Newsletter #80: Cracks in the Class Structure w/ Amna Akbar, Gabriel Winant, Thea Riofrancos, Part Two

By Ben Mabie

We’re all born somewhere. I was delivered by stork to a union family in Hayward, California, a diverse industrial suburb on the sunny side of the San Francisco Bay Area. My grandfather, CW Jones, was the president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 595 from 1991 to 1997, when his flagging health forced him to resign from a post that oversaw the massive amalgamation of East Bay electrical locals. I was still young when he died from cancer (my family believed it was work-related), though my brother and I were regaled with stories of his mischief making long after he was gone.

There’s one in particular that I probably recount at least once a month, most often told with a beaming, prideful grin: inside of every building that this lifelong Democrat and labor stalwart wired and worked on, he would scribble a line from his favorite book. So the interior of our regional trainline, many public schools, and the Kaiser Hospitals where my generation was born and his generation died, bore somewhere in their dark interior an inscription from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: “Who Is John Galt?”

I’ve always loved the anecdote, both because it captures his spirited troublemaking — a prized family inheritance — and because of what it suggests about class: that it is less a matter of manichean consciousness so much as a set of complex interactions between work process and skill structure, the culture of political and workplace organization, of transformations in property ownership as well as the internal stratification of class along the axes of race and gender. Class, and the cycles of struggle which compose and recompose what it means to be working class, are not a fixed thing but something more composite, even internally contradictory. A union president scribbling the ultra-libertarian Rand concentrated a potent expression of the culture of highly specialized and skilled work, which deepened his identification with his job and endowed him with a sense of independence.

It revealed more than that. The history of exclusionary trades organization marked electricians off from more pauperized sections of the working class. And the basic history of labor’s subordinate integration into the Democratic Party meant that despite these contradictions, my grandfather loyally cast his lot with the left wing of capital. It expresses an autonomy that has sometimes given way to an anti-capitalist and self-managerial impulse; more often, it has erected serious barriers to solidarity.

These last four hours of wide-ranging discussion on The Dig revolved principally around the interactions between the highly uneven growth of working-class social power and the reemergence of left-wing organization, and the effects that such growth had on a revived liberalism and possible shifts in a particular set of state-economy relations that have undergirded the neoliberal period. It is disorienting, because these shifts are driven by but also obscure our power. They may even undermine it.

Listen to this week’s episode of The Dig here.

If the power of popular and working-class forces has nudged the Democrats towards a renovation of some kind, however modest, we might also ask what kind of working-class forces are doing this. What is the internal history of these upstart sections of the class? How would we reconstruct the moments of its formation or the growth of its organization?

Starbucks workers have struck over queer rights. In Erie, Pennsylvania, industrial workers are fighting to exercise greater control over what they build and pushing to manufacture green locomotives. Teachers and hotel workers are making demands around housing and rent — for themselves, but also their students and neighbors. Graduate students and researchers in UAW Local 2865 have targeted the University of California not only as a boss but as the state’s biggest landlord. Labor seems not only an area of political work, but a more general vehicle of left politics. Years of strikes from public-sector unions and the new organizing drives among service workers have recalibrated our sense of what the working class is, challenging what Gabriel Winant called “the specter of the right-wing hard hat” as a prototypical image of the American proletariat. These struggles are not yet a tidal wave that can blast away the sediment of class stratification. But they are nevertheless the tides that our still-nascent left should orient to.

For decades, there was hardly a reference to “the working class” in American politics. Now the working class appears almost anywhere in our discourse, and every group, including the hard edge of the American right, are claiming it as a natural constituency. Concern for an imaginary working class framed pundits’ statements condoning the murder of Jordan Neely on a New York City subway train; it frames debates on trade and industrial policy; and even the everyday skirmishes in our neverending cultural war now must now situate those battles in relationship to, or on behalf of, some silent wage-earning majority.

If our answer on the Left is to raise the banner of class unification, it can’t be pitched in such abstract terms. Nor can we reduce the working class to a constituency whose passive support is to be sought out in campaigns. We need a unity which also grasps the disorganization of working-class forces today, which is not merely a matter of false consciousness but encoded into people’s most basic experiences of life and work. It’s from this perspective that we might trace the new cracks in the edifice of class stratification — and pursue a politics that might make it explode.