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Book Review: White Working Class
(Joan Williams)

Joan Williams wants to “Overcome Class Cluelessness in America.”  This is an admirable goal, and in many ways this is an admirable book (or brochure—it’s very short).  But reading White Working Class (which, despite its title, gives equal time to both the white and black working class) makes the reader squirm.  The reader appreciates the author’s, Joan Williams’s, attempts to objectively examine her class, that of the “professional-management elite,” or “PME,” but winces at her frequent inability to actually understand the working class, or to view the working class other than primarily as potential foot soldiers in the march of progressive politics.

I have, I think, more personal familiarity than most people with the class structures outlined in this book.  I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, so really prior to the dominance of what Williams today aptly calls the PME.  My father was a professor and my mother a housewife, so we were part of the professional class, but my father was poorly paid and worked at a large Midwestern state university, and I attended a different large Midwestern state university for my undergraduate degree.  So at best I was on the fringes of the PME—college educated, but with zero financial resources, and no connection to the coastal elites.  However, I bootstrapped myself into the PME, attending one of the top law schools in the country and working for a decade as a corporate lawyer for one of the country’s top law firms, and later attending a top business school.  So I am, or was, a fully-fledged member of the PME.

But then I became a tradesman (finish carpentry) for some years (odd change, I know), which didn’t exactly make me working class, but gave me working class wages and caused me to be often treated as working class, by both other members of the working class and by the PME (who probably often would have been astounded by my background, almost as much as by my law school roommate who for a time, for kicks, drove a bus at the Atlanta airport).   From there, though, I didn’t return to the PME, but rather, after some years of grueling work, joined the third of Williams’s four social classes, the “rich.”  I am now the sole owner of a manufacturing business, and wholly a self-made man, in that none of my earlier jobs or contacts made my current business successful.  I employ more than a hundred people and am personally rich by any reasonable measure.  So the only class relevant to this book I have not personally experienced is what Williams calls the “poor,” although it’s a stretch to say that I’ve ever really been working class—but I’ve had a lot more personal contact with being working class, and working class people, on a face-to-face basis of near equality, than the vast majority of people in the PME.

Enough about me (even though it’s my favorite topic).  Williams starts by pointing out that most politicians use “working class” as a euphemism for “poor,” when the correct synonym is “middle class.”  (Throughout the book Williams talks just as much about the black working class as the white working class, noting where their views are different and where they are the same, so as I say the title is misleading.)  These are people “with household incomes above the bottom 30% but below the top 20%, [along with] families with higher incomes but no college graduate.  This is the middle 53% of American families,” with a median income of $75,000.  Williams correctly identifies that in recent decades not only has this group suffered economically, but their dignity has been stripped by the elite response to their unhappiness, which is to characterize them as racist, sexist, homophobic knuckle-draggers, from Archie Bunker to Obama’s “clinging to their guns and religion” to Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” (though the latter two are not mentioned by Williams, an admitted Clinton dead-ender).  And what they really want is dignity and respect, just like all of us.  But America today is set up to ensure that they don’t have that, and the behavior of the PME is the worst aspect of this setup—which leads to the “populist, anti-establishment anger that welled up in the 2016 election.”  Williams wrote the article on which this book is based (in the Harvard Business Review) immediately after the election, and this is the basic frame through which she views the working class—holders of legitimate grievances, wielders of righteous anger, who need to be corralled so they will support progressive policies while regaining perceived dignity and respect.

In addition to her own (often insightful) analysis, as well as comments from people made in response to her original article, Williams leans heavily on two sources.  The first is the famous 2016 J.D. Vance memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, which describes the working class through the prism of a member who mostly escaped to the PME via Yale Law School, yet who could not fully escape.  The second is Arlie Hochschild’s study of conservative Louisianans, Strangers in Their Own Land.  Supplementing this are various citations to books and periodicals, all liberal (and, oddly given current concerns about the media, including several citations to alternet, a far left-wing purveyor of “fake news”).

