Alfred Vitale, Ph.D. and Allison L. Hurst, Ph.D.
“How can you know anything about the working class?” asks Ernest Everhard, the protagonist of Jack London’s 1908 dystopian novel, The Iron Heel as he addresses a group of liberal do-gooders and college administrators. They can’t possibly know the working class, he argues, because they don’t live where the working-class live. Instead, they are paid, fed, and clothed by “the capitalist class.” In return, they are expected to preach what is acceptable to that class, and to do work that will not “menace the established order of society”. While this was written over 100 years ago, for many working-class academics (those of us who grew up poor or working class and climbed into academia), this conversation rings true. Many of us have presented some variation of it at one time or another to our more privileged academic colleagues.
Watching this past election cycle has been difficult for us. It has reminded us of the gap between the places we currently inhabit (the so-called Ivory Tower) and the places we originally came from, which we still visit from time to time. We cheered Bernie when he came on the scene, because he appeared to understand this gap and promised to make things better for the people we loved. When Trump began overtaking other candidates, we were not as surprised as the people around us seemed to be, because we understood that his message, cloaked as it was in misogyny, nativism, and racism, was directed at real issues long overlooked by the Democratic Party. We held our breaths, hopeful that Sanders would take down Trump, that his message was the message of change and kindness rather than change and hate. After the primaries, we crossed our fingers but felt the DNC had made a major blunder in nominating a candidate who stood for everything that people seemed to be fighting against – business as usual, neoliberalism, paternalism.
Both academia and the DNC have a class problem. They don’t know anything about the working class because they have isolated themselves from working-class people. We have been struggling for years to change this within academia. In 2008, after a few years of discussion among comrades, a group of us formed the Association of Working-Class Academics (AWCA), a group for people like us with lives that straddled the working class and middle class. We wanted to bring class into the academy, to get people talking about it, aware of it, doing something about what we saw as an unsustainable growth of economic inequality. We had parents without retirement income, brothers with back-breaking jobs, sisters without the ability to pay for childcare, generations who faced joblessness or an attempt at a local college, with accompanying debt. We knew firsthand that things had shifted somewhere in the promise of the American Dream, that good jobs were harder to come by, that many people didn’t have the luxury to plan and save and think about retirement. We thought that having more faculty with backgrounds like ours would provide natural checks-and-balances on academic discourses that tend to move far away from the reality of class as lived by the overwhelming majority of the population.
It hasn’t exactly worked out that way. Discussion of social class has always been relegated to the margins of academia. In turn, public discourse about class is muted. By denying the opportunity for social class to be a valid academic subject in itself, or to be considered an authentic form of social identity, educated folks (academics, pundits, campaign managers, and journalists) didn’t just silence the voices of the poor and working-class, they also denied the possibility of critically engaging the problem of affluence. How to critique Trump without this? His status as a member of the billionaire class was not seen as problematic, despite all we know about the power and impact that class has on the very real experiences of the vast majority of Americans. He was lampooned as a buffoon, then excoriated for his bad manners, and finally deplored for his many bad acts, all of which left the essential issue of a billionaire running on a platform of economic populism relatively unquestioned. When we saw the picture of the Trumps and the Clintons hobnobbing in evening wear, we thought, “This will nail him!” But that picture was never used by the DNC, because it would target their candidate as well. Plus, it wouldn’t have been polite.
A society more sensitive to the complicity of the ruling classes, more willing to eschew the sycophancy and reverence given to the already overwhelmingly privileged, more capable of resisting the urge to lionize the affluent, and more attentive to the ubiquitous power handed over to the 1%, would have appropriately vilified Trump and dismissed him well before his name went on the ballot. We can spend time looking at any number of reasons for his victory, but we must ask the bigger question of why an unabashedly greedy billionaire glided through the primaries and general election without any real resistance. Could it be the case that we have consistently neglected to blame, unequivocally, the economic elites for inequality, and to hold them accountable for it? Where was the critical intellectual attack on the damages reaped by the excesses of the 1%? This takes us back to Jack London’s protagonist Mr. Everhard, and his suggestion that such critique would “menace the established order of society.” It may be true that many university researchers have studied poverty and made it their social justice duty to try to understand and ameliorate it. But the lens is most often focused downward, to poverty, and there has been virtually no research directed upward at the practices and mechanisms by which the affluent cause, exacerbate, benefit from, and rely on the steady continuation of inequality. And the occasional whispered squeaks of condemnation for the wealthy fade quickly, subsumed by the jingoistic, pragmatic liberalism of the well-educated in an academic world increasingly shaped by the whims of the donor class.
