Review of Jennifer Silva’s “Coming up Short:” Assuming Ideological Hegemony in the Study of Class Consciousness

We face a prolonged economic and social crisis.  To respond to it politically, to break out of what Peter Mair described as the “void” of empty electoral performance in the service of technocratic domination that tends to characterize politics in the major capitalist societies, we must find out how potential allies experience it, and how we might talk with them to build alliances (Mair, 2013).  This requires a heightened appreciation of a mundane feature of consciousness:  that the day-to-day understandings people use to navigate their lives usually involves a containment, or suppression, of discontent.  As unhappiness – material shortfalls, social depletion, disillusionment and anger with elites – mounts, those  routines of containment fray.  To talk politically requires not only that demands are given voice, but that the routines of their containment, the habits of suppression, of inner dismissal, be exposed and unraveled.  For this reason, studies of class consciousness are very much needed.

Jennifer Silva’s book of 2013, Coming Up Short: Working Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, is an interview-based account of 100 people struggling to establish lives under neoliberalism.  Painfully aware of lost conditions of working class life that they either lived themselves or witnessed, her interviewees tell of cobbling together both material and psychological existence from comparatively thin, bitter stuff.  Facing a gutted manufacturing sector and declining wages and working conditions, they are counseled by the culture of neoliberalism to look to themselves for both blame and potential solutions.   Following Bellah, Illouz and others, Silva sees a “therapeutic” discourse peddled by institutions ranging from the schools to the media and AA as offering a seductive alternative to self-understandings more firmly grounded in work and community (Bellah 1985; Illouz 2007).  In this redemptive narrative of the self there is little room for others, and Silva emphasizes how interviewees tend to take a distrustful stance towards both institutions and individuals.  What was a  welfare capitalist society of relative opportunity and security has become a neoliberal society of risk, one without guarantees or condolences.

At first glance, this all appears beyond argument.  But that is also precisely the problem.   Silva,  despite holding a progressive political viewpoint, falls into an acceptance on its own terms of the suppressive ideological formation  she charts.  Despite nominally demonstrating methodological respect for her 100 subjects by conducting extended interviews with them – they are allowed to speak at length, rather than check boxes – she ends up with a one-dimensional, ideology-congruent account of their orientation to self, other, and society.

This flows from the combined effect of several assumptions guiding both what she asks and how she interprets what she is told.  Pivotally, in her haste to renounce the concept of false consciousness as an interpretive guideline, she fails to thoroughly consider how her interviewees actually manage the conflicts they face.  Lacking a depth psychological understanding of how individuals handle ongoing social tensions, one open to rudimentary psychoanalytic concepts of defense, she instead stresses the organizing power of  the “therapeutic” jargon her interviewees often use to talk about themselves.  This leads her to imagine them to live in a “mood economy,” oriented to introspective self-valuation and behavioral achievements, providing alternative rewards to the one that exploits them.  At book’s end, after losing track of the social-psychodynamic connection between the two economies, Silva has boxed herself into an exhortative relationship with her interviewees because any critical impulses they might experience have been anesthetized within her conceptual frame.

Trading false consciousness for ideological affirmation

My objection doesn’t simply reflect a wish for a “more complete” tally of how her interviewees think about their lives.  I assert an interest that is political, not academic.  The period of systemic crisis we are now in entails a significant erosion  of the “accord” between elites and the rest of society, a compromise between contending social classes that was hammered out in response to the Great Depression of the 1930s and the popular mobilizations reacting to it (Bowles and Gintis 1982; Davis 1986; Kotz 2015).  Expressed in a multitude of ways, from formal labor agreements to observances of concern and respect, this social pact defines the general terms within which individuals orient to society.  Under an accord, guidelines for self-management develop, built up around market-based behavioral expectations (what is deserved for what is done) and extending inward to encompass beliefs and fantasies about relations with elites and their representatives.  As a crisis develops, as their own frustrations increase and find an echo in those around them, hitherto contained thoughts and emotions will gain in urgency and plausibility.  People will not necessarily become revolutionary, but they will become more unwilling to “get their minds right.”  Less fettered misery starts seeking out company, to find others willing to listen and at least confirm their right to be unhappy.

Under such circumstances, the interviewer’s questions must be, as it were, open to questioning.  Silva’s were not.  As I will develop, her approach was exclusively confined to charting how interviewees accommodate themselves to their difficulties.  She duly reports that they have drawn on available sociocultural themes to enhance the value of what they have and who they are.  This is not surprising.  However, it is surprising that, even though her analysis is well-attuned to the influence of neoliberal, system-justifying ideas on their thinking, she methodologically forecloses consideration of any remaining tensions.

To understand how this foreclosure comes about, Silva’s brief case for rejecting the concept of “false consciousness” is key:

It is tempting to decry and then dismiss this … as false consciousness, a family duped by neoliberal ideology into speaking and acting against its own material interests. But the sheer force of these emotions—of vehement anger, defensiveness, and profound betrayal—throughout my interviews demands a more complicated explanation, one that starts from within the processual, contingent, and ongoing meaning-making of informants.  That is, rather than stand outside as an “objective” observer with a particular political agenda, my goal is to study the cultural pathways through which my informants figure out who they want to be, negotiate their relationships with and obligations to others, and come to terms with what it means to live a worthy, dignified life in twenty-first-century America. (p. 83)

Without realizing it, Silva goes well beyond rejecting the worn caricature of vanguardist condescension, i.e.  judging interviewees’ perspectives against an ideal that asserts their historical role as a member of the proletariat etc etc.  In an inversion of that caricature, in her haste to avoid the appearance of promoting “a particular political agenda,” Silva falls into consolidating the ideology that cordons off thoughts or emotions threatening to criticize the social order.  Despite claiming that she is oriented to “processual, contingent, and ongoing meaning-making,” she ends up ignoring process in a rush to take its results at face value.   The “anger, defensiveness and profound [institutional] betrayal” she places such emphasis on are taken as unambiguous declarations, lacking any complex, conflictual content she might elaborate with further questions.

