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The Injuries of Class

Michael D. Yates is associate editor of Monthly Review. He was for many years professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. He is most recently the editor of More Unequal: Aspects of Class in the United States (2007) and the author of Cheap Motels and a Hotplate (2006),both published by Monthly Review Press. This is adapted from a talk delivered at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst at the end of October 2007.

We live in a complex, divided society. We are divided by wealth, income, education, housing, race, gender, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation. These divisions are much discussed; in the last two years, there have been entire series in our major newspapers devoted to the growing income divide. The wealth-flaunting of today’s rich was even the subject of a recent Sunday New York Times Magazine article (“City Life in the New Gilded Age,” October 14, 2007).

What is seldom talked or written about is to me our most fundamental division, one at the center of our economic system, namely the division of our society into a very large class of working men, women, and children, the working class; and a much smaller class of owners that employs the former, the capitalist class. These two great classes make the world go round, so to speak.

Workers and owners are fundamentally connected and antagonistic along a number of dimensions:

  • It is through the labor of the working class that the goods and services necessary for our survival are produced.
  • It is through the ownership of society’s productive wealth (land, machines, factories, etc.) that the owning class is able to compel that this labor be done. Workers must sell their capacity to work in order to gain access to this productive wealth, since no one can live without such access.
  • In terms of society’s “reproduction” the relationship between labor and capital is essential. So much of what we do presupposes the successful sale of labor power. Without the money from such a sale, nothing appears to exist.
  • The essence of production in capitalism is the ceaseless accumulation of capital, the making of profits and the use of such profits to increase the capital at the owners’ disposal. Competition among capitals both drives accumulation and is driven by it, in a relentless dance.
  • But to accumulate capital, employers must make sure that workers cannot claim possession of all they produce. This means that employers must strive for maximum control of the entire apparatus of production and any and all social forces and institutions that might interfere with this control (for example, the state, schools, and media). At all costs, workers must be prevented from getting the idea that they have rights to the output they produce.

This organization of capital and labor in our society has negative effects on working people. I want to talk about some of these negative effects. However, before I do, I would like to point out that the whole process of accumulation, beginning with the extraction of a surplus from the labor of the workers, is, especially in the United States, hidden from view, so that workers do not know or are confused about what is happening to them. This is the result in part of the public school system and the tireless promotion of individualism and nationalism at its core.

As Peter McLaren and Ramin Farahmandpur explain:

Today urban schools are adroitly organized around the same principles as factory production lines. According to [Jonathan] Kozol “rising test scores,” “social promotion,” “outcome-based objectives,” “time management,” “success for all,” “authentic writing,” “accountable talk,” “active listening,” and “zero noise” constitute part of the dominant discourse in public schools. Most urban public schools have adopted business and market “work related themes” and managerial concepts that have become part of the vocabulary used in classroom lessons and instruction. In the “market-driven classrooms,” students “negotiate,” “sign contracts,” and take “ownership” of their own learning. In many classrooms, students can volunteer as the “pencil manager,” “soap manager,” “door manager,” “line manager,” “time manager,” and “coat room manager.” In some fourth-grade classrooms, teachers record student assignments and homework using “earning charts”….[Jonathan] Kozol writes that in the market-driven model of public education, teachers are viewed as “floor managers” in public schools, “whose job it is to pump some ‘added-value’ into undervalued children.” (“The Pedagogy of Oppression,” Monthly Review, July–August, 2006)

Racism/sexism, imperialism, media propaganda, and repression further distort the social matrix and hide its class basis:

  • Endless war magnifies and deepens nationalism and promotes both racism and male chauvinism. Wars send workers back to society badly damaged in mind and body.
  • Imperialism does the same thing as war and is, of course, the root cause of it.
  • Constant Orwellian propaganda by the media, think tanks, politicians, and business leaders denies the class polarization of capitalist society. An important element of this misinformation campaign is the mythology surrounding the “free market” economy.
  • As in the earliest stages of capitalism, naked violence ultimately serves to suppress class consciousness and sow seeds of doubt among workers who might otherwise be inclined to mutiny against the system.

Unveiling the Injuries of Class

Against this background, let me now talk about the “injuries of class.” Consider first unemployment. The separation of workers from productive wealth creates the possibility that workers will be unemployed, that is, unable to find a buyer for their labor power. In addition, we know from studying the history of capitalist economies that it is not uncommon for them periodically to sink into recession or depression. Such crises are part of the nature of the system. In such circumstances, unemployment rises dramatically. Furthermore, capital is always searching the heavens for sunny skies (higher profits), and if it finds them somewhere other than where it is currently situated, it shuts down one operation and opens another. Plant contractions and closings will therefore be regular occurrences.

