On Working Class Invisibility
The Ones Without Champions
Recently the liberal New York Times columnist Charles Blow did something unusual in elite U.S. media. He acknowledged in a serious and respectful way the existence and struggles of non-affluent working class Americans. In an interesting column titled “They, Too, Sing America,” he wrote with eloquence about “everyday people, blue-collar workers, people not trying to win the future so much as survive the present” – the people who “do hard jobs and odd jobs — any work they can find to keep the lights on and the children fed. As Blow added in a in a comment full of pointed meaning for the harsh rightward limits of U.S. political culture, “They are the ones without champions, waiting for Democrats to gather the gumption to defend the working poor with the same ferocity with which Republicans protect the filthy rich, waiting for a tomorrow that never comes.”  They are not sifting through the various complex budget and tax proposals advanced by political elites atop the manufactured debt crisis in Washington. They are trying to keep one step ahead of the landlord and the bill collectors.
And they are many. While the Department of Commerce recently released a study boasting that high tech professional jobs are projected to increase by 17 percent between 2008 and 2018, Blow wanted his readers to know about a recent projection by the Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that (in Blow’s words) “half of the top 30 occupations expected to see the largest job growth over the same period, and seven of the top 10, are low-wage or very low-wage jobs. Only eight even require a degree. Most simply require on-the-job training.” I went to look at the Labor Statistics table Blow linked in the Web version of his column. The top 10 job growth categories include: home health aids (number 2, bottom wage quartile), customer service representatives (number 3, second wage quartile from bottom), food preparation and service workers (fast food included – number 4 and bottom quartile), personal and home care aids (number 5, bottom quartile), retail salespersons (number 6, bottom quartile), office clerks (number 7, second quartile from bottom), and nursing aids, orderlies, and attendants (number 9, bottom quartile).
“Learn to Delegate”
These are the ones without champions and also without real cultural existence in the U.S. The reality of working class life is invisible, or close to it, in the nation’s corporate mediated sociopolitical culture. When is the last time you saw a decent, widely watched network sitcom or drama about any among the faceless Americans Blow tried to remind Times readers about? The last and maybe only real television show that remotely fits that bill was “Roseanne” (the lead character was a waitress and factory worker at different times in the show’s long run) and even that often intelligent and class-sensitive show was set in a suburban Chicago area home that seemed way too big for the family income. Poor and working class people rarely if ever see their real life circumstances portrayed accurately in the corporate mass culture, where lifestyles are distinctly high end and the only class distinctions that seem to matter are those between comfortable professionals and the super rich and those between all decent people and the hyper-criminalized and nonwhite urban poor.
I started watching Roseanne about the same time that someone gave me a copy of a little self-help book called Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff at Work (New York: Hyperion, 1998). The book’s bestselling author, the psychologist and lecturer Richard Carlson, struck me as a genuinely nice person who sincerely wished to create more joy in the American workplace. But, ironically enough given the title of his book, his volume was a monument to the invisibility of, well, the working class. His list of recommendations for work-hassled Americans included the following:
“Learn to Delegate”
“Get Out of the Grumble Mode”
“Make the Best of Corporate Travel”
“Make Friends With Your Receptionist”
“Have a Favorite Business Charity”
“Don’t be Trapped by Golden Handcuffs” (that is: don’t get trapped into overwork by a high salary and related exorbitant consumption habits)
“Let Go of ‘Personality Clashes’“
“Give Up Your Fear of Speaking to Groups”
“Admit That [Your Job/Career] is Your Choice”
“Spend Ten Minutes a [Working] Day Doing Absolutely Nothing”
I suppose much of this is good advice for a corporate attorney, marketing director, foundation officer, or engineer. It has little meaning for your typical bus driver, autoworker, retail worker, hospital orderly, teachers’ assistant, fast food worker, waitress, secretary, automobile oil changer or meatpacking plant worker. Unsung millions toiling away in these and other low-status and low-wage jobs do not have: anyone else to whom to delegate their often unpleasant tasks, receptionists to answer their phones, surplus earnings to send to United Way, the freedom to escape the demands of their bosses and/or assembly (or dis-assembly) lines, the risk of getting too much money for their own good, or the freedom to escape the often oppressive personalities of bosses and/or customers. They have to take whatever paid work they can find. The “grumble mode” (and living for a life beyond work – for retirement) are fairly reasonable responses to “their” work, designed for them – in a fundamental aspect of modern alienation and dehumanization – by others.
“Most of Us Diversify Our Investments”
A more recent example comes from New York Times columnist David Brooks, who loves to accuse metropolitan liberals and leftists of elitism. “The world economy is a complex, unknowable organism,” Brooks writes in a recent piece on Americans’ economic insecurity. “Most of us,” Brooks ads, “try to diversify our investments and balance risk and security to protect against the unexpected.”
