Let her be. So all that is in her will not bloom—but in how many does it? There is still enough left to live by.
Tillie Olsen, Tell Me a Riddle
They created a sense of belonging and tried to make do with the way they found each other.
Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
In Johnstown there are six or seven houses on Ohio Street I noticed for years driving by, wondering if anybody lived there because their front porches and facades were blackened with coal dust from trucks that released fine dust as their drivers upshifted to descend the grade. Just driving by, there never seemed to be a light on in what would have been the living rooms. The houses have no front yards, just a narrow sidewalk separating them from the street, and are right next to each other, like row houses but wood-framed and with a slender passage between them. I had thought they might be abandoned because sweeping dust from porches was almost as common in Johnstown as getting up in the morning, though most of us were sweeping reddish brown mill dust, not the black stuff. Why would people not sweep their front porches if they still lived there?
One spring day after I was grown up and just visiting, I was given the task of walking my mother-in-law’s dog up the path in the wooded hills behind these coal-stained houses. Far from being abandoned, each had an elaborate back porch or deck reaching out into a small fenced-off backyard festooned with bushes, flowers, and small patches of well-ordered rows of vegetables. Each had the distinctive marks of the home-built and home-grown, with religious or floral idiosyncrasies fighting for space with the particular practical functions the owners most desired. Though obviously uncoordinated, this row of elaborate backyards seemed like an especially colorful and playfully chaotic English garden, a unified space designed to be an urban oasis for individual respite and easy unforced sociability. This is where these people lived, not in their living rooms.
This would have been in the 1980s, and when I went back more recently to take some pictures, the scene had disappeared. The houses were still there, but their wooden frames had been covered with plastic siding. The front porches were clean, though none had porch furniture, and the backyards were mixed—a few well-tended but far less glorious gardens alongside others with junked cars, rusting appliances, and other cast-off equipment. In the twenty-first century traffic was more occasional than bustling, and coal was no longer delivered to a steel mill at the bottom of Ohio Street.
Still, though I hadn’t thought at the time to take pictures or talk with the residents, the original image stuck with me as characteristic of how sensibly creative a making-do working-class culture can be. Whoever put front porches on these houses had thoughtlessly reproduced a conventional pattern that could never have fit into its actual environment. Even without coal trucks, it would have been unpleasant to sit on those porches as traffic whizzed by, making enough noise to interrupt either conversation or peaceful contemplation; plus, the houses were set so close to the highway that sitting on the front porch would have felt dangerous, as at any moment a reckless car or a runaway truck might careen onto your porch and into your living room. It made sense to cede control of the front of your house—give it over to the street, with its dirt, noise, and potential danger—and concentrate your living in the back, where your kitchen looked over a backyard that was, or at least felt, isolated from the wider world over which you could have so little control.
This is more than making-do ingenuity. It is, I now think, a core life strategy common in working-class lives, so common it is hardly noticed as it gets repeated and relied upon in nearly every kind of situation. In broad terms, the strategy fits those who do not have careers but just a job they do purely and simply to earn a living. They may like their jobs or hate them, they may like them on Thursdays and hate them on Mondays, there may or may not be opportunities to move up a job ladder and wage scale, and workers may or may not take pride in the work they do. But every workday they cede control of their lives for 8 hours in return for the cash to sustain them for the other 128 hours each week. These hours are the living part they’ve earned and over which they do have some control, including, if their pay is high enough to sustain themselves with at least a little extra, 8 hours for what you will.
Embodied in the wage relationship, ceding control of one area of life to gain control of another area often becomes a standard strategy used in a variety of ways, including at work—that is, including places where you’ve already ceded control but where you find ways to take some control back by practicing different forms of crafty deference.
The Uses of Deference
Deference is a widely misunderstood aspect of human relations. It is almost uniformly seen as negative and a weakness in the official culture of the proactive and professional middle class, even though almost everybody has to defer to somebody else a lot of the time. But deference is part of a very common life strategy among suppressed groups, probably most recognizable among women, especially those of my mother’s generation, but in other ways among the working class as a whole. A lot of deference is forced on us at work but also in social situations. When you accept that forced deference without guilt as just the way things are, however, you find that there is considerable room for freedom of thought and action within your deference, and there are many ways to retain your dignity and even shape your life around, within, and against that force. When forced deference is embraced, it is (or can be) a strategy, one that is very common in working-class jobs and lives.
