Swans Commentary » swans.com October 19, 2009  



Michael Yates's In and Out of the Working Class


by Louis Proyect


Book Review



Yates, Michael: In and Out of the Working Class, Arbeiter Ring Publishing Winnipeg, 2009, ISBN 978-1-894037-35-8, 217 pages.


(Swans - October 19, 2009)   In the course of reading Michael Yates's collection of essays In and Out of the Working Class, it dawned on me that I prefer reading memoirs to novels in the same way that I generally prefer documentary to fiction films. If the essence of literature, as Henry James once pointed out, is character, then you are forced to stick with the truth. The explanation for this is socioeconomic and historical. Now that we have reached the end of the tether for American imperialism, which was correctly likened to Nero's Rome in Michael Moore's Capitalism: a Love Story, Hollywood and mainstream publishing have a vested interest in escapist fare that takes the minds of the citizenry off their real problems. Plots and characters become more and more removed from the reality we face, and hence less interesting.

It should be mentioned that while four pieces are labeled fiction, they are very closely related in subject matter and perspective to those labeled nonfiction -- namely the conflicted lives of working people from the vantage point of the author, a lifelong academic who emerged -- or escaped -- from their world. Michael Yates's writing is interesting in the same way that the literature of the 1930s remains interesting. Despite the fact that American society is made up in its vast majority by people who sell their labor power -- to use a bit of the Marxist lexicon -- they are almost invisible today. Like African-American Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, a novel about a black man's search for identity in racist America, the worker is of little interest to the professional writer, except perhaps as an object of ridicule as in television shows like The King of Queens.

Yates's writing has a powerful dramatic quality since it's driven by tensions between the two worlds that he has inhabited and arguably never reconciled. Despite his decades-long career in academia, one of society's most prestigious fields, he still felt like a worker most of the time, even with a bit of an inferiority complex as if he were not really qualified to exist in such rarefied circles.

It is difficult to overstate the power of fear and poverty in shaping how working men and women think and act. Fear of losing a job. Fear of not finding a job. Fear of being late with bill payments. Fear of the boss's wrath. Fear your house might burn down. Fear your kids will get hurt. I inherited these emotions. I have a PhD and have always had a job that brings forth instant respect from others. Yet, I lack confidence and am anxious in the face of authority. I can confront the powerful in a group, even if I am a leader of it, but as an individual, I hate any kind of confrontation with authority and always wonder if I have the right to confront. I prefer to remain in the background, to be invisible.

You can read an excerpt of At the Factory Gate on CounterPunch. It is filled with the kind of details that make Yates's writing so interesting. Drawn from the hard-scrabble streets of a virtual company town run by Pittsburgh Plate and Glass (known best as PPG) that employed his father, this is Studs Lonigan territory. Studs Lonigan, one of the great Depression era novels written by the Marxist James T. Farrell, did not romanticize the working class in the fashion of the "proletarian novels" favored by the Communist Party. Even after the main character Studs Lonigan gets brought down by dismal economic circumstances, he never loses faith in the system and rails against a May Day parade from his deathbed.

As narrator reminiscing about life in a small working class town, Yates spares nobody including neither his Republican-voting grandfather nor himself. In describing a local shopkeeper, he demonstrates that he once had anti-Semitic prejudices:

Bald old Mr. Ringler kept a sharp eye out for youthful thieves, but they didn't have trick mirrors and store dicks in that poor town, so you could pocket a treasure or two if you were careful. Mean-faced Mr. Ringler! I never minded stealing his trinkets. He wore a suit and he looked like my dad's bosses. He was rich. Probably a Jew. Surely he would never miss a set of triangle stamps from Monaco or a baseball or a pack of those cigarettes.

As someone who grew up in small town in the 1950s like Yates, I appreciated the candor since Jews, who made up the majority there, had the same sort of prejudices as those from another tribe. My father, a shopkeeper like Mr. Ringler, looked down on the goyim, or non-Jews, for not having sechel, or common sense. They wasted all their money on booze and gambling unlike the hard-working and frugal Jews. As it turned out, my father loved to play poker in the army for big stakes and only gave it up after my mother read him the riot act.

Michael Yates's working class characters love to gamble, including the teenager protagonist of Growing Up Working Class, the short story that opens the collection. As an avid pool player and bowler like Yates himself, the boy decides to play for money in order to help out his family grown desperate while the father is on strike in November 1958. The story evokes The Hustler, but is far more interested in capturing the feeling of vulnerability of workers and their families during a time of crisis. And unlike Paul Newman, the boy is hardly a professional; his initial fifty-dollar stake is stolen from money set aside for his parents' house payment. In keeping with the dark sense of working class life that informs all his writings, the money is lost at a pool table. The final paragraph ends ambivalently, like a leitmotif running through this collection.

"Oh," she said. "Guess what?" she asked. "Your dad called and told me that the strike is over. He said his buddy Nick called and gave him the news. Nick said the company got most of what it wanted, but at least people will be getting paychecks." I was too stunned to talk, but she didn't notice and just said, "Boy, that's good news. I don't know what we would have done if the strike had lasted much longer." Then she added, "I baked a cherry pie if you want a piece." I wasn't hungry, but I shuffled into the kitchen and ate some pie. Mom said, "You'd better get to bed." We said goodnight, and I climbed up the stairs to my room. I turned on the radio and turned off the light. My bedroom was always cold in the winter, so I piled on the covers, arranging them so the top sheet was the only thing touching my skin. Alan Freed was DJing on WABC. Conway Twitty began to sing "It's Only Make Believe." If only it were. I usually sang along, but I had to try to figure out how to solve my fifty-dollar problem. The strike might be over, but my troubles were just beginning.

