More Unequal: Aspects of Class in the United States

Michael D. Yates, ed., More Unequal: Aspects of Class in the United States (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2007)

The contemporary United States is a nation deeply divided along economic lines. Many recent books on class in this country take as their focus the anxieties of the “shrinking middle class,” but the present collection stands out as an example of what a study of class should look like. The book addresses four aspects of class: the political-economic foundations of inequality; the relationships between class, race, and gender; education; and the phenomenological experience of upward mobility. These focuses keep the collection grounded in the material facts of inequality and the structural conditions that maintain it.

Yates sets the tone for the collection when he asks in his introduction, “How do workers become class conscious?” Answers to this question usually move in the direction of ideology critique, explicating how it is that workers are prevented from building solidarity by nationalism, racism, apathy, religious fundamentalism, and any number of other factors. The contributors to this book correctly approach class primarily as a structural relation to the political economy, and one which is increasingly difficult to change. They study how the U.S. political economy prevents improvement in the material conditions of the population, and thereby give an implicit answer to Yates’s question: workers almost can’t build class consciousness when the deck is this stacked against them. Two main clusters of essays give the most compelling reasons for this: the first examines the mechanics of the class war being waged by the global capitalist elite, and the second plays out the debate about how we should understand the points of articulation between class and race.

The first cluster of essays looks at several fronts in the class war waged by vested business interests since the 1970s. John Bellamy Foster reminds us of the myriad ways in which class privilege (or disadvantage) is transmitted across generations (wealth, income, occupation, education, consumption, health, etc.) and points out that it is all these factors, not income alone, that have limited upward mobility. Vincent Navarro looks at the legacy of neoliberalism in the “Worldwide Class Struggle.” Neoliberal theory now guides policy-making at almost all global agencies and institutions. For Navarro, this turn is the transnational capitalist class’s response to gains made by peasants and workers between World War II and the mid-1970s. Neoliberal economic policies are, he argues, not a reduction of state intervention, but a strengthening of its class character. In “The Power of the Rich” William K. Tabb uses the investment theory of politics to explain how the wealthy ruling class is able to obtain and maintain political dominance: Political parties, seen as blocs of investors rather than as vote maximizers, fund politicians who will work in their interests. The major investors are, of course, corporations. Tabb’s brief study of George W. Bush’s governorship more than adequately demonstrates “the systemic corruption of politics in the presence of great inequalities of wealth.” Michael Perelman draws out this claim, arguing that “the deterioration in the distribution of income” is a “symptom of a far larger problem” – the right-wing revolution. He discusses taxation rates and how hiding income from taxation can distort the accounting of inequality and shows how the right-wing revolution has accomplished the largest transfer of wealth and income in human history. By redistributing upwards, the right-wing revolution also destroys the foundations of the global economy. This leaves the “bottom eighty percent” in an even more fragile position, as they stand to suffer the most devastating consequences in the wake of an economic collapse.

Richard D. Vogel’s chapter on undocumented workers is a case study of the informal economy in Los Angeles, and provides a bridge between the political-economic analyses and More Unequal’s second major cluster of essays, those on the relationship between race and class. Two major positions in this debate are represented by David Roediger’s “The Retreat from Race and Class” and Martha Gimenez’s “Back to Class: Reflections on the Dialectics of Class and Identity.” Roediger surveys recent books and articles from the academic left which argue that the retention of the concept of race undermines the project of class-based analysis and contributes to the survival of racism. He critiques each version of this line of argument and concludes that we must not allow the notion of a colorless class struggle or a strain of “color-blind racism” to distract us from dealing with the complexities of race and class together.

Gimenez, on the other hand, criticizes the tendency of identity politics to channel “political and intellectual energies toward limited and, ultimately, self-defeating goals” and away from their more appropriate targets – the policies and corporate practices of the global elite. Because identity is frequently the lens through which class is viewed and understood, people tend to “misrecognize” class and conflate it with social status. Class becomes culturized, Gimenez claims, “in the eyes of both the dominant and subordinate classes and status groups” and “is erased from consciousness and the effects of class location.” Solidarity is thus blocked by the more visible, comprehensible social hierarchies of taste and status.

Other essays in the race and class cluster provide examples of the usefulness of understanding race and class together. Kristen Lavelle and Joe Feagin narrate the history of race and class in pre- and post-Katrina New Orleans. Sabiyha Prince outlines her ethnographic exploration into divisions within the African-American middle class. And Stephanie Luce and Mark Brenner re-evaluate women’s class positions forty years after the founding of the National Organization for Women.

Four final contributions round out More Unequal’s portrait of class in America by looking at two other factors preventing the development of working-class consciousness: education and the personal experience of living in a class society. Peter McLaren and Ramin Farahmandpur’s “The Pedagogy of Oppression” presents a scathing critique of how neoliberal market ideology permeates the No Child Left Behind Act and how this legislation damages our public schools and the self-image of their students. Michael D. Yates and Angela Jancius narrate parts of their own autobiographies – both come from working-class families and both are now academic professionals – blending in discussion of how their class positions shaped them and the communities in which they have lived and worked. Their stories capture the intricate ways cultural assumptions about class can build or destroy solidarity. Finally, Michael Zweig’s “Six Points on Class” provides a sort of afterword to the collection and a primer on how to think about class, highlighting the fact that class must be understood in terms of a global struggle between worker and capitalist, not between the rich and the poor.

The main strength of More Unequal is its grounding in the material statistics, facts, and conditions of inequality. It does not deal in investigations of what mediates the contradictions detailed in its essays, but because that type of approach can imply that inequality is the result of some nebulous ideology rather than of decisions and policies made by real individuals and institutions, its absence is the collection’s strong point. To readers of Socialism and Democracy, there may be no strikingly new information presented or surprising positions taken by the contributors, but the collection as a whole provides a very complete picture of inequality in the 21st-century United States. Many readers outside academe would probably enjoy More Unequal, but to my mind it is best suited for use as a textbook for undergraduate teaching. Because its essays stay rooted in empirical facts, rather than in readings of cultural artifacts, it offers a way to introduce sometimes-skeptical students to the problems of inequality without risking being brushed off as too ideologically loaded.

Reviewed by Heather Steffen
Department of English
Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh
hsteffen@andrew.cmu.edu

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