Really? That’s a rather aristocratic statement that incorrectly identifies most Americans as members of the investor class. How many Americans are stockholders? As the business analyst Duff Bailey notes: "If you own a mutual fund in your company's retirement plan, you can be said own stocks in the mutual fund. But you probably don't know what they are, and you have no voting control in the stocks themselves or the overall fund." Even using this broad but largely meaningless definition, most Americans are not stockowners. In a major 2002 study, the Mutual Fund Industry group’s Investment Company Institute, found that 49.5% (or 52.7 million) of US Households owned equities in some way shape or form in 2002. However, just 21 million (less than 20%) owned individual stocks outside an employee sponsored plan - a relevant distinction in policy terms. "When politicians talk about eliminating the capital gains tax," Bailey observes, "it is only these 21 million households who will pay lower taxes, because retirement investments are tax deferred while you hold them, and then taxed at regular income tax rates when you take the money out." I am unaware of more recent research on this topic, but the 2002 number was lower than the number of individual stockholders at the peak of the Internet boom in 1999  and it seems likely that the financial meltdown of 2007-2009 reduced the number again. We can be quite certain that most working and lower class Americans own no stock at all in an economy where “the top 10% have 80% to 90% of stocks, bonds, trust funds, and business equity” (G. William Domhoff).
“Investors Have Fared Well…in Our Most Difficult Times”
Another recent and terrible example of editorial elitism in the corporate press was given last July 4th by the Chicago Tribune. That paper celebrated Independence Day by publishing an op-ed in which a Fifth Third Bank investment coordinator named Jeff Korzenik instructed readers to relax about the current Great Recession, which he trivialized as just the nation’s “fifteenth financial panic” – a rather understated take on the biggest economic downturn that most Americans have ever experienced and the biggest U.S. economic crisis since the Great Depression. Korzenik wants Americans to stop worrying because “Historically, barring major government policy errors, investors have fared well [during past financial crises].with stable low interest rates offering stability to bondholders and valuation improvements for stock shareholders…. Entrepreneurship remains vibrant, and we have a long history of our greatest commercial enterprises being founded in our most difficult times.”
Korzenik’s cool and top-down take on the current crisis is deeply insulting to the masses of ordinary people who seek merely to live at a decent level in exchange for hard work. The nation’s great, depression-born business of the past (Standard Oil comes to mind) were/are not “ours” – they belong/belonged to the rich and powerful. Working class Americans lack the resources to ride out and profit from the latest giant slump born of capitalism’s inherent, profits-driven cycle of boom and bust. They are not investors, stock shareholders, entrepreneurs, or bondholders who find ways to “fare well” amidst the misery imposed on others. Many of them are running out of ammunition in the war against destitution while Wall Street-captive policymakers make them pay for the crisis the wealthy Few’s profits system has imposed on them. The great financial institutions pushed into calamity by that system’s irrational contradictions have been saved and kept on life support with good money from central banks. But to derive this money for the private banks, governments sold bonds in the financial markets – loans that have to be paid back with interest. To make their payments, the governments are cutting back on public sector wages, benefits, and programs and raising working class taxes even as wealthy citizens and corporations continue to receive giant tax breaks – all to the detriment of ordinary working people and the poor. Profits have been restored in the wake of the crisis “largely because working class people have paid for them, through layoffs, wage cuts, reduced work hours, and the decimation of social services. In the words of a poor rebel in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus,” the left political scientist David McNally observes, “‘our misery’ is the source ‘their abundance; our sufferance is a gain to them.’” The “major government policy error” that Korzenik warns against in his column is of course government intervention to stem the rapacity of capital and provide protection and security for the people – precisely the sort of intervention that most Americans support.
Writing Off the Bottom of Society
Of course, there is nothing mysterious about the near invisibility of working class Americans and their circumstances in the nation’s reigning media and politics culture. The dominant media is owned by a relatively small and ever-shrinking number of giant corporations who seek above all to make money. They are selling journalism and entertainment not to working class citizen-readers but primarily to corporate advertisement-purchasers. Those corporate advertisers are not particularly interested in people without a lot of disposable income (and if there’s one thing working class Americans are short of in this ever more unequal and wealth-top-heavy nation, it is money.) As the leading left media scholar and activist Robert W. McChesney noted fifteen years ago, the mass media’s bottom-line advertising-driven orientation is toxic for democracy, pushing the experience and concerns of most of the population into official irrelevance:
“The media giants ‘have nothing to tell, but plenty to sell.’…In the new world of conglomerate capitalism the goal of the entire media product [is] to have a direct positive effect on the firm’s earning statement. The press and the broadcast media too, increasingly use surveys to locate the news that would be enjoyed by the affluent market desired by advertisers. This, in itself, seriously compromises a major tenet of journalism: that the news should be determined by the public interest, not by the self-interest of owners or advertisers. It also mean[s] that media firms effectively wr[i]te off the bottom 15-50 percent of U.S. society, depending upon the medium. As newspapers, for example, have become increasingly dependent upon advertising revenue for support, they have become anti-democratic forces in society. When newspapers still received primary support from circulation, they courted every citizen with the funds necessary to purchase the paper, often a pittance. But now they are reliant on advertisers whose sole concern is access to targeted markets. Hence media managers aggressively court the affluent while the balance of the population is pushed to the side.”
