Gordonzola - My poll revisited

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September 20th, 2004


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08:31 am - My poll revisited
Oh polls! Again, the perfect way to get internet attention when I don’t have time to write. I think I will post my Co-op Anti-Dysfunction Pledge later in the week though. Some actual new content on my journal. Whoo-hoo!

Why this poll? Mostly I was curious what people would say. Honestly, I still have the residual feeling that internet users would not identify as working class so I was surprised to see it running neck and neck for so long. I also felt like there should be some discussion of labor and class on Labor Day. Even if it’s Sell-Out, Business Unionism Day and not May 1. But I’d never kick a holiday out of bed so read the previous sentence as pure hyperbole.

Mostly we’re Americans from the US here, so I assumed the discussion would be all over the place. The discussion of class in this country is confusing. I don’t think it’s any accident that people who insisted on the phrase "relation to the means of production" were a Canadian, a Brit, and a Trot. Not that I don’t love you all for it! But in this "post industrial" world, at least our part of it, I do think that phrase is more of a abstraction than ever. Maybe I’m wrong.



1. Does the working class have to work? What’s the difference between working class and poor? I do tend to view class in terms of resources, background, and income more than the actual job one is, or is not, employed at. I tend to use a big picture, not 100% Marxist, definition I guess: lumpen, disabled, petit-bourgeoisie, rural … everyone in the pool!

2. There’s also a tension in people’s answers between wanting to be very inclusive, in order to have better odds come the revolution, and very narrow in an identity politics way. Responses were all over the spectrum. While not wanting to overstate class mobility since it’s a historical sore spot in this country, the myth or actuality of it contributes to the confusing discussion because it’s such a founding myth of the USA. Do you view class as an identity you are born with such as race? Or as simply a description of where you are at the moment?

3. There’s also the "working class as a insult" view which I stupidly underestimated. I say stupidly because my Dad, who Horatio Algerly worked his way to the upper middle class, once looked like he’d been slapped when asked about his working class background. He’s such a mix of working class and middle class values* that I forget he’s spent his whole life trying to put distance between himself and his background. People noticing it makes him realize there’s a crack in his façade.

4. Students. Always a confusing issue. In the activist and anarchist community at the university I attended, the white ethnic working class kids would often talk about how their education and being the first in their families to attend college would make them not working class anymore. Partly because of increased opportunity, the myth of increased opportunity, and the alienation from the community they grew up in. I was surprised that this wasn’t used as a factor in identification for more of my readers.

5. I love the IWW. It’s one of the best history clubs in North America. As an aside, notice how the definition excludes cooperatives. This is, if I remember correctly, in reaction to the failures of the Knights of Labor to create the Cooperative Commonwealth that they, at certain times in their history, tried to organize. I do mostly agree with the IWW definition and with dobrovolets criticism of the loopholes. But god forbid we amend the sacred documents of the IWW!**

6. I wrote a box for divorced/dependents but accidentally typed over it. you can’t edit polls you know. I should have had a box for being thrown out, or opting out out of necessity, of one’s family resources but I guess that’s actually kinda covered in the "access" box. Still the effects of being disowned for, say, being queer or for saying "fuck you" to an abusive situation can be a real determination of current class if not class background. Obviously.

7. When I was in London, the Guardian kept referring to the "fact" that despite the rhetoric, there is greater class mobility in the UK than the USA. I’m not saying this is wrong, just that I never heard this before and it was treated as an accepted fact not worth citing a source for. Anyone know about this?

Weirdly, I kept not posting this because something is nagging at me. I keep feeling like I’m forgetting something obvious. Oh well, I’m sure one of you will tell me…



*And that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of worms
**Actually at the Bay Area Worker Coop Conference, some IWW person tried to make a pitch for all the co-ops to join and read an altered version. I said, "That’s not the version I know" and he looked sheepish. At one point the local IWW had decided that only the non-members at our workplace (the 1-10 people at a time out of 200+ who haven’t yet qualified for membership) could become members. That’s one heck of a bargaining unit! Especially since every 9 months or so they’d all get thrown out.
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From:elusis
Date:September 20th, 2004 10:24 am (UTC)
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Bingo. I've got so many letters behind my name that calling myself "working class" seems absurd, but thanks to those same letters and to the destruction of the health care and social services systems, my employability and economic stability is worse than that of, say, a union auto worker.

