The Injuries of Class

Mis en ligne le 13 mars 2008

We live in a com­plex, divi­ded society. We are divi­ded by wealth, income, edu­ca­tion, hou­sing, race, gender, eth­ni­city, reli­gion, and sexual orien­ta­tion. These divi­sions are much dis­cus­sed ; in the last two years, there have been entire series in our major news­pa­pers devo­ted to the gro­wing income divide. The wealth-flaun­ting of today’s rich was even the sub­ject of a recent Sunday New York Times Magazine article (“City Life in the New Gilded Age,” October 14, 2007).

by Michael D. Yates

The Class-Divided Society

What is seldom talked or writ­ten about is to me our most fun­da­men­tal divi­sion, one at the center of our eco­no­mic system, namely the divi­sion of our society into a very large class of wor­king men, women, and chil­dren, the wor­king class ; and a much smal­ler class of owners that employs the former, the capi­ta­list class. These two great classes make the world go round, so to speak.

Workers and owners are fun­da­men­tally connec­ted and anta­go­nis­tic along a number of dimen­sions :

  • It is through the labor of the wor­king class that the goods and ser­vices neces­sary for our sur­vi­val are pro­du­ced.
  • It is through the owner­ship of society’s pro­duc­tive wealth (land, machines, fac­to­ries, etc.) that the owning class is able to compel that this labor be done. Workers must sell their capa­city to work in order to gain access to this pro­duc­tive wealth, since no one can live without such access.
  • In terms of society’s “repro­duc­tion” the rela­tion­ship bet­ween labor and capi­tal is essen­tial. So much of what we do pre­sup­poses the suc­cess­ful sale of labor power. Without the money from such a sale, nothing appears to exist.
  • The essence of pro­duc­tion in capi­ta­lism is the cea­se­less accu­mu­la­tion of capi­tal, the making of pro­fits and the use of such pro­fits to increase the capi­tal at the owners’ dis­po­sal. Competition among capi­tals both drives accu­mu­la­tion and is driven by it, in a relent­less dance.
  • But to accu­mu­late capi­tal, employers must make sure that wor­kers cannot claim pos­ses­sion of all they pro­duce. This means that employers must strive for maxi­mum control of the entire appa­ra­tus of pro­duc­tion and any and all social forces and ins­ti­tu­tions that might inter­fere with this control (for example, the state, schools, and media). At all costs, wor­kers must be pre­ven­ted from get­ting the idea that they have rights to the output they pro­duce.

This orga­ni­za­tion of capi­tal and labor in our society has nega­tive effects on wor­king people. I want to talk about some of these nega­tive effects. However, before I do, I would like to point out that the whole pro­cess of accu­mu­la­tion, begin­ning with the extrac­tion of a sur­plus from the labor of the wor­kers, is, espe­cially in the United States, hidden from view, so that wor­kers do not know or are confu­sed about what is hap­pe­ning to them. This is the result in part of the public school system and the tire­less pro­mo­tion of indi­vi­dua­lism and natio­na­lism at its core.

As Peter McLaren and Ramin Farahmandpur explain :

Today urban schools are adroitly orga­ni­zed around the same prin­ciples as fac­tory pro­duc­tion lines. According to [Jonathan] Kozol “rising test scores,” “social pro­mo­tion,” “out­come-based objec­tives,” “time mana­ge­ment,” “suc­cess for all,” “authen­tic wri­ting,” “accoun­table talk,” “active lis­te­ning,” and “zero noise” consti­tute part of the domi­nant dis­course in public schools. Most urban public schools have adop­ted busi­ness and market “work rela­ted themes” and mana­ge­rial concepts that have become part of the voca­bu­lary used in class­room les­sons and ins­truc­tion. In the “market-driven class­rooms,” stu­dents “nego­tiate,” “sign contracts,” and take “owner­ship” of their own lear­ning. In many class­rooms, stu­dents can volun­teer as the “pencil mana­ger,” “soap mana­ger,” “door mana­ger,” “line mana­ger,” “time mana­ger,” and “coat room mana­ger.” In some fourth-grade class­rooms, tea­chers record student assi­gn­ments and home­work using “ear­ning charts”….[Jonathan] Kozol writes that in the market-driven model of public edu­ca­tion, tea­chers are viewed as “floor mana­gers” in public schools, “whose job it is to pump some ‘added-value’ into under­va­lued chil­dren.” (“The Pedagogy of Oppression,” Monthly Review, July–August, 2006)