This form of economic censorship, justified by the neoliberal fabric of institutions of higher education, ensures that no acceptable critique of affluence will become sewn into the fabric of pedagogy. It is our contention that if academia was proportionately represented by faculty and students from the poor and working-classes, the influence of the donor class on the institutional structure could be counteracted at the immediate level of teaching and research as a matter of course, rather than as an occasional garnish on the obligatory “race, class, gender” courses offered in many college departments. Discourse would create a resistance to the universalizing narratives compressing “poverty” and equalize it through a reciprocal comingling with intersectional narratives condemning the oppressive presence of affluence. If social class is duly acknowledged as salient, we will have to problematize and identify the systemic sources that shape the dominant narrative. Such a critique will require an indictment of capitalism as it stands, and therein lies the problem: how can we expect a real, class-sensitive critique of affluence in a milieu that tacitly condones its pursuit and happily reaps its benefits?
But, you may be asking, is there some problem here? We all know that academia can seem far removed from the day-to-day social worlds of most people, so what does it matter if academia doesn’t want to indict affluence? Let’s consider this question in light of the recent failures of the Democratic Party, and its slow slide away from economic populism and into neoliberalism since the days of Bill Clinton. Let’s acknowledge that the increased dismissal of social class discourse in academia coincides with the current chasm in understanding between those who run the Democratic Party and those whom it purports to represent.
In many ways, the Democratic Party is like the Ivory Tower. They have both distanced themselves from a class awareness that they profess to have-so much so that they have forgotten and refused to acknowledge what social class means to actual people in the world. They have nominally acknowledged oppression, but have not really invited the oppressed into their circles; consequently, they assume they will have the support of the oppressed when it’s needed. Diversity (or, rather, the lack thereof) remains a major problem in both academia and the Democratic Party. Both the party and academia have come to rely on a cadre of affluent donors, thereby shifting their priorities to fund-raising, advancement efforts, and the doling out of reciprocal favoritism, influence and rewards to the philanthropist class.
This diminishing attention to social class, both culturally and academically, paralleled the decline of unions in the United States, the crumbling of rust belt cities, and a sweeping upswing in inequality. The poor and working-classes ceased to have even a small amount of power, and were picked clean by things like predatory lending, healthcare costs, student-loan debt and skyrocketing college costs, jobs moving overseas, and major cutbacks in the social safety net. Relatedly, while scholarly attention to other factors in human experience such as race or gender grew exponentially – and it is true that there are deliberate efforts at most universities to invite more faculty from diverse race and gender backgrounds – there remains a relative and concerning scarcity of minorities as faculty members or students, and in particular, of working class and poor faculty and students. It may be the case that the very structural class dynamics most liberal professionals have neglected could help explain why they’re having such a hard time ensuring equitable racial and gendered distributions in the University and the meritocratic beyond.
Although access to higher education has helped some members of the poor and working-classes “move up” in the world (we are witnesses to that), the numbers remain stubbornly small. Our colleges continue to serve children of the elite, or at least children of the highly educated. Proportionately speaking, faculty in universities do not reflect the existing social class strata that exists outside the walls of the Ivory Tower. This is not likely to change. Many academics from poor and working-class backgrounds are in disproportionate amounts of debt because they had to pay for the academic entry-fee themselves, and the tuition prices went up as the lines got longer. As it becomes more expensive to fund a graduate education, we will continue to find a smaller percentage of employed academics that come from poor or working-class backgrounds. The academic system keeps out the rabble, as it always has. This, in turn, comforts the donor class, who are assured that their role as instrumental philanthropists (i.e., manipulative tax-avoiders) will continue to garner them the reverence that their economic power naturally deserves – all without any means for resistance by the masses.
Thus it stands that the absence of real class awareness and the glacial pace of diversity efforts plague both the Democratic Party and institutions of higher education. Perhaps both the ivory tower and the DNC shouldn’t be publicly trying to recruit the poor and working-class to become members of the liberal elite, and privately insulting them if they aren’t. Instead, maybe we should ask ourselves what we can do to make academia privilege the voices of disenfranchised people, rather than the elite group speaking on behalf of them. Perhaps then, maybe in 2020, our collective voices will shout to the elites the same words spoken by Jack London’s Ernest Everhard:
“We know, and well we know by bitter experience, that no appeal for the right, for justice, for humanity, can ever touch you. Your hearts are hard as your heels with which you tread upon the faces of the poor. So we have preached power. By the power of our ballots on election day will we take your government away from you.”
Alfred Vitale, Ph.D. and Allison L. Hurst, Ph.D. are two co-founders of the Association of Working-Class Academics, a non-profit that was recently absorbed into Working Class Studies Association.