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Working-Class Suburb, by Bennet M. Berger

Status in the Factory
Working-Class Suburb: A Study of Auto Workers in Suburbia.
by Bennett M. Berger.
The University of California Press. 143 pp. $3.50.

 

“What will happen to the worker,” David Riesman asked in his introduction to Eli Chinoy’s Automobile Workers and the American Dream, “when he has his ‘nice little modern home?’” Working-Class Suburb describes such workers, semi-skilled production workers who got their nice little modern homes en masse, when Ford moved its assembly plant in Richmond, California, to Milpitas, a town several miles north of San Jose. Practically all the workers followed the plant, exchanging their apartments in a drab industrial city for new homes on a semi-rural suburban tract. After they and their families had been living in these homes for two and a half years, Dr. Berger entered with his questionnaire. His assumption was that these families would exhibit symptoms of the suburban syndrome he had been reading about in Fortune and Harper’s—symptoms such as transience, anxieties about getting ahead, social hyperactivity, conformism, lack of privacy, political conservatism, and concern about status.

But what Dr. Berger found is happening to these workers, now that they have entered the mainstream of the affluent society, is practically nothing. Neither they nor their wives ran to join the Republican club as soon as they became home-owners. They still don’t think wine with dinner is “nice”—it’s for “Dagos” to serve with lasagna. They have few fears about status and no aspirations or expectations of future advancement beyond the most minimal salary increments. In other words, although they are earning as much money and enjoying as much domestic comfort as many white-collar suburbanites, they have remained, in a very meaningful sense, working-class people. That is how they define themselves—basing their definition on the purely occupational criteria that they work with their hands, for an hourly wage, in a factory. They know that what they do eight hours of the day, five days a week, determines their life-style, and nobody can fool them into thinking otherwise. The minority who call themselves “middle class” do so hesitatingly and with ambiguous overtones that reflect the confusions of prosperity. One man explained that “around here, the working class is the middle class.”

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Why is it that these people, unaffected by whatever it is in suburban living which supposedly creates a distinctive life-style, have maintained their realistic common sense in the midst of what, for them, is enormous economic prosperity? Apparently the answer depends on the fact that their advancement was collective: they have been buoyed up by the shift of an entire group. In our highly organized society, such movement has replaced the individual mobility of previous eras which held both greater triumphs and greater anxieties for the individual.

Suburbia, then, is a place, not a way of life. But where does this conclusion leave the image of suburban living on which such a booming business in social commentary has subsisted for the past five years? This image sprang full-blown from the observation of exactly three particular communities—Levittown, Long Island; Park Forest, near Chicago; and Lakewood, near Los Angeles—all of them distinctly middle-class suburbs of very large cities, and inhabited by former city residents working in the white-collar hierarchies of large corporations. In short, the familiar version of the myth of suburbia is the result of a logical error: the typical Organization Man is a suburbanite, therefore the typical suburb is populated by Organization Men.

But such an error still does not explain why the myth is such a favorite of social critics as diverse as the editors of Dissent and those of the Luce magazines. In his book’s finest piece of analysis, Berger offers the explanation:

. . . the attack on Suburbia has interesting and advantageous consequences for the not-quite-completely-critical intellectual. To heap abuse on suburbia (instead of upon the ethos of success and the demanding conditions of social and economic mobility) . . . renders him respectable and harmless—because, after all, the critique of suburbia is essentially a “cultural” critique, not a political or economic one rife with agitational implications. The critic identifies himself by his criticism with culture and taste, but at the same time he does not expose himself to the retaliations of powerful political and economic interests, precisely because his criticism constitutes no direct threat to them.

In reality, the suburbs are as heterogeneous as are the different sections of large cities, and the style of life in each of them correlates with factors such as the price range of homes, the educational background of residents, and the nature of the region, much more closely than with preconceptions of picture-window living.

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But if these auto workers do not fit the stereotype of the suburbanite, what is the distinctive character of the lives they are leading? Here Berger offers a less satisfactory answer, which suggests that the sociological discipline can itself succumb to a “not-quite-completely-critical” attitude toward contemporary American life.