In what follows I will develop how her way of avoiding a prescriptive, arbitrary “objective” stance results in an excommunicative misalliance with the interviewee.  In the sheer immediacy of the interview, this misalliance is perhaps conditioned by a wish to respect and not disrupt their terms of adjustment to their hard lives. But considered more broadly, such tact colludes with the interviewee in their moment of social adjustment by not reflecting on the fate of impulses they have been forced to disavow.  As she globally dismisses historical roles and an attendant prescribed consciousness, at a more micrological level Silva, by imagining that asking a conflict-oriented question amounts to nagging about externally-imposed historical tasks, overlooks how interviewees can draw on culturally immanent orientations that encourage them to feel offense, indignity, unfairness.  That these are currently lacking much organizational support should not prevent her from asking her interviewees to think about, to feel, what they usually dismiss.  By replicating excommunication, Silva prevents communication, and misses a chance to at least highlight, if not reverse that suppressive dynamic.

As we can see from her final paragraph, the goal of fostering politically-oriented communication is not something I impose on Silva’s work:

They must abandon the divisions of race for the solidarity of class—a solidarity that stems not from older models of the white, masculine working class but that allows for flexible identities and multiple voices. As they search for intimacy, they need cultural models that do not force them to sacrifice egalitarian gender ideals for the promise of lasting commitment or self-fulfillment for trust and certainty. Finally, young working class men and women need new definitions of dignity and progress that do not reduce their coming of age stories to a quest to manage their emotions and will themselves to be content with insecurity and loss. The health and vibrancy of all our communities depend on the creation and nurturance of notions of dignity that foster connection and interdependence rather than hardened selves. (p. 158)

Note how this strong, sincere appeal threatens to crash through her conceptual guardrails into the forbidden terrain of false consciousness.  Where are these “cultural models” and “new definitions of dignity and progress” going to be found?  What is going to move the interviewees to adopt them?  And, what social forces might oppose these assertions?  How should they be fought?  By assuming that she could not tentatively align her own voice with theirs to raise questions or offer observations about latent conflicts and possibilities in what her interviewees present, Silva falls into reinforcing a sense of cultural and political depletion that works against the mutual discovery of shared discontent.  And so in that final paragraph she has painted herself into sounding like a hope-ifying Labor Day speaker.  Her soaring affirmations are the release of a pent-up tension within both the interviewees and within her, one that she believed could not find any legitimate expression in the interviews.

The achievement of adulthood as a questionable critical anchor

Silva tries to avoid imposing an historical task on her interviewees by highlighting a developmental one, becoming an adult:

But amid the economic and social turmoil of the 1960s and 70s, the triumph of global capitalism in the 80s, the technology boom of the 90s, and the grinding recession of the 2000s, something strange happened: American youth stopped “growing up.” As over a decade of scholarship has revealed, traditional markers of adulthood—leaving home, completing school, establishing financial independence, marrying, and having children—have become increasingly delayed, disorderly, reversible, or even forgone in the latter half of the twentieth century…. In this book, I tell the stories of working-class men and women for whom coming of age is not just being delayed, but fundamentally dismantled by drastic economic restructuring, profound cultural transformations, and deepening social inequality. I explore how paths to adulthood are being reshaped by the powerful forces of race, class, and gender—and how, in turn, young working-class men and women are putting the pieces of adulthood back together amid the chaos, uncertainty, and insecurity of twenty-first century life. (p. 6)

In one respect, this is a benign attempt to formulate something akin to an “internal critique,” to judge the social order in light of its failure to allow people to achieve an undeniably valuable and deserved good, the status of  adulthood, that they spontaneously pursue and which elites pledge their support for.  However, in taking this tack Silva does not consider what it might mean to her interviewees to make it interpretively central.   In the actual course of their lives, how salient is it?  Do interviewees regularly think about adulthood  in front of the morning mirror?  Or, is it more of a summary, background idea, without much valence in itself, getting whatever charge it has by drawing on specific life achievements, like a certain kind of job, a good relationship, having children, good community standing?  Is it, in fact, a status that becomes apparent negatively, when it is somehow absent?  Is it, in other words, a term that arises precisely in the way it occurs to Silva, as condensed reference to a failure to attain common goals?

By stressing the issue of attaining adulthood, Silva sets up a potential for a shame experience at the center of her interviews.  Consider the sequence of questions.  Before asking aptly numbered question 21 in her interview schedule  – “Would you call yourself an adult?”  – she has been duly gathering information: “Does your job pay enough to pay your bills?”, “Are you married?”, “Can you remember any time when your gender made getting ahead, or achieving a goal, harder for you?”  With question 21, Silva prompts them to go beyond divulging facts and opinions to ask for an age-based tallying of personal achievement.  Given the difficulties they face, they are bound to “come up short” and to then struggle with a threatening sense of immaturity or, in the context of the interview, of being found to be immature by Silva.   (Later on I will address the implications of this shame-eliciting component by taking up her favorable reference to Sennett and Cobb’s Hidden Injuries of Class, a work in which shame dynamics both in society and in the interview are given more thorough consideration.)

Escape to the “Mood Economy”?

