In and Out of the Working Class
Book by Michael D. Yates; Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2009, 170 pp.
Michael D. Yates, a leading radical political economist in the U.S., focuses on economics and politics from a working-class view. This stance made him as popular as wet socks on a cold, windy day at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. From 1969 to 2001 he swam against the current there as a professor of economics. How does his life experience connect with readers today? Some answers may emerge from the author’s new book In and Out of the Working Class.
Yates writes poignantly of working people, such as himself, in households, schools, and workplaces. Two pieces of fiction bookend his collection. In the first, a young boy wrestles with the siren call of gambling. The narrative voice is vivid. Tension builds as the stakes rise in bowling alleys and pool halls. A resolution to the character’s risk-taking surprises. In the final story, an adult seeks fortune at the race track. Yates’s fiction illustrates the hardscrabble realities of working-class lives that propel some people to gamble what scant resources they have.
Back in Yates’s working-class community of Ford City in western Pennsylvania, a plate glass factory offered union employment. There, intersections of class, gender, and race infused his coming of age after WWII. Then, labor unions were strong and working people such as Yates and his family shared in their productivity gains. In the nonfiction pieces, he animates the ebbs and flows of these and the less prosperous times to follow though the lens of his parents, grandmother, friends, students, and coworkers. He gains employment as a factory laborer, then becomes a college professor of economics. Later, disillusioned, he leaves the academy to co-edit Monthly Review, write books, and travel around the U.S.
Yates doesn’t forget his roots, but also does not romanticize the working class. Instead, he writes about its meanings. They range from finding and keeping employment to the psychic price involved. To this end, he recounts efforts, in and out of labor unions, to address the built-in lack of equality in capitalist America, rife with divisions of gender and skin color.
It is a remarkable route he took to becoming a radical. An essay on his performing in a minstrel show as a young teen makes for painful reading. Under a teacher’s direction, white male youth blacken their faces and mock African Americans in dress and speech. Clearly, Yates comes from a place of racial intolerance, but learned from the experience. On the labor education front, at one point Yates was the lead researcher with the United Farm Workers. Oppressed farm workers and their allies forge first-ever contracts with growers and packers. Tragically, such forces roll back these gains over time. Yates unpacks the harsh realities of these lessons.
As a new economics professor, Yates immersed himself in the economics of Adam Smith and David Ricardo. Getting his legs in this new post, Yates wrote over 1,000 pages of lecture notes for the 5 classes he taught. In the meantime, Yates recounts hometown friends coming back from the jungles of southeast Asia as broken shells of their former selves. This deepened Yates’s questioning of and acting against the guardians of the establishment. He writes of the price he paid for that opposition in alienation from fellow professors and college administrators. Yet he would do it again in a heartbeat.
As the black freedom and anti-Vietnam War movements grew during the 1960s, he discovered radical economic theory, notably that of Karl Marx. His critique of capitalist production as a pursuit of wealth through the logic of class exploitation moved to the top of Yates’s list of intellectual influences. It has stayed there since, which is not to say that he gives all like-minded radicals a free pass. His essays drip with criticism of self and other rebels.
In and Out of the Working Class opens a window to social realities for readers facing the climate, food, fuel, home foreclosure, health care, and jobs crises, proof that writers with a consciousness forged in struggles can inspire as they voice alternative views of what is possible and offer radical ways to think and act.