"A Working-Class Intellectual is Something to Be"? Theorizing the Incorporation (and Resistance) of Working-Class Academics as a
(Counter-) Hegemonic Process [i]

Herbert Pimlott

Career opportunities,
are the one that never knock
The only job they offer you's
to keep you out the dock
—The Clash, 1977, "Career Opportunities"

"Forward to the Past"

[1] As a class-conscious scholar from the working class, my position as a tenured university professor feels both privileged and compromised. Compared to most other workers at present, I feel privileged because I have (relative) job security and because I am paid to research, think and write. That job security is seen as a privilege, rather than a basic right, even when it just provides a means of subsistence, is a testimony to how far contemporary society has regressed from the "postwar compact" between labour, government and business.

[2] My privilege also feels like luck because, thus far, I have been saved from the fate, not only of so many of my academic peers, but also of my childhood peers, whose well-paid jobs disappeared with the local mill thirty years ago. Indeed, I entered the academy for a PhD in 1993 only after I realized the increasing likelihood of never being able to afford a mortgage as a media professional (contrary to a popular perception of those whose lives revolve around the media). The deterioration of the professoriate's working conditions has intensified since the beginning of the global financial crisis in 2007-08, as university administrations have been making substantial cuts to programs, salaries and benefits (for those with any), increasing faculty contributions to health insurance (in the USA) and class sizes, which in turn is contributing to sharper and deeper inequities between faculty within and between institutions and disciplines, alongside the elimination of hundreds, and even thousands, of tenure-track positions. [ii]

[3] However, my position as an academic from the working class also feels compromised because, while it does offer advantages, which are increasingly under threat, it also works to discourage, dissuade and distract me from my potential as an "organic intellectual" of and for the working class. This sense of compromise is fed by a sense of alienation from my class of origin and within the academy. In this article, therefore, I want to focus on attempting to theorize the trajectory of academics from the working class within the postsecondary education sector of the neoliberal phase of the capitalist system. I want to suggest that one of its functions, whether by design or default, is to denude or deprive the working class of its own "organizers" and "leaders" ("organic intellectuals" in Antonio Gramsci's terminology) to prevent it from acting as a social formation for itself. I draw upon Antonio Gramsci's concepts of "organic" and "traditional" intellectuals and his theory of hegemony, alongside analyses of and accounts by "working-class academics," including my own, to begin to theorize the role of academics from the working class. (I should add that I use the term "working-class academics" to identify academics whose origins and background are "working class" but not to claim that their position in the social relations of production is necessarily "working class," although I think that such an argument could easily be made for adjunct, contingent and contract faculty. That discussion, however, is not the focus of this article.)

Antonio Gramsci: Organic and Traditional Intellectuals

[4] Of all the major critical theorists, Antonio Gramsci is the one whose writings are most pertinent for theorizing working-class academics. Gramsci stresses consent as well as coercion in securing hegemony, a process which never ends because no dominant social order can ever be certain it retains the confidence of the people for all time. This emphasis on winning and maintaining the consent of the governed or subaltern classes emphasizes cultural as much as political struggle and includes a focus on such things as "folklore" (i.e. popular culture), language and "common sense" (versus "good sense"), which validates the kinds of intellectual work and skills of those who have the "function of intellectuals" in society.

[5] Our ideas do not spring "fully formed" from our minds: "they have had a centre of formation, of irradiation, of dissemination, of persuasion." [iii] These various kinds of social and cultural groups, organizations and institutions, from family to school to media, operate as part of what Gramsci calls the "concrete hegemonic apparatus." These are more commonly referred to as "Ideological State Apparatuses" (ISAs) in those disciplines influenced by Louis Althusser's work, [iv] which are responsible for the ideological interpellation and production of subjects. The university is an ISA and part of the "concrete hegemonic apparatus," which has a special role because it is responsible for the production of intellectuals for the capitalist system, who in turn play key roles in the formulation and dissemination of ideas and opinions throughout society via ISAs.

[6] However, as Gramsci pointed out, all people are intellectuals but only some have the function of intellectuals in a society; he identifies two types that are connected to the processes of hegemony: "organic" and "traditional." Gramsci makes it clear that each social class in history has produced its own "organic" intellectuals. These are intellectuals "embedded' within either their class of origin or the class for which they function as organic intellectuals. For example, an intellectual from the working class who becomes a policy analyst for a corporate-backed, free-market think tank would be considered an "organic intellectual" of the capitalist class or dominant social order. On the other hand, if a middle- or working-class intellectual became a research director for a trade union, an organization under Gramsci's "concrete hegemonic apparatus" of the working class, she or he would be seen as an "organic intellectual" of the working class.

[7] Since organic intellectuals provide social classes with their consciousness and cohesion, there are many types: "different class projects presuppose and imply different forms of organisation, which thus require different types of organic intellectuals, whose role it is to elaborate such organisation in both ideological and practical terms." [v] For example, as the industrial capitalist class grew in importance in the 19th and 20th centuries, it required a number of types of workers who carry out "specialized intellectual functions," such as engineers, lawyers and accountants, all of whom perform tasks necessary for the system's functioning. The lawyers, though, also might function as organic intellectuals for the dominant social order by say making public arguments for laws or organizing think tanks for neoliberal public policies, while other lawyers become MPs and engage in public debate and electoral campaigns to attain and exercise power.