The skewing effect produced by Silva’s focus on uncertain adulthood status is just one source of distortion.  With her concept of a “mood economy”  Silva argues that interviewees establish a personal transformative account of themselves that makes up for the limits of what they can achieve occupationally:

Just as the market economy compels them to continually monitor and transform themselves in order to stay employed throughout the life course (through investing in new degrees or moving to new cities in search of employment, as in Brandon’s case), the mood economy requires vigilant self-monitoring and transformation in the emotional sphere in order to achieve happiness and well-being. (p. 12)

I was incredibly surprised to find that my working-class informants were absolutely fluent in the language of therapeutic needs, desires, emotional suffering, and self-growth. They used it without self-consciousness or skepticism, discovering through it the hidden roots of their past failures and their central purpose going forward. Whether poring over self-help books to develop strategies to manage their attention deficit disorder, religiously attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings and learning to express themselves through art, attending obsessive compulsive disorder conventions at the suggestion of Oprah, or coming to terms with a pornography addiction, the men—and women—of the postindustrial class could not sound more dissimilar from the working class of a generation or two ago if they tried to. The sources of meaning and dignity— hard work, social solidarity, family—found in previous studies of the industrial working class (Lamont 2000) had been nearly eclipsed by an all-encompassing culture of emotional self-management. (p. 21)

While in one respect she is amply aware of the mood economy’s compensatory function, she does not appreciate that what she calls a “therapeutic” effort at emotional self-management is an ongoing working over of the experience of shame and other emotionally charged ways of responding to their hardship.  Instead of describing this as a compensatory process, Silva believes she is charting a change in the working class Weltanschaung.  She believes that interviewees are drawing her a picture of a new world of meaning they inhabit, like cult members, rather than showing her a balancing act.  Just as she imagines that neoliberalism’s exaltation of risk and responsibility has turned them into distrustful monads, she regards the therapeutic jargon as having turned them into self-helpers.

Overarching, assimilative interpretations hide the full gamut of what interviewees think and feel

Below I will use some of the longer interview quotations Silva includes to illustrate my criticisms.  However, in much of the book,  quotations are brief and used to show that,  in their struggles within a neoliberalized economy, the interviewee’s self-understanding is assimilated to neoliberalism’s rationalizing ideology and becomes an expression of it.  For example:

Caught in the teeth of a merciless job market and lacking the community support, skills, and knowledge necessary for success, working-class young adults are relinquishing the hope for a better future that is at the core of the American Dream. Cory, a thirty four- year-old bartender who has been living paycheck to paycheck since he was sixteen, shrugged, “If I had, like, goals, like real live goals, then there could be a lot to let that down. So I am floating. Whatever happens next, happens, and I will deal with it when it happens.” (p. 15)

As they grow up, they learn to see their struggles to survive on their own as morally right, making a virtue out of not asking for help; if they could do it, then everyone else should too. This sense of distrust and rugged individualism permeates intimate relationships and perpetuates gender and racial division. For women who have grown up with extreme economic and family instability, the need to hold onto hard-won independence makes them wary of commitment; they do not want to squander the selves they have painstakingly constructed on a partner who will be unfaithful, directionless, or needy. As Kelly, a twenty-eight-year-old line cook, explained, “I’d rather be alone and fierce than be in a relationship and be milquetoast.” (p. 17)

Although she assures us that she has dedicated herself to following the process of the interviewee’s construction of meaning so, therefore, her interpretive themes are true to what her interviewee’s think and feel, this summarizing form of presentation inevitably loses track of how the quotation fits into the interviewee’s overall presentation.  The quotation serves as a tail to the ideological dog.

At its most extreme, the effect this can have is to order each interview fragment within an overarching ideological rationalization of the neoliberal order.  In other words, Silva, after having sifted through the interviews and detected the emergence of a therapeutically-rationalized neoliberal ideology, shows us how each of her interviewees expresses it.   Whatever sensitivity she brings to the interview encounter is devoted to arriving at an update of powerful central tendencies in popular thought.   The voice of each interviewee becomes part of a chorus whose harmonies Silva has discerned.  The Ideological Story of the social order speaks through the interviewee.

Implicit in this method is an apparently obvious assumption about the  effects of social power:  there exist  “ruling ideas” that reflect ways of thinking about society that are compatible with institutional functioning, and that these ideas influence how the interviewee experiences their relationship with dominant institutions.   Silva puts it this way:  “…one’s place within social structures—and the everyday linguistic skills, embodied practices, and interactions that sustain it—shape the very capacity to feel and express emotion that is then experienced as natural.” (p. 20)  And so she offers an approach to interview interpretation that assumes commonly held beliefs do not simply reflect perceptions of dominant institutions but instead reflect the logic of an individual’s everyday orientation to society as they are influenced by the logic of major institutions.

Raymond Williams and the logic of incorporation

Raymond Williams is among the authors Silva cites to explain how the Ideological Story becomes part of everyday life, a “lived reality.”   Just as with her interviewees, we need to read him more closely than she does.  Consider a 1973 article by him, “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Theory.”  In it Williams is most concerned with criticizing crudely determinist notions of the relationships between dominant economic institutions and the cultural “superstructure.”  There is some degree of consonance, to be sure, but it is not rigid; thought is not in lockstep with institutional logics.  The reasons for this are multiple.  Of most interest here is that Williams regards a principal regulator of influence to be practical sufficiency:

We have to revalue ‘determination’ [of culture by the economic base as] … the setting of limits and the exertion of pressure, and away from a predicted, prefigured and controlled content….It is an important fact about any particular society, how far it reaches into the whole range of human practices and experiences in an attempt at incorporation.  It may be true of some earlier phases of bourgeois society, for example, that there were some areas of experience which it was willing to dispense with, which it was prepared to assign as the sphere of private or artistic life, and as being no particular business of society or the state. (Williams, p. 6 – 11 passim)

Anyone studying ideology must avoid thinking of it as simply a thought content, but rather as part of a practical effort to gain compliance from potentially resistant individuals.  As part of this, they must try to gauge, to draw from Williams’ way of putting it, the operative standard of sufficient behavioral compliance.  Particularly in nominally democratic capitalist societies, they should not assume a total ordering of a culture is necessary to produce consciousness adequate to capital accumulation.  A Führer’s iron-heeled boot is not on everyone’s neck 24/7, nor are their minds “programmed” with ideological rationales that comprehensively define both the content and limits of their thinking.  It simply is not necessary.  Dissonant or oppositional beliefs, and organizations based on them, can exist without directly threatening the institutional foundations of capital accumulation.

