Abstract

This article examines how the field of labor and working-class history has conceptualized class and assesses theories of class that can help us develop maximally illuminating concepts. Labor historians, particularly those whose work employs a transnational, gender, or racial lens of analysis, have advanced our understanding of how working people's lives are shaped by class. By connecting that scholarship to class theory, the article argues for reconceptualizing class to focus on the complex ways capitalism generates class relationships, embedding race, gender, and other historical dynamics within its formative parameters. It relies on work by Tithi Bhattacharya and Stuart Hall to articulate a specific vision of class relations under capitalism. Finally, the article concludes with praxis by applying Hall's and Bhattacharya's insights to the challenges academic knowledge workers face today amid the crisis of higher education, which is growing more pressing as a result of the economic disaster related to the COVID-19 pandemic. It concludes by addressing how our conceptualizations of class could shape efforts to build broad solidarities among knowledge workers in higher education.

Labor and working-class historians have long contributed insights to our understanding of capitalism. In the nearly sixty years since the publication of the founding scholarship of the New Labor History, however, the discipline of history has developed new concepts and methodologies. New work on capitalism, race, gender, ethnicity, empire, and colonialism as well as transnational and global approaches have generated new ideas and understandings of the past. How does labor history, including its approach to class, fit into this? What conceptual tools can help labor and working-class historians explore their subject's central place in the workings of capitalism? Writing in 2020 during the global pandemic, the ensuing economic disaster, and increased racism and xenophobia in the United States and globally, I am struck by the need for labor historians to reassess their conceptual tools for exploring capitalism's ability to reshape gender, race, and class relations. A history of capitalism that does not consider labor and class relations is impoverished indeed. Furthermore, the current public health and economic crisis is proving disastrous for higher education, and this requires labor historians to engage in praxis and interrogate their own class position and the labor relations among academic workers.

Accordingly, this article examines how the field of labor and working-class history has conceptualized class, the strengths and weaknesses of its approaches, and specific theories of class that, it will argue, can help us develop maximally illuminating concepts. How did the founding figures of the New Labor History think about class, and do we still hold to the same concepts, or have new ideas about the relationship between class and both race and gender reshaped how we analyze class relations? It's hard to answer these questions because labor historians don't often engage in theoretical reflection. Even as the work done in our field has broadened radically in scope and sophistication, and as new conceptualizations (particularly regarding race and gender) have expanded our understanding of class relationships well beyond industrial workplaces, one is hard-pressed to find labor historians who articulate a specific theoretical approach. This essay puts historical work in dialogue with theorists of class in order to make our guiding assumptions more explicit and to develop new tools. It is shaped by work being done and questions being asked, especially by scholars whose work employs a transnational, gender, or racial lens of analysis. By connecting that work to class theory, it encourages labor historians to consider their own concepts of class relationships and, in this way, to encourage new approaches to historical research. There is much to be gained by rethinking the relationship between working people and the class contradictions of capitalism, particularly in light of global and transnational methodologies.

Despite the breadth of work done in our field, some people continue to think that labor history is chiefly concerned with the workplace, unions, or radical political organizations. For decades now there has been talk that the field fractured or lost an earlier period of creativity. A key example could be seen as recently as 2011, when Eric Foner issued a new edition of his influential American History Now (coedited with Lisa McGirr), a project sponsored by the American Historical Association. The new edition eliminated the chapter on labor history by Leon Fink and added one instead titled “American Capitalism” by Sven Beckert. That essay asked: Where did this new history of capitalism come from? Beckert answered: It was “motivated by a sense among economic, labor, and business historians that their fields—once fascinating if narrow—had reached an impasse and were in need of new perspectives.”1 This comment exemplifies the continuing assumptions, among some scholars, that labor history has entered a period of relative irrelevance—even as more and more books and articles were looking beyond the industrial workplace, white male workers, and the domestic United States.

In this context, articulating the complexity of class relations has the potential not only to influence our historical research and writing and demonstrate the ways capitalism and class interact, but also to help scholars who might not identify as working-class historians see how their work contributes to the field. This article argues for reconceptualizing class to focus on the complex ways capitalism generates class relationships, embedding race, gender, and other historical dynamics within its formative parameters. We begin by considering some of the founding concepts of class that have shaped and continue to influence the field of labor history. The article then turns to two sections exploring class theory, particularly work by Tithi Bhattacharya and Stuart Hall, to articulate a specific vision of class relations under capitalism. Finally, the article concludes with praxis by applying Hall's and Bhattacharya's insights to the challenges academic knowledge workers face today, amid the crisis of higher education—which is increasingly pressing due to the economic disaster related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The crisis in higher education became a major focus of the Labor and Working-Class History Association during my two years as president. How might our conceptualizations of class shape efforts to build broad solidarities among knowledge workers in higher education? The twenty-first-century neoliberal university is undermining academic labor and dividing scholars against one another, and as today's economic crisis further destabilizes campuses, building alliances becomes more important than ever. The challenges within academia reflect the broader transformation of work and capitalism, particularly the rise of more precarious labor relations that working-class historians have tracked during other times and places.

