Thursday, October 27, 2016

Review: Coming Up Short

[Jennifer M. Silva. Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.]

Coming Up Short sets out to ask what it is like to come of age as a working-class person in contemporary North America, and ends up answering -- or at least exploring in a much more grounded and empirical way than most other writing I've seen -- how the changes that get grouped under the label "neoliberalism" have completely reshaped not only that side of life we usually reify as "the economy," but also the most intimate and personal aspects of how working-class people experience, understand, and navigate life.

Sociologist Jennifer Silva did in-depth interviews with 100 working-class young adults -- men and women, Black and white -- from a couple of different post-industrial cities in the United States. She got the interview participants to talk about their lives and about their transitions to adulthood, and uses these detailed accounts to develop a rich understanding of how institutions and broad social relations shape the biographies, the choices, and the very selves of the people she interviews, as well as of the strategies that they use to navigate and make sense of it all. It's this careful examination across scales, this attention to the dynamic interplay between aspects of the social world that we usually segregate as "individual" and "social", that makes this book feel important to me. It not only attends to the neoliberal transformation of society as more than "economic," which is rare enough, but it really focuses on trying to figure out how the laundry list of broad changes we associate with neoliberalism are having an impact on ordinary people. I think that's tremendously important and we need lots more work like that.

The writing falls into that flavour of scholarly prose that is unexciting, but very careful and relatively accessible. The ways in which interview material was woven through the analysis was particularly well done, I thought, and the storytelling that the book does based on the interviews is very effective at not only conveying fact but at painting pictures of the lives of those who were interviewed in a way that draws the reader in.

Given the magnitude of the changes that have swept across North America in the last 50 years, it should be no surprise that this book finds that coming-of-age trajectories and even core elements of selfhood are very, very different than those found by classic sociological studies of similar things in decades past. During the heyday of the post-war economic boom, working-class men (particularly white men) could reaslitically expect stable employment that paid a good wage. The transition to adulthood generally involved a fairly set series of markers like graduating high school, getting a job, getting married, and having kids -- and, increasingly starting in the 1960s, going to college sometimes fit in there too. Social life tended to be marked by fairly strongly enforced gender norms, a broadly stoic attitude towards hardship, and often a sense of collective commitment and responsbility. This is definitely not to romanticize that era, but just to note that in amidst the more rigid white supremacy and patriarchy of that time there was also (allocated in highly racialized and gendered ways) reasonable material plenty, reasonable stability, and a sense of collective belonging and possibility for at least some segments of the working-class that simply doesn't exist today.

Now, granting that there are definitely positive things about such rigid and oppressive norms losing sway in the last few decades, it is still the case that one of the key aspects of neoliberal change is that the kinds of working-class jobs that made that kind of life possible largely no longer exist in many areas of the United States. Because such a high proportion of employment is low-wage, temporary, precarious, and non-union, the majority of working-class youth simply don't have the option of meeting those stable markers of adulthood. But neoliberalism is more than intensive downgrading of working-class employment -- it is also about major changes in all of the other institutions that shape our lives as well. And it is major changes that, even more intensively in the US than in Canada, have meant that institutions that were in large part outcomes of working-class struggles waged a few generations ago have either been completely destroyed, or have been so defunded and distorted that the devil's bargain that combined material support with intrusive moral regulation at the height of North America's limited experiment with social democracy has now become much more about regulation and not so much about material support. Education, social services, and health services have been experienced by the interview participants in this study nearly universally as inadequate, opaque, untrustworthy, and harmful. A key lesson that almost all of the participants internalized in a deep, deep way was that you can't count on anyone or anything but yourself, and if you do, you're going to be betrayed. This is because they can't count on any institutions, whether employment-related or social support-related, and because the lives of everyone around them are as precarious and subject to change and instability as their own, they can't count on peers or family either. This is a very different set of circumstances for figuring out who you are and what life means than existed for much of the working-class 50 years ago.