What these things mean for working people is a pervasive sense of insecurity and fear that even what seems to be the most stable employment will “melt into air.” Fear and insecurity not uncommonly produce two responses: a kind of joyless penury or a present-orientation that often takes the self-destructive forms of debt, drinking, and the like. In a recent essay, referring to the workers in the mining town in which I was born, I wrote:

Mining towns in the United States were typically owned by the mining companies, and the companies exerted a near totalitarian control over the residents. They owned the houses, the only store (the infamous “company store”), all utilities, the schools, the library, everything. They had their own private police (the Coal and Iron Police in Pennsylvania) sanctioned by state law. The climate in such a town is one of perpetual insecurity and fear, emotions compounded by the danger of the work in the mines….It is difficult to overstate the power of fear and poverty in shaping how working men and women think and act. Fear of losing a job. Fear of not finding a job. Fear of being late with bill payments. Fear of the boss’s wrath. Fear your house might burn down. Fear your kids will get hurt. I inherited these emotions. (“Class: A Personal Story,” Monthly Review, July-August 2006)

Should a person face an extended bout of unemployment or a plant closing, the potential injuries of class are many, as has been amply demonstrated: suicide, homicide, heart attack, hypertension, cirrhosis of the liver, arrest, imprisonment, mental illness.

The members of the owning class are almost always better situated to withstand the storms of economic crisis or even unemployment, so these are injuries that the system does not inflict on them. Recently Michael Gates Gill, a wealthy former advertising executive who lost his job, was featured in the New York Times in connection with his book, How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else. Gill gets a job in a Starbucks, and in it he learns about ordinary people. By most accounts the book is not very good. But the author had connections, and not only managed to get it published by a trade press (Gotham/Penguin) but reviewed in our premier newspaper. The chances of this happening to “everyone else” is as close to zero as you can get. The stories of job losses are written in the litany of woes that are an everyday reality for most people; such stories are anything but exotic and receive almost no public attention.

Unemployment in our society is a constant threat to the employed and a torment to those who lose their jobs as many do periodically. To be unemployed is almost to drop out of society; since to have no relation to the market is not to exist.

I add here that those who do unpaid labor, especially homemakers, must certainly experience something akin to that of the unemployed. Their work is so devalued that an estimate of its value is not included in the Gross Domestic Product. The unpaid labor of poor single women with children is considered so worthless that they have been forced to give it up and seek wage labor, often taking care of the children of others while their own kids are attended haphazardly or not at all.

Workers comprise the subordinate class. They are normally in the position of having to react to decisions made by others. They are dependent upon employers, and they are at the same time apprehensive of them, since employers hold the power to deny to workers the life-sustaining connection to the means of production. Exploitation, dependence, and insecurity—in a system where workers are bombarded with the message that they and they alone make the decisions that determine their circumstances—make for a toxic brew, which when drunk often enough, creates a personality lacking in self-confidence, afraid to take chances, easily manipulated and shamed (of course, on the bright side, these injuries have given rise to a massive “self-help” industry).

The very subordination of workers, combined with the market mechanism that ratifies and reinforces it, means that capitalist societies will display ineradicable inequalities in variables of great importance: wealth, income, schooling, health care, housing, child care, and so forth. What is more, the market will, absent powerful countervailing forces, not only reproduce inequalities but deepen them, as we have seen so clearly in the United States over the past thirty years. This inequality itself generates its own class injuries. In my book, Naming the System, I cite research comparing the impact of inequality across the United States. It was discovered that, all else being equal, the greater the inequality of income within a state (as measured by the share of income going to the poorest 50 percent of households in each state), the higher the mortality rate. It appears that the psychological damage done to poor people as they contemplate the gap between themselves and those at the top of the income distribution has an independent effect on a wide variety of individual and social health outcomes. Everything we know about the correlation between health and other social indicators and income (a decent though not perfect proxy for class) tells us that working people will suffer in every way.

You may have heard it said that the only thing worse than having a job is not having one. This is true, but what does it say about work? Work in capitalism is a traumatic affair. We all have the capacity to conceptualize what we do before we do it. This capability, when applied to work, has allowed human beings to transform the world around them in profound ways: to invent tools and machines and to socially divide our labor so that the riches of the earth can be unlocked and a cornucopia of output produced. As we have done these things, we have also transformed ourselves, becoming ever more conscious of causes and effects and better able to understand the world. Put another way, our capacity to think and to do makes us human. It is integral to our being.

In capitalism, however, this human mastery of the physical world is reserved for only a few. The capacity to think and to do implies control, and control by workers cannot be contemplated by capitalists. In fact, the essence of management in capitalism is the monopolization of control by the owners, control especially of the labor process—the work—and its denial to the workers.

