Sunday, June 19, 2011

Have you Forgotten Your Roots?

In and Out of the Working Class, Michael D Yates, 2009

Yates is a well-known left economist in the U.S., one of only two Marxists to hold that position in the professoriate, according to him. Which shows you the complete control capitalist economics has in this ‘free’ country. He’s from a working-class background, and this background formed a touchstone for him through-out his life. Unlike some ‘working class boys done good,’ he did not betray his roots.

Yates grew up in a factory town centered around Pittsburgh Plate & Glass, not far from the mining town where he was born, and where his family lived for many years in Pennsylvania. This book is a collection of essays and fiction he wrote which revolve around the issue of class - the dirtiest secret in America. He is one of those increasingly rare people who basically jumped classes via education, or, in his description, went to the top of the 'aristocracy of labor.' Yates eventually got a PHD, worked as a professor for 32 years, taught working-class people at labor extension services and at union educationals, even prisoners at a local lock-up. However, he never himself worked in the factory or a mine, leaving that to his father, who worked at PP&G, and got emphysema from silica and asbestos dust.

Yates tries his hand at fiction in this collection, and several chapters are fictional situations that closely parallel his real life. In the real world, Yates tried to organize a union for professors, and further discovers the absolute personal politics inherent in academe; helps with organizing a union for college staff; ponders over the best way to teach Marxist economics against the religion of bourgeois ‘macro-economics;” teaches bored middle-class children from the Pittsburgh suburbs about surplus value; confronts the racism in his home town; talks about his time in a strict and robotized Catholic college; and eventually retires from teaching after a nervous breakdown. For a left academic, this book is a must-read. Let me quote one paragraph which shows what Yates was up against regarding his students:

“The enthusiastic first-generation college students we once taught disappeared with the mills. We replaced them with mediocre and uninterested youngsters from the middle-class suburbs of Pittsburgh. These students were not my cup of tea. They saw college as a place to party and a way-station in between high school and the real world. They expected to get a degree, and the better job and money that went with it, simply because they had purchased their place in our classrooms. If they didn’t do well with minimum effort, it wasn’t their fault. The ‘product’ … must be defective. They resented learning and made their disdain obvious.”

Yates enjoyed teaching working class people in his labor-education service classes, or even mostly black prisoners, because they actually understood the world and theory better than the careerist students he normally met. Surplus value is not so complicated when you realize the owners of your corporation are getting paid many times over what a normal 40 hours would bring, even at the best pay. Class is not a foreign concept when you cannot afford a car.

Yates worked for Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers (UFW), and this chapter is the oddest of the book – but true. Yates was on the UFW staff as a professor, working on education, legal and labor issues for the union, and living in a broken-down ranch in California where the union headquarters was. However, there were complaints about the way Chavez ran the union, including from Yates. It was basically a personalist bastion, with no democracy. Chavez’s relatives and children held power with Chavez. One day the union staff had a meeting, and Chavez accused several complainers of being company spies, and threw them out. No facts, no due process, no nothing. Yates was not dismissed or arrested, but his innocent friend was, and Yates left the next day in sympathy. To this day, the UFW is a shadow of its former self, destroyed by Cesar's fame.

Yates ends the book with a cheery fictional cliff-hanger about a new union activist who gets fired, but who wins a 40 to 1 shot at the horse track, and with it thinks he will be able to defeat the company, and continue in the union, perhaps even running for its presidency. But the overall tone of the book is somber – being a Marxist in America is like being an Eskimo in Dallas, and it takes a personal toll on Yates. Better to just think of food and drink, entertainment or family, because that is all the system hopes to leave us with. Yates now drives around the U.S. in an RV, and is a full time associate editor at Monthly Review. So there is life after work.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!

Red Frog

June 19, 2011

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