Racism/​sexism, impe­ria­lism, media pro­pa­ganda, and repres­sion fur­ther dis­tort the social matrix and hide its class basis :

  • Endless war magni­fies and dee­pens natio­na­lism and pro­motes both racism and male chau­vi­nism. Wars send wor­kers back to society badly dama­ged in mind and body.
  • Imperialism does the same thing as war and is, of course, the root cause of it.
  • Constant Orwellian pro­pa­ganda by the media, think tanks, poli­ti­cians, and busi­ness lea­ders denies the class pola­ri­za­tion of capi­ta­list society. An impor­tant ele­ment of this mis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign is the mytho­logy sur­roun­ding the “free market” eco­nomy.
  • As in the ear­liest stages of capi­ta­lism, naked vio­lence ulti­ma­tely serves to sup­press class conscious­ness and sow seeds of doubt among wor­kers who might other­wise be incli­ned to mutiny against the system.

Unveiling the Injuries of Class

Against this back­ground, let me now talk about the “inju­ries of class.” Consider first unem­ploy­ment. The sepa­ra­tion of wor­kers from pro­duc­tive wealth creates the pos­si­bi­lity that wor­kers will be unem­ployed, that is, unable to find a buyer for their labor power. In addi­tion, we know from stu­dying the his­tory of capi­ta­list eco­no­mies that it is not uncom­mon for them per­io­di­cally to sink into reces­sion or depres­sion. Such crises are part of the nature of the system. In such cir­cum­stances, unem­ploy­ment rises dra­ma­ti­cally. Furthermore, capi­tal is always sear­ching the hea­vens for sunny skies (higher pro­fits), and if it finds them somew­here other than where it is cur­rently situa­ted, it shuts down one ope­ra­tion and opens ano­ther. Plant contrac­tions and clo­sings will the­re­fore be regu­lar occur­rences.

What these things mean for wor­king people is a per­va­sive sense of inse­cu­rity and fear that even what seems to be the most stable employ­ment will “melt into air.” Fear and inse­cu­rity not uncom­monly pro­duce two res­ponses : a kind of joy­less penury or a present-orien­ta­tion that often takes the self-des­truc­tive forms of debt, drin­king, and the like. In a recent essay, refer­ring to the wor­kers in the mining town in which I was born, I wrote :

Mining towns in the United States were typi­cally owned by the mining com­pa­nies, and the com­pa­nies exer­ted a near tota­li­ta­rian control over the resi­dents. They owned the houses, the only store (the infa­mous “com­pany store”), all uti­li­ties, the schools, the library, eve­ry­thing. They had their own pri­vate police (the Coal and Iron Police in Pennsylvania) sanc­tio­ned by state law. The cli­mate in such a town is one of per­pe­tual inse­cu­rity and fear, emo­tions com­poun­ded by the danger of the work in the mines….It is dif­fi­cult to overs­tate the power of fear and poverty in sha­ping how wor­king men and women think and act. Fear of losing a job. Fear of not fin­ding a job. Fear of being late with bill pay­ments. Fear of the boss’s wrath. Fear your house might burn down. Fear your kids will get hurt. I inhe­ri­ted these emo­tions. (“Class : A Personal Story,” Monthly Review, July-August 2006)

Should a person face an exten­ded bout of unem­ploy­ment or a plant clo­sing, the poten­tial inju­ries of class are many, as has been amply demons­tra­ted : sui­cide, homi­cide, heart attack, hyper­ten­sion, cir­rho­sis of the liver, arrest, impri­son­ment, mental ill­ness.

