Why Does Class Matter?by Peter St. Clair
Does class matter? Steve Fraser answers with a “Duh” in the introduction to his new book, Class Matters: The Strange Career of an American Delusion.1 “Duh” as in “obviously, it matters,” given the results of the 2016 election. Fraser, like most commentators, attributes the disaffection of the white working class from the Democratic candidate as the main reason Trump won. Although there is some debate about just how many Trump voters could be considered working-class, the election certainly brought the subject of class to the fore.2 The image of the rust belt rising, of disgruntled blue-collar workers lashing out at a system that has rendered them obsolete, is a compelling one. It’s a timely moment for Steve Fraser’s excursion into the history and importance of class in America.
The subtitle of his book is an allusion to The Strange Career of Jim Crow, C. Vann Woodward’s 1955 seminal history of racial segregation in the United States. Woodward overturned the standard theory that segregation was a natural outgrowth of slavery by showing how it was only established over a period of decades following the end of Reconstruction as an evolving experiment in social control of the freed slaves by the white power structure in the South. Similarly, Fraser intends to challenge the standard conception of the role of class in American history. That conception, we are told, holds that “class in America doesn’t exist or is going out of existence” and “treat(s) even traces of class animosity as a sacrilege.” Fraser’s aim is to show that class has often lived an underground existence and, despite its denial, it has always mattered and still does today.
When speaking of class, though, it is important to define what we are talking about. The same term can mean different things to different people depending on their own perspective and class. “Working class” can be a particularly slippery entity to corral, which is part of the point Fraser makes. Like “socialism,” it’s a word that has been expunged from respectable political discourse in America since the Second World War, replaced by “middle class,” the term he calls “no class” at all. Class by the mid-20th century had lost its association with work, and is now defined according to income. There is the upper class at the top, the lower class on the bottom, and then the middle class, the vast space covering everyone in between.
However, for Steve Fraser, and for anyone trying to make sense of power relations that have governed America throughout its history, “working class” still has meaning. There are two aspects to the concept of class. There is class in the theoretical sense, as used by Marx to point out the essential social relation in the accumulation of capital, the expropriation of surplus value from the wage worker at the point of production by the owners of capital. The two classes, the working class and the capitalist class, are the primary social entities in the abstract model Marx developed to explain the dynamics of the capitalist system. Marx’s model was used to explain real social relations between actual people as they operate in the world, and there is another more concrete aspect to class. These actual individual members of the working class embody all the messy cultural accoutrements they acquire in the social world they live in. The biases, preferences, and distinctive tastes that affect and ultimately constitute an individual’s identity and self-conception are themselves determined by a complex of factors related to family, age, gender, local community, country, physical attributes, etc. but within a social field of hierarchical power relations in which their class—that is, their need or lack of need to work for wages—plays an all-important part.
In the actual course of life, individuals may change their relationship to wage work or even lead a hybrid life as a worker and a capitalist, working for wages part of the time and running some small business enterprise some of the time. Many wage workers also earn enough to make investments in stocks and bonds, becoming in effect small-time capitalists. None of this affects the theory of value or changes the dynamic of surplus value expropriation as the source of the accumulation of capital, but it does reveal the complexity involved in discussing class and how it matters.
The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu did compelling work in analysing how class identity and differences in tastes are acquired by individuals within social groups and institutions, how their position within a social field predisposes them to certain tastes, inclinations, predilections, and preferences in everything from music and clothes to habits and lifestyle and how these predispositions and biases are embodied in an individual’s language, movement, and mannerisms.
Bourdieu also claims that unless a class is aware of itself as a class, it is nothing. Unless people self-identify as working-class, for instance, “ready to mobilize in pursuit of their common interest,” then the working class does not exist in any practical way.3 However, even if a class exists only in theory, if that class theory correctly explains real social relationships that divide society into classes and have the power not only to determine outcomes in individuals lives, but also outcomes in the unfolding of human history, then the potential for self-conscious mobilization is always present and liable to become manifest when social crisis looms.
