Getting Serious About Class Dynamics
Source Dave Anderson
Date 12/07/23/18:15
Published on New Politics
Vol. XIV No. 1, Whole Number 53
Getting Serious About Class Dynamics: Culture, Politics and Class
by William Tabb

LABOR HISTORIANS HAVE detailed how the structure of the workplace, the
cultural aspects of community, and spatial patterning all impact class
consciousness. From coal mining that paradigmatically has the workers
living in the hollow and the bosses on the hill to the ethnic enclaves
of steel town where different nationality/ethnic groups each occupied
their own distinct neighborhoods with taverns, union halls and
churches, socialization matters. Capital has learned the virtues, from
its perspective, of replacing single River Rouge-like plants with a
number of redundant smaller facilities located far from each other and
pitting workers spatially distant from the easier solidarity that came
from the traditional industrial concentration. It is not without
interest that where labor can be tightly controlled as in Foxconn’s
huge plant at Shenzhen, China with its hundreds of thousands of
workers the old industrial regime is possible. So long as the reserve
army of potential workers is available, inhumane levels of
exploitation can continue.

While in 1960 the most profitable American companies had
international divisions and exported, they were basically U.S.
companies. Today some of the most valuable American corporations like
Apple don’t employ many workers in the United States. International
solidarity will be and is important. But the workers in each country
have national and sectoral struggles to fight. It is only strong
movements in particular countries that can offer solid support for
struggles in other countries. One victory for the American labor
movement is that after long term collaboration with the C.I.A. and
U.S. Cold War policies, American labor has not only ended this
shameful practice but, thanks to groups like Labor Against the War,
has enlisted in honest solidarity work from what is objectively an
anti-imperialist position.

The growth of the globally available labor force capital can
remain a major obstacle to the advancement of class solidarity, given
differences of language and culture. The tripling of the size of this
workforce in recent decades with the entry of India and the former
Communist countries into the international division of labor has been
hard on formerly more protected workers in the advanced economies. But
just as in response to bosses in mill towns bringing in strike
breakers from different ethnicities or racial groups had to be
overcome through class unity, the workers of the world will have to
unite. But the primary focus of struggle remains at the national
level. Even as we think globally we act locally, to coin a phrase.

Understanding the evolution of the working class in the United
States (as well as elsewhere in a globalized capitalism) sensitizes us
to the ongoing reformation of the class in this country in our time.
The terrain has been harsh for some decades. The United Automobile
Workers, once the most powerful union in America, has lost 80 percent
of its members in the past three decades. It has had to acquiesce to
contracts under which newly hired autoworkers make $13-15 an hour
doing the same work on the same assembly line as those members getting
twice as much. As Bill Vlasic writes of two-tier pay, "What was once
seen as a desperate move to prop up the struggling auto industry is
now considered an integral part of its future."[1] Chrysler, which
Clint Eastwood tells us is "back," expects the proportion of two-tier
workers to rise from 13 percent to at least 25 percent by 2015. BNA, a
business and legal publisher, estimates that 20 percent of U.S.
workers in 2010 were covered by such two-tier wage and benefit

Another change is that when today’s auto company hires a
thousand new employees, it creates four times as many jobs for
marketers, managers, car salesmen, and subcontract parts makers. In
the economy more broadly there are fewer secretaries and office clerks
and more professionals and low level service sector workers. This
bifurcation has political consequences, as does the sheer proportion
of low-wage non-union jobs.

What has become most visible since the start of the Great
Recession is the explosion of freelancers, including those with titles
like "president" and "founder" of companies of which they are the sole
employee. There are predictions that 40 percent of Americans will be
self-employed at some point in their life. David Callahan, author of
Freelance Nation, suggests that in the future "a greater number of
workers will be on their own whether they like it or not, as
corporations continue to shift toward ‘just-in-time’ labor practices —
replacing salaried employees with temporary independent

In thinking about class and politics the murky categories of
culture and consciousness are important. They are shaped in
significant measure by changes in the forces of production, of
technology, and the way it is deployed and work organized — that is by
the changing composition of jobs in the labor market. Paying attention
to these changes and how they have changed the working class is my
first topic. The second part of my discussion will include thinking
about the 2012 Presidential election in class terms.

