The middle class has had a decidedly mixed experience. Some professionals, lover-level managers and small business owners have lost ground. These tend to be people more closely associated with the working class - social workers, teachers, store owners in working class neighbourhoods, community college faculty. Others have prospered dramatically - corporate lawyers, sophisticated tax accountants, professionals in the financial industry, people closely involved in the maneuverings that have brought brought vast fortunes to those at the very top.” (Michael Zweig, The Working Class Majority, p.68)
This week has been about Michael Zweig’s book, The Working Class Majority: America’s Best Kept Secret. On Friday (21 September), Pavement Trauma asked about Zweig’s views on how power in the workplace could possibly pass over to power in wider society. Pavement wrote that, “I can see how wealth can certainly have undue influence - political donations etc. - but being a middle manager? Or a shop owner? How do they exercise undue power by dint of their positions, rather than by economic clout?” A fair point, and one that deserves a fair answer.
Zweig’s argument is not that the middle class wield enormous power, but that the working class loses power when it is incorporated into the middle class. The middle class is not the opposition, as such. The opposition is comprised of the elites in society who have enormous power over the economy, culture, education, and the political system. Within this dynamic the middle class is what it says on the tin: it’s in the middle.
For Zweig, the working class needs to be aware of its position in order to challenge it. The working class needs to be aware that it is not the middle class. In Working Class Majority, he says,
To exercise power, you need to know who you are. You also need to know who your adversary is, the target of the conflict. When the working class disappears into the middle class, workers lose a vital piece of their identity. In political, social, and cultural terms, they don’t know who they are any more. To make matters worse, they lose a sense of the enemy, as the capitalist class vanishes among “the rich”. As the capitalist class disappears from view, the target of struggle disappears, too. (p.74)
Zweig does not see the rich as the enemy. Writing of the American experience, he says, “real wages haven’t fallen, unions aren’t weaker, multiple wage earners aren’t a necessity in almost every working class household because Sylvester Stallone and Madonna are rich.” For Zweig, “capitalists tend to be rich, yes, but more important is the fact that they are capitalists.”
When the capitalist class disappears, the middle class, and particularly workers, who are thought to be middle class, seem to confront… whom? The rich? It is relatively easy to trivialize and ridicule class politics when it appears to be a knee-jerk attack on the rich. Not least, this is because most people would like to become rich themselves, to live the good life with ease. To attack the rich is to attack what many people hope for in their own futures. It seems to rob people of their aspirations.” (p.75)
This is why Zweig’s insistence on ‘identifying a working class is not a word game. It is not just a matter of semantics to say that workers are in the working class, not the middle class; it is a question of power.” In the following quote, Zweig is talking about the American experience. nonetheless, it’s one with some resonance with today’s Ireland.
Since the 1970s, employers have argued continuously that workers get paid too much, that unions put too many restrictions on management (either directly or through their influence in politics), that workers have to give up past gains to help business regain competitiveness. Politicians complain that labour is “a special interest” that threatens the middle class; any talk of the working class and class conflict is considered a ridiculous throwback to outworn dogma. These are all direct attacks on labor by capitalists. It is a class struggle, but only one side seems to know it.
Although most people do not look at social issues in class terms, many business leaders have a keen appreciation of the matter. For twenty-five years they have mounted a deliberate and public attack on working class wages and power. While working and middle class people have been disregarding class, others have been astutely conducting class struggle - on behalf of capitalists. (p.74)
Zweig’s insistence on a class analysis is that it helps us to see what is happening in the economy - the recent changes in distribution of wealth, for example; analyzing class allows us a better understanding of power within the economy and society; to talk of a working class is to acknowledge the existence and experience of working people, of the dignity of work, and to acknowledge their identity as working people. That identity has, to put it mildly, “suffered eclipse.” “A resurrection of working class social, political, and cultural life” writes Zweig, “proudly defined as such, would contribute to the strengthening again of working people’s sense of dignity, as well as increasing the power and authority of working people in the larger society.”
So. Where does this lead Pavement Trauma’s middle manager, or shop owner? This goes back to the opening quote - the “decidedly mixed experience” of the middle class. In Irish terms, the ongoing calls for privatisation of the health service and pensions are made to appeal to the “middle class” taxpayer, as well as to the cultural trope of ourselves as consumers. Representations of the working class - in broadcast and print media - do not show working people. Instead, the poor and “underclass” are portrayed. The working class, understandably, begin to feel they belong with the middle class, because the alternative is not the most attractive. This is not to say that the cultural tropes surrounding working class life are intentional - but they have been accepted, even by the well-intentioned.
In terms of power, a middle manager may feel sympathy for his line-workers, but is s/he going to back them in a pay rise, or is s/he more likely to do h/er job and support the company line. Take the recent disputes in the health service. However sympathetic middle management may have been to the nurses’ pay dispute, that management structure is there to implement policy, not change it. Does the shop owner vote for what s/he sees as h/er interests, or those of the working class? In all of this, the middle class have a choice, albeit an uneasy one. Social critic Barbara Ehrenreich, puts it thus:
There is not, ultimately, an objective answer to the question of whether the middle class is an elite or something less exalted - an extension, perhaps, of the working class. and thence there is no easy answer to the much harder question of whether it is ‘naturally’ inclined to the left or to the right. Is the middle class, by nature, generous or selfish? Overindulged or aggrieved? Committed to equality or protective of privilege? These are not only possible answers, but choices to be made.” (Working Class Majority, p.68)
In Ireland, middle class people, in middle class professions, have to make that choice for themselves.