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From:gordonzola
Date:September 20th, 2004 01:24 pm (UTC)
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certainly all good questions. which was my purpose in posting in the first place. I realized what I forgot to put in the post which is that I work a working class job, but don't identify myself as working class because of my family background and my university degree. Fewer and fewer people fall into the traditional identity of working class but fewer and fewer people control their economic destinies. Where does that leave us?
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From:slit
Date:September 20th, 2004 09:49 am (UTC)
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You win bonus points for using "Horatio Alger" as an adverb. Both my parents have a similar story, but they wear it openly. At least in front of their kids, in that "oh yeah? well I didn't have indoor plumbing until I was 14!" way.

I grew up middle class and I'm middle class now, at least via access to income, if not in terms of property ownership. But sometime I want to process the difference between "student poor" and "single mother poor." For me one faded right into the other since I had my daughter when I was a junior in college, but the latter was a whole different kettle of fish and much, much scarier. In some ways I think class can be monitored by the fear factor that comes with it more than just about anything else. Just how fucked will you be if the car breaks down/your partner leaves you/you get accidentally pregnant/your paycheck is two days late/someone in your house develops a major illness? When I was poor poor, "working class" was something I aspired to because I fancifully thought it would come with a degree of stability that collecting cans and WIC checks didn't. I'm not sure if that's really true, though.
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From:vestalvixen
Date:September 20th, 2004 09:54 am (UTC)
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I like how no one talks about Horatio's sex type thing for poor little orphan boys.
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From:gordonzola
Date:September 20th, 2004 01:25 pm (UTC)
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is one of the benefits of class creating your own history (to a certain extent)?
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From:vestalvixen
Date:September 20th, 2004 01:41 pm (UTC)
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yes. Yes it is.
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From:ericaceous
Date:September 20th, 2004 10:06 am (UTC)
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In some ways I think class can be monitored by the fear factor that comes with it more than just about anything else.

YES. And also whether there is an escape hatch that some people come equipped with and others do not: Is there someone to bail you out when the shit hits the fan? Many poor-student-poor people from middle class backgrounds seem to be able to have the parental money exit possibility. But if all one's relatives are also barely making it, there just isn't that cushion and those economic blips like late paychecks and sudden job loss are oh-so-terrifying.
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From:brownstargirl
Date:September 20th, 2004 10:49 am (UTC)
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a big "hells yeah" to this.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:September 21st, 2004 09:07 am (UTC)
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yep.

I'm a college student living off campus with two friends. I know I can fall back on my parents' money whenever I need to. One of my housemates can't, has been getting ridiculously little from them for living expenses (to the point of not having enough food, socks, or laundry money at times) and isn't comfortable with the amount of loans she's taking out. Needless to say, we have very different attitudes about what are reasonable expenses.
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From:vestalvixen
Date:September 20th, 2004 09:53 am (UTC)
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Well, I'm the first in my immediate family to have a degree. Third or fourth in my extended (of which the LaDivas number in the hundreds) to have a degree. My grandparents were middle class, though, by virtue of property ownership, but my mom would be lower middle class or working class, I guess. However, for the past couple of decades she's been in a cubicle farm, so I don't know. I don't know how to classify myself. On my paternal side, I'm aristocracy. All I know is I hate the rich, and upper middle class. Hell, I hate some of the middle class.
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From:gordonzola
Date:September 20th, 2004 01:27 pm (UTC)
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we all know you're a hater. but is the hate focussed?
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From:vestalvixen
Date:September 20th, 2004 01:40 pm (UTC)
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No, not at all.
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From:ericaceous
Date:September 20th, 2004 10:00 am (UTC)
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I think you should have had us all take those class tests that someone (was it jactitation?) pointed to.

