Aren’t We All Just Middle Class/Classless/Working Class?

In a thoughtful and carefully reasoned post, amike, writing on the TPM Cafe, wonders about what it means to be working class, since we all work. I’m intrigued by his divergence from the much more common insistence that we’re all just middle class.

He quotes Wikipedia as defining the working class in part by the nature of work done and the lack of influence held that lead many to conclude that they are working class. He then writes:

I wasn’t entirely happy with this: professionals, after all, work. How would I parse the idea “Working Class?” More particularly, could I parse it in a way which didn’t create a hierarchy? I settled on a division of the working class into two subsets: the articulate working class and the dexterous working class.

I recalled Andrew Sayers writing of the “combination of shame, guilt, and pride that are commonly associated with class”. He writes:

The embedded nature of class differences presents middle-class egalitarians with a dilemma: on the one hand, to attempt to ignore the fact that someone has little economic or cultural capital can be highly insensitive; on the other, to acknowledge their lack of such capital can seem patronising, as reinforcing (‘rubbing it in’) rather than countering inequality. It is arguably responsible for the failure of equal opportunities policies to address class.

I agree with amike, as far as he goes, on the blurred boundaries between skilled manual labor and the intellectual labor of many middle class workers. I agree, also that inherent dispositions (being inherently dexterous, or uniquely articulate) may well shape life trajectories in equally interesting, if divergent directions.

Yet to speak of barbers who live in our neighborhoods and plumbers with well-paying specializations is really not to speak of the working class. Call-center workers, hotel housekeepers, night shift workers at the convenience store out by the highway, long-haul truck drivers, home health-care workers, the people who stuff envelopes at Netflix: the millions who do this work are valued for neither their dexterity nor their articulateness. Many, in fact, were likely educated in schools in which they had little opportunity to learn to write well, to speak persuasively, to believe that anyone would be interested in the circumstances of their lives should they attempt to explain such things anyway.

They are valued, instead, for their willingness to do relatively unskilled labor for relatively low wages. They are valued, often, to the extent that they have internalized the belief that they deserve little more. They do not experience the envy of others.

amike wonders of the “dexterous” workers come to read his blog and if they’d be welcomed if they were. He cautions that on the TPM Cafe blog, “articulate workers” too often speak on behalf of the “dexterous workers”.

I think that there is wisdom in this caution, because the the internalized sense that we are entitled to do so speak on behalf of of class “others” is at least partly why class will never just be about work, about the value ascribed to dexterity, or even about wages.

Sayers, Andrew. (2005). The Moral Significance of Class. Cambridge University Press.

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