Don’t get above your raising
Stay down to earth with me
Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt
When I began as a part-time night school instructor in 1975, Roosevelt University’s “campus” was in the historic Auditorium Building in Chicago’s then-deteriorating South Loop. An Adler-Sullivan architectural masterpiece from 1889, at that time the building was a strange combination of historic grand hotel grandeur in the lobby and the tenth-floor library coexisting with dusty blackboards in scrubby classrooms, where I was advised to bring my own chalk. My first class was on the Wabash side of the building, where the noise from the El required both me and the students to pause midsentence when trains passed by our windows. This was frustrating at first, but nobody complained; instead, we all quickly mastered pausing skills, and by the middle of the semester it was so second nature that we were scarcely aware we were doing it. My only other teaching experience then had been at Northwestern University, and the contrast could not have been more striking with the students there, who with much less to complain about did a lot more of it. It seemed they often thought critical thinking simply involved insightfully bitching about almost everything, from their parents to the Vietnam War to poor lighting in a room. In that first course at Roosevelt one of my most perceptive students ever, Jennifer Artis, picked out a tangential passage from an essay in which Anthony Burgess compared life in postwar Italy and the United States that said something like “A bad day in America is when one thing goes wrong. A good day in Italy is when one thing goes right.” Artis argued that while this might be true for some Americans, “we’re more like the Italians, I think—pushing through, hanging in, carrying on.” Artis was black, and she went out of her way to make clear that her “we” covered everybody in that overcrowded, un-air-conditioned room, whites as well as blacks. Her comment initiated a rich conversation that I remember a lot of to this day. Some thought it—taking it, making do, getting by—was a Chicago thing, some more of a black thing, and others a midwestern attitude, while Artis insisted it was about social class. But everybody agreed that we were more like Italians, with lower expectations that actually made us less unhappy. And then we wondered about whether this was a bad characteristic, accepting too many things as they are, not pushing to improve them. A white woman who was a nurse gave personal testimony: “I push to change things, to make them better, every day, but at the end of the day, you got to make do, to simply get by to tomorrow, when you can start over again. For me, they’re not opposites, one supports the other. To me the complainers are not the ones who make things better.” A black social worker who seldom spoke in class countered: “I agree with that, but maybe we’re just trying to make ourselves feel better.” Somebody else said, “And what’s wrong with that?” To which the social worker answered, “Because we’re all here to improve ourselves, and it sure would help if we had a better room.” Everybody laughed, and the conversation ended with that contradiction.
Though undoubtedly stylized in my memory, I remember this class discussion because it was early in my encounters with adult students of different ages and races and because I used that Burgess quote to initiate similar discussions for the next decade or so. Subsequent conversations always turned out differently, with some students admitting they were more like Burgess’s Americans and others arguing that taking it and getting by were wholly negative habits. But for most people over the years these discussions ended with both a proud acceptance of their ability and willingness to take it and make do alongside a recognition of the potential disadvantages of such an attitude.
Most of my students back then were settled-living working class with decent jobs and fairly stable lives, people who would often have been seen as middle class, and many thought of themselves that way even though they had working-class jobs. Also, their being in college as working adults meant they were open to some middle-class aspirations. Many thought a college degree could transform their lives by leading to a better higher-paying job. Thus, you could say that in the conversation I recount above, the taking-it attitude was working class, and the will to improve things was more of a middle-class attitude. To some extent that is surely apt, but such a clear distinction misses the strong sense of possibility that resides within working-class realism. The effort to be real and to enforce lower expectations in yourself and others is an attempt to locate real possibilities amid the chimera of middle-class propaganda that you can be whatever you want to be. It is not just a fatalistic passivity or a will to simply adjust yourself to circumstances rather than acting to change those circumstances. It is a cultural injunction to not lose the bird in your hand by pursuing the bird in the bush, a counsel to be patient and alert for those moments when the bird in the bush might wander over near your free hand.
