I knew what was about to happen as Coach Shingler reamed out one player after another as we stood in line showing our first six-week report cards. Football players could NOT be dummies, he fumed. “You might as well know that right now.” And unless you could master English and math, you had “no future on this team.” I dropped my notebook so I would lose my place in line, trying to work my way to the back so there would be fewer players left to witness my embarrassment. But that didn’t work, as lots of guys were coming late to practice, and before I knew it I was in front of Coach, painfully raising my report card above my head so he could see. He saw.
Coach grabbed the report card with one hand and gave me a big side-hug with his other arm as he called out to half a dozen players who had just gone through the report card gauntlet but had not yet reached the locker room. Arbitrarily singling out one player, as he often did, he shouted, “Hey, Miller, you guys come back here. This may be the one time in your lives you see a report card like this,” as he called everybody around to see that I had earned all A’s, “even in English and math.”
I liked Coach Shingler, then and ever after, because he really cared about all his guys and wanted to have a positive impact on each of our lives, even those of us who weren’t such good athletes. He wasn’t like a regular teacher, as he was easier for us to relate to even when he scolded us or kidded us too roughly. But I wondered even then, as a twelve-year-old, how he could do this to me. Why not just slap me on the back and say “Good job, Metzgar,” as he had done with some others? Could he not know that he was branding me an outsider, not really one of the boys, as he attempted to shame others by exhibiting me, a third-string fullback with a tendency to fumble, as somebody to be emulated?
Whitey Miller, because he had been singled out, pretended to study my report card as others looked on. Fortunately he found it amusing, not humiliating, and as soon as we were in the locker room, Whitey gave me my seventh grade nickname, “AB Metzgar” (evidently he hadn’t noticed that there were no B’s) or “AB,” which with the passage of time became “Abe,” thank God, and then faded away.
In Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1955, seventh grade was when we all left our much smaller elementary schools and entered a mammoth building with four grades’ worth of students from all over the east end of town. It was a big transition for all seventh-graders, as we all had to make a new name for ourselves and find our place in an altogether new order of things. It was worse for me, I think, because during that first six weeks my family moved from the housing project above the Moxham neighborhood, which we were not a part of, to a rival neighborhood across the river, which thought we were part of Moxham. Being exhibited as “a brain” got me lumped in with “teachers’ pets” and “goody goodies,” categories that I had learned were incompatible with being one of the boys.
Coach Shingler was not the first teacher to brand me into a group to which I no longer wanted to belong. During the first weeks of school, Miss Kreuger had passed around my math homework to show how neatly I had lined up the numbers, thereby making it less likely to make mistakes. It was not just a practical matter for Miss Kreuger, however, but a life lesson about the importance of orderliness, avoiding mistakes, and always striving to be perfect.
In my seventh grade mind these were just about the worst things that could happen to me, and I took a series of corrective actions. My next math assignment for Miss Kreuger was virtually unreadable (though all the answers were correct), and later in one of my English essays for her, I philosophized about the pain of being singled out as an example for others. She left me alone after that, and I was gradually able to go back to lining up my numbers properly (because it does help you avoid mistakes). The “AB Metzgar” tag was harder to shake because my father insisted I make the Honor Roll, which required all A’s and B’s, but because Whitey Miller had dubbed me “AB” and not “All-A,” the only way to avoid that brand was to stay off the Honor Roll altogether. Fending off both my father and Whitey Miller, I worked assiduously to get one “C” in a different subject for each six-week grading period while ending the year on the cumulative Honor Roll, which only parents and teachers would ever know. I also developed a smart-ass attitude, highlighted with a “duck’s ass balboa” haircut (crew cut on top and Brylcreem slicked-back hair on the sides), that fit better in my new neighborhood and earned me an appropriate degree of disdain from most teachers.
As seventh grade ended, I felt a great deal of satisfaction for my crafty accomplishment. Though I suspect I had an asterisk somewhere near my name in most of the guys’ heads, I was otherwise definitely one of the boys while getting all the summertime privileges my father had promised.
Eight years later I would look back on this accomplishment as shameful evidence of what a conformist I was, of my inability to resist going along with the crowd and my fundamentally weak-charactered other-directedness. This analysis resulted in decades of trying to reverse the damage I had done to myself, struggling to achieve the potential some caring nags had warned me I was failing to live up to. But by my forties, I changed my mind again. Renewing my pride in having navigated between a seventh grade Scylla and Charybdis, I came to see it as but an early embracing of my working-class self even as I worked to earn the income and working conditions of a middle-class professional. Now I see that decision, or set of decisions, as being crucial to my achieving mediocrity.
I know that the phrase “achieving mediocrity” may seem a bit too cute, but it captures something about working-class life that is both valuable and very hard to recognize from an achievement-oriented middle-class perspective. First and most obviously, there is a kind of reverse status to being common, to not standing out, a positive value to not putting yourself above and lording it over everybody. This is actually pretty complex, because competition and showing one another up—in sports, in hunting and fishing, in fixing things, in fighting—were not only allowed but also expected. Even doing well in school, as I eventually found out, could be appreciated if you didn’t buy into the teachers’ program, if you didn’t disdain others who were not as smart or as “well motivated” as you. The school—not everybody but rather the general ethos even in a midcentury steel town—clearly thought the good students were not just better students but also better human beings. Most teachers, themselves pretty working class by today’s standards, conveyed this message in a multitude of ways, including gathering us all from time to time in “assemblies” where they would actually say something to the effect that “ending up as nothing but a mill hand” was a moral failing comparable to beating up somebody smaller than you. We knew better. It was the mill hands who were the real people, who could actually do things and knew what was what. Teachers, on the other hand, were either clueless or phonies and sometimes both.
