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Back to Work

Conservatives try—and fail—to remember the pain of working-class communities

The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America, by Oren Cass. Encounter Books, 254 pages.

In The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America, Oren Cass attempts to understand the position of work within our new economy and the place of workers in it. This is in and of itself an important marker for just how traumatic and unsettling Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency have been for Republicans. Cass, a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is the former domestic policy director for Mitt Romney’s recent presidential campaign. Like many conservative Republicans, Cass is trying to understand through a policy lens both the landscape and the feelings of working-class loss and abandonment that J.D. Vance portrays in his best-selling Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. That he and others see a problem and identify workers as now centrally important to Republicans’ future is significant. Cass wants to move beyond identifying and channeling their anger and seeks instead to present public policy that can address the issues workers face. But let’s be clear, this isn’t really a book about “workers,” it is a book about labor markets and (abstractly, theoretically) those who work.

Like many books trying to explain how we got to the age of Trump, Cass seeks a usable past, and as such romanticizes a golden age that never was.  He assumes a time when workers’ “families” and “communities” were strong and this vibrancy was a central component to both our nation’s economic well-being and our democracy. In recent years, he claims, we have lost sight of the importance of work, and because of this, we have drifted into dangerous waters.

The main thrust of his book aims to restore communities and to rebuild a previously imagined America. To restore communities, Cass argues you first have to restore families—communities, as he understands them, are based on a collective of families. To accomplish this restoration, you need to bring back work by changing the labor market. There is a cord that ties work to family, family to community, and community to the nation. One builds on the next. But all stand upon the central notion of meaningful and respectable work.

One of the problems with Cass’s argument is that he never fully or adequately defines families or community, but one assumes he means them in their traditional and historical form—with all the identitarian limitations and exclusions that come to mind. He argues that “a labor market in which workers can support strong families and communities is the central determinant of long-term prosperity and should be the central focus of public policy.” In a rebuke to common thinking among many Free Marketers in the GOP, he continues that “the nations that succeed in the global economy will not be those that pledge blindest fealty to the market; they will be those that figure out which other values need to count too.” For Cass, the biggest issue facing America is that we have stopped seeing the market as a means to an end and now only see it as the end in and of itself.

Returning to a period of valuing work is to return to an era of unions and workers’ collective action, something Cass completely rejects.

As one would expect, the culprits in this story of American decline are Democrats and liberals, who over the past fifty years privileged consumers over producers in economic policy. Cheap goods and transfer payments made consumption a right at the expense of respectable work and stable families. Work became merely an economic exchange, pure as any Marxist would see it, and it was untethered from identity or the value of the work itself. Cass in some odd ways is channeling the labor historian David Montgomery, (author of such seminal books as Workers’ Control in America: Studies in the History of Work, Technology, and Labor Struggles), who has argued that work was more than a mere economic bargain. The process of work gave workers their identity and value and also their consciousness as workers. But, Montgomery argues, it was advanced capitalism (industrialization) that stripped this away, leaving nothing but economic exchange. Cass, for his part, is romanticizing the wrong era. And he also seems remarkably out of touch with the simplest understanding of work and workers. Returning to a period of valuing work is to return to an era of unions and workers’ collective action, something he completely rejects.

He recounts the well-known litany of poor economic trends facing today’s twenty- and thirty-year-olds. But he is most struck by the percentage of families supported by one working parent. Here he echoes many on the right (and even Daniel Patrick Moynihan), but also Samuel Gompers, the founding president of the American Federation of Labor, who at the turn of the twentieth century demanded a “family-wage” system. Gompers called for a wage structure that allowed a breadwinner to support all other family members so that the family could remain whole. For Gompers that meant male breadwinners and stay-at-home wives and mothers. Cass, along these lines, relies on a dated understanding of families.

For Cass “the labor market is not like other markets: people are not products.” He argues that we need to see dignity in all work, rather than seeing work only as the cash nexus it has become. For him, the physical act of work is both a means and an end. There is honor in work, a community in work, and values emerging from work. This is why he opposes a Universal Basic Income, as it separates the physical act of work and all that it signals from the actual income. He argues that UBI kills work and therefore also kills families and communities, too.

Cass presents us with a book that demonstrates a renewed interest in work from conservatives. It demonstrates how they are stumbling for a set of policies that address the pain working-class communities have endured, without recognizing their culpability in policies that destroyed unions and safety nets. Maybe simply recognizing that the pain is real and that current Republicans have too long ignored the problem is the first step?