But deference is also often a choice, a recognition not simply that someone is more powerful than you but that somebody is more skilled, more knowledgeable, or stronger willed or in a variety of ways “better at” something you desire to do or be part of. That kind of deference is (or can be) a wise recognition of personal insufficiency and a handing off of a bit of responsibility to others so you can handle your own narrower piece of responsibility better than you otherwise would. In that sense, mutual deferences are at the core not only of personal relationships but also of building communities, whether small circles of families and friends or entire societies, especially democratic ones.
I’m not sure when I realized it, but I had observed nearly all my life how hollow formal deference of even an abject kind could become and how strong and clear informal power could be on the ground, where most of life is lived. As a rule of thumb, the more those who receive deference can take it for granted, the less they pay attention to what their deferrers are doing and the more freedom and autonomy the deferring can gain so long as they don’t draw too much attention to themselves. My mother never articulated this principle, but she demonstrated it every day when my father left for work, and she illustrated it to me in indirect ways through stories whose point was something else but through which I learned to appreciate how a certain well-attuned cunning was necessary to be a good person.
Formal deference to men was culturally forced on women of all classes in those days, but there were a variety of ways that deference actually played out in marital relationships, from the strictly formal deference given even to “hen-pecked” husbands all the way to abject humiliation and domestic violence. In my observation, however, many deferent working-class women gained considerable informal power over time, power often available by being on the ground with the children, in the neighborhood, or at church. It is a power that comes from the personal loyalties and moral reciprocities so many working-class women build up through working day by day to make everything come out okay situation by situation. I had seen my mother develop this kind of power, greatly enhanced once she returned to work as a teacher, and Judie’s mother as well right up to the time she died at age 102. Judie achieved a spunkier version of it at work and in our immediate neighborhoods.
The deference itself is not a life strategy. Rather, what’s required is a certain psychological distance a person can establish from her or his deference, distance that can transform simple deference into a tactic that can search out autonomous spaces for one’s own action.
There are particularly stark and therefore clear examples from the early and most dangerous days of the twentieth-century African American freedom struggle. Ruth Needleman’s portrait of George Kimbley, a black leader in the Steel Workers Organizing Committee in the 1930s and later in the United Steelworkers union, is a particularly telling one. Kimbley had learned from his mother, who had been born into slavery, how to use acts of kindness and concern to break down racial barriers as you cultivated moral reciprocities with others. “Kimbley avoided symbolic protests against racism; he viewed them as fruitless and dangerous. He saw value in not ‘stating his mind,’ but rather in speaking and acting with great caution, with an eye toward those behaviors that would keep him safe.” Using this cautious deference as a shield, however, Kimbley was a dogged and crafty organizer who advanced the union, the black freedom movement, and himself during very difficult and oppressive times. Retired in his nineties, he regaled Needleman with a wide range of cunning tricks—some manipulative, some humorous, and many inspiring—he used to break down and get around white racism.1 The stories he tells, however embroidered, reveal Kimbley in control within and around his ceding of control to the boss and the white man.
Kimbley would be seen as Tom-ish by later more militant black Steelworker leaders who, in the heyday of the civil rights movement, favored a more direct and confrontational style, but even they moved the deference line forward rather than abandoning it altogether. Like most effective rank-and-file organizers, they knew they needed first to be exemplary workers and then to strategically probe the limits of what they could get out of the company and the union hierarchy.2 Charles Payne’s account of Mississippi black activist Amzie Moore’s struggles in the years prior to the 1964 Freedom Summer provide a more militant example in a much more dangerous situation. “Moore’s ability to play the Negro, to adopt the innocent, know-nothing demeanor that whites typically wanted to see in Blacks,” was part of his power as an antilynching and voting rights activist. Avoiding direct confrontation when he could and “playing the Negro” even when confronting white power, Moore knew how dangerous his organizing within the black community was and therefore always carried a gun, and “at night the area around his house may have been the best-lit spot” in town.3
These heroic examples of the uses of deference are extreme cases of working-class ceding control, refusing to fight or even challenge in one area in order to probe for spaces of autonomy and agency in other areas of life. Less deference and less ingenuity are ordinarily required in the daily practice of working-class ceding of control to gain control. My notion is that there is a continuum from simple obedience to the most heroic forms—that is, from simple deference that is not a tactic but instead purely and simply acceptance of subjection—to cunning personal or activist agency within and around formal deference. In working-class life, it is not uncommon for some people to flat out simply obey and defer from childhood; nor is it unusual for crafty deference to lose its craftiness as life grinds people down to simple subjection. Conversely, some reject deference in any form and straightforwardly confront people and forces that are more powerful than they, at least expressively if not materially. But strategies of deference are very common in working-class life and can take a variety of forms both across individual lives and within them.
