Being Sensible about Class Divisions 

A question which I am asked repeatedly in my role as International Liberation Reference Person for the Working Class is, "What is the definition of the term 'Working Class'?" Usually the person asking this question is trying to figure out whether it would be appropriate for them to attend a certain workshop or support group--whether or not they "belong" to the working class. I would, in this article, like to try to clarify what our several definitions of the term "Working Class" that we have used in RC are, so that we can use them with some clarity. I will arbitrarily give these various definition numbers.

ONE DEFINITION OF "WORKING CLASS"

In the Draft Policy for Working-Class Liberation (In Working for a Living No. 4) "Working Class" is defined as "anyone who works for a living." For most people it is rather simple to figure out whether you are working-class or not by this definition--either you (l) own the means of production and draw your living (or could) from the labor of others (say through your ownership of a company or its stocks) and are owning class or (2) you are dependent on a wage drawn from the fruits of your own labor, (that is, you live on a paycheck) and you are working class.

The confusion that people have with understanding this definition is, "Well, what if I own a business? Am I then owning class?" No, I think we need to use some common sense here. There are a great many people who are self-employed or own a business who I would consider part of the working class because they do not possess sufficient wealth or control over the means of production. They still basically have to work from day to day, often more hours than the workers they hire and may often not be wealthy at all. I think it leads to major confusion to see everyone who owns a business as owning class. Of course there are grey areas in all of these definitions, but some common sense has to be used.

A confusion also arises, not in understanding the definition itself, but in applying it, when it comes time for a working-class support group. If you use the definition "anyone who works for a living," all of a sudden you have everyone from dishwashers to corporate lawyers in a working-class support group. This can work with a very good leader. However, it is useful to think of support groups as "a place to discharge those things which are best discharged in a group of people with common experience" and certainly a support group according to this first definition of "working class" would not provide these conditions. In groups with many sections of the working class present the patterns of society such as suspicion, resentment, distrust, or unaware dominance tend to appear and destroy the safety, forcing one or another sub-group out. To put our theory into practice we need to think in terms of sections of the working class and meet by sections.

What would these sections be? One useful model has been to think of society as divided by class into the poor or raised poor, the working class, the middle class and the owning class. This brings about a second definition of "working class." But first, how did we arrive at this model?

A SECOND DEFINITION OF WORKING-CLASS

The middle class in RC led a slow revolt over the years against being urged into working-class support groups. Certain working-class leaders in RC I think were correct in encouraging the middle-class people towards a working-class ideology. (See the fourth definition of working-class below.) These working-class leaders were also correct in seeing clearly the oppression of middle-class people as workers where the middle-class people themselves could not, having been brainwashed into thinking that they "were better off." So it was understandable to urge this direction towards a working-class ideology on middle-class people for a couple of reasons.

In practice, however, the oppression of middle-class workers is different enough from the oppression of the rest of the working class that it makes sense to work separately on middle-class oppression. We now have, in Sean Ruth, a Middle Class Liberation Reference Person and this is a very positive development, which should make clearer the relationships between the oppression of middle-class people and that of other sections of the working class.

What would a working definition of middle class be? I mostly would like to leave the defining of the middle class to the middle class itself, but for now I would say that the middle class is that group of workers who do not work in the direct delivery of goods and services but who work in support of the direct production of goods and services in their roles as organizers, teachers, managers and consultants and the like. They are often regarded as "professionals" and afforded higher pay and regarded with more status and respect. They facilitate the direct production or also act as agents of the oppressive system which organizes the work of laborers. There are a lot of other ways of describing the middle class and their characteristics but I think this will do for now.

Another group which rises from the crowd at working-class workshops is the poor or raised poor. These people also often have a hard time identifying with the working class for various understandable reasons. One reason is that many of them were "declassed" or forced out of the working class due to unemployment or injury as a result of their oppression as workers.

They may also have difficulty identifying as working-class because many of them have experienced the working class as their "oppressors." The poor and working class are usually neighbors of one another. In reality, there is a great and continuous movement of people from one group to the other. Many of the working class also cannot make enough money working to escape poverty. By the first definition of "working-class" the poor are really a part of the working class--an available labor pool or a section of the working class that is used against the employed working class as a kind of threat of what might happen to you if you don't knuckle under. Poverty works to keep labor cheap. Though the poor belong to the working class, they are the ones looked down on in working-class neighborhoods or the ones that don't have jobs so they feel different. And in reality their oppression has been different.

So, because the experience of being poor or having been raised poor is different from much of the working class, it makes sense for there to be another section of the working class, the "raised poor." We now have a Liberation Reference Person for that group, Gwen Brown, and this is a very favorable development.

So what we are now left with as "working class," having separated out the middle class and the raised poor, is what I sometimes call wage-earners. I would state this second definition of working class as: those workers engaged in the direct production of goods and services, generally valued and paid an hourly wage for what they directly produce and not in general valued or paid for their thinking (although a great deal of thinking may be involved in their work). These workers are generally, though not always, paid less than middle-class workers and generally are regarded as having less status or importance or get less respect than middle-class workers but are regarded as "better than" the poor.

