Pandemic Reveals That Without Suffering, Our Advanced Capitalist Society Would Collapse

The economy requires a working class without political power.

New Research Points To Power Of Economy In Shaping Children's ...

I don’t fault the press corps (too much) for misunderstanding the dynamics of the American class system. In addition to believing the myth of a nation without caste, most of its members are highly paid and highly educated, blessed with good luck and good parenting, and wouldn’t see a working class person if she were in front of them.

I mean this literally. The real working class is ubiquitous. Real working class people are everywhere. They make our bagels. They take our gas money. They bring us our packages. They do the real labor demanded of an advanced capitalist society—real as in an advanced capitalist society would cease functioning without it. Yet for all their ubiquity, for all their essentiality, real working class people and their political interests are virtually invisible in coverage by America’s largest, most influential news media.

Workers in grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations, delivery and distribution services, among others fields, are totally essential—yet they are paid least and disposed first.

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There are many historical reasons for this, good as well as ugly, but there’s no longer a justifiable excuse for continued blindness to the truth of our economy. The new coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 92,100 people and unemployed 36.5 million others, is revealing, first, that a class system does exist in the United States, and two, that the US economy cannot endure without exploiting those at the very bottom of it. Workers in grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations, delivery and distribution services, among others fields, are essential—yet they are paid least and disposed first.

I do fault the press corps for not putting good parenting and good schooling to good use. It doesn’t take much work for intelligent people to see that class in America is multicultural and multiracial—and that it should not be a trope with which to write about white people as if they suffer politically the way black people do. (White people do suffer, but their suffering isn’t equal; white supremacy is too beneficial.) “Class politics” used to be inseparable from “union politics” but thanks to four decades of government-backed union-busting, they scarcely coexist. Reporters typically do not recognize (or even see) class politics if it isn’t connected to what’s left of the unions.

Making matters worse is the press corps’ habit of defining socioeconomic class according to education. If you earned a college degree, you’re middle class and up. If you didn’t earn one, you’re working class. There are problems with this, first and foremost that some “working class” people take home middle-class wages or better. They might be white baby boomers still benefiting from egalitarian policies officially abandoned long ago, or they might be “tiny feudal lords ruling tiny feudal fiefs,” as I said Monday. The “working class revolt” that powered the president to the White House, as I and others have said, was actually a “revolt” of the petty bourgeoisie.

Hit the tip jar!

Another problem is that the country is packed with people who earned college degrees but can’t possibly take home middle-class wages, because jobs matching their educations do not exist, or if they do, they exist in such small numbers these people must compete with each other like no generation has competed before. (They are also shouldering a debt load that older non-college educated colleagues never did.) Even so, it wouldn’t do to identify them as working class. Income is as unhelpful as education.

The best way to define class is the simplest—and it jives with my experience growing up in a rural highly religious and working-class community. If you have any measure of power in the workplace, you are not working class. This is how Michael Zwieg, a professor of economics at SUNY Stony Brook, defined “working class” in 2006.

It [has] relatively little power at work—white-collar bank tellers, call-center workers, and cashiers; blue-collar machinists, construction workers, and assembly-line workers; pink-collar secretaries, nurses, and home-health care workers skilled and unskilled, men and women of all races, nationalities, and sexual preferences.

Importantly, Zweig said, two forms of power separate the working class from every other socioeconomic class. One, the power to control where, when, for how long, and for how much you work. Two, the power to work without constant supervision. If you have the power to demand—and command—respect from a boss, you’re not working class.

The more power you have, the more money you make, and, of course, the more money you make, the more power you have. 

The implications are obvious. It isn’t so much skill or education, or character traits like perseverance and pluck, that determine how much you earn as how much power you have. The more you have, the more money you make, and, of course, the more money you make, the more power you have. It’s a virtuous cycle that members of the press corps tend to recognize as right and true (it worked for them!), but flipped around it’s a vicious cycle that for many spirals downward, grinding them to dust.

The conventional wisdom is that suffering is a natural part of life. Some people are going to be left out of an advanced capitalist society. That’s either acceptable (the Republican view) or a problem for liberal policy makers to address (the Democratic view). But if nothing else, the pandemic has shown how wrong the conventional wisdom is. It’s not that some people might suffer. It’s not that some people might face injustice as a result of broader prosperity. It’s that some people must suffer, because without their suffering our advance capitalist society would cease functioning.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor and publisher of the Editorial Board, a newsletter about politics in plain English for normal people and the common good. He's a visiting assistant professor of public policy at Wesleyan University, a fellow at the Yale Journalism Initiative, a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly, and a contributing editor for Religion Dispatches.

No, Protests Are Not a 'Class Struggle'

Not the one you think it is. Here's the real struggle.

