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Class, Hope, and Prosperity: What the President Got Wrong in Detroit

Posted on Saturday, 10th September 2011 @ 05:19 AM by Text Size A | A | A

Mr. Obama’s speech on labor should not have been given on Labor Day. If the president had wished to give a speech to the working class, to celebrate the working class, his opportunity for that was in May. Labor Day, passed hurriedly during the 1880s and 90s by state legislatures in mortal terror of ‘radical’ May Day, has always been a middle class holiday—a bone thrown to the working class stripped of its meat and its marrow. But as poor a setting as September makes for a speech in honor of the working class, it is the perfect setting for a speech given to working class people in celebration of middle class gains, delivered in a city of slaves by the man who returned them to their masters.

There is a common misconception that class is based on income. It is not. There are working class people in this country who make a lot of money and there are ‘middle class’ people with nothing but the shirts on their backs. Class identity is a function of people’s differing relationships to the act of labor; in America there is a working class that produces wealth and an upper employing class that lives from it. Properly considered, the ‘middle class’ is not really a class at all, but merely that portion of the body of workers that has lost its class consciousness. The working class defines itself by its pride in work—its inalienable belief that free and dignified labor is an act of creation which reveals the laborer in the splendor of the image of God. The middle class defines itself by its ambition. It is made up of those who work, as the vast majority of workers do, for wages, exploited by employers who devour the fruits of their labor. Middle class workers differ from their working class fellows by responding to this exploitation not with outrage but with envy. Simply put, the term ‘working’ is dynamic, pregnant with the significance of the essentially human act of making. ‘Middle’ is a dead word which acquires significance only if conceived as a stage in a progression; those who are middle class seek to be upper class.

‘Middle class’ is therefore the self-appellation of those who work and hope someday not to—those who take orders and hope someday to give them. Mr. Obama says we have the greatest middle class the world has ever known because of the forty hour work week, but the middle class consists of those who work forty-five and fifty hour weeks to impress their bosses. He says we have the greatest middle class because of paid leave, but the middle class consists of those who skip their children’s baseball games for conference calls. The working class dream is that working hard on the line, building the things the world needs, will provide dignity for one’s family and a future for one’s children. The middle class dream is that working hard when the boss is watching, making the things the company sells, will provide promotion into management and a ‘future’ for oneself.

It is this fundamental dichotomy that explains the actions of Mr. Obama’s administration in Detroit. On Monday the president said that “Giving everybody a shot, everybody a chance to share in America’s prosperity, from the factory floor to the boardroom,” is “the bedrock this country is built on”. But when he had a chance to do that, he didn’t. Rightly or wrongly he made reorganizing the entire US auto industry the business of the government; having bought out the failed management of the big three auto makers, he could have delivered their factories into the hands of the union workers he claims to love so much. He could have transferred the industry to the control of the United Auto Workers to be run as a cooperative enterprise. Instead he chose to submit them again to the exploitation of their old bosses, who had come to see him in private jets when those same workers were being thrown out on the street. He had a chance to set hundreds of thousands of men and women free to work for themselves in the great American spirit of personal enterprise and personal responsibility. He chose instead to polish their shackles.

What is most remarkable, however, is that he chose to return the CEOs to power not only when it was bad for workers, but when it was bad for business. The history of the labor movement has proven that worker-run enterprises are more productive. During the Spanish Civil War, to take only one notable example, large portions of the economy of Catalonia and other regions fell under the control of the trade unions, who ran the businesses as cooperatives. Productivity spiked (as much as 20% in the state of Aragon) and the price of goods dropped dramatically despite the unions setting their own wages, hours, and benefits. If Mr. Obama had been serious about believing “that American autoworkers could once again build the best cars in the world,” he would have let American autoworkers do the job themselves. Their products, if history is any indication, would have been more plentiful and more competitive than those he has Detroit producing today.

Why, then, would the president have chosen to make working conditions harder and industry less efficient? Simply because he depends on the votes of the self-identified middle class, whose greatest anxiety is a world in which workers manage themselves, for then there would be no management positions to be had. Mr. Obama has done no more in Detroit than to cater to the desires of middle class workers who would rather rule in a corporate hell than serve in a cooperative heaven and who, having tasted the fruit of the knowledge of rich and poor, gladly expel all workers from the Garden for even the slimmest chance to do so.

Mr. Obama says that “America cannot have a strong, growing economy without a strong, growing middle class and without a strong labor movement.” He is right that a strong economy demands a strong labor movement, but a strong labor movement is not compatible with a growing middle class. The dreams of the working class cannot be realized so long as there is an employing class to hold them down, and the dreams of the middle class cannot be realized if there ceases to be an employing class to which they can aspire. Mr. Obama, and indeed all America, must choose one or the other. He can give his speeches in May or in September.

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