We don’t have time today to discuss all the various control tactics used by employers: the herding of workers into factories, the detailed division of labor, mechanization, Taylorism, personnel management, lean production—all of which deny workers their humanity, their capacity to conceptualize and carry out their plans, to actually “own” what they make. However, let us look at a sampling of jobs in modern America:

Auto workers: There are about 1.1 million auto workers. Not only are they facing rapidly rising insecurity, they are also confronted every day with a work regimen so Taylorized that they must work fifty-seven of every sixty seconds. What must this be like? What does it do to mind and body? In this connection, it is instructive to read Ben Hamper’s Rivethead (1992), a startling account of working in auto plants. Hamper worked in an old plant, where the norm was about forty-five seconds of work each minute. He eventually got a job in a new, “lean production” facility. He called it a “gulag.” In her book, On the Line at Subaru-Isuzu (1995), sociologist Laurie Graham tells us about her work routine in one of these gulags. Below, I have skipped a lot of the steps, because I just want to give readers a sense of the work. Remember as you read it that the line is relentlessly moving while she is working:

    1.  Go to the car and take the token card off a wire on the front of the car.
    2.  Pick up the 2 VIN (vehicle identification number) plates from the embosser and check the plates to see that they have the same number.
    3.  Insert the token card into the token card reader.
    4.  While waiting for the computer output, break down the key kit for the car by pulling the 3 lock cylinders and the lock code from the bag.
    5.  Copy the vehicle control number and color number onto the appearance check sheet….
    8.  Lift the hood and put the hood jig in place so it will hold the hood open while installing the hood stay….
    22.     Rivet the large VIN plate to the left-hand center pillar.
    23.     Begin with step one on the next car.

This work is so intense that it is not possible to steal a break much less learn your workmate’s job so that you can double-up, then rest while she does both jobs. Within six months of the plant’s start-up, a majority of the workers had to wear wrist splints for incipient carpal tunnel. Necks and backs ache from bodies being twisted into unnatural positions for eight hours a day. Supervisors recommend exercises and suggest that workers who cannot deal with the pain are sissies.

What is true for auto workers is true for all who do this type of labor—whether it be in beef processing plants or on chicken disassembly lines where workers labor with slippery blood and gore on the floor and on their bodies. And where cuts lead to infections and disease.

Clerks: There are about 15 million clerks in the United States. Many years ago I was on a television show with former secretary of labor Robert Reich. In response to my claim that a lot of the jobs being created were not all that desirable, he said that there were a lot of good jobs available, ones in which workers had a real say about their jobs (no doubt referring to the “quality circles” so popular then). One such job was that of “clerk.” I blurted out in a loud and incredulous voice, CLERKS! I suggested that perhaps Mr. Reich had never noticed the splints on the wrists of many clerks, signs of epidemic carpal tunnel syndrome. Since that time, I have actually worked as a clerk, at the Lake Hotel in Yellowstone National Park. I describe the experience and what I learned in my book Cheap Motels and Hot Plate: An Economist’s Travelogue. Clerks work long hours; they are on their feet all day; they take regular abuse from customers; they are exposed in full view of supervisors with no place to hide; they are accorded no respect (think about customers on cell phones in grocery lines); their pay is low; their benefits negligible. After a hard day at the front desk, I only wanted a few drinks and a warm bed. The stress level was extraordinary.

Restaurant Workers: There are 11 million of these, growing in number every year. Next to personal care and service workers, those who prepare and serve our food are most likely to experience a “major depressive episode.” Restaurant workers in Manhattan’s Chinatown log as many as one hundred hours a week, for less than minimum wage. The pace of the work, the pressure of it are unbelievable. Check out the arms and legs of a kitchen worker. They are full of cuts and burns. Substance abuse is widespread.

Secretaries, Administrative Assistants, and Office Support: These  workers are 23 million strong. They are poorly paid, many in sick buildings, stuck in badly designed chairs, staring at computer screens for hours, taking orders all day long (usually women from men), and often heavily Taylorized. These workers, whose working conditions are satirized so skillfully on the television series The Office, have to contend with daily degradations, including all too prevalent sexual harassment. Here is what my sister said about her work:

I, too, share some of your fears and anxieties. As one of the administrative assistants you talk about, I can relate to the long days of sitting at the typewriter (in years past) and now at the computer. I am sure that is the cause of my neck and shoulder pain and the many headaches from which I suffer. Although I basically like my job and the people with whom I work, after thirty years I am anxious to move on to something else. I look forward to retirement in about three to four years, moving to the city, maybe working part-time, and finding meaningful things in which to participate.

Security workers: Three million men and women watch over others in prisons, malls, gated communities, in occupied Iraq, and on our city streets. This is a type of work guaranteed to be stressful and to generate not only an extremely jaundiced and pejorative view of the rest of society but also an extreme, macho personality, prone to violence.