Restructuring Production, Reconstituting the Class

Today while transnational capital has grown more powerful, much of the
U.S. labor force is employed in small establishments in the service
sector that are often part of giant chains or segmented from others in
offices where distinct hierarchies divide labor into separate
fractions without obvious points of unity. These conditions disempower
attempts at solidarity. We see this in the shift from manufacturing
and blue collar work. In 1960 the largest employers in America in
order of size were General Motors, the Bell System with its phone
monopoly, Ford, General Electric (a G.E. that was overwhelmingly a
manufacturing company before its finance divisions grew to make most
of the company’s money), and U.S. Steel. A half-century later Wal-Mart
is the nation’s largest employer followed by Kelly Services (the job
placement firm), IBM (now a business service company), UPS (the parcel
deliverer), McDonald’s and Yum! (operator of Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza

The number of employees working in the 2010 largest corporations
is roughly twice that of the industrial giants of fifty years ago. But
these workers are spread over vastly more numerous, smaller work
sites. Employment in the former giants was characteristically for
life; in today’s low-wage non-union megacorps worker turnover is
substantial and many are on temporary contracts and formally hired by

Seven of the ten occupations that are expected to see the
greatest growth, according to the Department of Labor, are low-wage or
very low-wage ones. This does not mean that personal and home care
aides, for example, are not being organized but that without major
political change, including serious labor law reform, we can expect
income and wealth inequalities to continue to increase.

Serious attention is now being paid to a growing white
underclass of unemployed and low waged whites, of the epidemic of
methamphetamine destroying rural white poor communities and the
economic impact of really existing capitalism on white people who
thought since they weren’t black this couldn’t happen to them. As
Nicholas Kristof writes: "Today, I fear we’re facing a crisis in which
a chunk of working-class America risks being calcified into an
underclass, marked by drugs, despair, family decline, high
incarceration rates, and a diminishing role of jobs and education as
escalators of upward mobility. We need a national conversation about
these dimensions of poverty…"[3] Income is now a bigger factor behind
the large gap in education than race — a big change over the years
since Reagan became president in 1980.

The importance of contestation in the political arena brings us
to the important work that needs to be more completely carried out by
labor studies investigators breaking down the 59 percent of America
that Michael Zweig tells us compose the working class majority.[4] The
fractions of the class are not static but as I have indicated have
changed dramatically over the decades of neoliberal globalism.

In approaching this task it is useful to start with Marx whose
views on class in relationship to the politics of a particular
historical conjuncture need to be better understood. Let us recall
Marx’s own multifaceted understanding of class — which I must say are
not all that easy to separate out. To Marx, classes exist on a number
of levels of analysis: the level of generality of class history, that
of the era of capitalism, or of modern capitalism, and of the
immediate political situation. Far from the certainties demonstrated
by many Marxists who use the term class, I agree with Bertell Ollman’s
conclusion that Marx cannot escape the accusation of "having a litter
of standards for class membership and of changing them without prior

In Marx’s writing the same word can take on different meanings
in different contexts. The word’s meaning shifts because the
relational context changes. Categories are interpenetrating and thus
do not represent separate realities. The same group can be placed in
different taxonomies depending on the question being asked, the level
of social reality being explored. Ollman writes: "Marx conflates a
number of social ties (relations between groups based on various
standards) which are generally treated separately. He views them as
interacting parts of an organic whole, the society in question."[6]

Most popular treatments of the topic focus on one of two ways
Marx himself used the construct "class." He was concerned with the two
great classes of a social formation: slaves and their masters, serfs
and lords, workers and capitalists. But for our purposes here another
usage is relevant. He also used the terms to mean class fractions or
the "complicated arrangement of society into various orders, a
manifold gradation of social rank," in the words of the Manifesto.
These ranks become anachronistic as societies evolve. Capitalism is a
dynamic system and so societies are in a constant state of change. The
consciousness of individuals and the groupings of which they are a
part, the way working people think about their problems, who their
enemies and friends are — all of this changes. Some classes, or what
are better called class fractions, cease to exist or become less
important in the totality of a society, or they are restructured as
the capitalism in which they exist undergoes new developments. New
classes come into being. The definition of a class fraction in a
particular mode of production in a given historical conjuncture
depends on the question being asked and so the purpose of the social
map being drawn and employed. In my introductory remarks I tried to
convey what some of these important changes in our time have been.

