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Class Unconsciousness: Stop Using “Middle Class” to Depict the Labor Movement

George Orwell thought the precise and purposeful deployment of our language was the key to the kind of politics we hoped to advance. By that standard, virtually everyone—from the center to the left, from Barack Obama to Richard Trumka to the activists of Occupy Wall Street—has made a hash of the way we name the most crucial features of our society.

Exhibit A is the suffocating pervasiveness with which we use the phrase “middle class” as the label we have come to attach to not just all of those who are hurting in the current economic slump, but to the entire stratum that used to be identified as working class. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka proclaims “it was the labor movement that built the middle class; it was the middle class that made America great,” while out in Indiana, when the Republican-dominated state legislature stood on the verge of enacting a new set of anti-labor laws, a local unionist declared, “Fighting right-to-work legislation is about standing up for our middle-class values.”

The Obama administration has raised this conflation of working class and middle class to a fine art. Vice President Joe Biden, whose blue-collar roots in the gritty Pennsylvania coal country are quite genuine, presided over a “Middle Class Task Force” during his first couple of years in office; more recently, President Obama—in an effort to identify his policies with the Progressive-era social reformism of Teddy Roosevelt—used the phrase “middle class” twenty-eight times in his highly-touted Osawatomie, Kansas speech of early December 2011.

So what’s the problem? Who cares what we call something if we know what it means?

But there is much difficulty with this rhetorical switcheroo. First, the phrase “middle class” is virtually indefinable in any fashion other than as a crude income calculus. To be middle class is to be comfortable with a certain basket of goods and a heart full of desires. As Biden’s Middle Class Task Force put it: “middle-class families are defined more by their aspirations than their income.” This is very much at variance with how we used to define the middle class. Historians and sociologists once distinguished between the old middle class and the new. The old middle class was comprised of self-employed proprietors and independent professionals who, in the nineteenth century, carried real social and moral weight in a society where farmers and craftsmen were also numerous. Then in the twentieth century, a new middle class of salaried white-collar workers seemed to constitute another relatively well-defined class and cultural cohort. But today, the middle class is defined entirely in terms of income. That may be useful for those seeking to push forward a liberal tax policy. But it’s pretty useless when it comes to virtually anything else. Thus in the summer of 2011, during a strike of forty-five thousand Verizon workers, union publicists declared the struggle as a “fight to defend middle-class jobs.” But this characterization enabled Verizon to run newspaper ads claiming that the $75,000 a year or more earned by telephone technicians made them part of the “upper middle class” and thus, apparently, not worthy of much public sympathy.

Indeed, the 60 percent of households in the center of the American income distribution make anywhere from $28,636 to $79,040 per year. That’s family income by the way, which means that these people are clearly struggling. By any standard, they compose an American working class—although most definitions in common usage today, certainly those put forward by most liberal Democrats, extend the definition of the middle class up to about $200,000 a year. At that point, we are talking about salaried professionals and moderately successful entrepreneurs whose income puts them in the top 10 percent of the American population. And if the 99 percent is taken as any sort of coherent grouping—and here even my comrades at Labor Notes have taken to calling for “Solidarity for the 99%”—then we are linking together the fortunes of those on food stamps with families whose income tops out at just over $500,000 a year.

Second, when we focus on the middle class as an object of concern, we are necessarily marginalizing, neglecting, and denigrating those who fall below it, those out of the workforce, those chronically unemployed, those on welfare, those whose aspirations are not middle class at all. As Michael Zweig has pointed out in The Working-Class Majority: America’s Best Kept Secret, when the working class disappears into an amorphous middle class, the working poor—a mere forty-six million strong—drops out of the picture. The right used to champion the middle class precisely in order to denigrate low-income people of color who were dependent upon government checks and services to sustain themselves. Should the left be doing that as well?

But the main reason to begin using the phrase working class once again is that the contemporary  category of middle class has no sense of agency, purpose, or politics—while the idea of a working class is (by virtual definition) a font of all of this. No need to sing “Solidarity Forever” here. The essential difference is that, in the Marxist tradition, working class is defined not by income, or consumption, or education, but by the near-universal extent to which members of that class sell their labor for their wages. Most members of what we, today, call the middle class do that as well. Conversely, it is important to understand what is wrong with a simple demonization of the 1 percent. It, too, is politically imprecise; some of those who fall into that income category may be filthy rich and snobbish, while others may be personally creative or frugal like, say, Steve Jobs or Warren Buffet. The “1%” of political significance is comprised of an active group of capitalists whose overweening power over central economic and political institutions is both the cause of our difficulties and the proper target of all those who work for them, either directly in the corporations they control or in a public sector starved by virtue of the political and financial power wielded by that same elite stratum.

So how did we get tethered to this dysfunctional and retrograde metric, one not imposed by academic mandarins or right-wing politicians, but embraced by most liberals, leftists, and unionists?