Edward P. Thompson and Ideas of Class in the New Labor History

The New Labor History as developed by Edward Thompson, David Montgomery, and Herbert Gutman emerged during the 1960s in a difficult and contradictory relationship to theory. It was shaped by the Marxist theoretical tradition, but at the same time it was part of a profound revolt against Stalinist dogma (or “vulgar Marxism”). This gave the field at its moment of origin a tendency to suspect theory and to reject some suppositions of traditional Marxism while accepting others. E. P. Thompson emerged as the preeminent scholar who shaped historians’ approach to class by complicating our understanding of workers’ consciousness and experiences. In bitter attacks on Louis Althusser and Leszek Kolakowski, Thompson rejected structural theories that postulated an overdetermined linkage between workers’ class experience and the mode of production. He argued instead for focusing on the lived experience of workers. Thompson's historical writings deployed a sophisticated understanding of class and the social relationships around class. Yet when he touched on the meaning of his own work, he focused entirely on what Marxists call “class for itself” rather than “class in itself”: in other words, he was rarely interested in class as a structural relationship; instead he focused on class identity. If there is one statement that has shaped the field more than any other, it is surely Thompson's notion that class exists not as structure but as experience: “Class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs.”2 In Thompson's view, class is generated by workers themselves, via their experiences. Likewise, to Thompson class does not exist outside of history. It is something that develops over time. Take a snapshot of any historical moment, in other words, and we would not see class operating.3

Thompson's concept that class emerges only when people see themselves as having shared interests, often hailed as introducing historians to the concept of “class formation,” actually focuses not on class per se but on the centrality of the production process in creating shared interests and therefore a class identity. It does not provide space for studying workers who do not think of themselves as having a class experience, nor does it provide a way of thinking about class as shaped not only by workers but by others as well. Furthermore, Thompson's notion that workers create class when they see themselves as having shared interests led historians back, ironically, to some of the more problematic aspects of Marxist theory. If class exists only when workers perceive themselves as a class, then it will be most visible in large industrial establishments and among predominantly white and male wage-earning workers in the global North. For two decades or so after the publication of Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, labor history was dominated by these settings. By the 1970s, however, as unions retreated and globalization and deindustrialization intensified, the limitations of these approaches to class became clear. If workers alone generate class when they have shared interests, how should historians analyze a historical moment when, increasingly, workers’ lives are buffeted by broad transformations of politics and structures of power?

David Montgomery, the scholar who arguably influenced the work of US labor historians (including my own) more than any other, made his mark via illuminating narrative and deeply grounded research rather than by reflecting on theory. Montgomery focused his attention on the lived practice and ideas of workers themselves. Like Thompson, he rejected overdeterministic Marxism. Montgomery's writings were insightful; with the eye of an anthropologist, he found hidden sources of power and agency among industrial workers. Yet his work reflected the absence of theoretical discussion among labor historians about how class functioned or the specific historical dynamics shaping experiences of class. As late as 1998, when Eric Arnesen, Bruce Laurie, and I coedited a festschrift to honor Montgomery, we summarized his key concepts: “Class, to Montgomery, has always appeared in the form of relationships between labor and capital. . . . Montgomery sees working-class consciousness as forged at the workplace and as underlying other sources of identity rooted in race, gender or ethnicity, or shaped by the community.” We offered our definition of class by quoting Thompson: “a body of people who share the same congeries of interest, social experiences, traditions, and value system, who have a disposition to behave as a class, to define themselves in their actions and in their consciousness in relation to other groups or people in class ways.”4 These conceptualizations continued to root class in the shared experiences and interests of (predominantly white male) workers. In short, neither Montgomery nor Thompson articulated an understanding of class as a broad field of power relations parallel to the analyses of gender and race—by Joan Scott, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins, Cedric Robinson, and others—that were already transforming notions of class itself.5 Those developments influenced the writing of labor and working-class history, but without generating a full-scale rethinking of class by labor historians.

During the 1980s and 1990s, labor historians overcame the limitations of both traditional Marxism and Thompson's approach not by broadening their understanding of class but by turning to culture, seeing identity shaped by a range of factors including gender, race, ethnicity, religion, and community. Montgomery himself remained focused on workplace interactions, yet his interests took him to spheres shaping workers’ worldview beyond the workplace, including religion, culture, and politics and the state. Herbert Gutman pushed for more consideration of cultural influences and rooted his work in the world of enslaved and free African Americans and the waves of migrants and immigrants who deployed cultural resources to resist industrialization. Numerous community studies followed, exploring how experiences of class were rooted in neighborhoods, religious interactions, politics, and family life.6 Historians of working-class women developed powerful approaches for broadening our sense of the operation of class beyond the world of men in industrial workplaces. Classic work by Alice Kessler-Harris and Eileen Boris problematized women's work in factories, trade unions, and the home; Christine Stansell and Jeanne Boydston demonstrated that no aspect of labor history could be understood without attention to the labor of reproduction and the production of hierarchies of power within the family and household; Dana Frank focused on women's work in the sphere of consumption as causally significant; Elizabeth Faue examined cultures of iconography and language to underscore how women became displaced from a central role in the labor movement. Ira Berlin transformed our understanding of slavery while insisting that enslaved people were integral to labor history, and encouraged historians to look more closely at power relations beyond wage capitalism. Tera Hunter illuminated the world of African American domestic servants, while Joe William Trotter, Earl Lewis, Eric Arnesen, and many others explored how African American men exercised agency in northern cities, in coal mines, and on the waterfront.7 David Roediger, Jim Barrett, and Ava Baron devoted attention to divisions within the working class generated by race, ethnicity, or gender; the field of Latinx labor history blossomed with crucial work by Vicki Ruiz, George Sanchez, and others.8

