Michael Zweig's The Working Class Majority: America's Best Kept Secret addresses a phenomenon I've noticed but couldn't convincingly account for. Whether this is an explanation or a restatement of the situation, I don't know, but here it is:
In the 1960s even much of the radical left became estranged from the working class. No better symbol of this estrangement exists than the day in 1970 when construction workers beat up demonstrators who had gathered at New York's City Hall to protest the war in Vietnam as it escalated into Cambodia. Images of the City Hall beatings were broadcast around the world and became emblematic of the mutual hostility supposedly between all unionized workers and all student activists. ...
Much was made at the time of the reactionary worker, enemy of social progress, or, from the other side, the patriotic worker, true to the American cause, standing against the communist foe. With anticommunist leadership, the labor movement moved to the right. As class-conscious workers' voices were silenced, the simple-minded right-wing characterization of the working class was more easily picked up by the media and came to dominate the thinking of many young sixties student radicals. They, in turn, often came to think of themselves as outside the long tradition of progressive intellectuals' support for the working class.
The new movements of the sixties developed radical critiques [sic] of society and in their analyses often challenged capitalism itself. But, for many, the working class came to be identified as only reactionary white men. Activists in these movements, and those who developed social theories to understand and guide them, often dismissed the working class as a backward, hostile enemy, and recast politics solely in terms of race and gender. Radical politics of the 1970s and 1980s were increasingly dominated by identity politics.
Yet on the campuses, despite the anticapitalist and anti-imperialist talk, the working class tended to disappear from the map, replaced in the theories of many radical opinion leaders by a combination of race and gender. This has happened in one of two ways. Sometimes the working class has come to mean White Men. This is most often the case among those stuck with the images of workers on the construction sites of the sixties and seventies. Other times, in the triumvirate "race, class and gender," class has come to mean "the poor," who are in turn said to be Women and Minorities. In these formulations, white men are either irrelevant or the enemy, and white working class men are stripped of their legitimate standing among those who suffer wrongs in this capitalist society. This type of politics is a recipe for alienation and anger among white men, dividing the working class and creating needless hostility towards the justifiable demands of women and minorities.
Zweig notes that among those who haven't forgot the existence of white proletarians, probably liberals have done the most to stereotype workers:
The media attack on workers has not been the work of conservative political forces alone. In a process paralleling the retreat from the working class by sixties radicals, liberal media personalities have also abandoned or stereotyped workers. The television show that most lampooned the working class in the 1970s and 1980s was produced by Norman Lear and starred Carroll O'Conner, both active and influential in liberal political circles. All in the Family's Archie Bunker was the worker-as-reactionary-white-male, disrespecting his wife from opposing the anti-war, anti-racist ideas of his sin-in-law, whom he called Meathead. Although Meathead was from a working class family, he was never presented as another way for us to think about workers. He had progressive ideas; he became a student. Archie's buffoonery give him a certain charm, perhaps, but in the popular culture of the time he served to dismiss the working class as a serious or reasonable force.
Note that these perceptions don't necessarily reflect reality. Zweig, through official statistics, paints a picture of the working class as heterogeneous. For instance, while the largest occupational category for white men was salaried managers, this category was also in the top ten for black men, Hispanic men, and white women. Truck driving was the #1 category for black men and #2 for white men (this includes my father!) Zweig writes that "the privileged titles usually appear higher and more often for whites, especially men, but there's no shortage of awful jobs for white folks either."
One can see the New Left's abandonment of the working class in the U.S. as a process parallel to its exchanging of Lenin and Stalin for Mao and Che. For the latter, the peasantry became the revolutionary agent (to bring around the development of capitalism) rather than the working class; in the U.S., as the working class was written off by the left as reactionary or complacent, revolutionary potentiality was transferred to "oppressed nations" and other groups that didn't constitute social classes. If the U.S. working class could be explained away as the consequence of discrimination, it was easy to see the majority of the American population as bourgeois. Thus the world was divided into imperialist and proletarian countries. In the "imperialist" countries, the working class, insomuch as it exists (which the Maoists deny), it is irretrievably bound to capital by its unwillingness to part with the comfortable life it enjoys thanks to the high wages paid by companies earning "superprofits" in the Third World. Anyone who thinks seriously on this will realize it's pablum. A member of the British communist group Wildcat hit the nail on the head when condemning Lenin's notion of a labor aristocracy: "What infantile, petit-bourgeois rubbish! The ruling class in all countries pay workers as much as they think they have to, calculated from a) the need for workers to stay alive and, to a greater or lesser extent, healthy, b) the shortage or otherwise of workers capable of doing the job, and c) the class struggle. Where does a wage rise gained by struggle end and a bribe begin?"
As a situationist group on the 60s said, for all the left's prattle about imperialism, they miss a fundamental point: "The ideology of anti-imperialism makes but a partial critique of imperialism by seizing only upon one of its fragments, failing to recognize the colonization of everyday life by capital the world over; the most significant colony of the U.S. being the U.S. itself."
At any rate, Zweig's book raises some interesting points and, surprisingly, attempts to define class in a more sophisticated manner than most of his bourgeois peers. On the other hand, these moments of lucidity are drowned in his inability to see the true function of unions. Far from the working class's "only form of organization," unions are capital's best weapon for domesticating the working class. (For the record, every one of my immediate family members, myself included, is in a union. My father belongs to the IBT, my mother to SEIU, and my brother and I belong to the UFCW.)