Why the Working Class

Nancy Welch

September 29, 2020

Upper Valley DSA’s Nancy Welch gave this talk for a Socialist Night School class co-hosted with Southern New Hampshire DSA. The “syllabus” for this class included Hadas Thier’s “Why the Working Class Is the Vast Majority of Society,” Tithi Bhattacharya’s “How Not to Skip Class,” Vivek Chibber’s “Why the Working Class,” and the last two sections particularly of Kim Moody’s “How Just-in-Time Capitalism Spread Covid-19.”

To answer the question “Why the working class?” we have to start with what the working class is not. Contrary to what we see in popular culture, class is not expressed in cultural traits, such as whether you drink beer on the front stoop or sip chardonnay on the back deck. It’s not measured either by income or determined by the number of diplomas you’ve acquired. When the New York Times ran a series on class, now in a book called Class Matters, the "prestige" levels of one's occupation and education were the big markers. Apparently because I have a doctorate and teach at a university, I'm in or very close to the ruling class. Now the fact that more than 75% of PhD-holding university instructors are precariously employed adjuncts tells me that no, a PhD does not land you in the ruling class. But as Hadas Thier points out in Jacobin, because we are taught to see class as a measure of “[i]ncome levels, education, lifestyles, and patterns of consumption,” most people do hold the seemingly common-sense view that the middle class is the U.S. majority class and that there is no working class at all--except, of course, in election years when we’re told that the working class is a white rural cis-gender male voter in the post-industrial midwest who has cast his vote for Trump. Here the working class is represented as a dangerous class, a reactionary class.

What I want to do tonight is clear away all this fog so that the country’s and the globe’s multiracial and multigendered working-class majority can come into view and so we can then consider why it is not anachronistic or romantic for socialists to focus on this class’s emancipatory potential. I also want to talk about what’s at stake in this Marxist understanding. Over the past 40 years most U.S. workers lost any consciousness of themselves as working class. Over those decades workers have suffered an escalating and sustained assault at the point of production (that is, assaults on unions, wages and pensions, job security, job safety) and also at the point of social reproduction (that is, assaults on the communities where we live through foreclosures, eviction, gentrification, poisoned water, heavily policed neighborhoods especially for those who are Black and brown, underfunded schools and more). It is no accident that these material assaults on the working class have been accompanied by an ideological campaign to disappear working-class consciousness and along with it consciousness of workers’ power.

So, what is the Marxist understanding of class that until quite recently had been all but disappeared in the U.S? To get at this question, I’ll talk about class as a relationship that is both objective and subjective. Objectively, class is a relationship that is “determined,” as Thier explains, “by a person’s relationship to labor, the fruits of labor, and the means of production.” Subjectively, class is determined by a person’s awareness of themselves as being a member of a class (awareness of being in relation with others in this class), of having class interests (and so being in potential friction and conflict with another class that would thwart those interests), and acting consciously in relation with others to pursue those interests. Objectively, we can be members of the working class but have zero subjective awareness that this positions us potentially as what Marx and Engels termed capitalism’s “gravediggers”--because as Marx and Engels understood, that potential to free the world from capitalism hinged on the development of subjective consciousness by workers of their relationship to one another, their ability to unite and lose their chains.

So let me break this down more, starting with the other major side, the ruling class: A person who wields economic control over workplaces, dictates the terms of others’ working conditions, possesses investment capital, or holds major political office belongs to the ruling or capitalist class. In the US, writes labor economist Michael Zweig, members of the capitalist class could fit easily into Yankee stadium. That’s a very small number of people who wield enormous power and who are quite conscious and organized when it comes to using and defending that power. Although Marx describes members of the capitalist class as a “band of warring brothers,” they have also historically banded together to defend any from-below encroachment on their interests. As Vivek Chibber points out, “Movements for progressive reform have found time and again that whenever they try to push for changes in the direction of justice, they come up against the power of capital.”