With his blue collar sensibility, Michael Yates turns into an unlikely denizen of academia, a world that tends to sneer at the sans culottes even as its ranks become more and more proletarianized through an inexorable process described as the corporatization of the university. It has meant fewer and fewer opportunities for tenure, a status that lends itself to petty bourgeois illusions, as classes are taught more and more by adjuncts, a contingent labor category having more in common with Wal*Mart than Wellesley.

Not only did Yates have to contend with the arrogance of administrators and the snobbery of his peers, he had to figure out a way to turn his classroom into a kind of liberated territory in the Vietnam era when so many young radicalized professors hoped to enlist their students in a struggle against war and racism.

Unlike other fields, economics was particularly hostile to such aims since the preordained curriculum was selected on the basis of neoclassical dogma. It is as if a history teacher hoping to educate his students about the Cold War was forced to use Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s works as textbooks.

At first his approach was to compare neoclassical doctrine to Marxism, but he discovered that since so much time and energy had to be devoted to first explaining the former -- a clear waste of time since it has the same relationship to economics that alchemy has to physics -- that he eventually dispenses with it altogether and begins teaching classes on subjects close to his heart, like the economics of Latin America. This privilege was made possible by reaching seniority in his department. Considering the difficulty of reaching tenure and seniority nowadays in academia, it seems that such a strategy is undermined by the prerequisite ordeal. In fact, my take on the academy as an outsider is that most aspiring radicals eventually get worn down by the tenure process and lose their initial fire in the course of attaining a secure position. Those that do not risk ending up like Ward Churchill.

Eventually Michael Yates realized that the students of the 1990s were not like those of the 1970s and retired. It was not as if they were made of lesser material. Rather a college education began to be seen more as a stepping-stone to a secure, well-paying job in uncertain times than as a way to broaden one's intellectual horizons and learn the proper skills of a citizen in a democracy. This would be an even more pronounced tendency in the economics department since neoclassical economics is indispensable mastering the fine arts of derivatives and other financial instruments that enrich investors and brokers alike -- at least until the bottom dropped out about a year or so ago.

It should be said finally that Michael Yates's collection is graced by some of the finest writing that you are likely to encounter from someone whose background is primarily in political and economic analysis. It is distinguished by his unique, plain-spoken voice shaped by growing up in a working class milieu, where pretensions of one sort or another were likely to earn you a bloody nose, as well as an obvious understanding of how to sustain the reader's attention.

One essay has all the power of a short story, describing Yates's confrontation with a white worker in a bowling alley who takes exception to his remark that Michael Jordan was a great basketball player. He prefers Larry Bird to the "nigger" Jordan. When Yates calls him out for his racism, the man threatens to "knock his fucking eyeglasses off."

Yates's reaction to this outburst sums up his attitude toward workers as a whole, a useful reminder as always that they do not come into the world with "progressive" values. Racism can only be defeated through struggle with the powers that be. His observations are particularly useful as the left considers how and when workers will finally identify the real enemy, and not make scapegoats out of members of their own class.

Filmmaker Michael Moore once chided liberals for not spending much time with working people. He suggested that they go to car racetracks and bowling alleys. Moore was probably thinking of workers as the "salt of the earth," the men and women who do the work. He is right, but he should remember that being a worker doesn't mean that a person's mind is clear and free of dangerous hatreds. My antagonist's racism was disgustingly blatant, but no more so that of millions of others.

Most racism is more subtle, so woven into the fabric of everyday life that whites just take it for granted. It crosses all classes, but that of white workers is the saddest and says the most about how this economic system deforms our personalities. The man who confronted me in the bowling alley was a delivery truck driver, doing menial labor at low wages. He obviously had been poor as a child. Yet he hated the poorest and most exploited of workers. He had been led to believe that black people are the lowest of the low, and since he grew up with them, he must be contemptible himself. This filled him with shame, but he dealt with this by coming to think that black persons must in some sense be responsible for not only their own misery but his as well. His hatred transformed shame into superiority, a feeling encouraged by other whites, not least of whom were employers who used racism to drive a wedge between those whose alliance would be most dangerous to their power.

It is hard for me to think of the incident in the bowling alley without remembering the examples set for me by teachers, friends, clergy, and other adults. The minstrel show my ninth grade English teacher had us perform. The college biology teacher, a monk no less, who told us that if a white woman gave birth to a black child, there must have been a "nigger in the woodpile." The geography of my hometown, where the part where black residents lived was called "the lower end." The endless abuse my father took in the factory after my sister married a black man. I won't deny that progress in race relations has been made, but the white suburban kids who filled my classes were, just a few years ago, still writing racist graffiti on the bathroom walls and fuming about welfare in their essays. Just how different was their upbringing from mine? White people are raised to be racists, and it takes a mighty effort to overcome this. I know. I'm still trying.


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Published October 19, 2009