The Working Class Majority: America's Best Kept Secret, Second Edition

The Working Class Majority: America's Best Kept Secret, Second Edition

by Michael Zweig
     
 

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From reviews of the first edition:

"Zweig's investigation of politics goes beyond the electoral, focusing instead on how a broad working-class social movement (often in alliance with segments of the professional middle class) could reshape workplace and community power relations as well as national politics."-The Nation

"Those who take (rather

Overview

From reviews of the first edition:

"Zweig's investigation of politics goes beyond the electoral, focusing instead on how a broad working-class social movement (often in alliance with segments of the professional middle class) could reshape workplace and community power relations as well as national politics."-The Nation

"Those who take (rather than give) orders at work are the working class; at 62 percent of the labor force, they are a majority distracted and diverted from its best interests for several generations. Zweig suggests the implications of this analysis for a number of key political issues, including the 'underclass,' 'family values,' globalization, and what workers get (and should get) from government. Putting class back on the table produces a thoughtful, provocative analysis of where the nation is going and what working people could do about it."-Booklist

"In this pungent critique of class and economics in the United States -part economic theory, part political lecture, and part reportage of working-class life-Zweig offers an insightful, radical analysis that will make many readers rethink commonly held but unexamined beliefs. Zweig supports his arguments with statistics, facts and personal stories and argues with a forcefulness and conviction backed by a deeply moral sense of the dignity that is due to each person in their work and workplace."-Publishers Weekly

"Michael Zweig provides us with a much needed discussion of class in contemporary American society. While students can benefit from the exposure to a perspective that is currently missing from the public landscape, union organizers and activists can also profit from his discussions of worker power and the rebirth of a democratic social movement among working people."-Contemporary Sociology


In the second edition of his essential book-which incorporates vital new information and new material on immigration, race, gender, and the social crisis following 2008-Michael Zweig warns that by allowing the working class to disappear into categories of "middle class" or "consumers," we also allow those with the dominant power, capitalists, to vanish among the rich. Economic relations then appear as comparisons of income or lifestyle rather than as what they truly are-contests of power, at work and in the larger society.

Editorial Reviews

Mary Carroll
Those who take (rather than give) orders at work are the working class; at 62% of the labor force, they are a majority distracted and diverted from its best interests for several generations. Zweig suggests the implications of this analysis for a number of key political issues, including the 'underclass,' 'family values,'globalization and what workers get (and should get) from government. putting class back on the table produces thoughtful, provocative analysis of where the nation is going and what working people could do about it.
Booklist
R.L. Hogler
Trends toward globalization and privatization exacerbate workers' lack of meaningful influence over corporate activities, particularly legal regulation...Zweig advocates working-class organization through labor unions and political action groups. He sees 'signs of optimism' in the new leadership of the labor movement and renewed social activism among college students. Altogether, the study makes a convincing case about the working class and its implications for the US economy and society. Readable at all levels.
Choice
Publishers Weekly
. . . In this pungent critique of class and economics in the United States—part economic theory part political lecture and part reportage of working class life—Zweig offers an insightful, radical analysis that will make many readers rethink commonly held but unexamined beliefs. . . Zweig supports his arguments with statistics, facts and personal stories and argues with a forcefulness and conviction backed by a deeply moral sense of the dignity that is due to each person in their work and workplace
Library Journal
Even in post-Cold War America this working class has very different economic interests from capitalists and the professional class. Zweig believes that workers must understand this idea in order to unite across race and gender divisions to define and solve their economic plight. This book is convincingly argued, well documented with economic statistics and personal interviews, and upbeat in its conclusion. highly recommended for public and academic libraries.
Jack Metzgar
Zweig's investigation of politics goes beyond the electoral, focusing instead on how a broad working-class social movement (often in alliance with segments of the professional middle class) could reshape workplace and community power relations as well as national politics. . . . A plain-spoken economist, rigorous thinker, and clear writer, Zweig defines the American class structure basically by occupations and the amount and kind of power people have in the workplace.
The Nation
Ronald D. Elving
For Zweig, our station in the world of work determines our fate. And in the power grid of the workplace, someone else makes the decisions, so everyone else is 'powerless' and 'vulnerable' As Zweig himself admits:"Life and politics are complicated, in part, because we as individuals have many 'identities' that shape us.
Washington Post Book World
Ken Nash
This is a book for working class activists, whether they fight for justice in the workplace or in the community...He has filled The Working Class Majority with a gallery of pictues of workers, illustrating the faces of the contemporary working class in all its diversity...Until now, the fact that the working class is the majority has been kept a secret. But, with the publication of this book, the secret is out.
Public Employee Press
Booknews
Zweig (economics, State U. of New York-Stony Brook) argues that the US is a working-class rather than middle-class society, and that self- interest is not enough to reap capitalism's benefits. Includes a resource guide. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780801464782
Publisher:
Cornell University Press
Publication date:
11/23/2011
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
232
File size:
1 MB