I argue that this fundamental guideline should apply to individual beliefs, that there is a social-psychological correlate to the standard of sufficient incorporation at an institutional level.  Just as the practices of labor unions are either accepted or repressed based on how much they threaten capitalist prerogatives, so are individual behaviors and the thoughts and emotions that drive them.  This transpires in the most manifest aspects of real life – an individual can get hired and promoted, or fired – based on a mix of behavior at the job.  It also transpires at the level of fantasy, in the individual’s self-assessment, based on what they understand of social requirements, the need for internal consistency and loyalty, and so on.

To return to Silva’s manner of presentation, the illustrative fragments approach promotes using the interviews to illustrate historical shifts in ideological themes.  With this top-down orientation, it deflects attention away from unincorporated remains of the interviewee’s experience that do not conform to the Ideological Story, remains that are most clearly revealed in expressions of tension and conflict.  What we are left tracing, in effect, is how Silva draws statements from her interviewees that, in consultation with other researchers, she arrays within that Ideological Story.  The ill-fitting, unincorporated fragments of the interviewee’s experience fade out, and the interviewee appears to be thoroughly hegemonized.

Revealed tensions and their suppressive containment

Fortunately, all of the material reported by Silva is not so tightly trimmed down that we cannot see beyond the ideological packaging.  Indeed, the very first interview segment, capstoning  her account of the frustrating experiences of Brandon, a 34 year old black interviewee, expresses protest:

I feel like I was sold fake goods. I did everything I was told to do and I stayed out of trouble and went to college. Where is the land of milk and honey? I feel like they lied. I thought I would have choices. That sheet of paper [his degree] cost so much and does me no good. Sure, schools can’t guarantee success, but come on; they could do better to help kids out. You have to give Uncle Sam your first born to get a degree and it doesn’t pan out! (p. 3)

Having shown us the interviewee’s frustration with a lack of institutional support, Silva then tells us

He ruefully explained, “My biggest risk is myself. I don’t want to leave or just take another job even though I could. I limit my opportunities too much. I hold on too much to what I have. I don’t want to uproot my life for a job because pulling up the stakes is too much to handle.” In the end, he sees himself—his unwillingness to uproot everything he has to get ahead—as his greatest barrier to success.  (p. 4, author’s emphasis)

Silva’s “In the end” carries us in a leap over a portion of the “processual, contingent, and ongoing meaning-making” of her interviewee that might be of great interest not only to us, but to him.  It may be true that the interviewee consistently uses this terminal formulation as a kind of rallying point, a call to pull himself together, stop complaining, and make the most of his resources as he tries to sell his labor power.  But as Silva presents it the details of how he handles his protest do not come out;  instead, the focus shifts to another interviewee.  That she italicizes “himself” indicates that it would not have been surprising to her if he had persisted on the lack of help from schools.  If she thinks this shift from demanding more from institutions to demanding more of himself is important, why doesn’t she investigate further in the interview or why doesn’t she at least develop her question in her analysis?

As I earlier suggested, Silva’s dismissal  of the concept of false consciousness is part of a broader uncertainty regarding the permissible limits of questioning her interviewees’ way of handling their plight.  The derived methodological guidelines are far too sweeping, as we see here when she allows herself only a tacit expression of surprise.  The interviewee’s shift to self-blame need not be judged only as a  failure to get to a “true” consciousness.  Instead, another approach would consider how the shift reflects the sociopolitical weakness of the interviewee, giving him no chance to pursue the grievance.  Silva is hardly unaware of this possibility since she repeatedly underlines how the interviewees, having gone through a variety of crappy experiences,  are distrustful of institutions.  Yet this blanket understanding, however true, should not rule out asking the interviewee what he feels he might do about his grievance, whether he’s talked about it with others, and so on.

Let’s take this a step further:  to say that the missing linkages in Silva’s presentation are a register of a powerless condition, the interviewee’s social weakness, implies that it reflects a strategy he resorts to in the absence of allies.  This can also be developed.   Does he feel he is the only one to have suffered this lack of support?  Likely not.  To ask about this, which would admittedly lead smack into the problem of communicating with others, their possible apathy, relative weakness, etc. is not to impose historical missions.   It is to engage the interviewee as someone facing a problem and trying to solve it, as an agent.

Evoking a socially agentic stance to inform interview questions can extend internally.  Whether the interviewer believes the shift to emphasize personal responsibility reflects a reasonable investment of effort or, to work with rudimentary psychoanalytic concepts, that it (also) reflects defensive operations such as suppression and identification with the aggressor, either way it would be possible to respectfully raise this for discussion.  A query such as “I noticed that although you feel you were let down by the school system, you then turned to emphasize how you yourself haven’t done enough” can set up a reflection on the ways people respond to pressure in a constrained situation.

Such a discussion would not necessarily involve the introduction of concepts or a posture alien to the interviewee’s lifeworld.  Rather, as Wallace and other psychoanalytic writers have stressed, many psychoanalytic concepts have mundane experiential counterparts (Wallace, 1989).  Talking with an interviewee about how people tend to “avoid thinking about something that makes them feel bad,”  or “try to emphasize their strengths and putting weakness out of your mind to keep up morale” and how these reactions can become habitual does not assert the falsity of consciousness, but rather how constraint shapes consciousness.