[8] For Gramsci, an intellectual is not one who just remains a "specialist," that is one who performs such necessary functions as a manager, academic or technician, but one who becomes a "leader," which is the combination in Gramsci's definition of both "specialist" and "politician." [vi]

The mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist in eloquence, exterior and momentary mover of affections and passions, but in joining in actively in practical life, as constructor, organiser, "permanently active persuader" because not pure orator... [vii]

The combination between intellectual function or "specialization" and "politician" is meant to convey the idea of the link between the intellectual function and that of organizing and mobilizing the broader social class or a particular stratum within a social class, such as autoworkers or secondary school teachers, of which they are a member. The new "organic intellectuals" of the working class arose as organizers and "permanently active persuaders" in ways that supported the articulation of the needs and demands of the new social class, through the formation of working-class organizations such as socialist parties, trade unions and mechanics' institutes, and the shifting mode and relations of production. [viii]

[9] This role for the organic intellectual, working at different levels, changes as the social class of which they were part comes to rule via the hegemonic process of establishing intellectual-moral-social leadership. This latter term is about establishing the dominant influence whereby you do not have to be in government to influence what happens. The postwar consensus, that led to the implementation and expansion of the welfare state, was accepted by all three parties (labour, state, capital); it was the "common sense" of the "golden age" of capitalism.

[10] "Traditional intellectuals" were once the "organic intellectuals" of an earlier social class that had been dominant and were no longer "necessarily seen as integrally linked to such a social class." For example, priests were organic intellectuals closely tied to the nobility in the feudal order, but whose contemporary roles are seen as more relevant as pastoral care for specific groups of Christians but without pertinence to the broader social order. Yet, traditional intellectuals, such as priests, can and still do play an important role in the maintenance of the dominant social order. Indeed, it was their position which was partially obscured by an appearance of independence "from overt structures and hierarchies of control." [ix]

[11] As Peter D. Thomas points out, Gramsci identified some of the difficulties inherent in developing organic working-class intellectuals, which "would involve a long and tortuous process," because of "the power of attraction and incorporation" offered for organic and traditional intellectual positions serving the dominant social order. [x] This process would include diversion of working-class intellectuals into various "specializations" by which they make a living but are not in a position to act as "leaders" and "organizers," except in support of the dominant order (e.g. supervisors, managers, journalists). However, since the working class is:

[s]tructurally consigned to a subaltern position within the bourgeois state, the working-class movement's own distinctive group of intellectuals would be developed only insofar as the class as a whole struggled to emerge from its "economic-corporative" phase and exercise genuine class-based hegemony in its own concrete hegemonic apparatus. [xi]

For the working class' own distinctive group of organic intellectuals to emerge, its "concrete hegemonic apparatus," which are those organizations, institutions and formations that provide a means around which to organize and articulate working class demands, such as unions, socialist parties and adult education, has to have some means for producing their own organic intellectuals. One example of Gramsci's "counter hegemonic apparatus" is the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), which became known as a "state within a state," because it acted in a way that moved beyond the "economic-corporative" interests of the working class to provide support that was later taken over by the welfare state.

[12] The postsecondary system, as opposed to the historical example of the SPD schools preparing organic working-class intellectuals, is not necessarily a place from which organic working-class intellectuals can be formed, in part because of the pressures created within the system over the last 30-plus years. Whether they have obtained a tenure-track position or are still seeking one, the system works to distract, deter or dissuade working-class academics from attempting to become organic intellectuals for their class by fostering a system whereby "competitive individualism" is inculcated by ISAs in general and cultivated within the academy in particular through a system of rewards, from external funding agencies (e.g. national academic research councils, corporate foundations) and leading professional publishing houses and journals, to internal institutional promotion and advancement (e.g. full professorships, research chairs), as well as a range of disincentives (e.g. increased teaching loads, large first-year classes, little or no pay); all forms of compensation, recognition and occupation are set out in a rigid, hierarchical arrangement to hinder any possible group loyalty.

[13] This seems to be the question Thomas asks: whether the new "proletarian organic intellectuals" would be caught in a vicious circle that they could not establish themselves before the terrain of "bourgeois intellectuality" (the conditions under which intellectual functions are organized and understood) had been neutralized? [xii] This is likely only to be achieved once the working class has acquired sufficient counter-hegemonic power to neutralize the impact of the bourgeois state. However, this is unlikely to be achieved without the working class' concrete hegemonic apparatus being sufficiently developed to enable this to happen. Yet, the rise of neoliberalism over the last three decades has made this very difficult.