Berger finds that the workers are quite “well-adjusted” to their “terminal” style of life, and though he never actually asked them whether they liked their jobs, he concludes that the social critics who promote the “alienation from work” doctrine are projecting their own refined sensibilities onto people who really have no compunctions about devoting their lives to completely instrumental and inherently meaningless labor. Berger does admit that the workers are resigned, but he argues that this resignation is consistent with contentment because “the . . . hierarchy of class which is meaningful to these workers is not a conceptual framework that applies to society as a whole, but one that is limited rather to what is possible for them.”

In Automobile Workers and the American Dream, Eli Chinoy, who studied the workers at work and not at home, makes the same point: their aspirations are based on a pretty realistic judgment of possibilities rather than on the traditional image of American opportunity. And, like Berger, he finds that this resignation is characterized by a projection of ambition onto one’s children and an emphasis on security rather than advancement. However, Chinoy goes on to say that this resignation affects the worker and leaves him haunted by feelings of guilt and inadequacy at his failure to win a place on the corporate career escalator. “The [American] social order,” Chinoy concludes, “is thus protected . . . only at the psychological expense of those who have failed”—and who therefore live, as Harvey Swados recently found, ashamed of their enslavement to a job which provides no other satisfaction than a pay check.

But Berger disagrees with Chinoy’s conclusion, arguing that the worker’s resigned “redefinition of mobility” allows him to escape from the despair Chinoy describes. More important, Berger claims that Chinoy projects his own value-bias in concluding that “men cannot spend eight hours a day, forty hours each week, in activity which lacks all but instrumental meaning.” He insists that “in the absence of evidence to the contrary (indeed, in light of the overwhelming evidence that they can and do), statements like this reveal only that wage labor at the factory level seems terribly unrewarding to Chinoy, and that he has sympathy for those who seem alienated from meaningful work.” But Berger’s pseudo-realism is a crude oversimplification. Anyone who has worked on an assembly line knows the truth of Chinoy’s conclusion: men on the line do everything but accept the meaninglessness of their jobs—they fantasize, they play at piling up their output so they can loaf, they take pride in the “style” with which they do their routine jobs, they even identify with the corporation and the product.

Berger’s consoling reassurance that the cripple loves his limp is becoming a fashionable motif among social commentators. Speaking for a whole school of economists concerned with problems of “manpower,” Eli Ginzberg insists that the modern factory worker is as aware as was the 18th-century craftsman that he is being paid for doing something useful; Ginzberg points to the satisfactions that the worker receives from being able to maintain his family at a high level of consumption without having to work as hard as his father did. From another viewpoint, David Riesman rejects as impractical attempts to introduce “joy and meaning” into modern factory and office work; urging further mechanization in order to gain time for the fullest pleasures of consumption, he supports the de-emphasis of work’s intrinsic value.

But Berger’s own findings refute this “tough” view of the worker’s over-all attitude. First, these workers are not lumpen. As semi-skilled production workers, many of them must have manipulative abilities of a fairly high order—it is their jobs, not their abilities, that are routine. They know this, and they are desperate to get out of their jobs on the assembly line: one of them, asked whether he thought he could get ahead, said he already had gotten ahead, by getting off the line. Moreover, although these workers are enjoying wondrous prosperity, not one of them wanted his children to follow his occupation. Finally, while claiming that the workers “have achieved most of what they feel they have a right to expect out of life,” Berger casually notes an “ever-present impulse to escape the factory.”

To assert that workers “can and do” spend their lives at jobs beneath their dignity, jobs unredeemed by any genuine social purpose or relation to real human need, is not to resolve the industrial problem; it is merely to state it. The fundamental error in Berger’s thinking is that men don’t simply adjust or fail to adjust to their work—they are deeply and continually changed by the work to which they devote the longest and best hours of their lives. Only by realizing this can sociologists contribute to the definition and direction of that change.

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