All this scholarship was published before the end of the 1990s, demonstrating that the field of labor and working-class history had expanded significantly beyond its earlier vision of how class operated. In pathbreaking research and writing, historians developed a picture of workers’ relationship to capitalism that was complex and rigorous. In this they were influenced by theoretical work on gender and race emerging outside of labor history, as well as empirical contributions. In terms of the latter, for example, scholars showed how extensively the work of women within the home sustained the capacity of men and women and children to labor outside the home. This was as true for Black women who took in laundry as it was for immigrants cleaning and cooking for male working-class boarders. This scholarship moved the terrain in which workers’ lives unfolded far beyond the workplace; it examined the ways sexism and racism worked alongside class oppression to doubly or triply exploit and divide workers (as well as demonstrating white and/or male workers’ complicity in those dynamics); and it showed the nuances of a working-class culture that allowed workers some control over their lives even as they tried and failed to overcome the power of capitalist hegemony.

Yet amid these achievements there were limitations. As research into the many diverse factors shaping identity continued, there was a sense of a fracturing of the field, and a concern that these methodologies did not allow scholars to fully comprehend the relationship between workers and the broader structures of capitalist economic and political power. Alice Kessler-Harris noted in her 1990 essay “A New Agenda for Labor History” that when scholars turned to culture as a means of overcoming the limitations of Marxist or Thompsonian notions of class in the 1980s, they in effect were evading class.9 In what follows I argue for an alternative approach involving a more capacious understanding of class as a dynamic process linked to and shaped by the broader contours of social and political relations within capitalist society.

Rethinking Class and Capitalism: Social Reproduction Theory

Reconceptualizing class to focus more broadly on its relationship to the workings of global capitalism is possible thanks to theoretical work carried out over the last several decades. A burst of interest in global and transnational history was made possible by, and has itself furthered, attention to the importance of imperialism and settler colonialism and their inextricability to racial and gender formations as well as to capitalism. Renewed attention to the history of capitalism has also encouraged labor and working-class historians to explore their subjects’ relationship to structures of economic and political power.10 I find two distinct theoretical traditions particularly helpful for rethinking the character and historical dynamics of class relationships and their connection to capitalism, and for moving beyond the “structure vs. experience” binary that E. P. Thompson helped create and sustain: both grow from the Marxist tradition, but in important ways each moves beyond limiting assumptions of traditional Marxist theory.

Global and transnational historical work pushes us to reassess how we define the working class, due to the vast significance of nonwaged labor historically in the global South: indentured servants, slaves, debt peonage, unwaged household labor, guestworkers, and more. It also encourages us to think differently about the nature of capitalism—the ways it shapes class relationships, and its relationship to gender, race, and other historical dynamics. Social Reproduction Theory (SRT) is helpful on these topics. SRT is a historical materialist approach that analyzes how capitalism benefits from racial and gender as well as class oppression. It advances a thoroughgoing analysis of capitalism by stressing the central relationship between the processes that produce human labor power and those that produce value. SRT focuses on an insight in Marxism—that the key to capitalism is labor power—and points out that this labor power itself is produced not only on sites of production but also within the family household. It follows that the working class includes not only those involved in direct labor for the market, but all whose efforts make it possible for laborers to contribute their work. In traditional accounts of capitalism, Tithi Bhattacharya notes, “the tremendous amount of familial as well as communitarian work that goes on to sustain and reproduce the worker, or more specifically her labor power, is naturalized into nonexistence. Against this, social reproduction theorists perceive the relation between labor dispensed to produce commodities and labor dispensed to produce people as part of the systemic totality of capitalism.” Thus, all work that sustains and reproduces the worker is essential to the capitalist system and is part of the working class: hospitals, schools, households, libraries, and playgrounds all play significant roles. Social reproduction involves work on a mental and emotional level as well as physical, involves care for children and elderly as well as the economically productive laborer, and also relates to issues of sexual reproduction. This formulation broadens our understanding of who is in the global working class by presenting it “in all its chaotic, multiethnic, multigendered, differently abled subjectivity.” In addition, however, the need to accumulate value requires that capitalism control and exploit these processes that produce labor power. As Eileen Boris, Maria Mies, and others have noted, this places women and their labor within and beyond the household at the center of capitalism's ability to accumulate wealth.11

These points have direct utility for how we understand working people's experiences as members of a class. By reminding us that workers live—and experience class—beyond the workplace, they suggest that both of those spheres (the workplace and the realm of social reproduction), and the relationship between those spheres, will shape class relationships and class struggle. Working men's and women's efforts to improve their lives will take place beyond as well as in the workplace. Bhattacharya notes: “Every social and political movement ‘tending’ in the direction of gains for the working class as a whole, or of challenging the power of capital as a whole, must be considered an aspect of class struggle.”12 In other words, historians should study all working people's activities and struggles; both their fights for higher wages and their struggles over environmental justice, human rights, anticolonialism, welfare rights, or women's reproductive rights, to cite just a few, may be the form that working-class fights for social justice are taking at that moment. Experiences of class, including class relationships and class struggle, manifest in myriad ways, not just for higher wages or workplace control but also as social movements that may inappropriately be discounted as nonclass or middle-class.13 Employers often focus their attacks on workers’ power first and most visibly at the workplace, simply because unions and the right to strike are among the most potent weapons available to working people. But attacks in the realm of social reproduction—for example, reproductive rights, affordable housing, or health care—can be just as deadly, and we need more exploration of the ways working people respond and how they shape labor power on the job.