In my house in the living room exercise was a combination of "old money" (thanks to my education in the halls of old-money academia, one might posit) and "trailer park" (the stuff that I think of as "normal"). I think this fits in with what misia is talking about above, where there IS that tension between sociocultural class and economic class, above and beyond the education/class mobility/alienation issues that you raised in #4 above (which I also struggle with).
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From:gordonzola
Date:September 20th, 2004 01:31 pm (UTC)
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there are times when I wonder if we struggle with it too much though. the whole "is my identity pure enough" question that the "new" social movements and identity politics have given us. the thing is that it's mixed in with shame at times too. I imagine that a small percentage of people who actually would be called "working class" in a statistical survey would identity that way. but does that actually mean they aren't?
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From:ericaceous
Date:September 20th, 2004 01:39 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, what I think of as "the authenticity virus" is a HUGE HUGE barrier to people feeling able to take action. Its a big huge down side to identity politics.
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From:dcart
Date:September 21st, 2004 07:26 am (UTC)
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Yes, people absolutely struggle with this way too much. I think the majority in this country is working class, including some of the folks driving around in leased BMWs.

It's interesting to me that such a large percentage of the U.K. identifies as working class and that that number has grown under New Labour.
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From:magpiesf
Date:September 20th, 2004 06:54 pm (UTC)
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i stalled at question 2 of that test. question 1 i fudged with the closest approximation of my answer, but question 2 didnt have any answers that appealled to me... so im left in the lurch! dammit!
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From:ericaceous
Date:September 21st, 2004 05:36 am (UTC)
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I had trouble with the 2nd thing too (that's the "what's on your shelves" one, right?). Obscure 2nd-hand genre paperbacks, zines, and 100 cubic feet of fabric weren't among the choices.
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From:brownstargirl
Date:September 20th, 2004 10:16 am (UTC)
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I really like Joanna Kadi's book Thinking Class on this, specifically her essay, "Stupidity 'deconstructed'" about growing up wokring-class and making it into college. She does a really good job of looking at how class is not just one thing - it's about langauge, sense of entitlement, culture, family, as well as about education and income. As well as Eli Clare's writings in Exile and Pride about being "mixed-class" - which I think is a mroe and more common state.

If I'd answered, it'd be something like 'surfing the border of working class/ lower middle class." To so many folks, the word "working-class" means "white guy/girl who works at a factory job," something they don't fit into because their stories are more complicated. Me = dad who was middle class in Sri Lanka, lost a lot in coming to the U.S. but still had it in terms of attitude, mom who was the kid of factory workers in southeastern Massachusetts, by a total fluke got financial aid to go to Worcester State, became a junior high school teacher, did it through the 80s hiring freeze on teaching jobs in MA so was always working two jobs and never made over $20k a year. My class is one pair of factory outlet shoes a year but always books in the house, first kid to go to 'real college' on scholarship. Compared to most of the town, we were doing good in Worcester and always insisted on calling ourelves middle-class even though my dad's frequent, multiple-year bouts of unemployment. As soon as I left, though, I felt the difference between my family's experiences and the real middle-class kids in college, who were having everything paid for and culturally were genteel, not crass, whose famillies had always gone to school, who had the inbred confidence to ask for everythiing and expect the best, who didn't have a limit. I am always struggling for a way to articulate this without erasing the privilege I do have.
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From:slit
Date:September 20th, 2004 10:41 am (UTC)
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Context is everything, isn't it? I grew up thinking my parents were like zillionaires or something, to the point where I was embarrassed about it and tried to downplay it, because they were middle class in a rural farm town facing down Reaganomics. Then I left that town and realized what Real Money looked like. Or even what a real middle class lifestyle looked like, with cars other than rusty pick-up trucks and houses that had posh carpeting and reliable heat and parents willing to take out loans and second mortgages just to send their kids to college, or even just to send their kids to a "better" college. My first two roommates were the children of professors, and though I think my parents actually had a higher income than theirs did, they were raised with, like you said, an "inbred confidence" (especially regarding all things academic, which they'd been raised to see as the culmination of human experience) which I never had. To my parents school was something you did, did fast, and got out of as cheaply as possible in order to make more money later, because who knows when the bottom will fall out and you'll be left destitute on the street. Though even that I realize is a privelege, given the number of my friends' parents (not to mention my grandparents) who were outright hostile to the idea of college, period.
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From:brownstargirl
Date:September 20th, 2004 10:52 am (UTC)
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Location is such a big part of the context. It's all about doing okay in a shit town or rural and then going to the city and being like, what the hell is this? It's the privilege of 'getting out' and the knowledge that you are getting out of something, that there are other folks who don't have to escape something.
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From:dcart
Date:September 21st, 2004 07:33 am (UTC)
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I'm not sure that the attitude you're talking about is necessarily a class thing. My factory worker parents raised me with a much more upper middle class attitude about academics and college than yours did and that started before either of them ever enrolled themselves.
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From:slit
Date:September 21st, 2004 07:59 am (UTC)
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But we've talked about this before, and I think there are a lot of similarities in our parents' attitudes. Had you (or I) been in either of my roommates' shoes, the whole who-pays-for-college-after-the-divorce question wouldn't have even emerged as a significant question. Someone would make it happen.
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From:jactitation
Date:September 20th, 2004 10:54 am (UTC)
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Thanks for the book comments--I'm gonna get Kadi at the library tomorrow. Really.
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From:brownstargirl
Date:September 20th, 2004 11:01 am (UTC)
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Queerly Classed , edited by Susan Raffo on South End, is another one of my perrenial recommendations.
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From:gordonzola
Date:September 20th, 2004 01:40 pm (UTC)
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I am always struggling for a way to articulate this without erasing the privilege I do have.