[14] The history of the working class in countries, such as the UK, Canada and the USA, is closely tied to the development, transformation and (more recently) erasure of its own institutions, from trade unions to socialist and communist parties to alternative media and adult education: the working class' "concrete hegemonic apparatus." It is through these institutions at particular periods in history that organic intellectuals of the working class were (re)produced and helped to organize, educate and mobilize the working class to fight for its own interests. The history of adult education in the UK through the 19th and 20th centuries is one such example in which there has been the gradual loss of or shift away from autonomous organization and self-management, such as mechanics' institutes and trade union schools, to university extra-mural departments and professional middle-class educators. This history is part of the early development of cultural studies, and was, what Raymond Williams, a socialist cultural critic and organic working-class intellectual, stressed was closely tied into its political project. [xiii]

[15] These changes have meant a loss of control over the formation of organic intellectuals amongst the working class. Ultimately, this has meant a greater difficulty for the working class to develop its capacity to become organized, educated and mobilized in the struggle for its interests, beyond the "economic-corporative" phase, over those of capital and the ruling class. This is part of the hegemonic process of winning the consent of the governed: incorporation and distraction—or erasure—as upper- and middle-class institutions take over those working-class institutions and organizations that were part of its concrete hegemonic apparatus or dismantle those that cannot be controlled. Thus, as the working-class loses its capacity to develop and support its own organic intellectuals, the latter might find the only intellectual roles available are those that support the dominant social order in some capacity.

"The only reason I'm here is because you're here": An Historical Overview

[16] My position as a tenured university professor from the working class is a testimony to the mass expansion of post-secondary education after the Second World War. As with many other professions, such as teaching, when they expand considerably the changes almost always mean a rapid increase in female, ethnic minority and working-class recruits alongside a practically simultaneous deterioration in compensation and working conditions, including the loss of workplace autonomy and de-skilling. [xiv]

[17] The postwar expansion of higher education could not be met with just the sons and daughters of the upper-middle class. The mass expansion of student enrollment included large numbers of working-class students, which, in turn, required the mass hiring of middle- and working-class academics. Thus, by 1977, "one quarter of those in the academic profession were judged to be from the working class," though they "tended to be concentrated in lower-tier, less prestigious institutions"; that survey was "corroborated" by a 2001 study. [xv] No surprise then that women and working-class academics become more numerous as universities and colleges expanded to meet the demands, first from veterans and then from baby-boomers. The most "proletarianized," if you will, of academic disciplines might well be first-year composition programs staffed largely by female faculty on a non-permanent or adjunct basis. [xvi]

[18] Contrary to the popular misconception that university professors make six-digit salaries and have generous benefits and work just a few hours a week, most faculty, face a very different reality. This popular myth masks the great degrees of inequality even within the same elite or public universities, where a full professor of English or history might earn half of what a business professor in the early stages of her or his career earns, let alone the discrepancies between university professors and equivalent professionals, such as dentists and doctors, or for that matter unionized blue-collar workers, including bus drivers or autoworkers. [xvii] These differences identify the incredible range of diversity in income and compensation. For example, the results for a 2013-2014 survey conducted of the four-year colleges and universities in the US higher education system show a range for average salaries by discipline from which can range from $54,671 or $55,987 per year for a new assistant professor in visual and performing arts or English respectively, to $107,066 for a new assistant professor in business-related disciplines and $143,757 for a full professor in legal professions and studies. [xviii] However, averages mask the range that can be seen even within individual elite universities between professors in business, legal and medical disciplines, and those in the humanities and fine arts, never mind the range in lower tier postsecondary institutions, such as community colleges.

[19] The growth in the professoriate was part of a broader, postwar expansion of white-collar, professional, para-professional, supervisory and technical positions, which required the need for the expansion of various types of expertise and knowledges to be taught and credentialized. These changes led to the rise of what Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich identified as the "Professional-Managerial Class" (PMC) [xix] and contributed to both the reality and sense of upward, social mobility as white-collar replaced blue as a major area of employment for many working-class children and because these jobs tended to have a higher social status and more responsibility and, for some, greater autonomy on the job than most blue-collar work. The PMC, whether or not it constituted a "class" or simply a "class fraction," [xx] at least takes into account changes in employment patterns that led to the expansion of white-collar and professional jobs during the "golden age," which also meant changes in "consciousness" as people moved between social strata or classes, since status has as much to do with differentiation from as identification with. These developments played into the growing importance of identity politics arising out of social movements.

[20] The PMC's growth took place first during the anomalous thirty-year "golden age" of postwar, first-world capitalism, 1945-1975, where the prosperity of the working class grew in tandem with the productivity and expansion of North Atlantic economies. This period contributed greatly to the sense of upward social mobility for the daughters and sons of the working class in the shift from blue-collar, manual and industrial labour to white-collar, technical and professional work. The "Professional-Managerial Class" grew from an estimated one percent of the workforce in 1930 to an estimated 24 percent in 1972, 28 percent in 1983 and 35 percent in 2006, just before the "Great Recession."

[21] However, when the "oil crisis" of 1973 hit, and amidst growing problems for capital by the mid-1970s, the promotion of neoclassical or neoliberal economics via right-wing think tanks, foundations and corporations grew tremendously, which has brought in the last thirty-plus years of "neoliberalism": de-regulation of corporations and working conditions; privatization of public services; de-certification of unions, enhanced by growing anti-labour legislation; offshoring and outsourcing of unionized and large-scale industries. Although it was blue-collar workers who were hit first by this wave, increasingly the PMC has been the target for squeezing out greater productivity and profits. Thus, in a recent essay, Ehrenreich and Ehrenreich [xxi] argue that the PMC is "in crisis", as its position between labour and capital has meant that it, too, has been under continuous assault since the late 1970s. Some 35 years later, the hollowing out of the "middle class" is a result of the policies that have undermined working conditions and compensation—as well as the autonomy – of various (para) professions, from nurses' aides to teachers to academics, helps to explain the rapid spread of discontent, such as that represented by the outpouring of support for public sector workers in Wisconsin in February 2011 (in a march initially led by the teaching assistants' union) and the rapid spread of Occupy Wall Street after September 2011 (note the particular resonance of the Tumblr blog, "We are the 99%," with people of all class backgrounds). [xxii]

