We need to talk about class
Joan C Williams on why class cluelessness is hurting American politics.
‘When you leave the two thirds of Americans without college degrees out of your vision of the good life, they notice.’
This is the stern warning Joan C Williams issues in her new book White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America. Coming from someone like Williams, a ‘silver-spoon girl, born and bred’, and now, as a law professor at the University of California, a fully signed-up member of what she calls the professional-managerial elite (PME) (albeit alongside a working-class husband), this is not a call to blue-collar arms. It is, rather, an appeal to America’s upper classes to forgo their ‘class callousness’ and understand those outside their elite bubble. Because, as it stands, too many members of America’s upper echelons mistake their snobbery for sophistication, from sneering at Starbucks drinkers to demeaning the democratic choices of the white working class.
So what is to be done about America’s class problem? How important are the lifestyle differences between the upper and working classes? And why now, when working-class consciousness is at an all-time low, should Americans start paying attention to class? The spiked review’s Ella Whelan decided to put these questions to Williams, and find out why she thinks class is making a comeback.
Ella Whelan: Why did you write White Working Class?
Joan C Williams: Well, I was re-reading part of a book that I’d written in 2000, and I realised that I’d articulated many of the ideas way back then, nearly 20 years ago. So I’ve been thinking about these issues for a very long time – I’m a silver-spoon girl who married into a working-class family in 1978. So I wrote these ideas up comprehensively for the first time in 2009, as a result of the Massey Lectures (the title of the lectures was: ‘Obama eats Arugula’) which I gave at Harvard. The resulting book was called Reshaping the Work-Family Debate, and it was there that I talked about social class. But in the US, we’re not keen on talking about class – and that book fell into a black hole and was never heard of again. Then, the night of the election, I left a party and just thought, I have to say this in the most direct way I can, because we cannot, as a country, afford to ignore class any longer.
Whelan: Who did you expect to read the book? You use ‘we’ a lot – is this a conversation you’re having with your own class, the professional managerial elite?
Williams: It’s intended for several different audiences. In the first instance, it’s intended for Americans to say, look, class exists in the US; it’s driving American politics, and ignoring it is taking us to some very dark places.
In the second instance, it’s addressed to the PME. It tells them that what they think of as cosmopolitanism and sophistication, many of your countrymen see as callous snobbery. Which was a profound shock to many people who thought of themselves as very egalitarian and did not feel morally implicated in what was going on.
And then, the third major audience is the Democrats. Because somewhat ironically, the Republican Party in the US, which tends to be very focused on the business elite, has done a whole lot better job of talking to the white working class than the liberal Democratic Party has.
Whelan: You call this unwillingness to deal with class America’s ‘class cluelessness’. Is this a deliberate cluelessness?
Williams: Since the 1970s in the US, and this is true also to a significant extent in Europe, the culture has been very committed to understanding and remedying social inequalities. But the focus in the US has, first, been on race, starting in the 1950s. Then on poverty, starting in the 1960s. Then on gender, starting in the 1970s. Then on sexuality, starting in the 1980s. And then, very much focused on immigrants, starting probably in the 2000s. And the glaring omission is social inequality based on class.
We have long been allergic to acknowledging the existence of class in the US. And if you have a social dynamic where you focus on every form of social inequality except for one, the people who are effected by that one inequality, in this case, of class, are bound to get pretty cross about it. Especially since this happened at precisely the same time that globalisation hit and you had the evisceration of blue-collar jobs in both the US and the UK. You had the complete evisceration of the ability of people without university degrees to get solid middle-class jobs, leading to vast rust belts in the north of England and the heartland of the US. And the elites were by and large supremely unconcerned with this. That is a recipe for class fury, resulting from blindness – the cultural condescension of the PME, and blindness to the fact that you can’t have a sustained democratic society if you eviscerate your middle class with elaborate unconcern.
Whelan: What about class consciousness? Are people aware of their own class?
Williams: The idea of workers’ solidarity and class consciousness has been severely eroded, partly by the assault on the unions in both the US and the UK. And, as a French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, pointed out in the 1980s and 1990s, the PME has a very strong class consciousness, but their description of themselves is that they’re just educated and cosmopolitan – and have good taste. And they don’t see those as expressions of class privilege, of being a class aesthetic. So one of the main points of White Working Class was to point out to the PME that their folkways are just folkways. It’s not that their lives are framed by enlightenment and good taste, and working-class whites lives are framed by parochialism and bad taste.
Whelan: You give examples of class as reflected in coffee-shop choices, or types of social gatherings. Has class become a matter of culture? Is this the extent of class today – lifestyle?
Williams: I really don’t think that’s a useful dichotomy, between the cultural and the economic. This actually goes back to a 1977 book by a Brit named Paul Willis, called Learning to Labour. He looks at how boys are brought up differently depending on whether they’re from blue-collar families or white-collar families. And in white-collar families, they’re brought up to be articulate, edgy, to display their originality, to send the message that they’re fully ready to command and to create and invent a new society. I’m here in the heart of Silicon Valley, and what’s celebrated here is the disruptive spirit that could yield you a unicorn – a company with a billion-dollar evaluation – and as I keep pointing out to people, disruption just gets you one thing in blue-collar jobs, and that’s fired. So, as Willis pointed out, blue-collar guys are brought up to aim for a settled, middle-class life, where they’ve got to get up and go to the same (often not fulfilling) job every day for 40 years straight, on time and without an attitude. They’re much more respectful of authority; they’re much more respectful of the institutions that aid self-discipline, the church, the military and traditional family life.
