There is heated debate across the political spectrum whether OWS represents a genuine working class movement. The issue is vitally important, both to social change activists and the political elite. It will determine whether OWS succeeds in engaging the 80% of the population who spend their entire lives living paycheck to paycheck, as Barbara Ehrenreich describes so eloquently in Nickel and Dimed.
The personal profiles of OWS occupiers suggest that most are dispossessed members of the middle class. Their interviews, blogs and tweets portray individuals originating from comfortable professional, academic or union-wage homes, who have come of age to discover they have no hope of ever replicating their parents’ lifestyle. The critical question for me is the effect extended unemployment and OWS itself has had on the way participants perceive and project themselves. Have they come to identify with the 80% (that’s the real number – not 99%) who live at or around minimum wage? Or are they still holding out for a cushy professional, academic or business career waiting for them when the recession ends?
Getting the Numbers Right
It’s an extremely difficult question to unpack because discussion of social class is still largely taboo in the US. Since the end of World War II, there has been a concerted effort by government and the corporate media to portray America as a classless society. In the US, referring to oneself as a “worker” or “working class” invokes a sense of shame. Thus even minimum wage workers consider themselves middle class. Calling OWS the 99% is also extremely misleading. A more accurate demographic breakdown would be 1% elite, 80% low income workers (including manual labor, office and domestic work, caretaking, retail clerking and similar “entry level” work), and 20% “salaried” professionals, academics, and managers.
Getting Real About Social Class
The ultimate success of OWS in expanding into the traditional working class will depend on their willingness to discard the label middle class. Although our corporate-controlled western democracies are rapidly dismantling the middle class in the name of austerity cuts and debt reduction, the professional and academic bedrock of the American middle class is still largely intact. What’s more, middle class values and prejudices always die hard, even as individual economic circumstances change.
In all western democracies, the upper middle class has always played a critical role in maintaining social order as teachers, college professors, lawyers, judges, doctors, social workers, bank managers, religious leaders and similar “helping” and gatekeeping professionals. They do so mainly by defining and enforcing “appropriate” social behavior (examples include formal or unwritten rules against hoodies, profanity, bad grammar, public expression of anger, racial slurs and sexual harassment) . While “appropriate” social behavior is formally defined as behavior advantageous to social stability, it’s nearly always behavior that protects the interests of the ruling elite.
While the role of lawyers and judges in enforcing “appropriate” behavior is obvious, the role teachers, college professors and religious leaders play is more subtle. Many teachers and college professors play both a teaching role in the rules of “appropriate” social behavior and a gatekeeping role in selecting who gets credentialed for admission to the upper middle class. Bank managers, doctors and social workers also function as gatekeepers. Bank managers control admission to the middle class by controlling access to credit. Doctors also play a major economic role, as they have sole authority to declare whether workers are eligible for sick leave and health and disability benefits. Social workers, in turn, are granted the authority to ascertain fitness to parent and terminate parental rights.
The Source of Class Antagonism in the US
In the working class clients I work with, class antagonism stems less from income inequality, than from resentment towards upper middle class professionals who are perceived as arbitrary and/or biased in exercising their gatekeeping role. Working class Americans learn from an early age that American society isn’t a level playing field and that so-called equal opportunity is a myth. Overt discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, physical disability, social class and age are still rife in determining who will receive bank loans, be admitted to college and professional schools, and be granted sick leave and disability benefits.
Yet much of the bias in these situations stems from the mistaken belief on the part of professionals that earning a comfortable living is the result of hard work and sacrifice. Most middle class professionals automatically lump workers who are stuck on minimum wage into a category of “others” who fail to meet minimal stands of self-discipline and personal responsibility.
The majority of low income Americans know this is rubbish. When 80% of the population struggles to meet basic survival needs, there are obviously factors at play other than personal responsibility. Most low income workers have always known that failing to land a high paying job – or any job for that matter – has nothing to do with personal failing. It’s the natural result of social and political policies that only work for 20% of the US population.
The important question is whether the majority of OWS occupiers know this.
To be continued.