Klein's point, I think, is that I fall into the trap of talking about white guys as a false
proxy for the working class when there were profound changes at work creating the "new" working class. I will argue that the problem, even the tautology, is the nation's, not mine.
(BTW: For those who have not read the book, don't get the wrong idea. There's plenty of 9 to 5 [the movement and the movie], the Farah Strike, CLUW, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Norma Rae, etc. Salon's Joan Walsh called the book "impossibly fair" because of its evenhandedness. So I hope the question is one of interpretation, not chauvinist oversight.)
Let's begin with the nub of Klein's critique:
"During the decade, the health-care sector became one of the largest employers of women, with millions of new jobs in hospitals, nursing homes, community health centers, home health agencies, and non-profits. African Americans, women, and Latinos flooded into unions like the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees union. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) organized not just middle-class teachers but classroom aides, bus drivers, and other school personnel. The predominantly female, immigrant, and African-American working class and labor movement of today has its roots in the 1970s."
Beyond a doubt, the working class and its institutions became diversified in the 1970s as women and minorities not only gained access to better jobs, but unions also changed who they represented. This connects neatly to what Sue Cobble has said as well as Nancy MacLean's magnificent accomplishment in documenting the "opening of the American workplace" in Freedom is Not Enough. And, undoubtedly, any future working-class identity will be constructed out of the struggles of immigrants, women, and minorities. It is impossible to argue against that.
Yet there was a dual movement of the seventies: the collapse of class, and the rise of occupational diversity. What we need to be able to talk about is diversification and decline, and the diversification of decline without blaming diversification for the decline. We need both discursive streams if we're going to get anywhere. Moreover, what I am talking about is not so much the material reality than how we think about ourselves as a society, which are not always connected. Stayin' Alive is about the history, practice, and failure of an idea--the last days of a society in which class was included as part of its understanding of itself. This is something I regarded as a core argument in the book, but it seems to fall on deaf ears since we only seem to be able to hear one or the other in American political discourse. So, I would like to set my argument straight for any reader who may have missed it (and perhaps it is too easily overlooked since I also tried to write in an accessible, narrative style).
With a nod to the era's cinema, I offer five easy pieces to my argument:
Piece One: The term "working class" is, by any objective and fair measure, a gender neutral, multi-racial collective. Always has been, always will be. It is even more so now. Our discursive world should be filled with working-class blacks, working-class women, working-class latina/os, working class men, working class whites, etc. But it's not. There's diversity in our present state of civic life, but, sadly, there is no working class. Class as structure is everywhere, but as an issue of identity it is almost nowhere.
Piece Two: The failure of Piece One is that objectivity has nothing to do with it. Taking queues from gender and race studies (and ditching the sociologists' attempts to rigorously define "the" working class), in Stayin' Alive I chose to explore how the term "working class" is socially, economically, culturally, and politically constructed and deconstructed in any given period. As David Roediger and umpteen other scholars have shown, "working class" has been historically constructed to be white and male. This is the tragedy of American labor history.
Piece Three: In the 1970s, a host of challenges beset even the tragically limited and fragile white and male definition of "working class." There was the possibility and hope of expanding the term in the civic imagination to include a more capacious and honest understanding of the term, but the idea of the working class itself collapsed (largely due to the intransigence of those very white males and their leaders). To paraphrase Bob Dylan, "any working class not busy being born is busy dying."
Piece Four: Just as race and gender became important axes around which politics turned in the seventies and beyond, class as a central way of understanding civic life all but completely dissolved. The "psychic meltdown" of white-male working class identity took the entire category of class down with it (though they are certainly not the same thing), leaving women and minorities little public class identity to which they could appeal. This left a very gendered and racialized, but classless, understanding of occupational and political life--not just for women and minorities but white guys as well. Working class identity became a lot of things (race, culture, nation, immigration), but collective, inclusive, and economic were not among them. Most significantly, white guys chose their own brand of identity politics--often based on defensive resentments that risk tipping into belligerence.
Piece Five: On the backs of this problem rode the massive levels of inequality we have today. The wealth pyramid may be more diverse than ever, but it is also as unequal as it was during the days of the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age. So, yes, the occupational world is extraordinarily diverse today, but it provides less space for questions of class than in any other time since the industrial revolution. That is why I pick up on the Sennett and Cobbs' term "the inner class war" to describe the new paradigm. This is the tragedy of the 1970s.