These matters have special salience for transnational labor historians because their approach focuses attention not only on a broader definition of labor and the working class but also on relations between metropole and periphery, and this highlights the dynamics of domination over the periphery by the US government and its capitalist class, whether that occurs via economic, legal, ideological and cultural, or military forms of domination. Thus imperialism, colonialism, and/or capitalist expansion will be major dynamics at play, and many of the working-class bodies involved will be people of color from the global South. Their struggles will often involve combating colonialism and imperialism in addition to capitalism, and it is important not to discount anticolonial struggles as unrelated to class experience. Furthermore, what it means for workers in the global South to be pulled into the orbit of the United States, how they engage with workers of the metropole, and how the latter respond to them, emerge as crucial questions. These matters take us more directly to the problem of conceptualizing the relationship between class and race, ethnicity, and gender.

The Production of Hierarchy as Central to Capitalism

Social Reproduction Theory becomes especially helpful when placed in dialogue with the writings of Stuart Hall, who takes a Gramscian perspective to understanding the relationship between race and class. In the 1990s, Hall's ideas became useful as a theoretical accompaniment to many of Herbert Gutman's insights on culture. Historians, however, never fully appreciated the implications of Hall's work. It is time to revisit his main contributions, particularly his notion of historically produced social formations. Like SRT, Hall's theory expands on Marx's notion of the “economic” to conceptualize a totality composed of the social, ideological, and political realms. Capitalism thrives in any of these distinct social formations by creating classes that are themselves heterogeneous and riven by factions, tensions, and conflicting interests. According to Hall, “Capital can preserve, adapt to its fundamental trajectory, harness and exploit these particularistic qualities of labour power, building them into its regimes.”14 Understanding how historical struggles produce these divisions, and exploring the capacity of workers—which changes shape and force over time—to unite despite them, is critical for comprehending historical dynamics and the history of capitalism as well as labor and working-class history. Hall says, building on Gramsci, that class unity will be possible only through the creation of multiple alliances among diverse factions of the class. These struggles over defining and uniting a class will take on a broad social character, involving actions and alliance building that may seem shaped only by race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, and so on, rather than class.15

Hall's theorization of the interconnections between race and class is useful for scholars deploying a global methodology in which racial and ethnic divisions are likely to loom large. He reminds us that racial systems are historically specific rather than transhistorical. In most social formations, capital will use race

to differentiate between the different fractions of the working classes with respect to capital, creating specific forms of fracturing and fractioning which are as important for the ways in which they intersect class relations (and divide the class struggle, internally) as they are mere “expressions” of some general form of the class struggle. Politically and culturally, these combined and uneven relations between class and race are historically more pertinent than their simple correspondence.

Hall's methodology can be applied equally well to gender. When analyzing global history, we can see how capital works to control gender relations in order to accumulate wealth and fracture the working class into distinct factions.16

Capitalism generates classes at the economic, political, and ideological levels—and race or gender shape this process at every level, even to the extent of fracturing the working class. For example, capitalism does not simply divide white against Black workers—it creates divisions within each racial or ethnic group. As race becomes a dominant force in the articulation of class relations for white as well as Black workers, class comes to be experienced as race. Race becomes, according to Hall, “the modality in which class is ‘lived,’ the medium through which class relations are experienced, the form in which it is appropriated and ‘fought through.’ This has consequences for the whole class, not only for its ‘racially defined’ segment. It shapes the internal fractioning and division within the working class which, among other ways, are articulated in part through race.”17 Race also becomes central to white workers’ experience of class as they find ways to benefit from their racial privileges, and they often become central to reproducing the divisions—thus, the racial casting of class relations is not simply a top-down or external phenomenon, a conspiracy launched by the upper classes. These relationships silence (or “disarticulate”) the workers represented as inferior, while heightening the importance of and privileges credited to the dominant group (here the racial divisiveness exerted historically by white-led unions becomes important). These dynamics make race a crucial site in class relationships and generate battles within the working class as severe as those involving the middle or upper classes. There is always the possibility that racial struggles will provide opportunities for creating the seeds of alliances that can lead to greater class unity, but this cannot be assumed: “The ideologies of racism remain contradictory structures, which can function both as the vehicles for the imposition of dominant ideologies, and as the elementary forms for the cultures of resistance.”18

Although Hall keeps his focus on race, his approach is very much applicable to the relationship between class and other forms of identity, including gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and nationality. Consider imperialism, for example. I've written previously about the ways in which imperialism structures and shapes class relationships. Imperial processes not only create systems of mobility and organize labor in a way that allows for efficient extraction of profit; they also generate hierarchies of difference. Considering the role of the United States in sites like the Philippines circa 1905, or the Panama Canal Zone around the same time, we can see that empire articulated and shaped class experience and formation as much as, say, race or gender did. Class in this situation became experienced and struggled over through empire, and this insight is useful for interrogating relationships between metropolitan and colonial workers.19

