The Silenced Majority
YOU MAY not have noticed, but 50,000 U.S. coal miners were on strike for
four months this spring and summer 1989. The 10-state strike featured the
unprecedented mass application of nonviolent civil disobedience to a labor
struggle: Thousands of miners and family members have been arrested for
peacefully blocking mine entrances. Troops have been called in; they have,
in some instances, fired on the strikers.
It is possible to read the papers with some diligence and completely miss
the coal miners’ strike. Meanwhile, the papers I read gave front- page
coverage and daily updates of the Soviet coal miners’ strike. I do not
grudge a bit of this coverage to the brave miners of Siberia; there were
more of them (100,000) and they inhabit a place that has until recently
fancied itself a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” In fact, the Russian
strike gave us an idea of what decent labor coverage might be like if the
American media were to attempt it: the workers’ demands were presented
sympathetically; the larger ramifications of the strike were duly analyzed;
and individual strike leaders were profiled in an appealing, human-interest
The eclipse of the American coal miners reflects the media’s usual preference
for labor insurgency in foreign —ideally, communist, societies—a preference
stunningly illustrated by the ecstatic coverage granted to Solidarity in
1981, just as the American flight controllers were being ground under the
heel of capital. But it also reflects an entirely local phenomenon: the
disappearance of the American working class—from the media, from intellectual
concern, or more generally, from the mind of the American middle class.
A quick definition: By “working class” I mean not only industrial workers
in hard-hats, but all those people who are not professionals, managers,
or entrepreneurs; who work for wages rather than salaries; and who spend
their working hours variously lifting, bending, driving, monitoring, keyboarding,
cleaning, providing physical care for others, loading, unloading, cooking,
serving, etc. The working class so defined comprises 60 to 70 percent of
the U.S. population.
By “middle class” I mean the “professional middle class,” the “professional-managerial
class,” or what intellectuals often call the “new class” and Michael Albert
calls the “coordinator class.” This group includes the journalists, professors,
media executives, etc. who are responsible, in a day-to-day sense, for
what we do or do not see in the media, read about, or understand to be
an “issue.” The middle class so defined amounts to no more than 20 percent
of the U.S. population.
So when I say the working class is disappearing I do not mean just a particular
minority group favored, for theoretical reasons, by leftists. I mean the
American majority. And I am laying the blame not only on the corporate
sponsors of the media, who undoubtedly prefer to have us think that everyone
is either a capitalist or a “consumer,” but on many less wealthy and powerful
people. Media people for example. People who are, in their lifestyles and
expectations, not too different from myself, and possibly also you.
The American working class has never received publicity in proportion to
its numbers. It did, however, enjoy a brief modishness in the 1970s, following
its “discovery” by the media in 1969. This discovery was in many ways parallel
to the “discovery” of poverty six years earlier: A previously unsuspected
group was unveiled, with great fanfare, on the covers of the national newsmagazines,
examined in television specials, and seized upon by academics. As with
the poor, the discovery of the working class was grievously flawed by the
prejudices and preconceptions of the discoverers (on which more in a minute).
But for a few years at least, the working class enjoyed the attention of
Hollywood (The Deer Hunter, Blue Collar, Saturday Night Fever, etc.) and
of journalists and academics (who produced dozens of books and articles
on “work in America,” the “neglected majority,” and so forth.)
Then in the 1980s the working class dropped from sight. Hollywood lost
interest, and on television there are only three sitcoms, as far as I can
tell, to remind us that every family is not supported by a doctor-lawyer
team. Joann Mort of ACTWU has documented the precipitous decline of labor
coverage in the newspapers, leaving the labor reporting that does go on
increasingly in the hands of the business section.
In academia, the decline of the working class has been, if anything, even
more complete. As a friend explained to me, speaking of his academic colleagues,
“class is out of style.” In their rush to shake off Marxist orthodoxy,
many academic intellectuals have simply dropped class as a relevant category.
Gender is still of some interest, though I must admit it is hard for me
to tell what is going on anymore in the ever-so-arch, pun- happy “discourse”
of the postmodern professoriate.
So it is possible for a middle class person today to read the papers, watch
television, even go to college, without suspecting that America has any
inhabitants other than white-collar operatives and, of course, the annoyingly
persistent “black underclass.” The producers of public affairs talk shows
do not blush to serve up four upper-income professionals (all, incidentally,
white, male, and conservative) to ponder the minimum wage or the possible
need for health insurance. Never, needless to say, an uninsured breadwinner
or an actual recipient of the minimum wage. Working class people are likely
to cross the screen only as witnesses to crimes or sports events, never
as commentators or—even when their own lives are under discussion—as “experts.”
Most contemporary fiction shows a similar narrowness. A typical “quality”
novel of recent vintage will explore the relationships and reveries of
people who live in large houses and employ at least one servant to manage
all those details of daily living that are extraneous to the plot. E.L.
