The Hidden Injuries of Class: From 1972 to 2023

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The Hidden Injuries of Class, which recounts the lives of working class families in the early 1970s, seems to tell the story of a vanished world: people held jobs for decades; unions were strong; “globalization” did not mean much on the shop floor. But rereading this book now I’m struck by how some of the worst ills of that era have persisted, indeed grown worse in a new age of capitalism. 

My co-author Jonathan Cobb and I set out to interview in depth about one hundred, white working-class families in Boston, Massachusetts, who were mostly descendants of Irish and Italian immigrants to the city. Unlike an attitude survey, which ticks boxes and tallies the results numerically, we were interested in life narratives, and rooted class-consciousness. Long-term experiences are always filled with complexities and difficulties, and so produce contradictions, half-finished thoughts, or silences when people tell the stories of their lives. The convolutions make for a richer picture than the simplistic idea of consciousness as a reflection of material conditions. Instead, people struggled to make sense of their circumstances.

This struggle was not only that they were trying to make sense of a complex society; a thread running through many of our interviews was the conviction that people should take responsibility for how they were situated in society. That is, being “lower down” did not just happen to them, it was internalized as who they were. These struggles with feelings of not being good enough, of personally failing, took place in an America that promised that everyone could rise if they made the most of themselves. “You are your own maker” the Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola declared. Workers in Boston knew this was factually untrue but felt, personally, it was true.

Injuries to one’s sense of self-worth produce anger and resentment. For these White workers, Blacks who seemed to muscle in on their jobs and communities, and to capture the attention and sympathy of elites, were an obvious symbolic target, outside themselves, explaining why White workers were not doing well. But, in fact, matters were more complicated. Individual Black workers and neighbors were exempted from this scapegoating, and in the end people reverted to the fear that they had taken wrong turns or not made the most of themselves, rather than that their paths had been blocked by others. The very fact that some institutions were strong—stable corporations, strong unions—reinforced the sentiment that their fate at work was a matter of their own doing.

This conviction may seem to mark a huge divide between past and present. Globalized labor and parasitic finance-capitalism have destabilized the institutions that frame lives. This dismantling particularly affected the sorts of workers we studied. Garbage-haulers, for instance, who worked for the city, with cast-iron contracts of health and pension benefits; such work would now be contracted out to firms which offer a day’s wages, and nothing more. Or, a bit up the scale, nurses who worked in Catholic Church–funded hospitals: then, their hours and terms of service were fixed; now they are not.

But deinstitutionalized, zero-hours contracts and the like have only increased the burden of making a life for oneself. Online jobs-seekers using LinkedIn or other networks, for instance, have a harder time finding work than did workers a half century ago who were enmeshed in networks of family and neighbors. The more opportunity shrinks and inequality grows, the greater the burden on the self—which results in more internalization. When Jon Cobb and I wrote this book, it was a question of status in society, now it is a question of survival.

In this regard, the meaning of “working-class” has changed. Many manual laborers today, both skilled and semi-skilled, are better positioned to survive than people who work in services and offices. White-collar work has greater prestige than manual work, but plumbers are likely to make more, and prosper longer-term, than people working in call-centers, or, again a bit up the scale, kids fresh out of university armed with business management degrees. Throughout the white-collar world, there are now more workers than work, desk workers becoming, in Adam Smith’s phrase about the old working class, “only a pair of hands.”

The unease about oneself this prospect arouses is why, I think, many readers today of The Hidden Injuries of Class might experience a shock of recognition. What happened to the manual laborers in Boston is now happening to the rest of us. I am often asked what “the solution” might be to this problem. I used to think the answer was more civic equality, everyone counting for the same in the public realm no matter what they did to make a living; this was Hannah Arendt’s version of the classless society. I now think that class conflict has to be mobilized and pushed forward, in order that internalization of one’s status be weakened. I would like to see more strikes, both in the state and private realms, so that people experience solidarity, rather than deal with the enigma represented by Pico’s dictum that “you are your own maker.” I am eighty and my days as a class warrior are over. But looking forward, I hope for a more class-conscious society that targets the true enemies of the working class.

—an excerpt from The Hidden Injuries of Class by Jonathan Cobb and Richard Sennett