The key points here are twofold: capitalism generates hierarchies within classes, and class itself takes many different forms as both identity and experience. This is not to say that experiences or identities based on race, gender, and so on are less important; quite the opposite. It suggests the importance of examining working people wherever they are, whatever they believe, however they act. Examining them in the workplace, on the streets marching for socialism, or organizing unions is crucial, of course. But just as important is to examine them when they are not engaged in “class formation,” when they are not behaving as we expect or want workers to behave: when they are consumed by struggles over child care, or protesting occupation of their country by a foreign power, or attending a MAGA rally.

Gramsci's (and Hall's) thinking on “common sense” is also related to these points. Ideology takes many different forms, and common sense—the accumulation of popular knowledge at any given time—will include a highly heterogeneous blend of scientific ideas, cultural notions, and politics. These are shaped by the broader field of power relations, and the resulting popular beliefs function as a material force. Consciousness, in short, is itself a complex and heterogeneous thing. Working people's consciousness is shaped by their own multiple and interwoven identities and by the fractured ideologies surrounding them. As a result, any effort to build class unity will involve struggles over ideology and common sense as well. These points may seem obvious, but they mean that anticolonial or antiracist battles, or struggles over elder care, are just as important for labor historians to explore as workplace struggles. This is relevant not only for labor history but also, more broadly, for generating a rigorous comprehension of capitalism's unique ability to identify and channel extra-economic work into its broader circulation of capital.20

These insights reveal fruitful areas for research by labor and working-class historians. If the concept of class formation is used to imply in a Thompsonian way that class exists only when workers have interests in common, our research agenda will be a limited one. Hall's approach to class suggests that efforts to build any degree of class unity, or what a Thompsonian might call “class formation,” are complex, since those efforts involve a diverse set of struggles, many of which may seem unrelated to class. Focusing our research entirely around workers who behave as we expect them to, who are engaged in workplace mobilizations, forming unions, or coming together in socialist or communist parties, is insufficient. It is important to examine working people wherever they are, and we need to define those working people not just as those whose labor is commodified but as anyone whose labor makes it possible for others to engage in wage labor.

Such ideas also have resonance for interrogating the global working class. While labor historians have been leaders in globalizing historical methodologies, there is much more work to be done. We need more work to rethink the relationship between workers and settler colonialism, nationalism, and empire. The very common references to a “United States working class” or an “English” or “French” working class are themselves artificial constructions that do the work of capital. Coming to terms with the power of nationality should be on our research agenda, since it is one influential way capitalism divides workers against one another. At the turn of the twentieth century, much of labor politics in the US revolved precisely around naturalizing divisions based on nationality. For example, in the late 1890s, as the United States expanded its territorial power across the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, Samuel Gompers sounded the alarm. The annexation of Hawaii and US victory in the war of 1898 threatened to enslave American workers. “Cheap men are not wanted,” he declared. US skilled workers, he argued, did not want the enslaved “coolies” of Hawaii, or the “semi-barbaric” millions of Filipinos, or the “peons” of Puerto Rico or Mexico. “As Napoleon said that Europe must sometime become all Cossack or all republican; as Lincoln said that in the United States there must be ‘all slave labor or all free labor,’ so do we in our day say that no government can be truly free or fully pursue the paths of industrial, commercial, political and human progress where slave labor in any form obtains within its domains.”21 The extreme exploitation such workers faced was to Gompers a problem for American workers; rather than organizing and demanding full rights for the working men and women of Hawaii, the only solution he saw was to exclude them from the United States.

Sugar workers in Hawaii saw things differently. Chinese and Japanese workers demanded their rights and fought aggressively to achieve them. They went on strike, they marched to demand better food, they rioted, or they quit their jobs and sought better employment elsewhere. When planters found that the Japanese workers’ domination of the workforce was giving them too much power (they had become “complete masters of the labor situation,” commented the labor commissioner), they began recruiting Filipino laborers to further divide workers against one another. Yet the protests and demands continued. The largest action of the early twentieth century took place in 1920: an interracial strike by 8,300 Japanese, Filipinos, Portuguese, and Spaniards. Their strike flyer proclaimed: “We do not wish to strike. We want peace and order; we love labor and production. But when we think of the group of capitalists who show no sympathy whatever toward the struggling laborers, turn deaf ears to their cries, and reject their just and reasonable demands under the pretense that they are formulated by ‘agitators,’ we cannot remain silent.” These were hardly the words of slavish “semi-Barbarians.”22

To Samuel Gompers, the standing of “American workers” was profoundly threatened by the potential immigration of foreigners—particularly those from Asian countries. In this social formation, nationality and race combined to create a “commonsense” notion that Chinese, Japanese, or Filipino workers were different in an essential way from (white and native-born) American workers and thus in their very existence constituted a profound threat. Empire, nationality, race, and capitalism together created these internal divisions and then, hiding the process of construction, made them apparently natural and unavoidable. As Tithi Bhattacharya put it, “When we restore a sense of the social totality to class, we immediately begin to reframe the arena for class struggle.”23 We should note that this example hides the intertwined nature of class and gender—both Gompers's perspective and the sugar workers’ flyer privileged the workplace, but the plantation household and constraints on women's labor were also central to class relations across Hawaii. In short, conceptualizing the global working class as a totality helps us focus on the creation of divisions that, in turn, made it natural for Samuel Gompers to assume that as a member of the “US working class,” he had nothing in common with Filipino sugar plantation workers in Hawaii. We need more research to uncover the ways notions of the nation and nationalism influenced and fractured the working classes of the continental United States, from the days of settler colonialism onward, and the ways those dynamics connected to dynamics of gender, race, and ethnicity.