Doctorow has observed that when a novel featuring other sorts of people—poor
or working class—does come along, it is usually judged to be “political”
in intent, meaning that it does not qualify as “art.”
The disappearance of the working class reflects—and reinforces—the long-standing
cultural insularity of the professional middle class. Why did the working
class, or the poor, have to be “discovered” in the first place? From whose
vantage point were they missing? If anything, the natural solipsism of
the professional middle class has increased with the class polarizing trends
of the 1980s. Compared to say a decade ago, the classes are less likely
to mix in college (with the decline of financial aid), in residential neighborhoods
(with the gluttonous rise in real estate prices), or even in the malls
(with the now almost universal segmentation of the retail industry into
upscale and downscale components). Only the homeless disturb the middle
class’s contemplation of itself and its self-images—which is to say, the
poor can get attention only by going outdoors and literally lying down
in the path of their betters.
In the absence of real contact or communication, stereotypes march on unchallenged,
prejudices easily substitute for knowledge. The most intractable stereotype
is of the working class (which is, in imagination, only white) as a collection
of reactionaries and bigots—as reflected, for example, in the use of the
terms “hard-hat” or “redneck” as class slurs. Middle class leftists are
by no means immune from this prejudice, and suffer immensely from their
supposed rejection at the hands of the working class.
The truth is that, statistically and collectively, the working class is
far more reliably liberal than the professional middle class. It was more,
not less, opposed to the war in Vietnam. It is more, not less, disposed
to vote for a Democrat for president (and with a “class gap” that is usually
many points larger than the gender gap.) And thanks to the careful, quantitative
studies of Canadian historian Richard F. Hamilton, we know that the white
working class (at least outside the south) is no more racist, and by some
measures less so, than the white professional class.
Even deeper than the stereotype of the hard-hat bigot lies the middle class
suspicion that the working class is dumb, inarticulate, and mindlessly
loyal to archaic values. In the entertainment media, for example, the working
class is usually a setting for macho exhibitionism (from Saturday Night
Fever to, in cameo, Working Girl) or mental impairment (“Married With Children”).
Mainstream sociologists have reinforced this prejudice with their emphasis
on working class “parochialism,” as, for example, in this quote from a
1976 beginning sociology textbook: “Their limited education, reading habits
and associations isolate the lower class…and this ignorance, together
with their class position, makes them suspicious of [the] middle-and upper-class
‘experts’ and ‘do-gooders’…”
On the left, these prejudices often manifest themselves in a reluctance
to feature working class people in conferences and other sorts of public
events. For example, when someone suggested that a coal miner be invited
to speak at an upcoming left gathering, the objection was immediately raised
that some (white) coal miners are racists. No doubt they are. But if the
proposal had been to invite, say, “an economist,” I doubt that anyone would
have made the reasonable objection that some economists are racists.
Similarly, the proposal of a “lower class” participant of any color is
likely to elicit the question: “But is he or she articulate?” Again, middle
class people do not raise this question in the case of, say, economists.
The assumption that the working class is nonverbal or verbally deprived
does not, of course, encourage meaningful communication between the classes.
Finally there is a level of prejudice which grows out of middle class moralism
about matters of taste. All privileged classes seek to differentiate themselves
from the less-privileged through the ways they dress, eat, entertain themselves,
and so on; and tend to see their own choices in these matters as inherently
wiser, better, and more aesthetically inspired. In middle class stereotype,
the white working class, for example, is addicted to cigarettes, Budweiser,
polyester, and network television. (In part this is true, and it is true
in part because Bud is cheaper than Dos Equis and polyester is cheaper
than linen.) Furthermore, in the middle class view, polyester, etc., is
“tacky”—a common code word for “lower class.” Health concerns, plus a certain
reverence for the “natural” in matters of food and fiber, enfuse these
middle class prejudices with a high- minded tone of moral indignation.
I do not raise these concerns to stir up guilt or with the idea of reinstating
the working class as the “agent of revolution” in the classical Marxist
sense. Guilt is an ugly emotion which has led to much mischief on the left.
And as for being the “agent of revolution”—or whatever large tasks middle
class intellectuals would like to assign it—I think the working class has
shouldered this theoretical burden for far too long.
But I am alarmed by what seems to me to be the growing parochialism of
the professional middle class—living in its own social and residential
enclaves, condemned to hear only the opinions of its own members (or, of
course, of the truly rich), and cut off from the lives and struggles and
insights of the American majority. This parochialism is insidiously self-reinforcing:
The less “we” know about “them,” the more likely “we” are to cling to our
stereotypes—or forget “them” altogether.
This parochialism afflicts many people in the middle class left—sometimes
even those who most loudly trumpet Marxist rhetoric—as well as middle class
liberals, conservatives, and so forth. It does not make those who suffer
from it bad people. It does not invalidate them as social activists or
agents of change. But it does deprive them. The one clear price of being
cut off from the majority is, for the time being, only ignorance.