Working-class life is antiaspirational, or at least nonaspirational or perhaps just differently aspirational, and that can be a big problem for achieving hierarchical forms of upward mobility. But there’s also a strength to it—a mysterious Sancho Panza realism that mixes a vulnerable but sturdy simplicity with an easy authenticity, a freedom to be yourself, to take yourself as you are. This realism is rare (at least until old age) in a mainstream culture that provides internal and external pressures to always aspire and constantly and consistently work to achieve your potential.
And there is this paradox in American class cultures. Middle-class culture emphasizes individualism, not just rhetorically but also in hundreds of explicit and implicit ways, whereas working-class culture, as I have experienced it, emphasizes not standing out and instead finding your place in the group and being loyal to that group—solidarity in a way. The paradox is that as middle-class people, despite our radical individualism, we are all pretty similar compared to the wild diversity of characters and personalities in any sizable working-class group. The conformists turn out to be more unique and diverse than the inner-directed individualists.
Let me say straightaway that an individual mediocre life like mine is not very interesting. My life in particular has lacked trauma and drama, mostly through luck but not without a little intentional design. But mediocrity in the mass is a lot more interesting than you might think—first, of course, because it is so common and second because it’s not as common as it used to be either as ideal or reality. People aspire to mediocrity, and many work hard to achieve it, as I have. That sounds ridiculous only in an elite culture (which includes most of the mass media) that is constantly banging on about greatness and excellence and always looking for the extraordinary, whether a Nobel Prize winner or a mass murderer.
Among middle-class professionals, to be called mediocre or, somehow worse, “a mediocrity” is a humiliating insult, but the actual meaning of those words is not outright negative. It’s the connotation that stings. Synonyms for “mediocre” include “common,” “middling,” “ordinary,” “passable,” and “adequate.”1 These are negative only if you were hoping to be outstanding or excellent. Even “second-rate” and “second-class” are not really pejorative for anyone who knows they are not as good as the best. In use, “mediocre” often simply means good, not great. In a professional setting, “good” and surely “good enough” are usually positive ways of saying “mediocre,” whereas “mediocre” is a negative way of saying the same thing. Either way, you’re not excellent, extraordinary, or outstanding, but you’re not that bad either. In a social class whose culture is by turns anxious about and intoxicated by status, however, being a mediocrity means being “just average,” which is synonymous with being a failure. In a long life of being with a variety of working-class people, on the other hand, I have never heard anyone call anyone else mediocre, partly because it is not a word in common use but mostly because their system for ranking each other is different from the middle-class professional one. “Good” is at the top of the charts in working-class culture and has moral as well as performative meanings.
What’s more, mediocrity has a proud history related to modern democracy and egalitarianism. Benjamin Franklin, for example, praised revolutionary America for being “a general happy Mediocrity,” a reference to what Alexis de Tocqueville would later mark as our “equality of conditions,” so strikingly different from the born-and-bred class systems in Europe and the original core of what was thought to be American exceptionalism.2 Franklin’s boast and Tocqueville’s observation were only about half true, of course. As Thomas Piketty points out, “the New World combined two diametrically opposed realities. In the North we find a relatively egalitarian society in which capital was indeed not worth very much, because land was so abundant that anyone could become a landowner relatively cheaply, and also because recent immigrants had not had time to accumulate much capital. In the South we find a world where inequalities of ownership took the most extreme and violent form possible, since one half of the population owned the other half.”3 Still, the rough equality of conditions in the US North inspired democratic movements everywhere beginning with the French Revolution, during which Jacobins sought “an honorable mediocrity” whereby titles would disappear and people would address one another as “citizen” rather than “monsieur” and “madame.”4 These violent eruptions at the end of the eighteenth century initiated what Raymond Williams called “the long revolution,” a struggle across two centuries to assert that a society should be measured by the welfare and consent of the common, ordinary, mediocre people who constitute the vast majority.5 From my personal perspective this long revolution culminated, without much exaggeration, in my birth.
I grew up during a thirty- or forty-year period when mediocrity was more greatly valued and also easier to achieve than at any time in human history. I was born in 1943, one of world history’s bloodiest years but also in the United States a year when the Second New Deal was just starting to pay off dramatically for families like mine. My formative years were during the best three decades in human history for working classes, a golden age of collective action and shared prosperity—not only in the United States but also in Western Europe and the Soviet Union and its sphere—and an era of often tragically bloody national liberation movements that cast off imperial forms of colonialism in the decades after World War II.6 My memory and study of this period and my bitter observation of what followed are the basis of my interpretation of the differences between working-class and professional middle-class cultures. I was born into a hard-living working-class family who, through a series of strikes against steel companies, became settled living by the time I was a teenager (something seen as affluent at the time). Then as an adult I successfully pursued middle-class professionalism, for a while with fanatical focus and dedication, but ended up just a standard-issue, mediocre professional as a night-school teacher of working adults.
