Class cluelessness and the new populism.

Author:Gordon, Josh

There is a profound malaise in contemporary Western politics and you, dear reader, are likely part of the problem. Such is the claim of Joan Williams's powerful new book, White Working Class. While the book is primarily an attempt to explain the victory of Donald Trump to a stunned liberal America, it finds resonance in other Western democracies, Canada included.

How might you be part of the problem?

If you are reading this, you are, in all likelihood, part of what Williams terms the "professional-managerial elite" (PME). She defines this class as those in the top 20 per cent of income, where at least one member of the household has a college or university degree. In this class are found doctors, dentists, lawyers, academics, consultants, managers, architects, senior government bureaucrats, media editors and so on.

You might find yourself surprised to be part of an "elite." This is because contemporary discourse in North America has dissolved most class categories into the amorphous "middle class," with only the destitute and the "1 per cent" sitting outside it. Indeed, you probably think of only the 1 per cent as the "elite," conveniently masking your own social power. This tendency is so entrenched that even those in the 1 per cent often see themselves as middle-class, leading to somewhat farcical policy debates, where it is difficult to raise taxes on anyone other than the 0.1 per cent. (1)

Quite apart from tax debates, this "class cluelessness" is doing great harm to our politics, Williams argues. That's because the values and political outlooks of the PME are significantly different from those of the genuine "middle class"--or what she calls the "working class" to differentiate it from the class clueless version. The working class, in this view, comprises those who make between the 30th percentile of household income and the 80th percentile--that is, the middle--as well as those who earn above the 80th percentile but don't have a university degree in the household. (2) This usually includes people in construction, trades, manufacturing, retail, the service sector, some small business owners, nurses, police officers, firefighters and so on.

There are two other groups that lurk around the bifurcated class structure above, although Williams doesn't dwell much on them in the book. At one end are the "poor" (those beneath the 30th percentile of household income) and minorities--presumably because the book is about the white working class (WWC). Plutocrats, to the disappointment of Marxists, do not make an appearance, something to which I will return.

Once presented and elaborated, the book's class schema is hard to shake. You can't read or watch the news without seeing it: media debate consists mainly of PMEs talking to one another (the media's financial travails notwithstanding). That's not to say that others haven't offered up more nuanced accounts of class. But its parsimony, and its contemporary resonance, make Williams's schema compelling. Williams details its potency by getting readers to think like ethnographers--pushing them to understand why people have certain values and predispositions, and how those values and behavioural patterns make up their "folkways" in functional, predictable and resilient ways. It is, in short, an exercise in getting you, the presumed PME, to see things from the perspective of the WWC.

Many habits of the professional elite--from artisanal religion to a life of self-actualization--require a college education. America doesn't provide that, so we need to take the working class as we find them. We don't fault the poor for failing to value the same things the professional class values. We need to extend that courtesy to working-class people of all races. Many of our truths just don't make sense in the context of their lives. The claims she makes are about broad tendencies, not absolutes--class is predictive in a probabilistic, not a deterministic, way. And while her claims are backed up by social scientific research, she does not litter the book with footnotes or academic references--this is a book written for accessibility, not peer review. As a result, some claims will strike the reader as too blunt or sweeping, but they nonetheless ring true.

To begin, she documents the nature of working-class labour. It tends to be highly structured, supervised work. It is usually routinized and sometimes boring, and it can be emotionally and physically demanding. Given the moderate pay associated with such work, it usually entails long work weeks, and WWC families are typically dual-income families--and thereby strain to manage the care of young children.

To be sure, PMEs often face similar...

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