Though no student ever stated it as clearly as Jennifer Artis, she saw Burgess’s “American” attitude as disabling—always disabling but especially in difficult circumstances. If you can’t take it, you won’t be able to change your circumstances or adjust yourself to them. Meanwhile, you’ll make yourself and often those around you miserable by expecting everything to work out and go your way, which it won’t. Sky-high expectations actually undermine your ability to be effective in living your life, in being a good person, pulling your own weight, and meeting your obligations to the groups to which you belong. Hanging in there, making do, and getting by require intelligence and ingenuity, a thorough understanding of the limits and obstacles within your life, and above all a consistent focus on the real possibilities, often narrow and fleeting, available to you.1
Working-Class Realism and Its History
Working-class realism is a culture, not a reality. No claim is being made that working-class people, individually or collectively, have a more true and accurate grasp of reality. Rather, the culture encourages people to be realistic and scorns them when they are thought not to be. To middle-class eyes this is a lowering of expectations, a crushing of aspiration, which itself is a cause of lower levels of accomplishment. My middle-class eyes mostly agree, but my residual working-class ones understand that accomplishment, striving to achieve something outstanding, is not valued in working-class life the way it is in the middle class. Other things are, and those other things—character, integrity, and belonging—are valuable too, arguably more humanly valuable, long-lasting, and sustainable and more widely available if you keep it simple. John Lennon captures the culture from the negative point of view of the rebel: “They hate you if you’re clever and they despise a fool.”2 The fool is a person who is not being realistic, and the clever are all those who have both aspiration and the talent to justify that aspiration. This is the dark side of the culture—not a caring warning against foolhardy illusions of grandeur but instead a mean-spirited resentment of those you think see themselves as better than you. The culture can be hard on people who are artistic, like Lennon, or are otherwise different, as numerous gays have recounted.3 And it can be incredibly ignorant, as when one brother tries to persuade his younger brother to no longer be gay. But in a belonging culture ostracism is almost always an attempt to pull you back in to the culture, to persuade you to be people like us, not some other kind of people. And often, even with some resentment, people think they’re doing it for your own good based on a fear that your difference will lead you to a bad end.
Teachers like me tend to resist this culture because we think it discourages people from stretching themselves to become what they could be if they just believed they could. But abhorring the culture and preaching the pursuit of excellence, dreaming big, reaching for the stars, and claiming you can become anything you want to be is unlikely to work except for a handful of talented individuals to whom we pay special attention. Rather, there are resources within working-class realism that can stretch aspiration a bit for everybody without getting out of control. I found it often hard to convince working adults that they could do the next thing, but that’s what works—convincing them that there are realistic possibilities they’re missing, not general possibility for everyone but instead possibilities specific to them and their situations. The goal is not to convince them to transform themselves (which usually means becoming more like me) but rather to convince them of some specific possibility—you can do this, not you can do whatever you put your mind to. This may be different for young people, traditional-aged students with whom I have little experience, but I fear it is not—that unfounded grand expectations can distort and misdirect lives by being too American, in Jennifer Artis’s terms.
The low expectations of working-class realism are not superficial, not just bad advice that can be dispensed with by replacing it with good advice and a little inspiration. Rather, it goes deep and is likely rooted in a centuries-long peasant culture of survival. Immigration historian John Bodnar found not only that the culture of European peasants survived being immersed in an urban-industrial proletariat but also that their place within industrial capitalism reinforced that culture. Strategies for survival changed, but “what remained the same was the framework in which this was done—a framework where survival was the preoccupation. This framework was as much an element of working-class status as of peasant traditionalism.” For Bodnar, “urban industrial society … positively nurtured behavioral patterns such as limited horizons, familial cooperation, fatalism, and anti-materialism which were as functional for proletarians as for peasants.”4 He called special attention to familial cooperation to claim that American workers’ famously narrow focus on bread-and-butter economic issues were not “goals in themselves … [but] part of a larger cultural system which focused energies on the maintenance of the family unit.”5 And this was just as true of the blacks and other native-born toilers he later studied in the mines and mills of Pennsylvania.6
Bodnar was writing about the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when standards of living and working conditions were worse, much worse than they are now even after nearly half a century of deterioration and decline. A lot of things have changed pretty dramatically since then, but what he characterized as peasant behavioral patterns are still recognizable even if modified—limited horizons, familial cooperation, fatalism, and antimaterialism.