The rest of the book is organized around questions, which are the titles to short chapters answering each question—in essence, reacting to responses made to the arguments in Williams’s original article.  “Why Does The Working Class Resent The Poor?”  The short answer is that the working class thinks the poor are freeloaders, and that freeloading is immoral.  Williams notes that the working class views hard work, responsibility, and provision for one’s family, especially by men, as moral virtues.  By “hard work,” they don’t mean making life all about work, but rather not slacking and accepting risk and drudgery (including hardships like out-of-phase working schedules for couples, or physical danger for men) as the price to be paid for a decent living with dignity.  Moreover, the working class values being straightforward and sincere, morally upright, and having high personal integrity.  The poor are perceived as not having these virtues—and, because of means-tested benefit programs, they often avoid having to work, by taking the money of others.  The poor get free Obamacare; the working class can no longer afford any insurance at all.  For the working class, receiving welfare themselves erodes their dignity, their self-respect, and the respect of others for them.  Whether working class people live up to these moral virtues as much as they would like, and whether other benefit programs such as Social Security disability are just as much welfare, are not relevant to the perception by working class that the poor are parasites.  Similarly, Williams points out that policies like sick leave and minimum wage increases can help the poor, but they don’t help the working class nearly as much as what they really want:  “jobs that sustain them in their vision of a middle-class life,” providing self-generated, not government-generated (which is an oxymoron), dignity and respect.

“Why Does the Working Class Resent Professionals but Admire the Rich?”  To me, this is the most interesting chapter, because I’ve been both professional and rich.  The answer is really the same as why the working class resents the poor—because PMEs are viewed as lacking moral virtues.  They may work hard—but they do it at the expense of family, and they are two-faced, climbers who value “flexibility” over grinding it out, and believe in the primacy of “self-actualization.”  Moreover, professionals are perceived as arrogant parasites, but the rich are perceived as having “made it” on their own in a way a working class person can admire, or even dream he might accomplish as well.  This resentment against PMEs is ongoing and constantly reinforced.  PMEs mark themselves by where and what they eat, what they read, what meaningless “spiritual but not religious” belief system they supposedly follow—in short, by actively and deliberately demonstrating their “sophistication” relative to the working class, including in their personal interactions with the working class.  Not being stupid, the working class notices, and concludes that PMEs lack essential virtues, just like the poor.  Most of all, for PMEs (of all political stripes) “a key way they show sophistication is to signal comfort with avant-garde sexuality, self-presentation, and family dynamics.”  The working class approves of this least of all; it undercuts everything they think is important.  On the other hand, the rich, who are perceived by the working class as being honest, hard-working, and sincere, are largely immune from this opprobrium.  The working class wants to hold to their values—but have more money, just like the rich.  Williams notes that the working class support tax cuts for the rich because they “hold the promise of jobs” (and, I would say, because the rich are mostly perceived as having earned that money), and simultaneously support benefit cuts for the poor, because they are freeloaders.  All this resonates with me as correct from my own experience, and my own perception of PMEs is pretty much the same as what Williams describes as the working class view.

Other chapters reject common criticisms of the working class, including demanding to know why they don’t move to where the jobs are (because work is not everything to life, because their local and familial networks are more critical to them than for PMEs, who rely on growing their own networks and are rootless) or go to college (Williams several times quotes the statistic that 2/3 of Americans lack college degrees, and the answer is that college is expensive and therefore risky, does not necessarily deliver a return, and the working class often lacks the support systems necessary to even apply to elite colleges, something Vance covers in detail).  Williams also examines if the working class is “just racist” or “just sexist” and concludes that sure they are, but so is everybody else, even if the manifestations within each class are different, and for PMEs to dismiss the working class contemptuously on that basis increases divisions for no good reason—and leads to Trump.

Williams then turns to solutions for working class problems.  Her primary call is for more vocational training and a de-emphasis on college—in a sense, a return to the 1970s, or to the world as Mike Rowe (whom Williams does not mention, but should) would have it, where men and women learn real skills with real value with which they can get good jobs, for while many manufacturing jobs may have disappeared forever, there are still may good jobs available, which often go begging.  This call doesn’t even rate its own chapter, though.  It’s mostly window dressing for her real “solution” and focus—how to co-opt the working class into voting for progressive politics they either don’t care about or actively despise.

Thus, Williams quickly pivots to focusing on getting the working class to understand that they too receive a lot of federal benefits, in order to soften them up to the joys of federal overlordship.  It is certainly true that the working class gets more benefits from the federal government than it likes to admit.  But Williams is tone-deaf and does not understand the working class attitude toward the government, which, like jobs, is largely about dignity and respect.  Thus, Williams repeatedly uses un-ironically phrases like “bounty coming from the government” and calls for an advertising campaign where “Americans make short videos of their daily lives, thanking the government for some service or benefit that makes those lives possible—highways, the Internet, sewer systems, schools, etc., and ending with the phrase ‘Thank you, Uncle Sam!’”  This misapprehends both reality and working class pride.  Of course, Uncle Sam doesn’t make those things possible—taxpayer dollars do, as working class people know very well (hence their resentment toward welfare for the non-working poor), yet they are lorded over constantly by government employees who are, or at least view themselves by virtue of their employer, as PMEs.  (Not to mention that at least two of Williams’s four examples are purely local government functions having nothing to do with Uncle Sam.)  And that Williams thinks that it’s government services that “make lives possible” shows that despite her lip service to the jobs, family and religion that give working class people dignity, she really thinks that we are all just servants of the government, dependent on it for our very lives.  Similarly, Williams is totally blind to the critical role of non-governmental intermediary institutions, largely destroyed by the government over the past five or six decades, in the lives of the working class, because PMEs don’t rely on intermediary institutions at all.  In any case, Williams only focuses on hidden working class reliance on welfare because the working class’s failure to admit dependence on government interferes with their willingness to board the progressive train.