Containment through humility

With this sketch of an alternative interview approach in mind, let’s examine other instances where Silva strait-jackets herself and her interviewee:

Toni, a twenty eight- year-old black woman who is counting the days until her husband finishes basic training and she can quit her job and move onto the army base, was promoted last year but never received her raise: “But I feel like I’m basically getting used for what I am getting paid. And it’s difficult to go to work every day and deal with a stressful environment and know that, well, this is what I’m supposed to be making and you keep saying you’re going to give it to me, you’re going to give it to me and then you’re constantly asking me to do more.” She continued: “I try to be humble. I’m not a difficult person. And I feel like you know and I know, so I’m not going to ask you again. And that’s just how I am. And I say, you know, God bless me that I get it before I leave.” Her sense of self—as a humble, pleasant person who works hard and does not cause tension—compels her to fulfill her side of the bargain, even while she watches her employer skirt hers.

Yet part of growing up for these young people means learning that depending on, trusting, and investing in others will only hurt them in the end…. (p. 85)

Here Silva presents us with an interview segment long enough to allow some of the dynamics of self-management within a social contradiction to emerge.  I’ll offer a minimally conjectural interpretation:  Toni  regards herself as being “used” by her employer.  But when she considers pressing for restitution of the promised wage (internal critique!) after being repeatedly put off, she changes course by drawing on a schema of suppression she has, in all likelihood, previously internalized.  As Toni  imagines what might happen if she were to press her case, she starts to worry about being seen as a “difficult person,” and counters this with “tries to be humble,” the conditional verb suggesting an ongoing struggle.   In a situation where it has become aggravatingly obvious the employer doesn’t care – “And I feel like you know and I know” – by asserting her humility she enhances the situation by adding another relationship to the aggravating one: there may be divine intervention – “God bless me that I get it before I leave.”

Silva completely misses these dynamics because she is methodologically blindered to them.  She introduces the passage  by telling us that interviewees are aware that “the employer they tried so hard to please would cut them loose without a backward glance.” (p. 85).  Toni’s statement certainly suggests that.  But then Silva assimilates the passage to a much broader idea, that “depending on, trusting, and investing in others will only hurt them in the end.”  Over the course of the book, she generalizes this notion  – eventually including everything from employers, schools and the military to family and lovers  – and works it in with talking of “hardened selves” that develop under neoliberalism.  What transpires in the interview as Toni’s report of a social-psychological maneuver that she carries out in order to manage her frustration with a dishonest and exploitive employer is used by Silva as a dab of paint to contribute to a Durkheimian portrait of something akin to a generalized “anomie” characterizing social relations.

Along the lines suggested above, Silva might instead have stuck with the relationship with the employer and tried to engage Toni in thinking about how she manages this particular class-based frustration. She could have backtracked from Toni’s resolution involving being blessed by a deity to frame up questions about the shift away from the employer that precedes it.  For example:  “It sounds like you’re getting nowhere with your employer in getting them to pay what they promised you.  That must be frustrating.  It also sounds like you feel that if you do express that aggravation, you’re going to get blamed for it by being called a “difficult person.”  Given the interviewer’s reading of Toni, they might stop there and wait for a response.  Or, they might lead in various directions.

  • “And it sounds like you want to try to avoid that by approaching the problem humbly.”  This restatement would more directly focus on Toni’s self-management approach.  It might be challenging, at least because, like a more explicit clinical interpretation of a defense, by making it explicit it can make it less viable, the warded off content has been exposed nonetheless.
  • “Have you run into that problem before?” to try to get some biographical context and more of a reading of how much of a default the humility option is.
  • “Do you feel that you might become too angry if you don’t remind yourself to be humble?”
  • “I get the impression that having worked so hard and then getting treated so badly might be something you’ve heard others talk about, too” to see if this has become a topic of conversation, what others’ strategies are.

All of these questions aim at encouraging the interviewee to maintain a focus on their grievance, the fight they are forced into, and to forestall defensive flight from it.  They are encouraged to take a fresh look at their estimation of their social power and how habitual responses, shaped by doubts about their ability to stand up to institutional forces, can at least be acknowledged and, possibly, recognized as simply one alternative approach among others.

Assuming cynicism and despair

Silva introduces us to Jillian, a 25 year old white woman, who has recently quit a tavern job.   She had been there since before graduating high school, and had established an enthusiastic, personalized alliance with the manager, Bill, eventually becoming the “right hand man” to a good guy who, as Silva points out, contrasted with Jillian’s alcoholic father.  Jillian’s overall commitment to her job was substantial; she both strongly identified with the fortunes of the employer, but also with the work team.

“When it all comes together and it clicks, it’s a great feeling knowing that everybody came together. Everybody is communicating. Everybody worked hard and this is what we got for it,” she remembered, a hint of past exhilaration lingering in her voice. Jillian approached her work like a calling, defining the success of the business as her own personal success, and investing a great deal of time and emotional and physical energy into its running.” (p. 86)

But this all came to a sad end after Bill died following a very brief bout with liver cancer.  The owners proved incapable of addressing his loss, both organizationally and emotionally:

After Bill died and the tavern was collapsing, it was definitely very difficult. Because I wanted it to work so bad. And there was just no reason why it shouldn’t. But I think respect and appreciation is very important to me. It’s the basis of all relationships. So for them to not … just total of lack of respect between everybody at the tavern, lack of communication and lack of the support of the ownership. Like I wasn’t asking for a promotion or a raise or anything. I was asking help to get the crew back to where it needs to be. Yeah, things were falling apart and it just wasn’t working. It was very, very difficult to let go of that. Because I had worked there for over six years. And with me and Bill, I was able to be a part of management stuff. He depended on me to do a lot. So when he wasn’t there I didn’t have that relationship with the ownership, so I went back to square one at the job. Everything was falling apart and yeah, it was hard. (p. 86)