Perhaps the most fascinating and disturbing finding of the book is about how working-class youth make sense of and navigate this reality. Now, there isn't just one way. A small subset of (mostly white) men still had access to stable, well-paying working-class jobs, primarily as cops and firefighters. A significant proportion of the youth from all demographics opted to go into the military, for lack of other options, but it was mostly white guys who were able to parlay this into access to these uniformed, stable forms of employment, and this subset had ways of navigating and understanding the world much more like older forms of working-class masculinity. As well, though they were far from the only ones who identified in some sense as Christian, it was a small subset of Black women in the study who narrated their experience very strongly through faith.

Pretty much everyone else in the study (including most white men and Black women) developed an understanding of themselves and of the world that the author characterizes as "therapeutic." That is, they see the task of growing up primarily in terms of identifying and overcoming various sorts of emotional, psychological, family-of-origin-based traumas, not so much in any way that leads to material security, but to self-awareness and a sort of emotional self-responsibility. And that's primarily how they see themselves, too.

There are a number of things that are sriking about this. One is how quintessentially neoliberal it is, in that it's intensely individualistic and self-focused, and it makes everything about changing you and how you feel about your circumstances rather than about anything social or about any collective effort to change anything out in the world. (And I want to be clear that I'm not blaming people for this, because it really is an approach that fits with the moment.) As well, it is very, very different from what existed a couple of generations ago, where that kind of individualized, psychologized, feeling-focused presentation of self was almost a marker of class difference, in that (an earlier version of) it existed to an extent among middle-class people but was largely rejected by and/or inaccessible to working-class people. It wasn't necesarily the politicized version of socialist fantasies, and it had its downsides for sure, but there was a kind of presumed 'we' that permeated the experiences and outlook of a lot of working-class people. Of course the therapeutic approach doesn't entirely work for most working-class people now, either, because for it to really fit seamlessly and frictionlessly, you need to have access to material resources and stability that most people just don't have. But there really is no social space for anything else to be easily imagineable -- again, it's a product of a lifetime of betrayal by (neoliberal) institutions and other people (whose lives are similarly unstable because of neoliberal realities), and a sense that really it's pointless to try to change anything but yourself.

And most significantly, it is precisely these various institutions that are largely experienced as unhelpful and negative that offer these tools -- they don't offer much in the way of material resources, but schools, health-related settings, and social services all offer therpeutic tools and resources and advice that amount to disciplinary mechanisms that produce people as therepeutic subjects. So in a real way, various kinds of neoliberal changes to institutions, from de-industrialization to the vastly reduced and re-oriented neoliberal welfare state, have created in a very material way the basis for a diferent kind of working-class self. "We'll make it impossible for you to get a decent job, and we'll make school really hard to access and not super relevant to what you need, but we'll offer you ways to process your feelings about all of it instead."

This, of course, has political implications as well. The book points to this rather than exploring it in any detail, but it certainly begins to get at some of the many aspects of working-class experience that middle-class lefties tend to completely mis-read, and to potential problems with approaches to organizing (used by folks of all backgrounds) that presume and draw on traditions based in earlier moments of working-class experience. Appeals to collective solidarity and to collective mutual support don't resonate in the same way they might have once upon a time because the institutions that shape working-class lives have worked hard over decades to produce circumstances where they won't.

I'm not really sure lessons to draw, and I worry that the way I've summarized the book here is a bit simplistic and caricatured, but I think this kind of attention to how people narrate their own experiences is crucial to building movements for change, and I think the specific findings in this study are things that those of us who do not directly experience them (as a middle-class guy who is a bit older than the interview participants here) need to think long and hard about.

And it is important to point out that the author is very clear that none of this is absolute or complete or inevitable. She points to the single interview participant in her study who had a very different way of making sense of his life and of the world -- a working-class white guy, who through a range of circumstances and choices, ended up with a political consciousness he describes himself as "revolutionary socialist." Working together for radical social change is still very possible, but we need to recognize that the route to get there isn't necessarily going to look much like what 50- and 100-year-old blueprints tell us.

[For a list of all book reviews on the site, click here.]

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