Skip to main content

Working Class Culture

By Arthur J. Miller

Isolated and contained, living a pre-fabricated existence, the mind grows dull when not used.

You wake up in the morning to that obnoxious noise that breaks into your dream world. You may read the daily paper as you eat your morning meal. Filled with articles reinforcing the ruling class’s view of the world and culture.

On the way to work you may listen to talk radio where social existence is reduced to its lowest reactionary possibility. Your car or even mass transportation is bellowing out pollution that sickens people and is helping to change the atmosphere of our planet, creating global warming, but the conditioning states that is only the cost of progress. Whose progress they never say. The gasoline you buy is sold to you by one of a handful of massive multinational corporations. These corporations, along with others that have a direct or indirect interest in the oil industry, work to suppress cleaner and cheaper energy sources. You choose between the oil companies based upon cultural images placed in your mind by the ads you see and hear. You pick your oil company by which image appeals to what you would like to be but never seem to be able to make that image into your reality.

The automobile and gasoline are not just products folks like to consume; they have become a part of the culture imposed by the employing class. Interestingly though, the main need you have for that car in the first place is to get to work to produce profits for the bosses and to get to the store to consume, which creates even more profits for the parasites.

From that first car you buy and maintain, through all the vehicles you have had to the one you use to drive to work here today, you are hooked by ownership to maintain it, license it, feed it gas and oil. You are an indentured consumer. Due to the lack of self-expression within the dominant culture, ownership of vehicles has become a cultural expression of identity and self-worth. Even if you don’t drive some fancy monster of a vehicle, do you ever find yourself wishing you did? Is that not a desire to be something more than your existence has given you?

From the capitalist media the fantasy image of different types of vehicles are portrayed. The people buy the cultural image they wish to express to others. “I’m big and bad in my powerful SUV!” Hooked worse than any heroin junkie around. A culture handed down as a consumer product that addicts the buyer to fabricated cultural images while the employing class sits back and rakes in great wealth. Talk about a great con job!

Once at work, if you work for an employer, you produce profit and whatever portion of the produced wealth you get depends upon what the employer can get away with stealing from you. You labor for hours under a class condition where those above you are more privileged than you and they let you know it. The culture of labor in the employer’s system is of submission and self-identity based upon of how well you produce profit. There is little or no room for the self-expression of those that labor for wages within most workplaces. For it is a conditioned environment controlled by a few who profit from it. The social arrangement on most jobs is dehumanizing and tends to beat the spirit down to continuous conformity.

After a laboring day it's back into your vehicle and fight the traffic on your way home. The traffic almost numbs your mind and if your radio is on you become little more than a receiver for continuous messages of consumption and supporting that which makes you a slave. Capitalist cultural images infest your brain.

Stopping at a store on the way home, it does not matter which one, for they were all created for the purpose of profiting the economic ruling class. Though there are needs that each person has, no matter what the product is, it is not created to fulfill a need but rather it is created to make someone rich. But that truth is not the message on the box or in the ads, for there they tell you that you must have that which you may not need based upon a fabricated image that they create and you seek to buy the image. Sometimes just owning something convinces you that you are in fact that image. Each cultural image created by capitalism has its own set of commodities that you must consume in order to fulfill the requirements of that image.

Once home you shower and eat and the cultural thing to do is to turn on the TV, which is one of the grandest manipulators of the mind ever conceived. TV sets your cultural standards, it tells you how your class thinks and acts. A cultural spectacle of made up experiences so that the slave desires to live as a spectator to the master’s controlled images of how the slave should live or what the slave desires in their dreams.

The TV news shows us world, national and local events to promote the employing class’ interests, and among those interests is the interest in keeping you docile. The countless images of dull and stupid working folks just sitting around with a beer in one hand, snack food in the other hand and nothing between their ears. The punch line given in comedies without end: the worker as the nonsensical fool, a lesser life form than the viewer who performs like a court jester without the direct control of higher life forms.