The mem­bers of the owning class are almost always better situa­ted to withs­tand the storms of eco­no­mic crisis or even unem­ploy­ment, so these are inju­ries that the system does not inflict on them. Recently Michael Gates Gill, a weal­thy former adver­ti­sing exe­cu­tive who lost his job, was fea­tu­red in the New York Times in connec­tion with his book, How Starbucks Saved My Life : A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else. Gill gets a job in a Starbucks, and in it he learns about ordi­nary people. By most accounts the book is not very good. But the author had connec­tions, and not only mana­ged to get it publi­shed by a trade press (Gotham/​Penguin) but revie­wed in our pre­mier news­pa­per. The chances of this hap­pe­ning to “eve­ryone else” is as close to zero as you can get. The sto­ries of job losses are writ­ten in the litany of woes that are an eve­ry­day rea­lity for most people ; such sto­ries are any­thing but exotic and receive almost no public atten­tion.

Unemployment in our society is a constant threat to the employed and a torment to those who lose their jobs as many do per­io­di­cally. To be unem­ployed is almost to drop out of society ; since to have no rela­tion to the market is not to exist.

I add here that those who do unpaid labor, espe­cially home­ma­kers, must cer­tainly expe­rience some­thing akin to that of the unem­ployed. Their work is so deva­lued that an esti­mate of its value is not inclu­ded in the Gross Domestic Product. The unpaid labor of poor single women with chil­dren is consi­de­red so worth­less that they have been forced to give it up and seek wage labor, often taking care of the chil­dren of others while their own kids are atten­ded hapha­zardly or not at all.

Workers com­prise the subor­di­nate class. They are nor­mally in the posi­tion of having to react to deci­sions made by others. They are dependent upon employers, and they are at the same time appre­hen­sive of them, since employers hold the power to deny to wor­kers the life-sus­tai­ning connec­tion to the means of pro­duc­tion. Exploitation, depen­dence, and insecurity—in a system where wor­kers are bom­bar­ded with the mes­sage that they and they alone make the deci­sions that deter­mine their circumstances—make for a toxic brew, which when drunk often enough, creates a per­so­na­lity lacking in self-confi­dence, afraid to take chances, easily mani­pu­la­ted and shamed (of course, on the bright side, these inju­ries have given rise to a mas­sive “self-help” indus­try).

The very subor­di­na­tion of wor­kers, com­bi­ned with the market mecha­nism that rati­fies and rein­forces it, means that capi­ta­list socie­ties will dis­play inera­di­cable inequa­li­ties in variables of great impor­tance : wealth, income, schoo­ling, health care, hou­sing, child care, and so forth. What is more, the market will, absent power­ful coun­ter­vai­ling forces, not only repro­duce inequa­li­ties but deepen them, as we have seen so clearly in the United States over the past thirty years. This inequa­lity itself gene­rates its own class inju­ries. In my book, Naming the System, I cite research com­pa­ring the impact of inequa­lity across the United States. It was dis­co­ve­red that, all else being equal, the grea­ter the inequa­lity of income within a state (as mea­su­red by the share of income going to the poo­rest 50 percent of hou­se­holds in each state), the higher the mor­ta­lity rate. It appears that the psy­cho­lo­gi­cal damage done to poor people as they contem­plate the gap bet­ween them­selves and those at the top of the income dis­tri­bu­tion has an inde­pendent effect on a wide variety of indi­vi­dual and social health out­comes. Everything we know about the cor­re­la­tion bet­ween health and other social indi­ca­tors and income (a decent though not per­fect proxy for class) tells us that wor­king people will suffer in every way.

You may have heard it said that the only thing worse than having a job is not having one. This is true, but what does it say about work ? Work in capi­ta­lism is a trau­ma­tic affair. We all have the capa­city to concep­tua­lize what we do before we do it. This capa­bi­lity, when applied to work, has allo­wed human beings to trans­form the world around them in pro­found ways : to invent tools and machines and to socially divide our labor so that the riches of the earth can be unlo­cked and a cor­nu­co­pia of output pro­du­ced. As we have done these things, we have also trans­for­med our­selves, beco­ming ever more conscious of causes and effects and better able to unders­tand the world. Put ano­ther way, our capa­city to think and to do makes us human. It is inte­gral to our being.

In capi­ta­lism, howe­ver, this human mas­tery of the phy­si­cal world is reser­ved for only a few. The capa­city to think and to do implies control, and control by wor­kers cannot be contem­pla­ted by capi­ta­lists. In fact, the essence of mana­ge­ment in capi­ta­lism is the mono­po­li­za­tion of control by the owners, control espe­cially of the labor process—the work—and its denial to the wor­kers.