On the other side is the working class. Anyone who doesn’t have the means to provide for their needs except by selling their labor in exchange for a wage and who do not, or not outside of a union, control the terms and conditions of their work: these are the members of the working class. The working class includes those who produce goods but also services. Teachers, nurses, and UPS drivers are in the working class because they sell their labor power to an employer, whether private or government, and because as individuals they have little or no democratic say about their work process, conditions, and compensation.

Contrary to popular lore, the working class in the US is the majority class. Also contrary to popular lore, the size of the working class is not shrinking. Instead, it has grown in two key ways. First, it grows as formerly middle-class professions are proletarianized-- stripped of their halos, as Marx and Engels put it in the Manifesto--with computer programmers, university faculty, and others converted into wage laborers or even desperate short-term gig seekers. Second, the size and the potential power of the working class has grown as global markets and hemispheric just-in-time production depend on complex logistics of transportation, warehousing, and delivery--on the working class at every vulnerable link in the supply chain.

In the US the working class makes up around two-thirds of the labor force. But as Thier and Kim Moody argue, the working class is even bigger than that as it also includes “elderly people, people permanently unemployed because of disabilities,” people thrown by boom and bust cycles in and out of employment, the children and teens of working-class people, and people whose labor is unwaged. (Think, for instance, about the number of parents, mothers in particular, who recently have had to leave the workforce because pandemic daycare closures and public schools shifting to online education demand their presence at home.) An integrative approach to class, writes Tithi Bhattacharya, “gathers together the temporary Latina hotel worker from Los Angeles, the flextime working mother from Indiana who needs to stay home due to high childcare costs, the African-American full-time school teacher from Chicago, and the white, male and unemployed, erstwhile UAW worker from Detroit.”

What all of these people across waged and unwaged labor, across occupations, and across national borders and citizenship status share in common is that because they do not own any means of production, they are objectively bound in a social relationship to the capitalist class. As workers, Thier explains, we “are without any means to produce and reproduce our livelihoods and therefore we are at the mercy of capitalist exploitation. A construction company has mechanical shovels … which allow them to exploit laborers and turn a profit. I have a shovel, which I can use to grow flowers or tomatoes.”

I’m going to return in a moment to what happens when workers become conscious of their relationship to one another and to their collective power to put the capitalist at their mercy. But first, I need to introduce the middle class and explain why they’re more a footnote rather than at the center of this story. Here we find small business owners like the owner of your hair salon or local farm stand; self-employed electricians, landscapers, and plumbers; middle managers like my college dean; and those dwindling number of professions, such as doctors and lawyers, who have to varying degrees withstood proletarianization and retained measurable autonomy and control over their work. This middle class not only is much smaller than popular and political discourse would have us believe; it also has what Zweig sums up as only “middling” power, vacillating between allying with the capitalist class or allying with the working class, but doesn’t have on its own the economic or the social power to win and defend progressive social change. As Martin Luther King, Jr., argued when he tried to persuade the mostly middle class-identified Southern Christian Leadership Conference to join him in the Poor People's Campaign, "It is ironic that today so many …. are seeking new methods to instill middle-class values in Negro youth ... It was precisely when young Negroes threw off their middle-class values that they made an historic social contribution."

What King was describing was that moment when a group of people--whether they are fighting exploitation and oppression in the workplace, in their communities, or both--shift from seeing themselves as powerless to understanding their class power to bring the capitalist system, or a segment of the system to a halt, a shift from being what Marx termed “a class of itself” (an objective position) to “a class for itself” (subjective consciousness of collective change-making potential). Workers stand at the levers of producing and distributing goods and services; when we are able to unite across genders, race, religion, documentation status, and more, there is indeed no power greater as the labor anthem “Solidarity Forever” proclaims.

