Everybody’s Middle Class!

Through the grapevine as it were, I heard about a discussion in which a number of graduate students in the humanities claimed not to be of the “working class.” Now, that’s a pretty loaded sentence in itself. We could dissect my choice of “of” instead of “in” for instance. But, firstly, to claim that as a grad student in English, or history, or Classics one is not working class is to simply not face the truth (I suspect a lot of this can go for the social sciences as well, but this depends). In any case, if it quacks like a duck, eats like a duck, earns like a duck—even if it may not at times feel like a duck—baby, it’s a duck.

This is only part of a larger shift. A strange thing has occurred in America since the 1970s. The working class has simply disappeared. They’re nowhere to be found. Ask NPR or a politician. Everybody’s worried about how some new legislation will impact “the middle class.” It’s as if a magic meteor hit the United States in 1972 that both elected Richard Nixon and transformed every working class person in respectable middle class individuals. (Check out Nancy MacLean’s Freedom Is Not Enough for more on this topic.)

The history partially supports this disappearance. Many of the manufacturing jobs actually have disappeared from America. They have been moved overseas (China for example) or across the border (Mexico for instance). Steelworkers now number around 95,000 whereas in 1960 or so they numbered over 500,000. In a spiraling “race to the bottom”, unions have grown weaker with the bills in Wisconsin and Ohio only the latest chapters in the onslaught by the conservative right. This actual, material disappearance along with the triumph of globalized free trade policy has created a situation where much of the traditional American working class has disappeared. Much of the working class is now located within the service sector, an absolutely huge category of workers. Teachers, for example, are included in this sector.

But, this issue is really about the present, and, at the present, inequality is staggering. Some numbers, graphs, and charts (sources are US Census and Dr. Domhoff’s UCSC sociology website):

  1. Household income distribution: the Botttom 20% makes between 0 and $18,500/year. The Top 20% makes over $92,000/year.
  2. Median Income for Individual 25 years and older with:
  • Bachelor’s Degree:      $43,000
  • Master’s Degree:         $52,000

Table 1: Distribution of net worth and financial wealth in the United States, 1983-2007

Total Net Worth
Top 1 percent Next 19 percent Bottom 80 percent
1983 33.8% 47.5% 18.7%
1989 37.4% 46.2% 16.5%
1992 37.2% 46.6% 16.2%
1995 38.5% 45.4% 16.1%
1998 38.1% 45.3% 16.6%
2001 33.4% 51.0% 15.6%
2004 34.3% 50.3% 15.3%
2007 34.6% 50.5% 15.0%

Net Worth Distribution in the US in 2007

Income By Percentile Groups


Wealth Held by the Top 1% (Gray) and Bottom 99% (Red)

US After-Tax Income Gaines Since 1979


CEO Pay as Multiples of Average Worker's Pay 1960 to 2007: It's amazing more people are really pissed about the financial collapse. Myth of the "best and brightest" I guess.

However important it is (and I think it’s very, very important), culture is not a replacement for income or wealth. To quote bell hooks, perhaps most prominently known for “cultural” issues, “class matters.”

Intersectionality is a great methodology, but only when it includes class. At times, if it’s forgotten, it only provides ammunition to those leftists or reactionary elements who (falsely) blame identity politics and identity rights for the collapse of the American left post-1960s.

To bring Marx back into the picture, graduate students in the humanities have no hope, other than through some dumb luck of familial inheritance, to own the means of production (whether this is a literal factory or a good amount of financial assets).

But, family, generally speaking, is not a replacement for income or familial education. It seems to me that American families are often only linked loosely through economic ties. Families are good for support in emergencies. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is a classic example. It shows, aside from Sinclair’s intentions, the ability of the family to adapt and support individuals in a highly individualistic, capitalist system. But, those who are unemployed and are able to fall back on family support are outside of the economy proper. Simply having such support does not remove oneself from being of the working class. Not being employed certainly doesn’t raise one’s status nor does one’s status remain stable in that position.

Furthermore, simply liking one’s job does not make it middle class. Feeling privileged to be able to read books for a living (for that is partly what a graduate student does) does not remove the other factors. Feeling guilty about it (as some sort of ambiguous class-based guilt about not working on the line or something) doesn’t change the positioning either.

Finally, to claim one is not working class when one actually is so is to simply prop up the myth of the pull yourself up by your bootstraps American dream and the ideology of a flawless triumphant modern capitalism. It makes one complicit in one’s own exploitation. But, in the case of humanities graduate students, this comes from a position of education which, to me, makes it a lot worse.