It was a wonderfully open and expansive journey that few working-class sons and even fewer working-class daughters had ever been afforded before. What’s as significant, however, is that as I crossed classes I experienced absolutely no survivor guilt because the working-class life I was leaving had been improving and opening up for three decades. And given how its culture and way of life were blooming, it was not so clear that becoming a middle-class professional was necessarily a net gain. I got my first full-time professional job in 1977, however, just as working-class life began to go to hell—first, dramatically with an incredibly brutal wave of plant closings and the Reagan Revolution and then slowly but surely up to the present. Like Georg Hegel’s owl of Minerva or like 23.4 percent of all country and western songs, we didn’t know how wonderful mediocrity was until it was gone (or, to be more accurate, severely diminished). Though I still don’t experience much survivor guilt, I cannot ignore how terribly my working-class contemporaries’ lives and their children’s prospects have withered and are withering as my immediate family and I continue to prosper.
But achieving mediocrity is more than the absence of being excellent, extraordinary, or outstanding. It’s about valuing commonness and aspiring to work hard to at least pull your own weight, do the right thing when you can, and be loyal to those with whom you belong both at home and at work. In some versions, it’s also about looking out for the other guy and putting yourself in his shoes. And, above all, it’s about taking satisfaction when you live up to these modest standards and about feeling a shame that is deeper than—and has nothing to do with—social status when you do not live up to them. It’s also about not having the guts to stand out for fear of looking (or being) foolish in trying to be something you’re not or simply from the discomfort of being noticed at all.
These are working-class values, I think, as sportswriters know when they praise offensive linemen in football and low-scoring power forwards in basketball for their “blue-collar attitudes.” The opposite of stars (let alone superstars) are “role-players” and “grinders.” You do your job, your part, and when you do it well nobody notices. Or, rather, there is no public notice of it, but your workmates and family sometimes acknowledge it, usually in subtle and often backhanded ways, not making too much of a fuss but in ways that encourage and nurture the value of simply doing your bit, holding up your end. These values, this way of looking at things and living a life, are not unknown among middle-class professionals, especially as we get older and figure out that we have run out of potential to achieve. But they are characteristic of working-class life and are honored and rewarded in the culture of the working class. During my formative years many newly minted middle-class professionals brought these values from their working-class families of origin, and many of those from professional families, often rebelling against the “bitch goddess of success,” eagerly embraced some working-class ways. For a while the working class and the standard-issue middle class, trading back and forth, shared different versions of the “middling virtues” that were highly valued and quite common at the time.
For twenty years or so I worked pretty hard to achieve my potential, which I achieved a while back, and I’m done with that. I sometimes regret how much time and effort I put into that striving, and I can still feel embarrassed and humiliated when I remember how for a brief time I aspired to “greatness.” But I was fortunate to have a working-class culture to fall back on and so many people, especially my wife Judie, who nurtured and enforced that culture around and within me. But I give myself credit too for that decision I made as a seventh-grader to be “one of the boys,” a “regular guy,” even though I knew I did not measure up in many respects. I was good at school, and I fit better as a teacher’s pet than I ever would as what Paul Willis called “lads,” a highly masculine oppositional blue-collar culture in which working-class young men paradoxically aided (and reproduced) their own exploitation as workers. At twelve years old I chose to be a lad, and I became one for long enough during those formative years that, as hard as I would eventually try, I never wholly abandoned it.
Willis’s classic Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs is a perceptive ethnography of English working-class culture in the early 1970s, not just the culture of the school but also how its counterschool culture was carried into blue-collar workplaces.7 Though Willis recognized and revealed a working-class culture that is separate and distinct from middle-class culture, he didn’t like it much. And his main purpose was to show how lads, in school and at work, participated in their own “self-damnation”—damned to working-class jobs that had “inferior rewards,” an “undesirable social definition,” and work of “increasing intrinsic meaninglessness.”8
I, on the other hand, liked the culture and still do. Even though I have imbibed and embraced a lot of middle-class culture too, working-class life still seems more real and genuine to me than the one I live. You could call it “ambivalence,” but that is no longer how I think of it. Rather, I see myself (and Judie, my wife of more than fifty years) as having the great fortune of living our first thirty or forty years at the juncture of a working-class culture that was working on its own terms and a professional middle-class culture that was emerging as dominant even as it challenged and troubled itself with fundamental questions about how to live a good life. The two cultures had a lot to offer each other in those days, and my conviction that they still do—or could—is a great part of my motivation to write this book.
Still, the twenty-first is a very different century, and I now take Willis’s condemnation of working-class counterschool culture very much to heart. While the lads culture may have worked well when labor unions were strong and real wages were rising, it has always made public education difficult (for everybody) and now undermines working-class agency in making a better life and a better society. In today’s circumstances I sympathize with parents and teachers as they fight the lure of the lads culture (which is present among girls as well as boys and always has been)9, and I am grateful (usually) that my middle-class grandsons have had so little exposure to it. But it was different in my time during what the French call the Glorious Thirty (1945–1975), when working-class agency could be and was exercised in that kind of culture—a working-class culture that does indeed accept a certain kind of subordination but in a complex and crafty way that was able, for a time, to advance toward an amazing degree of freedom and dignity while maintaining the kind of taken-for-granted integrity and easy authenticity that nobody who has ever experienced it could ever want to give up.
