America, Class, and Politics

Owen Jones owen_jones at
Mon Aug 14 15:53:50 MDT 2000

 Fascinating analysis by the Guardian's financial editor, Larry Elliot, on
America and class. I should explain that the graph accompanying this article
uses indexed value with 1960 equalling 100, and "real output GDP per
production and non-supervisory workers" steadily rising from 1959 to 1998
from 100 to around 150, whilst real weekly earning for production and
non-supervisory workers from 1959 to 1973 from 100 to 120, before going into
decline to 1998 where it drops just below 100.


Gore and Bush might not be a class act, but the US is

Special report: the US elections

Larry Elliott
Monday August 14, 2000
The Guardian

Al Gore and George W Bush are the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of politics. Two
spoiled little rich boys, they are the antithesis of the log-cabin-to-White
House ethos that has underpinned America's meritocratic democracy since the
days of Abe Lincoln. Both are using the power of privilege and big corporate
money to compensate for their mediocrity, both stand for precisely the same
inconsequential things.

If Gore imagined that he could surf to power on the back of the strength of
the US economy, he has been rudely awakened. For him, this is crunch time;
needs this week's Democratic convention to put some oomph into his dreary
campaign. There is broad agreement that Gore's priority is to beat back
invasion of the middle ground of American politics, where the Republicans
have made a beach-head with their appeal to a "caring conservatism".

It is now the accepted norm that this strategy is the only way to win
elections, not just in America but in Britain as well. According to this
theory, the
death of class as an economic force means that class politics are also dead.
The days when politicians like Roosevelt or Truman could appeal to a natural
working class constituency are gone. We are all middle class now, and that
requires parties to hug the centre ground and pay as much attention to
as to economics.

This is a beguiling notion, particularly for those who have done splendidly
well out of the status quo of the past two decades, because it means that
ever really changes, or needs to change. Yes, of course, there is a bit of
tinkering around at the edge when a Democrat is in the White House, but
that would put the wind up Wall Street. As the American economist Robert
Pollin said in a recent New Left Review: "The core of Clinton's programme
been global economic integration, with minimum interventions to promote
equity in labour markets or stability in financial markets. Gestures to the
well-off have been slight and back-handed, while wages for the majority have
either stagnated or declined. Wealth at the top, meanwhile, has exploded."

Clinton, according to Pollin, has presided over a country which has
experienced greater poverty and lower real wages than under Richard Nixon,
may explain why Gore is having so much trouble enthusing his party. Under
Democrats and Republicans, the centre of gravity of politics has moved
steadily to the right.

But the political strategy only really makes sense if the basic premise -
that class no longer matters - is correct. Our own Industrial Society
published an
example of the new thinking a couple of weeks ago, claiming that Britain was
now teeming with free workers. "Three transformations - the waves of white
collar downsizing in the 80s and 90s, the rise in the proportion of value
added by skilled workers and the explosion of IT - have combined to create a
fertile breeding ground for a new kind of worker. Hearts hardened by the
decline of corporate job protection, these workers are demanding, mobile and
self-reliant. They are high on human capital and low on loyalty."

Now, banish from your mind any unworthy thought that the author of this
breathless prose has to be a) male, b) white, c) university educated, and d)
of the metropolitan in-crowd. Ask the question: is it really true that the
working class no longer exists?

For all the talk, America actually remains a country in which the clear
majority of people are working class. When asked, 55% of Americans said they
were working class, which pretty much tallies with an occupational breakdown
of the US jobs market. The US department of labour's projection for the 10
occupations that would offer the most new jobs in the first years of the
millennium were cashiers, janitors and cleaners, retail salespersons,
waiters and
waitresses, registered nurses, general managers and top executives, systems
analysts, home health aides, guards, and nurses aides, orderlies, and
attendants. Not much sign of the end of the working class there.

The picture is much the same in Britain. There has been a modest increase in
the number of managers and professionals, but the government's own figures
show that Britain is a nation of tradesmen, secretaries, machine operatives
and care workers rather than a nation of "free workers".

Class only ceases to matter in the workplace if it is assumed that class is
linked to whether you are employed in a blue collar or white collar job. But
reality class is not about whether you can wear what you like to the office,
or whether your boss lets you dress down on Fridays. It is about power.

Michael Zweig says in his new book The Working Class Majority*: "Our
society's growing inequality of income and wealth is a reflection of the
power of capitalists and the reduced power of workers. In the last two
decades the working class has experienced lower real incomes, longer hours
at work,
fewer protections by unions or government regulations, and inferior

Zweig's argument is that the political power of the economic elite is at
least as great as it was in the 1920s, and perhaps even greater since it is
no longer
effectively challenged by other class interests. His view is that the Third
Way does not amount to an effective defence of working class interests. The
likes Clinton because he poses no real threat.

But isn't it the case that the standards of living of working people have
increased dramatically in the past 50 or 100 years? Isn't it true that
has delivered not just for the capitalists but for everybody? This is a
reasonable point, and it is true that the spread of home and car ownership,
increase in overseas travel and the blanket coverage of many consumer
durables mean that the sort of lifestyle that was only available to a small
in mid-century is now enjoyed by large chunks of the working class.

Zweig's first point is that everybody has seen their living standards rise
over the past 50 or 100 years, and that there is scant evidence that the
class has caught up with the middle class, let alone the capitalist class.
Secondly, working class families have improved their lot when they have been
to take home in higher pay (or shorter working hours) a share of the
increased wealth they have created through their higher productivity. As the
shows, in the post-war period up to 1972, real wages rose in line with
productivity. After 1972, productivity and output carried on rising but real
fell for a quarter of a century until starting to rise again in 1997 as
America returned to full employment. Instead of being captured by workers,
America's productivity gains were captured by capital.

Nor is this picture likely to change much. It is in the interests of the
Republicans and the Democrats, reliant as they are on big business funding
to give the
impression that everybody is now on the same side. So while Clinton has
nudged up the level of the minimum wage and raised the earned income tax
he has done nothing to change the power dynamics of the American economy.

None of this means that Gore is doomed. Given that Bush appears to be a
couple of spare ribs short of a barbecue, the Democrats still have a good
chance of
victory. But apathy will be the real winner. Gore might argue that America's
working people simply do not grasp what their leaders are doing. The reality
is that America's working class seems to understand only too well.

*Michael Zweig: The Working Class Majority; ILR/Cornell University Press.

                                              © Copyright Guardian Media
Group plc. 2000

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