Frag-ments: Workers need power, not 'equality'

By Andy Pragacz

Macalester students have no problem supporting workers’ rights, but little value is placed on ‘working-class’ culture. In fact, I would say that ‘working-class culture,’ which certainly does not exist in any pure or recognizable form, is devalued throughout academia. Stereotypically, working-class culture is racist, sexist, violent, intolerant in general, mostly ignorant, lazy, un-environmental, Christian and politically ‘inactive.’ (Aside: these things, by the way, are some of the things I think about the working class community from which I come). Rather than explicitly belittling working class culture, intellectuals and aspiring middle-classers take pity-the worst form of contempt-on the masses. This sentiment propels ‘us’ to promote ‘education’ for ‘those less fortunate,’ donate money and all kinds of governmental assistance. We also utilize the existence of the ‘working class’ as a rhetorical device to advocate against such things as corporate greed, without comprehending the plight of these ‘workers.’The middling classes take great pleasure in measuring their ‘success’ through the image of the wretched worker (as workers might with the homeless, for example). The worker is a constant, usually unnamed, immoral (or less moral) Other for bougie culture. Smoking is a prime example: a disproportionate number of smokers are ‘workers’ (any fifteen minutes watching the register at the gas station can confirm this). Smoking is a sign of immoderation and ignorance; it is also a health risk (especially when the smoker has children) and a ‘waste’ of money. “Why don’t you buy organic food for your children with that $5-$8 a day you spend on cigarettes? Why are supporting such a terrible industry?” we implore the worker. Such questions tacitly reaffirm Middle class values and our own moral worth. Worker response: “A big house in the ‘burbs, SUVs, dining out, divorce lawyers, lawn services, buying anything ‘new,’ now all those are a waste of money.”

Another great example is the value attached to volunteering and political activism, understood as ‘giving back to society.’ As we know this is a big deal at Mac, as are (unpaid) internships. Working class people do not have the time, energy or the necessary funds to ‘volunteer.’ Unfortunately, internships and volunteering are, at this point, an important requirement for entering (‘good’) colleges and the bougie workforce. They are also viewed as the means through which change is supposed to happen, discursively eliminating poor populations from said change. How do we expect working class people to ‘give back’ when not much has really been given to them?

Our hypocrisy, however, is not really my point (hypocrisy being the practical foundation of morality; ‘Do As I Say, Not As I Do”). Rather, my beef is with the idea that working-class culture is defective and the remedies prescribed to ‘fix’ workers’ plight. The simple idea that workers need to ‘improve’ their condition through ‘hard-work’ and ‘education’ is the most damaging concept to workers because (a) workers believe it or (b) if they don’t, they have neither the ‘incentive’ nor the language to challenge it, leading to (sometimes) apathy. The working-class belief in the ‘American Dream’ (either for themselves or their children) not only justifies working two or three jobs, buying clothes from Hollister, watching too much TV, going to Disney World, theft, drinking Coca-Cola and all manner of ‘Evils,’ but the idea of their deficiency as well. The calls for ‘equality’ and workers’ rights are all based on the assumption that everyone should have the ‘ability’ to be (really meaning simply ‘should be’) just like Middle classers.

As good Macalester students, however, we also have myriad bad things to say about bougie culture with its conspicuous consumption, etc. So why would we ever desire members of the working class to be like that? “Because at least it would be ‘better’ for them?” How? So they too can buy organic food and feel politically relevant/superior? Instead, I think that working-class culture has a lot to say to American society. Those with something to lose, aka those invested in the system aka anyone with a retirement fund, are the least likely to care about ‘change,’ and when they do care, they tacitly promote themselves as examples of the ‘good.’ The working class is the revolutionary class, politically disempowered by trade schools, racism (a Capitalist invention), the ‘American Dream’ and the two party-system. Rather than advocate workers be educated, I say (a) they need a different kind of education, one that does not reify bougie mentality, (b) workers have something to tell ‘us,’ like how to fix your own car, live simply, etc and (c) in order to make systemic changes in the world we need to communicate with workers in a meaningful way. And the last of these, at least in my community, would probably not include being PC, quoting studies (or philosophers), telling people to vote, or being non-violent/pleasant.

Andy Pragacz can be reached at [email protected]