Custodial workers: There are 4 million building and grounds workers, many of them immigrants, keeping our buildings clean and the grounds swept and manicured. Often they are hired by contractors who are themselves employed by the buildings’ owners. It has taken monumental efforts by the SEIU to organize some of these exploited workers, who must often labor in close proximity to dangerous cleaning fluids, solvents, and chemical fertilizers.

Medical workers: There are more than 13 million people laboring in our hospitals, surgicare centers, and nursing homes, as well as in individual residences. With the exception of those at the top, including health care administrators and most of the physicians, health care is a minefield of poor working conditions. Even nursing has been degraded and deskilled so much that the nursing shortage could be nearly filled simply by the return of disaffected nurses to their profession. At the request of the California Nurses Association, I spoke this summer to nurses in four Texas cities. I heard many tales of woe: sixteen hour days, two weeks straight of twelve-hour days, insane patient loads, constant cost-cutting that damages patient health, demeaning treatment by administrators, etc. Conditions only worsen as one goes down the health care occupation ladder.

Working Stiffs

Work in today’s exploitative society takes its toll on mind and body. It saps our creativity, bores us to death, makes us anxious, encourages us to be manipulative, alienates us in multiple ways (from coworkers, from products, from ourselves), makes us party to the production of debased and dangerous products, subjects us to arbitrary authority, makes us sick, and injures us. I remember my dad saying, when emphysema (the result of too many cigarettes, too much asbestos, and too much silica dust) had sapped his health, that he hadn’t expected retirement to be like this. He and how many hundreds of millions of others? It is not the CEO who suffers depression, hypertension, and heart attacks from being too long on the job; it is instead the assembly line worker, the secretary, the kitchen laborer. Those who cannot control their work hurt the most. And with all of these injuries of class, I haven’t even touched upon the compound misery endured by black workers, Hispanic workers, women workers, gay workers, and workers without the proper national documents. And I have not described some of the worst types of labor: farm labor, domestic work, labor in recycling plants, and many others, which get truly demonic as we move outside the rich nations and into the poor ones. It is no wonder that people do not need much convincing to believe that happiness lies not in the workplace but in the shopping mall.

The daily debasement heaped upon working men and women breeds anger and rage. Often rage is turned inward and shows itself as depression, addiction, or suicide. Frequently it is directed against children, spouses, lovers, or against some great mass of “others,” like immigrants, women, radical minorities, or gay people. But sometimes it is correctly aimed at the class enemy and takes the form of riots, sabotage, strikes, demonstrations, even revolution. And then the creativity bound and gagged for so long bursts forth as people try to take control of their labor and their lives. This is what I think of as the “miracle of class struggle.”

I am not going to end by talking at length about how important it is to keep the struggles of the past fresh in the present, how it is necessary to educate the working class, of how it is essential to build a working-class movement and not just to organize workers into unions, about how there are any number of hopeful signs that such a movement can be built, of why we must always fan the flames of dissent and revolution. You have heard all this before.

Instead I am going to say something different. The injuries of class are deep and long lasting. The poor education that is the lot of most working-class children leaves lasting scars that will not be healed by a picket line. The love lost when the factory-working father spent too much time in bars does not come back after a demonstration. I have been a radical, highly educated and articulate, but the fears and anxieties of my working-class parents are like indelible tattoos on my psyche. The dullness of mind and weariness of body produced by assembly line, store, and office do not go away after the union comes to town. The prisoner might be freed but the horror of the prison cell lives on.

Wilhelm Reich, the German psychoanalyst, was kicked out of the psychoanalytic society because he was a communist. Ironically he was also expelled from the Communist Party because he was a therapist who believed that the minds of working people, ravaged by the injuries of class, would have to be healed. It would take real effort to help workers regain their humanity. I think Reich was right. We ignore the injuries of class at our peril.

My friend Sam Gindin, former chief economist for the Canadian Auto Workers, has argued for years that all labor organizing and all union and labor movement activities, in fact, all efforts to transform societies, must aim at developing the capacities of working men and women, their ability to take control of their lives and the larger society. This means, for example, that inside a union, there has to be as much rank-and-file democracy and control as possible, and inside workplaces there has to be an active network of shop stewards. The union must have a vibrant and empowering education program. Politically unions and all working-class organizations must aim to promote a working-class way of thinking about the world and must fight for any and all public programs that empower workers, from national health care to paid vacations and leaves for all to free adult education programs. Reducing hours of work must become central to labor’s agenda as must the nature of work itself. The idea that our labor power is just another commodity must be rejected. Finally, all movements for radical social change must address aggressively the prison-industrial and military-industrial complexes. Imperialism, war, and a domestic police state are an unholy triad that magnify enormously the injuries of class.

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