Praxis: Labor Conditions in the Neoliberal University and Boundaries of Class

Does the rethinking of class suggested by Social Reproduction Theory and Stuart Hall provide insights into labor conditions on our campuses? I maintain that it does. The global pandemic and ensuing economic disaster are radically intensifying the crisis of higher education, making it imperative that academic knowledge workers take action now. Although most colleges have yet to announce specific plans, some have already begun laying off scores of faculty members and eliminating departments. Missouri Western in St. Joseph, for example, has laid off 30 percent of its faculty and cut departments such as history and sociology that are central to its core mission. The pandemic, social distancing, and the turn to remote learning have undermined the financial stability and social organization of even the most privileged institutions of higher education.24

The neoliberal recasting of education, in which the relationship between universities and capitalism has been entirely restructured, has been no accident or temporary phenomenon. By neoliberal education I refer specifically to a historic decline in public spending on education, an increased emphasis on profitmaking and privatization, a mushrooming of administration, the shifting of federal subsidies from grants to loans (thereby putting incredible pressure on undergraduate students, often locking them into indebtedness for decades to come), and, very importantly, a deprofessionalization of a large segment of teaching faculty. This transformation is historically linked to the decline of unions, beginning in the 1970s, as well as a major increase in enrollment especially among poor and working-class students as a result of federal grant and loan programs. The resulting system coincided with a radical decline in public spending on education and has been disastrous. As historian Trevor Griffey points out, the result has been to make higher education, ironically, an engine of social inequality.25

These dynamics have profoundly reshaped the ways we teach, the potential for our graduate students to get jobs with any security, and ultimately the workplace power of all faculty. College faculty are experiencing thorough Taylorization, and the proportion of tenured faculty has dramatically declined. This is seen particularly in community colleges, teaching colleges, and for-profit colleges (which teach most undergraduates today, particularly those from low-income or working-class backgrounds), but with increasing impact at every level of higher education. In the 1970s, 20 percent of college faculty were non-tenure-track—that is, on adjunct or contingent contracts. Today that figure has nearly flipped: now 75 percent of college faculty are contingent. Furthermore, as Claire Goldstene has pointed out, this transformation cannot be attributed to the absence of money. Spending on salaries in higher education has risen over the last two decades. However, the increased salary money has gone to administration, not to faculty. Between 1993 and 2009 the number of administrators and support staff expanded by 60 percent, while the number of tenured faculty barely grew at all.26

Taylorism on campus has taken many different forms, from increased administrative power over curriculum, resource allocation, and appointments, to greater reliance on online teaching (which can involve outsourcing of various kinds), to more reliance on contingent faculty. The humanities, arts, and social sciences have been especially hard hit by these trends. For-profit universities are the vanguard when it comes to these innovations, but colleges and universities across the country are watching and learning from them as well. These new structures threaten the three core principles of academia: shared governance, academic freedom, and the tenure system itself. Although these transformations have occurred gradually over the last several decades, their impact has recently become more intense as the downsizing of academic departments and graduate programs has generated wringing of hands among tenured faculty, worsening conditions for contingent faculty, and tremendous anxiety among graduate students facing a horrific job market.27

The restructuring of higher education means that tenure-track scholars rely on and are complicit in the intense conditions of exploitation under which contingent faculty and graduate students work. They are able to teach smaller and more specialized classes, at better times or in better rooms, or with graduate workers doing the labor or grading, thanks to the workloads of contingent faculty or graduate students. Although they benefit from the labor of contingent scholars, tenure-track scholars simultaneously feel threatened by them, perhaps seeing them as the cause of the atmosphere of deskilling that now pervades higher education.28 Some tenured scholars argue for protecting the craft or profession and therefore oppose hiring or improving conditions for contingent faculty. Such arguments echo the increasingly inaccurate notion that tenure-track faculty won their positions due to their higher merit. Or tenured faculty may blame contingent scholars for their precarious employment, as when Claire Potter tweeted a few years back that adjunct scholars shouldn't be “drama queens”: “I am sick of every new generation of PhDs ‘discovering’ that academic labor is in a shambles and blaming older profs who saw half their talented friends reduced to the adjunct heap for not paying attention.” Potter's approach exacerbates intergenerational tensions and leaves younger scholars sighing, “OK Boomer.” Yet a more common attitude among tenured faculty is simply to look away. It's painful to recognize the increasing role played by highly exploited contingent scholars, so often tenured scholars ignore the problem and focus on preserving what remains of their rights. Yet after COVID, budget reductions, and furloughs, we all have become disposable, and some of us—especially in the humanities and in area, ethnic, and gender studies—are more disposable than others.29