8 thoughts on “Everybody’s Middle Class!

  1. Like this, and I think its a point that was missing from when we had this convo. Then again, we were also in a bar, so I might have missed some things: “To bring Marx back into the picture, graduate students in the humanities have no hope, other than through some dumb luck of familial inheritance, to own the means of production (whether this is a literal factory or a good amount of financial assets).”

    Clearly, we need you around more often when we have these debates. I think I get this more, now, but I also wonder about if/when switches in class happen. So, assuming we’re all grad students in the humanities– what happens when one of us gets our endowed chair in Classics? Or one of our books hits the NYT Bestseller list? Or if we’re a student who comes back to school after working for a multinational? Or *cough* when one of us leaves to go work in politics, or publishing, or business?

    I’ve just never had a view of class as that mutable, which invoking stats like these might seem to suggest. Not sure though. Would love to hear more of your thoughts.

  2. First, those numbers from the Dailykos made me vomit a little in my mouth.

    Second, you raise some goods points; I’ll try to address them in order:
    –Your question about when people jump classes is important, and I wish I could answer it. I think it’s so important that it has the potential to refute a lot of what I said in the post, though mostly/usually for people from privileged backgrounds. So, that idea should really underline my next response.
    –Chances of Patrick becoming chair of a department other than the one he imagines in his upstairs study? Zero. Chance an individual writes a NYT bestseller? Slim. People coming back to school are generally in a different situation I think, but some of them simply move down the ladder (with the idea of being able to better climb it afterward, but at the moment…).
    –What?! Who’s leaving? Didn’t you know you can’t leave?! You’re one of us now…trapped forever in the pit of grad school….
    –As far as class being mutable (again connecting to point 1 above), it is and it isn’t. I think, looking at the hiring prospects most of us (for that’s a key component here–the majority of us), most of us can’t look forward to very lucrative jobs (which is probably why some people might be looking to jump ship…).

    And lastly, I guess an underlying point here is that this is really an argument to look out for the little guy, even if you are or think you are not beside him on that economic ladder. A big part of the problem (I’m only able to conclude now after your comments) is that most grad students see this as a temporary position, which it is for a number of them. But, at the moment: most are of the working class and many can’t look forward to future (unless some very different people get elected) where it’s not temporary.

  3. I’m still not entirely comfortable with a purely economic definition of class. I do think we have to count things like cultural capital, social constructions of the “prestige” level of certain kinds of jobs [as well as the pervasiveness of brow levels in US’ian culture], as well as the impact that things like education or background have on the construction.

    As I’m sure Chase could talk more about, work is also a social construction– so even though I think feeling some sort of guilt about the inadequacy of the work we DO do is BS, I think it is situated differently in our cultural consciousness. So that should probably be interrogated, too, in all of our free time 🙂

    But I’m also- admittedly- not from a social science background. Ramble, ramble, ramble.

  4. You raise a good point about the constructed nature of class which are intimately tied up with cultural capital and the like. While cultural capital provides a means for individuals to rise quicker and makes it more likely that one will succeed in society at large (economy especially), there seems to be some amount of unchangeable factors concerning income and wealth. For the sake of a general argument, you are right, I’ve forsaken issues like race, ethnicity, and gender.

    “Status” as it were or “brow levels” in culture–call it what you will–is important there is no doubt. However, that often isn’t enough to off-set a lot of other things. Everyone loves to score points (politicians in particular) lauding our teachers. But none of them are willing to match their rhetoric with their checkbook. No matter how much people supposedly love you or respect you, you aren’t going to get into that 5 star restaurant without going bankrupt.

    As far as “guilt” I didn’t mean so much in guilt that what we do is worthless (though this is a worthwhile argument) but more a guilt that we feel guilty for liking what we do (generally) or feeling guilty that we get to “easy” labor (sitting down, reading, writing, etc) versus more physically demanding, traditional labor (manufacturing jobs, digging ditches, etc.).

    Lastly, providing “education” with too much credence here is dangerous I think. I could have a PhD in Medieval Lit but still work at Home Depot. Am I not working class? It also risks sustaining a hierarchy where there need not be one (this arises from both sides here–a line workers looks down on the college professor as equally “stupid” or “worthless” just in different ways than the other way around).

    But, you raise good points–I’m not even in a social science. History has never been a very good “science.”