This second definition fits what in the U.S. is more commonly regarded as "working class" although that is not a common term in the U.S. at all. Part of the oppression of all workers in the U.S. is the myth that there is no class system and that we all are "middle class."

Even with this second definition of "working class" and the whole breakdown of classes into raised poor, the working class, the middle class and the owning class; when it becomes support group time, there is much confusion with the question "What class am I?" Why? Because there are not sharp divisions between classes and there is much crossing of class lines. There are college-educated artists who are poor and can only support themselves through waitressing. And there are people raised in miners' families who are now corporate lawyers. And there are people who are the daughters of the owning class who work pounding nails as carpenters. There are people in RC who are black and working-class and for whom their "blackness" seems most central to their experience of class oppression. Or they are Gay or any other Wygelian group. There are many varieties of class oppression. I will come to the solution to this problem a bit later.

A THIRD DEFINITION OF "WORKING CLASS"

I would say that there is also a cultural definition of working class. This is not an inherent quality of the working class like working for a living is; it is a by-product of the class oppression which divides and isolates the various sections of the working class from one another. The raised poor, working class, middle class and owning class have developed different cultures due to the isolation forced on them. People often become more identified with these cultures than their actual place in the class structure. It is common in RC to find waitresses who identify as owning-class because of the culture they inherited growing up. Likewise, a great many RCers identify as working-class on the basis of the neighborhood in which they grew up or on the basis of their various likes and dislikes. Hurts were attached to our early cultural experiences and it is often this combination of culture and hurt which we identify with in terms of class.

The working class has many more flavors than the middle-class culture which may dominate the media or power structure of a country. The working class speaks many more regional dialects of the languages since their oppression allows them to travel less and become less homogenized. Middle-class culture forces homogenization. A middle-class culture of a country often becomes the standard for "proper" or respectable behavior or values and differences are discouraged. This is all part of the workings of the oppression of the class system. It is confusing for us to deal with our identification with cultural things since they seem so much a part of us. They are not a part of us, but they are important as part of our experience. They often seem to be what divides us; however, we know that they do not truly make us "different" from each other. Either way, there is a need for people to meet around these common cultures and sort out the hurts from the valuable parts of our experience.

HOW DO WE PROCEED TO WORK ON CLASS IN A MIXED GROUP?

From the experience of years of various kinds of working-class workshops and support groups, I think we are beginning to figure out a good way to organize ourselves to work on class issues that makes sense. It is generally not useful to claim the label "working class" just because you work for a living; this is not a precise-enough label to allow good work in a mixed group. In the introductions at the beginning of a working-class liberation workshop I ask people, "What is your connection to the working class?" I explain that I want a short version of their life story with respect to class or, "How were you raised and what is your current situation in respect to class?" I give a few examples: "I was raised in a family of mill workers, graduated from high school and now work as a carpenter," or " I was raised by poor farmers, went to college and now work as a physician," or "I was raised in a family of middle-class business people, and dropped out of college, and have worked a variety of low-paying jobs as a clerk and waitress." I don't want people trying to fit themselves into some definition but as much as possible talking about what their experience has been.

I set up support groups as much as possible according to the information gathered from this question, trying to fit each person into a group which has had as near as possible the same life experience as they in regard to class. This avoids the confusion of trying to figure out what label--working-class, middle-class or raised poor--fits. I don't want people trying to fit their round peg into someone else's square hole. As much as possible I want to have people meet with a group which has had roughly the same life experience as themselves.

It seems that most of the beginning work around class which a person has to do is to work on their own connection to the working class, whatever that is. It might come in the form of an early connection to the large group of manual laborers in a factory town; it might come in the form of a feeling of isolation from these workers due to the fact that their father owned the factory. For a person from a middle-class background it might be in the form of a memory of an immigrant grandparent or of a feeling of confusion which surrounded them due to the strange messages they got about their relationships to working-class people and to the class system. For one person it might be having been black and poor, or having been raised on a farm. For some people the label "working class" is useful; for others "middle class" or some other is useful. But everyone has some connection to this concept of working class.

So the way I organize workshops is to divide into support groups according to the different sections of the working class present at the workshops based on the information gained from this question, "What is your connection to the working class?" At one workshop the support groups were: raised poor, raised working-class still working-class, raised working-class now moving in middle-class circles, raised middle-class now in non-professional jobs, and middle class. At another workshop there were three Catholic working-class support groups and three Jewish working-class support groups. Each sub-divided themselves according to the following: raised poor, poor working class, working class, working class with mixed messages, and raised with privilege.

The type of Community of course determines the groups you will have. In one Region where I led a workshop fully one-third of the people were in some kind of raised poor support group.

In these groups one works on one's connection to the working class. It is best to do this work in a group of people similar to yourself, although that may well be difficult where there has not been anyone who has discharged enough to be able to hold a direction against the internalized oppression.

