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How Class Works: Power and Social Movement

Copyright Date: 2003
Published by: Yale University Press
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  • Book Info
    How Class Works
    Book Description:

    Americans like to believe that they live in a classless society. Most Americans defiantly identify themselves as middle class, although economic inequality is greater in the United States than in most advanced Western nations. Offering an important revision of conventional wisdom, Stanley Aronowitz demonstrates that class remains a potent force in the United States. Aronowitz shows that class need not be understood simply in terms of socioeconomic stratification, but rather as the power of social groups to make a difference. Aronowitz explains that social groups from different economic and political positions become ruling classes when they make demands that change the course of history. For instance, labor movements, environmental activists, and feminists have engaged in class struggles as their demands for power reconfigured the social order. The emerging global justice movements-comprised of activists from heterogeneous social and political backgrounds-also show potential for class formation. Written by a prominent scholar and social activist, this book offers a stunning reconceptualization of the meaning and significance of class in modern America.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14849-7
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. 1-11)

    When I tell friends that I have written a book on class, especially class in the United States, the news is received with either incredulity or cheerleading. The “posts”—liberals and postmodernists—question whether the concept is still useful and often suggest I use another term. If they acknowledge the salience of class at all in these times, most relegate it to a narrative—one of the stories Americans tell about history—or a figure of vernacular speech. The other response is gratitude that someone is (finally) going to blast the myth of American classlessness and its contemporary displacement, stratification....

    (pp. 12-37)

    One of the more visible human preoccupations is the effort to understand social relationships. In every historical period writers have speculated, theorized, and told stories about the ways we live together, why and how we fight each other, and how we survive (when we do not conquer) the perceived assaults of the external physical world. These inquiries constitute the substance of philosophy, history, literary study, the social sciences, and the arts. The myriad observations that result are typically organized through the use of concepts.

    Perhaps the most commonplace of these concepts is the social or society. In their quest to...

    (pp. 38-62)

    Classes are historical, and their effects are intertwined with their historicity. Saying classes are historical means that their composition changes at every level of the social structure—ruling groups as well as subordinate groups. Classes form when they make historical difference. In one period the military is integrated into the ruling circles and, for a time, may be the dominant partner; in another it is plainly subordinate to the economic and the political directorate. For the past century, as C. Wright Mills has pointed out, the onetime cultural and political heart of the American nation—the old middle class of...

    (pp. 63-91)

    Twentieth-century American history is replete with struggles over class formation: to overcome divisions between black and white, native and foreign born, men and women; to create a workers’ movement independent of capital, that is, with its own ideological and political institutions as well as its own organizations at the workplace; and to form an alliance for class power among social movements in civil society. Between the 1930s and the early 1950s, the insurgent labor movement seemed to hold the key to class formation. Then as now the questions were whether struggles such as those between immigrant and native-born, black and...

    (pp. 92-121)

    In The Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels specify the phrase, “The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle: Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large or in the common ruin of the contending classes”

    But in each prior epoch there were gradations within the classes. After providing some detail about these gradations—...

    (pp. 122-140)

    At the height of the Cold War in 1956, C. Wright Mills identified three principal institutional orders in the constitution of the power elite: the large corporations, the national political directorate, and the military. Mills’s designation of the military as a national power institution corresponded to its enhanced and relatively autonomous role in creating and sustaining the permanent war economy, a judgment later vindicated by Dwight Eisenhower’s valedictory warning that a military-industrial complex was threatening democracy. But the emergence of a powerful military was crucially dependent upon the division of the world into two primary military superpowers. With the collapse...

    (pp. 141-170)

    Stuart Hall has argued that “social movements are the modality in which class politics are enacted.”¹ The ordinarily assumed distinctions between workers’ movements and social movements may instead be understood as different modalities of class movements. This formulation presupposes that, although property relations are salient to all social movements, class is a concept of historically constituted power and powerlessness rather than being confined to ownership of property alone. For example, we are currently witnessing a left, socially conservative tendency to marginalize or to condemn movements for sexual freedom in its feminist or gay modalities as distractions from or obstructions of...

    (pp. 171-198)

    The great achievement of the ecology movement has been to promote a general understanding that human relations with the natural environment are vital to the shaping of human social relations. In turn, social relations alter the natural environment. In this regard relations of power play a decisive role. Who was to make the decisions about how to fill the space left vacant by the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center was determined, to a large degree, by which interests succeeded in setting the priorities. What is still less understood is that the built environment that sustains our mode of...

    (pp. 199-230)

    History is written by the victors. They define what counts as history, what is remembered and what is forgotten, what is important and what is not, and, most crucially, what is usable for informing the relation of present to the future. As Walter Benjamin has noted, an important element of the class struggle is to reclaim history for the excluded by capturing historical memory from the rulers. Worth remembering, in the first place, are the “crude struggles” for material things:

    The class struggle … is a fight for the crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things...

  13. NOTES
    (pp. 231-252)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 253-263)