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Gramsci’s Grandchild

Michael D. Yates, In and Out of the Working Class (Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2009), 217 pages, $19.95, paperback.

Elly Leary (ellyleary@earthlink.net) is a former autoworker and clerical worker, and a former vice president and bargaining chair of the United Auto Workers. Since retiring, she has worked with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Miami Workers Center and POWER U, all lower-sector community organizations in South Florida.

Okay. Let’s get the disclaimers out of the way right now. I am a longtime fan of Mike Yates. A big fan. I have used his materials with community and labor activists, made some contributions to a few of his works, and answered his call to write for Monthly Review on other occasions. So it will come as no surprise that In and Out of the Working Class did not disappoint. This personal reflection and journey through the world of Mike Yates from the early 1950s to the present has made me an even bigger fan. Most of the essays are nonfiction, but several are, to use TV parlance, docudramas—fictionalized accounts of real situations in Yates’s life.

Throughout this book,we learn about Yates’s grandparents (impoverished miners and better-off glassworkers), parents (housewife and glassworker), himself and his children. But these aren’t biographies or memoirs in the traditional sense. They explore how a person’s class “position,” life experience, and interaction with the dominant capitalist culture shapes family, jobs, work life, personal choices, attitudes towards others, self-awareness, and self-confidence. The collection lays bare all the obvious—and not so obvious—ways our system works to undermine the working class, collectively and individually. Yates explores the interlocking blocks of capitalist rule: racism, patriarchy, anti-communism, ingrained worthlessness. Sometimes they present themselves boldly but, for the most part, they emerge in real life more subtly, and rife with contradictions.

Some of the essays make you squirm in your seat, like the one where Yates appears in his public school’s minstrel show whose (in)appropriateness was never questioned. As he says, “Racism was such a fact of life that it was taken for granted.” Other essays have you shaking your head in wonderment, like those on Yates’s slog through a small Catholic college and graduate school. Still others make you cheer, like the essay on how university janitors and housekeepers stood firm against employer pressure to found a union, while the professors—their self-described “betters”—wilted under the same. Some make you grind your teeth with disgust and disappointment, like the essay describing the workings of César Chávez’s legendary cult and group-think, the United Farm Workers. All make you reflect on your own history, thoughts, and sometimes shameful experiences.

Yates’s essays are filled with examples of how class consciousness and collective action are derailed by contradictions and capitalist hegemonic ideas. Yates starts with the obvious, “Most working class employment sucks, and everyone knows it.” Boring jobs, strict regimentation, overbearing bosses, efficiency experts (like Yates’s own grandfather) all breed a glimmer of class consciousness and anger. But they also fuel intense feelings of fear of poverty and confronting authority, and the necessity of “going along to get along,” once the slimmest toe-hold on economic security is reached. There is unrelenting pressure to “make it,” if not for yourself, then for your children. Yates discovered, as he mastered the “science” of neoclassical (read capitalist) economics, that these “truths” center our U.S. value system.

In short, you get what you deserve. If you are poor, it is because you made bad choices, or were lazy—or, more to the point, worthless. If you are rich, it’s because you made good choices and were hardworking and esteemed. Internalized oppression and the individualized battle to overcome it lie at the heart of capitalist rule. Accumulation on the personal level—the consumption of goods and services, in neoclassical parlance—was a sign of success and self-worth.

We see how this played out in the three generations of the Yates family. The lives of Yates’s mother, Irene, and grandmother, Lucia, reveal how patriarchy and class are interwoven to maintain the capitalist system. They lived in one of those stereotypical mining towns, made famous by movies like Matewan and Harlan County USA. It was a bi-polar world—them and us, rich and poor, workers and bosses.

Unlike non-mining and larger company towns such as Flint, Michigan or Yates’s own Ford City, Pennsylvania (how’s that for chutzpah!), there were few job options beyond working in the mine. Low wages in the mines were made worse by “the near totalitarian control” of the company—from jobs to food to housing to schools to utilities. Women were expected to conform to strict gender roles: stay in the background and spend long (unpaid) hours cleaning, feeding and cooking, mending and childrearing in homes without indoor plumbing or central heating—the functional equivalent of spinning straw into gold.

Once her husband died, Lucia was left destitute. Her search for work, beyond the traditional taking in washing and mending, was made more daunting because the mines did not employ women. Lucia and the children ended up doing the before-school job of unloading dynamite trucks. The family’s desperate, life-risking situation didn’t alter Lucia’s invisible or second-rate status. No one stopped to help the mother and children in this dangerous work, not even relatives: everyone just walked on by, eyes forward. Likewise, no relative intervened when the mine’s office manager groped the young Irene.