We don’t have time today to dis­cuss all the various control tac­tics used by employers : the her­ding of wor­kers into fac­to­ries, the detai­led divi­sion of labor, mecha­ni­za­tion, Taylorism, per­son­nel mana­ge­ment, lean production—all of which deny wor­kers their huma­nity, their capa­city to concep­tua­lize and carry out their plans, to actually “own” what they make. However, let us look at a sam­pling of jobs in modern America :

Auto wor­kers : There are about 1.1 mil­lion auto wor­kers. Not only are they facing rapidly rising inse­cu­rity, they are also confron­ted every day with a work regi­men so Taylorized that they must work fifty-seven of every sixty seconds. What must this be like ? What does it do to mind and body ? In this connec­tion, it is ins­truc­tive to read Ben Hamper’s Rivethead (1992), a start­ling account of wor­king in auto plants. Hamper worked in an old plant, where the norm was about forty-five seconds of work each minute. He even­tually got a job in a new, “lean pro­duc­tion” faci­lity. He called it a “gulag.” In her book, On the Line at Subaru-Isuzu (1995), socio­lo­gist Laurie Graham tells us about her work rou­tine in one of these gulags. Below, I have skip­ped a lot of the steps, because I just want to give rea­ders a sense of the work. Remember as you read it that the line is relent­lessly moving while she is wor­king :

1. Go to the car and take the token card off a wire on the front of the car.
2. Pick up the 2 VIN (vehicle iden­ti­fi­ca­tion number) plates from the embos­ser and check the plates to see that they have the same number.
3. Insert the token card into the token card reader.
4. While wai­ting for the com­pu­ter output, break down the key kit for the car by pul­ling the 3 lock cylin­ders and the lock code from the bag.
5. Copy the vehicle control number and color number onto the appea­rance check sheet [….] 8. Lift the hood and put the hood jig in place so it will hold the hood open while ins­tal­ling the hood stay [….] 22. Rivet the large VIN plate to the left-hand center pillar.
23. Begin with step one on the next car.

This work is so intense that it is not pos­sible to steal a break much less learn your workmate’s job so that you can double-up, then rest while she does both jobs. Within six months of the plant’s start-up, a majo­rity of the wor­kers had to wear wrist splints for inci­pient carpal tunnel. Necks and backs ache from bodies being twis­ted into unna­tu­ral posi­tions for eight hours a day. Supervisors recom­mend exer­cises and sug­gest that wor­kers who cannot deal with the pain are sis­sies.

What is true for auto wor­kers is true for all who do this type of labor—whether it be in beef pro­ces­sing plants or on chi­cken disas­sem­bly lines where wor­kers labor with slip­pery blood and gore on the floor and on their bodies. And where cuts lead to infec­tions and disease.

Clerks : There are about 15 mil­lion clerks in the United States. Many years ago I was on a tele­vi­sion show with former secre­tary of labor Robert Reich. In res­ponse to my claim that a lot of the jobs being crea­ted were not all that desi­rable, he said that there were a lot of good jobs avai­lable, ones in which wor­kers had a real say about their jobs (no doubt refer­ring to the “qua­lity circles” so popu­lar then). One such job was that of “clerk.” I blur­ted out in a loud and incre­du­lous voice, CLERKS ! I sug­ges­ted that per­haps Mr. Reich had never noti­ced the splints on the wrists of many clerks, signs of epi­de­mic carpal tunnel syn­drome. Since that time, I have actually worked as a clerk, at the Lake Hotel in Yellowstone National Park. I des­cribe the expe­rience and what I lear­ned in my book Cheap Motels and Hot Plate : An Economist’s Travelogue. Clerks work long hours ; they are on their feet all day ; they take regu­lar abuse from cus­to­mers ; they are expo­sed in full view of super­vi­sors with no place to hide ; they are accor­ded no res­pect (think about cus­to­mers on cell phones in gro­cery lines); their pay is low ; their bene­fits negli­gible. After a hard day at the front desk, I only wanted a few drinks and a warm bed. The stress level was extra­or­di­nary.