Mass media owners and managers do not wish to tell the truth about working class life in contemporary America. Where’s the commercial gain and ideological percentage in that? The big bookstore chains (Barnes & Noble and Borders) naturally target the affluent segments of the reading public, making them far more eager to sell Richard Carlson’s nice middle class take on American work than that of left, pro-working class progressives. Such is “life” in a dollar democracy, where, to quote an old working class “grumble mode” aphorism, “money talks and bullshit walks.”
Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author of many articles, chapters, speeches, and books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007; Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010); and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, May 2011). Street can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
1 Charles Blow, “They, Too, Sing America,” New York Times, July 15, 2011 http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/16/opinion/16blow.html
2 Bureau of Labor Statistics “Occupations with the Largest Growth” (November 2009) at http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_table_104.htm
3 For richly informed reflections on the mass media’s many-sided demonization of the urban “underclass,” see Steve Macek, Urban Nightmares: The Media, the Right, and the Moral Panic Over the City (University of Minnesota Press, 2006).
4 The ever-changing and significantly species-defining work of humans is different from that of other species in that it combines both conception and execution. Bees, birds, and beavers carry out essentially unchanging tasks conceived for them in advance by their DNA. When one group of humans conceives narrow tasks for another group of humans assigned and compelled to perform those tasks, a fundamental dehumanization within the species occurs. For useful reflections on this core process of dehumanization within the labor process, see Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: the Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (New York: Monthly Review, 1974); Stephen Marglin, “What do Bosses Do? The Origins and Function of Hierarchy in Capitalist Production,” Review of Radical Political Economics (July 1974): 60-112.
5 David Brooks, “The Magic Lever,” New York Times, July 13, 2011.
6 Investment Company Institute and Securities Industry Association, Equity Ownership in America (2002) at http://www.ici.org/pdf/rpt_02_equity_owners.pdf; Duff Bailey, “What Percentage of Americans Own Stock?” (n.d.), at http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_percentage_of_Americans_own_stock
7 G. William Domhoff, “Wealth, Income and Power,” Who Rules America? (September 2005, Updated July 2011 at http://sociology.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/wealth.htm. Full quote: “In terms of types of financial wealth, the top one percent of households have 38.3% of all privately held stock, 60.6% of financial securities, and 62.4% of business equity. The top 10% have 80% to 90% of stocks, bonds, trust funds, and business equity, and over 75% of non-home real estate. Since financial wealth is what counts as far as the control of income-producing assets, we can say that just 10% of the people own the United States of America.”
8 Jeff Korzenik, “America’s 15th Financial Panic,” Chicago Tribune, July 4, 2011, sec, 1, p.19.
9 Reflecting the potent possessive-individualist blinders of bourgeois thought, Brooks and Korzenik’s image of “most of us” Americans evades core differences between the investor class and the working class. These are very different groups of people who inhabit profoundly different planets of power and privilege in capitalist societies. “As a rule,” the left political scientist David McNally notes: “when capitalists enter the market, their purpose is entirely foreign to the motivations of most people. For most of us, money is a means to get commodities that sustain life. We sell a commodity (usually our labor power), get money in return, and use that money to buy commodities to consume. Put as a simple formula, we are regularly engaged in the cycle C-M-C, where C represents commodities and M stands for money. The whole point of engaging in the market, therefore, is to procure the commodities that make life possible. But things are very different for a capitalist enterprise. For a business, the operative principle is M-C-M'. The capitalist begins with money (M), then buys commodities (C), such as machines, raw materials, and labor power, with which to produce new commodities (like bread or jeans) that are sold for money (M'). Money, not commodities for consumption, becomes the end goal of production. But that only makes sense for a capitalist if the second sum of money is bigger than the first, which is why it is designated as M'. Otherwise the capitalist would simply be going through the whole cycle of investment only to come out with the same sum of money with which he began.” David McNally, Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance (PM Press, 2011), 73. Most of us engage with the market (primarily by renting out our core human capacity for work to more privileged others) to survive, to purchase simple use values that make life possible. (The dictatorship of money and the dictatorship of employment are dialectically entwined). Capitalists care about nothing but exchange value and profit and engage the market to exploit the world and its people. There would be no point in their investment without exploitation. And there would be no point in paying us wages and salaries without surplus value --- extra labor value going to them beyond the commodity price of our labor power. When profit and its critical ingredient surplus value are deemed unattainable, they toss us into the gutter where, as members of the reserve army of labor, we help them bid down the commodity value of the labor power of their active labor army.
10 For an unparalleled survey of the causes and nature of the current economic and austerity crisis and the rooting of that crisis in core capitalist contradictions identified by Marx in the 1860s, see McNally, Global Slump. The quotations are from pages 81-82.
11 Robert W. McChesney, Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy (New York: Seven Stories, 1997), 23-24.
12 For examples of brilliant left-progressive books on American work and working class life that could never rival Carlson’s middle class self-help for book sales, see David M. Gordon, Fat and Mean: The Corporate Squeeze of Working Americans and the Myth of Managerial “Downsizing” (New York: Free Press, 1996); Juliet Schor, The Overworked American (New York: Basic, 1991); Robert Howard, Brave New Workplace (New York: Penguin, 1986).