In his political writings when Marx deals with the current
events of his time, he examines the general beliefs of the different
ranks of society. Marx made distinctions among small landowners and
hereditary lords, petty bourgeois shopkeepers, captains of industry, a
class of financiers, and so on. He analyzed the interests of each and
how their material conditions influenced their worldview and political
actions. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx produced
the classic analysis of political struggle in which he correlated the
interests of class fractions and political movements contesting for
power, an analysis in which contingency, personality, and opportunism
all figured. In that canonical work he delineates the groups opposing
the Paris proletariat in 1848: "the aristocracy of finance, the
industrial bourgeoisie, the middle class, the petty bourgeoisie, the
army, the lumpen proletariat organized as the Mobile Guard, the
intellectual lights, the clergy, and the rural population," and then
discusses their various roles. He also notes in passing that "in the
United States of North America where... classes, indeed, already
exist, they have not yet become fixed but continually change and
interchange their elements in a constant state of flux. . .." Classes
continue to be in flux due to capitalism’s dynamic changes through
time. Intuitive politicians have always been sensitive to this and
have assembled voting majorities for a top-down historic bloc by
manipulating understandings of the categories of "them and us."

For the 30 years since Ronald Reagan became President,
conservative politicians have done a pretty good job of misdirecting
working class anger toward people they call "the liberal elite" of
professionals and highly educated individuals whom the right has quite
successfully stereotyped. The successful misdirection has meant that
people who really have influence over the direction of the economy and
government are hidden from view.

The Democrats as the party of reformist capitalism have enraged
those working class whites who understood that they had in effect
betrayed them in two ways, by their being too sensitive to racial
minorities and in their support of feminism in defiance of traditional
patriarchy, and on the other hand catering to transnational capital
and international finance against the interests of working people by
assisting offshoring with subsidies and treaty agreements.

Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy was based on an appreciation
that the Democrats’ effort to modernize the South would have a
devastating impact on Southerners’ loyalty to that party. The impact
was felt beyond the South, and was consequential in the
de-industrializing Midwest where factories were closing and
manufacturing downsizing devastated communities. The strength of the
religious right is in part a tribute to the women’s movement and the
support the employer class has given to expanding the labor pool by
welcoming women to the workforce. The legislative support the
Democrats gave was anathema to working class conservatives.

On globalization the Democrats, wedded to international capital,
were not about to do anything significant to protect the jobs of
American industrial workers. For one thing, they saw a more important
constituency in the growing technical-professional classes which would
compensate for the loss of the white working class voters. For
another, to defend the industrial working class would not have been
well received by those fractions of capital funding the party. At the
same time many in the professional-technical stratum of the working
class gained from the low cost of imports, from cheap immigrant labor,
and were in occupations positively connected to the global economy and
so opposed protection measures to help manufacturing.

Thomas Edsall has provocatively written:

"For decades, Democrats have suffered continuous and increasingly
severe losses among white voters. But preparations by Democratic
operatives for the 2012 election make it clear for the first time that
the party will explicitly abandon the white working class.

"All pretense of trying to win a majority of the white working class
has been effectively jettisoned in favor of cementing a center-left
coalition made up, on the one hand, of voters who have gotten ahead on
the basis of educational attainment — professors, artists, designers,
editors, human resources managers, lawyers, librarians, social
workers, teachers, and therapists — and a second, substantial
constituency of lower-income voters who are disproportionately
African-American and Hispanic.[7]"

This seems too strong a formulation. Obama needs at least some
of the battleground states of the Midwest/Rust Belt if he is to win
re-election. Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and
Wisconsin are six of the twelve states most likely to be the highly
contested this election. Winning white working class votes will not be
easy given the sense of betrayal by the Democrats and the reactionary
appeal of the Republicans on race, gender, and the need to support
"job creators." We need to seriously ponder a reality in which the
Republican Party has become the party of the white working class. That
white working class voter support for Republican House candidates by a
record-setting margin: 63-33 in 2010 is an ill omen for the Democrats
in this election year. If we define working class voters as those with
incomes between $30,000 and $70,000 with no college education, most of
them voted for McCain in 2008 (52-46 according to a national exit
poll). The 2010 election was far more dramatic. White working class
voters went Republican by 30 points.