Sociologist Jessica Calarco found that working-class parents teach their children “strategies of deference,” basically to respect their teachers and other adults and not to burden them by requiring too much attention.4 As I pointed out in chapter 6, this is not simple obedience. The deference I learned as a child, for example, was more about keeping adult authority out of my business than it was genuine respect (although I had some of that too). I liked ladness because of how we could taunt or slyly challenge authority without (usually) being punished for it. This resonated with the stories from the mill that my father was so good at telling and with a general ethos of avoiding professional people, even preachers and doctors, as much as we could. It was like a craving for our own spaces, places where we could be ourselves among ourselves. But I learned over time, mostly from my father’s stories as a union “grievance man” I think, that ladish taunting often weakens your position not only because it exposes you to punishment but also because it succumbs to a desire for immediate emotional satisfaction rather than gaining some real control by “keeping yourself to yourself.”
Calarco’s longitudinal study of mixed-class students from the third grade into middle school is focused on showing the advantages middle-class kids get by practicing the “strategies of influence” their parents teach them. According to Calarco, middle-class kids are taught to question and negotiate with the authority of their teachers, who are there to serve and help them. They learn that children should ask for help and seek special accommodations when they can. Working-class kids, conversely, are taught to defer to teachers, do what they’re told, and not burden teachers with unnecessary questions and instead work out their problems on their own. The middle-class kids become so good at bargaining for special arrangements that teachers spend the bulk of their time and attention accommodating them while the working-class kids try to figure things out on their own. In today’s world this sets up a chain reaction of working-class disadvantages in pursuing academic success and then, in a labor market tiered by educational attainment, further disadvantages them in obtaining good jobs with decent wages and conditions.
Calarco is convincing in detailing the injustice involved here and presents some school-based remedies for reducing those disadvantages, but I want to focus on the values of the strategies of deference working-class parents are teaching their children. In interviewing the parents, Calarco concluded:
All the parents …, regardless of class or mobility, wanted to support their children’s academic success. At the same time, parents worried that too much support could undermine their children’s development of good character (i.e., respect, responsibility, and work ethic). Middle-class and working-class parents alike struggled with how to balance those seemingly competing priorities. Ultimately, middle-class parents prioritized good grades, and working-class parents prioritized good character.5
Good grades or good character? Is that really the choice we want forced on parents and their children? If the situation today is as Calarco describes it, and I think it is, the root of the injustice is not in parental decision making or school practices but rather in a labor market that denies representation, steady work, and decent wages to more than half the jobs that need done.6 In the current arrangement, the working-class preference for good character, simple integrity, and being and belonging conspires to keep them in their place, which has probably been true for more than a century, but the places they inhabit now have been degrading and eroding for decades. Looking at the culture, at least as I and others have characterized it, do we want to mobilize an effort to change that culture, as is common among well-intended liberals who see education as the one and only answer?7 Or should we focus our efforts on dramatically improving labor market conditions and living standards? The answer seems obvious to me. The culture is well worth preserving and protecting. The current labor market rules are not.
But look at it too from a middle-class perspective. Do we want to teach our kids to develop such strong negotiating skills that they come to see human relationships as mostly transactional, with less and less concern for character and integrity except as public relations branding? Is this really what middle-class parents want, finagling, transactional grade hounds constantly seeking competitive advantage so they can find a career, not just a job, a career that may value those same finagling, manipulative transactional skills they’re honing in school? I doubt that is what any parent wants, but those are the pressures being put on us by the increasing distance between good jobs and bad jobs based on educational attainment.8 Parents should not have to prioritize between good grades and good character. We need to attack our growing inequalities with higher wages and better conditions for all the bad jobs that do much of the work we all depend on. In the long run, even most winners can’t really win in a winner-take-all society.9
Working-class deference can seem like the resignation of the oppressed, and sometimes that’s all it is. But deference is a more valuable part of all human relations than it’s usually given credit for, and working-class deference is very often part of a broader pattern of values and proclivities that are (or can be) humanly valuable, societally necessary, and individually rewarding.