The New Right's Cultural "War of Position"

[22] There is a homology or correspondence between the political and economic attack on and destruction of working-class institutions and organizations by capital and its political allies, with intellectual debates on the Left and in the academy where the working class is marginalized. Academics from upper- and middle-class professional backgrounds usually have access to greater cultural and economic capital than working-class academics. When working-class academics draw attention to their origins or personal narratives of struggle they are dismissed or told to "get over it" because they have identified a problem with the academy's claim to being a "meritocracy." [xxiii] It brings into question upper- and middle-class academics' own positions because it raises the flag of privilege, just as race, gender, sexuality and ability do. This dismissal of working-class academics' personal narratives of struggle is another way of keeping those from the "wrong side of the tracks" from speaking out on those (class) differences which illustrate and exemplify how the different "ladders of opportunity" (means of ensuring a "meritocracy") are structured within society itself. It might also bring into question the belief that once you have acquired a middle-class professional job you lose any kind of class awareness or consciousness, despite the early years of socialization and the inculcation of values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours through the ISAs of class: family, neighbourhood, school, religion, culture. It also assumes that class can be reduced to purely economic considerations, which plays conveniently into the middle-class ideology of "individualism" where social mobility is seen as a sign of an individual's "merit."

[23] Despite the upward mobility for professionals from the working class, it does not somehow mean that they are unaffected by the economic limitations of their origins. Such belief ignores the economic advantages that upper- and middle-class families provide their offspring, which contributes to continued stratification within the academy. The economics of class stratification in postsecondary education will translate into greater debts for working-class versus upper- and middle-class students over the longer term. This disadvantage might become more pronounced the longer one spends in graduate school and before starting a full-time job (if you are lucky enough to get one). All of this means years without full-time income, with the costs for attending conferences, job interviews and other aspects of the professional networking process compounding the debt from those (ever higher) tuition fees; these are all costs that disadvantage working-class scholars much more than academics from the upper- and middle-classes. The economic needs of one's family and the economic demands to be able to participate in the middle-class professional lifestyle required of the professoriate work to erode any kind of financial advantage that postsecondary employment had for working-class recruits. These costs have only been compounded since the "Great Recession" started in 2007-08.

[24] The marginalization of class within the academy has taken place as the impact of other social movements has led to a greater emphasis on other (wrongly neglected) identities, such as gender, race and sexuality. This is not to suggest that any of these identities should be ignored or that they are responsible for the marginalization of class. However, class as a key social-economic category has been sidelined, albeit not completely ignored; it largely exists as a sub-category within these other identities. While university-educated, white, heteronormative, professional and upper- and middle-class males remain in a dominant position, corresponding with their political-economic dominance, white working-class males and females have largely been relegated to a "rump" status fit only as objects of humour, satire and parody.

[25] During the last thirty-plus years of neoliberalism's ascendancy, the New Right engaged in a culture war, that has on one hand sought to appeal to the "authoritarian populism" of sections of the (white, male, skilled) working class to win elections (e.g. the so-called "Guns, God and Gays" strategy of the Republican Party in the 1980s and 1990s), while on the other hand, it engaged in a political-economic war that stripped that same working class of its institutions and organizations, such as unions, and power to increase compensation relative to productivity improvements at least. The working class, as both a term and a means of identification, has been under constant social and cultural degradation, misrepresentation and ridicule. The rising social and industrial unrest of the 1960s and 1970s was perhaps most effectively attacked by US President Richard M. Nixon's political and rhetorical strategy of appealing to the so-called "silent majority" and pitting "hard hats" against "student protestors."

[26] Thus, with the rise of neoliberalism over the last thirty-plus years has meant that the phrase "working class" has itself practically become a term for which the meaning has shifted to stand in for a very narrow social group, rather than a class, that is probably more marked by unemployment and a hand-to-mouth subsistence which terms like "white trash" or "welfare queens" connote. What happened subsequently is that the people for whom the concept and phrase "working class" is (or was) a form of identification, around which they could organize, educate and mobilize, in alliance with other marginalized groups, have lost the means around which to develop a position, which can challenge neoliberalism's political-economic interests. In the UK, for example, Owen Jones has outlined how the "working class" has come to fit a very narrow definition, for which the term "Chav" is the most recent derogatory expression and to which comedy shows and others are encouraged to express their disdain towards them via humour. [xxiv] The definition of working class comes to be narrowed, from both a general sociological understanding and a Marxist understanding of the working class as an integral social formation within the relations of production under capital, [xxv] to a term of abuse.

