Class is a Consciousness, not a Category

Class is not about income.

Class is not about education.

Class is not about manners or gentility.

A class is a group of people who have had shared a similar life experience in economic life, enough so that it has shaped their worldview.  Classes are shaped by history, and the consciousness that they create persist through generations, even though the formative experiences may have faded, or have been transformed by memory.

Remember the Republican convention of 2012.  Who can forget such good times?  Speaker after speaker describes the story of their family over generations.  The usual elements were the ancestor who came from Europe with nothing, but a strong back and skilled hands, and how he worked hard, and made enough money to rise up the ladder, and then the war, and a more education and all culminating in me, a greasy lawyer/politician sleazeball who has turned myself into a corporate spokesmodel for the Koch brothers.  Yay America!

That story is the story of a class, and an expression of a particular kind of class consciousness.  It is the life story of lots and lots of early 20th century European immigrants, many of whom did rise into more prosperity and out of the factories with the help of government supported education.  Many turned out better people than Rick Santorum.  In fact, a small number of them, got the education bug, and became UU's, in the perpetual process of re-invention.

A particular consciousness that arises out of that particular class experience: the possibility of material success, the importance of gratification deferred unto the next generation, the value of education.

It's a different consciousness than the story I heard told by a Detroit preacher/musician.  His people came up from Mississippi, came to Detroit, the "promised land of the working man" and worked in the auto plants, and then the plants left and now he pastors a small church, and plays blues and gospels in folk music venues in Ann Arbor.  I won't try to characterize how he understands the way the world works, except to say that it must be very different than Rick Santorum's.

Don't look at your tax return, or your diploma, or your present lifestyle to understand your class and class consciousness.

Look at your grandparents, first of all.  What was the story of their life, their experience in the world?  How did they survive?   Your parents observed their parent's lives, and passed down to you what lessons they drew from those lives.  And when you heard that history and lessons, you took them in as God's honest truth -- an accurate description of the way the world works, and what you must do to survive.  You've been testing those propositions ever since, and drawing your own conclusions.

My grandparents were born in isolated German Anabaptist communities.  Through seminary education, and assimilation into the mainstream, and urbanization, and the joining of the German Baptists into the American Baptists, they became successful, even prominent Baptist ministers.  However, my parents each saw the underside of that life, but my father tried and failed at that profession.  Along the way, he furthered that assimilation trajectory by becoming a Unitarian (1947).  He then worked in a steel mill until that went the way of heavy industry in the US.

Of course, I carry this story with me.  I carry a lot the attitudes of the intellectual meritocracy (which is what ministry really is), but I also know how fragile that can be. Growing up in Youngstown also teaches a powerful lesson in how much one's life is dependent on things outside of one's control.  (Which is why I resonate with NOLA and Detroit.)   But enough about me....

You want to start to deal with class in church?  Start with where you are, and where others are.  Get off these blanket and moralistic stereotypes.  Once you know your own story, you will start to appreciate the differences between the people inside the church and many of those outside, especially those who live the lives of the working poor.

I am particularly interested in hearing how joining, or staying in, a UU church fits into the multi-generational story of your family.  In what way was it a break with the story -- trying to find a new way -- and in what ways was it a continuation of some of themes of that story?   Leave your story in the comments.


  1. Good try, Tom, but this feels more to me like a (good) definition of *tribe.* I'm currently listening to Chris Hayes reading his own *Twilight of the Elite,* and gaining phenomenal insight into this topic. I got it for Lynne, expecting a lot of lefty political blather for her to listen to in another room, but no, it's more about philosophy and how it all feels. And he has excellent insights into the way society -- the way we define ourselves inside as you describe -- has gotten pretty squirrelly and hard to pin down.

  2. Elz, I think "tribe" is even more of a slippery, hard-to-define term than "Class".

    "Class" is a present tense description of current reality. People who work in factories are "workers" no matter whether they are 4th generation workers or a child or a doctor making money for the summer.