Restaurant Workers : There are 11 mil­lion of these, gro­wing in number every year. Next to per­so­nal care and ser­vice wor­kers, those who pre­pare and serve our food are most likely to expe­rience a “major depres­sive epi­sode.” Restaurant wor­kers in Manhattan’s Chinatown log as many as one hun­dred hours a week, for less than mini­mum wage. The pace of the work, the pres­sure of it are unbe­lie­vable. Check out the arms and legs of a kit­chen worker. They are full of cuts and burns. Substance abuse is wides­pread.

Secretaries, Administrative Assistants, and Office Support : These wor­kers are 23 mil­lion strong. They are poorly paid, many in sick buil­dings, stuck in badly desi­gned chairs, sta­ring at com­pu­ter screens for hours, taking orders all day long (usually women from men), and often hea­vily Taylorized. These wor­kers, whose wor­king condi­tions are sati­ri­zed so skill­fully on the tele­vi­sion series The Office, have to contend with daily degra­da­tions, inclu­ding all too pre­valent sexual harass­ment. Here is what my sister said about her work :

I, too, share some of your fears and anxie­ties. As one of the admi­nis­tra­tive assis­tants you talk about, I can relate to the long days of sit­ting at the type­wri­ter (in years past) and now at the com­pu­ter. I am sure that is the cause of my neck and shoul­der pain and the many hea­daches from which I suffer. Although I basi­cally like my job and the people with whom I work, after thirty years I am anxious to move on to some­thing else. I look for­ward to reti­re­ment in about three to four years, moving to the city, maybe wor­king part-time, and fin­ding mea­ning­ful things in which to par­ti­ci­pate.

Security wor­kers : Three mil­lion men and women watch over others in pri­sons, malls, gated com­mu­ni­ties, in occu­pied Iraq, and on our city streets. This is a type of work gua­ran­teed to be stress­ful and to gene­rate not only an extre­mely jaun­di­ced and pejo­ra­tive view of the rest of society but also an extreme, macho per­so­na­lity, prone to vio­lence.

Custodial wor­kers : There are 4 mil­lion buil­ding and grounds wor­kers, many of them immi­grants, kee­ping our buil­dings clean and the grounds swept and mani­cu­red. Often they are hired by contrac­tors who are them­selves employed by the buil­dings’ owners. It has taken monu­men­tal efforts by the SEIU to orga­nize some of these exploi­ted wor­kers, who must often labor in close proxi­mity to dan­ge­rous clea­ning fluids, sol­vents, and che­mi­cal fer­ti­li­zers.

Medical wor­kers : There are more than 13 mil­lion people labo­ring in our hos­pi­tals, sur­gi­care cen­ters, and nur­sing homes, as well as in indi­vi­dual resi­dences. With the excep­tion of those at the top, inclu­ding health care admi­nis­tra­tors and most of the phy­si­cians, health care is a mine­field of poor wor­king condi­tions. Even nur­sing has been degra­ded and des­killed so much that the nur­sing shor­tage could be nearly filled simply by the return of disaf­fec­ted nurses to their pro­fes­sion. At the request of the California Nurses Association, I spoke this summer to nurses in four Texas cities. I heard many tales of woe : six­teen hour days, two weeks straight of twelve-hour days, insane patient loads, constant cost-cut­ting that damages patient health, demea­ning treat­ment by admi­nis­tra­tors, etc. Conditions only worsen as one goes down the health care occu­pa­tion ladder.

Working Stiffs

Work in today’s exploi­ta­tive society takes its toll on mind and body. It saps our crea­ti­vity, bores us to death, makes us anxious, encou­rages us to be mani­pu­la­tive, alie­nates us in mul­tiple ways (from cowor­kers, from pro­ducts, from our­selves), makes us party to the pro­duc­tion of deba­sed and dan­ge­rous pro­ducts, sub­jects us to arbi­trary autho­rity, makes us sick, and injures us. I remem­ber my dad saying, when emphy­sema (the result of too many ciga­rettes, too much asbes­tos, and too much silica dust) had sapped his health, that he hadn’t expec­ted reti­re­ment to be like this. He and how many hun­dreds of mil­lions of others ? It is not the CEO who suf­fers depres­sion, hyper­ten­sion, and heart attacks from being too long on the job ; it is ins­tead the assem­bly line worker, the secre­tary, the kit­chen labo­rer. Those who cannot control their work hurt the most. And with all of these inju­ries of class, I haven’t even tou­ched upon the com­pound misery endu­red by black wor­kers, Hispanic wor­kers, women wor­kers, gay wor­kers, and wor­kers without the proper natio­nal docu­ments. And I have not des­cri­bed some of the worst types of labor : farm labor, domes­tic work, labor in recy­cling plants, and many others, which get truly demo­nic as we move out­side the rich nations and into the poor ones. It is no wonder that people do not need much convin­cing to believe that hap­pi­ness lies not in the work­place but in the shop­ping mall and a quick botox from a der­ma­to­lo­gist. People need more in their lives, they are no longer satis­fied with their job or career.