To know one’s place in society is a conditioning that is reinforced from youth to your deathbed. Silence is the golden rule of the class in the presence of the privilege classes, unless asked a question and then only a proper response is expected. Do not talk back to your parents, teacher, sky pilot, boss, the cops, the intelligentsia, the doctor, or any of your betters.  Countless times some poor worker stands in silence while others do the speaking and those others believe that they are silent because that worker is stupid rather that the reality of the oppression of class privilege. Little do the better people know that when they go away working folks talk with each other including about how damn naïve them damn rich people are. The image created by conditioning is that working people, since they cannot speak for themselves, must have someone else to speak for them. Even the left intelligentsia believes this. 

Class is not just about who controls the economics, but also who controls the cultural images. There was once a time when there was a real working class culture and we had control over our self-image. The Wobblies of old built the IWW through a combination of education, job organization and working class culture. Back in those days the Wobblies were not just about better pay, they also created a culture that resisted capitalism, empowered workers in the arts of self-expression and offered a better way of life for working people.

I guess at this point I should state my view as to who is a worker. Now the intelligentsia have debated through the years as to who is and who is not a worker. Some say just the industrial “proletariat,” others will include a few other folks. Most workers know who is a worker, those that do the labor in this world or would labor if they could get a job. That includes those who are not bosses and don’t directly have a boss, but still labor for their own survival and that includes home workers.  

Nowadays, even the music that does express some working class values is a commodity enterprise and creates separation between class and professional performer. I should point out that Joe Hill never had a hit record, never had a recording contract, never had a concert tour, Joe Hill was a working stiff who lived by his labor. Now I am not knocking our musician activists who while earning a living spread good ideas and telling stories worth being told, but the lives of folk singers are not always the lives they sing about. But Joe Hill wrote his songs, not as a folk singer but as a laborer.

It is true that it is a good thing that folk singers cross the land singing about our class and its issues. They do reach a lot of people. But that alone does not create the culture we need. For the cultural process that helps keep working people down and controlled is not changed. I have traveled across North America and I have been to many events for the struggles of working people, and often some professional folk singer will perform. I do realize this is an important part of the event. Many times the folk singer will have a song or two directly about the struggle or the industry that those workers labor in. But there I’ll be standing next to some striking worker and realize something else, that worker understands what that folk singer is singing about more than the folk singer does. How well do you understand “Which Side Are You On?” if you have never been on strike and had to decide to walk on the picket line or cross that line and be a scab? That is a gut emotion, not just an intellectual concept.

The professional folk singer sings from the outside looking in, in most cases, but working class culture also needs to express itself from the inside of the working class experience. A rich celebrity like Bruce Springsteen singing about work and the working class is a sick joke. We need more Joe Hills and fewer celebrities.

All American popular music, folk, blues, country, jazz, rock, and hip-hop, have their roots within the working class.  What started as self-expression deep within the soul of our class got stolen and corrupted by capitalism and capitalists found ways to sell back to us our class creativity. That which capitalism does not destroy it assimilates. That which was once free creative self-expression of working people was assimilated into the system and became a profit producing industry controlled by the rich.

Even when musicians do use their work to communicate good ideas and use their talent to support good causes, they are still faced with the bottom line of having to produce to earn a living. That process to produce wealth separates the producer of that wealth from those that consume what is produced; spectator and the spectacle, the fan and the performers, culture as a spectator sport of consumption. The message is, culture is to be produced, consumed and not practiced.

That is not to say that many professional musicians are not working class, those that have not reached pop celebrity status labor under the same economic conditions as all other workers and do not have real control over their lives. They produce what is profitable to someone who profits off their labor. The pop celebrity status stars are highly paid cultural prostitutes molded by capitalist cultural pimps. Given their status, which is far above our class and their wealth, they are not working class, but rather in a higher class by themselves.

In the literary world the control over working class self-expression is even more complete. Take a little trip to any bookstore, even radical bookstores, and look at the books in the labor section. 90% or better of those books you will find were written by the intelligentsia. These are folks that have never experienced the reality of that which they write about, and if they were to be placed within that reality would find themselves completely lost. Thus, we working people are faced with the situation of having members of the intelligentsia speak for us, tell us our own history and develop social theories for us, all by people who lack a basic understanding of the reality of our lives.