So in her last two chapters, Williams drops the mask and comes out as an aggressive left-wing partisan, complaining that “class cluelessness has brought us” Jeff Sessions, and Trump, “a president who was endorsed by the official newspaper of the KKK” (a fact she mentions twice in the book), who is also allegedly a racist, misogynist, sexual assaulter, etc.  Williams complains that 29% of Latinos voted for Trump nonetheless, because they are “values voters, offended by the shock-the-bourgeois avant-garde element of the elite culture.”  Not that she suggests any change to that element, or any part of the left-wing agenda, from abortion to gay rights.  Instead, she calls for hiding that agenda, by “reframing American liberal politics,” while pretending to make compromises.  She recommends using different slogans for abortion, by (bizarrely) claiming abortion is “pro-family.”  She says liberals should cast immigration reform (i.e., allowing more immigration, legal and illegal, along with amnesty) as a benefit to people who employ “hardworking bussers and dishwashers,” while ignoring it costs the working class millions of jobs.  As to civil liberties, apparently the only problem there is the (mythical) “registry of Muslims,” which liberals can supposedly use to rally the working class, since it’s a privacy issue that allegedly will resonate with the working class (pro tip—she’s wrong).  We should view climate change through the words of farmers, not scientists (even though only a small fraction of farmers believe in AGW, not that Williams notes that).  And so on.

There’s nothing wrong with being partisan, although a little more truth in advertising would help.  But this is clueless partisanship.  You know what word is missing here, and throughout the book?  Guns.  This is the emblematic issue.  The working class is extremely attached to their guns, which they (correctly) regard as necessary to defend themselves against predatory criminals as well as the government itself, and which provide them the dignity of self-sufficiency and freedom.  Williams avoids the topic, presumably because she does not understand guns, which I am sure she thinks are icky, and cannot see any way to “reframe” the liberal obsession with confiscating all the guns in America in any way that would not result in a violent reaction by the working class against liberal politics.  But her failure to engage with this critical issue makes a mockery of her entire analysis, because if you can’t address this question, you don’t understand the working class at all.

Williams keeps muttering the word “compromise”—but she gives not a single example of where any moral view of the working class that opposes progressive politics should actually become enshrined in law.  Instead, “compromise” means fooling the working class into voting for Democratic social engineering, while throwing them some job retraining grants.  If Williams really wanted compromise, she would suggest supporting a candidate with many of Trump’s views but without his baggage.  Or even Bernie Sanders.  Instead, she suggests (obliquely) that Hillary Clinton could have been the champion of the working class.  I’m pretty sure that’s what’s known as Peak Clueless.  The reality is the working class voted for Trump because he promised to give them jobs and restore their dignity.  He may well fail at that, but the working class is not going to be fooled that a traditional Democrat (or Republican) will solve their very real problems.  The working class will not be mocked, and if Trump fails, the response is not going to be to join hands with PMEs to implement progressive policies, but probably something even less palatable to the PMEs than Trump.

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5 Comments

  1. Anonymized Commenter Anonymized Commenter

    Thanks for the interesting and in-depth analysis. I am, however, a bit curious about the assertion of being a “wholly a self-made man”. I don’t want to quibble, but you are the child of a professor (I’m guessing at a time when a very small percentage of the population had graduate degrees). Class isn’t just about money and I think you may be undervaluing the tacit lessons you received on a daily basis.

    I see this in my own life, the discussion was always, “when you go to college”, not if. Most of my friends, on the other hand, were the children of blue collar workers – firmly in the middle class, but in retrospect I can see that they just didn’t have the same familial expectations and subtle examples shaping their approach to work, learning, etc. For me, working the summer as a oil refinery laborer was a means to an end. For my friends, it was the first rung on their ladder. In short, over time I’ve become more and more convinced that hard work is necessary, but not sufficient, and luck/accidents of birth are bigger determinants of “success” than I’d cared to admit in my youth.