The well-publicized and scorned “consumerism” of the Glorious Thirty surely undermined antimaterialism, but habits and traditions of religiosity and frugality are still common in the working class even when not needed for survival, which they still often are. So is suspicion of showy expenditure, status measured by belongings, and pleasure-seeking hedonism that is not subordinated to larger social or religious goals. Familial cooperation is certainly not as prominent as it used to be, undermined both by increased social isolation in the hard-living working class and by the influence of middle-class individualism’s child-centered family arrangements where the family is expected to serve the individual rather than the other way around.7 But on a comparative basis, and including both nuclear and extended families and not just the proportion of single-parent families, my guess is that family commitments are still more intense and loyal in the working class.8 Limited horizons and fatalism are undoubtedly less limited and severe today than back then, but in comparison with middle-class professionalism, horizons are still more constricted and fatalism still has a steady if weakened presence, whereas official middle-class culture disdains any role for fate (or luck) with its exaggerated sense of individual freedom and determination.
The dramatic increases in time and money in working-class life across the twentieth century greatly expanded horizons as, for a while, new possibilities emerged. Likewise, familial cooperation, fatalism, and antimaterialism all weakened. But the “culture of constraint” that Annette Laureau found in late twentieth-century working-class families surely has a through line of continuity from the medieval peasant of all continents to today.9
Though my father drove most things in our family, my mother was the philosopher of working-class realism. He virtually forced-marched my sister and me to have ambition, to aspire to better ourselves, but was himself suspicious of ambition, and my mother was the one who sought to reconcile that contradiction for us. Two instances stick out in my memory.
In the seventh grade, that important transitional year when I had to choose between nerdness and ladness, I got my Balboa haircut and learned how to tuck a black T-shirt into my jeans. I thought I looked pretty good and should be more attractive to girls than I seemed to be. I asked Mom, “Am I handsome?” After hesitating a moment she answered, “No, Jackie, you’re just sort of plain. You’re not bad-looking, but you’re not really handsome.” This seemed uncharacteristically cruel in that moment, but I also recognized how valuable it was to know that for sure. It helped me situate myself in my world, gently nudging me toward the lads, and helped me avoid the worst practical mistake a person could make: aspiring to the impossible. Avoiding unrealistic aspirations is not simply about avoiding the inevitable heartbreak of failing to achieve them but more importantly is about staying on track to discovering who and what you actually are and what is actually possible for you in the real world. Sorting that out and achieving the achievable are difficult. You can’t afford to get distracted by aiming too high or in the wrong direction.
The other remembrance occurred earlier and is fuzzier, but I remember the quiet intensity of my mother’s instruction very well. I was complaining about the Pittsburgh Pirates’ very mediocre catcher in the early 1950s, Joe Garagiola, and she told me a story about how he had stuck up for and protected Pirate superstar Ralph Kiner, whom she knew I idolized as a nine-year-old. I don’t remember what Garagiola did, but the point was that daily character was as important as how you performed on the field and that not everybody could be a star. A winning team needed players who just did their job without distinction and were reliably loyal to their teammates. There was also something about the humble craft of catching, being there for every pitch at the center of the game but unnoticed unless you made an error.
My mother was literally counseling me not to seek distinction but that if I cultivated daily character and was reliably loyal to my teammates, I might become a good player, a mediocrity like Joe Garagiola, and that should be enough for me. Being on the team and contributing was what I should aspire to, not stardom.