Classes and Cultures: Concepts and Definitions
I’m trying to recognize and value a working-class culture that many people think either never existed or has now passed—or is rapidly passing—into history like dinosaurs and steel mills. I too fear that it may be passing, and it certainly is no longer as strong and vital as it has been for most of my lifetime. But I also know it has a persistence and resilience that is very easy for middle-class professionals to overlook and underestimate. And I believe that changed circumstances could bring it back, restored and renewed even better than before.
So, what do I mean by “culture,” and who exactly is in the working class?
“Culture” is a slippery concept, one that cannily adjusts its meanings in different contexts and therefore is easily confused and abused. I hope to make it a bit less slippery by being very explicit about the differences in class cultures as I have experienced and observed them. I present these differences as categorical opposites mostly for purposes of conceptual clarity, not because I think they always occur in real life with such neat distinction, although in many semi-isolated precincts of American life they definitely are quite distinct. But most important concepts have multiple meanings that slip and slide as they are used by different people in different situations for different purposes. Thus, I have no hope of avoiding the slipperiness altogether, but I do hope to avoid certain slimy usages that are not uncommon in our public discourse.
When I say “culture” I am always using the term in the broad anthropological sense of “ways of life” and never to mean “artistic expression.” Stories, songs, pictures, philosophies, and religions (as well as physical forms, food, and clothing) may be important expressions of a culture and may reflect, inform, reinforce, or challenge a culture as a way of life, but for me they are not culture itself. These two most common conflicting meanings of “culture” are seldom confused in context (at least not for long), but it is worthwhile noting my unslippery usage on this point.
Likewise, I do not equate “lifestyle” with culture and will never use the term. Though some lifestyles are undoubtedly more common in different classes, the term tends to focus attention on superficial matters of taste—do you prefer beer or wine, bowling or golf, NASCAR or ballet?—rather than on deeper structures that inform basic presuppositions, assumptions, thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Just because these matters of taste are superficial does not mean they are unimportant, and they are certainly part of culture as a way of life. But for good or ill, they have little or nothing to do with the class cultures I attempt to describe.
Also, I think of culture as something outside individuals that both constrains and guides individual thought and behavior. Even though we individually imbibe a culture, beginning in infancy, we do not imbibe it in exactly the same way. Neither do we always think, feel, or behave in ways prescribed by our culture—indeed, knowing what to hide and what not to say is part of how culture shapes our lives. Even when we repeatedly do, think, or feel differently from our culture, it is still “ours”; we are part of it even when we deviate from it. Furthermore, the formal oft-proclaimed belief system of a culture often does not capture and may aggressively ignore important aspects of a way of life as it is actually lived. (The authors of Habits of the Heart, for example, insightfully point out that middle-class American culture—which for them is all of American culture—is single-mindedly individualist even though Americans have always practiced and valued civic engagement to degrees that would seem incompatible with our individualist ideology and rhetoric.)10 I like Alexis de Tocqueville’s “habits of the heart” (though I also like to add the unalliterative “and mind” to that phrase) and Raymond Williams’s “structure of feeling” because they both point to how much of culture is sensed, felt, and tacitly lived without effort while at the same time emphasizing a culture’s regularity and coherence in its habitualness and structure. But “feelings” and “hearts” tend to suggest not only too much mindlessness to culture but also that culture is an individual possession that is somewhat mysteriously shared with—and transmitted to—other individuals. Thus, I believe it more accurate to think of culture as outside and beyond the individual, as a way of life is typically understood. Even though the individual carries a version of it within him/herself, a culture is wider and deeper than any individual version of it.11
This way of thinking about culture leaves a lot of room for individual interpretation of a somewhat ineffable collective possession, even while emphasizing how impossible it is in principle for any individual to get it right. But that is sort of the point. Cultural interpretation is itself an important part of how ways of life develop. Though people and their cultures are influenced more substantially by changes in physical, technological, economic, and institutional environments, cultural interpretation plays a role in both achieving these changes and adjusting our habits of heart and mind to them after the fact.
As for a broader class analysis, I will do some slip-sliding myself. There are too many insightful and productive ways to construe social classes in our complicated society to be stuck with just one. And besides, I am dealing with just two broad classes, not the entire class structure. Still, some basic conceptions of class and class structure have guided my thinking.
First is Karl Marx’s basic conception of free wage labor versus “capital,” envisioned sometimes as a class of people (capitalists or bourgeoisie), sometimes as an impersonal socioeconomic force operating independently of individual human will. As the predominant way of organizing human labor for productive activity, free wage labor is a relatively recent phenomenon of the last century or so, depending on the country. But in the United States today it is so pervasive as to be taken for granted, and because it includes almost everybody, it seems not very useful in understanding basic social differences and conflicts. Free wage labor includes everybody who works for a living as their only or principal source for sustaining themselves—all those who earn money by working under somebody else’s direction. The vast majority of middle-class professionals today are free wage labor, logically part of Marx’s working-class or proletariat.12 It was Marx’s understandable but great mistake that he could not envision how large, semipowerful, and well compensated this part of his “working class” would become. Not part of free wage labor are both capitalists and small business owners, including those professionals such as doctors and lawyers who independently set up shop on their own and work for themselves—thus, the traditional petty bourgeoisie. Also not included are those free wage workers such as LeBron James, Angelina Jolie, Jamie Dimon, and a million or so others who make such fabulous salaries that at some point selling their labor is no longer necessary to sustain their lives.