which to me is some of the downside of identity politics. one can always find someone (even an idealized someone) who is worse off. But does that mean you both can't claim the same identity?

My dad has a mixed class background. His dad was middle class but died when he was young. His Dad's family cut off his mother for religious (and class?) differences so he grew up fairly poor until his mother re-married. But did that early exposure to middle class life help him become the perfect scholarship student? I'm sure the "mixed class" category has changed with the changes in the global economy as well.
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From:brownstargirl
Date:September 21st, 2004 08:40 am (UTC)
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which to me is some of the downside of identity politics. one can always find someone (even an idealized someone) who is worse off. But does that mean you both can't claim the same identity?

Well, yeah, and that's the thing- our identities are stories, and the imperfect words we have to talk about class don't really work alone unless you get the whole back story. i'm actually in favour of a really broad spectrum of folks using "working-class" (with backstories explainign what that means.) I'm still particular - just like I'm a mixed-race girl who reserves the right to throw the "my great-great-great grandmother was Native" folks out of the caucus, I reserve the right to roll my eyes at kdis whose family couldn't buy a DVD player that one year that things were tight.

When I started calling myself working-class, with additions, things started to make a lot more sense- but my girlfriend grew up on welfare (hippie welfare, but her mom was a hippie from a steeltown family, not a trust-fund one) and while at first we were both just so fucking glad to hook up with somebody who wasn't from middle-class activist world, after a bit she started kicking my ass about how Iwas rolling over the differnce between my shit and her shit. So i'm a bit more on the "yeah, I was a scholarhsip kid but that's a piece of privilege too" kick these days.
From:rootlesscosmo
Date:September 20th, 2004 10:47 am (UTC)
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When I commented on the original poll, I left out yet another complication which some of the comments now reminded me of, which is class-by-inheritance--the idea that the class your parents belong to ("social origin" in Communist jargon) sticks to you, at least for some of your life, maybe all. But why should it? And under what circumstances does it wear off?

And this seems to me akin to another kind of class-by-association, namely marriage--the idea that "working-class women" are women married to working-class men. This, by the way, is a very common usage among Marxists, though I think it's pretty obviously at odds with the strictly economic definition, since a stay-at-home wife doesn't exchange her labor-power against capital or engage in labor that produces surplus value. (When a US woman Communist, Mary Thomas, advanced the idea of wages for housework--in the early 1940's!--on the argument that the reproduction of labor-power depends crucially on women's domestic labor, she was slapped down hard by CPUSA theoretical arbiters who insisted that only surplus-value creation was productive labor and only productive labor had a claim to wages.)

The question of how people self-identify also could benefit, I think from a sociological view. If you meet someone who's tending bar but insists they are the unacknowledged offspring of the Grand Duchess Anastasia, you can believe them or not; if however tens of millions of Americans work hard for lousy wages but resolutely insist that they are "middle class," then even if you think that's a confused idea, it's nevertheless a fact of political life that has to be reckoned with.

