Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What's Class Got to do With It? A Review

Michael Zweig, ed., What's Class Got to Do with It? American Society in the Twenty-first Century
Labour/Le Travail, Fall, 2006 by Jason Russell [REPOSTED FROM BNET]

Michael Zweig, ed., What's Class Got to Do with It? American Society in the Twenty-first Century (Ithaca: ILR Press 2004)
FEW TOPICS make capitalist elites in the United States writhe more than class conflict. This is presumably because they would much rather have the American populace acquiesce to a social and economic system that advantages a minority and seriously disadvantages the majority, rather than have discussions of class lead anyone to have revelations about introducing a new system. Class-based analysis has fallen from prominence in the United States in recent years, a fact that Michael Zweig notes in his introduction to this collection of essays that seek to address this problem. This book covers a lot of ground, and provides a good introduction to a mode of analysis that should be at the forefront of the social sciences and humanities in the United States.

Class used to form one part of an analytic triumvirate that included gender and race. However, as Bill Fletcher and Sue Cobble show in their essays, the latter two variables have tended to eclipse the first in the past couple of decades. Fletcher, in particular, argues that there has been a failure within academic circles to appreciate the impact of race on class. Other analytic approaches--particularly whiteness--have instead grown to prominence. However, class is shown here to be inextricably linked with other variables including gender and race.
Successive American governments, from Reagan up to the current Bush, have skilfully used neo-liberal rhetoric to dismantle much of the social welfare state that was erected during the 1930s and 1940s. Francis Fox Piven argues that neo-liberalism has had an important influence on social welfare policy. Piven illustrates that there is little question that neo-liberal politicians have effectively demonized those who are reliant on social welfare programs. Class has thus played an important role in the shaping of government policy.

This book clearly shows that the American economy does not equally distribute wealth. In the most engaging essay in this collection, Gregory De Freitas and Niev Duffy show that working-class youth are particularly disadvantaged in the United States. Young workers experience a lower rate of unionization than their older peers, more difficulty accessing higher education, and substantially lower wages. This analysis further illustrates the complexity of class as it shows that class conflict, if based on such variables as access to education and wage differentials, could manifest itself through generational conflict. Challenges with access to education are particularly difficult as young members of the working class also face the prospect of having to work while going to school. Michelle M. Tokarczyk provides an interesting analysis of this problem, as well as showing the class structure that can exist in a university setting.

The main difficulty of this book is that it is an attempt to engage the vast issue of class in a relatively short 183 pages. This effort, while timely, led to the unfortunate inclusion of essays that, while being quite informative, do not necessarily reveal enough about class in America in the early years of the 21st century. Globalization appears here in essays by Leo Panitch and Katie Quan. The former includes an analysis of the meaning of 9/11, and the latter discusses American workers in relation to those in other countries. However, for the American working class, globalization has not simply meant cheering the war in Afghanistan or purchasing goods made in low-wage countries, it has also meant catastrophic job loss and deindustrialization. Curiously, there are no extensive discussions of blue-collar job loss in this book despite the impact that this has had on the working class.

Class-based analysis is a framework founded in Marxist thought, but Marx only appears in this volume through references to The 18th Brumaire. Marx's major critique of capitalism, Das Capital, is absent. Hegemony is mentioned but Antonio Gramsci is not. Zweig and his colleagues are right to bring class back to academic analysis, but bringing back the theory behind it is also necessary. This book would have benefited from a brief chapter on how theory applies today. While Zweig is right to say that class-based analysis has fallen out of favour, a broader explanation why would have helped strengthen the arguments presented by the various contributors.

Organized labour is discussed by Michael D. Yates, but be focuses primarily on the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations [AFL-CIO] and the effect of 9/11 on the federation. Recent events like the creation of the Change to Win Coalition and the phenomenal growth of unions like the Service Employees International Union [SEIU] and Unite-HERE confirm that the AFL-CIO does not entirely represent the future of the American labour movement. The future of organized labour and its role in the lives of the working class may be more promising than Yates suggests. A discussion of working-class politics would also have been a welcome addition to this book. Yates touches briefly upon labour's interaction with the Democratic party, but no essay is devoted entirely to labour and politics. Numerous studies have shown that many working-class voters voted Republican through the post-World War II decades--markedly so during the Reagan years. Zweig would have better served his readers by devoting more attention to politics.

Recent studies of the working-class experience--notably Lizabeth Cohen's A Consumer's Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York 2003)--have suggested the importance of consumer culture in shaping the American working class. Citizenship is in many ways equated with an individual' s ability to participate in consumer culture. Zweig may have better served his readers by deleting one of the articles on globalization and instead including one on consumerism as it has been so central to the working-class experience in the United States.

William K. Tass mentions E.P. Thompson in his essay, and a quotation of Thompson's which he references--"class happens"--leads to my last criticism of this book. (72) Thompson also suggested that classes do not form in isolation, and instead form in relation to each other. Tokarczyk and Barbara Jensen touch upon this problem in their essays bur they focus upon the role of education in shaping social class and this does not provide a sufficient insight into how and why classes exist and interact in America. We also do not see why mentioning social class causes fits of indignation among the capitalist class. Are American capitalism and its social system so fragile that they cannot bear a little scrutiny?

This book is an admirable attempt to bring class-based analysis back to the forefront of academic discourse, despite its short length and somewhat uneven content. Capitalism is in many ways the ideology that does not speak its name de spite its vast influence. Indeed, discussions of class have become the object of scorn within broader public discourse in the United States. However, as Zweig and his colleagues have shown here, class does indeed matter and class-based analysis is still an excellent method of critiquing capitalism and the divisions that it causes.

Jason Russell
York University