In & Out of the Working Class
Michael D. Yates
Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2009
217 pp, $19.95.
Michael Yates' collection of essays, In and Out of the Working Class, is filled with examples of how class consciousness and collective action are derailed by capitalist hegemonic ideas. Yates starts with the obvious, "Most working class employment sucks, and everyone knows it."
Boring jobs, strict regimentation, overbearing bosses, efficiency experts (like Yates' own grandfather) all breed a glimmer of class consciousness and anger. But they also fuel intense feelings of fear of poverty and confronting authority, and the necessity of "going along to get along", once the slimmest toe-hold on economic security is reached.
Internalised oppression and the individualised battle to overcome it lie at the heart of capitalist rule. Accumulation on the personal level — the consumption of goods and services — are seen as a sign of success and self-worth.
We see how this played out in the three generations of the Yates family. The lives of Yates' mother, Irene, and grandmother, Lucia, reveal how patriarchy and class are interwoven to maintain the capitalist system. They lived in one of those stereotypical mining towns, made famous by movies like Matewan and Harlan County USA.
Women were expected to stay in the background and spend long (unpaid) hours cleaning, feeding and cooking, mending and childrearing in homes without indoor plumbing or central heating.
Once Lucia's husband died, she was left destitute. Her search for work, beyond the traditional taking in washing and mending, was made more daunting because the mines did not employ women. Lucia and the children ended up doing the before-school job of unloading dynamite trucks.
The family's desperate, life-risking situation didn't alter Lucia's invisible or second-rate status. No one stopped to help the mother and children in this dangerous work, not even relatives. Likewise, no relative intervened when the mine's office manager groped the young Irene.
Yates' father, a veteran of World War II, was able to get a "whites only" GI home loan, and moved the family to a newly created suburb, into a house with hot water and indoor plumbing.
Working-class life was made substantially easier, especially for women, but it came with a price — the demise of urban, working-class culture and community. Another obstacle to the culture of consumption and individualism was removed.
But Yates is most effective when discussing the thing he knows best: the US educational system and its pivotal role in capitalism. Schools, all the way up through universities, are not places where students are asked to think creatively, strategically, or imaginatively.
As Yates points out, the "market" for that kind of student is small, and there are already enough of them coming out of schools dominated by the capitalist elite.
Rather, schools "are doing what they have always done, preparing people for a lifetime of thoughtless work and consumption".
In several essays, Yates explores at the personal level how the real mission of schools deeply affects teachers.
But the most problematic situation surrounded his children, who refused to stand for the pledge of allegiance. This small act of defiance earned a shit-storm of phone calls, meetings and teachers haranguing his children and enlisting other children (and sometimes their parents) to bring the "rebels" under control.
Yates shares with us his frustration and disillusionment with the thing he loves most in the world: teaching working-class students. But he also allows us to be part of his redemption, teaching the working class in labour programs and in prison. Here are the students he has been searching for — the ones eager to learn how the world works, make sense of their situation, and most importantly, learn how to change it.
This book made me think of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian communist who spent his life (in prison) trying to figure out why there was no sustained revolutionary activity in Italy.
Gramsci's works on these obstacles to revolution are the foundation for exploring hegemonic rule from the Marxist perspective. The essays of In and Out of the Working Class do this in the US context.
Fortunately, Yates doesn't have to sneak his writings past the prison censors, as Gramsci did. His writing is clear, direct and accessible.
[Abridged from Monthly Review.]