So I come back to the question "Why does class membership (or the definition of class membership) matter?" because I think the way we understand class can't be separated from what we think its importance is. If we're trying to draw the boundary of a bargaining unit in a union organizing drive, we'll define it one way; if we're trying to account for how cliques form in high school, we'll define it another.
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From:gordonzola
Date:September 20th, 2004 01:52 pm (UTC)
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If we're trying to draw the boundary of a bargaining unit in a union organizing drive, we'll define it one way; if we're trying to account for how cliques form in high school, we'll define it another.

that's a good way of putting it. But I think the sociological way of looking at things vs. the self-identity issue was the biggest surprise when I did the original poll and it was running 50:50 for a long time. I expected about 25% yes:75% no. But maybe I attract the political types to my journal
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From:flipzagging
Date:September 20th, 2004 12:40 pm (UTC)

what use is class?

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I don't have a lot of background in Marx-ish political philosophy, despite being a Canadian. ;)

Classifications are only useful if they predict something else, with reasonable reliability. For instance, if a cheese is labeled "parmesan" it's more than just a random name; it implies a certain formula was used, and the final product has, within certain ranges, a texture, flavour and chemical make-up.

Let's say, for the sake of argument, I'm not working class and you are. What else do we now know about each other?
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From:spoonfeeding
Date:September 20th, 2004 01:08 pm (UTC)

Re: what use is class?

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that he'll be a cheap date?
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From:gordonzola
Date:September 20th, 2004 01:46 pm (UTC)

Re: what use is class?

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xoxo
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From:gordonzola
Date:September 20th, 2004 01:16 pm (UTC)

Re: what use is class?

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Let's say, for the sake of argument, I'm not working class and you are. What else do we now know about each other?

well, just because you choose not to recognize a social relationship doesn't mean it doesn't exist. what do we know? not everything, that's for sure. But it could mean that when you invite me out for dinner I won't be able to afford the restaraunt, it could mean that though we're neighbors now economics will probably seperate us, it means your kids might go to university and mine might go to state school or drop out, it means we might have to make very different choices in our priorities that get called "personal choice" when they are partially determined by larger social factors. It could mean that we have very different interests in the fate of the stock market or union disputes. etc.

I never argued that class was the be-all and end-all. Like Parmesan it could be a tiny factor grated up with gums and fillers and sold in a little green can, or it could be a 85 lb. wheel aged for over 24 months in a Reggiano bank that gives the cheese maker a loan at the cheese's birth so he/she can remain successful and solvent.

If class isn't important than why do "we" allow inheritence?
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From:flipzagging
Date:September 20th, 2004 02:18 pm (UTC)

Re: what use is class?

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well, just because you choose not to recognize a social relationship

Maybe my question sounded critical, but it was straightforward. I don't know what a contemporary Marxian means by class. I don't deny all the factors you're talking about.

Marx isn't the foundation of my thought. I might slice up society along different lines, for my purposes. So I'm interested: what function does ruling class / working class have in your life?

Do you not trust people who are in the ruling class? Is it useful for identifying who should join a union? Do you try to build class solidarity, even if your theory says that a young gay artist and an aging Dominican housekeeper should be in the same class? Would you avoid social contact with someone who was, in your definition, of a different class? And so on.
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From:gordonzola
Date:September 20th, 2004 05:40 pm (UTC)

Re: what use is class?

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well, there are many ways to answer that question. But in the end it boils down to class being a possible place of organization and unity. It's a way to view how the world works, not necesarily a way for individuals to modify their social behavior. though certaily it can help explain why some people "succeed" and others fail in school, at jobs etc. The answer capitalism gives us is that some people are simply better, worked harder etc. which ignores that some people start at very different places than others.
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From:flipzagging
Date:September 20th, 2004 10:04 pm (UTC)

Re: what use is class?

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I think I get where you're coming from a bit more now. Thanks!

This is a tangent, but recently a couple of class-paradox things floated onto my radar screen. You might be interested. People acting against their class interest, in bad and good ways.

1) the book What's the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by Thomas Frank. My friend Sean Burke has a relevant quote in his journal.

2) This segment from NOW with Bill Moyers. If you live long enough, you'll get to see Lou Dobbs, the CNN Moneyline guy, saying things indistinguishable from Noam Chomsky. Weeeeird. (Real Video, 16:21 | Transcript).
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From:gordonzola
Date:September 21st, 2004 09:19 am (UTC)

Re: what use is class?