That is not to say that there are not members of the intelligentsia who are working class. Many in the academic world do labor as teachers with bosses over them. The reality of being a teacher with a boss is their working class reality that only they can truly understand. But can they understand me as a shipyard pipefitter without any experience in the shipyards? No, the same as I have limited understanding of their reality. Though the intelligentsia can write historical facts, they cannot interpret the reality of those that lived that history without directly experiencing it.

From right to left, from the employers to the state, from the schools to large churches, from the capitalist media to the capitalist culture, from the entertainment industry to the intelligentsia, it must be understood that all groupings of social control seek to control, manipulate and exploit the working class for their own gain. That my friends is how the system works. The bottom line is control over those that produce and control over the wealth produced. And those who are in control do so by class privilege.

The self-organization of industry and communities is not enough to create real social change. There also needs to be a struggle within our culture, for it is within our culture that most of our values are set. Right now our values are based out of a culture that does not reflect our interests. As we are organizing industry and communities, we also need to recreate working class culture.

SELF-EXPRESSION:

The working class will never be able to free itself from bondage as long it depends upon others to speak for it. The first problem with having others speak for us is that they do not understand the realities of our work places and our lives. At best they can only give a second hand explanation to things they have never experienced. Based upon that second hand information they place, based upon their backgrounds and personal agendas, our issues, concerns and desires in order of importance and their solutions are based upon secondhand knowledge.

The working class needs to develop its own culture of self-expression. There are many means of self-expression: songs, writings, story telling, public speaking, art work, theatre, video, photography, publications and so on. Those that have the skills in those areas could use their skills to teach working people the arts of self-expression.

As I have stated most popular culture has its roots in the working class. Music that came out of slavery and the gospel music of small black churches was a cultural means of dealing with the great oppression and exploitation of black people in America. It was a culture of self-expression that led to the Jazz bands of New Orleans that influenced the early black urban blues singers such as Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.

Rural or country blues came from songs from slavery, gospel, and some influence from ragtime and Scotch-Irish music of poor southern whites, that gave country blues the guitar and harmonica which poor rural blacks of the south translated their past music into what became known as country blues. Some of the early creative artists of country blues were people like Robert Johnson, Skip James, Son House and Charley Patton. Robert Johnson is an example of how the great creativity of a working class artist can have a long lasting effect. Even though he never made much of a living with his music, his songs and musical forms have had a lasting effect on the blues, country and rock music, though many have played his songs, none of been able to create new songs in his form and the capitalist music industry has not be able to have anything close to the creativity of people like Robert Johnson. That creativity came out of the working class experience.

With the migration of poor blacks to such northern cities as Chicago their music came with them and in time developed into urban blues that was different than the early big band blues which around that time had turned more into a direct Jazz form of blues. Such urban blues artists as Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Hound Dog Taylor, Big Mamma Thorton, John Lee Hooker, and Magic Sam developed the urban blues. The combining of the horn sections of Jazz blues with the electric urban blues produced what became known as rhythm and blues.

What some call country music today came from Scotch-Irish folk music with some of its own development here in America along with the influence of blues and some Jazz. Because of cultural racism the influence of black music on country music is not spoken of much. But it is a fact that some of the first country music “stars” like Jimmie Rodgers were greatly influenced by black blues and Jazz and some of his recorded songs had black musicians on them including Louis Armstrong. A. P Carter of the Carter Family, one of the early country recording groups, traveled the south with a Black blues player collecting songs. Bob Wills with his western swing took country music and combined it with black blues and Jazz, one of his greatest influences was Black blues singer Bessie Smith. Bill Monroe traveled for a while with a black blues player from whom he learned the blues and with the old Scotch-Irish mountain music that evolved into country music and increased the speed of the music and that became Bluegrass music. And the Honky Tonk music of such people as Hank Williams clearly owed much of its style to Black blues. Hank Williams, who had been a shipyard worker, learned to play music from a Black street blues musician. It is interesting to note that when Hank Williams wanted to record songs that dealt with the conditions of the poor the capitalist record company that believed they owned Hank Williams refused to record it. Hank had to go to a different company and he recorded that record under a different name, Luke the Drifter. The conflicts, contradictions and pressure from the capitalist cultural industry greatly contributed to Hank Williams' death at an early age, as it did to other working class artists. Though most people have heard of Hank Williams, he only recorded for three years.