When Jacob Riis published How the Other Half Lives in 1890, his dank portrait of urban poverty emphasized not just the inadequate income of that population but the entire ethnic/occupational  work life of the Bohemian cigarmakers, the Italian ragpickers, and the Jewish garment workers which he studied. This conflation of poverty, powerlessness, and working-class occupation continued into the Depression decade. When FDR delivered his famous “Forgotten Man” speech in 1932, he did not use the phrase “working class” to describe those at the “bottom of the economy pyramid” but he did make clear that they were “the forgotten, the unorganized but the indispensible units of economic power” whose rescue and mobilization could restore prosperity.

Rescuing the “Forgotten Man” entailed empowering class-based organizations—the labor movement, first of all—and a government prepared to take its side in the struggle against that era’s “1%.” Indeed, it is precisely for that reason that business conservatives and others hostile to an activist New Deal strove mightily to purge “working class” from our common vocabulary at about the time that the Cold War abroad and McCarthyism at home made suspect any references to the “class struggle.” Their success proved so great that liberals and progressives felt constrained to adopt much of the right wing discourse. Thus when a young radical did use the phrase “class struggle” at a United Automobile Workers’ educational camp in the 1950s, ex-socialist Roy Reuther is reported to have snapped “Don’t use that kind of sectarian Marxist crap in this school.”

Moreover, by the time Roy’s brother, Walter Reuther, had emerged as a powerful spokesman for the labor movement, the conflation of working-class occupations with dire poverty and dysfunctional family life had been broken. This did not mean that all those increasingly well-paid autoworkers and steel workers were middle class. They still got their hands dirty, faced recurrent layoffs, and (according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics) had just enough income to buy a used Chevy once every four years and pay the (government-subsidized) mortgage on an exceedingly modest house. Their status was rising in these early postwar years; they constituted an army of “labor,” organized labor, not yet affluent, but a stratum of society that was both powerful and, in Reuther’s words, had “fairness and equity and morality on its side.” Here is the way Reuther approached some of the same themes that animate Occupy Wall Street today: “We don’t begrudge one penny that these corporation executives are paid. We know that when corporation management makes a contribution to the economic well-being of the country . . . they are entitled to a just reward for their economic contribution. But we say that when workers make their contribution they, too, are entitled to just compensation.”

What began as the purging of “working class” and “class conflict” from the postwar political and social imagination, over time, underwent an even more toxic evolution. It opened the door to a right-wing redefinition of the (white) working class and its conflation with those who constituted the middle class. Before the late 1960s, conservatives were far more likely to deny the existence of a class hierarchy than fetishize one class in preference to another. But in his search for a seductive new polarization that would boost Republican electoral fortunes in the early 1970s, President Nixon took possession of the Rooseveltian language that identified a vast, underappreciated stratum and turned it on its head. He singled out for censure a new and alien elite comprised of those professional,  educational, and governmental elements of the population that had once given ideological and cultural coherence to the old Roosevelt coalition.

The liberal New Dealer Senator Paul Douglas had first coined the term “silent center” as representing all those millions of working Americans unappreciated and overlooked by the nation’s actual economic elite. Nixon and his speechwriters took that sense of neglect and resentment and gave it a sharp cultural thrust by morphing the New Deal construction into his famous “silent majority,” which Nixon defined as “the millions of people in the middle of the American political spectrum who do not demonstrate, who do not picket, or protest loudly.” Thus did Time magazine declare as its 1970 “Man of the Year” the “Middle Americans,” defined as “a state of mind, a morality, a construct of values and prejudices and a complex of fears.” Within a couple of decades, we’d get one variation on this right-wing construction after another: from the moral majority, the Reagan Democrats, NASCAR Dads, Sam’s Club Republicans, and even the “white working class” which, in the political imagination of most Republicans (and some Democrats), constitutes a voting bloc of conservative white males who have long since abandoned the party of FDR. Although both conservatives and liberals deploy the phrase “middle class” to describe low income people who work in large organizations, right-wingers—such as Sarah Palin and Charles Murray—are, today, more apt to also use the phrase “working class” to describe this vast stratum, largely because they feel far more comfortable than most liberals in defining class in an almost exclusively cultural fashion.

Of course, the Republicans have never been serious about defending the material interests of those they denominate “middle class,” even as they fed the more socially conventional among them culture-war red meat. Liberals and labor should therefore appropriate for themselves the defense of this stratum, now abandoned in all but name by the conservatives. But the habit of loosely referring to an amorphous middle class won’t help mobilize people for the “class warfare” the right decries but nevertheless wages with a calculated relentlessness.

Obfuscation of this sort will only mislead and confuse. We need to reconstruct a sense of class dignity and destiny for all those whose work fails to provide social recognition or economic well-being. We need to restore some definitional precision to those who truly do constitute America’s working-class majority. Unionists and those who advocate on their behalf need to use the kind of language whose emotive power and historic resonance match the political audacity of those who occupied both the Wisconsin statehouse and the Wall Street parks. To speak on behalf of the working class is to begin to educate millions of Americans to the realization that their future is linked to their own capacity for organization and empowerment.


New Labor Forum 21(2): 10-13, Spring 2012
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/12 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.212.0000003