Working Class Culture


Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams

by Alfred Lubrano

Wiley (2004)

Book Review

Limbo is based on the premise that working class Americans (regardless of ethnic background) have their own distinct culture, values, language and world view. This cultural conditioning, based on early childhood experiences, provides an instinctive approach to the world that persists throughout adulthood – regardless of advanced education or changes in social status.

Lubrano coins a new word in Limbo: “straddler.” It describes a professional of working class origin, who owing to profound cultural differences, never totally fits in with middle class colleagues. As this perfectly describes me in relation to the medical profession, it’s a subject very dear to my heart.

For the most part, middle class Americans are totally unaware that working class people have their own distinct culture. Although many liberal academics and professionals happily weigh in on America’s scandalous wealth inequality, the concept of social class is much more difficult for them. They unconsciously cling to the myth that class differences have vanished in the US – that all Americans have an equal opportunity to become billionaires if they work hard enough.

America’s Loss of Class Identity

Meanwhile, thanks to a steady diet of pro-corporate propaganda, low income Americans have lost any sense of working class identity or solidarity. They, too, cling to the myth that all Americans are “middle class.” This is unsurprising, given that TV is often their sole source of information and entertainment. The average American watches an average of 5 hours of TV a day, with the heaviest viewers coming from low income households

Based on income,* more than 70% of Americans qualify as working class. Yet nearly all the characters we see in TV dramas and sitcom are unquestionably “middle class.”**  Recession-themed programming (where people are thrown out of their homes, work three jobs, wait in line at the food bank or struggle to see a doctor) are virtually unheard of. Instead we get reality TV, cooking and renovation shows, dystopian fiction with or without vampires.

The issue of working class culture received little attention until World War II, Korean and Vietnam veterans began attending university on the GI bill and Kennedy and Johnson established federal student loan programs to allow other working class Americans access to tertiary education. Kennedy’s Health Professions Student Loans program made it possible for me to attend medical school.

Despite being immensely grateful for the opportunity to attend university, the realization that we have nothing in common with our mainly middle class peers can be extremely alienating. In my own case, post graduate psychiatric training was particularly difficult. My middle class peers often complained I made them uncomfortable. They had absolutely no awareness that we dressed, thought and talked differently due to differing backgrounds. Instead they insisted I had “personality problems” and in one instanced suggested I take medication. change.

World’s of Pain

Sociologist Lillian Breslow Rubin published one of the first definitive studies of working class culture in her 1976 classic: Worlds of Pain: Life in the Working-Class Family.

Limbo differs from Worlds of Pain in being more descriptive and less scientifically oriented. Personally I prefer Limbo, which Lubrano bases on personal experience and 50 interviews with self-identified “straddlers.” I especially appreciate his effort to describe the value system that characterizes working class culture.

He starts his book with an analysis of fundamental working class values that distinguish them from the middle class:

1. A powerful work ethic (unlike the middle class, which places higher value on getting something for nothing).
2. A strong, unambivalent respect for parents that persists into adulthood.
3. Strong ties to extended family..
4. A forthright approach to interpersonal communication devoid of hidden agendas.
5. Intense personal loyalty.
6. Firm limit setting for children.
7. A preference for common sense problem solving as opposed to book learning.
8. Comfort in openly displaying affection and anger.

*Based on 60% working poor and 10-15% unemployed.

**I can count working class TV series on one hand and most are pre-1980: Jackie Gleason’s The Honeymooners, Amos and Andy, Roseanne, Cheers  All in the Family and possibly Two Broke Girls. I don’t really watch TV that much, and I’m sure people can think of others.

The Ideology of Revolution

Trapped: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom

Adam Curtis

BBC (2007)

Film Review

Part 3 We Will Force You to be Free

Part 3 is about the philosophy of revolution, as articulated by the Algerian psychiatrist Frantz Fanon (author of Wretched of the Earth and Black Faces, White Masks). Fanon, who studied in Paris, was strongly influenced by French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. Sartre, who viewed economic equality as essential to personal freedom, believed true freedom was only possible through the overthrow of bourgeois society via violent revolution. Fanon was convinced that the western elites got into people’s heads and turned them into zombies devoid of the ability to think critically or act altruistically for the collective welfare of the community. He also believed that the mere act of organized violence freed people from their competitive individualistic conditioning.