    Do you think you’d be where you are had your father been a pipefitter? I honestly don’t ask this as an attack. I just see very few people from my past who bucked their upbringing.

    • Charles Charles

      Not taken as an attack, and a very fair question. Of course, nobody is wholly self-made, unless you’re Robinson Crusoe and you leave your island having built a flourishing factory, or maybe a flourishing farm, from nothing. That’s why I qualified my assertion as “in that none of my earlier jobs or contacts made my current business successful.” Certainly other things, specific to me and to my life, were and are relevant to how my life has turned out (so far—who knows, maybe by next year I’ll be a beggar).

      But that doesn’t make me not, overall, “self-made.” (If, on the other hand, like Warren Buffett, I had gotten my start by people giving me money, not because of me, but trying to curry favor with my rich sometime Congressman daddy, then I would not be self-made.) Everybody has a different situation, and more or fewer advantages, in life. Some of those advantages come from family background; most of them come from other factors, ranging from intelligence to looks to charisma. And, of course, simple luck. Some advantages (and disadvantages) are mutable; others immutable. But none are determinative; what matters is what you do with them. That doesn’t guarantee any one person anything—but nor does it detract from that person’s ability, and right, to call himself “self-made,” if he does in fact make it.

      As Mike Rowe has opined (at greater length, but this is the essence): “I believe that anyone—regardless of their gender, race, or sex—can dramatically increase their odds of success by learning a skill that’s in demand, and working their butt off. That doesn’t mean that success is guaranteed to anyone, or that some people don’t have it easier than others. It just means that who we become as individuals has less to do with where we start, and more to do with how we choose to act. Ambition, character, diligence, persistence, work ethic . . . these things are still available to everyone. And combined, they can still overcome anything.”

      So it might be less likely that I would be where I am had my father been a pipefitter. On this topic, the inability in some situations to even be able to know that opportunities exist, Vance’s book is particularly interesting. On the other hand, I never even heard the term “investment banker” used until I got to law school, whereas my classmates who went to Ivy League colleges all had it offered as a possible career to them when they were freshmen in college. Moreover, my wife came from a poor, working-class background, with parents who were not pipefitters, but close enough. But unlike the rest of her peers and neighbors, her parents demonstrated good character and expectations—and she ended up not dissimilar to me, going to a top law school (in Australia) and working for a top law firm. So that, at least, suggests professional background is not the determinative factor.

      And I don’t think the correct comparison is really “what would have happened to me,” since that’s unknowable. The real comparison, or question, is “can a pipefitter’s son do as well as I did, given the same personal characteristics?” The answer is clearly “yes.” Therefore, the goal of society should be to make that possible—not through handouts that sap ambition, or through exalting people beyond what they could otherwise earn because of their immutable characteristics, but by encouraging and rewarding the ambition and hard work that are the critical index for any type of success.

      • Anonymized Commenter Anonymized Commenter

        Thanks for the thoughtful response. I don’t think we disagree to a large extent. Even within my own family, there are those who are more driven (e.g., my brother makes the most money of we four siblings, but he is the least educated).

        I was just speaking with a colleague yesterday (thus, why I’m checking for your response now) about something similar to your Rowe citation. I agree that careers are built on hard work and finding demand… Frankly, I wish we could have a mandatory semester of economics in high school.

        Where I think we disagree is that you are using inductive reasoning to say that if a person can be successful, then most people can be successful. I don’t think the data bears that out.

        As for sapping initiative with benefits, I’ll agree that a moral hazard exists, but I tend to think that between children and people stuck in a poverty trap (e.g., wages can’t pay for daycare) there is a lot of baby I don’t want to throw out with the bath water. I think the greater societal costs (e.g., 1/3 of WWII draft rejects were as a result of poor nutrition) of scaling back something like food stamps is penny wise and pound foolish (household avg $256.11 monthly).

        I agree that anyone – emphasis on the “one” – can be successful with the right combination of hard work and talent. But humans are complex. If it were just a matter of providing fewer welfare benefits and people would be motivated to do better, we’d see that in the data. A quick search turned up this map – https://goo.gl/WvkVNY – showing social mobility. I’ve not done a proper correlation, but there seems to be less social mobility in the states that stereotypically do not provide much in the way of state benefits.