Yates’s father, a veteran of the Second World War, was able to get one of those “whites only” GI home loans, and moved the family from the center of town to a newly created suburb, into a house with hot water, indoor plumbing, and multiple bedrooms. While working-class life was made substantially easier, especially for women, it came with a price—the demise of urban, working-class culture and community. Another obstacle to the culture of consumption and individualism was removed.

In his essay “Bowling Alley,” Yates challenges another patron for calling Michael Jordan a “nigger,” while both were avidly watching a Celtics-Lakers game on TV. (I can almost forgive Yates’s trashing of Red Aurebach, the Celtics preeminent coach and GM). It is a scene many of us have lived. Yates says,

The man who confronted me in the bowling alley was a delivery truck driver, doing menial labor at low wages. He obviously had been poor as a child. Yet he hated the poorest and most exploited of workers. He had been led to believe that black people are the lowest of the low, and since he grew up with them, he must be contemptible himself. This filled him with shame….His hatred transformed shame into superiority, a feeling encouraged by other whites, not least of whom were employers who used racism to drive a wedge between those whose alliance would be most dangerous to their power.

But where Yates is most effective is discussing the thing he knows best: our educational system and its pivotal role in capitalism. Schools, all the way up through universities, are not places where students are asked to be the best they can be and to think creatively, strategically, and imaginatively. As Yates points out, the “market” for that kind of student is small, and there are already enough of them (coming out of schools dominated by the bourgeoisie) to fill the existing number of jobs that require high levels of skill. Rather,

schools are essentially purveyors of misinformation and promoters of behavior consistent with the requirements of the economic system. What business leaders want is people who will work harder for less money and keep their mouths shut….When we examine the so-called education crisis with a critical eye, we see that the schools have not failed. They are doing what they have always done, preparing people for a lifetime of thoughtless work and consumption.

In several essays, Yates explores at the personal level how the real mission of schools deeply affects educational workers (teachers). In the essay “Two Sick Children,” we see how university professors apply capitalist standards in a most hideous and mean way. We learn that another professor, up for tenure, nearly loses his job because he has allowed his two children, sick with cancer, to stand in the way of his finishing his second Ph.D. in a timely manner. Wasn’t his wife supposed to handle all that?

But the most problematic situation surrounded his children, who both refused to stand for the pledge of allegiance. This small act of defiance earned a shit-storm of phones calls, meetings, teachers haranguing his children and enlisting other children (and sometimes their parents) to bring the “rebels” under control. Ironically, the main antagonist in this seedy little drama was a black teacher and union member. The disconnect of the situation is mind boggling on a number of levels. Although the Pittsburgh teachers union stood up for its members’ civil liberties on the job, here was a teacher oppressing civil liberties, demanding that his students demonstrate patriotism in a country that has systemically oppressed folks of African descent since its inception. Such is the power of hegemony in capitalism’s inner sanctum; people act in ways opposite from their real needs.

Even as Yates speaks truth to power, he mounts his own struggle against the hegemonic forces of capitalism. Remarkably, Yates allows us to be privy to his self doubts, his fear of authority, wobbly self-esteem, and the unlearning of his own racism. He shares how he learned to deal with being smart—the kiss of death for a working-class child in middle and high school. This is something my own husband and children could never master, so I continue to be amazed at his prowess.

Yates shares with us his frustration and disillusionment with the thing he loves most in the world: teaching working-class students. Being a college professor becomes just another boring, sucky working-class job. But he also allows us to be part of his redemption, teaching the working class in labor programs and in prison. Here are the students he has been searching for—the ones eager to learn how the world works, make sense of their situation, and most importantly, learn how to change it.

This book made me think of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian communist who spent his entire life (in prison) trying to figure out why there was no sustained revolutionary activity in Italy. Police oppression couldn’t explain it all. Most troubling was the inability of the northern urban workers and southern peasants to unite to defeat capitalism and fascism. Gramsci’s works on these obstacles to revolution are the foundation for exploring hegemonic rule from the Marxist perspective. Befitting its author, the essays of In and Out of the Working Class add up to the ABCs of hegemony in the U.S. context. Fortunately, Yates doesn’t have to sneak his writings past the prison censors, as did Gramsci. His writing is clear, direct—and accessible. Fifty-cent words and convoluted sentence structure, in my day the mark of a true intellectual, are dumped where they belong, in the trash. Yates proves one of Gramsci’s most important insights—every revolution needs its “organic intellectuals.” They are the “whalebone of the corset.” Gramsci would certainly be proud.

Organic intellectuals are those thinkers of working-class origin who don’t move up and out of the class, but stay with it and use their gifts to help build for working-class power and revolution.