Fanon’s ideas had major influence over numerous third world revolutionaries, including Che Guevara in the 1952 Cuban revolution, Pol Pot in the 1975 Cambodian revolution and Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Pol Pot believed the only way to rid society of bourgeois self-interest was to kill the entire bourgeoisie – all 3 million of them.

Positive and Negative Liberty

The documentary goes on to discuss the work of British political philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997). Berlin believed only two types of freedom, which he called positive and negative liberty, were possible. He labeled Fanon’s type of freedom “positive liberty,” as it involved a new elite forcing the masses to adopt a new way of thinking through violence. In contrast, “negative liberty,” allowed individuals to do whatever they want so long as they don’t infringe on the rights of anyone else.

Curtis contends that both types of so-called liberty involve violence and coercion. As examples, he offers the “shock therapy” the US corporate elite carried out in Russia in 1992 and in Iraq in 2003. While on the surface, both instances of “shock therapy” looks like pure exploitation by US banks and corporations, both were examples of the neoconservative doctrine of spreading “democracy” via armed force.

Shock Therapy in Russia

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, US vulture capitalists invaded Russia and pressured the new regime to abandon its centrally controlled economy virtually overnight. All subsidies for food, energy and other basic necessities were discontinued and most of Russia’s state owned industries were privatized. Millions of Russians lost their jobs and were plunged into abject poverty, as Russian oligarchs and American venture capitalists stripped the newly privatized industries of their wealth. Face with the loss of government subsidies, ordinary Russians lined up on the street and traded everything they owned for food.

In 1993, with the economy on the verge of collapse, Boris Yeltsin dissolved Parliament and launched a military coup to install himself as absolute ruler. He had to borrow money from the oligarchs to run his government, for which he handed over the remaining state-owned industries.

By 1998, the oligarchs and their American investors had bled Russia dry and the currency collapsed. Yeltsin was forced to resign and the Russian people elected Putin as president. The latter moved quickly to strip the oligarchs of their wealth and jailed them or forced them into exile. The vast majority of the Russian people adored him. They didn’t care if they lost basic freedoms (e.g. of speech, the press and assembly) because it was a better alternative than starvation.

Shock Therapy in Iraq

The Americans applied similar shock therapy during their occupation of Iraq, privatizing all the state owned industries (selling them for a pittance to US investors) and writing a new constitution that allowed foreign companies to expatriate 100% of their profits tax free.

In Iraq, the brutal US occupation would enhance the rise of a radical Islamist movement violently opposed to both western colonization and exploitation and the selfish, hedonistic and morally bankrupt lifestyle that seemed to be the driving force behind US foreign policy.

The US and Britain, in turn, responded to the threat of Islamic terrorism by severely restricting the freedom of their own citizens.

Both Fanon and Berlin Were Wrong

The two conclusions Curtis draws is that 1) both the so-called positive and negative liberty Berlin describes lead to violence and coercion and 2) Berlin was wrong in claiming that all attempts to change the world for better lead to tyranny.

My own perspective is that both Fanon and Berlin are wrong. As educated members of the upper middle class, they both made the mistake of assuming that the working class thinks the same way they do, i.e. that the working class is afflicted to the same extent as the middle class by individualism and competitive self interest.

Both failed to appreciate or understand that working class people share a distinct culture with its own values, language and world view. In fact, the issue of working class culture received little attention in academic circles prior to the 1970s.* Basic to this culture are the loyalty and group allegiance based on shared hardship.

Both are deeply ingrained values stemming from early childhood experience, which makes them difficult to reverse with mass media messaging, no matter how pervasive it is.

This is certainly my experience in working with blue collar families for 33+ years. It’s also born out by working class patterns of charitable giving.**

* Some of the better known authors on working class culture include Lillian Breslow Rubin (Worlds of Pain), Richard Sennett (Hidden Injuries of Class), Jake Ryan and Charles Sackrey (Strangers in Paradise: Academics from the Working Class), and Alfred Lubrano (Limbo: Blue Collar Roots and White Collar Dreams).

**Studies of working class charitable giving:


Free link to Part 3: The Trap 3 We_Will_Force_You_To_Be_Free_BBC/