The working class majority : America's best kept secret /
Michael Zweig.
Ithaca : ILR Press, 2000.
viii, 198 p. : ill. ; 23 cm.
More Details
Ithaca : ILR Press, 2000.
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references (p. 181-192) and index.
A Look Inside
First Chapter


Some years ago, a newspaper comic strip pictured a campus radical proclaiming his solidarity with the class struggle, only to be ridiculed by his professor, who dismissed him with a sharp retort: "The only classes in this country are in schools!" This remark pretty much sums up the conventional view of class in the United States: it doesn't exist.

    This book challenges that view. It is about classes, but not the schoolroom kind. It is about social classes and class relations in the United States that not only continue to exist but, as readers will discover, exert tremendous influence over all of us.

    When I talk about class, I am talking about power. Power at work, and power in the larger society. Economic power, and also political and cultural power. As I explore the class structure of the U.S. economy, I will be describing the contours of power that operate in every aspect of society, to the benefit of some, to the burden of others.

    We all experience class, in different ways we are treated, in different lifestyles, in different parts of town. Some people are called "high class," others "low class," depending on their table manners, how loudly they talk in public places, or their choice of movies and magazines. One place where "class" is pretty sharply defined is in the sky. In the 1980s and 1990s, airlines rearranged their planes in ways that mirrored what was going on in the rest of society. The first-class section, serving a tiny minority of passengers, expanded. The seats became more comfortable, the food more sumptuous. Meanwhile, in the back of the plane, coach class got more crammed and even the peanuts disappeared.

    Some aspects of class are more openly acknowledged than others. In this book, I explore aspects that are usually overlooked or denied, especially the way classes are structured by economic power. This book makes three basic points:

    First, economic classes exist in U.S. society. I will describe who is in them and measure their sizes. It will become clear that the United States is not a mostly middle class society. We will see that the working class is the majority.

    Second, class has a pervasive influence on the way we live, work, and think. Class is not just an abstract idea to score debating points. We will come to understand a wide range of important issues very differently when we look at them through the lens of class.

    Third, class has great influence on politics--electoral politics and the more general contests of power that operate throughout society. This is true whether we recognize classes openly or not. By looking at issues through the lens of class, we can be clearer about what is at stake, and begin to see the potential for profound political realignments at the start of the twenty-first century.

    It is ironic that Americans pay much less attention to class than Europeans do, since American history is so full of violent armed conflict between workers and their employers. These conflicts are more widespread and more recent than anything in the history of European industrial relations. From the general strike of 1877 to Telluride and Bloody Harlan, from the GM workers' forty-four-day sit-down strike in Flint to recent strikes by miners at Pittston's coal operations in southwest Virginia, by meatpackers in Minnesota, and by thousands of workers in the "war zone" of central Illinois, classes and open class struggle have been a persistent presence in U.S. history, up until the present day.

    Despite this history of intense class conflict, the most common myth about classes in the United States is that a vast middle class contains the overwhelming majority of our people. In this view, a small group of rich people lives at the top. Some are successful business leaders with names like Forbes, Rockefeller, Gates, Trump. Some are glamorous sports and entertainment stars, the Michael Jordans and Barbra Streisands of the world. As the saying goes, the very rich are different from you and me.

    The dominant myth also recognizes a social fringe of poor people below the great middle class, sometimes called "the underclass." The poor are at the lower margins of society, pictured as different, lazy, damaged, scary enough so that we want to stay out of their neighborhoods. The poor are beneath the supposed vast middle class, who work hard and play by the rules, making a life through hard work and sacrifice.

    The trouble with this story is that it hides an important reality. By looking only at income or lifestyle, we see the results of class, but not the origins of class. We see how we are different in our possessions, but not how we are related and connected, and made different, in the process of making what we possess.

    Certainly a relatively few rich people do sit at the top of the income distribution, and a relatively small number of people are at the very bottom, with most people somewhere in between. But where to draw the lines--what is rich, what poor, what middle--is largely arbitrary. And just looking at a person's income doesn't tell us anything about how the person got the income, what role he or she plays in society, how he or she is connected to the power grid of class relations.

    I define classes in large part based on the power and authority people have at work. The workplace engages people in more than their immediate work, by which they create goods and services. It also engages them in relationships with each other, relationships that are controlled by power. A relative handful of people have great power to organize and direct production, while a much larger number have almost no authority. In a capitalist society such as ours, the first group are the capitalist class, the second group the working class.

    The great majority of Americans form the working class. They are skilled and unskilled, in manufacturing and in services, men and women of all races, nationalities, religions. They drive trucks, write routine computer code, operate machinery, wait tables, sort and deliver the mail, work on assembly lines, stand all day as bank tellers, perform thousands of jobs in every sector of the economy. For all their differences, working class people share a common place in production, where they have relatively little control over the pace or content of their work, and aren't anybody's boss. They produce the wealth of nations, but receive from that wealth only what they can buy with the wages their employers pay them. When we add them all up, they account for over 60 percent of the labor force. They are the working class majority.

