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Social Science History 26.1 (2002) 105-137



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Middle-Class Formation and Class Alliance

Doowon Suh


The fact that white-collar workers share relatively similar experiences of economic hardship and proletarianization across nations but develop clearly different types of trade unionism renders the theoretical relevance of formalist and economist approaches to the class location and class character of white-collar workers questionable. According to this perspective, notwithstanding ideological and logical variants, social class reflects an occupational conglomerate, and class constituents' consciousness, disposition, and action are determined [End Page 105] by their position in the social structure. Analysis of social class becomes a simple task of filling empty strata with workers and debate centers on the demarcation lines within the occupational structure, generating theories of class structure without attention to class agents (Bourdieu 1984). By contrast, historico-cultural, ethnographic approaches to social class, pioneered by E. P. Thompson's monumental work in 1963, turn formalist, economist theories on their head by bringing class agents back in. The process by which workers become class members is considered complex, contingent, and relational: lifestyles, dispositions, modes of collective action, and political orientations blend at a historical juncture in such a way that a class character substantially distinct and sustained enough forms and becomes an important dimension of social structure.

Following this basic theoretical thrust, I examine here how white-collar workers formed a social class independent of the capitalist and the working classes and developed a particular relationship with blue-collar workers. I argue that legal, institutional, and cultural factors are not less crucial than economic relations for middle-class formation; simultaneously, middle class formation cannot be understood apart from the presence and features of the working class. Furthermore, when a bureaucratic and corporatist tradition blends with a liberal and democratic political culture and coexists with a solid but moderately militant working class, class alliance between the middle class and the proletariat arises. Conversely, an intact authoritarian political structure with a socialist, radical working class that accords no special respect to the upper class induces class antagonism between blue- and white-collar workers.

Growth of White-Collar Workers:
Unionism, Feminization, and Gender Segregation

Growth of "organized" capitalism in the late nineteenth century in Western societies had enormous economic consequences. As monopoly capital pursued economies of scale, concentrating and centralizing industrial production sites, the state began to intervene in both economic and other social realms, which produced the class-based welfare state and increased the service and public sector (Lash and Urry 1987). Moreover, growing separation of ownership from control and technical division of labor within the workplace fostered complex managerial hierarchies, organizational devices invented by capitalists [End Page 106] to supervise new sectors of white-collar workers who took over their former function of coordination and surveillance of labor processes (Edwards 1979). 1 These new groups of white-collar workers became increasingly diversified as managerial, administrative, professional, technical, clerical, and sale employees shared a sociopolitically important potency, while blue-collar workers' social significance decreased with their proportional presence in the overall labor force. Around the turn of the twentieth century, white-collar workers constituted approximately 10% of the economically active population in the United States and Germany; by the 1940s, the figure was nearly 25% (Kocka 1980: 19). England showed the same trend: in 1911, 80% of the employed were manual workers; in 1951, 70% (Abercrombie and Urry 1983: 3). 2

These diverse white-collar workers were privileged over manual laborers socially and economically, but their advantages were far from secure from internal and external factors for change. As employers invented scientific management to enhance managerial efficiency and maximize profit (thus creating a mechanized, standardized, and rationalized labor process and workplace) white-collar workers became gradually proletarianized, with some difference in degree and process, but not in kind, by nation. Such proletarianization began in the early twentieth century and accelerated throughout the Great Depression and the two world wars. 3 During the inflationary period after World War I, German white-collar workers largely lost their previous relative socioeconomic security. Life-long occupational careers became vulnerable to market...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-8034
Print ISSN
0145-5532
Pages
pp. 105-137
Launched on MUSE
2002-03-01
Open Access
No
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