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The Rediscovery of Working-Class Americans (April 2021): Conclusion

By David Cullen


Although whiteness studies, cultural diversity, and the role of race enriched the study of labor history, the importance of Goldfield’s work is his assertion that his colleagues mistakenly persist in repeating the simple analysis of previous scholars—emphasizing the role and legacy of white supremacy, while at the same time highlighting the idealism and legacy of labor power. However, this approach commits a sin of omission. By romanticizing the worker and demonizing the corporate elite, these historians fail to engage with the larger, more complex economic system that both groups inhabit. 

Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents presents a solution to this problem. Wilkerson persuasively argues that the term caste better describes the shared condition of the working poor. Like Goldfield, she asserts that capitalist economies are those where capital is concentrated in the hands of a small class of people, giving them disproportionate market power, including the ability to treat labor as a commodity, namely a material rather than a human resource. The exploitation of workers occurs regardless of their skin color, ethnicity, faith, or sexual orientation. To make this point, Wilkerson explores the shared exploitation of workers in the US, Nazi Germany, and in India under the Hindu caste system. Her work echoes that of other scholars who have broadened their understanding of labor history by examining the impact of capitalism within an international context. Most prominent among these are Marcel van der Linden’s Workers of the World: Essay toward a Global Labor History, Johnathan Levy’s Freaks of Fortune: The Emerging World of Capitalism and Risk in America, Sven Beckert’s, Empire of Cotton: A Global History, Greg Patmore and Shelton Stromquist’s Frontiers of Labor: Comparative Histories of the United States and Australia, and the surprise best sellers by Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twentieth-First Century and Capital and Ideology.

Given the escalating levels of poverty, widening inequality, and the insidious nature of exploitation in American society, labor historians maintain a critical role in helping students make sense of the roots of society’s most far‐reaching problems. Responding to the dramatic events of 1968, historian Richard Hofstadter argued at the time that once in each generation, “the American people endured a crisis of real and troubling intensity,” which produced new ways of historical thinking, as recounted in David Brody’s Labor Embattled: History, Power, Rights. Speaking more on the 1960s, Hofstadter further proclaimed that “the urgency of our national problems seems to demand, more than ever, that the historian have something to say that will help us,” as detailed by David S. Brown in Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography. The current generation of historians have answered this call and, in the process, provide information based on historical fact that is needed in any public debate over the origins of the working poor and potential solutions to combat poverty.