With the influence of the blues, Jazz, country music, rhythm and blues, comes the piano blues of New Orleans: Roosevelt Sykes, Professor Longhair and Fats Domino.  From piano blues came a new form of music in the 1950s called rock and roll. Rock and Roll clearly came out of working class culture and then was greatly exploited by capitalism.

All this music started out as working class music. And even though the institutionalized and cultural racism of America was a great hindrance to the development of culture, still the working class culture of both poor blacks and whites did greatly influence each other. Because of the great amount of social/economic oppression much of this music could not speak directly to all problems the poor faced. But it still was a direct form of working class self-expression. Had music and other forms of culture not been burdened by the racism of the class system and its culture, one could only imagine how it would have developed. The history of the development of working class music in America clearly shows that it did break down some of the walls created by the class system and that working class culture is by its nature inclusive of all people within our class.

One good example of this is Cajun and Zydeco music. The white Cajuns had come down from Acadia (now called Nova Scotia) to Louisiana to escape the great oppression by the British (called the Grand Derangement) and the Blacks of Louisiana came as slaves. The Cajuns added the accordion that they got from German workers and farmers. South Louisiana Blacks took the music of the Cajuns and added New Orleans influences of rhythm and blues and Caribbean influences and created the Zydeco music form. Influences from Zydeco went back into Cajun music to help create what is modern Cajun music. Though they are different music forms, neither would be what they are today without each other.

Another form of music that also took the accordion from German immigrants and mixed it with music from Mexico and added a few new elements was the Tejano music of Chicanos of Texas.

Some blues and country singers did talk about the conditions of the poor. A number of Jimmies Rodgers songs were about Hobos, hard times and conditions and some blues artist Skip James had the song “Down on the Killing Floor” but most did not get into direct conditions all that much. That was a door that had to be kicked open. One of the most courageous examples was Billie Holiday recording and performing the song “Strange Fruit” which was about the lynching of blacks that was going on at that time. Later some black blues players like Sleepy John Estes, Josh White, J.B. Lenoir, and Odetta sang such songs as “It’s a sin to be rich, it’s a low-down shame to be poor” by Lightnin’ Hopkins were able to get to a more direct point of the conditions of being poor, racism and why things were the way that they were.

Hard times songs and work songs have been around for a long time. Such as “Hard Times Come Again No More” which was written by Stephen Foster (who was known for his song “Oh Susanna!”) in 1853.  The 8-Hour Day movement in the 1880s produced a number of songs. But when recorded music came along, few such songs were recorded. When such songs spoke of the real causes of the hard times and who gained by the exploitation of work and what working people could do about it, they were mostly banned from recording and the radio. Woody Guthrie and the group he was in for a while “The Almanac Singers” broke through that barrier somewhat, though in later years such as the reactionary 1950s that barrier was placed again. During the 1960s folk music revival the barrier was removed by what became known as “protest songs,” but most of these songs were by and for the white middle-class and often did not have a direct message but rather a message wrapped in poetic symbolism.   

The struggles of the Wobblies of old was as much about culture as it was about economics and they used that culture as a means of working class self-expression and bonding. Though the Wobblies were not the first to write and sing labor and protest songs, they did take their songs and made that form of music into a part of a radical working class culture. A lot of their songs were well known popular songs of the day, even some religious songs and they would change the words to those of radical worker meanings. This in part is how Wobbly songs spread so far and fast because working people already knew the tunes. The new words to the tunes directly expressed real conditions that working people experienced and they gave working people the hope of a better world that they themselves would create by their own labor.

Though the Wobblies of old did not record their songs themselves, their songs were recorded later on by The Almanac Singers and songs about Wobblies such as “Joe Hill” were recorded by Paul Robeson. The Wobblies had a great influence on later movements of poor people who used music and songs that directly spoke to their cause such as the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (“Union Train” was one of their songs), the CIO, the miners struggles with such people as Florence Reece (best known for “Which Side Are You On?”), Aunt Molly Jackson, Sarah Ogan Gunning (her song “I Hate The Capitalist System” still stands as one of the most direct songs about conditions a person suffered and who is to blame for it) and years later people like Hazel Dickens continue that tradition (her song “Black Lung” about her brother is a very good example). The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s took the tradition of black music forms and added a very direct approach to the lyrics as the Wobblies once had.