Read an Excerpt




Introduction


Some years ago, a newspaper comic strip pictured a campus radical proclaiming his solidarity with the class struggle, only to be ridiculed by his professor, who dismissed him with a sharp retort: "The only classes in this country are in schools!" This remark pretty much sums up the conventional view of class in the United States: it doesn't exist.

    This book challenges that view. It is about classes, but not the schoolroom kind. It is about social classes and class relations in the United States that not only continue to exist but, as readers will discover, exert tremendous influence over all of us.

    When I talk about class, I am talking about power. Power at work, and power in the larger society. Economic power, and also political and cultural power. As I explore the class structure of the U.S. economy, I will be describing the contours of power that operate in every aspect of society, to the benefit of some, to the burden of others.

    We all experience class, in different ways we are treated, in different lifestyles, in different parts of town. Some people are called "high class," others "low class," depending on their table manners, how loudly they talk in public places, or their choice of movies and magazines. One place where "class" is pretty sharply defined is in the sky. In the 1980s and 1990s, airlines rearranged their planes in ways that mirrored what was going on in the rest of society. The first-class section, serving a tiny minority of passengers, expanded. The seats became more comfortable, the food more sumptuous. Meanwhile, inthe back of the plane, coach class got more crammed and even the peanuts disappeared.

    Some aspects of class are more openly acknowledged than others. In this book, I explore aspects that are usually overlooked or denied, especially the way classes are structured by economic power. This book makes three basic points:

    First, economic classes exist in U.S. society. I will describe who is in them and measure their sizes. It will become clear that the United States is not a mostly middle class society. We will see that the working class is the majority.

    Second, class has a pervasive influence on the way we live, work, and think. Class is not just an abstract idea to score debating points. We will come to understand a wide range of important issues very differently when we look at them through the lens of class.

    Third, class has great influence on politics—electoral politics and the more general contests of power that operate throughout society. This is true whether we recognize classes openly or not. By looking at issues through the lens of class, we can be clearer about what is at stake, and begin to see the potential for profound political realignments at the start of the twenty-first century.

    It is ironic that Americans pay much less attention to class than Europeans do, since American history is so full of violent armed conflict between workers and their employers. These conflicts are more widespread and more recent than anything in the history of European industrial relations. From the general strike of 1877 to Telluride and Bloody Harlan, from the GM workers' forty-four-day sit-down strike in Flint to recent strikes by miners at Pittston's coal operations in southwest Virginia, by meatpackers in Minnesota, and by thousands of workers in the "war zone" of central Illinois, classes and open class struggle have been a persistent presence in U.S. history, up until the present day.

    Despite this history of intense class conflict, the most common myth about classes in the United States is that a vast middle class contains the overwhelming majority of our people. In this view, a small group of rich people lives at the top. Some are successful business leaders with names like Forbes, Rockefeller, Gates, Trump. Some are glamorous sports and entertainment stars, the Michael Jordans and Barbra Streisands of the world. As the saying goes, the very rich are different from you and me.

