Cheese Board; “The Language of Post-Socialist Discourse is Rotten but the Concept is There”; “What’s the 500 million dollar deal?”

After the meeting at the Labor Center I biked over to the Cheese Board and decided to stand in line with the rest of the crowd. The Cheese Board is a co-op. It began as a simple store where you could get bulk cheese cheap. Then they added a bakery and sold coffee and put chairs on the sidewalk. Over time, it became a destination for gourmet shoppers so now you can buy cheese aged in a cave in Mongolia if you want, for large amounts of money per ounce. They also opened a pizza place next door. It’s a “scene.” They make one kind of pizza per day, serve wine and beer and have about ten ovens going at once. The line of people who want to buy pizza goes down the street to the end of the block but moves quickly. There is a jazz band, usually five to seven musicians, indoor and outdoor seating, and they’ve built a kind of patio out into the street, taking up parking places. These are all over the Bay Area now and are called “parklets.”

Today, May 3, there is a floor-to-ceiling sign in one of the windows telling the story of May Day and the Haymarket Martyrs.

Sitting out in the parklet eating my pizza (I bought a half, for $11) and my glass of red wine, I watched the crowd. It’s mostly 30 and 40 year olds. The men are on their cell phones calling home to see if they should buy one or two pizzas. Some families have babies. Small children climb all over the parklet furniture. Two 40-ish women, both wearing plaid flannel shirts, jeans, and hiking books, both with curly gray hair and glasses, are deep in private conversation. A young black woman in a red hoodie, probably a teenager, poverty written all over her, moves slowly along the crowd, asking for handouts. I used to work at a home for girls like her in Oakland, the Fred Finch Home. It was an open campus; our girls tended to run away. This girl looks like a runaway, like someone who is new to the streets and ill-prepared. Everyone, everyone she talks to shakes their heads “No.” If she were on a bus or on BART, the black women would give her some money. Maybe a white woman would give something. But in this all-white crowd, no hand goes near a pocket. The stony expression on her face says, “I’m halfway dead and no one notices.” White people don’t give money on the street. If she walks north from here it’s just going to get whiter and whiter and she could indeed die before anyone gave her anything. I get out a dollar but she walks past without coming over to me.

Going down the line another woman is speaking to everyone. She’s white, in her 60’s, has an armload of petitions and she’s collecting signatures for ballot issues. They’re all very liberal; I’ve probably signed all of them.

Next to me a young black man with a backpack is standing, listening to the music. We nod hello, tentatively. He’s not panhandling. He says he’s worried about tonight; it’s supposed to get cold but the shelters are all closed, since they only open when it’s cold…and in May, it’s not supposed to be cold. He can’t sleep in parks because the police look there first. He says he has a few places on private property that he knows about.

I don’t think I need to say out loud that the scene at the Cheese Board is a living snapshot of the contradictions of our lives in the US.

China’s Working Class.

So the reason I went past the Cheese Board was because I was over at the UC Berkeley Labor Center to listen to a presentation by a friend of Katie Quan’s named Gao Gaochao He. She worked with him at the Labor Institute in China that was shut down last year. He is a professor of Political Science at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, but right now he’s at Harvard at the Labor and Worklife Program (note that it’s not the Trade Union program anymore — it’s part of the Law School).

There were 12-15 people in the room around a curved seminar table, some undergraduates, some visiting researchers, some other people who clearly had a lot of experience working in China. David Bacon came. The title of the presentation was “Working Class Formation in China: Cognitive Dissonance and Politics of Reconceptualization.” He was reporting the results of a study done by himself and his students – and I think Katie’s as well – in 2013. The students went to the train station in the 20 days before spring break, when everyone was going back to their hometowns. In the train stations at this time of year there would be thousands and thousands of people trying to get on trains. The students had questionnaires to ask, each question to be answered on a 1-5 Likert scale. The students were instructed to spread out, choose people coming from different directions and not to choose more than one person per group. They collected 1200 responses. The questions the students were asking were about whether or not the workers felt they were being exploited at work.

Why was this an important question? Well, in China you are not allowed (socially) to use the word “working class. “We could not use it, “ said Gao. They could not use “lao dong,” which is close to the same word in Viet Nam, meaning workers. For lao dong they had to substitute a similar word that means “work issues.” There has been an intellectual taboo, a post-revolutionary blind spot in the whole society. “Working class” refers back to the cultural revolution. To use the term “working class” means putting yourself at political risk. So despite the “self-regulated” economy (we would call it ‘wild West’), the state owned enterprises now having to compete with the private sector, the floods of migrant workers, a production regime based on exploitation, “it is very quiet on the working class discourse.” The industrial relations system supports this silence: labor relations are framed by the human resources model; workers have individual contracts and the labor market is completely supply and demand.