We see this playing out powerfully in higher education today. The labor involved in teaching and research has been fractured into numerous different categories: not only tenure-track versus contingent, but also tenured versus untenured faculty, contingent labor on long-term contracts (which tend to provide better pay and more rights in the workplace), contingent labor hired by individual courses, graduate student labor on long-term funding packages, and graduate student labor hired a semester at a time. Reliance on these many different categories of workers makes it easier for administrators to maximize their workplace control and minimize costs. They make it easier to divide workers against one another because their working conditions and pay, and the rights and job security they possess, are all so highly differentiated that knowledge workers see themselves as having no shared interests. Workers in each of these categories experience their class position in different ways; indeed, the divisions themselves become part of the class experience for each worker. When contingent faculty members feel snubbed by a tenured colleague who fails to say “hello” in the hallway, they are being reminded of their lower position in the class hierarchy.

Race often becomes the modality through which class is experienced, Hall suggested, and as it does so it shapes white as well as Black workers. Racial discourse and behavior functions in a way that disarticulates or silences those groups represented as inferior, while increasing the importance of rights and privileges provided to the dominant group. As we have seen, Hall's ideas on race can be applied to other dynamics, including gender or empire. Consider tenure status itself. In the case of tenure-track and contingent faculty, regularized tenure-track status itself becomes central to differentiating the two groups. Tenured status serves as a privilege that tenure-track faculty jealously uphold and protect, and that status functions to disarticulate or silence contingent scholars. The tenure track becomes, in short, the modality through which class is experienced. It becomes a symbol and signifier of merit, citizenship, academic freedom, professionalism, and privilege. By symbolizing these laudatory qualities, it becomes an extremely potent structure for differentiating those higher and lower in the occupational hierarchy. Tenured faculty uphold the tenure system, and in doing so they see themselves as protecting important traditions of their scholarly and academic world, rather than preserving their class privilege. The fact is, they are doing both simultaneously—indeed, they exacerbate the divide when they draw on their status to maximize the exploitation of contingent faculty.

Tenure status or its absence are often connected to other forms of identity, particularly gender, race, racialized gender, or ethnicity, in shaping the divisions within the academic working class. Such overlaid identities give more power to the intraclass divisions. Women constitute the majority of contingent faculty (51 percent to 61 percent, according to most studies), for example, while they remain significantly underrepresented in tenure-track jobs. Underrepresented minorities have increased their role in higher education over the last decades, but they still hold only 10 percent of tenure-track jobs. And as we know, the higher one goes in the occupational hierarchy, the less diverse it becomes. Few women or people of color make it all the way to full professor.30 These gender and racial inequities reinforce the notion that privileges associated with tenure-track status are normal and inescapable, and they serve to intensify the feeling of invisibility or silencing that characterizes contingent status.

The COVID crisis also brings to mind the insights of Social Reproduction Theory. Private homes are now workplaces, thus providing a vivid example of SRT's emphasis on the centrality of households to contemporary capitalism. The gendered division of labor in private homes, where women do most child care and housework, has become more than ever intertwined with the responsibilities of academic labor. The pandemic has increased the gendered work of household labor, from child care to food preparation to cleaning and sanitizing the home. Caring for children while trying to write an article or book chapter is taxing, to put it mildly, and journal editors across the country have noted the result: a decline in submissions by women. As women's productivity decreases, so far undiscussed are the particular pressures this places on women whose employment is precarious. Contingent scholars must balance their teaching, research, and writing, and now face the added burdens of household and child care responsibilities.31

Overcoming these intraclass divisions and building unity will not be easy, but identifying and naming the exploitative character of contemporary higher education and the role tenure-track faculty play in supporting it is a necessary first step of resistance in order to respond effectively to the worsening conditions. Thus far the record of tenure-track faculty members has not been commendable, as we saw above. They have a tendency to ally with administrators in seeing contingent faculty as possessing less merit; or, perhaps more benevolently yet still disastrously, they focus on protecting their own privileges and turn a blind eye to the struggles of contingent colleagues or graduate students. Stuart Hall noted that class unity will only be possible through the forging of multiple alliances among factions within a class. To accomplish this, tenure-track faculty need to develop a more proactive strategy built on the understanding that all academic workers have a shared interest in achieving control over curriculum and pedagogy, complete academic freedom, and a very real and tangible role in governing their institution. They should be better allies to contingent scholars and graduate students, listen to them and support their struggles. Ultimately, they need to remember the oldest lesson in labor history: an injury to one is an injury to all. When a contingent worker is paid only three thousand dollars for a course, or only learns a few days before semester begins whether or not she will be able to teach a course, or feels invisible as a scholar, her hardship does not belong only to her. It is a crack in the wall, a further deterioration of the fundamental rights that should be available to anyone who labors in academic knowledge production.