Stay-at-home orders: Anti-quarantine protesters are a minority - Vox

I’d rather not talk again about the so-called protests being staged for the benefit of cable-news cameras. I feel I must, however, because public intellectuals like Peggy Noonan (respectable voices, unlike the click-bait bottom-feeders at Breitbart and Fox) keep insisting on two things. One, remaining misinformed about the nature, shape and power of socioeconomic class; and two, understanding these but pretending not to.

Noonan, of course, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Wall Street Journal. Last week, she wrote about the “class struggle” being revealed by a pandemic that has killed, as of this writing, over 91,000 people and unemployed 36.5 million others.

I’m so tired of people with no knowledge of the working class explaining working class politics to the real working class.

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Noonan didn’t mean class struggle vis-a-vis inequities of access to health care (vast majorities of Covid-19 victims are people of color). She didn’t mean class struggle vis-a-vis a silent majority staying home and doing its part. She did, however, mean class struggle vis-a-vis white people “protesting” for the freedom to go shoe shopping.

Noonan’s dialectic is between the “overclass” (Michael Lind’s useful nomenclature) and “everyone else”—with the “everyone else” (we are asked implicitly to intuit) being a working class “pushing back” against state shelter-in-place orders, a working class that has lived “harder lives than those now determining their fate,” she said. “They haven’t had familial or economic ease. No one sent them to Yale. They often come from considerable family dysfunction. This has left them tougher or harder.”

When someone like Noonan explains class to actual working-class Americans, I’m reminded of a man who misunderstands sexism explaining sexism to women, or a white person who misunderstands racism explaining racism to people of color. It’s not only embarrassing. It’s not only disrespectful. There’s a depth of hubris and contempt that goes into such demonstrations, a contempt worsened by plausible deniability. It’s a form of gas-lighting, and it’s reasonable to believe the intent is to drive you crazy.

Hit the tip jar!

Let me offer an anecdote. I grew up in a trailer “park” in Yorkshire, barely a town on the western end of New York, south of Buffalo, with a human population smaller than the population of cows in the tricounty area. Trailer “parks” are cut into lots. Each lot has access to sewer, water and power. That’s it, though. It’s a wedge of land you rent but can’t develop or upgrade. Nor can you do a host of things, because each lot is subject to a host of rules legally enforced at the pleasure of the trailer “park”’s owner.

You might say that’s no big deal. Condos have rules too. Don’t like them? Sell and leave. But trailers do not appreciate in value. They depreciate. Selling means losing money, even if you bothered improving the interior. Yes, you can move them, but that’s an enormous expense. Mobile homes are almost never mobile. Condos are also not located, as the Stoehr family trailer was, next to a leach bed that bubbled and stank in hot months. Freedom to choose is central to a market economy. But once you’ve made up your mind to live in a trailer “park,” you can’t change your mind. You’re trapped.

Let me offer an anecdote explaining the real working class.

The landowner isn’t trapped. His freedom is boundless. Yet all he did was invest the bare minimum (water, sewer, power). Then he let the rents flow. The owner of our trailer “park,” Bill S., was a textbook example of a rent-seeker—a person or entity growing fat on rents without contributing good to broader society. While my family enjoyed the aroma of summertime shit, Bill S. and his family enjoyed an ostentatious mansion adjacent to riding stables, a fact that cemented forever in my mind that anyone with access to horses understands little to nothing about the working class.

Bill S. didn’t work (his profligate sons ran the business). So he ran for public office. To this day, he’s a Cattaraugus County legislator able to enact laws ensuring his freedom to seek rents from workaday families who virtually sign away their own freedom. Bill S. is a rural-dwelling non-college educated self-made man beloved of the Wall Street Journal with contemporaries all over the US—tiny feudal lords ruling tiny feudal fiefs. They suffer none of the burdens (or life-threatening dangers) of the working class but they have working-class credibility with the likes of Peggy Noonan, public intellectuals believing they are locked in a “class struggle” against America’s tyrannical “overclass.”

They aren’t. Not, anyway, in the way Noonan means. It’s not the working class, white or otherwise, that’s revolting against government control. The real working class, white or otherwise, needs government on their side, not off their backs. Without the power of government, they are politically powerless—the marker of the working class.

The people wanting government off their backs are the same familiar faces we have seen protesting “government overreach” since at least 2009—the tiny feudal lords, the petty bourgeoisie, the moguls of minor monopolies, the demi-captains producing little or nothing of value imagining themselves running with the big corporate dogs, whose political power is inversely proportional to government being of, by and for the people.

Noonan may not know what she’s talking about. Yet maybe she does.

If the point is driving you crazy, it works.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor and publisher of the Editorial Board, a newsletter about politics in plain English for normal people and the common good. He's a visiting assistant professor of public policy at Wesleyan University, a fellow at the Yale Journalism Initiative, a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly, and a contributing editor for Religion Dispatches.

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