        So, to your point of, “can a pipefitter’s son do as well as I did, given the same personal characteristics?” being the real question, I strongly disagree. I’m not worried about the guy with your or my characteristics. I’m more concerned with the guy who has below average talents, but then has the deck stacked further against him with a crappy neighborhood, crappy school, poor nutrition, 30 million word gap at age three, semi-literate parents, and no one to teach the tacit knowledge that can make or break success. I’ve worked with such people in the Army and I think that they can be taught over time the not-so-secret secrets of success, but I just don’t know that telling such a person to pull himself up by his bootstraps is realistic.

        BTW, this is a fascinating set of comments you’ve spawned. THanks

  2. Anonymized Commenter #2 Anonymized Commenter #2

    Wow, really humbled by the extent and quality of your contribution, here. Still mulling it over. A question: do you see the value of the PMEs? To me they serve a number of critical functions — in fact, one might almost look at their growth as a sign of progress for a society against a model that tends toward despotism. Alternately, if working/middle class and managerial/upper-middle class ethics are irreconcilable, what does that leave for a way forward? And why is this tension erupting, now? By way of personal disclosure I come from the PME side of a wider family jam packed with working/middle class members. My father and grandfather were preachers in rural communities — putting them, with their seminary educations right at the nexus of all of this, I suppose. My father was definitely pulled away from that community as he lived his life and struggled his struggle — ending up a psychologist and card-carring member of the PME, for sure (he passed away several years ago, but I don’t think he would squabble with the description). Trump bothers me — perhaps but more from the apparent irreconcilability of the fissure he seems to represent, than for any other reason — how does this end?

    —–

    Another line of inquiry: how does this analysis relate to the history of labor unions in the U.S.? Where I live, now, in Germany, there is a very strong institutionalized labor union system — and a palpable sense of dignity amongst laborers, regardless of their educational background. I think the class striations are very similar to the U.S., but the core of the society – with all attendant dignity – is still a non-university educated worker. Why would laborers in the U.S. have elected a representative of a system that has eroded their standing by pursuing its ends (Trump) rather than forcing concessions from that system by pooling their political will?

    • Charles Charles

      Thank you. An interesting family background! Certainly, it seems to me that PMEs can add value to a society. Some rough equivalent is necessary for any society, really, although the specifics differ. A stratum of society that is not the upper classes but is educated and has reasonable amounts of wealth is historically a key bulwark against overbearing rulers, on the one hand (as you point out), or mob rule, on the other. This could be the European bourgeoisie, citizens in an ancient Greek polis, yeoman farmers, etc. The problem is that OUR class of PMEs has become parasitical and net-negative-value. When, for example, professors are not focused on actual education, but rather teach social capital-destroying abominations like Gender Studies, or more generally wholly undermine what has always been recognized as the purpose of education, such that students graduate knowing nothing, but are weaponized social justice warriors, PMEs are worse than useless to our society. The same thing is true for most government employees. And as for lawyers—there are a few lawyers who add value, in negotiations, for example, but most lawyers either are also wholly parasites, or merely are transactions costs who add value only because they’re necessary to comply with onerous and useless government regulations created by other PMEs. Managers may add value to a business—but they are also constrained by the various tentacles created by other PMEs, from forced “diversity” that opposes excellence to government regulation to compliance with various other leftist schemes. Somewhere in there are PMEs who do add significant value, but they are a minority.

      Beats me how this ends. Societal renewals are few and far between in history, and they only come at the huge cost of external shocks. On the other hand, America has quite a bit of resilience, so it might be possible to regenerate. But the problem of PMEs and class conflict in general is only one problem among many.

      On labor unions, historically they acted as very valuable intermediary institutions that not only represented labor, but as you say acted as a collective social vehicle that provided and reinforced dignity among workers. (This does not include government employee unions, which until recently were wholly illegal for good reason and should be utterly destroyed.) In the US, unfortunately, for some reason, more than Europe, those without a college degree are automatically socially lower (which is of course one reason for the rise of the PMEs). Unions here decayed as the industries in which they were strong decayed, helped along by corruption and too-close ties to the Democratic Party, which failed to actually do anything to help those workers (and the modern Democratic Party loathes those workers, as this book shows). Wrong bet, I guess. This is hardly my area of expertise, but I would guess that labor organizing today, absent a social consensus as in Germany, on a large scale is made largely impossible by globalization and technology (to this end, though not on unions in general, I am now reading the very good “The Great Convergence” by Richard Baldwin). When your job can easily be outsourced, it erodes your negotiating strength to zero. Voting for Trump seems like a logical response, since he functionally purported to reverse this, but Trump, as everybody knows, can’t be relied on to actually do anything consistent, and even if he tried, he could do little.

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