The daily deba­se­ment heaped upon wor­king men and women breeds anger and rage. Often rage is turned inward and shows itself as depres­sion, addic­tion, or sui­cide. Frequently it is direc­ted against chil­dren, spouses, lovers, or against some great mass of “others,” like immi­grants, women, radi­cal mino­ri­ties, or gay people. But some­times it is cor­rectly aimed at the class enemy and takes the form of riots, sabo­tage, strikes, demons­tra­tions, even revo­lu­tion. And then the crea­ti­vity bound and gagged for so long bursts forth as people try to take control of their labor and their lives. This is what I think of as the “miracle of class struggle.”

I am not going to end by tal­king at length about how impor­tant it is to keep the struggles of the past fresh in the present, how it is neces­sary to edu­cate the wor­king class, of how it is essen­tial to build a wor­king-class move­ment and not just to orga­nize wor­kers into unions, about how there are any number of hope­ful signs that such a move­ment can be built, of why we must always fan the flames of dissent and revo­lu­tion. You have heard all this before.

Instead I am going to say some­thing dif­ferent. The inju­ries of class are deep and long las­ting. The poor edu­ca­tion that is the lot of most wor­king-class chil­dren leaves las­ting scars that will not be healed by a picket line. The love lost when the fac­tory-wor­king father spent too much time in bars does not come back after a demons­tra­tion. I have been a radi­cal, highly edu­ca­ted and arti­cu­late, but the fears and anxie­ties of my wor­king-class parents are like inde­lible tat­toos on my psyche. The dull­ness of mind and wea­ri­ness of body pro­du­ced by assem­bly line, store, and office do not go away after the union comes to town. The pri­so­ner might be freed but the horror of the prison cell lives on.

Wilhelm Reich, the German psy­cho­ana­lyst, was kicked out of the psy­cho­ana­ly­tic society because he was a com­mu­nist. Ironically he was also expel­led from the Communist Party because he was a the­ra­pist who belie­ved that the minds of wor­king people, rava­ged by the inju­ries of class, would have to be healed. It would take real effort to help wor­kers regain their huma­nity. I think Reich was right. We ignore the inju­ries of class at our peril.

My friend Sam Gindin, former chief eco­no­mist for the Canadian Auto Workers, has argued for years that all labor orga­ni­zing and all union and labor move­ment acti­vi­ties, in fact, all efforts to trans­form socie­ties, must aim at deve­lo­ping the capa­ci­ties of wor­king men and women, their abi­lity to take control of their lives and the larger society. This means, for example, that inside a union, there has to be as much rank-and-file demo­cracy and control as pos­sible, and inside work­places there has to be an active net­work of shop ste­wards. The union must have a vibrant and empo­we­ring edu­ca­tion pro­gram. Politically unions and all wor­king-class orga­ni­za­tions must aim to pro­mote a wor­king-class way of thin­king about the world and must fight for any and all public pro­grams that empo­wer wor­kers, from natio­nal health care to paid vaca­tions and leaves for all to free adult edu­ca­tion pro­grams. Reducing hours of work must become cen­tral to labor’s agenda as must the nature of work itself. The idea that our labor power is just ano­ther com­mo­dity must be rejec­ted. Finally, all move­ments for radi­cal social change must address aggres­si­vely the prison-indus­trial and mili­tary-indus­trial com­plexes. Imperialism, war, and a domes­tic police state are an unholy triad that magnify enor­mously the inju­ries of class.


Source : Monthly Review


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