Tiny tomes, big ideas

Treatise on class struggle mixes policy, autobiography


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On Class is about, just as its title says, class in Canadian society: what it is, who talks about it (or not) and how.

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On Class is about, just as its title says, class in Canadian society: what it is, who talks about it (or not) and how.

It’s a nifty, provocative little book.

On Class is the seventh short-book title in Canadian publisher Biblioasis’s Field Notes non-fiction series that focuses on economic, public-policy and cultural issues. Biblioasis touts its series titles as the literary descendants of 18th-century political pamphlets.

On Class

Deborah Dundas is the Toronto Star’s books editor. Broadly speaking, her book is about debunking the American Dream — and its Canuck cousin — that holds that through smarts and hard work anyone can rise from poverty to, if not wealth, at least middle-class comfort.

Dundas nicely mixes autobiography with stats and public-policy research in her argument.

She grew up poor in the west end of Toronto. She moved 14 times during childhood to apartments in “small brick buildings, the sort you still see around town, gathered in clusters on main streets, tucked into residential neighbourhoods filled with post-war bungalows, near railroad tracks or strip malls, windows curtained with flags and tinfoil and old flowered sheets.”

Through pluck and luck she got to university and eventually joined the middle class.

But the nub of this book is that her story is more and more the exception than the rule. And that the Canadian middle class she finally happily joined is shrinking.

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Derek Thompson

Citing a 2019 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study titled Under Pressure: The Squeezed Middle Class that included Canadian stats, she relates the following: “While the fact that the middle class constitutes 58 per cent of the population might at first glance sound substantial, context is important: measured against previous generations, there has been a steady decrease in the number of people who belong to the middle class: baby boomers had a 68 per cent chance of being in the middle class, generation X’s chances decreased to 64 per cent, and millennials’ chances decreased to 60 per cent, a clear downward trend.”

Meanwhile, the working class not only sees itself as more and more unable to ascend the economic ladder, but also feels increasingly disenfranchised politically and economically.

As a result, especially in the U.S., the working-class left that once voted en bloc for the Democratic Party has, she writes, quoting writer David Broder, “turned in favour to hard-right parties that claim to speak for the ‘losers of globalization’.” Translation: former U.S. president Donald Trump and his Republican (MAGA) horde.

Dundas has penned a lucid and engaging analysis of the issue of class in Canadian society, her analysis enhanced by some properly understated outrage, born of personal experience.

Douglas J. Johnston is a Winnipeg lawyer and writer.

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