Formal and Informal Control at Work
Just because wage workers accept a wage in return for allowing themselves to be bossed around for a set number of hours does not mean they have ceded all control at work. The formal ceding is in fact but a first step in regaining some control on an hourly and daily basis. There is a long history among industrial workers of what Frederick Winslow Taylor called “soldiering.” But the phenomenon of gaining control at work is broader than the explicit and often well-organized “goldbricking,” “quota restriction,” “chiseling” and “banking” that have long been common in factories.10 Soldiering is practiced in offices, retail work, caring and cooking, and all working-class occupations and is not unknown among professionals.
Let me start with an example from my own experience. When a new dean imposed a curricular rule on our group of faculty, we first opposed it for undermining our traditional faculty authority over the curriculum. When it became clear that fighting the new rule was going to take all our time with little chance of success, one of the faculty who worked extensively with public school teachers suggested their strategy of giving in on the principle so we could do what we wanted in the classroom. “They do it all the time in the publics,” he said, “because there is no end of dictates from central office that range from impractical to stupid.” This was a hard pill to swallow because we saw the principle as fundamental to academic integrity, but we knew the new dean could not possibly enforce the new rule in our classrooms. We also suspected that his motivation was to establish his authority over us rather than really caring about the curricular rule. We turned out to be right, and he soon forgot about the rule. What’s more, we were able to employ this strategy consistently as he was “taking charge” of us, giving up responsibilities that we had not been asked to give up. It wasn’t long until such a mess was created that he abandoned his take-charge approach and adopted Mr. Nice Guy instead.
Two things about this experience. One, it might not have worked, and consistently giving in on principles can erode informal as well as formal control; indeed, later a more systematic and consistent approach by the university administration did undermine important principles of faculty control and academic integrity. But the other thing is how good it felt to come to that common resolution—how liberating it felt to give up on one front and take the fight to terrain where we knew we had enormous advantages. Part of that good feeling was that we all agreed with each other, the feeling of solidarity. But the more important part was the sense of control we felt we could have not only in this fight but also in whatever future ones were to come. By ceding formal control, we could keep our informal control and potentially enhance it. And for us, this time, it worked like a charm.
The success of this ivory tower struggle relied heavily on our having professional prerogatives and the fact that our workplace, a college classroom, is difficult to observe on a regular basis. But ceding control to gain control is well documented in even the most highly supervised, rigidly controlled workplaces, such as assembly lines. Perhaps the most famous example is Ben Hamper’s Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line, a best-selling book by an autoworker/rock critic who explained in detail how workers on the line did their own and others’ jobs in order to control the pace of work and rest.11 Hamper even claimed to have been able to leave the plant from time to time to go to a rock concert. I’ve talked with several autoworkers who are highly skeptical that Hamper could actually leave work without being noticed, but they all confirmed that he had accurately portrayed the dynamics of both work sharing and dealing with supervisors who had to allow this formally forbidden practice if they wanted to meet their production quotas; they also shared their own mostly hilarious stories of winning control over part of their work shift by making sure the work got done and done well. There are similar tales from steel mills where elaborate contests were staged and lunches were cooked and enjoyed, often deer meat or other game, while on the clock.12 Jill Schennum details a wide range of practices at the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, plant of Bethlehem Steel, where workers not only controlled their own work pace and created leisure on worktime but also gained “a certain citizenship ‘right’ to the space of the mill, the space of production,” something she calls “inhabitance rights.”13 Likewise, longshoreman Reg Theriault explained how workers in West Coast ports shared their work by “each … doing the work of two men” for a stint, thereby earning a period of rest and socialization.14 And Frank Bardacke casually mentions how California farmworkers, of which he was one, could slow down their pace and entertain visitors in the back part of the workday.15
Goldbricking, quota restriction, and work sharing in office work are harder to see and have not been studied, so far as I know. But though typically more individualistic, they surely occur. Many of my adult students worked in offices in Chicago’s Loop, and into the 1990s they delighted in telling me and their classmates stories about the ingenuity it took to control their work pace and space. Many of them were able to do reading for class and other homework during work hours, and it was not uncommon for someone to explain that they had not finished the assigned reading because it was a busy day at work. This looseness in the workday got noticeably diminished in the downsizing and “right-sizing” of the 1990s, and by the early years of the twenty-first century it was rare for people to report being able to do school assignments at work. I probably encouraged and indulged these discussions to the detriment of covering all the material, but people loved to talk about their versions of chiseling and to compete with each other’s stories, which were especially revealing when there was a roughly equal mix of blue-collar and white-collar workers in the classroom.