[27] This cultural war has been, wittingly or not, taken up by many on the left and from amongst social movements where a few stereotypes of "rednecks" and "chavs" stand in for the "working class," even as the New Right constructed an image not dissimilar for electoral purposes while targeting the same class "economic-corporative" interests (e.g. high wages, benefits, unions). For example, the appeal of right-wing Christian groups and politicians in the USA helped to construct a type of working-class stereotype (e.g. "redneck") which played into urban(e) middle-class professionals' ignorance of working-class people. Since such people were "feared," they became objects of humour to make them appear "harmless." [xxvi] Ridicule is a means that is used to pressurize us into "covering up' our origins, since the growing association of working-class social, linguistic and cultural aspects with homophobia, racism, sexism, militarism and imperialism, for example, work as connotations which militate against open expressions of identification with and support for the working class. At the same time, the emphasis on identity and the politics of representation have generally excluded a key category, "class," except where it has been subsumed as a secondary category within race, ethnicity, gender, ability and sexuality. The importance of "class" as a category is directly related to the political-economic structure and is therefore indicative of one's place within the forces and relations of production; other forms of identity intersect with class and they will affect one's position within broader aspects of power relations in society.

"The Personal is Political" OR "How I Became an Organic Working-Class Intellectual"

[28] Raymond A. Mazurek's overview of autobiographical writings of working-class academics highlights key areas of concern in their workplace experiences. These include the denigration of teaching, the lack of "solidarity" amongst faculty (particularly as compared to solidarity on the factory floor), and resentment at careerist colleagues or lack of participation in committees by other faculty. I was surprised at how much these values, which have propelled me into acting as a faculty advocate and activist, and experiences of these narratives resonated with my own experience at university. The first aspect that Mazurek notes from the first anthology, Jake Ryan and Charles Sackrey's Strangers in Paradise, is that most contributors "reveal a deep alienation from the academic workplaces where they seemingly thrived," which they suggest is the result of internalizing class conflict when one crosses class boundaries. [xxvii] Alienation is an important facet of understanding working-class academics, whether or not they become organic or traditional intellectuals, since they might have experienced a profound sense of alienation from their own class during childhood or youth, when they were identified and tracked as "worker-kids" who showed promise for post-secondary education.

[29] Both Ira Shor and Paul Willis, for example, identify aspects of how this works in terms of those working-class kids that show an aptitude for academic study who are marginalized within the school. As Shor recounted about his own childhood:

I passed the [IQ] test by twenty points and my life changed. They identified me as part of the fraction of worker-kids to be tracked on to the university. In their enveloping expectations, I was grateful. It meant that I wouldn't have to live forever on drab streets bordering a dismal swamp. The friends who failed that test faded from my life year by year. Both groups became defensive about the different lives in store for us. We all knew what it meant to be bottled up at the bottom. [xxviii]

Shor's description of alienation and division amongst working-class children resonates with my experience growing up in Canada. An unspoken sense of difference arises as schooling progresses towards graduation, between those destined for university and those destined for manual labour. Those who dropped out of my junior high school to take jobs were looked up to by most of us (pronouncing the school's name, "Colquitz," as "Call-it-Quits" summed up our attitude to the school and schooling). Not all, however, will necessarily be alienated from their class, whereas others cannot wait to leave it all behind. [xxix] Many working-class academics speak of ambiguous feelings about their origins, which I too have experienced. Just as some smart kids chose not to opt into the academic route, others of us accepted being tracked by school authorities for university as our fate, even if we were not sure exactly where it would take us.

[30] The experience of alienation from one's own class in school helps to prepare working-class students for feeling alienated in university. I really only became fully conscious—and accepted—that I was working class after I started attending university, where the advantages of wealth were only too readily apparent, and not just in terms of personal consumption (e.g. clothes, shoes, restaurants) and at my friends' parents' homes, but also in terms of making choices for holidays (e.g. skiing or swimming destinations versus more work hours to earn more) and summer work opportunities (e.g. differences in types of jobs and money). Working-class academics cannot necessarily go back to their neighbourhoods and local working-class cultures as easily either particularly the longer they are away and acquire "second language" and social skills.

[31] Although working-class kids don't always get working-class jobs, those who do exert agency through forms of resistance to school authorities, for example, ensure their future within the class of their birth, which Paul Willis argues is still "agency." [xxx] Kevin Railey also argues that the desire to leave the working class behind is also an example of another form of agency, [xxxi] and it is a desire that many of us have too (especially when we see what is on offer for work), which could be interpreted as in keeping with the dominant ideology of competitive individualism promoted via the ISAs.

[32] It is important to recognize that, since education performs work integral to maintaining the dominant social order, the tracking of working-class pupils into the academy is integral to its stability and securing hegemony. This process of tracking working-class students was not necessarily one of which my brothers and I were fully aware since we came to "believe" that we sought for ourselves a university education and middle-class career. However, our sense of "agency" was a process of negotiating with our parents as their desire for us to better ourselves by encouraging (pushing?) us towards university and therefore they cooperated with school authorities to provide the opportunities that they themselves never had.

[33] My working-class father left school at 13 and by 17 he was a union organizer, although he became very critical of unions. An autodidact, my father encouraged us to read and write, to question ideas and to stand up for ourselves. As I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, my father was in and out of work, training and adult education, with my mother working at home doing piece-work as a seamstress or full-time as a government clerk until another one of my siblings came along. Once my father obtained permanent, unionized work, my mother, a "refugee" from East Germany, focused on looking after the children (eight including foster brothers). Both emphasized the kinds of learning and cultural capital that does not appear to be "quantifiable" or "monetized" and although they wanted a better life for their children, their values also reflected society's patriarchal values: their sons were encouraged to go to university while their daughters were not.

