Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, by the labor historian Jefferson Cowie (an acquaintance, I should say), chronicles the collapse of the working class, across that dim, grim decade of decline, as both a fact and idea in American life. After its emergence through the 1930s and its zenith during the heyday of postwar unionism, the working class, as a political and cultural presence, fell victim to a mixture of recession in the economy, institutional sclerosis on the part of organized labor, and the politics of white resentment as practiced successively by George Wallace, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan. The Republicans turned to social issues, the Democrats to issues of identity, and that is pretty much where things have stood since then. We’ve gotten used to thinking of ourselves in terms of race, gender, and sexuality and/or our positions on abortion, guns, the flag, and so forth. If Reagan’s victories have given way to Obama’s, that’s largely because, as everyone’s been pointing out, the demographics have inexorably shifted.
The result is that now that we are finally waking up, 40 years later, to inequality, wage stagnation, and stalled social mobility, we lack an adequate vocabulary with which to talk about them. “The 99 percent” is powerful, and valid to an extent, but it isn’t enough. The depredations of the plutocracy are only part of what’s been going wrong. Put it like this: everybody talks about the creative class, the knowledge workers, how you need to be educated, innovative, and entrepreneurial if you want to do well in the new economy. And that may indeed be true. The question is, what becomes of everybody else—the uncreative class, let’s say, the bottom two-thirds? They are just as important as ever—the people who work in retail, health care, agriculture, construction, manufacturing—but they are getting less and less.
Richard Florida himself, the man who coined the term “creative class,” has talked about this recently. His suggestion is to raise wages in the service sector by finding ways to raise productivity—which is what we did, he said, in manufacturing a century ago. But is that all “we” did? At least as crucial is what they did: the workers themselves. They organized. They started unions. They came to think of themselves as the working class, and the power they achieved through the bargaining table and the ballot box was essential to creating the postwar prosperity, whose most remarkable feature may have been how widely it was shared. Productivity is great, but as the last few decades have demonstrated, it isn’t necessarily distributed fairly.
So what now? I no longer believe in a union revival, if only because the government will never let it happen. But there is a large mass of people in this country between the abjectly poor and the comfortably upper-middle-class, and we all seem to be at a loss as to how to think about them. Are they middle class? Working class? Working poor? Obama talks about “strengthening the middle class,” but he also talks about “building ladders into the middle class”—an index of the confusion. The old white working class, the Nixonian Silent Majority that became the Reagan Democrats—stereotypically ethnic, Catholic, blue-collar, and unionized—has more or less ceased to exist. The rump of the white working class, concentrated in the South, has become the Republican base, but it should be obvious they constitute an ever-decreasing share not only of the country, but of the working class itself. Workers now are women, blacks, Latinos, immigrants, but as long as we continue to think of them, as long as they continue to think of themselves, in those terms alone, they will never be able to mobilize as a coherent political force. The party that creates that new vocabulary, that finds a way to talk about the working class again, may inherit the future. Since one of the parties is finally doing very well with the politics of identity and the other fears for its survival, it just might someday be the GOP.
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