    The dominant myth also recognizes a social fringe of poor people below the great middle class, sometimes called "the underclass." The poor are at the lower margins of society, pictured as different, lazy, damaged, scary enough so that we want to stay out of their neighborhoods. The poor are beneath the supposed vast middle class, who work hard and play by the rules, making a life through hard work and sacrifice.

    The trouble with this story is that it hides an important reality. By looking only at income or lifestyle, we see the results of class, but not the origins of class. We see how we are different in our possessions, but not how we are related and connected, and made different, in the process of making what we possess.

    Certainly a relatively few rich people do sit at the top of the income distribution, and a relatively small number of people are at the very bottom, with most people somewhere in between. But where to draw the lines—what is rich, what poor, what middle—is largely arbitrary. And just looking at a person's income doesn't tell us anything about how the person got the income, what role he or she plays in society, how he or she is connected to the power grid of class relations.

    I define classes in large part based on the power and authority people have at work. The workplace engages people in more than their immediate work, by which they create goods and services. It also engages them in relationships with each other, relationships that are controlled by power. A relative handful of people have great power to organize and direct production, while a much larger number have almost no authority. In a capitalist society such as ours, the first group are the capitalist class, the second group the working class.

    The great majority of Americans form the working class. They are skilled and unskilled, in manufacturing and in services, men and women of all races, nationalities, religions. They drive trucks, write routine computer code, operate machinery, wait tables, sort and deliver the mail, work on assembly lines, stand all day as bank tellers, perform thousands of jobs in every sector of the economy. For all their differences, working class people share a common place in production, where they have relatively little control over the pace or content of their work, and aren't anybody's boss. They produce the wealth of nations, but receive from that wealth only what they can buy with the wages their employers pay them. When we add them all up, they account for over 60 percent of the labor force. They are the working class majority.

    There is also a middle class, of course. It includes professional people, small business owners, and managers and supervisors who have authority over others at work. But the middle class is only half the size of the working class. Instead of seeing them as people with middling income, we will see them as people with middling authority. The middle class is caught between the working class and the capitalist class.

    We can understand the economic, political, and cultural role of each class if we see it in terms of its relationships to the others, in the textures of social power, rather than simply as income categories or lifestyles. This way—with power laid bare—the abstractions of class come to life.

    Class is one of America's best-kept secrets. Any serious discussion has been banished from polite company. But classes exist anyway, and the force of events is bringing class back into focus. We will be looking at the circumstances that have hidden an awareness of class, and at those that are now giving new urgency to recognizing class again. More and more, reality is poking through the myths and revealing the shape of class power. We will see how class is involved in the issues that have dominated economic and political life in the United States over the last quarter of the twentieth century. For each, we will see that the issues have played out in a way that has strengthened the power of the capitalist class, degraded the life of the working class, and caught the middle class in the middle.

    We will see that the recent increase in inequality is not just a case of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, as the media often portray it. Our society's growing inequality of income and wealth is a reflection of the increased power of capitalists and the reduced power of workers. This basic change in circumstances forms the backdrop for much of the political debate of recent decades.

    Class has its foundation in power relations at work, but it is more than that. Class also operates in the larger society: relative power on the economic side of things translates, not perfectly but to a considerable extent, into cultural and political power. These forms of power in turn reinforce, adjust, and help to give meaning to classes. Our discussion of class will go beyond production, to search out its implications in the broader society as well.

    In the last two decades the working class has experienced lower real incomes, longer hours at work, fewer protections by unions or government regulations, and inferior schools. Politicians have responded by presenting targets for the anger and frustration of working people and much of the middle class. We have been told that poor people are the reason for hard times, ripping us off and draining us dry through welfare. We have been told that foreign workers are willing to work cheap to take our jobs away. We hear that taxes are the cause of our predicament, and even that government itself is the problem, not the solution. And on top of these policy angles, we have been preached a tale of moral decay, in which our problems stem from the decline of "family values." These targets have determined the main direction of public policy in recent decades. As we look at each in turn from the standpoint of class, we will see how each has intensified the attack on working people and strengthened the hand of the capitalist class. Far from solving the problems working people face, these policies have made working people worse off and, by confusing the issues, helped to alienate the broad electorate from the political process.

