Some discussions I’ve been involved with of David Brooks’ latest column wound up, as do most discussions of the white working class, foundering largely on definitional questions. Brooks appears to be talking about white people who don’t have college degrees, which works well for his culturalist purposes but which displeases a lot of people on the left who think it’s important to emphasize the important economic undercurrents of political controversies.
I agree with that. But I would urge people who want to think about class position in economic terms to try to avoid quick-and-dirty reliance on income measures and try to think more seriously about the embedded social and economic relationships that exist in a modern economy. If you’re a public school teacher or you work for a university or a hospital (even a “private” one) you thereby acquire a lot of idiosyncratic economic interests that relate to the nature of your employer and that don’t constitute a zero-sum battle between workers and bosses over the division of resources. Similarly, if you work in natural resource extraction industries of various kinds there are many political issues that unite your economic interests with those of your bosses. A lot of the language of class originates at a time when the economic divides between landowners and peasants (or “sharecroppers” as we call them in the US) and between factory owners and factory workers really drove the political process. Aspects of that still exist, obviously, but division of the fruits of labor between farmers & landowners and between factory workers & factory owners really aren’t very salient political issues. That doesn’t mean everything is about culture, but it does mean that you have to try to pay attention to the actual structure of economic and political life in the United States.