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I've been meaning to get that Thomas Frank book for awhile. I love The Baffler which I'd totally recommend too.
From:rootlesscosmo
Date:September 20th, 2004 02:56 pm (UTC)

Re: what use is class?

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I'm not sure flipzagging was arguing that it isn't important; I certainly wouldn't. But I agree that--depending on the definition--it's not always a very useful predictor.

Time for philosophical vocabulary, I think. We're trying to sort out (several kinds of) objective class--actual income, or actual place-in-relations-of-production, or actual socioeconomic status computed by assigning a numerical factor weight to income, education level, and place in a job status ranking--and (several kinds of) subjective class: how people self-identify, how they're perceived, what's left of their childhood experiences, etc. The distinction is between class membership that all observers would agree on--if your income is x thousand bucks a year, or you quit college after 2 years, or you earn your living as a machinist, those are facts that don't depend on who's asking (though their meaning certainly isn't immediately obvious.) On the other hand if you feel workingclass because your folks were poor, or because you were high-hatted at college even though you're now a surgeon, nobody else knows that unless you choose to tell them--it's purely a matter of your perception. (Again, that doesn't mean it's unreliable or meaningless, only that it belongs to a different category of information.)

This is why "objective" measures can give results that conflict with "subjective" perceptions. Anastasia's (purported) great-nephew the bartender believes he's not a worker but actually Tsar of all the Russias. Millions of Americans, workers by Marxist definition and poor or near-poor on the basis of income, nevertheless call themselves "middle class." I think reaching a satisfactory understanding requires us to make the objective-subjective distinction; then, having established which we're talking about, and which type within its category, to explain why we think this matters, whether as a predictor of voting behavior or who pays for dinner or what kind of car will be in the driveway.
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From:ayun
Date:September 20th, 2004 03:23 pm (UTC)

Re: what use is class?

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I have, paradoxically, too much to say on the subject to contribute here the way I'd like to, but I have to say for the record how much I enjoyed the cheese metaphor in this comment.
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From:gordonzola
Date:September 20th, 2004 05:46 pm (UTC)

Re: what use is class?

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did you? I felt it was a little forced. but thanks.
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From:flipzagging
Date:September 20th, 2004 09:44 pm (UTC)

Re: what use is cheese?

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mine was forced... your riff on it was cool.
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From:ayun
Date:September 21st, 2004 11:33 am (UTC)

Re: what use is class?

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Well, it came off as very affected certainly, but I like affectations, especially when they're deliberate.
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From:springheel_jack
Date:September 20th, 2004 02:20 pm (UTC)
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I had no idea how to answer the poll, so I didn't. I know I'm a student, but that's all I know.
From:albatrossity
Date:September 20th, 2004 02:29 pm (UTC)
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Or how bout the fact that I've grown up in a working class family, make working class wages, but have married someone making upper middle-class wages? Yet, even though he gets these fat paychecks, we don't live grandly being here in SF and all, paying the crazy rents and expenses of City life. How does that part fit into the equation?
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From:gordonzola
Date:September 20th, 2004 05:42 pm (UTC)
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I'm giving questions not answers. Above there is some discussion of location. I agree that making, say, $40,000 in SF is a very different class position tan making it in rural America.
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From:kest
Date:September 20th, 2004 08:58 pm (UTC)
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I think I said last time that the labels didn't work for me. So after some thought, here's my perception of the current American class system:

Yuppie
Geek
White Trash
Minority


I'm Geek. All the way across the board.
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From:dobrovolets
Date:September 21st, 2004 06:52 am (UTC)
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The phrase is an abstraction, and was never anything but an abstraction. Class itself is an abstraction. But a real abstraction.

I do think, however, that the "post-industriality" of the current world is grossly exaggerated. It's just that the center of gravity of the world working class has decisively shifted from the North Atlantic to somewhere around China. (This is an exaggeration, to make a point.) That's not to say that there isn't still a working class in Europe and the U.S., but that the means of production at its command are increasingly means of producing far more transient commodities. More and more, we are engaged in producing the consumption goods and services which the bourgeoisie and new middle classes of this country find necessary in order to enjoy their share of the surplus value derived from the productive labor of workers elsewhere.


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