I’ve been thinking about ‘non-educated voters’. Not being educated when it comes to the electorate means not having a college degree. To liberals and some socialists, the designation is also a stand-in for class. The oft-cited white working class voter bloc is a group of white people without college degrees.
But this common sense presumption in contemporary conversation frustrates me. Plenty of white people without college degrees are small business owners. There are trade union members with assets, wealth, and strong income who didn’t go to college.
On the flip side, most college graduates are exploited and a good number belong to marginalized groups intersectionally. There are plenty of educated people who are unemployed, underemployed, and precariously employed.
Having a college degree shouldn’t be a stand-in for class. The question is how should education track class politically speaking. I see three responses from three theoretical frameworks—from worst to best: Bourdieu, Althusser, and Dussel. Others have studied this question (here, eg) but I haven’t seen a response like the following.
Bourdieu sees the college degree as cultural capital transmitted by the university. In a social field with this certification, there’ll be people without degrees and people with them. The grads have cultural capital and the nongrads don’t. While this insight gets at something important, it falls short.
The cultural capital idea leads to an imprecise sense of haves/have nots. You can easily graft a concept of class onto it and say that grads are one class (haves) and nongrads aren’t (have nots).
While it’s true that having a college education means a lot, I think drawing class lines around this difference hides the real class distinction between ruling and working class.
You can see this concept at play any time a pundit says “white working class” and defines it as no college educated. Chris Arnade’s front row/back row distinction in his book Dignity does this too. To him, there are two kinds of people in the United States: front row people and back row people. His work is fantastic but from what I can tell the class concept is ambiguous in just the way I mentioned.
But there are better concepts.
Class in a class
In On the Reproduction of Capitalism, Althusser has a section on education, class, and the division of labor. He says that among the exploited working class there is a “class within a class”: those with higher education.
In the working class—defined as all those who don’t have their hands on capital like owners, investors, and the like—there are workers who have certifications, training, skills, and thus higher wages.
This class-in-a-class framework unifies the educated and uneducated as workers rather than letting them be separated. It also maintains focus on the ruling class, who have their hands on capital and exploit the working class. The theory is more flexible than Bourdieu’s. Althusser’s class-in-a-class says there can be uneducated voters in the ruling class and educated voters in the working class, which makes more sense in our context.
Ehrenreich’s infamous professional-managerial class (PMC) is an example of this perspective, sort of. But I think Althusser’s phrasing of class-in-a-class better captures the complexity and tensions when positing a ‘middle’ class between ruling and working classes.
(Erik Olin Wright could also be an example here, since he has all kinds of resources for breaking down class distinctions in modern capitalism. I don’t mess around with analytic Marxism too much since it’s a strange project, but I’m interested to know how he’d parse this.)
Yet the class-in-a-class perspective is still limited. It doesn’t take into full account how education and class articulate with other structures and particularities of our specific formation. Althusser would want to make those kinds of connections but doesn’t offer much for us now. Enrique Dussel does.
Dussel’s Pedagogics of Liberation (which I co-translated), theorizes the coloniality of education and class. Pedagogics is the study of unequal interpositional dynamics, like parent-child, teacher-student, capitalist-worker. Or educated-uneducated.
Dussel says that in colonial social formations the inferior position of the dyad is subject to alterity, or exclusion from a dominant sameness stipulated by the colonial order or legacy thereof. This is particularly true for education in societies formed from Eurocentric forces.
So for Dussel, the educated/uneducated dyad in the US comes from a colonial legacy. Racialized and gendered and nationalized, there is a pedagogics between the parts of the class-in-a-class. The uneducated are excluded from a dominant sameness, following colonial influences.
But there’s also a pedagogics between exploited and exploiters, which can include some of the educated. The key here is that the ruling class has no such class-in-a-class, rather they inherit the position of colonizer and dictate the sameness into which some are welcomed and others not.
The Politics of Categories
Summing up, non-college educated voters are working class, but so are educated workers. Together they form a class-in-a-class with a colonial dynamic at play. But the ruling class is neither educated nor noneducated. Education doesn’t matter in this case.
We should therefore talk about ruling class and working class voters, with educated workers as a subgroup of the latter. This is politically important because we should want to unify the working class.
We want educated workers voting with uneducated workers, not the ruling class. The more we talk and think like these groups are separate classes the further we get from this goal.