Why I remember this conversation about baseball with my mother more than sixty years later is a mystery to me. For nearly a decade after that I did aspire to become a big league player, not ever a star but just to make it to the bigs. My dad counseled hard work and to always hustle, advice I also took, but he had a better sense of how good you had to be to make it to the majors, and he didn’t mind telling me I was probably not going to be that good. My father’s approach was to divert my ambition in a more realistic direction, such as going to college and staying out of the mill. My mother, on the other hand, was offering a different set of goals about being good, not great, and common, not outstanding. That little bit about “the humble craft of catching” was about the value and importance of being common, of living well without the need for recognition, and, in fact, how wise it could be to avoid the spotlight and simply do a good job and be a good teammate. As she knew well, commonness and mediocrity, no matter how plentiful they might be, were hard to come by; they took effort, focus, and dedication, and you needed to be going in the right direction to achieve them.
Working-class realism is not just about low expectations, but about different expectations. A being-and-belonging culture tends to fear that aspiration and ambition will not just miss their mark but can also move you away from the things that really matter. An achievement-oriented life can get too complicated on the self-esteem side and not complicated enough on the tangled-relationships side. Working-class realism starts off as a defensive measure in severely limited circumstances, but even as some limits retreat and new possibilities emerge, as they did for me and my family, the attitude remains to affirm the values of keeping it simple to maintain your integrity.
Working-class realism is not without aspiration, but there are two sides to achieving mediocrity, to being and staying common. One is to be true to your real self and to those with whom you belong. It’s not getting a big head, not overestimating yourself and what you can be and do, but also not being overcome with ambition that takes you away from where you belong, ambition that can change you inside and turn you into a phony. But the other side is to control your aspiration, to focus your intelligence and ingenuity on negotiating limiting circumstances and always have downscaled aspirations ready when you do take a big chance. Most working classes are from somewhere else, especially the US working class. Immigrants took a big chance in coming here, but so did blacks fleeing the South to find jobs and freedom in the North and rural and small-town folks of every race migrating to cities for work that was often stifling, hard, dangerous, and degrading. English historian Alison Light captured working-class aspiration perfectly when she imagined the country-to-city migration as setting out “to find the place where the streets are paved with gold, or at least paved, or at least where there are jobs paving them.”10 Big aspirations are permissible but only so long as you retain a sly wariness of “expecting too much” and a bemused commitment to remaining “down to earth.”
Upward Mobility and the Working Class
A willingness to defer, cede control, and take it are aspects of working-class realism that are often seen by empathetic professionals as encouraging low expectations and thereby undermining, indeed disabling, working-class young people from achieving upward mobility. The whole education reform movement championed by both George W. Bush and Barack Obama saw education as the only path to upward mobility, the key to education as overcoming “the bigotry of low expectations,” and high-stakes testing as both the instrument and the measure of improvement. This approach stacked illusion atop illusion, but the foundational one is that moving up income quintiles is the only kind of upward mobility or the only one that matters.11
Upward mobility comes in two forms: relative and absolute. Relative upward mobility is about children born in one income quintile moving up to a higher quintile as adults. For example, if you are born in the lowest quintile, your chances of earning enough money as an adult to be in the top quintile has been about one in ten, versus about one in three for those born into the top quintile.12 According to Raj Chetty and his colleagues, the degree of relative upward mobility has not changed much since the mid-twentieth century.13 The chances of reaching the top income quintile as an adult improve as a person is born to parents in each higher quintile, and there was then and is now considerable upward and downward mobility between income quintiles. Perfect equality of opportunity would mean that at any point in time, 20 percent of all adults in the top income quintile would have been born into each of the five quintiles. As it is, the origins of top earners are 30 percent from the top quintile, 25 percent from the next quintile, 20 percent from the middle quintile, 15 percent from the next, and 10 percent from the bottom.14 Though there is enough movement here to undermine the notion that the United States is a “hereditary meritocracy,” despite the frenzied efforts of so many professional middle-class parents, it shows that opportunity is not nearly equal and is in fact severely limited for the bottom 40 percent.15
A few years ago I explained data similar to these to a class of traditional-aged college students, and one from a settled-living working-class background noticed something that disturbed her: “So, this means if I move up, as I want to do, then somebody else has to move down. That’s not what I wanted. Can’t everybody or most people move up without taking other people’s spots?” The answer for relative mobility, of course, is no; every move up requires a move down in a hierarchy of incomes. But there is another kind of upward mobility, one that is not about advancing your position in a hierarchy.