[34] It feels awkward to claim to be an "organic intellectual" of the working-class, although this is what I realize that I have been in the process of becoming since I was a teenager. At the age of 12 years, I first referred to myself as a "socialist," shortly after I had started working after school; at 13 years I read The Communist Manifesto for the first time (my father shortly after lent me a biography of Lenin); by age 14, when revolutionary socialists were going door-to-door in the neighbourhood, my mother insisted that of ten people in the house, they would most likely want to speak to me. Yet, the only real "politics" at secondary school was a group of us getting students to walk out en masse on sunny days because school was just a "holding tank." Unbeknownst to me at the time, my nickname amongst some of my peers was "The Bolshevik." It might have been a consequence of discussions about politics or about those employers who ripped us off (i.e. "wage theft") (we all had jobs). As my politics became more directly and concretely related to my experiences of working for money so too did resistance to and criticisms of work (and school).

Theorizing Working-Class Academics: An Outline of Their Functions

[35] The first proposition is that working-class academics are recruited into postsecondary institutions for the same reason that middle- and upper-class academics are: they meet the criteria necessary to become "knowledge producers" and educators, who "teach the teachers" and reproduce specialist intellectuals, such as managers for business, nurses for hospitals, and journalists for the media. They also serve to "re-produce" organic and traditional intellectuals for all levels for maintaining the stability of the dominant social order. As the corporatization of universities continues apace, there is greater demand from private sector firms for (publicly subsidized) research and development: a role for specialist intellectuals within and without the academy.

[36] The reproduction of specialist intellectuals, which has increased with the expansion of the "knowledge economy," can only be met with the constant squeezing of labour, as in the rest of the economy. The differentiation of academics within the university's hierarchy creates subordinates, which match the value(s) attached to a particular "specialization" for capital. Those who enter the academy from higher up in the social (class) hierarchy have a greater advantage in being able to draw upon the financial resources and cultural capital necessary to participate successfully in reproducing themselves than the others lower down the hierarchy.

[37] Second, working-class academics are useful examples of the "success" of the system, although this "success" is mixed. For example, succeeding in obtaining employment as university faculty is seen as an example of social mobility, even if their salaries have deteriorated substantially over the last 30 years because the popular myth of professors as comfortably upper-middle class persists. The "success" of working-class academics also does not raise the economic costs of the middle-class, professorial lifestyle such as the need to buy dress clothes or attend conferences for professional networking. Nonetheless, working-class academics are more likely to have obtained positions at the lower end of the range of post-secondary institutions, such as community colleges and primarily undergraduate teaching universities (such as those that I have taught at in the UK and Canada since 1993). Regardless, such examples serve to reinforce claims that the system is a "meritocracy," so that blame for poverty can be ascribed to individuals themselves rather than the system. If a poor kid from the "wrong side of the tracks," like myself, can make it as a professor, then "who can complain?"

[38] The range of salaries highlight differences within the postsecondary education sector, including between types of institutions, to which the contribution in terms of the value of the reproduction of labour power has an impact with certain disciplines (e.g. law, engineering, business) providing greater financial remuneration than others (e.g. English, History, Philosophy). These differences in financial compensation, status and working conditions also demonstrate the impact of a "proletarianization" process due to the growing impact of "capital accumulation" via corporatization and "adjunct-ization." These processes, which have seen growing incursions into the work of academics by administrators, sometimes at the behest of external clients (e.g. corporate sponsors), when combined with anti-union legislation and the consciousness of classic "competitive individualism" creates the "perfect storm" for undermining the autonomy of the academy and academics.

[39] Third, one's specialization or politics might contribute to marginalization within the institution; whereas some working-class academics might buy into the system and be successful organic or traditional intellectuals for the status quo, those that are critical and speak out against the system, are likely to have their voices dismissed as "tenured radicals" in the media, if they are even able to obtain access to the mainstream media, which is a sure sign of the success of the last 35 years of the neoconservative "culture war." Those academics are not going to be promoted by administrators in the same way that corporate or university cheerleaders are.

[40] Fourth, part of the process of incorporation and distraction includes the requirement of working-class academics to be able to speak, act and behave as upper-middle-class professionals, with the appropriate "good" habits, which enable them to both survive in the bourgeois university and to climb its "ladder of opportunity." This adoption of the habits, codes, language and other aspects of cultural capital of the upper-middle class, creates a sense of being able to move between two worlds. However, it also reinforces a sense of alienation from their working-class values, attitudes, linguistic and other cultural capital. The amount of effort, time and resources that working-class academics have to put into succeeding in this, their second (workplace) culture may help to reinforce their alienation and distance from the people and concerns of their youth. It is a full-time commitment pursuing permanent, full-time work as a professor, which leaves little time left over for non-career related concerns: between studying for the PhD and applying for jobs and/or post-doctoral fellowships, plus an additional five or six years working for tenure, for those lucky enough to have secured a permanent appointment.