Self-expression and culture also has pre-capitalist Eurocentic roots that can be found among the traditional indigenous people of the world. Those cultural expressions can be learned from and given the fact that they are not controlled by the capitalist system is why that system seeks to destroy them, either out right by the force of arms or by cultural images that make them seem to be inferior, backwards or ‘uncivilized’. Indigenous music and culture was used as a means to keep the domination of the Eurocentic process from destroying their ways and it was combined with other forms of working class music to express conditions, self-pride and action. There were the straight forward traditionalists such as Quiltman (“Oglala” and the recording of the “Peltier Honor Song”), people like Buffy Sainte-Marie (“Now That The Buffalo’s Gone,” “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee”), Floyd Westerman (“Custer Died For Your Sins,” “BIA”) and Joanne Shenandoah (“We Are The Iroquois,” “Mother Earth,” “You’re A Brave One”) combined traditional Native music with folk and country music. Joy Harjo and Poetic Justice (“For Anne Mae Aquash,” “A Postcolonial Tale”) who combined traditional Native music with Jazz and folk. XIT (“We Live,”“Reservation Of Education”) and Blackfire (“Exile,” “Is This Justice”) who combined traditional Native music with rock. And Indian Nation (“Peltier Freedom Now,” “Remember Wounded Knee”) and Higher Grounds Of Struggle (“Wrongly Accused,” “The Walls Are Closin’ In”) who combined traditional Native music with rap music.

The deceivers like to say that all of this is American music, but that ain’t so. This music has its roots from different parts of the world and this cultural process can be found throughout the world. Nationalism is used to gain allegiance to the rulers in some nation state who are in fact the oppressors and exploiters of the people of those lands. Working class culture, in all of its diversity, knows no borders, nation states and is the culture of the working people of the world.

From political rallies, union meetings, hoedowns, fais do-do (bal de maison: Cajun house dance), hootenannies, roadhouses, juke joints, jams, pow wows, small clubs, to just some folks gathering on some porch to play music, working class music has been, not only a means of self-expression but also a means to bring people together in a cultural bonding. Along with our art, poetry, storytelling and so on, all this is our real culture, culture that comes from the working class and not from the dominant system. The ruling class and the social parasites have produced not real culture, it just robs the working folks of their culture and sells it back to for profit.

DIRECT ACTION

In the capitalist controlled culture, we have little or no direct self-expression. Learning to create working class culture and self-expression is a direct action in the process of our own liberation. This means developing our own cultural expressions from within our own class. Rather than put on cultural events where we bring some celebrities from the outside, we need to develop our events where our forms of self-expression are used. We organize our own cultural events as direct alternatives to capitalist culture. Everything from picnics, music events, theatre and so on. We publish publications of direct working class experiences. One example of this is if you have a shop that is being organized,  once the workers have knowledge of their own class interests, put out a publication where the workers in that shop tell their workplace stories where they explain how on the shop floor capitalism harms them and how they would like their conditions changed and how things may look if they controlled their own labor.

In times of work place actions, we need to have the workers themselves write about what happens rather than have others write our own history for us.

In this process of developing our own voices we need to involve our sister and fellow workers to the point where we are no longer dependent upon others to do that which we should do for ourselves. We should have our own book publishing, our own video production, our own bookshops, our own record labels and so on. And all this together is part of a direct action to gain our freedom.

Direct action should not just be something that we do once in a while to gain some benefit. Rather direct action should become a cultural way of life. No longer in our workplaces, our communities and in our homes should we continue to depend upon those outside of our class for anything and as a class takes direct action daily to change our conditions, fulfill our needs and build a class bond that overcomes the bondage of capitalism and its culture.

COMMUNITIES:

Working folks don’t just exist in their work places, they also live in communities. And the oppressions and exploitation of working folks also continue in working class communities. Within the capitalist system the workplace and the community are seen as two separate places. To the capitalists where we live is just where we eat, sleep and get ready to go off to work where we produce profits for them. Our communities are all about producing more profits by consummation, paying rent and utilities and a place where we are mentally controlled by TV. The capitalist culture separates us from the community as a whole and often we don’t even know who lives next door to us. Under capitalist community culture we are just warehoused and we have little sense of real community.