    On the other hand, "Class" is a historically shaped consciousness. The child of a coal-mining family becomes a lawyer, they will still carry a working class consciousness all their life.

    The latter sense of class is the most useful when thinking about class in mixed-class institutions like churches.

  3. Clyde Grubbs11:46 AM

    Part of the definition of "middle class" was its independence, its economic autonomy. Farmers, shop holders were small enterprenuers. Lawyers and Physicians were private practioneers. And the parson and school mame had a contract and lived off his or her prestige.

    But today? How is the intellectual elite autonomous, or has their labor become "commodities" along with the hourly aladysi 31guys who used to make steel?

  4. Tom's definition do class (Elz's tribe) doesn't work for me. My family history over the past three generations offers me so many conflicting stories about which class I would be that to adopt it, my head would just have to keep spinning.

    There is the So. Italian immigrant who came here with nothing but musical skills and played in Souza's band. Had he not been raised in a city, he'd have been peasantry in Italy. He married the daughter of Polish immigrants who were probably peasantry, and here became potato farmers.

    That's one class story. But their son, my grandmother's brother, became a very successful musician and entertainer, while my grandmother helped his career and married a man who had been a fighter pilot in WWI and became what the era called a cloth coat Republican, running a commercial truck washing business.

    That seems like a very different set of class stories. She had a foot inn two very different worlds, ignoring the one she grew up in.

    My father's family offers the daughter of old Dutch American aristocracy who married an Irish American carpenter and was disowned. He was a union man and a union organizer who gat badly beaten by Pinkerton goons. Which of those class stories is "mine"? Their son, another union carpenter, married the daughter of a successful construction business owner who'd come to own houses and land, as well as the business. He lost almost everything in the Depression, keeping his employees and family cared for as long as he could. That family has deep roots back to the Mass Bay Colony. Which of those class stories are mine?

    Both my parents grew up in families where no one (ignoring the Dutch gentry they'd been disowned by) had ever gone to college. My father and his brother both did, and became engineers in aerospace. My mother went to college and eventually went back and completed her degree.

    I carry what feel like very working class stories (don't even ask me to cross a picket line, and I've tattooed that on the inside of my sons' skulls, too). But I grew up in an upper middle class situation, and neighborhoods. My parents friends included doctors and lawyers. Their kids all went to college, of course.

    Class is a curious thing. I don't claim to be working class, certainly not n anything like the sense that my grandparents and great-grandparents were. But all those stories are what I carry and what shape me.

    My wife's family has a similar story, when I think on it, although none of the details are even vaguely similar. But she has become a very successful biotech consultant, and is supporting her now-a-minister husband. And in really good years, her income dances up to the threshold of being in the 10%. It's hard to claim that we are working class, at all. Maybe upper middle class, given the American class system, at least financially. But that's not what is in our heads, nor hearts, and certainly not our stories.

    Given Clyde's perspective, we are still inside a lower class than we might think. Maybe that's because the society is (overall) more affluent and because the span of inequality has become so severe. The aristocrats who disowned my family have dialed off into the stratosphere, and it is very, very, very hard for me to begin to identify with them at all.

  5. Clyde, there is often a gap between what a group of people think, often inherited from the past, and their current reality. That gap between past and present is the terrain of "false consciousness." Lots of people think that they are more independent and autonomous than they really are. This goes very high up the ladder -- the entepreneurs who think that they are building their own businesses, but are entirely dependent on venture capitalists and banks for credit, are much less independent and autonomous than they think.

  6. Ogre, I applaud your attempt to sort out the implications of your family's history for your current thinking. You are doing exactly what I think is necessary to have a real discussion of class -- examine their families history and try to understand what their families' experiences have led them to think as they do.
    Everybody's family is a weird mix of many experiences. And so, there has been some valuing of some experiences over others. Your union organizing forbears' story had a power over your understanding of how the world works that other branches of the family tree have not.
    The purpose of looking at this is not to sort people into categories, but to become more self-aware that what we each think is not the universal truth, but shaped by experience.


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