It is this potential for class mobilization within the actual history of class antagonisms in the American past and present that Steve Fraser focuses on. A historian who has written several books about the labor movement, Wall Street, and class divisions in America, he is able to enliven his history with some interesting narrative. The book is structured around six pivotal moments or iconic images that say something about how the country has dealt with the issue of class divisions in the past. Fraser has also been an activist throughout his life, and sprinkles accounts of his own past adventures into the mix. Some of these are truly amazing stories, like the time in the 1960s when he and his roomates, activists with the Alliance for Jobs, Housing and Education, were arrested in Philadelphia for planning to blow up the Liberty Bell. They had been set up and framed with bombing materials planted in their refrigerator by the FBI. This story is used to illustrate the effects of the U.S. Constitution, when a judge eventually dismissed the charges because the FBI failed to turn over surveillance records to the defense. His point was that he owed his freedom, “loosely speaking,” to the existence of the Bill of Rights, itself the result of struggles along class lines, conflicts between the “monied men” and the poorer men over the ratification of the Constitution in 1789. The monied men, the Federalists, won but they were forced to include the Bill of Rights as the price of acceptance by the yeoman farmers who made up the bulk of the population.
I grew up in a conservative working-class family in Brooklyn in the 1950s. Steve Fraser also grew up in the ’50s in New York City and many of his cultural references and biographical vignettes seem to be addressed specifically to our generation. He has a chapter on the cowboy as an American icon, a romanticized superhero and paragon of the rugged individual that boys coming of age in the ’50s absorbed into the marrow of their bones. The actual cowboy was a proletarian cattle driver, recruited by large, sometimes internationally-owned cattle companies to fill a demand for meat on the world market that could be met by driving huge herds of cattle over lands recently ethnically cleansed of their native inhabitants, to railheads on railroads newly constructed with federal subsidies. The work was hard, dangerous, tedious, low-paying, and seasonal. Fraser tells this tale well, pointing out how the class position of the cowboy, the large business enterprises that employed him, and the extermination of Native Americans were erased from the popular portrayals in the movies and on TV, as cowboys and the Western were fashioned into myths of individual righteousness and self-sufficiency. Any class antagonisms were hidden behind cultural differences between the cowboy—a strong independent white male living a natural life—and the over-educated “effeminate” easterner often made the foil in cowboy stories. These ingrained tales instilled in us as American boys a certain macho disdain for the mild-mannered intellectual in favor of the rough and tough hero.
His other examples likewise combine history with analysis and his personal experiences living in an American society that denies class differences while actual class relationships are manifest all around.
I would guess that Steve Fraser, as a leftist activist in the ’60s and ’70s, has been fully aware of the class divide in America for quite some time. Despite my own conservative upbringing with parents who praised the anti-communist witch hunt of Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon and were enamored by Barry Goldwater, I became engrossed in Marxism early on, which led to a lifelong interest in issues of class. Although my family defined themselves as middle-class, it was a definitely working-class life that I grew up in, and I later wondered how they had become so conservative. My grandparents were Democrats and supporters of FDR, so what happened to that next generation? It’s an important question that has in some ways defined American politics since the Reagan era and the one that Class Matters struggles to come to grips with.
There are a lot of reasons for this triumph of conservatism in the post-war era, on many of which Fraser touches. The post-war economic boom and the growth of consumerism are addressed in his chapter on the famous kitchen debate between Nikita Khrushchev and Vice President Richard Nixon in Moscow in 1959. As he puts it, “For generations of nineteenth century Americans, the threat to their independence was wage slavery; land or other kinds of property (workshops, stores, professional assets) could function as prophylactics against becoming proletarian.” Suburban consumerism replaced depression-era class consciousness. Where wage workers could once dream of escaping from wage slavery by property ownership, by the 1960s wage labor was the accepted status for all, but was no longer considered wage slavery.
McCarthyism and the feverish anti-communism of the cold-war era also had a tremendous effect on the political ideology of working-class America. As Fraser puts it, “McCarthyism was a political plague ... It infected every facet of social justice movements, legislative reforms, government agencies, ideological convictions, constitutional protections, civil liberties, civic organizations, school curricula, and channels of popular culture, including especially Hollywood.” This eradication of every remnant of the New Deal paved the way for a conservative cultural revolution and gave an ideological underpinning to the felt rejection of class consciousness.