The process of class revolution must include the development of working class community culture of direct action, dealing with our needs, community solidarity, the community dealing with its own problems and struggles, community mutual aid, working for the well-being of everyone in our community, and community cultural self-expression. All this, not just as an idea for some future dream, but rather needs to be developed now on a continuous level.

A strike does not just affect the workers on strike, it also affects the worker’s family, friends and community. When the family, friends and community suffer from a strike, but are not directly a part of that struggle, needless stress can develop. Unions too often lack the understanding the dynamics of working class life and seek to build service organizations which workers are asked to sacrifice for from time to time when they walk off their jobs and communities, families and friends are given little or no consideration. The struggles on the job and the struggles in our communities need to be viewed as all a part of the same overall struggle and there needs to be interaction between them. If our community, families and friends are an active part of work places struggles and if our job organizations are involved in our community struggles, then we will have a united class power that can over come most anything the capitalists system can try to do to us.

Whereas the capitalist culture has devolved a mind set of distrust, bigotry and isolationism, worker class revolutionary culture must create a cultural sense of unity of diversity where racism, sexism, ageism, ableism and so on are viewed as the capitalist culture and must be eliminated from our culture. Capitalist culture is like football teams and fans, where loyalty to the team (cultural group, race and so on) is a requirement and the other teams are looked down on as the enemy or uncool, not hip or square.  Our diversity should not be viewed as competing elements where we must decide in which what group our loyalty is, but rather we support diversity because our freedom and liberation depends upon the right of the existence of diversity and not the domination by any single group or coalition of groups against other forms in the diversity of working class communities and culture.

We need to develop the cultural idea of caring for each other and helping to fulfill our common needs. Everyone has needs at some time and sometimes they are suffering for one reason or other. Some times the need is to be treated with dignity and respect rather than used as some type of object take advantage of. For example, how the capitalist culture exploit women as sex objects and as inferior persons. The truth is women are just as capable as are men and there is no real liberation if we continue to oppress and exploit women for if that were to happen we would still have the capitalist’s social hierarchical system and culture. Thus the liberation of women from sexism and their own means of self-expression has to be one of the key elements in a working class culture.

Working class culture begins with the children where we include them and create space for their cultural development, but do not rule over them like a master to a slave.

THE SOCIAL, ECONOMIC, AND CULTURAL GENERAL STRIKE

We need to come to the realization that most of our lives are wasted away being slaves to the bosses and consumers and spectators to the capitalist-created culture and that the process of liberation comes from taking our lives back from the capitalists and that is a process that must begin with each of us. It will not be easy to take control over our lives, but even if we had a revolution if we are still sheep to a shepherd we will not have gained much. This process of liberation begins with the refusal to go along with the system and to begin to make our own way in life. To spend as much time resisting as we use being slaves to the system.

The mass organization of our workplaces, communities, our groupings of self-determination, our working class environmentalism and the development of our class culture has three main purposes.

  • 1.  To support and advance our day-to-day struggles.
  • 2.  To organize our collective power to rise up out of the bondage of capitalism and its culture.
  • 3.  To have the means to start the process of creating a new world based upon the well-being of all.

From the first days of resistance to the capitalist system and its culture to these modern times and into the future the struggle is not made up of isolated events, but rather is a continuous struggle from the past, given on to us today and passed on by us to the future generations. Working class culture is the development of a resistance mentality that drives the organizing of our class and the direct action of our struggles. Once the organized power of the working class is greater than the organized power of the capitalist class then the working class can refuse to produce for the bosses.  The working class in our communities can refuse all cooperation with capitalist instructions.  The self-determination organizations can refuse all cooperation with the system that oppresses them.  The working class environmental struggle would refuse to abuse and pollute the earth.  And finally the working class culture would sweep aside the capitalist culture, and we will have a social, economic, cultural general strike. Such a strike is not a walkout but rather is a refusal to any longer be victims of the capitalist way of life and to begin building a new society.