I think that it’s really important to recognise that both of these classes have their own folkways, that affect everything from the coffee that you drink first thing in the morning and how you raise your children, to how you express universal human yearnings for connection and spirituality and what your ideals of family life are – those folkways work really well for each different class location. They’re just really different, because each class is going to play a very different role in the economy. So if you’re going to be one of the order-givers, you’re trained up to be the order-giver with all those dispositions coupled with a sense of entitlement. And if you’re going to be an order-taker, you’re trained up in a very different way. So asking if this is really economic or cultural is beside the point – it’s all part of the package. These packages fit together, they have an internal logic which includes economics, but is not solely economic.
Whelan: What are the defining concerns of the American white working class that the political elite can’t understand?
Williams: What I’m talking about are dispositions, represented by different percentages of people in different social classes, not that every white, working-class person is this way, and every PME is that way. But, some of the extreme cultural condescension of the PME to traditional religion is a good example of a class insult that is seen by the PME as just sophistication. Another is the sense in which one identifies with one’s local community – a sense of rootedness, as opposed to cosmopolitanism.
Cosmopolitanism is seen as a sign of sophistication. But in fact, it’s a sign of privilege. It means that you went to university, you met people from all over the world and you have an international network and international opportunities. If you didn’t go to university, and your prospects don’t depend on an international network, but a small group of friends, then you’re going really to value that social solidarity. And you’ll be profoundly shocked that the PME doesn’t seem to feel any responsibility to other people from their own country. This is just shocking and hurtful – something which, by the way, led to Brexit.
Whelan: Do you think the American upper classes have misunderstood the aspirations of the white working class?
Williams: What has been both so useful and corrosive has been the ideology of merit. The PME thinks of the difference between them and the white working class as really a little trinity – in taste, sophistication and merit. So the idea goes, ‘the only difference between me and a factory worker is that I’m smarter’. And that’s not true. It’s just not true. There are so many in the PME who, to use an American metaphor, were born on third base and think they hit a triple. They in fact were born into a certain class, their parents carefully transmitted that class privilege to them, and they don’t see it. So they just see the white working class as deficient in talent, deficient in merit, and deficient in motivation.
We’re not recognising that the white working class has talent, merit and motivation in spades. They have different horizons because of their class position, and they typically develop aspirations within those horizons – just like the PME does. They expect to remain in their parents’ clique networks throughout their lives, because their parents will provide them free childcare and they will provide their parents free elder care. Think of the alternatives that this group of people have if they have to go out in the market. They’re going to be buying crappy childcare and crappy elder care, and so people want to stay close to home.
One of the characteristics of the PME is that their social honour is portable. I tell this story in my book about going back to a reunion in the heartland of the US in my husband’s high school. And he, forgetting the code switching that he should have remembered, asked one of his classmates: ‘What do you do?’ Meaning, ‘What do you do for a living?’. And the guy got really upset and said right up in his face: ‘I sell toilets.’ His social honour is not portable, he needs to stay home so that people don’t just see him as the guy who sells toilets. And this is the other way in which, ironically, cosmopolitanism is extremely parochial. It fits very well to the social honour, self-interest and economic interest of the PME. It fits very poorly for the white working class.
Whelan: Has the separation of the white and black working class exacerbated the feeling of isolation for the white working class? Do these two groups have distinctly different political desires?
Williams: Well, the irony is that the black working class is a whole heck of a lot more like the white working class than it is like the PME, not just economically, but also culturally.
There are a few important cultural differences, though. One is that American blacks have an understanding of social structure and social inequality that is by and large lost on every American white who is not a sociologist. But there has been, from the 17th century onwards, a pretty self-conscious strategy on the part of the American business elite, or the American elites in general, to pit the black working class against the white working class. Of course, this is extremely convenient for the elites. Having the working class band together is something Karl Marx wanted – enough said. So it’s an extremely effective way to undermine social solidarity and class consciousness, and Trump of course has used this in a deft manner.
Whelan: Why has Trump become so attractive to sections of the white working class?
Williams: Trump is channeling white working-class anger against the elites. And he’s so brilliant because he feels it himself. He is a boy from Queens who was never accepted, despite his wealth, into the New York City elite circles that he sought to enter. So he has felt the same kind of personal humiliation at the hands of the elite that the white working class has felt. The kind of belittlement, the derision of his bad taste, the derision of his coarseness and inarticulateness. He connects with these people because he feels the same anger. And when people connect around anger they really aren’t their best selves, and boy do we see that in spades.
My attitude is shame on all the other politicians who are not offering to connect with this group on something other than anger, on something based on hope or aspiration.
Whelan: You end White Working Class by saying we need to heal the rift between white elites and white working class. But was there ever a time when this rift didn’t exist? Can it really ever be healed?
Williams: Class ain’t going away any time soon. On the other hand, what I think has already begun to change is the blissful class cluelessness of the PME. I can’t tell you how many people, through book events and hundreds of letters that I’ve received, have told me that the book was a wake-up call and made them completely change not only the way they see the white working class, but also themselves.
Joan C Williams is director and founder of the Center for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings College of the Law. She is the author of many books, most recently White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America (2017).
Picture by: Getty Images.
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