Silva concludes:

Jillian knew that she was lucky to have forty hours a week to work, especially in the recession [of 2007 ]: “You basically worshipped the ground they walked on because they gave you a job. You had to keep your mouth shut.”   She therefore didn’t ask for a promotion or a raise—simply for the owner to value her work experience and to hire a new manager to supervise the kitchen. But instead, Jillian felt betrayed—by the rest of the staff, who did not put in as many hours as she did, and more sinisterly by the owner, who treated her like “just another line cook”—and once even snapped, “You won’t get respect anywhere else, so why expect it here?” … Since then, she has learned to put on emotional blinders to protect herself from investing emotion and time into ventures that could disappoint her in the end. (p. 86)

While the details of the conflicts at work at not clear, in her presentation there is a crescendo –- “Everything was falling apart and yeah, it was hard” – that is immediately cut off by reference to Jillian feeling lucky and recalling her subordination in abject terms.  This is followed by an invocation of a sense of employment contingency, combining the whims of her employer and the whims of the market, that cuts off articulation of Jillian’s frustration.

It may well be that this reflects, at least in a general way, the shifts in Jillian’s stance that were part of her effort to adjust.  Mounting awareness of frustration would be tempered by awareness of the possibility of getting canned if she protested.  In the interview, though, this limit does not need to be replicated, Jillian does not need to “keep her mouth shut”  while talking with Silva.  But Silva, interested in assimilating Jillian to the model of a hardened, disillusioned self, wraps up the presentation by generalizing from the proximal story of disillusionment with a work situation to a broader avoiding of disappointment.  The loss of a set of personalized work relationships, replaced by the impersonal approach of the owners, who made Jillian feel like nothing more than “just another line cook,” just another bearer of labor power, is not developed and so cannot be brought to bear in understanding likely complexities to her  nominally one-dimensional “hardened” state.  Jillian’s developed appreciation of the advantages of a more humane work environment need not necessarily be thought of as having conclusively soured into disillusionment and distrust.   She had shown herself to be very open to others, thriving in a cooperative working relationship with them.  Has this wish simply died, replaced by cynicism and distrust?

Ignoring radicalism to assume a “Hardened Self”

Silva’s presumption of  a thoroughly hegemonized class consciousness is most apparent in her discussion of Jay, a 25 year old black man.  To convey her presumptions’s suppressive power, here’s the entire quotation  and her interpretation:

Jay is currently in the midst of what sounds like a fascinating science fiction novel that is explicitly about class struggle:

JAY: The protagonist is a skinhead neo-Nazi who acquires a time machine. Nazis fascinate me. In the first draft, it was actually a hardcore Republican, and I felt like it wasn’t interesting enough so I went further and found the most degenerate conservative you can come up with. I mean, aren’t we all fascinated with things that disgust us? I am hoping … you know what transgressive art is? I feel like it’s gonna be transgressive art, like people will really hate the protagonist. He acquires a time machine and him and his gang rewrite history to make it like a white paradise. And then they get to live in their white paradise and it’s never enough. Even though they have it all, they want more, they want more, and the real issue is not about white power; it’s something else. He sees the error of his ways but his gang members don’t.

JS: So if it’s not about white power, what is it about?

JAY: It’s about class struggle. Because ultimately people who join groups like that, I mean there is another character who has to put up with a militant black, like a modern day Black Panther, and, uh, eventually they realize that, um, each other’s hatred is based on the same thing. They are poor and angry and uneducated.

[Silva] But the awareness of injustice is channeled through popular culture in a way that renders it individual (a matter for “self-help”) or solitary (writing a novel); they see exploitation as something to be resolved on their own. And this makes sense, given their inability to navigate bureaucracy and fundamental distrust of others. (p. 110)

Actually, given what she tells us of Jay, there is no reason to believe that he understands his novel as a way of resolving exploitation on his own.  Silva overlooks the obvious interpretation, that Jay harbors the hope that a racist would read it and be pried away from intraclass hatred, implying that Jay wishes to transcend his own solitary state by promulgating a critical politics and interracial solidarity against capital.   His writing, an explicitly political fantasy, enacts a communicative appeal to others, but Silva, navigating the interviews with her course set away from false consciousness, instead turns him into the concluding case in her Hardened Selves chapter.

A conflict-suppressing reading of Sennett and Cobb’s Hidden Injuries of Class  

In her final chapter Silva aligns her work with Sennett and Cobb’s excellent book of 1973, The Hidden Injuries of Class.  She does so in a way that reflects the same tendencies discussed so far; by abstracting from conflict she draws from Sennett and Cobb a stabilized self-understanding consistent with ruling class hegemony.  She quotes from their last chapter:

“The burden of class today is thus a strange phenomenon,” Sennett and Cobb (1973: 172) observed, where “the logic of discontent leads people to turn on each other rather than on the ‘system.’”

They explain:

If I believe that the man I call “Sir” and who calls me by my first name started with an equal fund of powers, do not our differences, do not all signs of courtesy and attention given to him but denied me, do not his very feelings of being different in “taste” and understanding from me, show that somehow he has developed his insides more than I mine? How else can I explain inequalities? The institutions may be structured so that he wins and I lose, but this is my life…. Even though we might have been born in different stations, the fact that he is getting more means that somehow he had the power in him, the character, to “realize himself,” to earn his superiority. (Sennett and Cobb, 255–256)

[Silva adds] As power shifted from labor to big business, industrial work grew less and less secure and valued.  This decline in the economic sphere was accompanied by a shift in working-class consciousness, leaving its members to believe that they had no right to demand equal opportunities because their own shortcomings were blamed for their lack of success. (p. 145, my emphasis)

But what is the nature of this consciousness that has shifted?  Does the constraining formula “they had no right to demand equal opportunities because their own shortcomings were blamed for their lack of success” adequately summarize what is on the minds of the members of  the working class?

