Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Working Class

From a long, sad Times account of a female steelworker's life in Indiana, I extract the following tidbits:
Being a female steelworker hadn’t been easy. But she’d learned to hold her own. If a man spread a false rumor that he’d slept with her, she spread a false rumor right back that he’d been terrible in bed. If a woman wanted to fight, she learned to say “this is a place of business” instead of brawling then and there.

Shannon worked second shift — 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. — which made it difficult for her to get custody of her daughter or keep her son in check during his teenage years.

*   *   *

Besides, Shannon hadn’t been raised to pay much attention to rules about what a woman should or shouldn’t do. Her own mother drank Wild Turkey and brawled with neighbors. Shannon’s parents married when they were teenagers. Her father got a union job at Wonder Bread. He expected his uniform ironed and his eggs cooked over easy every morning. Shannon’s mother, who kept breaking the yolks, once turned a plate over on his head.

Eventually, her parents divorced and her mother got a job cleaning hotel rooms. She made ends meet with food stamps, and drove a blue Ford Zephyr with no muffler or driver’s side window. She thought she got lucky when she married a truck driver who lived in a trailer near theirs. He moved them to a real house in a quiet town where Shannon became a cheerleader and got interested in school.

But then the truck driver started sneaking into Shannon’s bedroom at night. He went to prison. Without his paycheck, they lost the house.
Of her first husband:
But Dan was domineering and had a violent temper. Once, he grabbed her by the throat and banged her head against the floor, according to court records in a trial where he was found guilty of battery. Another time, he threw her car keys into a freezing ravine. After their daughter was born, Dan didn’t want Shannon working, especially at a factory full of men.

The first night Shannon came home from work, Dan threw her belongings into the yard. For years, they had a tumultuous relationship, accusing each other of battery, according to court records.

Her job became her liberator. She worked her way up from a janitor to a heat treat operator, earning $25 an hour. With money like that, she wasn’t going to let anybody drive her away from it.
Since we've been having good conversations about big, hard questions this week, how about this one: why is the modern working class like this? Why so little family stability, so much violence, so little religion, so much alcohol and drugs?

The working class hasn't always been like that. Working class communities in Britain once (1890 to 1960 or so) had rates of violent crime that bordered on zero. In the US, factory communities once had higher marriage rates than either the middle class or farmers.

There is only one explanation I am aware of that gets attention from people of different political stripes: the intersection of 1960s personal liberation with the economic insecurity of working class life. That is, casting off all our inherited limits on behavior might work out ok for people with the money, brains and education to find their own paths, but many people always depended on rigid social rules to keep their lives going right. Without those rules, they flounder, or (like Shannon) find that their factory jobs become the only real source of stability in their lives; given the high instability of working class employment in most epochs, this is a recipe for repeated disasters.

One argument is favor of this view is that in the US, conversion to Mormonism is the most effective anti-poverty program sociologists have ever identified. What helps many struggling poor people most is a community that enforces rigid behavioral rules and sets high standards for decency. I have not seen comparable numbers, but I believe that Baptist church and the Black Muslims have played the same role in black communities. This probably explains the social success of factory communities in Edwardian Britain, where the Methodist Church and the Trade Union movement both provided lots of structure.

There is also a liberal solution, which amounts to moving everyone into the middle class through education. And it does work for people who can do it; it is your own level of education, not your parents', that has such a big influence on whether you marry or divorce or go to prison. But we are hitting limits on this approach; these days pushing more 18-year-olds into college mainly seems to increase the number who drop out, burdened with debts. I am personally not convinced that any amount of money spent on either high schools or colleges will do much to increase the level of real education in our society.

Since recommending that other people join churches I don't believe in seems hypocritical to me, I am left with no solution at all. It is very hard to help people whose lives and attitudes are fundamentally at odds with our highly regimented, tightly controlled work places – indeed our highly regimented, tightly controlled middle class world. And it is very hard to change people's basic attitudes and general approach to life.

10 comments:

David said...

I thought this was the most interesting article I had read in the NYT in a long time, and I'm a daily reader.

My take was completely different. I thought the most decisive change--the one at fault, if you will--was that occurring in the ethos of business management. Referring to the 1920s, a passage states: "Back then, business schools taught that a chief executive’s role was to balance shareholders’ interests with those of employees, customers and the government." Then came Milton Friedman and his ilk, and we get passages like this, referring to Todd Adams, the head of the company: "In today’s model, chief executives like Mr. Adams get more compensation in stock, to align their interests with shareholders, who are now considered more important than other stakeholders. That’s why Mr. Adams made more than $40 million over the last six years, as he cut the cost of labor."

I'd like to see our national thinking start with that, and not worker morality.

For one thing, I wonder if Mormonism is a great anti-poverty program, not just because it promotes personal self-restraint etc., but because Mormons regard themselves as a community who must look out for one another--including Mormon employers of other Mormons.

pootrsox said...

I'm with David on this-- in fact, I was struck by the very same passages as he cites here.

Outside of B corporations, business today (and this even includes things like non-profit religious hospital corporations! As our rural local communities are learning.... ) has a single purpose: the multiplication of dividend dollars in stockholders' pockets, exacerbated by the awarding of bonuses as shares of stock.

John said...

Over the long term, and I mean 200 years, industrial employment has very rarely been stable. Across the 1945 to 1975 period, the US and a few other countries managed to keep it fairly stable, but I believe that was an unusual circumstance. I do not believe that any realistic set of corporate policies would have kept manufacturing employment at the level of 1965. Layoffs and down periods have always been the reality of working class life. So while the economic situation of factory workers has gotten worse since 1975, that does not explain why the culture of factory workers was so different in the US of the 1920s or Britain around 1900.

