What we lose when we don’t talk about class

Tea Party ProtestorAs Bill Gardner noted last week on this blog, some people are interpreting Obama’s victory in the US presidential elections as “working class victory in a class war”. Obama said he would raise taxes on the rich, and the majority of Americans voted him in. Ipso Facto: working class victory.

The problem is, looking at the election results, this doesn’t really hold up. The exit polls show Obama had a massive advantage among African American and Latino voters. Although these groups are, on average, economically disadvantaged, there are plenty of good non-economic reasons why they would prefer a Democratic to a Republican presidency. What Obama did not do, from the looks of things, is win back the white working class. If this YouGov poll is accurate, the majority of white people without a college degree (which is definitely not the same as working class, but we’ll work with what we have) went for Romney. As did almost all of the American ‘heartland’ – that home of farms and small towns that holds such a special place in the American psyche.

The question is ‘why?’. Why should a group of people who (to put it mildly) have not been well served by corporate enterprise over the last couple of decades, a group who are currently suffering due to a crisis caused by massive, under-regulated financial institutions, but who, even when times were good, saw their wages flatline while the proceeds economic growth disappeared into the pockets of the wealthiest, want Mitt Romney as their president? Mitt Romney! A man whose clear policy objectives were lowering taxes on the wealthy, opposing any regulation of big businesses, and cutting the federal budget (which would have inevitably hit programmes which help low income workers).

It seems that the insults suffered by the white American working class have not led, as they might have (and as they have done in the past), to resentment and agitation against large corporations and the ‘investor class’. People have not rushed to join unions or to call for government intervention to alleviate the destructive potential of the free market. Instead, as detailed by Thomas Frank in his excellent book What’s the Matter with America?, the anger fostered by stagnant wages, fragile employment and increasing inequality has been directed elsewhere, towards social issues like guns, immigration, abortion, and the oppressive evil of political correctness.

Here in the UK we don’t have it quite as bad. But the signs are still there. The passion for change that immediately followed the financial crisis has faded, leaving the resentment to settle on the usual targets – with benefit claimants bearing most of the brunt. Driven by inequality and injustice, previous generations in Britain and America angrily stood up to demand higher wages and more protection from the rapacious market. Confronted by similar inequity, we also stand, and with equal anger, we demand that there should be less money for unemployed people, and that you should be allowed to say more racist things on television.

In the US, Frank places the blame for this parlous state of affairs squarely on the heads of Clinton-era Democrats. In, as he puts it, their attempt to “remake themselves as the other pro-business party”, they abandoned the old arguments of economics and class that would have provided a framework for the resentment many people feel. This sea-change in the way the mainstream left wing party presented itself was even clearer in the UK, with the transition from ‘old’ to ‘New’ Labour.

I think there’s a lot of truth to what Frank says. As class based arguments disappear from the arsenal of left wing political parties, so they disappear from the media and from people’s minds. Arguments about, for example, the competition between capital and labour now have a distinctly ‘old-school’ and radical flavour. They feel like the domain of protesters in dirty tents, rather than that of mainstream debate.

So why does this matter? Why does it matter that people are less ‘class conscious’ than they used to be? It matters because class conflicts haven’t gone away just because we don’t talk about them in the same way any more. People who work in ‘regular’ jobs, in factories or for the big retail and service chains, to take an important example, have common interests that are opposed to the interests shared by company investors and the board of directors. The difference is that the latter are entirely aware of their shared interests. They want to pay their workers less, they want to pay as near to no tax as is humanly possible, and they don’t want any regulations forcing them to worry about the environment, or the health of their workers or customers. Not only are they aware of these interests, they ensure they are clearly heard by those in government on a daily basis.

To help forestall ever increasing inequality, the opposing interests need to be heard with equal frequency, and at equal volume. This is what labour unions were for, before their membership collapsed. In the US, union membership is down to 7.6% of private sector wage and salary workers. In the UK it’s about 14% (see page 11 of this report).This is pretty understandable. If, as mainstream political debate would suggest, there are no common ‘working class’ interests any more, then what’s the point of joining a union?

Working people on low incomes today probably feel as hard done by as their parents or their grandparents did. But without the old narratives of class, they must turn elsewhere to explain their relative misfortune. If not the exploitation of their class by the ruthlessness of an under-regulated free market, then maybe it’s immigrants driving down their wages by selfishly working for less than minimum wage. Or maybe it’s benefit claimants living the high-life with their tax money.

The thing is, maybe it’s not too late to re-engage the disillusioned white working class. A strong and renewed focus on their shared economic interests (interests they also share with working class people of all ethnicities) might still win them back. And this would not just be a good political strategy; it might be a good start on the road to a better, fairer, society.

About Robert de Vries

I'm an Early Career Research Fellow in the Sociology department at the University of Oxford. I'm mainly interested in how people are affected by concerns about their social status; how it colours the way they think, feel, and behave. I try and contribute here regularly, but my addiction to writing excessively long posts keeps getting in the way.
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4 Responses to What we lose when we don’t talk about class

  1. Hi Rob,

    Great to have you back on the blog, and I hope this is the first of several new posts!

    I really enjoyed this, and thanks for pointing to those yougov polling data. I totally am on board with the idea that labor unions have been the voice of the otherwise disenfranchised white working class, but I’m not sure that they are ever coming back in the United States. You say that people don’t want to join the unions, but the fact is that the sectors of the economy where unions have had a historical stronghold are shrinking (well, American manufacturing has been relatively strong of late, but the big structural change has been a move toward a service economy). What is the realistic universe of possibilities for organized labor in the 21st century economy?


  2. David Walker says:

    ‘re-engage the disillusioned white working class’ …I fear this is another re-statement of a problem and – witness the quote – the only pointer to a solution takes the form of us to them, de haut en bas, vanguard party to recalcitrant non members …etc. Is that form of solution even available?
    And wouldn’t ‘re-engagement’ mean meeting the disillusioned white working class half way, meaning accepting (to some extent) the basis of their ethnic resentment, instead of trying to wish it away? The white working class has been oppressed by migration – that has to be a starting point. In a conversation you nod then politely disagree, trying to find common acceptances. At what do we nod, when white working class people articulate grievance, often using the language and reference points of the tabloids, but usually interleaved with personal experience?

  3. Bill Gardner says:

    Thanks for the great post. So, what is the class narrative when the working class is not anchored in industrial work? What’s the common experience uniting nurses, teachers, and retail workers?

  4. Robert de Vries says:

    Brendan and Bill, I think you’re both getting at the same important question, although I’m not sure I’ve got a great answer! It’s true that a lot (if not most) of the decline in union membership is due to the decline in sectors that have a history of strong unions (manufacturing etc). But, there are common interests (and therefore a potential class narrative) for the ‘new working class’, the core of which I feel like are those working for the big retail and service chains (Wal-mart etc, and doesn’t Wal-mart alone employ something like 1% of the entire US workforce?). As you’ve noted Bill, the common experience of these workers is low pay, few or no employment benefits, little work flexibility, and extremely insecure employment.

    It seems like a class narrative centred around these issues could gain some traction. Especially considering that the privations suffered by these workers cause expenses for the state. For example in the UK, very low wages have to be topped up by the government through e.g. tax credits. There’s also good evidence that insecure, stressful employment can cause ill-health, which is another drain on the economy.

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