Within this classical context I am focused on the cultural differences between two classes, in both of which members work for somebody else because they have to. This leaves out not only capitalists and the classical middle class of small business owners but also the poor as a separate class by itself. In not seeing the poor as a separate social class but instead as part of the working class, I am following the usage of Michael Zweig’s The Working Class Majority. For Zweig, “poverty is a condition” that “mostly happens to the working class.” Because “more than half the working class experiences poverty in a ten-year period,” Zweig argues that the “poor are not some persistent lump at the bottom of society; they are working people who have hit hard times.”13 Instead I use “hard living” to designate that portion of the working class who at any one time have no discretionary income and unsteady or precarious employment, including those defined in other contexts as poor, near poor, working poor, or simply struggling to get by paycheck to paycheck. Defined this broadly, the hard living are a large and growing part of the working class, probably a majority of the class at this point. But they are still part of a broad working class, and though the culture plays out differently in different economic circumstances, it is the same culture when contrasted with middle-class professionalism. Focusing on only two very broad classes within the class structure is a significant limitation, but the working class and the professional middle class as I define them include the overwhelming majority of Americans. They are also the two class cultures I have lived most of my life negotiating between.
By starting with free wage labor, I am emphasizing occupations over income, wealth, and education among the most typical ways of defining social classes, though I do not deny the importance of these other criteria, especially income. Among occupations, using the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) broadest definitions, the professional middle class is made up of some twenty-one million full-time managerial workers and some thirty million full-time professional workers who together make up more than two-fifths of the full-time US workforce. The working class is the other three-fifths, the sixty-four million workers the BLS categorizes as service; sales and office; natural resources, construction, and maintenance; production, transportation, and material-moving occupations; and the vast majority of the twenty-five million part-time workers.14 In general, middle-class professionals have more education, more autonomy at work, and higher incomes (plus better compensation packages), and working-class occupations have less, increasingly much less.
Still, as aggregate categories do, the BLS’s broad occupational designations hide a lot of important complexity—managerial workers at Red Lobster who do not make a living wage, for example, or, conversely, a union bus driver married to a union construction worker whose family income is in six digits even without overtime.15 As I will argue, in a society dominated by free wage labor, income all by itself is a more important determinant of a person’s or a family’s life than power, authority, or status. Though education and (even a small amount of) inherited or accumulated wealth are also vitally important in determining one’s life chances, for most people most of the time income is primary, and the primary determinant of income is occupation. In 2020, for example, the median wage for full-time, full-year managerial and professional workers was $24,000–$38,000 higher than the medians for full-time working-class occupations.16 The proliferation of involuntary part-time work among working-class occupations makes this occupation-determines-income causality even stronger. Thus, though I frame my own definition of social class around broad occupational categories, I will from time to time slide into other markers of class such as income, wealth, and education.
I certainly wouldn’t expect class cultures to line up precisely with these broad occupational categories without lots of variations and complicated exceptions. Instead, I want to add culture as an influence in determining and defining social classes—to recognize how basic ways of living a life, or trying to, should also be part of how we think about social class in twenty-first-century America.
This occupational working class is by no means exclusively blue collar or white or male and never has been. Likewise, there is a wide range of incomes and accompanying life conditions within the working class structured by race, gender, and other factors, just as there has always been. People of color are now at least 40 percent of the working class, and women are a majority.17 Given this definition, I will have nothing to say in this book about the white working class as discussed in American electoral politics. In American politics, the multiracial working class as a whole votes about the same as the professional middle class (as defined by educational attainment), but there are huge differences in how whites and nonwhites vote in both the working and middle classes.18 Thus, the class cultures I describe each contain a wide range of conventional political partisanship structured much more by race, ethnicity, and gender than by class.
That class—independent of race, ethnicity, and gender—is irrelevant for American electoral politics might seem to challenge the idea that there are distinct class cultures, and in some ways it does. But the class cultures as I describe and interpret them in this book are at a deeper level than electoral politics, and my argument is that these class cultures are shared across races and ethnicities. Though playing out differently and with many variations, the underlying class-cultural differences are the same regardless of race. Though empirical studies that simultaneously compare both race and class are pretty rare, those that do tend to confirm that there are distinct cultures of class that do not vary significantly by race, ethnicity, or gender.19 So does my own observation and experience in thirty years of teaching adults of all races and a lot of different nationalities, though primarily in a white-black framework where blacks were a strong presence, often a majority. Because I draw so much on my own experience, I would be surprised if my grasp of the cultures is not inflected with whiteness, and many of my students did not hesitate to point that out. But my hope is that my interpretations will resonate broadly with all racial and ethnic groups in the United States and, if it does, that other scholars will add different inflections that advance our awareness of basic class cultures and their importance for the various ways we are and do, belong and become in the world.