Absolute upward mobility is when someone moves up not in relation to others but simply from where they were before or where children at midlife do not move up income quintiles but nonetheless earn more than their parents did in midlife. This is where you can move up, improve your own and your children’s income and conditions, “without taking other people’s spots.” Whereas relative upward mobility has been basically stable for more than half a century, absolute upward mobility has seen a slow-moving but dramatic decline. Raj Chetty and his colleagues put it succinctly in one comparative statistic: People born in 1940 had a 90 percent chance of having a substantially better real income in midlife than their parents had. People born in 1980, on the other hand, had only a 50 percent chance.16
This is a huge difference. It means that for someone like me, born in 1943, you had to screw up numerous times to miss out on the higher real wages that were growing across the economy based on sharing the benefits of productivity growth. Those born in 1980, on the other hand, had to make all the right moves to have a fifty-fifty chance of improving their economic situation, and those born now will have an even smaller margin of error and will most likely have a lower income than their parents did.
It is characteristic that the professional middle-class attempt to reform public education would see upward mobility only in a hierarchy, focusing on a chimeric equality of opportunity while ignoring the growing inequality of condition, of income and of wealth. Equalizing the quality of education, which the reformers never came close to doing, could be helpful in equalizing life chances and conditions but not if at the same time actual incomes and conditions are becoming more unequal. Equality of opportunity requires a rough equality of condition across the board, not just in one subsidiary area such as education.
Absolute is the kind of upward mobility that is most important to the working class. Working-class realism works so much better, both in itself and by expanding horizons and engaging new possibilities, when there is nearly universal absolute upward mobility. You don’t have to take anyone’s spot to do better across a lifetime and for your children. To restore the kind of absolute upward mobility we had during the Glorious Thirty is going to require moving some money around—that is, redistribution of income and wealth. The restorative nostalgia for the Glorious Thirty’s strong unions, productivity sharing, and a steeply progressive tax code are what is essential for moving money at scale from the top few percent to everybody else. Such radical changes are realistic, not utopian, because we’ve successfully done it before.
I know how to raise expectations. I grew up at a time when our reality outran our low expectations for more than a decade, and eventually we raised our expectations to meet the new realities and then went beyond that. Improve the reality, and expectations will expand.
Chetty et al.’s study of absolute and relative upward mobility was done against the background of our extraordinary increase in the inequality of income and wealth. Several of Chetty’s group were responsible for documenting this increase against an onslaught of pseudoscientific happy talk.17 They were surprised to find that relative upward mobility has been fairly stable, but they warned that because of the dramatic increase in inequality, the “rungs on the ladder [of income distribution] have grown further apart.”18 Though the greatest inequality is between the top 1 percent or the top one-tenth of 1 percent and the rest of us, secondary inequalities are growing as well. We are left with a situation whereby the professional middle class is still thriving or comfortably stagnant, while life in the working class is deteriorating. This division is the source of much working-class resentment, more prominent and dangerous among white men than in the rest of the working class, but present throughout—and directed mostly at the political and communications elite, but not without touching us standard-issue middle-class professionals as well. But it also means that the stress of living with a fear of falling grows among middle-class professionals, if not for ourselves then for our children. This class inequality among free wage labor is not sustainable. It leaves all of us testy—them less willing to overlook standard middle-class classism and microaggressive injuries of class, and us more anxious in general and increasingly isolating ourselves from lives that are going downhill and might take us with them.19 This is not sustainable, and today middle-class professionals could use some working-class realism to negotiate a situation that is all the more difficult to confront because we’re so good at keeping it out of our purview.
