Monday, September 5, 2011

Class Warfare

Ever notice how people who use the term "class warfare" are usually the deniers of class in the U.S.? They pretend that class lines don't really exist and that everyone is middle class, by definition (they also think that class warfare is a euphemism for "bash the rich.").

You also see the class-deniers in the American people themselves, most of whom have a grossly over-inflated view of their own social class.

So on this Labor Day, when we supposedly celebrate labor over capital, it's refreshing to see a plethora of columns and essays recognizing precisely how devastating unemployment has been over the past three years, and why the dolts in D.C. simply don't get it.

First, a few excerpts from William Deresiewicz's "The Dispossessed":

What we don't have in this country, in other words, is anyone like Mike Leigh, who makes art out of working-class lives by refusing to prettify them. We no longer have anyone, among our major novelists, like Steinbeck or Dos Passos. We don't even have anything like the Honeymooners or All in the Family, whose frank depictions of the material conditions of working-class life (think of the Kramdens' kitchen, with its bridge table and two chairs) didn't prevent them from achieving a monumental universality. When we do get the rare serious mainstream treatment of working-class life, it comes from a middle-class observer like Barbara Ehrenreich. So why is it that the only working-class person anyone will pay attention to these days is a middle-class journalist masquerading as one? More fundamentally, why is it that the working class is treated as an exotic species, while the middle class, which it heavily outnumbers, is regarded as normal, and normative?
An excellent point, especially given the hagiography Ehrenreich recently received over her anniversary essay on "Nickel and Dimed: 10 years later." Make no mistake, I'm a big fan of her book from the early 2000's, but Deresiewicz is exactly right: do we only pay attention to working class people when a middle-class journalist decides to pose as one?

It's not hard to begin to answer these questions. First, the people who get paid to create mainstream culture—journalists, editors, writers, producers—are, ipso facto, members of the middle class. As social mobility slows, more and more of them also originate in that class. The middle class is not only what they know and identify with, it often seems to be the only thing they're aware of. Today’s army of cultural commentators, who speak so confidently about the way "we" live now—the crazy hours, the overscheduled kids, the elite colleges and nursery schools—mistake their tiny world of urban and university-town professionals for the whole of society. Second, as TV's creation of a pseudo-working-class suggests, looking at the real one is just, like, kind of a bummer. Just as everyone on TV has to be beautiful now, so does everyone have to have money, or at least live like they do. Nobody wants to watch a show about some fat guy struggling to make the rent. Finally and most importantly, we simply don't talk about class at all anymore. Why should we, when we're all supposedly part of a single one, the great middle? What we talk about is race and sexuality. (Or in the academy, race, gender, and sexuality, the great triumvirate. The humanities, despite their claim to transformative significance, have all but forgotten about class.) Instead of Steinbeck and Dos Passos, we have Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, Oscar Hijuelos, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Michael Cunningham.
As he also goes on to note, when we do focus on class, it's almost always in terms of race.

So deeply has the notion of a working class been pushed to the recesses of our consciousness, and so powerful is the link in our minds between poverty and race, that when we're shown a working-class black, we see a poor person—and when we're shown a working-class white, we don't see anything at all.
And Deresiewicz's essay was written five years ago, before the "Great Recession." What's amazing is that even after five years of economic disaster, we still don't talk about social class.

Here are some great columns for you to read regarding labor today (Krugman, Dionne, Meyerson), and while all make some great points, all miss the larger picture as well.

Income inequality is greater now than it has been since the last great recession of the early 1980's and since the Great Depression itself. The gap between the haves and have nots, and the degree of false consciousness rampant amongst the have nots, keeps us from seeing the devastating effect class has on people.

Class warfare is alive and well in the U.S. but it's not the lower, proletarian or even middle classes versus the rich.

It's the wealthy versus everyone else.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dr. Krugman - Which, specific experience of the last two years shows us that deficit spending helps support a depressed economy?

E.J. Dionne - Did you just pull out an 1861 quote from President Lincoln to validate the value or effectiveness of labor unions in 2011? Really?