Still, all these ways of defining classes are for outside interpreters like me, making arguments for how best to understand the conflicts, divisions, or simply the key breaking points in our society. If you simply ask people an open-ended question about how they would define their own social class, the vast majority will say something like “Well, I’m not rich, and I’m not poor, so I guess you’d say I’m middle class.” This is the American class vernacular, the ordinary, everyday way of defining our class structure and placing ourselves within it: rich, poor, and middle class.20 It is broadly income-based but with just a handful of “poor” people and an even smaller group of “rich” people. In answering an open-ended question, the vast majority of people see themselves and others as part of a sprawling, nearly ubiquitous “middle class” where all distinctions of income, wealth, education, status, power, and authority disappear into an amorphous but highly egalitarian notion of middleness, what Benjamin Franklin called “a general happy Mediocrity.”
This is a ridiculously false notion, as it was in Franklin’s time, but it makes a tacit claim for an equality of status among almost everybody, envisioning a flat, nonhierarchical class structure but with some stigma usually attached to being either “poor” or “rich.” Though in other contexts it is clear that people employ various notions of class structure to fit specific situations, this vernacular sense of the United States as a middle-class society made up mostly of middle-class people is pervasive as a default conception. Within this usage, I simply want to preserve the egalitarian instinct while dividing the ubiquitous “middle class” into two parts: a working class and a professional middle class along the occupational lines explained above.
You might suspect this is just a Lefty attempt to restore “working class” as a term into a reality that most people no longer recognize, but some social scientific evidence suggests that “working class” still has an unexpectedly strong persistence in the American perception of class. One is the General Social Survey, which asks respondents to place themselves within one of four classes: upper class, middle class, working class, or lower class. Since 1972 about 90 percent of respondents have identified themselves as either “middle class” or “working class,” with an equal split of about 45 percent for each of those two class categories.21 Nearly half of our “middle class society” defines itself as working class when given that option. What’s more, in a 2004 National Election Study survey, respondents were asked to rank thirty-one categories of people and institutions from least favorable to most favorable on a scale of 0 to 100. “Working-class people” were not only recognized as a class but also judged the most favorable of all thirty-one among choices that included women, older people, the military, middle-class people, poor people, businesspeople, rich people, labor unions, and big business (in that order).22
These are remarkable results in a country that for decades virtually banned the use of the term “working class” in persistently and loudly proclaiming itself a “middle-class society.” The results suggest that though unrecognized and unappreciated in mainstream culture, there must be another culture in our midst, a culture that may provide an alternative to what the people who determine these things call “the mainstream.” If there is and if you believe one National Election Study survey, that culture produces the kind of people whom Americans of all races, genders, and stations of life view most favorably.
That’s basically the argument of this book: There is a genuine working-class culture that provides both a vital complement and an attractive alternative to professional middle-class culture, and if it’s dying, it needs to be revived, rescued, and renewed. If, on the other hand, it is persisting against all odds, as I believe, then it needs to be recognized and appreciated within a much less imperial middle-class culture—one capable of recognizing that we are stronger together because we bring important differences to each other, different strengths that offset each other’s weaknesses even while providing alternative ways to live a life that’s full and meaningful.
Who Am I to Say?
Though I use a lot of economic and sociological research to support my views, what follows is largely based on my observations and experience over more than seven decades. I am not seeking certainty or trying to prove my views but rather suggesting a way of understanding American society based on its primary class cultures and the way they both clash with and complement each other. Because I have lived my entire life in various locations of the American Rust Belt, my observations and experience may be quite limited and even useless for other regions and generations of working-class and middle-class life. Likewise, my understanding may be more white and male than I intend. But how would I know this without putting out my interpretations for others to judge against their own observations and experience? By relying so heavily on my own experience, I hope to make up in intimacy of detail what I lack in breadth, but I am aware that I will inevitably miss any possible universal mark. I hope to be interesting and insightful, even when I may be overgeneralizing or outright wrong, and I ask readers to reflect on their own experience even as they challenge my book learning and I challenge theirs.
My main evidentiary base is the way I have been situated in various complicated ways between and among the two class cultures across my entire life as well as my inability and unwillingness to sustain a clear choice for one culture versus the other. I am not somebody who grew up in the working class and then abandoned it once and for all as I became a middle-class professional, though I did become that kind of professional and for the most part have adopted its culture, sometimes enthusiastically and sometimes with resistance. Besides growing up in a very working-class environment, two main ways that I have lived within working-class culture were as a teacher and as Judie’s husband, including my adoption into her large extended and predominantly working-class family back in Johnstown. There are other less significant ways that involved where we lived and who we associated with. The friends we shared were either people from working-class backgrounds or professionals with lots of experience of working-class people, mostly as teachers or labor or community organizers. Likewise, when I was a graduate student at Northwestern University, the most thoroughly middle-class experience of my life, we lived in a working-class neighborhood on Chicago’s Northwest Side, where we helped organize a neighborhood association. And when we lived in thoroughly middle-class places, including Greenwich Village in the 1960s and Oak Park since 1981, we lived in apartment buildings that included a mix of working-class and standard-issue middle-class people. Very little of this was based on self-conscious choices. More so, where we lived was based on economics and where and with whom we both felt most comfortable.
