This post is asking for trouble

Today I watched John Sayles’ Matewan for a class on the media and social inequality. The film, which is based on real events, takes place in West Virginia in 1920 and details a group of coal miners’ struggles to unionize and mount a strike in the face of brutal tactics by the owners of the coal mine. It’s an important film b that references the early years of American cinema when hundreds of films were made about labor vs. capital, and because it’s a document of a largely forgotten struggle in this country to attain workers’ rights like a decent minimum wage, the eight-hour day, and affordable health care.

At least the eight-hour day is still common.

It also stars one of my favorite indie-folk singers, Will Oldham, also known as Bonnie “Prince” Billy, before he became the mountain hunk he is today.

The film made me question what it means to be working class today. In 1920 it was fairly easy to define what working class was, since many of its members worked in the factories and mines that still existed in this country before most of them were farmed out to cheaper spots around the world. These workers had to fight hard for the few rights they had, and today’s workforce owes what protection it has to them. Union members were often politically left-wing, even radical and socialist, and for good reason mistrusted the intentions of the owning class that viewed them only as replaceable labor. Millions of Americans were proud to belong to the working class and to fight for its interests against the government and its allies, the owning classes.

But other than Wal-mart, McDonald’s, and other large service-oriented companies, the nature of working people in America has changed. Although business constantly find novel ways to exploit workers, few of us are virtual slaves to the interest of huge companies that charge us rent for our homes, fees for our uniforms, and throw us into environments that literally might get us killed.

I’m careful to note that few of us face these situations. It’s been well-documented that, for example, slaughterhouse workers face terrible risks in their line of work.

But for most members of the “working class,” that label means something different now than it did 80 years ago. In fact, it can mean almost anything from waiting tables to working in a hotel to working in a gas station or working as a teacher. There is no definition that really sticks anymore. If there is, please tell me about it.

My class got into a heated discussion about this tonight, mostly because most people didn’t really agree with what I just wrote above, and most (if not all) people readily identified as working class. I realized that I don’t, and when it was suggested that maybe I think it’s a bad thing to be working class it got me thinking. I still maintain that I don’t have negative connotations with the label “working class,” but I’m curious why I’ve never applied it to myself. I’ve always thought of myself as “solidly middle class,” the word solidly always modifying the label. The question is, of course, how to we identify with a class — culturally or economically? I’m not about to go there in this post, especially since we live in a country whose dominant discourse actively rejects use of the c-word at all, so things get complicated very quickly.

So why aren’t I working class? Or am I? Does it matter either way how we label ourselves? As I tried to stress in my class, these are rhetorical questions, asked in order to more deeply explore these issues. I argued tonight that I, and everyone else in the room, have options available to me, that I could choose to get an MBA if I wanted to, and that I have a moderate amount of control over the course of my life, rather than, for example, leaving it up to the plutocrat who owns the local coal mine.

But am I just a middle-class wannabe? If we can’t figure out what working class is, what the hell is middle-class?

Maybe those of us who make it a habit to label things should do away with these labels, labels that describe an economic system that has radically shifted since the first half of the 20th century. By and large, Americans don’t do the producing anymore. We’re a nation of consumers, so why not call the former working class the consuming class? Most of us consume away our whole lives, trying to attain something that is never attainable while working a mindless job. And that brings with it a unique set of problems separate from those faced by workers in the past.

Instead of raising our shovels in protest, we should be hurling the Starbucks lattes at people’s Hummers. That’ll show ’em.

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  1. Check this out if you want at least a statistical understanding of what middle class means and where you fit in:

    Don’t forget that your class is also partially determined by your cultural capital. If you’ve recently been involved in a group discussion about the merits of a John Sayles film, you’ve probably got bags of it.

    All I can say is Sunshine State is the worst movie I’ve ever seen, and now he’s writing the script for Jurassic Park 4.

  2. That Times series was amazing, and illuminating. As I was saying last night, just the fact that we were all attending an MFA program talking about this stuff places us in a more complicated position.

  3. i thought that times series was like a trip to the zoo. ooh, kids, let’s take a look at all the people living in your neighborhood. look, there’s a black man in your neighborhood! ooh, now look over there, there’s a brown lady.

    i’m sorry but i thought that was like the preacher talking to the choir. it was written from a privileged point of view and aimed towards privileged readers.

  4. When I first read your post, it made me want to say so much that I couldn’t write it, I wrote down a bunch of random things and e-mailed them to myself. I just came across that e-mail as i was trying to organize my e-mail, so I’m going to paste that random e-mail as a part of this blog response, like fuck it, thats the freedom of blogging.

    Also, I didn’t read the Times piece on class, but someone told me it had this quote, “It used to be believed that a Rich kid and a Poor kid growing up had the same chances” once someone told me those words were in it, I deemed that the piece would not be a sophisticad in depth look at class, cause what idiot used to believe that?

    And now…without further ado…my random thoughts, and sentence fragments…

    as far as labeling, there two things, there is…as an individual we reject that we fall into categories, and rightfully so, and label is going to be a dumbing down of us, but from a sociological perspective you have to make labels, so you can address when certain struggles effect certain groups of people. The right wing always uses this with race…they sometimes argue that race should not be considered, and it it seems noble…blah blah blah

    I would actually argue, that even though we consume, and that has given rise to things like consumer advocate i(Ralph Nader) it has actually hurt us to identify as consumers rather than workers. If we identify as consumers, than Walmart is a great deal, its only when we identify as workers that we can recognize Walmart as an attack on our people.

    I think the point you made in class, was correct, that these kinds of conversations don’t happen in America, and maybe the most important thing was that it happened.

    The Socialist Scholars Conference -Graduate Students identifying with the working class. In whos interest is it for you not to idenfify as working class?

    When I first began to identify myself as working class, and make my argument to my mother, her response was “well, we have Middle Class values.” What does that mean? Well she meant that her and my father believed in education, had hope, etc. But how disgusting is that? The Middle Class gets to own these charactaristics?

    My interests are in direct conflict with the ownership class. If minimum wage goes up it helps me. It health care is made universal it helps me. Hunter’s tuition hike hurts me. How much power does the infastructure of society give you.

    I use myself, because I’m interested in talkinga about these issues, not just in abstract, theoretical ideas, and I think because our political education growing up in America has always treated political conflict is something happening to the “other”, to someone elese, or its something of the past, so I use myself, because I’m trying to break that

    When you accept princpiples of status – they play the role of dividing a class. Once some

    What roles does race play in dividing the working class? When organizations of white workers and blck workers would come together, it would be important for the white organization to acknowledge that they had white privledge in this society, but it still doesn’t make sense for them to identify with the ruling class.

    Let me give you examples of working as a waiter.

  5. I agree with all of these things, especially that we are encouraged by the owners of capital to think of ourselves as consumers rather than members of a class. But I’m not sure about this insistence on using the labels working class, or middle class, or any other class. As we’ve seen, it’s difficult to pin down the exact characteristics of what working class is. And I don’t identify as working class not because I’m ashamed to, but because I come into contact with members of working class constantly and I know that I have things that they don’t — most importantly, I have economic, social, and educational resources that people working for minimum wage at McDonald’s often lack.

    We can continue to split hairs about this, but I think it’s more important to think of ourselves as citizens rather than consumers, that we are all born with inalienable rights that include the right to organize for rights as workers, no matter what class you belong to.

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