My reaction to reading about how this company makes ball bearings was that the process is remarkably primitive and ought to be a lot more mechanized. I bet that the Mexican workers who take the places of the folks in Indiana will soon be replaced by robots.

David said...

@John: You seem to be saying these workers are economically doomed no matter what. Which may be true, but in that case, what is the relevance and interest of their moral comportment? It's not like all of them them can study and abstain their way into white collar employment, which is not infinite, already has long lines of qualified people applying for it, and long term is quite likely also doomed by automation.

To put it another way, Mormonism isn't a good anti-poverty program just because it makes people avoid teen pregnancy and heavy drinking. There's got to be, so to speak, a business model there, an actual program of wealth production and distribution. And what says that Mormons are any more secure, long term, than any of us? If they are, there must be more to it that sheer sobriety.

David said...

And, as long as we're talking about different forms of social ethos, how about one that encourages businessmen to be satisfied with less profit? That seems to characterize Swedish businessmen . . . how about we get people to convert to Swedishism, which would have the added benefit of involving no hypocrisy about religious belief.

John said...

I would love for businessmen to be satisfied with less profit, and for CEO salaries to be cut by 90 percent. But I'm not sure that is the cause of working class dysfunction. Factory workers used to be much poorer than they are now, and their jobs were just as uncertain, but that did not in the past always lead to so much divorce etc. The question I am asking is, why does economic trouble lead to such disaster now when it did do so as often in the past? Why do contemporary people seem to be so dependent on economic success? Why can't we maintain families and communities through terrible economic times, as many people have before? I guess if the economy were better it wouldn't matter as much, but I think it would still be an important question.

I suppose from a political perspective it is better to focus on things we can do something about, and maybe we can make economic conditions better for workers. But the disordered way so many people in our world live remains a great puzzle to me.

pootrsox said...

One possible factor: workers now look up and see many more fat cats making obscene multiples of their own income... far more than at any previous time, barring serfdom and slavery.

Another factor: these workers see a much greater disparity between their lives and the lives of those not all that far above them but having much more security on many levels than they do. (e.g. college-educated people)

But you may have something to think about with the loss of external structures-- perhaps these people are inherently more unable to give their own lives structure. And with the loss of unions, with the loss of religious practice, and with the communities in which they live so often being impoverished as corporate factories move out, killing not just the factory jobs but all the service jobs, many of the small local businesses, etc, there are no external structures to support them.

David said...

I would suggest:

1) People in the past lived much more disordered lives than you're allowing. There was plenty of drinking, social violence, domestic abuse, commitment for insanity, syphilis, prostitution, etc. The existence of self-betterment societies should not obscure the reality covered by Hogarth, Wisconsin Death Trip, Gangs of New York, Engels' study of the working class, etc. There's a reason why "the honest poor" were a special category--many poor folk weren't!

2) You're forgetting the hysteria and prognostications of doom and revolution that accompanied 19th-century business cycles. And sometimes those came true, as in Paris in 1789, Petrograd in 1917, etc., etc.

3) The people in the article are doing badly enough to vote for Trump, but I don't see any sign that they're actually falling into despair. Their family seems committed to each other, and they show every sign of somehow carrying on.

G. Verloren said...

"Working class communities in Britain once (1890 to 1960 or so) had rates of violent crime that bordered on zero."

I'm sorry, I need a citation for this, or at the very least a contextualization. The long and storied history of organized crime in places like, say, London's East End makes it hard to imagine this being remotely true, except with some sort of qualifiers limiting the scope of the statement.

Sure, the biggest names and most high profile and brazen criminals like the Kray Twins didn't show up until the 1960s, but there most certainly was quite a lot of violent crime going on prior to that - just far more quietly, and reported on far less frequently. This was by design - mafias purposefully work to discourage reporting to the authorities, and to control people through fear of reprisal for speaking out and promise of leniency or even reward for maintaining silence.

Perhaps the overall national numbers were low? When you factor sleepy little English towns out in the country into the equation, that could very heavily counteract the concentrations of violent crime in large urban centers and provide a low average.

But at the same time, isn't reporting going to be just as much of an issue, if not more so, out in the boonies? The societal expectation of the time was to never speak about things like domestic abuse, incest, rape, and the like - particularly in small towns where everyone knows everyone else.

If a woman whose husband beat her went to the police in rural Britain in the 1900s, she was likely to be told she was hysterical and blowing things out of proportion; that boys will be boys, and surely it was all misunderstanding and he just scared her; that if he really did hit her, then she must have provoked him somehow; that maybe is she was a better wife, he wouldn't have to hit her; that she should pipe down and be meek and obedient, and appreciate her hardworking husband winning her bread for her because as a women she was too weak and stupid to do it herself.

I very much doubt official police records from that time and place are remotely accurate. So very much got swept under the rug and dismissed. You'd do far, far better to listen in on the local gossip and rumors of a place to learn accurate accounts of who was being beaten by their husband or shaken down by "the firms". But unfortunately, not much in that vein was ever recorded.

David said...

@John: I don't think the American working class has ever been as orderly as the British working class was between 1890 and 1960, except perhaps between 1945 and 1965, a time as you say of exceptional stability in American economic history.

Perhaps the question really worth asking is why some working classes are relatively docile. Britain between 1890 and 1960 was actually a pretty unusual place, one of few European countries to see no significant Fascist or Communist movement.

One thing I would suggest is that a powerful union movement can promote working class functionality. Unions give working class men a stake in orderliness and continuity, as well as a close community of men that judges their behavior.