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Has “Working Class” Lost Its Meaning?

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Late on the evening of November 8, 2016, Donald Trump made a last-minute campaign stop at the Grand Rapids, MI, convention center to a cheering crowd of over 4,000 supporters.  “The corrupt politicians and their special interests have ruled over this country for a very long time,” he shouted to his enthusiastic supporters.  “Today is our Independence Day.  Today the American working class is going to strike back, finally.”

In the wake of Trump’s November 9th electoral victory, Bernie Sanders noted that the insurgent Republican had “very effectively” tapped into “the anger and angst and pain that many working-class people are feeling.”  Pointing an accusing finger of Hillary Clinton and the neoliberal Democratic Party, he lamented, “I think that there needs to be a profound change in the way the Democratic Party does business.”  He insisted, “It is not good enough to have a liberal elite. I come from the white working class, and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party cannot talk to where I came from.”

The working-class has become a galvanizing issue for both Republicans and Democrats.  Since the end of WW-II, the notion of class has been transformed; the working-class superseded by the middle-class.  Today, the working class is back, at least rhetorically.

But what does working class mean in an era of deepening inequality, when the American dream can no longer be made great again?  Has class been exposed as a social fiction?  Perhaps it’s time to reinvent the proletariat.

Everybody knows their class identity, their relative socio-economic position within the vast American social order.  It determines everything from where one lives to one’s likely life expectancy, from the food one eats to the sex one engages in – and one’s beliefs and the politicians one will likely vote for.  Yet, this is America and — with the exceptions of the very top and bottom of the social order — class doesn’t exist.

In the U.S., unless with a close friend, family member or accountant (the 21st century’s secular confessor), people rarely discuss income or personal-financial issues, let alone as a social reality, a political issue like race, gender or disability.  Under the ethos of the consumer revolution, everyone became part of the great American middle-class – and class as a social force disappeared.  Or did so until, over the last decade, the nation’s hierarchal income structure got more exaggerated and a new proletariat was fashioned.

In the wake of the Great Recession of 2007-2009, VP Joe Biden prodded the Department of Commerce to establish in 2010 the Middle-Class Task Force to assess middle-class life.  It reported, “Income levels alone do not define the middle class. … Middle class families are defined by their aspirations more than their income.  We assume that middle class families aspire to home ownership, a car, college education for their children, health and retirement security and occasional family vacations.”

Class was understood as an income as well as an aspirational issue.  The study’s authors, likely well-meaning academic bureaucrats, failed to ask the most important question: What happens when the economy doesn’t produce a robust recovery and social relations are shaped by income stagnation and aspiration failure?

In 2016, Pew Research calculated that about half (51%) of adult Americans lived in middle-income households, less than a third (29%) in lower-income households and two-fifths (20%) in upper-income households.  This is a nice, easily-understood income-distribution map of the U.S.; it paints a familiar, conventional portrait of social relations.

However, Pew added a revealing wrinkly to the portrait: “the American middle class lost ground in the vast majority of metropolitan areas from 2000 to 2014.”  It goes further, offering a cautionary note: “the shares of adults in the lower- and upper-income ranks rose in most areas.  There was more movement into the upper-income tier in about half the areas, while in the other half there was more movement downward.”

A deepening socio-economic polarization seems underway and the notion of class seems to be reconfiguring, both as a social category and personal experience.  As a social category, unemployment has slowly declined since the 2007-2009 crisis, but income for the average American has stagnated for decades and personal debt has mounted (especially college debt burdening young white-collar workers).  As a personal experience, income is mediated by a host of critical factors, including race, gender, nationality, religion, regionalism and sexual orientation.  More so, class-configured personal identity (e.g., ambition, self-representation), along with one’s values and beliefs (i.e., how one feels about their life) shape a person’s self-understanding of class.

What happens when both income stagnation and aspiration failure come to define social relations during a profound period of geo-political restructuring?  In the wake of Trump’s first six months in office, there seems to be a growing perception that something is fundamentally wrong with the ship of state.  Many still believe, and pundits never stop repeating, the once great social fiction that anyone could become the next billionaire, whether Warren Buffet, Bill Gates or Donald Trump.  But this social con seems less persuasive as the Republicans implement a reverse Robin Hood campaign – take from the poor and give to the rich.  Their revised health-care proposal seems to confirm a worst-case scenario – less benefits, more expenses and the rich get richer.  Their likely budget will only further polarize social relations.

***

For much of the 19th and early-20th centuries, the slowly-modernizing industrial world of Europe and the U.S. was divided between the bourgeois and the proletariat; between those who owned the means of production and those who created surplus value, profit.  Class signified the war between the rulers and a revolutionary social force, the proletariat, empowered to remake the social order.

A century ago, the U.S. was ruled by the Robber Barons, the grand industrialists and financiers — like Rockefeller, Morgan and Carnegie – who became icons of the all-American acquisitiveness.  Class was then a social condition of survival, the sufferings endured – whether at coal mines, rural farms or urban sweatshops – under insufferable conditions.  Private corporations ruled; the state served as a social lubricant facilitating class tyranny.  Over the following century, the corporate barons were shorn of the shame associated with how they garnered their wealth as libraries, universities and grand performance space were named after them.

In the decade-and-a-half between late-1920s to mid-40s, the U.S. was wracked by the Great Depression and WW-II.  During this era, class was a social condition, a lived experience; everyone knew what it meant — and their relative position in society.  Whether of the elite, academia, the media or an ordinary working person, Americans knew what class meant.  It defined society and people knew their place in the social order.  Amidst the social crises that defined the era, the working class was considered a progressive force, fostering the union movement, vast war product and the civil-rights campaign.