So when Klein refers to the "working class and labor movement of today," I counter that they barely exist in terms of how we think of ourselves as society. This is the labor insider's problem. Get outside of the labor world, and it's frightening how quickly these issues fade to irrelevance. If we put the term "working class" into an intriguing technological toy that lots of people are playing with these days, Google Labs' Books Ngram Viewer, we can track the occurrence of the term "working class" in American English books published in the last one hundred years. Here's what we get:
|Occurrence of the Term "working class" in American Books|
Note how the usage of the term "working class" rockets up in the thirties as the New Deal and the CIO do their thing, then reaches a certain complacency in the postwar era, and then shoots back up, peaking around 1978, before tumbling back down to the pre-New Deal era. The latter part of that graph is the story that I'm trying to tell. You could superimpose a number of graphs right over that: union density, inequality, minimum wage, etc. So, yes, the working class is out there, and it is indeed diverse, but we're not talking about it. And that's the problem.
Stayin' Alive is, mostly, about white guys and class as a masculine construct, and that is the entire problem with the popular definition of the "working class" in the 1970s (and before, and beyond). It was the failure to diversify the idea--not the reality--of the working class in the 1970s that makes for the tragedy of labor history. Hell, even A.O. Scott in yesterday's NYT understands that "race and class tend to be treated as mutually exclusive concepts rather than as strands in the same contradictory knot." That's why AFSCME's Jerry Wurf is the Cassandra of the seventies, voted down consistently by two dozen other union heads on the AFL-CIO executive board as he tried to explain that they were in the midst of a crisis. As Wurf prophetically explained about labor's clinging to the white, male, industrial sectors in 1974,
"We can stand pat as a movement that represents a declining percentage of the workforce, and watch our influence over national direction slip away. Or we can make ourselves more relevant to the needs of workers in a postindustrial society, and become an even more substantial voice in the shaping of the future than in the past. If labor is weakened, society is more likely to close out the poor and the powerless whom labor seeks to represent." (Stayin' Alive, p. 62).
So, as Klein reminds us, the diversity of the public and health care sectors is alive and well. But so are low pay, vulnerability, and fragmented political power. The unions that represent them are sinking slowly but steadily, quarreling over who gets what piece of the wreckage as the whole thing goes down. I know the long list of heroic exceptions to that statement, but they don't make up for the overall trend: they are the hopeful exceptions. And anyone celebrating the public sector unions of today better figure out how a non-union, contingent, part time, low-wage, third-class private sector is going to be able to pay for a first class public sector. It's not looking good. We occasionally discuss rising inequality in the mainstream press, but we never discuss what causes it: the maldistribution of class power.
If I were reviewing this book, I'd ask a slightly different question than Klein goes for: what does the subtitle, "last days of the working class" mean? Does it mean the last throes of a white, industrial, male paradigm like that represented by my protagonist Dewey Burton? Or does it mean the defeat of a problem, the "labor question," that has haunted all of modernity, but is now vanquished, fading into the postmodern haze? Let's hope for the former, but there's a hell of a lot of work to do. My goal in this book was to clear the decks for that work to begin.
Although Klein also seems to think my book is mainly about popular culture (it's not, only about one fourth of it is), she is quite right that I should have included Loretta Lynn (the other people she says that I fail to mention are from the working class but not really discussing the working class, which is how I selected my subjects). As Klein explains, Lynn "expressed class in conflicted ways–sometimes defiant, sometimes nostalgic, and certainly gendered." Lynn brilliantly represents the often quiet, personal, but core cultural transformations brought about by the daily struggles of working class women in the seventies around sexuality and power in domestic life. Yet her themes are about the important ways that working-class women found some level of personal liberation in the seventies--certainly important and deserving of a book itself--but not about the public, collective economic identity that I'm trying to talk about.
Finally, the diversity of the working class is out there, but a lot of white folks still choose not to see themselves as part of it. Perhaps if an inclusive working-class ideal had won the day in the 1970s, then the the anthem of the pink collar, Wal-Mart working class might be something other than Gretchen Wilson's Grammy Award winning "Redneck Woman." Although it's sort of a female makeover of Merle Haggard's "Okie from Muskogee" more than it is the introspection of Lynn, its odd combination of rebelliousness and defensiveness may be the best (but nonetheless troubling) expression of white working-class women's identity today. It also sounds a lot like that of the boys. I leave you with it as an outro (by the way, that's Kid Rock and Hank Williams, Jr. she's cleaning up after):