Despite recent positive trends in job creation the question
remains: what if this crisis for working people continues into the
middle future without any real improvement in the economic situation
of working people here and in Europe and if the now clear trend to
stagnation and falling wages, benefits, and worsening working
conditions comes to be understood as the new normal? It will be harder
to misdirect anger at the conservatives’ traditional target, a
so-called liberal elite. It is the case that this "elite" that many
working class people with a high school education or less encounter
are mostly lower level professionals with college degrees who in one
way or another can be seen as not us, not ordinary people, not our
friends. But when the financial sector crashed and the government
rushed to bail out the bankers who had caused the mess, people began
to think differently about who was the real elite. As Barbara
Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich have written, the idea of the "liberal
elite" created by conservatives could not survive the exposure of the
real 1 percent, "by the discovery of the actual, Wall Street–based
elite and their crimes. Compared with them, professionals and
managers, no matter how annoying, were pikers. The doctor or school
principal might be overbearing, the professor and the social worker
might be condescending, but only the 1 percent took your house

In Wisconsin we saw a tremendous outpouring of support from
private sector unionists and other workers for college-educated public
sector unionists who had been portrayed by Scott Walker and his
cronies as a privileged elite living off the taxpayer. The solidarity
showed by an incredibly large cross section of the working class — and
not only in Wisconsin — is an emergent class understanding refuting
the conservatives’ worldview. The right, which has done so well
misdirecting popular rage at Wall Street and capitalism onto working
people and service recipients who did not cause the crisis but are
made to bear its costs, is being challenged. An alternative left
perspective redirects people to the failings of the so-called free
market system at a time when global trends in economics and demography
are undermining the illusions of a territorial United States they grew
up with and is now a matter of nostalgia. Not only is there China and
the rise of other once subject nations, but Republicans know in their
gut that theirs is a demographically declining party. The GOP does
poorly among younger voters, and it has little appeal to ethnic
minorities who represent a rising share of the population. The
native-born whites at the party’s base worry that they are losing
control of American society. But they are also learning that they
never had it. The class analysis of the 1 percent/99 percent, even if
overly crude, is politically effective and Wisconsin and Occupy have
had their impacts.

Many workers will no doubt cling to the illusion of American
exceptionalism; but as far as transnational capital and international
finance are concerned all such exceptionalism is over. The
transnationals consider the territorial United States a not very
competitive production venue unless American workers continue to
accept continuous draconian givebacks.

Indeed, as Robert McChesney writes: "The gap between the
concerns of the masses and the solutions countenanced by the
corporate-run political system are wider than at any point in
generations. It is the defining political story of our times."[9] What
the masses know at one level or another is that "capitalism is eating
up our future." It is this knowledge that capitalism is the problem
that has always motivated movements for revolutionary change.

In conclusion let me say that the very major disruptions — the
relative decline in power of the United States in the global economy,
the rise of China, demographic shifts and the expectation that the
United States will be a majority minority society in a few decades,
the acceptance of inter-marriage and of gay rights, the erosion of
patriarchal norms in the number of college-educated women
professionals, the downward mobility of working class white men, the
growing income and wealth inequalities, the role of anonymous donor
super-PACs — have unleashed a powerful rear guard active reaction in
defense of white-skin privilege, patriarchy, and national chauvinism.
Our task is to develop a usable class analysis in which the system
itself comes into focus for people and the need for non-reformist
reforms (understood as things working people need that are reasonable
in their eyes and build working class consciousness) are widely put
forward. The system either makes major concessions or reveals it will
not or cannot meet such demands and perpetuates a situation of
continued hardship for most working people. Such an answer speaks to
the need for a post-capitalist society. Concessions that are of a
non-reformist kind change the balance of class forces and help build
the movement for further structural change to displace the system
itself. I am not suggesting this is easy. But it is our job.

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