Sunday, February 25, 2018

Which side are you on? Class analysis meets class stance ...

Joan C. Williams has an insight:

"Class consciousness has been replaced by class cluenessless -- and in some cases even by class callousness."

The weakness of White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America is that it has little more to it than that observation. Yes, many people, in all classes, are oblivious, ignorant, rude, and dismissive toward economic and cultural groups that are not our own. We can be (and all are) assholes sometimes. But that's not what class is about.

Williams does have a definition of "class." She includes under the label "white working class" households with incomes above the bottom 30% and under the top 80% with a median income around $75000 currently. So her picture is of a hierarchy (of whites): there are the poor, the working (WWC), and the professional-managerial elite (PME). The one percent on the very top -- who own us all -- go unmentioned. So okay -- but from there the book is simply a catalogue of the insults that the people in the PME throw at the people on next lower level of that hierarchy. It's a good catalogue, but it reduces the salience of class to scab picking, self-excoriating navel gazing to be practiced by properly abashed elites.

This poster, displayed in every feminist women's bookstore of the 1970s, speaks more usefully about class than Williams little screed. [Yes, it is an anachronism, oblivious to current discourse about white supremacy, but it still presents necessary truths.] In this picture, "class analysis" points to the status in the capitalist economic hierarchy that your income and other resources put you and those like you into. Class is not something that describes you alone, not an individual characteristic. Class is collective, both the home cultural turf and the constricting fate of people like you. Above all, class is involuntary. The "system" (and the system's beneficiaries) nail you into your status there.

This perspective points to the poster's conclusion about the meaning of "class analysis" -- to looking around for who is on the same side of the fence(s). The Williams book enjoins members of the PME to be nicer, less judgmental, more understanding of WWC class cultures. The poster enjoins everyone to throw their weight behind eradicating the injuries of class by picking a side. Now at most times and places, most people will tend to choose first to stand with the side that seems to consist of their nearest and dearest.

But observing that class means there are sides implies the possibility of people picking sides that the existing class hierarchy didn't plan for them. We don't (usually) control our position in the class hierarchy, but once we observe that hierarchy, we can choose our "class stance" -- to choose consciously where to throw our weight in the social push and pull for class advantage and more equality. We can decide that our values (and even our less parochial interests) require undoing some of the injuries of class. Some of the time in some circumstances, people up and down the hierarchy can throw in with people whose lifeways are not just like their own.

There are tried and true principles for such struggles. People with more social power (social capital as academicians revealingly call it these days) have to defer to the people with less or they'll just replicate existing hierarchies. That's no help.

There may be circumstances in which class differences create tough chasms between good people, especially when conservatives have exploited class differences to fan culture wars, as in the domain of gun violence.

But there are plenty of aspects of the struggle for a better life in this country in which people who've decided they want to be on the majority side together against the super rich can align themselves. Think preserving public education for all, working for affordable housing, defending workers' rights and workers' unions.

If the sort of people who read this blog don't like class cluelessness, do something useful -- guilt and navel gazing are just self-reinforcing wallowing.

1 comment:

Rain Trueax said...

Growing up in the country, rural America, and then moving there with my family as soon as I could get back to it, I know the most about it. Economic levels live side by side there. People are divided more by their interests-- church people hang together; the craft women's club and volunteer fire department likewise; and then the timber and livestock folks with a lot in common with each other. Not to say some don't mix together in the other groups but the main interests will be the shared ones. I have no idea what most of our neighbors have for political persuasions or even education. When we were involved in the school and church, i knew more of the people and a few of the millionaires but they didn't live differently than others for homes, as most of that was land. So, class isn't really a factor like it might be in a suburban neighborhood where the homes are of similar values. When we had a black family as a neighbor for some years, they were like everybody else-- or so it seemed to me. Maybe not to them. They were there because of horses and moved to a bigger piece of land closer to town also for the horses.

I came from a lower economic level home, where I grew up wearing hand-me-down clothes and felt lucky to get them. I didn't eat in a 'fancy' restaurant until I was an adult. Where my class was though was middle for values like working for what you got, being honest, keeping your word, etc. That was how I saw it but now I look back and think maybe it wasn't all I believed. We can be naive to what is around us and maybe that is class. I am more comfortable with those economically about like us or with less money and don't admire someone who is rich especially if they like to brag about it. In the writer community, I am outside of it.. Maybe that's the story of my life being outside of communities and looking at them from there. I have never been a joiner and is that class or something that isn't easy to explain. If I had to put myself in a class today, it'd be creative living folks. Not sure what that means.

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