However, it seems to be possible to talk about exploitation. In China now people work under highly exploitative economic conditions, production is mostly in private ownership, and many workers are migrants who have no residency in the cities where they work. But being allowed to talk about exploitation doesn’t mean that you can talk about doing anything about it, or even that it’s wrong. Some people say publicly that exploitation is inevitable, necessary, impossible to do anything about, an inherent part of a supply-and-demand labor market. People say things like, “You can never get rid of exploitation.”

Others just ask if “working class” is still a useful concept at all. Maybe the Chinese will never form a working class because the factory workers still have access to land. They migrate to the city but go home to their villages where they have land. You can’t have land and be working class. At most they will become half-proletariat. When people talk about work under socialism as compared to today, people say “old workers,” meaning the people who work in State Owned Enterprises (old socialist economy) and “new workers,” but they don’t say “working class.”

Gao said, “If we use this kind of lens, we will never see the Chinese working class.”

Political scientists and sociologists have dealt with the study of workers in the face of a constrained discourse by doing stratification studies. They map the working class in various ways. One famous study broke the working class up into 10 strata, with peasants at the bottom. Workers were number 8. This produced some comments: “We’re supposed to be the leading class and we’re Number 8?” Political leaders got upset too: “Why are you doing this study?” Gao says they were afraid of triggering class conflict.

This reminded me of Luria’s expedition to South Central Asia and the banning of his results by the CP – for one quickie version of that well known story, see U.P Gielen and SS Joshmaridian’s paper, Lev Vygotsky, The Man and the Era, in the International Journal of Group Tensions, Vol 28 No ¾, 1999

Looking at the various factors that shape the experience of Chinese working people, says Gao, you should see the basis for creating working class consciousness. And in fact there are strikes, mostly wildcats and factory-based. So Gao asks this question: “So maybe we need to get back to basics. What about the workers themselves? What do they see? What do they think? What do they say?”

That’s where the research project in the train stations began. If you ask workers about their lives, do they say things that sound like working class? Do they feel and act like working class? Let’s turn it around and instead of studying them, ask them. Let’s find out about their recognition of their position, the acts of every day resistance, the reach of their solidarity, the level of collective actions, their ability to imagine alternatives.

So the students went out and asked 1200 people in the train station what their life experience was, their sense of social justice, their experience of collective action, their consciousness of class exploitation, and whether they had a core concept of social class. Was there some kind of bridge between class awareness and class consciousness? They asked, “What does ‘exploitation’ mean to you?”

Gao then showed some slides with the results, and obviously I was not going to be able to copy down the whole thing. He has said that he’d email me a draft of this paper when he writes it up. But for now, here’s what I got:

People recognized that they were being exploited. Types of exploitation were 44% pay-related, 28% job control related. 8.5% seemed to be able to conceptualize an exploited class. 12.4% didn’t know what to day and 7% had no explanation. There was not much variation by gender or job. Unions tend to be a conciliatory factor: people have less awareness of exploitation if they have a union (I’m sure this is true in Viet Nam as well, under the current kind of union that they’ve got).

Since I couldn’t write down the numbers on the slides that worked through the various regressions, where he was trying to figure out what factors would affect the likeliness of a worker saying that he or she was in an exploitative relationship, I am going to jump to the conclusions. The following are from my notes and may not be word-for-word but are pretty close:

“Most workers have a pretty clear idea about exploitation. They say, ‘I don’t get paid enough.’ Exploitation is alive in workers’ hearts. It is viewed as morally wrong. If you step back from the classical images of the working class, you can see the awareness of exploitation and that can be the foundation of working class consciousness and socialism. The language of the post-socialist discourse is rotten but the concept is there. Maybe the working class can come back. Socialism is very much alive in the heart.”

Throughout his presentation I was wishing that we had met someone like him in Viet Nam, someone who has not abandoned the vision of socialism, who can speak not only academic English well enough but understands the kind of historical questions we wanted to ask. We did not meet anyone who met these three constraints: socialist at heart, speaking good English, and willing to talk to us. But his description of the ban on using the term “working class” reminds me of so many aspects of my own experience. For one, being told at UC Berkeley that I could use the word “Marx” in my dissertation only once (and since I was using Vygotskian theory as a framework, that was hard). And then, our colleague the economist who sat with us at lunch one day in the faculty canteen and said, “If the Americans had won the war, the South today would be like South Korea. We would all be rich! And the North would be like North Korea.” This guy was teaching economics out of a Mankiw textbook. I would like to sit with this colleague during pizza time at the Cheese Board and talk about what we can see in front of us. I would ask him, “Do you want this?”

Gao described going to the University of Chicago in the 1980s and taking an economics class from the leftist, Marxist professor Jon Elster, who is described as doing “Analytical Marxism.” Gao says that he had to be re-educated from scratch in Marxism. This also reminds me of the comments about the required 12% of curriculum that is Marxism/Leninism in Viet Nam today.

Jake’s comment on China, where he now has some projects: “They say, “So that’s the 5 million dollar deal? What’s the 500 million dollar deal?”

How much did our student research assignments get past the translation/discourse barrier? We opened the class by saying, “You have to take the workers’ point of view.” In some cases, this worked.





Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

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