In his press conference Wednesday, President Obama spoke frequently of the difficulties “the middle class” continues to endure as a result of the Great Recession. Once he even extended his concern to those “aspiring to the middle class” as well.
No mention of “the poor,” once a common reference point for Democratic politics, even though the impoverished jobless or working person in the vast swath of low-paying jobs have suffered most. But the “poor” don’t poll well now, and rather than being objects of pity (and, in the best case, compassion), guilt (especially regarding the black poor), or fear (for crime or urban riots), they are back to their old status — scorned as personal failures when not ignored.
No mention either of “the working class,” except as aspiring to move into the “middle.” Nor the phrase labor movement public relations experts tried to promote since the mid-1990s — “working families,” or sometimes “working people.”
More notably, many union leaders themselves, as well as most mildly or more progressive Democratic politicians, talk overwhelmingly as well about defending the middle class, not building the power of the working class. “I hate that,” when union leaders talk about their own members as middle class, one union representative told a participant in last weekend’s conference in Chicago of the Working Class Studies Association.
What difference does the choice of words make?
In the long run, there are important differences, mainly because the concepts and words people use affect their understanding of the world and ultimately the social forces that develop. In the short run, there may be tactical advantages — as well as drawbacks — to the use of middle class” to encompass all but the very poor and very rich.
In any case, far more troubling was Obama’s response to a question about the National Labor Relations Board complaint about Boeing violating federal labor law when it built a new aircraft plant in South Carolina to avoid strikes by union workers in Seattle. Obama took the occasion to defend an employer’s right to move anywhere, but he did not mention workers’ legal rights or Boeing’s alleged law violations. Even if he knew little about the case (as he admitted), he showed an unhappy insensitivity to workers — including “middle class” workers like unionized machinists and engineers.
If they think about class at all — and for many decades popular rhetoric and culture implied that America was if not class-less then at least not class-ridden — most people think about the money, or income, someone earns. But they also often take into account the occupation (thus many white collar jobs may seem middle class even if they pay less than a skilled blue-collar worker earns). Or they may consider popular judgment about the status conferred by a particular job, or the lifestyle, language, consumption, or tastes of an individual.
Since the end of World War II, the overwhelming majority of Americans have identified as middle class if the options are lower, middle, and upper class. But if working class is an option, around 55 percent identify as working class.
In a book published in 2000, The Working Class Majority: America’s Best Kept Secret, State University of New York, Stony Brook, economist Michael Zweig argued that class should be defined in terms of control over one’s work. The working class has little control, capitalists have most control over their work and the work of others, and the middle class is either “in the middle” between labor and capital as managers, for example, or works as professionals, with a degree of autonomy and independence. Analyzing conditions for different occupations, he placed 62 percent of Americans in the working class.
But Zweig reported last weekend that in preparing a new edition of his book, he found — not surprisingly — that many traditional working class jobs, like factory work, had declined. Using his old assessment, the working class made up 59 percent of the population. Professionals, many in health and education, had increased, but looking at what has happened to work of nurses and pre-college teachers, for example, he found that a much larger share today should be classified as working class rather than middle class, or professional, on account of their diminishing control over their work. The upshot: 63 percent of Americans are in the working class, according to Zweig’s calculations.
In much of the sociological and political science research, especially on voting behavior, “working class” is defined in terms of education (not college educated, which would include Bill Gates, who dropped out of college), or income, with arbitrary deciles or quintiles dividing the population. The advantage of this approach is that there is much data available on education and income for statistical analysis, rather than on control over one’s work.
So if nearly two-thirds of Americans might be reasonably classified as working class, and over half see themselves as working class, why doesn’t public discussion reflect that?
Much of the blame for middle-class dominance in political talk “comes from the cold war attack on the left and labor movement,” Zweig says. “Talk about the working class is symbolic of militant, anti-capitalist rhetoric. There was a stigma attached to it.”
The working class holds a privileged place on the left traditionally, both in theory and practice. Socialists and other leftists saw workers as most directly exploited by and in confrontation with capitalists, most likely as a result of their collective work to develop a class solidarity, and thus the indispensable challenger to capitalist control and natural vehicle for a social control of productive assets. In practice, working-class political and union movements were some of the major creators of progressive change, democracy, equality and social solidarity.
In the United States, the opinion-making elite celebrated the middle class as the force for stability and democracy as well as the standard of aspiration for the rest of society (even though that same middle class often was the base for reactionary politics). The working class, if not tamed by the middle class, could be a threat to the social order.
But in recent decades, especially among intellectuals, the working class lost its theoretical primacy as a potential radical force for change to blacks, women, gays, marginalized people, a global “multitude” and other groups. “Working class” was often implicitly reduced to “white blue collar men,” even though most of the groups identified in the new identity politics were also working class, albeit with distinct experiences, even if the movement leaders often were not (and “middle class” individuals also led many unions or other working class organizations). Also, in practice, unions were collapsing, and the Democratic part turned more towards its middle class and professional base.
Oddly enough, according to preliminary reports on research by Betsy Leondar-Wright, working-class individuals working in social change groups were far less likely to use the word “class” or to talk about class-related facts in discussing issues than college-educated, middle class activists. Being brought up as working class, having a working class job history, or even identifying as working class apparently does not automatically lead to thinking and talking in terms of class without some education on those ideas.
Traditionally, unions and other working class organizations provided much of that education as well as the crucial experience of power through class solidarity. Now the education job is unfortunately left to community college sociology adjuncts.
Within academia, however, discussion of class may be growing again, says retired Roosevelt University professor Jack Metzgar, author of a great book about working class life, Striking Steel. (Although the financial crisis produced increased discussion of class, Zweig says, he thinks “working class” is still most common as an adjective, like “working-class neighborhood.”)
But politicians are another story. “I think they’re trying to appeal to the working class [when they use the term middle class],” he says. If they say ‘working class,’ middle class people don’t think it applies to them.” But working class people will still identify with middle class, and may think both terms apply to them.
Now many liberal Democratic politicians and their labor allies are strongly focused on trying to draw a line between the richest 2 percent — the millionaires and billionaires who have captured nearly all of the country’s growth in income — and the rest of America in order to win support for progressive tax hikes on the wealthy. That’s easier to do by portraying the “middle class” as victimized by the rich and uniting a big chunk of the middle class with less income and power with the working class and by discouraging middle class identification with the very rich and powerful.
But ultimately language is important. “To have collective activity you need collective identity,” argues Leondar-Wright, staff director of an organization called Class Action. “But that means you have to have language for your group.”
The original version of the article misstated the name of Betsy Leondar-Wright’s organization. It is Class Action, not Class Matters.
David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.