[41] There is also little time for social lives that are not all about networking around careers and taking care of families. Unlike those with independent means or family money to rely upon, working-class academics are compelled to compete for grants and other forms of research funding, in addition to teaching and service duties, to be able to do even basic research that academics with sufficient, personal financial resources do not have to apply for. With such demands on our time, it is difficult to engage in educating, organizing and mobilizing our working-class families, friends, neighbours and strangers into a cohesive social formation fighting for its interests.

[42] Fifth, aspects of academic professionalism and ideology require a lot of personal investment of energy, time and resources, which takes away from becoming an organic working-class intellectual. Academic professionalism, with its arcane discourses and specialized vocabularies, reinforces one's sense of distance from working-class culture and workers' sense of distance from (working-class) academics. This double alienation makes working-class academics more vulnerable to persuasion from organic and traditional intellectuals of the ruling bloc. In effect, potential organic intellectuals are increasingly "at risk" of being drawn away from their own class when they go through ISAs such as the university. Working-class activists risk not becoming "leaders" ("specialists + politicians") and "permanently active persuaders" by attending university and yet there are few places remaining for working-class academics to help one to become an organic working-class intellectual through knowledge acquisition and skill development to be able to articulate counter-hegemonic ideas beyond the "economic-corporative" phase.

[43] The final proposition highlights the denigration of working-class institutions and values, held up as a source for caricature and ridicule, which makes it even less likely that working-class academics can ever "go home again": to identify with such caricatures and stereotypes as "white trash" or "welfare queens." The culture war against the working class, which complements the neoliberal, economic war against working-class "corporate-economic interests," has played a role by making the working class appear to be a much smaller class of marginalized people who are held up as objects for pity and charity, or to be feared, rather than as people with whom to identify.

Conclusion: or "What is to be Done?"

[44] This article has argued that Antonio Gramsci's concepts of organic and traditional intellectuals are useful for theorizing the role and function of working-class academics. These propositions help to identify how their role and function in society contribute to the hegemony of the dominant social order, which include the ways in which the working class is denuded or deprived of its organic intellectuals. It is hard to be an organic, working-class intellectual when employed as an academic because of the (dis)incentives and obstacles within the higher education system, although the growing deterioriation of the working conditions for the majority of faculty means that increasingly one must question what is the attraction of the academy. What might one do if one wishes to become an organic intellectual for the working class and not the dominant social order?

[45] One option, of course, is to remove oneself completely from academia and all its demands and seek an alternative means of earning a living or, more likely, sustaining oneself as an "organizer" and "permanently active persuader." However, unlike the New Right which is funded by those at the top of the dominant social order, there are only a few working-class organizations left at present (and possibly some non-governmental organizations) that can support more than a handful of organic intellectuals. Since the academy ceased to be a means to a secure, middle-class lifestyle, despite popular myths of the "ivory tower," for the majority of faculty for the last three decades, it might in point of fact be one of the places to engage in the struggle over our working conditions (and students' learning conditions) since higher education has become an integral part of the transition into work for the "knowledge economy."

[46] If you start where you work, this means attempting to work with your local union (branch) or faculty association: e.g. raising awareness about working conditions or threats to academic freedom; supporting student and support staff struggles. I first became active doing media relations work for my faculty union to support a strike by support staff. I became involved in communications work around negotiations, but I also pushed for regular communications with members outside of negotiations. It took a few years but the WLUFA advocate was finally established in 2012, followed by a blog and other social media. Read by faculty across Canada, WLUFA advocate has by its very existence encouraged faculty resistance to corporatization and attempts to impose bureaucratic power, albeit not always successfully.

[47] Even if there is no union or association, you can still form a small group of like-minded colleagues that can become a focus for dissent. Although I have a long history of working with my union, I started the "Independent Faculty Caucus" which stimulated faculty interest that has helped to mobilize opposition to the senior administration's incursion into academic decision-making processes. Perhaps, great oak trees can grow from small acorns.

[48] If you have a position with tenure, then you could become active supporting those who are most vulnerable: e.g. contract or adjunct faculty; food services, physical plant and maintenance, and clerical support staff; and students, particularly graduate students, who are the ones who are most likely to end up as adjuncts. I have made the situation of contract faculty a particular focus in my work over the last seven years because they are critical to ensuring that we can provide the best quality education in one of the most popular programs at the university I teach at; for this reason, I have tried to alert tenured faculty to their vulnerability to senior administration's growing control over academic decision making powers via a strategy of divide and rule. [xxxii]

[49] Develop an area of expertise within your discipline that can be applied to social, political, economic or cultural struggles. For example, rhetorical analysis, social movements and alternative media are areas that I have studied, researched and taught and they have contributed to my ability to help others within and outside the academy. Even if your areas of expertise do not appear to lend themselves to such struggles in terms of your subject matter, your skills in critical thinking and analysis, research and writing, and teaching and presentations, are generally quite useful to many groups, particularly those without ready access to specialist intellectuals in the academy. For working-class and poor people's organizations, these connections are probably not developed or obvious. At universities, there are plenty of people working for corporations as consultants outside their professorial duties as well as some who contribute to non-governmental organizations, campaigns and charities. However, there are usually no official connections with grassroots labour and working-class organizations.