For all of these groups, taking pride in oneself and discharging about what was great and what was hard about one's experience is what is necessary. Ultimately the use of commitments against the internalized oppression and deciding to take action towards the dismantling of all forms of oppression and hurt due to class is what will work for re-emergence.

USING LABELS - HOW NOT TO WORK ON THIS

It is important not to attach oneself too much to labels but to use them intelligently, to the extent that they are accurate in describing your situation and that they are useful in discharging distresses. People from different countries, or small business owners, or those who are self-employed or of various Wygelian groups may find their own particular sub-labels more useful than the general designation of working class or middle class.

If confusion about class seems a big issue for you, finding the narrowest possible description of your group may help. If not, it is probably that the distress recording of confusion is part of your oppression. "Confused middle-class" or some similar title may temporarily help. Work on the confusion directly--where did it come from, when did it start?

People who were raised in one situation and have moved to another find it useful to identify as having made this shift. It is useful for a person raised middle-class and now doing assembly line work to be able to avoid the pretense that they are like everybody else they work with. A person who has gone from the assembly line to being plant manager will probably need many sessions on how that situation is different. One person who was raised middle-class and now works as a factory worker tells me that she has to use both the Middle-Class Commitment and the Working-Class Commitment alternately in her counseling sessions. If she works on one too long without also working on the other, a kind of pretense sets in and discharge dries up.

Labels are difficult also because economic conditions vary so that the economic oppression of people from country to country even in the same profession might vary a great deal. This creates confusion since a person may be middle class in their own country yet may be poor in the standards of another country. Someone may have a very different life from her or his colleagues in other countries. There is a tendency to think of "working class" also as poor which is not necessarily the case. A construction worker in the U.S. may easily make more than a teacher here and have a lifestyle far more extravagant than a bureaucrat in another country.

These labels are just an organizing tool and a place to begin--in the future our labels will be much different. The important thing is to work on your past experience in regard to class.

FOUR DEFINITIONS

Having talked about how to proceed, let me go back and summarize our several definitions of "working-class." The first definition, "Everyone who works for a living," is logically correct in describing our relationship to the oppression. In a simplistic way, each of us is either a person who must work for a wage or a salary to live or a person who owns sufficient wealth from the work of others to be able to live on it alone without working. Of course this is simplistic. A label has its limits. It makes most sense to work on what your experience has been, but let's call this our first definition.

The second definition of "working-class": Those people who are engaged in the direct production of goods or services and not generally paid for their thinking but for their production.

The third definition defines "working-class" as a group of people who identify with working-class culture--the values and lifestyles of the generally non-college-educated, wage-earning people, probably close to the same groups as the second definition but it is a little different way of looking at it.

Finally, however, I think we all need to work toward a fourth definition which can be called "working class by ideology." What I mean by this idea of working class by ideology is that we would all share a view that we are all workers and for all workers--all for one and one for all. (At some of my workshops owning-class people have met as "the future working class.") This ideology would see all work as important and all workers as good and intelligent and worthy of respect. It would see clearly the current existence of class societies and oppression and understand how they work. It would make sure the survival of any one was as important as any other and would make the ending of oppression a priority.

In our inherent nature we are all part of this group--"the only class with a future" as it says in the Working-Class Commitment. It makes sense to work towards this goal. It makes sense for all people to work on the Working-Class Commitment and also to work on the commitments for any sub-section of the working class that one belongs to.

OUR COMMON DIRECTION

Even if we in our own minds hold to this idea of being working-class by ideology we have not escaped the problem of the patterns installed by our experience in a classist society. Can we say that any of us has re-emerged enough from our installed distress patterns to lead a truly working-class life in this ideological sense? We all currently find ourselves in situations where we must collude with the oppressive society to survive, even as we bring about its transformation to a classless society. We still find ourselves feeling "better than" or "more unfortunate or worthy of pity than" someone else. Our patterns of racism, sexism, etc. discourage us from coming to each other's aid in a completely effective manner. Much of the working class will still tend to organize for its own survival and ignore that of the poor or declassed. We still tend to distrust each other and view each other with suspicion. We still tend to step on each other in our efforts to emerge from the destruction of classism. This is why we must do the intermediate work in sections.

At a recent International RC conference thirteen of us met on the topic "Towards a Classless Society." Speaking only for myself, it was a sobering view. We have only begun to face the changes that we need to make. We have only begun to see what they are. The tools of RC are a key element in freeing our thinking and functioning from distresses that prevent this transformation. A good beginning will be in cleaning up our own classism, using the above models and definitions. We must avoid pretense in going about this. We must be able to take a good hard look at where we are and where we have been. While cleaning up our present distress and recovering from our past hurts, we must put attention to where we are going. We have many challenges to face. We must continually hold everything up to the light of discharge along the way and we must continuously stand up for the good of us all.

Dan Nickerson
International Liberation Reference Person for Working-Class Persons
Freeport, Maine, USA


Last modified: 2017-05-06 23:35:41-07