My work as a night-school teacher for thirty years, however, is my main source for a broader understanding of working-class life outside my own. If I had been taking notes, my teaching experience at Roosevelt University in Chicago would have been first-rate research based on focus group discussions. I taught general education courses—elementary and advanced writing courses as well as surveys of both the social sciences and the humanities—to adults in classes of fewer than twenty students that met twice a week for three hours each. The students in these classes ranged in age from late twenties to early sixties, and they were either in working-class occupations themselves or from working-class backgrounds in standard-issue professional or semiprofessional jobs at a time when the absence of a bachelor’s degree was not nearly the obstacle to workplace upward mobility that it is today. The main campus was a building in Chicago’s Loop, and the students there were an equal mix of black and white, with more Latinos and Latinas in the later years. When I started teaching in the 1970s racial issues were still raw. Chicago neighborhoods were still racially changing, and there were active struggles against racism in the police force and the building trades. Many of my students were involved in these changes and struggles on one side or the other of the racial divide, so we could not avoid discussing the issues, often in frighteningly frank terms based on their direct experiences. In the beginning the racial differences stood out, but over time I also began to notice their cultural similarities, as did many of them. My focus in this book is on those similarities by class. While I am well aware of the numerous variations within class cultures in regard to not only race and ethnicity but also gender, sexuality, region, religion, life stage, and decade, I pretty much systematically stay focused strictly on the broad class-cultural differences, not the wild variations within each class culture.
My job in all my teaching was to find demanding reading that my students would find interesting, discuss it with them as a group, and then read their papers based on whatever topics we had been discussing. Because we met twice a week for long periods in small classes and because I was reading their often innermost thoughts, I got to know most students pretty intimately. Several of the courses I taught had course-related one-on-one advising sessions built into their framework, and in addition I did a lot of academic advising, often with people I saw semester after semester. In these undergraduate classes we discussed everything from Chicago politics, neighborhood racial change, and comparative economic systems to Oedipus the King and The Color Purple. I did not get to know more than a handful of my students outside the classroom, so I had no way of verifying what they told me about themselves, their families, and their work, but they told me a lot, and when you’re interested in culture, what people say is as important as observing what they do. In great measure, this book constitutes my digestion of what my students told me and each other over three decades from the 1970s into the twenty-first century.
In addition to my undergraduate general education teaching, I became involved in labor education, first in the program we had at Roosevelt and then through activism in the 1980s and 1990s around plant closings and employer demands for union contract concessions. With a group of laid-off steelworkers and academic economists I was one of the founders of the Midwest Center for Labor Research, and I was the editor of Labor Research Review during most of its existence.23 This experience gave me a front-row seat to the demise of labor unions in the United States and in the way this linked up with my own and Judie’s extended family, a window into the wrenching erosion of working-class conditions and prospects.
In all this teaching experience as well as my public speaking to working-class audiences, I was the middle-class professional based on my information and knowledge. In these contexts, I had both unearned formal authority and, when I was good, some earned informal authority based on what I said or how I listened and responded. In all these situations I could not succeed without recognizing the differences between my working-class audiences and myself, even as I drew both tacitly and consciously on my similarities. From my first raggedy class at Roosevelt, where I knew I belonged within the first hour, I was the spokesperson, the facilitator, the college-material socialization mechanism for a professionalism I had not realized I had so deeply imbibed. Enforcing standard English was just the most obvious and least complicated of the class functions I served.
The other primary source of this meditation on class cultures is my more than half-century marriage with Judie. The granddaughter of coal miners on both sides, Judie grew up in a large hard-living family in Johnstown in which an alcoholic father had irregular work as a mechanic, while the seven children formed intense attachments to their mother, who worked as a retail clerk at Glosser Brothers Department Store as she raised the children on her own. Judie and I were high school sweethearts and the only ones to leave town, but we were never not a vital part of that extended family as we all became adults and parents and then grandparents together. When I say “my family” in referring to anytime after 1981, when my father died (my mother died thirteen years earlier), I am referring to the family in which I am an in-law without that making a dime’s worth of difference except when the brothers and sisters reminisce about their adventures running the dense streets of the Eighth Ward as children.
After failing in my first attempt at college at Ohio University in the early 1960s, I became a serious student for the first time, becoming an obsessively self-directed learner as I worked full-time at the Johnstown newspaper and fell in love with Judie all over again. We married when I was twenty and she was nineteen. As I pursued higher and higher education, mostly as a part-time student, she worked to support my ambitions, and I fully embarked on a decades-long project of transforming myself into a writer and an intellectual, a project of becoming something I was not yet. This sense of the possibility and even necessity of becoming something different and better than what you are is at the core of middle-class professionalism and its most positive attribute by my lights. For two or three decades I bought into middle class becoming hook, line, and sinker, while Judie did not. By statistical probabilities, we should have drifted apart. There were hard times, such as when I was at Northwestern pursuing a PhD in philosophy while she had never taken a college course. She would eventually get an accounting degree as an adult in the program I taught in at Roosevelt, and though she too would eventually become a middle-class professional by occupation, earning more than I did, Judie never sought to transform herself to suit an achievement-oriented culture beyond the dress and pleasant manners of the clerical worker she was for the first decades of her adulthood. She took herself as she was, lived in the present, and, though as cute and nice as can be, didn’t take shit from nobody. She frustrated me with her narrow parochialism and hesitancy to dream of a different life and a better self. I frustrated her with my head-in-the-clouds unreliability and how willing I was to test her patience discoursing on subjects she cared naught about. We both argued and fought about our experience of crossing classes, pushing and pulling each other in contrary directions, before we sorted out our differences. She began to be more tolerant and even adopt some middle-class ways, while I started, only half-consciously, to fall back to some working-class ones.