Conclusion

A close look at Social Reproduction Theory and Stuart Hall's writings suggests a way to reconceptualize both capitalism and class relations, thereby indicating future areas of research for labor and working-class historians. Consider the working class in our current historical moment, for example. The fractures discussed in this essay made the election of Donald Trump to the presidency possible in 2016. Working people in the United States today are fragmented in almost endless units, divided by gender, race, ethnicity, skill, income, level of precarity, politics, and more. As I write, in June 2020, we are living through the global pandemic of COVID-19, the related economic crisis, and the uplifting protest movement against racism. The pandemic, we know, is hitting the African American community hard due in part to the racialized labor market and a healthcare system that ties benefits significantly to one's employment—clearly reflecting the complex linkages, as Stuart Hall suggested, between race and class. Meanwhile Black Lives Matter protests, the toppling of Confederate monuments, the denunciations of police racism and brutality, have brought together people of different races, genders, ages, and regions. These protests are building unity, and they themselves were made possible by the arduous struggles against racism over the last several decades. The protests of 2020 provide a brilliant example of how history can turn as working people succeed in overcoming fractures that divide them.

Capitalism is a totality, irreducible to the purely economic or the means of production, but composed also of the social, cultural, ideological, and political realms. Therefore classes form and are experienced in all of these areas. Due to the overwhelming power of capitalism, class shapes all human relationships, and it is shaped by all human relationships. Capitalism takes particular shape at different historical moments and gives rise to particular social formations, which in turn generate specific ways of talking about and experiencing class. The workplace is not privileged as a site that produces class experience or relationships. Class is profoundly connected to household and family relations and to all the myriad ways men and women experience and interact with capitalism. Indeed, it is often articulated via racial, ethnic, and gender relations, which means many people experience their class position through their identity as men or women, or as white or Black people, or as people of Asian or Latinx descent. How workers experience their class, in short, is shaped in different ways at different historical moments—however, it is shaped by multiple sources. Confronting your foreman when he shouts at you for not keeping up with the assembly line produces a class experience, but so does listening to Sean Hannity on Fox News, protesting police brutality, caring for children, or fighting for better health care for one's family. Class is a complicated and fluid power relationship that takes different forms, that changes historically, and that can take distinct forms for different people in diverse settings and regions. The latter is particularly important, because capitalism profits and works most efficiently when it generates divisions within a class. Therefore, conceptualizing the divisions within the working class that exist in any given historical moment must be central if we are to comprehend class relationships fully. Approached with these conceptual tools in mind, labor and working-class history becomes a discipline of remarkable breadth and complexity, one that uncovers the very workings of the capitalist system at different historical moments.

This article benefited from comments when presented at the Washington, DC, Labor and Working-Class History Seminar in March 2020. My thanks to everyone who participated in that seminar. I'm also grateful to the following for their suggestions: Patrick Chung, Alex Dunphy, Charlie Fanning, Leon Fink, William Jones, Joseph McCartin, Robyn Muncy, Lara Putnam, David Sartorius, Joe William Trotter, Jr., Lara Vapnek, and Jack Werner. Special thanks to Eileen Boris, Trevor Griffey, Alice Kessler-Harris, James Maffie, and Colleen Woods for feedback that helped me clarify my argument.

Notes

3.

For a useful analysis and critique of Thompson's views on class, see Sewell, “How Classes Are Made.” Sewell goes into much greater depth than I have time to explore in this essay; his discussion of the vagueness of Thompson's concept of experience is particularly important. The Making has also received able criticism from gender scholars, for example, Scott, “Women in The Making of the English Working Class; and Clark, The Struggle for the Breeches. More generally, see also Palmer, “Social Formation and Class Formation in North America, 1800–1900.” Some of the themes explored in this essay are also taken up in the following “Scholarly Controversy”: Eley and Nield, “Farewell to the Working Class.” 

9.

Some scholars frustrated by the problems inherent in the cultural turn shifted their attention to workers’ relationship to the expanding state. See the trajectory of Alice Kessler-Harris's work, for example, or my own Pure and Simple Politics . See also Kessler-Harris, “A New Agenda for American Labor History.” 

12.

Bhattacharya, “How Not to Skip Class,” 90, 86. For a useful introduction to SRT, see Bhattacharya, “What Is Social Reproduction Theory?” On ideas about household production that precede Social Reproduction Theory, see Boris, “Subsistence and Household Labor.” 

19.

Greene, “The Wages of Empire,” 36. Also useful on the intersecting of race and class in an imperial or settler colonial setting is Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents.

22.

“Report of the Commissioner of Labor on Hawaii,” Bulletin of the United States Bureau of Labor 8, no. 47 (July 1903), cited in Greene, “Movable Empire.” The quotation from the sugar workers’ strike flyer is from Okihiro, Cane Fires, 71.

25.

Trevor Griffey, unpublished comments on Greene, “Rethinking the Boundaries of Class,” presented via Zoom for the 2020 Organization of American Historians conference, April 3, 2020, in author's possession; see also Mettler, Degrees of Inequality.

28.

My thanks to Trevor Griffey for helping me clarify this point.

29.

“Historian Claire Potter Is in the Middle of an Intergenerational Academic Squabble,” History News Network, https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/168997 (from the original article in Chronicle of Higher Education, May 9, 2018); see also Potter, “Angry about Adjuncting?” 

31.

Lisa Levenstein captures the pandemic's gender impact in a recent op-ed: “With Schools and Daycare Closed, the Coronavirus Is Worsening Women's Inequality,” Washington Post, June 26, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/06/26/with-schools-daycare-closed-covid-19-is-worsening-womens-inequality/.

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