Friday, February 3, 2012

Working Class Values, Part One

Anyone who deals with economics, ethics, or related fields hears the term “middle class values” spoken so often that it drops into our conversation almost casually. But, like the proverb about explaining water to a fish, many of us from middle class backgrounds, or with aspirations to better ourselves, don’t really know what this means. Even working class people who climb the social ladder quickly forget the difference between their station and their origin.

But, as Obery Hendricks observes, “individual and collective responses to actions, events, and pronouncements can be conditioned by and can also vary by class, culture, and certainly by social location.” As circumstances have forced me to temporarily move down the ladder, I’ve learned much about the working class roots I’d previously forgotten. And I’d like to share a few “working class values” I’ve had to rediscover working at the factory.

1. SHARING. Members of the working class present themselves as stalwart bastions of self-reliance. The expression “rugged individualism” dogs Western novels, John Birch broadsides, conservative economic principles, and even the rhetoric of trade unionists. Yet while working class people take self-reliance as a matter of pride, their speech often reveals how much they must share, just to stave off routine loneliness.

Any discussion with peers at the factory inevitably turns up intimate details. Saying “hello” to another worker can unleash a tide of personal revelations. And “How are you?,” a common greeting that requires no response but “fine” in the middle class, is taken literally. I’ve learned about fellow workers’ professional aspirations, marital discord, every cute thing their children have done, and even the details of one guy’s probation arrangement.

Middle class people wall themselves off, allowing only teasing glimpses into their private lives. This manifests physically in that emblem of middle class labor, the cubicle. Though water cooler conclaves and Facebook status updates permit brief insights, they come through a tit-for-tat economic exchange. Because laborers know their work is generally interchangeable, they can only make their mark on others through remarkable candor.

Closely related to this is:

2. BELLYACHING. Bosses, spouses, politicians, celebrities, and even co-workers out of earshot are all fair game. I’m under no illusions: I know my peers carp about me when I’m not there, though I don’t know what they say. Cultural critic Tex Sample says that workers regularly “argue, fuss, gripe, complain, moan, and gossip” as ways of asserting their autonomy.

Often, bellyaching is the only tool workers have to assert autonomy. We spend most of our working hours going where we’re told, doing what we’re told, when we’re told. Autonomy comes where we can get it. If that means mocking peers behind their backs, so be it. And, just as in the blues and country music that come from this same background, much working class discourse consists of running down the boss.

“Middle class values” call these spiteful and malicious actions, which we should stop at once. And these actions could have harmful consequences if misused. But without authority to grouse around, working class people have literally no power over their own lives. When a desk jockey who has time to noodle with a Rubik’s Cube tells us to stop the one area of working life we can control, surely resistance only makes sense.

3. SLOGANEERING. Women’s rights groups were rightly incensed recently when a department store chain briefly sold girls’ t-shirts emblazoned with “I’m Too Pretty To Do Homework.” But t-shirt and bumper sticker slogans permit workers to broadcast value statements that could get them in trouble if spoken aloud. Imagine if an assembly line worker shouted these on the factory floor:

  • A bad day fishing is better than a good day working
  • I put the “pro” in “procrastination”
  • You don’t have to be crazy to work here—we’ll train you
  • What has two thumbs and needs a beer? This guy
  • Take this job and shove it

Simple slogans permit workers to bond around their shared sense of alienation in the face of mind-numbing work. Note that favored slogans work as shibboleths to identify who’s in and who’s out. Work is no place for political slogans, which gin up sides; even my “Obama '08” bumper sticker earns some weird looks. Working class slogans are in-group references, not polarizing opinions.

4. READING. I can charitably describe workers’ relationships with books as complex and loaded. Because this dovetails so precisely with my own personal and educational background, I’d like to dedicate an entire entry to this topic. Please stay tuned.


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