Reply to Richard Wolff on Class Struggle from Above and Below

In the Guardian, Richard Wolff argues that the U.S. Right has adopted an explicit class war rhetoric for advancing its political objectives. In “Class war redux: how the American right embraced Marxist struggle”, he writes:

Conservatives and Republicans are classifying the population into two key subgroups. Gone are images of the US as one big happy middle class. Instead, one class [...] comprises self-reliant, hardworking taxpayers: true social givers. The other class comprises [...] takers who give little as long as dependence saps their creativity, responsibility, etc.

Romney’s campaign showed that conservatives and Republicans increasingly use this class analysis to understand society and construct their political programs. Romney’s campaign also proved the increasing determination of conservatives and Republicans to pursue class war explicitly in these terms.

True! But this was already clear a few years ago (as I wrote here) before the presidential race of 2012.

Wolff is right to observe that “the political terrain has shifted” so that class conflict has become more openly expressed, particularly from above. Yet following the emergence of the Occupy movement, public opinion polls showed that the perception of class conflict amongst the broad public has drastically grown over the last few years, and its “intensity” more deeply felt.

A new Pew Research Center survey [...] finds that about two-thirds of the public (66%) believes there are “very strong” or “strong” conflicts between the rich and the poor—an increase of 19 percentage points since 2009.

Not only have perceptions of class conflict grown more prevalent; so, too, has the belief that these disputes are intense. [T]hree-in-ten Americans (30%) say there are “very strong conflicts” between poor people and rich people. That is double the proportion that offered a similar view in July 2009 and the largest share expressing this opinion since the question was first asked in 1987.

Compared to other societal conflicts, the study shows, class conflict now tops the polls, and is the most significant conflict in U.S. society, above those centering around “race”, nationality, and age.

In response to the class war from above, Wolff argues, is a class war from below, ie. the Occupy movement and similar movements abroad, as was anticipated here.

But I take issue with Wolff’s interpretation of these new movements, or of precisely how they “borrow [and] depart from earlier socialist traditions.” Certainly, he is right to observe that the movements today do not explicitly frame the problem in terms of market vs. economic planning — (though I do think you can to a degree find that implicit in the movement). What I find less convincing about Wolff’s portrayal is his claim that the new (class struggle) movements are focused on building worker cooperatives. He writes:

Champions of the exploited class aim to change the system by ending the division between worker and capitalist inside the enterprises.

If he is referring to Argentina or Spain (where he cites the Mondragon Cooperative), he is on solid ground, but these forms of organisation and articulation are marginal in the current U.S. social movements. I think he is mixing up a normative position with an empirical observation. (Wolff is a strong advocate of workplace democracy.)

If you look at the new class struggles over the past few years in the U.S. — be it, the Wisconsin uprising, the Occupy movement, the Chicago teacher’s strike, Walmart strike, fast food strikes, etc. — the fundamental issues do not resolve around workplace democracy. They are expressed in class terms about wealth disparity, democratic participation and social protection. The Occupy movement in many ways, goes a lot further, posing much deeper questions about cultural and societal transformation.

Yet, hardly any workplace occupations have taken place in the last years. In fact, only one, rather high-profile one, comes to mind. This is the Chicago Republic Windows and Doors Factory, originally occupied by employees against wage and benefit theft, and later turned into a worker cooperative. While this may have inspired some people to think about workplace cooperatives elsewhere, this has not been a significant development in the movements.

Instead, the Chicago factory occupation has had other implications for the new movements. Occurring in 2008, it was the first oppositional action taken against the economic crisis. It was a high-profile case, with supportive statements coming from Obama, against the layoffs and rising unemployment. But the employees’ use of a corporate campaign targeting Bank of America for refusing to extend loans to the bankrupt and corrupt company — funds which BOA had received from the federal bailout — made this conflict into a much broader one, at least on the symbolic level.

There was widespread identification with the workers’ struggle because it was seen as a reflection of broader dynamics and tensions in society following the crisis. It was in the heat of the Chicago factory struggle that the slogan “The banks got bailed out, we got sold out!” emerged.   

That is, the factory occupation did not inspire a movement for workplace democracy. The argument could be made that the movements, in an amorphous way, desire economic democracy, but this has not been developed in the direction of workplace democracy, which is only one specific articulation of it. Instead of worker coops, the Chicago factory occupation aroused a broader democratic movement, expressing disaffection with the state bailout of the financial sector at the expense of the broader population, the lack of social protections, drastic wealth disparity in the face of widespread material deprivation, and the state’s failure to ameliorate this situation. This is the content of the new class movements against the crisis (in a general sense), even if in many ways, the Occupy movement in particular, goes far beyond this.

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