trans teenagers from being driven out of the public sphere? To protect our right to teach about white supremacy in public schools and universities? 

To me, the premises underlying this version of Left politics are a re-assertion of the most economistic version of Second International Marxism, relying on Engels rather than Marx, in which a “base” of productive forces always determines the contours of the “superstructure” above it. That kind of theorizing will get us nowhere. We are moving through the entropic chaos of a vast settler polity founded in the seventeenth century. Its state founding circa 1790-1860 sprang from the coupling of advanced racial capitalism and the ethnic cleansing of several hundred indigenous peoples.  Class is woven through every piece of that fabric, but not in any simple or clear-cut fashion.  No part of that history can be reduced to class; it is not an objective fact, but rather a constantly shifting set of relations bound up with other forms of domination.  That is the history of class politics in the United States.

Posing “class” as the only material form of identity, its actual substance versus everything else, isn’t just a refusal of what we have learned since the 1960s—socialist feminism, anyone?—it’s also a disastrous strategy for the present.  I voted for Bernie Sanders and would do so again, but his campaigns’ failure to reach the Black voters whom Manning Marable identified decades ago as this country’s core “social democratic” constituency reveals the limitations of a class-first program.

Recent memory provides a powerful example of emphatically multiracial class-conscious politics in the Rainbow Coalition.  Jesse Jackson upended the conventions of traditional Democratic politics, opening up options for the Left closed since the 1940s. He did this by mobilizing Black and Latinx voters while speaking directly to white workers and even farmers.  He showed up, over and over (as he still does, on occasion). That the Rainbow did not turn into a permanent force larger than Reverend Jackson is to be regretted, but the example of what it was and could be again requires study.

We are not living through a Second Gilded Age, but a Second Redemption—what white supremacists proudly called their crushing of Reconstruction.

All of which points towards a fundamental continuity in U.S. politics: whether or not Black voters are able to participate is a fulcrum around which all else revolves.  No one should invoke the Gilded Age without acknowledging the central political shift of that era: the systematic disfranchisement of nearly all Black men in the states of the former Confederacy after 1890. That is the true parallel for today. We are not living through a Second Gilded Age, in fact, but a Second Redemption—what white supremacists proudly called their crushing of Reconstruction. As W.E.B. Du Bois insisted in Black Reconstruction, those men—whether enslaved or liberated—were workers, proletarians in every sense. Removing them from the political body was a decisive shift in class relations, one that lasted into my lifetime, since not until 1968 could a majority of African Americans vote. This remains the essential terrain of “class politics”:  the mobilization or suppression of Black voters.  We would do well not to forget that fact in 2022 and after.    

Featured image: Some occupational categories are defined largely by gender. Pictured here, nursing home workers on strike, 2012. Photo from Dannell Malloy archive, CC BY 2.0

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Race and Class

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