Working-Class Realism and Collective Action
The picture of working-class culture I have presented in these last three chapters does not support the idea that the working class is by its nature a revolutionary class or even one prone to large-scale protest and collective action. Ceding control, taking it, and the managed expectations of working-class realism, I have argued, all have both moments of passivity and moments of autonomous agency, often in ways that complement each other. But the moments of autonomous agency are usually either individual tactics and strategies or are based on organically developed local solidarities among families, friends, neighbors, and workmates. If I am right to characterize working-class culture in these ways, then it is hard to see how they could ever have acted to change the world, as they clearly have from time to time. With their limited horizons and existential bird-in-the-hand conservatism, it is hard to imagine, for example, how half a million steelworkers from all parts of our vast country could have repeatedly struck and backed down some of the largest corporations in the world from 1946 through 1959.20
I do not have the complete answer to this puzzle, but I hope (and expect) that labor and community organizers will recognize the culture as I have presented it and the difficulties of organizing within that culture. On the one hand, it is less individualistic and is full of complicated local solidarities that are capable of being mobilized given the right circumstances. But on the other hand, working-class culture is highly risk-averse and pragmatic, is suspicious of romantic visions and utopian schemes, and generally lacks confidence in its own collective efficacy. There are rebels within the culture, as there are in all cultures, but they are not necessarily the best leaders or leaders at all—often they are breaking away rather than building upon the possibilities within the culture. Professional organizers usually come from the outside; even if from working-class backgrounds, they often are not part of the community or workplace they are attempting to organize. They bring organizing skills and potentially a culture of organizing that demonstrates the power of collective action, whether in service activities or in union or community activism. My hope is that thinking more clearly, more systematically, about the two primary class cultures in our society can illuminate part of this puzzle.
In the 1980s I was part of a variety of efforts to fight plant closings in the Chicago area and through a national network. At the Midwest Center for Labor Research, we engaged in various kinds of fight-back organizing activities, but mostly we provided research that showed alternative profitable uses and ownership structures for specific factories that were closing or in danger of closing. Our job was to convince local and state officials that there were viable alternatives to letting a particular plant close, but to do that we first had to convince the workers in that plant that there was a realistic chance of saving the plant and their jobs if they mobilized to resist the closing. Though this persuasion job was mostly the responsibility of local union and community leaders who hired us as outside experts, we had a vital piece of it. Among ourselves I argued that in our presentations we should point out to workers that mobilizing to fight the plant closing would likely result in a better severance package—last paychecks, pension and health insurance continuance, and assistance with job search and training—even if they didn’t save the plant and their jobs.21 This was repeatedly shouted down as undermining the fight. Merely mentioning it would undermine the will to fight back against the closing and would focus people on accepting the closing and getting a better severance package. My view sometimes resonated with local leaders, but I was eventually forbidden through democratic discourse from raising it with them.
I don’t know who was right or wrong, as there were very few genuine fightbacks and fewer still effective ones, and looking back, given the national political situation, it is hard to imagine any approach that would have achieved a substantially different result. But I now think our differences reflected class outlooks in a complicated but revealing way. I was the middle-class academic, and those who argued for a tightly focused, all-or-nothing, save-the-plant approach were workers, mostly steelworkers, who had been laid off during the recession of the early 1980s. By some accounts they were not “real workers” because they came from professional middle-class families, had college educations, and had entered the mills as revolutionary students with the express purpose of sparking broadscale revolt. Most had been in their jobs for about a decade and had moved up both the job ladder in the plants and within their unions. I’m not sure how long you have to be in a working-class occupation before you become a “real worker,” but though most still had revolutionary convictions, they were as savvy a bunch of organizers as I have ever known. In the various plant closing campaigns that I was involved in or witnessed, they were the ones who made something out of nothing, who found avenues for action that others had not seen.22 They had the high expectations, runaway aspirations, and self-confidence they could achieve them that were likely rooted in their middle-class families of origin. I, on the other hand, had that working-class wariness of hoping for too much and an instinct for always having a Plan B—that even if the streets weren’t paved, there might at least be jobs paving them. I wish I had argued more strongly for my view of how to make our case for fighting back, as I think it might have resonated better with workers in most of the situations we faced. But there would have been no fightback at all without these not quite real workers, without their sturdy middle-class sense of entitlement and their savvy influencing skills. They were aware that they were bringing middle-class professionalism, its skills and attitudes, to the struggle, but their achievement-oriented zeal could have adjusted better to the constraints and possibilities within working-class realism.