I observed a few things in these discussions over the years. One was the sense of exhilaration people felt in gaining and maintaining areas of control, in taking back some of the workday they had given away. Second, there is usually pride in doing the work well, sometimes better than management desired, and in any case, doing the job well is a necessary condition for gaining control, for creating some time for what you will within the time for what they will. Finally, no matter how exaggerated their tales may have been, they also seemed especially delighted in how craftily ingenious many of their ploys were; they enjoyed sharing them and learned new angles from each other. To middle-class professional eyes, these little victories can seem sad, even pathetic, and the ploys can seem juvenile and unproductive. But the most important thing I learned was how uniformly you can tap into a certain underworld of work life, a whole realm of activity and human agency that to be effective needs to be kept secret—“to ourselves, within ourselves”—even when you are busting with pride in getting over on the boss. In labor union settings there is much more consciousness of the value and complexity of this underworld, and for my money, labor historians have greatly underestimated how dedicated most unions have been to preserving and protecting this underworld.16 But the evidence of my classroom suggests a broader universality across all kinds of occupations. And to me this suggests that in the wage bargain, the initial and fundamental ceding of control is the beginning not of a dance or of a game but instead an existential struggle to find and maintain areas of autonomy, zones of freedom at work.17 Turning it into a game can enhance the enjoyment, but regaining some control over your workday is as important and universal a working-class value as there is.
Every workplace has complex forms of both formal and informal control, and the less conscious management is of the informal controls, the stronger workers’ informal power can be. That this rule of thumb is as universal as it is, as widespread in so many different workplaces, is amazing to me because there is no articulated ideology, let alone a textbook, that explains the value of it or how to do it in any particular workplace. Still, it gets passed on in workplace instruction and imitation and in conversations like those in my classes.
Most systematic studies of these phenomenon—such as Michael Burawoy in the 1970s, Hamper in the 1980s, and Jill Schennum in the 1990s—were done in factories, ones with strong unions back in the day, and are now likely dated. The severe forms of electronic monitoring and control from Amazon warehouses to UPS over-the-road drivers may have made the complexity of regaining control out of reach for many workers today, something from the dinosaur days of strong unions and protective workplace laws. But the practices of what my father called “protecting the slack” are so ancient, passed along by example and word of mouth but also somehow instinctive, that I would not jump to that conclusion without closely observing what is going on in these repressive workplaces. Indeed, in a participant-observer study of an Amazon warehouse, Emily Guendelsberger carefully explains the totalitarian mechanisms of control employed but then encounters a group of experienced workers who explain why she’d been “working way too hard.” They explained how to steal time off and control the pace of your workday. One worker bragged that he took forty-eight minutes of time “off task” before he got called on it.18
Nevertheless, I think it’s safe to say that in the first quarter of the twenty-first century, so much has been lost at work that there may not be much left to cede—at least not much in comparison to the years around the Glorious Thirty. Many millions of workers likely have smaller and smaller areas of informal control, fewer and weaker zones of autonomy. If so, it is a tragedy of major proportions. If, as we’ll see below, losses of control cause declines in health, well-being, and longevity, then these new electronically surveilled workplaces may be committing something like manslaughter.
Status versus Control
Two very important and widely hailed studies—Michael Marmot, The Status Syndrome, and Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level—have documented the enormous costs in health and well-being the United States, the United Kingdom, and some other countries endure because of our extreme levels of income inequality.19 Both studies unfortunately use the word “status” as if it were synonymous with class position and, more importantly, with “control.” As I suggested in chapter 6, this confusion reflects a widespread middle-class assumption that there is one and only one social hierarchy and accompanying status system that everyone recognizes and adheres to. This assumption is incorrect, because though there are measurable objective gradients of income, wealth, educational attainment, power and (formal) authority, working classes generally use a different morality-based system to rank themselves and others. As a result, working-class adults also do not experience anything like the levels of “status anxiety” and “social evaluative threat” that are common among middle-class professionals.20
This error is significant, because if we understand how relatively unimportant status is in working-class life and, conversely, how important having a sense of control and actual control is in human life generally, then we will focus on different remedies for inequality and its accumulating negative effects on everybody but especially on poor and working classes.