    There is also a middle class, of course. It includes professional people, small business owners, and managers and supervisors who have authority over others at work. But the middle class is only half the size of the working class. Instead of seeing them as people with middling income, we will see them as people with middling authority. The middle class is caught between the working class and the capitalist class.

    We can understand the economic, political, and cultural role of each class if we see it in terms of its relationships to the others, in the textures of social power, rather than simply as income categories or lifestyles. This way--with power laid bare--the abstractions of class come to life.

    Class is one of America's best-kept secrets. Any serious discussion has been banished from polite company. But classes exist anyway, and the force of events is bringing class back into focus. We will be looking at the circumstances that have hidden an awareness of class, and at those that are now giving new urgency to recognizing class again. More and more, reality is poking through the myths and revealing the shape of class power. We will see how class is involved in the issues that have dominated economic and political life in the United States over the last quarter of the twentieth century. For each, we will see that the issues have played out in a way that has strengthened the power of the capitalist class, degraded the life of the working class, and caught the middle class in the middle.

    We will see that the recent increase in inequality is not just a case of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, as the media often portray it. Our society's growing inequality of income and wealth is a reflection of the increased power of capitalists and the reduced power of workers. This basic change in circumstances forms the backdrop for much of the political debate of recent decades.

    Class has its foundation in power relations at work, but it is more than that. Class also operates in the larger society: relative power on the economic side of things translates, not perfectly but to a considerable extent, into cultural and political power. These forms of power in turn reinforce, adjust, and help to give meaning to classes. Our discussion of class will go beyond production, to search out its implications in the broader society as well.

    In the last two decades the working class has experienced lower real incomes, longer hours at work, fewer protections by unions or government regulations, and inferior schools. Politicians have responded by presenting targets for the anger and frustration of working people and much of the middle class. We have been told that poor people are the reason for hard times, ripping us off and draining us dry through welfare. We have been told that foreign workers are willing to work cheap to take our jobs away. We hear that taxes are the cause of our predicament, and even that government itself is the problem, not the solution. And on top of these policy angles, we have been preached a tale of moral decay, in which our problems stem from the decline of "family values." These targets have determined the main direction of public policy in recent decades. As we look at each in turn from the standpoint of class, we will see how each has intensified the attack on working people and strengthened the hand of the capitalist class. Far from solving the problems working people face, these policies have made working people worse off and, by confusing the issues, helped to alienate the broad electorate from the political process.

    The sooner we realize that classes exist and understand the power relations that are driving the economic and political changes swirling around us, the sooner we will be able to build a new politics that engages people by wrestling with reality. The potential power of an openly working class politics is one of the most exciting and difficult issues of the new century.

    This book concludes with a discussion of the potential for working class power. We will consider the moral foundations of working class politics, which are in sharp contrast with the "family values" agenda that has substituted lifestyle for economic justice as the subject matter of ethical debate. We will see how the raw individualism of the capitalist marketplace calls for a response based on different values, values that are central to a working class politics: recognition of mutual responsibility, fairness, human dignity, and democracy, in place of self-interest run wild into greed. We will look at new attempts to develop working class power based on these values, in the union movement and in connection with other social movements. Serious discussions of class are always controversial. Talk of the working class and the capitalists brings to mind the old days of factory life and Karl Marx. In this "post-industrial" service economy, steeped in mass consumerism, many people believe that the working class is surely a thing of the past and Marx irrelevant.

    In Chapter 1 I will explain why class continues to be relevant even when some workers carry briefcases instead of lunchboxes. As for Karl Marx, anyone in the last hundred and fifty years who has thought seriously about class owes this pioneer of class analysis an enormous debt. Even the Wall Street Journal acknowledged his positive significance as one of "history's great thinkers" when it featured Marx in the first of a series of articles on "Thinkers Who Shaped the Century."

    My purpose, however, is not to discuss the pros and cons of Marx's analysis, but rather to examine America's experience in recent decades. My belief in the importance of class analysis rests on its power to make sense of the world, this world, now. An understanding of class can help us interpret what is happening in society; and what we might do to make things better for the great majority of people. I try to make the case to readers who may be skeptical, but who will approach the question with the world as their testing ground.

    This book is an attempt to help reopen the discussion of class in America. In such a discussion, we will need to hear the voices of a great many people who do not often speak in public: working class people. I hope this book will stimulate a wide debate among workers, and also among academics, professional people, and all who are concerned about justice. I hope they will bring the experiences of different classes to bear, teach one another, and clarify the questions. The understanding of class that comes from this discussion can help us get to the bottom of what's ailing us and build the social movements needed to make life better for working people. Because class is a question of power, understanding class can add to the power of working people.

    The working class began to experience a decline in its quality of life in the early 1970s. At that time, a book appeared with the same title as this book, The Working Class Majority . In it, author Andrew Levison made a strong case for the existence of the working class and its political importance. But the book appeared at a time when interest in the working class was fading among traditional liberal allies. The working class was rapidly disappearing from public view. Unfortunately, Levison's book has long been out of print.