There was, however, a current of criticism of consumerism and conformity in the ‘50s as well, and Fraser takes us through a survey of some of the more prominent critics, from Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, about the powers of Madison Avenue, to William Whyte’s The Organization Man, and authors like Dwight MacDonald and Hannah Arendt who criticized “mass society” and its cultural conformity.
This same aversion to consumerism and the vacuousness of mass culture led many in the baby boomer generation to rebel against suburban uniformity and conservatism. During the ‘60s and early ‘70s, the heyday of the youth movement, the student, anti-war, civil rights, and women’s movements had a tremendous influence in changing attitudes among young people. Other than civil rights, these movements were seen as primarily middle-class affairs but there was a powerful cultural wave that affected all classes and had strong reverberations throughout the population of working class youth. Much of this change involved rejection of the values of the older generation of Americans, the WWII generation that had come through the depression and the war.
Although the New Left had a connection to the Old Left through a few academics, intellectuals, and some sons and daughters of old leftists, the purges of the McCarthy era caused a rupture in left-wing politics that produced a new left somewhat unmoored and forced to build a new movement from the ground up. Both the organized politics of the New Left and the more amorphous cultural movement that surrounded it had influence far beyond their immediate environs through the transmission of music, lifestyles, and attitudes. There was a struggle between left and right among working-class whites that was partly generational and partly geographic, and changed over time as young high-school and college students entered the workplace. What was going on at this time in the seventies among the white working class was indicative of forces that had been at play for a long time in American history. Attitudes toward race, patriotism, masculinity, and elitism that have shaped and continue to shape working-class identity today were struggled over, as events like the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement upended the political status quo.
While there were many among the white working class who identified with the New Left, participated in demonstrations, and adopted counterculture lifestyles, there were plenty who rejected the hippy culture and opposed left and liberal ideas with a hyper-masculine, xenophobic nationalism tainted with white supremacy and anti-intellectualism. No discussion of class in America can ignore white supremacy. As David Roediger and others have argued, racial divisions are part and parcel of the logic of capital. From the very origins of capitalism, dividing working-class people against each other has proven to be an effective and essential social control mechanism without which the capital-labor relationship would break down.4
Fraser, however, seems to object to designating racial discrimination as a key factor in the production of poverty among African Americans, instead blaming the sources of power and wealth that structure the economy, as if the two were mutually exclusive. In the close of his chapter on Martin Luther King and the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, he writes that blaming white racism for the problems that led to ghetto riots in the late ‘60s, while “in some sense true, is also a grand evasion. Off the hook were the sources of power and wealth ... instead the whole tribe of whites, from bottom-dwelling ‘trash’ to ‘privileged’ blue-collar ‘aristocrats’ and on upward into the guilt-ridden ranks of the well-off suburban middle class, was to wear the hair shirt.” One can recognize that the source of “poverty and its racial manifestations” lies in the “political economy of mid-century capitalism” without dismissing concepts of white advantage or characterizing attempts to address white racism as modes of an ideology that “beat itself up about ‘white skin privilege.’” Posing such oppositions risks letting white working-class racism off the hook in the attempt to focus anger on class relations. If American history teaches us anything, it is that white working-class racism has imposed a terrible legacy on attempts to mobilize class action against the corporate power of the capitalist state.
There is no doubt that a consciousness of class is a necessary prerequisite for an effective challenge to the sources of poverty and misery. The power to remake society so that it meets the needs of all people in it and not just the top percentages is in the hands of those who do the work that everyday reproduces the web of social interactions on which our mutual survival depends.
Fraser’s point is: class matters, and this has been denied in America. But the question is: why does it matter? It matters because of the role class plays in the structure of the society and the role it must play in the transformation of society, a transformation that is necessary not only for the betterment of people’s lives, but given the existential threats of climate change and nuclear annihilation, for the very survival of human society on the planet. The working class in the broadest sense can save human society from the reckless course it is on. It and it alone has the power to transform a capitalist society whose very logic compels it to ignore the well-being of its members in the pursuit of accumulation and profit.
Class matters because of this and because of the subjective viewpoint that a recognition of class can give to a member of the working class. This viewpoint, that of class solidarity, is a necessary ingredient in forging an identity of unity with the rest of human beings on the planet. It is essential in overcoming the divisiveness engendered by nationalism, religious chauvinism, racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudicial behavior.