Earlier in the book Sennett and Cobb offer a tension-ridden picture of working class consciousness that does not fit into Silva’s procrustean summary.  Here are some representative passages:

We saw this self-accusation [of a failure to use opportunity] in the schoolroom when a boy could feel the teacher wasn’t treating him as an individual because he didn’t have enough ability.  Now that self-accusation in adult life gives the worker a way to label his social class; the more he must follow orders, the lower he is, because, evidently, the more he lacks the inner resources to be independent.  The child accepts the shaming he experiences as legitimate, and shows his anger at the situation by attacking those who are not shamed. The adult, confronting the situation head-on, insists it isn’t right society should think of him as a “nobody,” isn’t right because he never had a chance to be anything else.  In the adult, however, there is a split between conscious belief and inner conviction – in secret he feels ashamed for who he is.  Class is his personal responsibility, despite the fact he never had a chance.  In one interview the janitor erupts, “So like how people, how do they know who I am? …I never had a chance to make something of me like you college boys…”  The garbage man: “Never learning to read good…it was out of my hands…I mean I wanted to, but I got bad breaks…”  The factory laborer:  “There’s so much in life a person has to take, things they never made, and why?  I think it’s unfair, I’m as good as those ladies in Saugus [a lower-middle-class suburb].”  (p. 97, my emphases)

“The real impact of class is that a man can play out both sides of the power situation in his own life, become alternately judge and judged, alternately individual and member of the mass.  This represents the “internalizing” of class conflict, the process by which struggle between men leads to struggle within each man.” (p.98)

That is why worker “authoritarianism,” as Lipset talks about it, is all wrong: the man who is displaced by [Harvard University expansion] or the people whose sons are dying [in Vietnam] do not believe that whatever authority does is right.  Rather, a sense of self-doubt intervenes to make them unsure they have the right to fight back.  Is it any wonder that they often lash out, as did the kids in the school, at those who receive the unfair rewards, feeling cowed as they do in the face of the rewarder? (p. 159)

Sennett and Cobb’s interview excerpts and interpretations show us that class tensions are not internalized by workers as a simple subjugated identity, but as a struggle around different identities or, to avoid confusion with current controversies, “stances.”  These stances are not neatly dissolved into a placid synthesis, but dynamically coexist within ambivalence.  Silva draws from Sennett and Cobb only one pole of this struggle, the I-failed-to-take-advantage-of-opportunity ideologeme that leaves workers blaming themselves.  But, in the rich, insightful stew of observations I quote in the first passage, Sennett and Cobb see their interviewees as  cycling between anger over their demeaned state and a sense of shame over “failure” to make the most of themselves.   Although throughout the book Sennett and Cobb seem to hesitate to identify psychodynamic processes specifically, it is reasonable to say that portions of their picture of working class consciousness involve shame buttressing identification with the aggressor:  “…a sense of self-doubt intervenes to make them unsure they have the right to fight back.”

Sennett and Cobb develop the defensive compartmentalization of stances, one submissive, another challenging, in various ways.  While their historical purview is largely limited to contemporary capitalism, in the final chapter they introduce a broader historical optic by contrasting the rigid class boundaries of absolutism with the nominal openness of capitalism.  They illustrate the raw violence of pre-capitalist class conflict by citing Madame de Sevigne’s “disinterested fascination” with the hanging of rebellious Breton peasants in 1675. (247) Their merciless suppression, she argued, was a necessary part of a process of class “humbling” and the maintenance of a strongly demarcated social order.  We have now passed from what Sennett and Cobb  describe as that “caste” system of impermeable class boundaries against a supposedly bestial peasantry to a social order echoing with the knocks of opportunity.  The menace that meets anger over unfair distribution of rewards is no longer so exclusively invested in relying on corporeal fear.  The supposed permeability of  class boundaries is used to generate a pervasive potential for shame and derivative deference:

“In talking to older laborers who worked in large factories, we often heard them express anger about how unfair it was that they – good, solid workers – had not been promoted; yet that anger was often turned around by final statements like “they must have their good reasons,” or “they know what they need” to describe superior’s behavior.” (p. 157, my emphasis)

As one reads Sennett and Cobb, their charting of an axial project of the continuous buttressing of class hierarchy emerges so strongly that Silva’s laudatory reference to them actually introduces a subversive argument against the theme of her work.  To put it strongly, from their perspective Silva’s interview schedule served to elicit class tensions and then to suppress them by refocusing on derivative failure, on “coming up short” in the eye of the neoliberalized Big Other.   What was for Sennett and Cobb the defining, puzzling dynamic of their study, the “turning around,” the way workers repetitively cycle through anger and “humbling,” is reified by Silva into a completed subjection to neoliberalism.  Because of her conflict-avoidant bias, the focus on missed adulthood, reflecting Silva’s sincere wish to show that workers are getting a shitty deal, threatens to simply actualize another potential for shame.  Instead of interviews closely illuminating the “turning around” and calling attention to it, we get a sadly flowing  litany of opportunities squandered, delayed adolescence, and “hardened selves,” making  her interviewees appear to be success stories of the ideological project.

A temporary conclusion: Alliances and misalliances over conflict and its ideological containment

My criticism of Silva’s take on false consciousness emphasizes her occlusion of conflicts that might drive the formation of a consciousness that more adequately expresses what workers want if they were more free to think about it, not hemmed in by shame and fear.  Her nominal dedication to the interviewees’ “processual, contingent, and ongoing meaning-making” stumbles into ensuring the success of a neoliberal ideology through which interviewees orient themselves under conditions of relative powerlessness and coercion.  When she eventually tries to question ideological consciousness her own voice is feeble, reduced to stock formulas that have little force because the basis for her alliance with her interviewees has been suppressed.  There’s only one contender in the ring.