Though I didn’t know it then, the principle behind my view is that a simple “what do you have to lose” approach often has an answer that is not “nothing.” But when combined with a persuasive “here’s a supplementary benefit you could win” argument, it has both greater realism and the attraction of a fallback position that can make an improbable risk seem more calculated and less foolish. Working-class realism’s sense of possibility is constrained, but not nonexistent. Collectively, those in the working class can dream big when they see others in movement, but they need to have fallback positions and secondary survival goals and to be in circumstances where they can see new possibilities emerging. On the other hand, it was amazing to me then and still is that in plant closing situations, so few workers or community members were motivated to resist even though they knew their lives were about to be turned upside down.
The history of the US labor movement is replete with long periods of quiescence followed by dramatic upsurges. These seemingly emerge out of nowhere but are built on years of smaller-scale organizing, some successful and some not but over time greatly expanding workers’ sense of collective efficacy.23 The goal of gradually expanding people’s experience of the power (and gratification) of collective action is a staple among community organizers in working-class neighborhoods—for example, the iconic tactic of beginning by simply getting a stop sign placed at a dangerous intersection. Working-class culture is more solidaristic than middle-class professionalism, but working-class solidarity tends to be very local and its horizons for expanding pretty limited. It is the work of labor and community organizers to not just organize people’s preexisting proclivities but also nurture an expanding sense of what is possible. These organizers, historically and now, often come from middle-class backgrounds where they meet with an activist tenth within the working class—a minority temperamentally given to action and motivated to move up a learning curve of effectiveness. When working-class organizing works, it is almost always founded on a productive meshing of middle-class and working-class cultures, of middle-class aspiration, vision, and knowledge with working-class on-the-ground ingenuity and ability to take it. What is not productive is top-down orders from headquarters, as I witnessed so many times among AFL-CIO staff coming to a local struggle from Washington, D.C. These staff invariably had a wider vision and knowledge than we had locally, but by and large they were a conservative influence, telling us what we could not do rather than showing us what advantages and possibilities we might have and how they might provide some help for such an effort. This latter sometimes did happen, and when it did it was powerfully effective, but the real potential of the cross-class meshing of cultures is revealed on the ground: middle-class organizers adopting some working-class ways, often enthusiastically, and working-class organizers eager to learn and to be influenced but without allowing their feet to leave the ground.24
Still, though based on long-term organizing efforts, working-class upsurges of organized collective action do not occur unless there are favorable circumstances. Specific situations are so complexly different that it would be folly to try to develop a list of what circumstances are generally favorable. But I think the last forty years evidence that deteriorating conditions in themselves, especially if they happen slowly, do not spur collective action without some real change in circumstances that reveals new possibilities. The desperate conditions of the Great Depression are often seen as the primary circumstance that motivated the most effective working-class upsurge in US history in the 1930s. But the increasingly desperate circumstances of the first four years of the Depression did not spur widespread revolt, even though it did spur some very creative organizing among the unemployed.25 It was not until Franklin Roosevelt’s first one hundred days in 1933 and its wild initiation of try-anything programs with immediately visible effects that people could believe in the possibility of massive change. Unemployment went from about 25 percent down to 15 percent, and as it did both hope and anger emerged in a series of dramatic strikes in the summer of 1934. From that point on a new labor movement developed that eventually won a Second New Deal and an unprecedented period of union and working-class power during the Glorious Thirty.