The enormous expansion of the federal state during the era of social crisis underwrote the transformation of class in America.  It size, scope and influence expanded, first, in response to the gravest crisis of capitalism then-to-date and, second, to militarily reorganize the geo-political world order through global wars that cost the lives of millions of ordinary people.

In the postwar era of the great recovery, the working-class became the middle-class and lost its progressive meaning.  Three factors shaped this development.  First, the consumer revolution and suburbia fostered the celebrated middle-class prosperity.  Second the new social sciences turned social relations into hollow income categories and consumer hucksters promoted aspiration rooted in accumulation and conformity.  And, third, the Cold War at home, signified by Sen. Joe McCarthy, HUCA and the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, imposed social order.

This transitional period was marked by unprecedented economic expansion.  The 1944 GI Bill provided returning veterans with money for college, businesses and home mortgages. As a result, residential construction jumped from 114,000 new homes in 1944 to 1.7 million in 1950.  In September 1958, Bank of America tested its first 60,000 credit cards (later named Visa) in Fresno, CA. Within a decade, Americans had signed up for more than 100 million credit cards.  By 2014, more than 1 billion credit cards were in use; credit card debt was at $881.6 billion.  Those who resisted the new socio-cultural order of conformity were marginalized as beatniks or criminalized as homosexuals or communists.

In the early-21st century, capitalism is being transformed into part of a globalized, financialized market and so too the old notion the working class. This transformation is reflected, embodied, in the deepening social crisis gripping the nation.  In this process, a new notion of class seems to be cohering, becoming a social force.

“Income disparities have become so pronounced that America’s top 10 percent now average nearly nine times as much income as the bottom 90 percent,” notes the group Inequality.org.  In a stunning chart, “U.S Average Income, 2014,” it details the gap between the nation’s top earners and the other 90 percent: (i) bottom 90% = $33,068; (ii) top 10% = $295,845; (iii) top 5% = $448,489; (iv) top 1% = $1,260,508; and (v) top 0.1% = $6,087,113.

Inequality.org also identifies an intensifying “Household Wealth” gap.  Looking at the quarter-century between 1989 and 2013, it reveals that the relative share controlled by the richest 10 percent jumped from 20 percent to 51 percent; the “middle” 40 percent grew slightly from 9 percent to 15 percent; and the nation’s poorest 50 percent remained poor, with their wealth remaining flat at 1 percent.

 

Deepening inequality compounds growing poverty.  In 2015, Census Bureau estimated the official poverty rate at 13.5 percent — 43.1 million Americans lived in poverty.  It must be remembered that when the postwar recovery peaked in the early-1970s, the poverty rate was estimated at 11.1 percent (1973)

Social, political and interpersonal life in the U.S. is defined by a handful of key concepts around which social relations are shaped and self-hood defined.  Among them: class (e.g., income, job), race, gender, nationality, religion, regionalism, age, health status and sexual orientation.  They can be clustered into two broad spheres of life — economic factors and identity issues.

Trump, his Cabinet/administration and the Republican Congress have successfully convinced the conservative electorate that economic factors and identity issues are not related, separate and distinct dimensions of life.  As a private individual, one either sinks-or-swims, succeeds-or-fails based on one’s personal gumption.  It’s a social fiction that no one believes, but the great capitalist crap-shoot can make one a winner.

How these dimensions of experience — economic factors and identity issues — are effectively reconciled will determine how “progressive” forces, inside and outside the Democratic Party, contest political power.  They will face not only Republicans, but the religious right, really-hardcore white nationalists and other reactionary forces.  A social force is mounting as reflected in the innumerable demonstrations, marches, labor, community and other grass-roots campaigns that not only win, but lead to political and legislative change.

The U.S. faces a period of deepening social crisis, one that signifies a fundamental change in the nation’s social character, of what’s possible and for whom.  Trump’s presidency is an old-fashion vaudeville show, with the ring-master serving as the class con-artist, the slight-of-hand distraction.  The big game is being played behind the public curtain where the socio-economic transformation of America is underway.  What social force can contest this power structure, one backed by a vast police-military security state?

The only social force that goes beyond the singe-issue politics of class, race, gender and other social divisions is a re-envisioned proletariat.  Dusted off from the cobwebs of mid-19th century political theory and practice, a model proletariat needs to be reconceived from a pre-modern social force with post-modern movement.  In the early-industrial era of capitalism, Karl Marx and Pierre Proudhon (France’s leading anarchist) identified the twin-tyrannies of capitalism as class and hierarchy.

Where Marx called for the end of exploitation, Proudhon called for an end to domination.  Both saw the proletariat as the revolutionary force that could overthrow the dual structures of tyranny that define the capitalist system, freeing people from both exploitation and domination.  The proletariat was – and remains — a revolutionary force, at once the most exploited sector of capitalist society and able to break its chains, thus ushers in a utopian, “communist,” society.

The America working class is, today, in shambles.  Organized labor is at its lowest level since the Great Depression; the unemployed – and the underemployed – are desperate. The “gig economy” is pauperizing a growing segment of the wage-labor force.  Millions of working Americans voted for Trump.  A new American proletariat seems to be in formation as globalization restructures capitalism and Trump ferments economic crisis.

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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

CounterPunch Magazine


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