  5. I’ll be honest: this conversation has really bothered me, and I can’t quite identify why. So if I come across a complete jerk, that’s why…

    I’m worried P.R. has stepped over a key point without acknowledging it’s importance: the difference between being in the working class and of the working class is not simply semantic. Grad students do, in fact, work the same hours as pyramid builders do, but I find it difficult to make the jump to believing that they belong in the same class as, say, immigrant janitors. Some of them may live and work in conditions similar to factory work, but that does not make them of the working class. (This isn’t to say that there aren’t people of the working class in academia, but the access to the educational and economic resources necessary to get into grad school mean that the vast majority of recitation slaves have the same moderately-depressing-but-in-no-real-way-oppressive privileged suburban background I do.)

    Why’s that distinction important? Let’s start with this quote:

    “…an underlying point here is that this is really an argument to look out for the little guy, even if you are or think you are not beside him on that economic ladder.”

    Grad students are not the little guy. I understand the urge to want to stand in solidarity with others in struggle. What I worry about is the attempt to conflate our struggle with theirs, and, in doing so, deny that we come from a position of privilege. Not because we should feel guilty about it (I believe guilt is a largely masturbatory reflex), but because the role of people of privilege in struggle is to use their power against the structure that grants it. If you deny your privilege, you’re not only living a lie, you’re slowing down the revolution.

    A position in grad school, an education, gives one the power to shape one’s life and to make choices, and that power is partly economic. See, for example, this Bureau of Labor Statistics chart, which shows 2009 median weekly income and unemployment by educational attainment. Yes, income inequality is at levels last seen in the age of robber barons, but that doesn’t erase the distinctions between the rest of us. The other aspect of that power is autonomy. Academics also have control over their work – what they do and how and when they do it (hell, even how they dress) – that no Burger King employee can ever touch with a greasy, jealous finger.

    This matters because, if we want to move from thought to action, we have to reconcile our theory to people’s lives. I doubt that the janitor who cleans your office would agree that his relationship to the university or any other power-that-happens-to-be is the same as yours. You can do things he can’t. That’s why capitalism sucks. But changing that system starts with honestly acknowledging it and assessing what divides us, what resources we have, what tactics they open up to us, and how best we divide up the work.

    Dang, did that come off as preachy. Sorry.

  6. Not preachy at all and I’m the guy who wrote it, but I’m still not convinced. I’ve been thinking this over a lot lately and I’m hung on a few things: one, is income and likely future income of a humanities student (not social sciences or other people who can generally look forward to a lot more money and variety of employment opportunities after they get their degree). An average humanities grad students makes about $14,000/year right now. A lot of humanities grad students if they come out with a PhD and try to work in the college system can look forward to adjunct positions, as tenure track positions have been disappearing rapidly for a while now. Adjuncts make very little money for working many hours. Judging by recent ads, one can expect to make about $3000 per course in Ohio without any benefits and without a contract longer than that semester. (The reason I didn’t include stats on income and education level is because that doesn’t seem to line up with most individuals in the humanities in the last 15-20 years. Marc Bousquet has written more on this, but I can’t remember anything in particular to point people towards other than his site: http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/, I would also point to Frank Donoghue’s book, The Last Professors.)

    The second thing that holds me up is that I’m talking about working class which in American has meant something different than it does today–I think a lot of the tendency of Americans to identify as “middle class” has a lot to do with this (a colleague asked his recitation the other day how many of them considered themselves “middle class”–all of them raised their hands). To be working class in the 40-60s meant that you could afford a good house in a rising neighborhood, a car or even two, and a couple kids. I think what we often include in “working class” is the working poor. Humanities grad students are not that.

    Also privilege is a big deal, and by including humanities grad students in it (if not “of” it) is not to deny it given their likely future positions and their current position (because of choice or not). I agree most people don’t acknowledge their privilege whether from gender, sexuality, or race, and I agree that not acknowledging it is harmful. But, it seems this isn’t mutually exclusive with my position on working class (something here, for space constraints, I’m trying to define in a largely economic sense). For example, white working class men who belonged to unions and who worked in a steel plant in the late 60s and early 70s were of a higher position than a black female colleague who also worked manufacturing somewhere. But they could both be working class. I think what can be just as damaging is buying into some American myth where “I” will make it through and be fine even if the stats say otherwise for the majority (if that made sense at all…).

    And I agree, this indeed is of the “ideology proper” of capitalism. In fact, this whole conversation may turn out to be pointless given the high number of qualifying aspects involved (the family dynamic is huge I believe and, for individuals, can change the whole dynamic).

    Lastly, I think we’ve all taken “guilt” to be something different, so I’ll leave it at that.

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