Though nobody should credit any universality to this unique occupational and marital experience, I learned a lot in the process and am hoping that what I learned may be valuable to others, especially to younger generations who are not used to thinking in these class terms. In any case, this is who I am and what I have to say.
An Argument, Not a Memoir
Though I’m going to draw a lot on my life, on my own observations and experience, this is not a memoir. Rather, it is an argument for and a defense of working-class culture as I have experienced it and an interpretation of how that culture differs from and complements the culture of the professional middle class.
As I have already indicated, my experience (and Judie’s) occurred in a unique historical period with a particularly dramatic character in the ways it transformed everyday life, first for good and then for ill. The first thirty or forty years of our lives was a golden age for the American working class, including all colors and genders, followed by multiple decades of erosion and decline up to the present. One of the most dramatic ways in which this is exhibited is that during our formative years nearly everybody (90 percent) improved their incomes and life conditions compared with less than a majority today.24 In the process the professional middle class expanded like wildfire, while at the same time working-class people, without changing their class position, bettered their lives year by year for nearly thirty years. The argument I make in part 1 is that beyond a historically unique shared economic prosperity, these three decades were also a golden age of collective action, of social movements and personal transformations, within which the two class cultures flourished. I do not want to go back to that time and place, as if that were possible, but I do want younger generations to appreciate what made it golden and see how and why we could and should extract some of that gold to move forward.
With my own life and time as context, part 2 makes the argument, against formidable opponents, that there is a genuine working-class culture that not only survived so-called affluence but also flourished in it and has retained a sturdy, if diminished, capacity to endure even as economic circumstances have deteriorated so badly. I do so by critiquing various texts that recognize the existence of an American working class (something not always noticed!) but explicitly argue that the working class has no genuine culture, being merely a receptacle, with appropriate cultural lags, of a dominant middle-class culture as it develops in a singular American mainstream. I then outline what I see as categorical differences between working-class and professional middle-class cultures. Here I draw heavily on my own observation and experience, relying primarily on a list of attributes Judie and I had worked out more than twenty years ago. But that list has since been supplemented (mostly confirmed but often productively contested) by the work of working-class studies scholars, American sociological heirs of Pierre Bourdieu, a couple of generations of labor and working-class historians, and pieces of the rich English tradition rooted in cultural studies. What emerges is but one descriptive interpretation of American working-class culture, one that may be significantly biased toward the “settled-living,” “routine-seeking” parts of the working class, especially those once or now in labor unions, but also is informed by others’ valuations and by different interpretations from other regions of American working-class life. My hope is that the reader will gain a larger sense of the richness and vitality of working-class life, thereby revealing what one-class interpretations of “mainstream culture” are missing when they do not see working-class habits of heart and mind as worthy and productive rivals to middle-class ones.
Part 3 attempts to deepen and broaden my analysis of certain key aspects of working-class life and culture while taking my cues from common middle-class misunderstandings, some of them self-serving and even vicious. Chapter 7, on the working-class strategy of ceding control to gain control, is probably the most original and contestable part of the book. Likewise, chapter 8, on the value of “taking it,” and chapter 9, on working-class realism, treat topics rarely addressed elsewhere.
These aspects of working-class life and culture are developed against what I see as a narrowing of middle-class culture, which is more and more in a protective crouch as we simultaneously defend against our own proletarianization while watching most of our fellow citizens’ work and lives become progressively harder, more constricted, degrading, and often dangerous. The economic pressures on middle-class professionals are strong to focus simply on keeping what we have and passing it on to our children with frenzied investments in their cultural capital. Not only will the math not work for many of us, but we are also losing those aspects of our culture that most gave us our claim to being a universal class, to being a justifiably dominant and mainstream culture.25
The epilogue suggests that middle-class aspiration, reconfigured to recover our broader vision and our own experience with collective action, can help spur a renewal of the working class’s culture of belonging and broaden and build on its parochial solidarity, as has happened in the past. There is evidence from our last two decades that this is occurring, though without the explicit self-consciousness of class cultures that could make it stronger. Restoring the Glorious Thirty’s steady expansion of discretionary income and free time for what you will is economically more feasible now than it was then. As is commonly said, we merely lack the political will to get back on the right track toward freedom and dignity for all. We lack this will, at least in part, because of our class cultural confusion. Specifically, the professional middle class mistakes its culture for the only genuine and valuable one and increasingly defines itself by its own best and brightest examples rather than by the broad extension of standard-issue middle-class mediocrity that could overlap so powerfully with an aroused working class.