[50] Outside the academy, one can engage in working with migrant workers' centers, human rights or environmental campaigns, and/or working-class political organizations and parties. I have applied my knowledge and skills in support of the local labour council, minimum-wage campaigns and anti-poverty groups, as well as running workshops on media skills for different movement activists. Important to Gramsci's concepts is the link between organic intellectuals and their organizations since an effective, organic working-class intellectual is "embedded" in her social formation and works to be part of its concrete hegemonic apparatus – for a future, truly egalitarian society.


I wish to thank Carol Siegel for her suggestions and encouragement in the revision of this article.


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[i] Paraphrasing John Lennon's famous song, "Working-Class Hero."

[ii] E.g. John W. Curtis and Saranna Thornton, Losing Focus: The Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 2013-14 (Washington, DC: American Association of University Professors).

[iii] Antonio Gramsci, "Antonio Gramsci," in (eds) Tony Bennett, Graham Martin, Colin Mercer and Janet Woollacott, Culture, Ideology and Social Process: A Reader, (London: Batsford Academic and Educational Ltd with Open University Press), 1981, p.210.

[iv] Althusser, Louis, "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses," in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (London: New Left Books), (1970) 1971.

[v] Peter D. Thomas, The Gramscian Moment (Chicago: Haymarket), 2009, p.416.

[vi] Antonio Gramsci quoted in Thomas, The Gramscian Moment, p.416.

[vii] Antonio Gramsci quoted in Thomas, The Gramscian Moment, p.416.

[viii] Thomas, The Gramscian Moment, p.416.

[ix] Thomas, The Gramscian Moment, p.416.

[x] Thomas, The Gramscian Moment, p.421.

[xi] Thomas, The Gramscian Moment, p.421.

[xii] Thomas, The Gramscian Moment, p.421.

[xiii] See, for example, Tom Steele, The Emergence of Cultural Studies (London: Lawrence & Wishart), 1997.

[xiv] The classic work on deskilling is Harry Braverman, Labour and Monopoly Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press), 1974.

[xv] Raymond A. Mazurek, 'Work and Class in the Box Store University: Autobiographies of Working-Class Academics," College Literature 36(4) (Fall 2009), p.153, is drawing from Jake Ryan and Charles Sackrey (eds) Strangers in Paradise: Academics from the Working Class (Boston: South End Press), 1984.

[xvi] E.g. Deborah M Herman and Julie M. Schmid (eds.) Cogs in the Classroom Factory (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger), 2003.

[xvii] For example, a dentist's overall mean annual salary is $168,070, whereas a number of postsecondary teachers are listed with mean annual salaries in $60-75,000 range. The top 90th percentile of bus drivers are around $60,090. US Department of Labor. Bureau of Labor Statistics. National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, United States (May 2013) «http://www.bls.gov/oes/2013/may/oes_nat.htm#00-0000».

[xviii] The results from the 2013-2014 survey of tenured and tenure-track faculty at four-year colleges and universities was conducted by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR). The survey results were posted at HigherEdJobs.com: «http://www.higheredjobs.com/salary/salaryDisplay.cfm?SurveyID=28».

[xix] Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich, "The Professional-Managerial Class," Radical America, 11(2) (March-April 1977), pp. 7-31.

[xx] See the debate in Pat Walker (ed) Between Labor and Capital (Boston: South End Press), 1979.

[xxi] Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich, Death of a Yuppie Dream: The Rise and Fall of the Professional-Managerial Class (New York: Rosa Luxemburg Foundation), 2013.

[xxii] To see the range of stories of people of all different social classes, scroll through the website: «:http://wearethe99percent.tumblr.com».

[xxiii] Christine Overall (1995) "Nowhere at Home: Toward a Phenomenology of Working-Class Consciousness," in This Fine Place So Far From Home: Voices of Academics From the Working Class, edited by C. L. Barney Dews and Carolyn Leste Law (Philadelphia: Temple University Press), p. 211.

[xxiv] Owen Jones, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class (London: Verso), 2011.

[xxv] Michael Zweig (2007) "Six Points on Class," in Michael D. Yates (ed) More Unequal: Aspects of Class in the United States (New York: Monthly Review Press), pp173-182.

[xxvi] In the UK, comedy has targetted "chavs." See Sharon Lockyer, "Dynamics of Social Class Contempt in Contemporary British Television Comedy," Social Semiotics, 20(2) (April 2010), pp.121-138, and Jones (2011) for examples.

[xxvii] Mazurek, "Work and Class in the Box Store University: Autobiographies of Working-Class Academics," p.155.

[xxviii] Ira Shor, Critical Teaching and Everyday Life (Montreal: Black Rose Books), 1980, p.xiv.

[xxix] E.g. Kevin Railey, "Notes From Another Underground: Working-Class Agency and the Educational Process," in Alan Shepard, John McMillan and Gary Tate (eds) Coming to Class: Pedagogy and the Social Class of Teachers, pp170-181, 1998.

[xxx] As per the subtitle of Paul Willis's Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs, London: Saxon House, 1977.

[xxxi] Railey, "Notes From Another Underground: Working-Class Agency and the Educational Process," 1998; Willis, Learning to Labour, 1977.

[xxxii] My most recent contribution is "Solidarity in the Ivory Tower," in Academic Matters (Fall 2014) available at: «http://www.academicmatters.ca/2014/10/solidarity-in-the-ivory-tower/».