Where’s labor?

Some of you may be acquainted with my tendency to highlight when scholarship places too much emphasis on class or class-based analysis in their works as an explanatory factor. “The Civil War was mostly about labor,” has been a popular example, as if whites could just as easily be enslaved as people of African descent. But, I’ve begun to recently notice that there is a whole other set of works that do something else. These are often works that fall in line with the tendency of being intersectional or at least owe some debt to being intersectional. These works, however, seem to leave class and economics behind, focusing instead more exclusively on gender, sexuality, nationality, race/ethnicity, or the body. Analysis of the workings of class are often implied, but rarely does it get sustained attention itself. This is, to say the least, a problem.

Recently, an history professor at OSU implored his students to remember to include class. I think I’ve begun to understand more where he was coming from, why he felt he needed to prod us to include labor issues even if we’re studying education or immigration or women or whatever.

Crocodile smile: Kasich and Ohio Republicans recently championed and passed over $850 million (yes, that's correct) in budget cuts for Ohio's schools. The answer? They will fund over 20 new charter schools! Problem created and solved.

Several scholars have made class an implicit factor in their analysis. This naturalizes class, erases it, makes it appear like common sense. This may be because class seems so obvious to these scholars who point out inequalities in gender, sexuality, or race/ethnicity.

“Well, of course, workers in nail salons are working class. I’ll mention that, but then I’m only really concerned with theory on the body.” This last quote might paraphrase the work of Miliann Kang in the Managed Hand: Race, Gender, and the Body in Beauty Service Work. At points she discusses economic motives and factors such as global trends in capitalism. She notes when she thinks people are middle, upper or working class. But, that’s as far as it goes. Instead, race and gender and the body make it into her book’s title. Most of her work, despite a last chapter quickly mentioning the problems of the workers in US Korean-owned nail salons, focuses on the salon owners without ever openly addressing the differences in class there.

Chad Heap’s Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940 is another work which implicitly relies on class categories, but never delves deeper into how class forms and affects his subject matter. Like Kang, he notes the supposed class of different participants, but these are apparently too obvious and clear-cut to be given direct attention. His choice then tends toward naturalizing middle-class values when it seems clear that class was shaped as distinctly as race or sexuality through slumming. If white flight is marked largely by race and class markers since white homeowners are able to purchase homes outside traditional urban neighborhoods, why is class not as significant to urban slumming, where mostly middle and upper-class whites enter urban centers only to return to their own high-end homes immediately afterward? Slumming was inevitably one-way traffic, which, yes, relied on race and sexuality to high degrees, but also reified people’s class positions. (However, I should note here that Slumming remains an absolutely cracking book and deserves all the acclaim it receives.)

On the other hand, these methods can be read in another way. These authors might be flying under the radar as it were. A scholar, policy maker (or their aids), or any reader might pick up Kang’s book (or Heap’s) and not realize they’re going to get some social commentary about class inequalities—or some social critiques that might lead to class critiques. Some of these folks might usually dismiss a more direct class-based argument given the “end of history” and all that. Now may not be the time for explicit arguments about economic inequality. If that’s the right approach, I’m not sure. Given the state of the economy, maybe direct arguments are called for.

My conclusion will really make my sister proud here: all of this is really just to say that “class” seems to fall out of the debate—in some academic circles—as easily as other factors.


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