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):
- Household income distribution: the Botttom 20% makes between 0 and $18,500/year. The Top 20% makes over $92,000/year.
- 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|
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.