May 19, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Pandemic Reveals That Without Suffering, Our Advanced Capitalist Society Would Collapse

The economy requires a working class without political power.

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I don’t fault the press corps (too much) for misunderstanding the dynamics of the American class system. In addition to believing the myth of a nation without caste, most of its members are highly paid and highly educated, blessed with good luck and good parenting, and wouldn’t see a working class person if she were in front of them.

I mean this literally. The real working class is ubiquitous. Real working class people are everywhere. They make our bagels. They take our gas money. They bring us our packages. They do the real labor demanded of an advanced capitalist society—real as in an advanced capitalist society would cease functioning without it. Yet for all their ubiquity, for all their essentiality, real working class people and their political interests are virtually invisible in coverage by America’s largest, most influential news media.

Workers in grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations, delivery and distribution services, among others fields, are totally essential—yet they are paid least and disposed first.

There are many historical reasons for this, good as well as ugly, but there’s no longer a justifiable excuse for continued blindness to the truth of our economy. The new coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 92,100 people and unemployed 36.5 million others, is revealing, first, that a class system does exist in the United States, and two, that the US economy cannot endure without exploiting those at the very bottom of it. Workers in grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations, delivery and distribution services, among others fields, are essential—yet they are paid least and disposed first.

I do fault the press corps for not putting good parenting and good schooling to good use. It doesn’t take much work for intelligent people to see that class in America is multicultural and multiracial—and that it should not be a trope with which to write about white people as if they suffer politically the way black people do. (White people do suffer, but their suffering isn’t equal; white supremacy is too beneficial.) “Class politics” used to be inseparable from “union politics” but thanks to four decades of government-backed union-busting, they scarcely coexist. Reporters typically do not recognize (or even see) class politics if it isn’t connected to what’s left of the unions.

Making matters worse is the press corps’ habit of defining socioeconomic class according to education. If you earned a college degree, you’re middle class and up. If you didn’t earn one, you’re working class. There are problems with this, first and foremost that some “working class” people take home middle-class wages or better. They might be white baby boomers still benefiting from egalitarian policies officially abandoned long ago, or they might be “tiny feudal lords ruling tiny feudal fiefs,” as I said Monday. The “working class revolt” that powered the president to the White House, as I and others have said, was actually a “revolt” of the petty bourgeoisie.

Hit the tip jar!

Another problem is that the country is packed with people who earned college degrees but can’t possibly take home middle-class wages, because jobs matching their educations do not exist, or if they do, they exist in such small numbers these people must compete with each other like no generation has competed before. (They are also shouldering a debt load that older non-college educated colleagues never did.) Even so, it wouldn’t do to identify them as working class. Income is as unhelpful as education.

The best way to define class is the simplest—and it jives with my experience growing up in a rural highly religious and working-class community. If you have any measure of power in the workplace, you are not working class. This is how Michael Zwieg, a professor of economics at SUNY Stony Brook, defined “working class” in 2006.

It [has] relatively little power at work—white-collar bank tellers, call-center workers, and cashiers; blue-collar machinists, construction workers, and assembly-line workers; pink-collar secretaries, nurses, and home-health care workers skilled and unskilled, men and women of all races, nationalities, and sexual preferences.

Importantly, Zweig said, two forms of power separate the working class from every other socioeconomic class. One, the power to control where, when, for how long, and for how much you work. Two, the power to work without constant supervision. If you have the power to demand—and command—respect from a boss, you’re not working class.

The more power you have, the more money you make, and, of course, the more money you make, the more power you have. 

The implications are obvious. It isn’t so much skill or education, or character traits like perseverance and pluck, that determine how much you earn as how much power you have. The more you have, the more money you make, and, of course, the more money you make, the more power you have. It’s a virtuous cycle that members of the press corps tend to recognize as right and true (it worked for them!), but flipped around it’s a vicious cycle that for many spirals downward, grinding them to dust.

The conventional wisdom is that suffering is a natural part of life. Some people are going to be left out of an advanced capitalist society. That’s either acceptable (the Republican view) or a problem for liberal policy makers to address (the Democratic view). But if nothing else, the pandemic has shown how wrong the conventional wisdom is. It’s not that some people might suffer. It’s not that some people might face injustice as a result of broader prosperity. It’s that some people must suffer, because without their suffering our advance capitalist society would cease functioning.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor and publisher of the Editorial Board, a newsletter about politics in plain English for normal people and the common good. He's a visiting assistant professor of public policy at Wesleyan University, a fellow at the Yale Journalism Initiative, a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly, and a contributing editor for Religion Dispatches.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.

4 Comments

  1. BettR on July 30, 2021 at 8:12 am

    John, thank you for your last two essays outlining the real class divide. Having grown up in a similar series of trailer parks, I know all too well what that meant to my parents and to us children. We were not good enough. They call these places Mobile Home estates now, but the concept has not changed. Yes, there are fancy parks with pretty landscaping and even more rules as to what a tenant can do, but the renters have no input other paying the monthly “fees”. Housing sets us apart.

    As for defining the working class as those without power, I could not agree more. Only to say that without political power, any other powers are extremely limited.

    • John Stoehr on July 30, 2021 at 8:12 am

      Thank you and thank you for supporting the Editorial Board for so long!

  2. Wil_E_Quixote on July 30, 2021 at 8:12 am

    That’s an interesting definition of working class, John. I never realized I was an elite! Maybe I should write Peggy Noonan and ask her how to celebrate? “Underclass” might be a more accurate term.

    But if you take this: “If you have the power to demand—and command—respect from a boss, you’re not working class,” and add this: “White people do suffer, but their suffering isn’t equal; white supremacy is too beneficial,” you may really be on to something.

    Not that there aren’t white people who are among the powerless employees. But who tends to be trusted with autonomy first? I know I wouldn’t have my current position if I wasn’t white.

    • John Stoehr on July 30, 2021 at 8:12 am

      Thanks for this. Onward!

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