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Division Street

John Dos Passos wrote that the radical critic Randolph Bourne—“this little sparrowlike man”—“put a pebble in his sling and hit Goliath in the forehead with it. War, he wrote, is the health of the state.” In the spirit of Bourne’s “unscared ghost” (JDP again), we offer a slightly more prosaic riff to convey our motivating ire in Baffler no. 63: division among workers is the health of the capitalist class.

The techniques of division mutate like a virus. In battles over unionization, the powerful spend millions on smarmy union-busting lawyers. In politics, the majordomos of the ruling class rely on old-fashioned racism, tweaking the formula a little this way against immigrants or a little that way by ginning up fears of any kind of “otherness.” Always, the idea is that one worker is not like the other. Don’t say proletarian. Don’t even call yourself working-class. The American habit is to pretend most of us are in the middle, while the unfortunates are the poor. And the rich? They’re to be envied.

As Shamira Ibrahim notes in “Redefining the Working Class,” there are a lot of poor people in the working class, often with multiple jobs. They are just as likely to wear hairnets as hard hats. The working class has been defined by scholars in many different ways—by income level, education level, by kinds of jobs. Any way you slice it, the majority of those employed in the United States would qualify. And crucially, as Ibrahim reports, we’re not far off from the point where the majority of the working class will be non-white. You wouldn’t know that by reading most mainstream political coverage, where explaining the voting patterns of the working class is limited to interviewing white guys in the Midwest.

Molly Osberg ( “Brewed Awakening”) zeroes in on Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz as a modern-day union buster with “a weakness for sentimental messaging,” even as the company he says is devoted to “social responsibility” retains a thirty-lawyer team at a notorious anti-union firm. As Osberg shows, the Starbucks suits are hard at work telling baristas “we’re all in this together” while using the old tricks and plenty of new ones to divide their employees. One executive warned that a unionization drive could jeopardize the free Spotify subscriptions the company offers.

Another old trick: a status-obsessed culture tells workers that some jobs are superior to others. The slogan “sex work is work” is meant to contest that notion, and Benjamin Weil (“Sex Work is (Gig) Work”) and Ilya Gridneff (“A Banana Is Not a Penis”) report on the forces arrayed against those in risqué businesses. They aren’t the only workers whose labor is criminalized. Alessandra Bergamin (“Bitter Fruit”) takes us into the world of land defenders resisting the palm oil industry in Guatemala, while Joe Purtell (“News from Somewhere”) spends time with the least respected of all workers—those cast out onto the street. Purtell’s dispatch highlights an Oakland encampment fighting for the right to exist and the resources to survive.

So, take aim at Goliath, and hit him in the forehead. Let your solidarity be the bosses’ infirmity.