Here, of course, you might be wondering why then the global working class hasn’t gotten rid of capitalism already. For starters you can look at all those divides I just listed that capitalism has an interest in stoking, reinforcing, and deepening plus that ideological campaign to disappear the term working class from our lexicon, our consciousness, altogether. A key way that the capitalist class binds workers to them in a relationship of exploitation is to fill our heads with racism, misogyny, transphobia, xenophobia, and a relationship to other workers that’s rooted in competition against one another so that former UAW autoworker blames the Latinx worker for his job loss and so that we don’t see what binds us together as a class. And the capitalist class also fills us our heads with myths and lies about how they’ve earned their riches through hard work, how much they give back through philanthropy, and how we too with hard work and ingenuity can get ahead. Head-fixing is what the radical labor movement the IWW called these ruling ideas. Gaslighting, my students would say. “They divided both to conquer each,” is how Frederick Douglass put it.

That said, the Great Recession of 2008-2009, sharp anger at the bail-out of the capitalist class and selling out of the working class, and brutalizing assaults, especially people of color, where they live as well as where they work have all put the language of class and class struggle back on the U.S. map--including most recently with wildcat strikes by bus drivers, meatpacking plant workers, teachers, nurses, and graduate student workers against unsafe pandemic working conditions.

And we have only part of the picture if we look at workplace actions alone. Class struggles don’t happen only where the working class works but where the working class lives--in struggles over whether the fruits of our labor will be returned to us in the form of good schools, drinkable water, clean air, affordable housing and so forth or whether these necessary provisions will be withheld. These community-based class struggles are struggles against deepening exploitation as the fruits of workers’ labor fund private greed rather than public needs like schools and drinkable water. These community-based struggles are also simultaneously struggles against deepening oppression, including gender oppression as unwaged care-taking labor falls disproportionately on women and including racial oppression as BIPOC communities disproportionately suffer from environmental toxins, closed schools and hospitals, and murderous policing. With this understanding, we can consider that class doesn’t compete with race, gender, sexuality, and disability for centrality. Here I am countering to some extent Chibber’s formulation that suggests, at least to me, that we somehow have to make a choice between fighting on the basis of class or fighting on the basis racial, gendered, or other oppressions. After all, it is the working class that overwhelmingly suffers the injuries of an economic and social system constituted by and for the perpetuation of white supremacy, sexism, and misogyny in service to capital accumulation. Rather than competing with myriad forms of oppression, our subjective awareness of ourselves as a class is the key to our power to combat them--as the the #MeToo fast food and tech workers’ strikes against sexual harassment and assault have made inspiringly clear.

And that’s where socialists come in, people who carry the memory of the working class and bring that memory, that consciousness into our conversations with workmates and neighbors about what we can do in the face of crushing exploitation, oppression, and planetary destruction. I’ll end with just one example of what this can look like:

When the primarily African American and Latinx workers in the factory Chicago Windows and Doors decided to sit down and occupy their factory to prevent it from being closed and stripped for parts, they did so having had many lunchtime conversations about Marxist economics, US and Latin American labor history, and the idea of workers’ power. Their union local president, Armando Robles, is a socialist and saw the breakroom as the perfect place for some socialist education. He and other factory workers had visited Venezuela where they met workers who had occupied closed factories and reopened them sin patrón under worker control. Many had participated in the historic May Day 2006 general strike by immigrant workers across the U.S. that killed a draconian bill in Congress. Robles and others in this factory understood, as Thier writes, that “a class for itself must be organized … if we are to go from objective possibility to subjective advance.”

So here’s where I’ll end, with the relationship of socialists to cultivating consciousness of workers’ power in struggles where we work and where we live and also with this closing question that might provide a starting point for our discussion:

What social justice issues and struggles are you involved with? What does this discussion of class, and organizing for the exercise of workers’ power, contribute to your thinking about how to advance those struggles?

To get involved with the discussion, follow Upper Valley DSA on Facebook and on Twitter.

The next Socialist Night School, 8 pm October 15, will focus on Racism and Capitalism. Follow Upper Valley DSA and Southern New Hampshire DSA on Facebook for more details, and make sure to join our mailing list so you don't miss other upcoming discussions and events.

Lead image credit: Kheel Center, Cornell University Library (CC BY 2.0)

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