Toni didn’t want to be seen as a “troublemaker,” a vernacular category rooted in her daily life, also available to a corporation  bent on controlling her behavior with threats.  Her use of the term is likely ambivalent – does she really see herself that way, or is she just anticipating the epithet that will be thrown at her when she’s fired?  If, instead of hustling her to a foreordained ideological surrender, we try to draw her off the cusp of this ambivalence by raising the idea that she is not a troublemaker, but a rightfully aggrieved worker who has been cheated, would that be to say her current consciousness is false?  Of course not.  It would be to remind her that there are different, grievance-supporting categories from her daily life that fit the situation; we would, however fleetingly, encourage her, back her up in using those terms to think about the situation.

Suppose we were to talk further with her, saying that such cheating is a routine part of a system organized around profit maximization, and to suggest that life would be better if that system were ended.  We have gone from encouraging her to assert the validity of an agreement, implying that a prior social pact with her employer may be revived, to showing how a system of production drives the violation of all such pacts.   She might well hesitate, because the scope of her grievance has expanded to the edges of the social universe; she may have some sense of the monsters thereby awakened.

When “theory” meets with hesitance or disagreement, is it because its terms are alien to “processual, contingent, and ongoing meaning-making,” or is it because it threatens to seemingly open Pandora’s Box and leaves people feeling vulnerable, anxious?  To put it more formally:  the broader the synchronic, system-encompassing scope of a critical theory devoted to ending misery,  the more it prompts a diachronic, forward-looking gauging of “trouble.”  Realistic fear and unconscious anxieties, including the threat of shaming, begin to well up as people anticipate a response to their challenge to capitalist prerogative.  Because these challenges inevitably resonate with transgressions of childhood, the emotional currents potentially undermining thought are inchoate.  From one angle, theory asks them to forego a process of “compromise” that in childhood is often equated with “growing up,” giving up “childish things” to fit in with a parent-determined family order. Refusal to compromise can at least briefly feel as demeaning as the offense triggering the dispute  (More on that to come.)

To try to sum this all up as a “false” consciousness that should yield to a true one may seem like an attempt to hearten the potential victim of repression with the thin consolations that they will die in and for a Truth.  More optimistically, it is to encourage the potential victim that, given the truth/plausibility of theory, they can count on others to see the truth and rally to their aid.  (In the age of the Internet and the waning dominance of corporate media, this idea may be increasingly plausible.)

Seem from this standpoint, the truthiness of “vanguardism” is as much about a rousing struggle to allay fear as a struggle to enlighten.  When pitted against ideology, understood as the ideational elaboration of a demand that someone  “see” that there “there is no alternative,” critique can rightfully, scornfully talk of falsehood.  There are alternatives, let Thatcher spin faster and faster in her grave.  But when the idea of truth is deployed to push people through their hesitancy and worry by declaring the worry to be false, a confusion of intellectual discipline and the need of an en-couraging social movement develops.

It would be almost as much an error to think of Silva as having made a free methodological choice as it would be to think of the interviewees as having freely formed their perspectives.  The intellectual tradition of a casual dismissal of the concept of false consciousness, harping on the arrogance that the concept at times rationalized while ignoring the coercive processes false consciousness sought to foreground, took shape within political struggles that, at most, paid lip service to lucidity.  What weighs on the brain of researchers and activists gains force from the inertia of habits of acquiescence to the social regime that we all live under.  All of us have established ways of moderating our experience of conflict, our jeopardies, all of us have established ways of not getting into trouble and not overstepping our bounds.  We think more “freely” within the bounds maintained by this suppression, and pay little or no attention to the defensive maneuvers that undergird our adjusted lives.  This can readily set up a misalliance with people we talk with; we are moved to convey respect by not dwelling on defensive evasion since we sense our own shame as we see it in others.  Along with methodologically rejecting the concept of false consciousness, Silva likely felt that it would be tactless to, for example, appear to challenge Toni about the way she seems to bank on a deity.  Our investments against shame are more mundane but no less fragile.

And, what would be the point, anyway?  To ask that plausible question directly reflects the absence of another Big Other, currently missing but perhaps reconstituting, a counter-  or anti-capitalist social power that Toni, Brandon and, yes, Silva might be heartened and informed by.  If we are going to go through the ordeal of grappling with shame and fear, we need to be able to reassure ourselves that we can survive, not only in the customary sense of having social support –  for example, a union to back us up against a supervisor –  but also having a way of thinking critically about social relations that doesn’t leave us feeling greedy, undeserving, disentitled, laughable.   A “belief in socialism,” often derided as hypocritically taking on a religious quality that contradicts socialism’s secular insistence, is, at an intrapersonal level, really about being able to maintain a confident, affirmative stance that resists the vulnerabilities Sennett and Cobb discussed via the shame thematic.  We don’t need the comfort offered by “Gott mit Uns.”  “Wir sind bei Uns” — we are with us — will be enough.

[I plan to further develop the role of shame and its developmental grounding, but will stop here for now.]


Bellah, Robert N., Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton. (1985). Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Illouz, Eva. (2007). Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Mair, Peter. (2013). Ruling the Void:  the Hollowing of Western Democracy. New York: Verso.

Sennett, Richard, and Jonathan Cobb. (1973). The Hidden Injuries of Class. New York: Vintage Books.

Silva, Jennifer M. (2013). Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty. Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Wallace, E.R. (1989). Pitfalls of a One-Sided Image of Science: Adolf Grünbaum’s Foundations of PsychoanalysisJ. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 37:493-529.

Williams, Raymond (1973) Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory  NLR I/82, November-December, pp. 3-16

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