Marmot’s pathbreaking research established that a health gradient strongly correlated with a social gradient of “more money, bigger houses, a more prestigious job, more status in the eyes of others, or simply a higher-class way of speaking.”21 In other words, the more money, prestige, status, etc. you have, the healthier you are likely to be. Wilkinson and Pickett then showed that societies with greater levels of inequality of income and wealth, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, experience a long list of physical and mental health problems far above countries with more equality. As you might expect, people with lower incomes experience greater health and well-being problems than people with higher incomes in all countries.
Why Marmot labeled this “the status syndrome” is a mystery, because his analysis clearly shows that varying levels of control and sense of control are the root causes of disparate health outcomes. At several points he lays this out quite clearly:
People who reported less control over their lives had worse health. Furthermore, the greater the degree of inequality of material deprivation and of income, the worse the health. We found that the link between income inequality and poor health was low control. The study suggested a causal chain: the greater the degree of inequality, the less control people had over their lives; the less control, the worse their health.22
But Marmot loses this focus on control and thus the causal connection between income and control because, as is quite common, he sees status—which is the way others rank you—as precisely synonymous with income levels. This gives equal weight to middle-class ways of ranking “prestigious occupations,” possessions, and ways of speaking as it does to income and wealth, thereby missing the uniquely powerful effects of money, its sufficiency or insufficiency, in a society organized around free wage labor.23 Wilkinson and Pickett, in their most recent work, then further obscure the relationship between insufficient income and low control by seeing status anxiety and social evaluative threat as the central problems of extremely unequal societies such as the United States and the United Kingdom.24
These are big errors for such sophisticated social scientists to make. Since they are British, it is possible that they tacitly assume a more singular and rigid class system in Britain than exists in the United States, which never had a true aristocracy and has always had a stronger rhetorical and a sometimes genuine belief in classlessness. But another explanation is more likely. As I’ve demonstrated in earlier chapters, middle-class professionals are prone to assuming that there is but one culture and thus but one status system that tracks “more money, bigger houses, a more prestigious job, more status in the eyes of others, or simply a higher-class way of speaking.” As a result, they grossly underestimate the importance of money in attaining both a sense of control and actual control and thus good mental and physical health.
In Marmot’s list of status characteristics above, for example, there is no room for “status in the eyes of others” to vary by social class—that is, by whose eyes are doing the looking. Likewise, there is no room for alternative views of what constitutes a “prestigious job,” as, for example, when many skilled trades workers rank themselves above engineers and top management.25 Nor is there room for more than one kind of judgment about “a higher-class way of speaking” especially in the United States, where perfect diction can draw contempt from even elite middle-class professionals. Rather, Marmot assumes a uniform status system based on the amount of money you have or earn. Status and prestige simply follow from income and wealth. This is one common way of thinking in the professional middle class, especially in the United States, but as Michele Lamont has demonstrated, it is not the only status schema even within the middle class, parts of which use aesthetic or, like the working class, moral criteria for ranking people.26
The larger and more important point is that before money can reflect status, it is simply money, with many other powers that are clearly more important than how middle-class people rank each other. For wage workers, hardly anything is more important than the size of that wage. If it is insufficient, that insufficiency will affect all aspects of their lives, just as it will if their wage includes a healthy chunk of discretionary income. In a capitalist society money is, as Marmot himself says at one point, a means to increasing one’s capabilities, to gaining and maintaining control in some part of your life, a means for having some freedom, a capacity for what you will.27
The focus of Marmot as well as Wilkinson and Pickett drifts from the more prosaic lack of money and therefore of control among large sections of the working class to the more perplexing phenomenon that though the top US income tiers have higher incomes than the top tiers in more equal countries, they have substantially worse health and well-being outcomes. Besides a wide range of physical ailments, one particularly striking difference is that one of four people in the United States are mentally ill, while only one of ten are in more equal countries such as Germany and Japan.28 To explain these phenomena among the top income tiers, it makes sense to look at social psychology and national zeitgeists, as Wilkinson and Pickett do. But this does not mean that those explanations will apply to lower economic tiers, especially to an American working class that is experiencing a debilitating decline in working conditions and living standards. Status anxiety and social evaluative threat are unlikely to account for increasing death rates and decreasing longevity in the United States, especially among adults with no more than high school educations.29 Lack of money and thus of control may not fully account for declining longevity either, but they are undoubtedly necessary and contributing conditions for a whole range of maladies among lower income groups. Anne Case and Angus Deaton argue that inadequate wages are the foundational causes of the dramatic increase in what they call “deaths of despair”—suicides, drug overdoses, and alcohol-related liver diseases.30
The connection between money and control, as obvious as it is, is profoundly important. It is especially important for working classes not only because they usually have less of both but also because of their tendency to view their work as just a job that trades away a large part of life to necessity with the hope of having a measure of freedom and autonomy in the other parts. If there is not enough money and control in those other parts, they have lost their proletarian wager and are in danger of sinking into a spiral of decline. Opportunities to gain informal control at work are nearly as important in working-class life, but a decent enough wage from a secure job can go a long way in compensating for even the most difficult, dirty, tedious, and dangerous jobs.