    The sooner we realize that classes exist and understand the power relations that are driving the economic and political changes swirling around us, the sooner we will be able to build a new politics that engages people by wrestling with reality. The potential power of an openly working class politics is one of the most exciting and difficult issues of the new century.

    This book concludes with a discussion of the potential for working class power. We will consider the moral foundations of working class politics, which are in sharp contrast with the "family values" agenda that has substituted lifestyle for economic justice as the subject matter of ethical debate. We will see how the raw individualism of the capitalist marketplace calls for a response based on different values, values that are central to a working class politics: recognition of mutual responsibility, fairness, human dignity, and democracy, in place of self-interest run wild into greed. We will look at new attempts to develop working class power based on these values, in the union movement and in connection with other social movements. Serious discussions of class are always controversial. Talk of the working class and the capitalists brings to mind the old days of factory life and Karl Marx. In this "post-industrial" service economy, steeped in mass consumerism, many people believe that the working class is surely a thing of the past and Marx irrelevant.

    In Chapter 1 I will explain why class continues to be relevant even when some workers carry briefcases instead of lunchboxes. As for Karl Marx, anyone in the last hundred and fifty years who has thought seriously about class owes this pioneer of class analysis an enormous debt. Even the Wall Street Journal acknowledged his positive significance as one of "history's great thinkers" when it featured Marx in the first of a series of articles on "Thinkers Who Shaped the Century."

    My purpose, however, is not to discuss the pros and cons of Marx's analysis, but rather to examine America's experience in recent decades. My belief in the importance of class analysis rests on its power to make sense of the world, this world, now. An understanding of class can help us interpret what is happening in society; and what we might do to make things better for the great majority of people. I try to make the case to readers who may be skeptical, but who will approach the question with the world as their testing ground.

    This book is an attempt to help reopen the discussion of class in America. In such a discussion, we will need to hear the voices of a great many people who do not often speak in public: working class people. I hope this book will stimulate a wide debate among workers, and also among academics, professional people, and all who are concerned about justice. I hope they will bring the experiences of different classes to bear, teach one another, and clarify the questions. The understanding of class that comes from this discussion can help us get to the bottom of what's ailing us and build the social movements needed to make life better for working people. Because class is a question of power, understanding class can add to the power of working people.

    The working class began to experience a decline in its quality of life in the early 1970s. At that time, a book appeared with the same title as this book, The Working Class Majority. In it, author Andrew Levison made a strong case for the existence of the working class and its political importance. But the book appeared at a time when interest in the working class was fading among traditional liberal allies. The working class was rapidly disappearing from public view. Unfortunately, Levison's book has long been out of print.

    I hope that in this book the theme can be renewed, in a social climate that will be more open to it. Our books have different structures and scopes, but the underlying points remain the same: the working class is the majority in the United States, and it is long past time that we all recognize that fact, explore its implications, and act accordingly.

What People are saying about this

Elaine Bernard
Michael Zweig does a good job exposing the attempts to scapegoat welfare recipients, immigrants, and foreigners, etc., and shows how recent policies aimed at these groups as the cause of the declining living standard of working class Americans are profoundly class driven in their intent and outcome. As well, Zweig writes in a clear and interesting style about these complicated topics—a useful book.
—(Elaine Bernard, Executive Director, Harvard University Trade Union Program)
Bill Fletcher, Jr.
For 50 years 'class' was a forbidden word on the shores of the United States. Michael Zweig's excellent text—The Working Class Majority—exposes the realities of class power and class politics in the contemporary USA. This is a book for working class activists, whether fighting for justice in the workplace or in the community.
—(Bill Fletcher, Jr., Assistant to the President, AFL-CIO)
Stanley Aronowitz
The Working Class Majority is in the finest tradition of popular economics education while at the same time making a genuine scholarly contribution to the literatures on class and inequality. Michael Zweig's major contention is that class matters both with respect to power and to life chances. . . . This book is a controversial but entirely fresh contribution to the debate.
—(Stanley Aronowitz, City University of New York)

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