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The Myth of the Middle-Class Society

Michael Zweig, The Working Class Majority: America’s Best Kept Secret (Cornell University Press, 2000), 192 pages, $25 cloth, $14.95 paper.

Paul Buhle writes frequently forMonthly Review. His biography of a left-wing filmmaker, A Very Dangerous Citizen: Abraham Polonsky and the Hollywood Left, will be published in June by the University of California Press.

The claim that the U.S. is a “middle-class country”—which goes back at least to the eighteenth century—has set apart (white) yeoman farmers from the rural or urban poor, and notably from nonwhites. Thomas Jefferson envisioned his ideal nation as the land of, and for, hard-working property holders, free of the turmoil and corruption inevitable in Europe’s aristocratic fixed-class system.

As Monthly Review readers know, the “exception” in American Exceptionalism, from the Revolution to the present day, exists thanks to the relative protection of ocean barriers, extraordinary natural resources, and above all to empire. The Constitution (especially without the Bill of Rights) has often been described as a defense against dangerous forms of democracy. Even such hard-won gains of the early nineteenth century as public education might be described as congruent with a ruling class strategy of exerting hegemony over the still-unwashed (but white) horde.

Then again, such top-down descriptions tend to badly flatten the complex and often more inspiring realities of working people’s lives. Without urban unrest, no American Revolution would have begun; without working class unrest generations later, no public education or truancy laws to end child labor in the factories; and so on, through Social Security and most of the other additions to the welfare state. The “middle class,” an emotion-ridden if ultimately elusive concept, has been repeatedly redefined from above, providing key evidence that the ruling ideas of any age are those of the ruling class; but it has also been redefined from below by those fighting privilege to escape the economic insecurity (not to mention the indignity) of the lowest levels of occupation and residence.

Divided as the nation has been, rising above economic insecurity has also often meant white working people separating themselves as far as possible from the assorted degradations experienced as “normal” by minorities. But the separation has not been either consistent or inevitable. Indeed, the infusion of newer population groups into working class life in the past has repeatedly altered consciousness and activity, leading to many dramatic moments of common struggle including the 1877 railroad strike, the 1886 national strike for an eight-hour day, the Lawrence Strike of 1912, the 1946 national strike wave, and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers’ activities in the later 1960s, not to mention other social and cultural movements of many types. We now face all around us the latest infusion, one of the most dramatic in U.S. history. The working class map is about to be redrawn and no one can chart the ultimate consequences.

Michael Zweig’s The Working Class Majority offers basic preparation for the emerging reality. In the clearest terms, offering the reader a step-by-step view of U.S. class structure, Zweig explains that the “middle class society” is a myth. Not that the middle class is absent: supervisors, middle managers, professionals like doctors and lawyers, all can appropriately claim an intermediate status between wealth-owners and those whom Marxists properly consider the real wealth-creators. But the numbers reveal that the middle class of approximately fifty million—even at the center of the world commercial and corporate empire—pales before a working class of more than eighty million. Department of Labor statistics reveal a starker contrast: more then 80 percent of Americans are “nonsupervisory employees.”

The additional statistical discussions are extremely useful, and readers are directed to keep them close at hand for relevant arguments with friends, colleagues, and political enemies. The details are often the best parts of the book, because Zweig has a way of driving home what we “know” (without being self-consciously certain.) As he notes, some forty thousand limousine drivers (not counting cabbies) in Manhattan alone, exist statistically as “independent contractors,” equivalent to the middle-class owners or operators of small property. Of course, the vast majority are nothing of the sort: they work almost unbelievably long hours at a historically blue-collar occupation—without the special overtime pay or health and retirement benefits that a union contract would bring them.

Zweig remains on firm ground when he discusses the ambivalent and often hidden role of education in perpetuating class status. A completed college degree usually reaffirms class background. Less than ten percent of high school students from lower-income families will ever reach this goal. Even for those students of modest means managing to achieve it, the degree has diminished in importance as a guarantee of status. In short, despite a certain degree of social mobility, the upper classes largely replicate themselves. During recent times the millions of new jobs at the lower end of the economy have provided poor wages and no security, while the top few percent of Americans have taken so much of the expanding pie that for the rest of us the improvements in the conditions of life have come at the cost of longer hours, increased indebtedness, or both. Politicians continue to argue about abolishing inheritance taxes, while close to half the population can expect to leave no inheritance whatever.

Zweig runs into trouble, however, when his analysis turns to a moral critique of “market individualism” as the proper way to think or to live. Not that he’s wrong: market-based decisions are devastating the planet and impoverishing most of the global population in the process; at closer range, they may also precipitate an economic collapse that will make the 1930s look like a picnic. But as George Lipsitz argues in The Possessive Power of Whiteness, the logic of shared exploitation does not necessarily make for working partners, let alone trusted allies. Zweig tacks on to the end of his argument the need to assert working class unity despite particularistic “identities.” But like his call for a renewal of working class institutions now long vanished, the means for this renewal remain to be seen, let alone tested.

Zweig ends on the strongest possible note with the consequences of globalization, the effects of the vast power shift in the last decade, and the reform impulses within the organized labor movement. To all this, we say amen. But he might have strengthened his case significantly by highlighting statistics of a different kind, the recent patterns of immigration and what their continuation suggests for working class life. Without writing anyone off, let us admit that past socialist influence has been badly limited in the U.S., even more than in the classic European colonial powers, by the widespread sense of imperial entitlement. Privileged to live and work at the apex of the world’s economic pyramid, Americans have felt less need for solidarity, let alone a different kind of society. But the American working class is being remade before our eyes. The newest members come overwhelmingly from the regions of the empire’s victims, often with memories of solidarity as well as suffering, and with scant prospect of entering America’s elite. If we do our work well, that may make all the difference.