People with careers mix work and life differently, seeking more formal control at work. And for us degrees of control at work do confer status among other professionals, and that status often enhances our power and control. As a result, we are more subject to social evaluative threat and status anxiety in all parts of our lives in ways that are much less likely in working-class life. Enhanced status, almost always related to our careers, often gains us middle-class professionals more power and control, but it works differently in a different status system. Being thought of as a good worker—meaning reliably adequate and dependable, not necessarily talented, in a morally evaluative status system—does usually lighten supervision and thus increase a worker’s daily control. But the ranking system is different, and it is nowhere near as important as money, the wages and benefits that establish some security and control outside the workplace.
Marmot’s study was pathbreaking because he showed the concrete link between degrees of control and both physical and psychological health. But he’s wrong to think that it isn’t absolute amounts of money and control that are determinative but rather that poor health and well-being are generated mostly by “feeling lesser.” For working-class people, the presence or absence of a truly living wage, steady work, and ample free time each week, each year, and each work life are far more important than being treated with respect by people who think they are better. There are built-in defenses against middle-class disrespect within working-class culture, and the social experience of the Glorious Thirty shows that when real income is increasing and work time is decreasing, an increasing sense of control both strengthens these defenses and makes them less important because respect, including self-respect, tends to follow from more money and control.
It is true that having “status in the eyes of others” increases one’s control among the professional classes, but that does not make it nearly as important in working-class life as money and time, discretionary income and free time for what you will. The very act of ceding control concedes that others have higher status in their own and others’ eyes, and, more importantly, more power as well. Ceding control involves formal deference that does not frontally challenge that status, power, and authority but instead seeks to carve out autonomous spaces where you can avoid or deflect their control. It allows your betters to go on thinking they’re better but resists internalizing that belief yourself. That resistance is not always successful, but there are strong cultural nudges and support to resist internalizing that feeling of being lesser.
The strategy of ceding control to gain control undoubtedly worked better for the working-class generations formed in and around the Glorious Thirty. Barbara Jensen’s Auntie Lu is probably representative of those times more than of our own, but the following passage illustrates the simultaneous strength and casualness of the attitude:
BARB: Would you call yourself middle class or working class?
LU: Probably working class. I guess I’d rather be there. I mean, you know, middle class, some of them are pretty hoity-toity, I guess.
BARB: Snotty, kinda?
LU: Well, I don’t think a lot of people mean to be, but I think they, they like to kinda feel they are above. A lot of people—I know people who really aren’t above but they think they are. And I just like to slide them people by.31
Some working-class people cannot “slide them people by” because they accept the middle-class status system and, as a result, live within the shame of their inferior status in that system. More importantly, most working-class people who do not accept that status system have at one time or another nevertheless experienced the shame of “hidden injuries of class” even if only momentarily and uncharacteristically, as my take-no-shit-from-nobody father did in confronting a college dean. But if I’m right that ceding control to gain control is a core strategy within working-class life, then it’s important to understand how that culture can look more cautiously conservative than it is. Or rather, it may be that within its cautious conservatism, there is more potential for agency, both individual and collective, than may seem logical. In fact, the historical record suggests that though ceding control is initially preservative and conservative, it can and often has turned toward collective action both when losing control, especially suddenly, and on the evidence of the Glorious Thirty, when experiencing steady gains in control.