    I hope that in this book the theme can be renewed, in a social climate that will be more open to it. Our books have different structures and scopes, but the underlying points remain the same: the working class is the majority in the United States, and it is long past time that we all recognize that fact, explore its implications, and act accordingly.

Copyright © 2000 Michael Zweig. All rights reserved.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Choice on 2000-11-01:
Given the economic prosperity of the late 1990s, discussions of class structure in the US may seem irrelevant. Zweig argues that wealth, power, and inequality remain important issues for Americans. He begins with a definition of classes as "groups of people connected to one another, and made different from one another, by the ways they interact when producing goods and services." Economically, class differences are illustrated by the fact that the top quintile of the US population gained a 15 percent increase in wealth between 1968 and 1997, while the other quintiles actually lost ground. Moreover, disparities of wealth reflect disparities of power in the workplace and the political system. Trends toward globalization and privatization exacerbate workers' lack of meaningful influence over corporate activities, particularly legal regulation. To counter capitalist dominance, Zweig advocates working-class organization through labor unions and political action groups. He sees "signs of optimism" in the new leadership of the labor movement and renewed social activism among college students. Altogether, the study makes a convincing case about the working class and its implications for the US economy and society. Readable at all levels. R. L. Hogler; Colorado State University
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2000-05-15:
The Dow is high, unemployment is low, so what could be wrong? In this pungent critique of class and economics in the United StatesÄpart economic theory, part political lecture and part reportage of working-class lifeÄZweig offers an insightful, radical analysis that will make many readers rethink commonly held but unexamined beliefs. Arguing that class is less about annual income than "about the power that some people have over the lives of others, and the powerlessness most people experience as a result," Zweig reassesses class in terms of who has power in the workplace and concludes that the majority of America's employed are working class. Because the U.S.'s economic structure, job organization and social arrangements all denigrate blue-collar mannerisms, identity and culture, most people (even those with very low incomes) are encouraged to view themselves as middle class. Yet those among the true middle-class in income and workplace power are only 36% of the work forceÄless than half of the working class. According to Zweig, the dream of a classless (or mostly middle-class) America has simply become a myth that's supported "when we focus on the one who makes it and not the many who do not." Zweig supports his arguments with statistics, facts and personal stories and argues with a forcefulness and conviction backed up by a deeply moral sense of the dignity that is due to each person in their work and workplace. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Appeared in Library Journal on 2000-05-01:
Today, the majority of working Americans labor longer hours and have less earning power and fewer job protections than they did 25 years ago. Zweig (economics, SUNY at Stony Brook) argues that "the long decline of working-class living standards coincides with the gradual and now almost total disappearance of the working class as a subject of discussion." The author rejects the comforting notion that most Americans earn middle incomes and are middle class. Instead, he defines the working-class majority as the 60 percent of working people who have little power over their working conditions and who do not boss others. Even in post-Cold War America, this working class has very different economic interests from capitalists and the professional class. Zweig believes that workers must understand this idea in order to unite across race and gender divisions to define and solve their economic plight. This book is convincingly argued, well documented with economic statistics and personal interviews, and upbeat in its conclusion. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries.--Duncan Stewart, State Historical Society of Iowa Lib., Iowa City (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
This item was reviewed in:
Booklist, May 2000
Library Journal, May 2000
Publishers Weekly, May 2000
Washington Post, July 2000
Choice, November 2000
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Publisher Fact Sheet
Recognizing that the majority of Americans are actually working class is essential, Zweig argues, if the working class is ever to achieve political influence & social strength.
Unpaid Annotation
The United States is not a middle class society. Michael Zweig shows that the majority of Americans are actually working class, and argues that recognizing this fact is essential if that majority is to achieve political influence and social strength. "Class", Zweig writes, "is primarily a matter of power, not income". He goes beyond old formulations of class to explore ways in which class interacts with race and gender.Defining "working class" as those who have little control over the pace and content of their work and who do not supervise others, Zweig warns that by allowing this class to disappear into categories of middle class or consumers, we also allow those with the dominant power, capitalists, to vanish among the rich. Economic relations then appear as comparisons of income or lifestyle rather than as what they truly are -- contests of power, at work and in the larger society.Using personal interviews, solid research, and down-to-earth examples, Zweig looks at a number of important contemporary social problems: the growing inequality of income and wealth, welfare reform, globalization, the role of government, and the fam
Table of Contents
Acknowledgmentsp. vii
Introductionp. 1
The Class Structure of the United Statesp. 9
What We Think about When We Think about Classp. 39
Why Is Class Important?p. 61
Looking at "The Underclass"p. 77
Looking at Values--Family and Otherwisep. 95
The Working Class and Powerp. 115
Power and Globalizationp. 141
Power and the Governmentp. 153
Into the Millenniump. 169
Working Class Resource Guidep. 175
Notesp. 181
Indexp. 193
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.

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