Looked at closely, the upsurge of the 1930s supports Alexis de Tocqueville’s analysis of the French Revolution:
Experience teaches us that the most hazardous moment for a bad government is normally when it is beginning to reform … [,] setting out to relieve [its] subjects’ suffering after a long period of oppression. The evils, patiently endured as inevitable, seem unbearable as soon as the idea of escaping them is conceived. Then the removal of an abuse seems to cast a sharper light on those still left and makes people more painfully aware of them; the burden has become lighter, it is true, but the sensitivity more acute.26
Expectations increase in response to improving circumstances, not the other way around. And given our political, social, and cultural power as middle-class professionals, we are in a position to improve some circumstances. We should do that both because it is the right thing to do and because in the long run it will enhance our own class interests as it expands our own and others’ sense of possibility.
Organizing and Circumstances
I’d like to say to organizers and others who are trying to aid in bringing working-class people into civic, workplace, or political action that they need to work within working-class culture, not against it. And that is one thing I would say. But my instinct on this is countered by too many instances of working-class individuals, and not just young ones, who are trying to reject some aspects of their culture and are often attracted to middle-class professionalism and its proactive ways. These are often though by no means always leaders who will work with organizers and organizations to advance collective goals. In these contexts, professionals can help change both expectations and circumstances—but only if their professionalism liberates itself from the pursuit of individual accomplishment and status or at least strongly leans against those aspects of its culture. When professionalism consistently draws on the common-good idealism embedded (if sometimes buried) within most professions and when professionals can restrain their headstrong commitment to the singular superiority of their culture, they can bring not just knowledge and skills to working-class struggle but also a broader vision and proactive attitude. That attitude needs to be tempered by working-class realism and to work within its constraints, as most on-the-ground organizers in my experience know. But I’m guessing they also have to imbibe some of that working-class culture not only because it makes them better organizers but also because it will likely make them better, more trustworthy human beings. Of all the different kinds of people who live on and around the edges between our two great proletarian cultures, organizers do it best. Some part of that may be what is sometimes called “going native,” but the more important part is about being who you are, whatever that happens to be.
In the great CIO upsurges in the 1930s—in steel, auto, rubber, and radios—most of the action was driven by workers themselves or, crucially, by people who had started their lives as workers but then became professional unionists, leaders, and organizers. But it’s hard to imagine those upsurges without broader circumstances being changed by the first New Deal spurred by a man of the landed gentry and furthered by a progressive middle-class lawyer named Robert F. Wagner and a middle-class organizer and intellectual named Frances Perkins. The National Industrial Recovery Act and the National Labor Relations Act, known as the Wagner Act, changed the landscape for working-class organizing, and a handful of unions took advantage of those changes to reorganize themselves and then others. The way workers rushed to join unions and learn unionism after the sit-down strikes in rubber and auto plants and after General Motors and U.S. Steel signed barebones union contracts in 1937 exhibit the way a stolid, seemingly inert mass of people can relatively quickly turn into an organized and highly effective mob. Circumstances had changed, and the sit-down and other strikers demonstrated that those changes had opened up new possibilities, changing expectations and then actions.27 Similar dynamics can be seen in the twentieth-century civil rights movement initiated by middle-class and settled-living working-class leaders, painstakingly built by local organizing and nationally illustrative struggles, until in a relatively few years new possibilities had brought wide ranges of working-class blacks into action.28
All our middle-class prejudices against working-class culture have some basis in reality, but as long as our only move in solidarity with them is to help educate a handful of them to become more like us, we will limit both their and our possibilities. Rather, deep within our professionalism is a desire and a range of abilities to change circumstances for the common good. We standard-issue middle-class professionals need to realize that given the opportunity, the capitalist class will degrade our working conditions and living standards too, something you can already see happening in many professions. In most ways our interests align with those of the working class as I have broadly defined it. Our own politics and collective action need to focus on improving their circumstances with an eye to increasing their sense of possibility and initiating a new upsurge of organized collective action. It’s a good bet that such an eventuality will end up benefiting us as much as them, as it did in the Glorious Thirty.