More money and more free time from their wage labor are the essential elements of working-class control and thus of enhancing their freedom and autonomy and thereby their health. Overcoming alienation at work in the young Karl Marx’s sense, however desirable in itself, is much less feasible and much less important as modern economies have developed. Working conditions can be and have been improved, even dramatically, without in any way addressing what Marx saw as the estrangement of the worker who “is at home when he is not working and when he is working he is not at home.”32 Rather, working-class men and women have embraced their fate as wage workers and in doing so have found patches of freedom, zones of autonomy, usually individually or in families or other small groups, but every once in a while in large and disciplined collective action.
The working class today is as varied as ever, but in the aggregate it has been losing and continues to lose control as real wages stagnate or decline, as work becomes less regular and steady, as work weeks provide either too many hours or too few, and as pensions for younger workers are making retirement impossible again. Giving a shit about status merely distracts from understanding that extreme inequality is about money, not prestige or social evaluative threat, or how we look “in the eyes of others.” Things are simpler than that. We know how to increase real wages and free time because we’ve done it before. As the wealthiest country the world has ever known, we have the wherewithal today to greatly increase working-class money and control while at the same time reducing the high-stakes, stressful status anxiety now so widespread among younger people aspiring to be or remain in the professional middle class.33 Falling from the middle class might not be so fearful if nonprofessional workers had much more control, more money, and time for what you will.
Working for a Living
A spicy tuna roll is a wrestling maneuver that I thought would be a perfect analogy for ceding control to gain control. The move involves giving up one leg to your opponent with the intention of turning it into a takedown and pin. Once your opponent grabs the leg you have offered, a quick grab of the interior of the opponent’s thigh turns his grip on your leg into an aid to putting him on his back. But when I asked my grandson Max, a former high school wrestler, about it, he explained that a spicy tuna roll is an aggressive move, “a pin move that is high risk/high reward.” If you miss your grab of the opponent’s thigh, you are very likely to end up on your own back.
Ceding control to gain control is nothing like a spicy tuna roll, because the former involves a genuine recognition of your subordination, a real giving up of control that you would sooner not give up. It is a resigned recognition of necessity, not an aggressive move that slyly hopes to reverse the order of things, but rather a sad reconciliation with reality: you have to work for a living. Working-class parents are not usually explicit in teaching the part about gaining control once you’ve given up control. Instead, they typically counsel obedience and deference so their children will be capable of working hard and obeying the rules no matter how bad the work or unfair the rules. But working-class parents also allow considerable autonomy in other parts of daily life in growing up, thus cultivating the lived relationship between ceding control here to gain it elsewhere.34 School therefore often becomes practice in building character, practice in “taking it”—doing something you don’t want to do so at the end of the day you can be free to do what you do want to do. This is external ceding of control. In going to work, it is a simple trade of their time for my own time, the character of which is highly dependent on the adequacy of the wage. On the other hand, once at work, workplace chiseling, like other strategies of deference, is an interior form of regaining control, taking back some of what you’ve given away in trading your time for a wage. This too is often learned at school, as Paul Willis explained how the lads’ seemingly rebellious high jinks were actually a part of “learning to labor.”35
Embracing the necessity of wage work in shaping so much of your life, like all strategies of deference, undoubtedly involves working people “participating in their own subordination.”36 But it’s hard to see how most people have any alternative, and it’s crucial to see that the mere acceptance of that subordination is not the end of life and the beginning of survival. It’s still life, still a struggle but on a different terrain, one where the severe disadvantages you face can often be managed with a widely available working-class grit and on-the-ground ingenuity. Given good times and a little personal luck, life can even flourish, at least for a while, like those backyards on Ohio Street safe from the dirt and chaos of the street. And even when not flourishing, there are ways to have moments of enjoyment, fellowships of richly different balances of tension and support, that can keep you going. This is a drama of working-class life—how bad will it be, and will I be able to take it, not for a day or two but day after singular day despite its potential to grind you down over time?
Most middle-class professionals also accept certain levels and kinds of subordination and trade-offs of control, but the process of professionalization (being recognized as “professional”) tends to spell out these trade-offs and thereby formalize areas of professional autonomy. Labor unions can do some of that for working-class jobs and also for many professional ones, but most working-class people with “just a job” generally have to win autonomy on the ground day after day and with a little help from their friends.