The New Working Class?

The dogs started in on it. I clicked off the computer screen and walked upstairs to answer the door. My wife was already on the stoop, talking to an earnest-looking couple. She had given them a dollar for a copy of The Militant, the small ‘paper associated with the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and was trying to answer their questions about the neighborhood.

They had been told that Marine Park, Brooklyn is a working-class neighborhood of people primarily of Irish and Italian descent (and I suspect they thought they would find Archie Bunker and Ralph Kramden here). It has changed, though, and they were clearly a little confused. Yes, there are plenty of Italians and Irish still here… along with the Orthodox Jews (probably the fastest growing group), the African-Americans, the Asians, the Russians and who knows who else. Yes, there are plenty of bus drivers, cops, firefighters, garbage collectors, roofers, plumbers… but I am not the only college professor in the neighborhood. I live here also along with teachers of all other stripes, and psychiatrists, physicians, librarians, veterinarians, retired folk, people on permanent disability, musicians and who knows what else. In fact, it is now a fair sampling of Americans–all except the 1% that constitutes the rich and the 15% called poor.

In a way, we now are the American working class, here, but we are a class nothing like the SWP probably imagines. We are a class defined not by the work we do or by our level of education–but (as my wife pointed out after the SWP people had left) by our income and, today, by our precarious perch on the edge of financial insolvency.

No longer should we be believing that there is an intelligentsia/working-class split or even one between middle and working class. The old intelligentsia now includes as many people on food stamps as it does those with nice, tenured jobs, as does the old middle class, which also once felt it had protected jobs. None of these people have much of a sense that they are moving up today–or even that they can move up. Their fear is that they will move down; their hope is that they can, at least, remain where they are. We all feel it.

The United States never really had clearly defined classes, what with its churning cauldron of cultures, ethnicities and races. Chains of racism aside, almost everyone in the country (actually, even those burdened by the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow) has felt that there is a path to a future unconstrained by the limitations humans place on each other.

That is changing, and the change is creating a new American class structure. We are all going to have to get used to it and to our places within it.

For many people, including some of the most educated, have moved down, at least in the way they see their future possibilities. We professors can talk (rather condescendingly) of the waitresses, house cleaners, and the other low-wage earners of books like Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed but we should realize that many of our part-time colleagues are in much the same position, also working multiple jobs part-time for low wages… and that it is possible that each of us could end up in similar uncomfortable (to say the least) situations–and will, if the continued corporatization of education continues. We aren’t, as a group, different from other American workers. Not any longer. Our education is no longer insulation from the downward spiral that causes nightmares in places like Marine Park but also in the neighborhoods of the children of what’s left of the old upper-middle class.

No matter our jobs, we are all unprotected from the vagaries of a world responsive only to the demands of vast and rich entities whose goals have no relation to our own.

This is why the old class distinctions are disappearing. Most of us, all but the very rich and very poor, really are living in Marine Park, at least metaphorically. The movements that once protected us, that provided a sense of stability to us, are eroding. Union membership is little more than half today (as a percentage) of what it was just thirty years ago–and the government safety nets, established in the 1930s and augmented all the way into the Reagan years, are almost in tatters.

Yet we still segregate ourselves within this new working class. Few college professors are willing to realize that they do live in that metaphorical Marine Park, still believing that they can maintain the lifestyle of the children of the old upper-middle class in Park Slope and, now, Williamsburg. A few of us can, it is true, but that number is dwindling.

When we, as college professors, talk of union solidarity (those of us fortunate enough, that is, to have union protection), we generally see it in terms of supporting dock workers in Gdansk (yes, many of us are still living that far in the past) or farmer workers in, say, Nicaragua. What we need to start realizing is that there is, today, a much closer solidarity that we should be strengthening, with local police and firefighters and sanitation workers, with teachers in our neighborhood schools, with welders and construction workers.

These people, believe it or not, are no different from us–and it is time that we stopped thinking of ourselves as “better” than they are. In terms of the movements of the global economy, they are exactly the same as we are. Only when we start realizing that will we begin to have the power to effect change upon that wider economic movement.

It is not going to work, however, for us to act like that SWP couple, seeking out the new working class in neighborhoods not our own. That class is right with us. In our own buildings, there are workers we ignore–and I don’t mean just the adjuncts that too many tenured professors walk right by. There are technicians and maintenance staff, most of whom are invisible to professors, whose lives are little different from “our own.” There are the security people… the same. And others, many others.

Yes, we have talked about solidarity for generations and some of us use what (to me) is a rather patronizing (to other unions) “brothers and sisters,”  patronizing in that we talk but don’t act (or act only when the “brothers and sisters” are safely distant from our lives). We still think (or most of us do) that we are somehow of a higher class, even in the face of the evidence that we are no different than they are.

Education, I must repeat, does not set us apart. Not any more (if it ever really did). We professors have to accept that and must finally start treating other working Americans as our equals. For they are.

One thought on “The New Working Class?

  1. To me, an Englishman, it is quite clear that you are a member of the working class, just as I was when I spent the last few years of my working life as a lecturer. You sell your labour and do not control the academic labour process. I am sure that your callers from the SWP understood that, and would not subscribe to the idea of an intermediate middle class between ruling class and proletariat.

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