Class matters because it is by means of class awareness that the human race can begin to embrace their common humanity, their “species being,” as Marx called it, that supersedes all the other identities that individuals adopt. The existential crisis that the human race faces—the climate catastrophe and the threat of nuclear annihilation—demands this. It demands that human society free itself from the short-term interests of capital and capitalists, and fashion a society that can deal with the crisis effectively and collectively. The recognition of the importance of class is the first step in the abolition of classes and the establishment of a universal human identity as the foundation for one world of equality, justice, and mutual social well-being.
This view, however, seems to be antithetical to Steve Fraser’s reasoning about class. Indeed, he rejects the idea of “species being” as akin to the American notion of a nation without classes and “without any telltale signs of earthier origins of makeup.” He feels that this orthodox Marxist view is a hopeless idealization of the working class, a bloodless myth without the real cultural attachments to ethnic, racial, and religious identity that constitute living human working-class people. He refers to the 2016 election of Donald Trump as evidence of a real—as opposed to mythic—proletariat “pockmarked by all those historical bruises.” Despite obvious hostility toward the corporate elite, many of them were led by their racial, ethnic, and cultural affinities to support Trump in a misguided expression of opposition to corporate and financial elites in the halls of power.
The question is, how does one escape this mindset? Is there an appeal to class awareness that addresses this disfunction? As Fraser points out, American society has always chosen to deal with social conflict by “reconceiving class divisions … as ones involving race or other forms of … volitional identity.” Correcting the historical record as he has attempted to do is a good place to start to overcome this divisiveness, but no degree of re-education is likely to overcome the power of the ruling ideology that, as he notes, works overtime to avoid the notion of class as a political or social force. So by the end of Class Matters, we are left with little in the way of hopeful signs.
However, capitalism is a revolutionary social formation forever undergoing change as new technologies, new businesses, alterations in the means of production, political upheaval, and economic crises affect how power and resistance to oppression play out on the world stage. While history provides us with the only laboratory we have to examine human social formation, it can inhibit our appreciation for new and unique situations and radically new conditions.
Humanity has reached this point of power over the world it inhabits not solely due to any special attributes of individual specimens, but because of the complexity of social organization that humans have attained. The success of the human species on the planet, and the human ability to discover deep secrets of the universe and our own place in it, is the result of our remarkable ability to form ourselves into a greater and greater social web in which the labor and mental power of all the world’s individuals are joined. We have evolved through the eons of life on earth and can trace our origins back in time through the cosmos to the origin of the universe. We are the consciousness, in this sense, of the universe itself, contemplating itself.
The irony in all of this is that the consciousness has been reached largely through the unconscious processes of capitalism, through laws of capitalist development that human knowledge, science, and technology have advanced thus far by merely following capital’s demands for profit and accumulation. The system has its limits and we seem to be witnessing the end of those limits now. The hope for humankind is that this unconscious process can be seized and brought under the control of conscious human planning and organization. It is through the effort of the workers of the world, who do the work and reproduce the social system itself, that this can happen. It is through the workers of the world realizing their common class interest that they can unite to end the social system that relies on class oppression to function, and found a new society free from classes.
Although American history—and, for that matter, world history—gives little indication of this happening, we are in a new and unique era where the human specialty of successful social organization must be called upon to respond.
- Steve Fraser, Class Matters, The Strange Career of an American Delusion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018).
- “It’s Time to Bust the Myth: Most Trump Voters were Not Working Class.” Washington Post, June 5, 2017:
- Pierre Bourdieu, “What Makes a Social Class? On the Theoretical and Practical Existence of Groups,” Berkeley Journal of Sociology. https://edisciplinas.usp.br/pluginfile.php/2290040/mod_resource/content/1/Bourdieu%20-%20What%20makes%20a%20social%20class.pd
- See David Roediger, Class, Race and Marxism (London: Verso 2017).
ContributorPeter St. Clair
PETER ST. CLAIR was born and raised in Brooklyn and served thirty-three years on the Somerville, Massachusetts Fire Department before retiring as a Deputy Chief in 2010.