Class Matters Workshops

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Order Class Matters

Class Matters book cover

Order Class Matters: Cross-Class Alliance Building for Middle-Class Activists by Betsy Leondar-Wright (New Society Publishers, 2005).

Press Coverage of CM

Classist Comments

What's the most classist thing you ever heard someone say?

(I'm not talking about someone like Bill O'Reilly or your right-wing uncle. More specifically, what's the most classist thing you ever heard a liberal or progressive person say?)

Read five interviewees' answers — and my own.

Class and Other Identities

How do you experience class differently because of your race, ethnic group, religion, gender, age, or other identity? What class dynamics do you notice within your identity groups?

Here's how a few visitors answered those questions:

And answers from the Class Matters book:

Class Styles

Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich

Betsy Leondar-Wright: You describe in your book Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class how middle-class people are molded by long professional apprenticeships and by their parents' anxiety about whether they'll make it into the professional middle class as adults. In the context of cross-class coalitions, how might this middle-class conditioning cause miscommunications or conflicts?

Barbara Ehrenreich: A lot of the professional middle class ethos is related to the kind of Protestant ethic as Weber wrote about it. You need that Protestant ethic to defer gratification while you become a mature member of the class, while you get that degree, and move up to a certain position. So that there is a psychology of deferred gratification. I see this so much among academic friends I have who are such total workaholics that they really can't do anything else. They are anxious and unhappy if they are not accomplishing enough, even relatively late in their careers when they are well known and established. There continues to be kind of Puritanism about life. Not that people in non-professional jobs don't have to be very disciplined. But I don't think it pervades the whole psyche as much as it does in the professional middle class.

BLW: I have noticed something along the same lines, that there is a difference by class in what percentage of your attention is goal oriented. It rings true to me for my own life, being molded by that pressure and anxiety: are you going to make it or not? It also rang true when I generalize about middle-class activists. It is not always the best attitude to bring into a coalition setting.

BE: I think the worst kind of extreme of this was Lenin himself, who saw the revolutionary process as all about deferred gratification. Leninists would think of themselves almost as soldiers. It was a very grim, pleasureless approach. In the anti-war movement, and the civil rights movements of the 60s, on the other hand, people built community, had a good time together, danced all night. There was a sort of a counter-cultural overlap that was hedonistic in good ways.

BLW: How did it play out between activists of different classes?

BE: In the 70s, the left was full of youngish college-educated people who became very concerned with building cross-class and cross-race organizations. One kind of problem had to do with stereotypes of what working class people were like. I remember there was a funny story of a couple leftist guys who went to work at a factory. And to prepare themselves, they cut their hair real short and donned flannel shirts, and did what they could to look "working class." And then they found they were being avoided by other young workers, because they thought these guys were narcs [narcotics agents]. And they were shocked to find that many young workers had long hair, and smoked dope. That's where a stereotype gets in the way.

I had friends who were young doctors in residence in Chicago, and they had been organizing hospital workers for better care. They decided to have a party, to bring everybody together and socialize. But they were absolutely stymied by certain things like workers smoking and bringing hard liquor. The young doctors were non-smoking non-drinking vegetarians, which is fine, but they couldn't figure out how to celebrate in the same space. I just cracked up. I thought, 'well, I am going to be the only one left on the left who can go out into the workforce'.

And that kind of issue actually became extremely divisive in Minneapolis in the mid-70s, where there was something called the Twinkie wars. The food co-op typically offered up organic vegetables and grains, and a Marxist group insisted that the food co-op start offering things like Twinkies, because they were presumably what other people would like.

BLW: There's a story like that in the PBS special about class, People Like Us, about people wanting the food coop to carry white bread, but in that case it was actual local working-class people, not a particular group.

BE: Yeah, that is just beautiful. I love that part of that documentary.

And another problem is that people with college educations have a certain expectation of how a large group of people should interact, based really on the academic world. Conferences, for example, will be predictably based on plenaries and break-out sessions, just like a sociological meeting would be. The whole idea that a coming together of people on the left should be something like an academic learning experience is not good, I think.

BLW: What style would you contrast it with?

BE: I think there need to be many more possibilities for discussion, not so much resting on a few expert or big-name speakers. There should be a lot of possibilities for conviviality, people talking informally and having a good time. And one person who has really worked on this is Jim Hightower, with his Rolling Thunder Review. They do have perpetual speakers, but there are also all kinds of things going on at the same time, like music, events for children, and booths selling things....