Category Archives: class

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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Jodi Dean on OWS, Debt, and Collective Responses to the Crisis

As debt emerges as the central issue for Occupy in the coming year, Jodi Dean argues that the issue locks the movement into an individualist framework, beneficial to the pro-austerity Right, rather than positing a social orientation geared towards the commons. See: Is debt the connective thread for OWS?

Occupy’s relationship to capitalism

In a recent interview in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Mark Greif, participant in the New York City Occupy movement, editor of the magazine n+1, and literatur professor at The New School, commented about the movement’s view of capitalism:

The central figures of the movement want a radical transformation [of society]. For them, capitalism is the enemy. They want, like the sociologist [sic] David Graeber who established the “99 percent” statement, a non-violent anarchism. There is also the group of part-time protesters, for whom they, like myself, come on particular days, after work for example. They have a completely different attitude. I saw a woman speaking to the business people in front of the stock exchange: “I am not against capitalism,” she said. “I believe in the idea of hard work, but I have so much healthcare debt, that it doesn’t matter how much I work, I will never be able to pay it back.” For her, capitalism is not the problem. On the contrary — she wants to be part of the system. The problem is a kind of capitalism that makes it impossible for those people who play by its rules to lead an orderly middle-class existence.”

While Greif is right to identify this distinction within Occupy, the movement’s initial success rested on its capacity to turn this question around. Instead of answering on ideological grounds about its desired social, political or economic alternative to capitalism, it challenged U.S. capitalism to face its own failures.

Slavoj Zizek demonstrated this from atop a soap box in Zuccotti Park when he said: “They tell you we are dreamers [ie. that we are ideological or utopian]. The true dreamers are those who think things can go on indefinitely the way they are. We are not dreamers. We are the awakening from a dream that is turning into a nightmare.”

It doesn’t seem to me that the initial success of the Occupy movement rested on its opposition to capitalism on the ideological level. Rather, it challenged neoliberal capitalism to face up to the material reality it had created, hence the thousands of testimonies on the wearethe99percent.tumblr.com blog attesting to the material deprivations caused by three decades of neoliberal restructuring, the current crisis and recession: lack of access to healthcare, homelessness, overwork, unemployment, insurmountable debt, skipped meals, exploitation, and so forth. The apparent political difference between the anarchists (or socialists or communists for that matter) on the one hand, and those who supposedly “just want to be part of the system” on the other hand, is not significant. All are “waking up on the wrong side of capitalism.”

What drives the movement forward is its most simple demand, that the societal configuration ought to respond to the material needs of the population, and not the other way around. (What some refer to as “economic democracy”, in the widest sense of the term). The question the movement implicitly poses through its actions, is whether the current configuration is up to that task or not.

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On Class and Unions in Wisconsin’s Recall Election

I’m just getting around to reading some of the analysis following Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s successful electoral victory against recall.

First, Abby Scher argues in “In Wisconsin, Union Defeat Doesn’t Mean Tea Party Win” that Walker’s victory did not rely on switching from economic class issues to cultural ones, but rather by framing the economic interests of the population as being opposed to public sector unions.

“While Thomas Frank would assert that blue-collar voters of modest income are swayed from voting their class interest by conservative social issues like gay rights or abortion, [Walker’s campaign] was all about unions and economic issues. [….]”

“Unlike Tea Party voters, who tend to be better off and more likely to slash and burn the social safety net, less well-off voters support government action and a social safety net. But this constituency also feels abandoned by elected representatives who too often ignore them in favor of big donors, he argued. This breeds its own resentment.

If government doesn’t represent them, then why should they support the government workers who make more money than they do?

Instead of a referendum on “economic freedom” and slashing the safety net [which is how the Democratic opposition framed the issue], [Walker’s] attack on public unions managed to focus resentment on workers who are better off than many.

Where government jobs are disproportionately held by people of color, the “government union” talking point can also mobilize racial resentment without mentioning race.

Rather than pure ideology, the Republican strategy of pitting non-unionized private sector workers against unionized public workers is based in the real failures of the union movement, argues Doug Henwood.

In “Walker’s victory, un-sugar-coated“, he writes, “twice as many people (68%) think that unions help mostly their members as think they help the broader population (34%).”

And:

A major reason for the perception that unions mostly help insiders is that it’s true. Though unions sometimes help out in living wage campaigns, they’re too interested in their own wages and benefits and not the needs of the broader working class. Public sector workers rarely make common cause with the consumers of public services, be they schools, health care, or transit.

Since 2000, unions have given over $700 million to Democrats—$45 million of it this year alone (Labor: Long-Term Contribution Trends). What do they have to show for it? Imagine if they’d spent that sort of money, say, lobbying for single-payer day-in, day-out, everywhere.

Like many, on both sides of the political spectrum, Henwood recognizes the weight of this failure for the Left. He writes:

Collective bargaining has mostly disappeared in the private sector, and now looks doomed in the public sector. There are something like 23 states with Republican governors and legislative majorities ready to imitate Walker who will be emboldened by his victory. And there are a lot of Dems ready to do a Walker Lite. If they don’t disappear, public sector unions will soon become powerless.

His suggestion:

[I]f unions ever want to turn things around—and I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that we’ll never have a better society without a reborn labor movement—they have to learn to […] act politically, to agitate on behalf of the entire working class and not just a privileged subset with membership cards.

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Video: David Graeber and David Harvey in Conversation

David Graeber and David Harvey discuss the Occupy movements, social movements, the crisis, and their new books.
Filmed on 25 April 2012 at The CUNY Graduate Center

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FAIR: Bored With Occupy—and Inequality. Class issues fade along with protest coverage

 

Occupy Wall Street is rightly credited with helping to shift the economic debate in America from a fixation on deficits to issues of income inequality, corporate greed and the centralization of wealth among the richest 1 percent. [….] As Occupy slowed down for the winter, though, would corporate media continue to talk about our increasingly stratified society without a vibrant protest movement forcing their hand? The answer, unsurprisingly, is no.

As mentions of “Occupy Wall Street” or “Occupy movement” waned in early 2012, so too have mentions of “income inequality” and, to an even greater extent, “corporate greed.” The trend is true for four leading papers (New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, L.A. Times), news programs on the major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC), cable (MSNBC, CNN, Fox News) and NPR, according to searches of the Nexis news media database. Google Trends data also indicates that from January to March, the phrases “income inequality” and “corporate greed” declined in volume of both news stories and searches.

[FAIR: Bored With Occupy—and Inequality. Class issues fade along with protest coverage. 05/2012]

Anticipating Occupy

In a journal entry in Summer 2011, a few months before Occupy Wall Street began, I jotted down:

There is a vicious campaign underway at the moment against ‘communism’, this despite the utter lack of a Left with any social power. The most meager Democratic Party proposals, or defenses of remaining aspects of the social safety net, minor extensions in unemployment aid, are branded ‘class warfare.’

This comes off as completely unnecessary in face of the absent Left, unchallenged neoliberalism, and the further concentration of wealth following the financial meltdown. Is it a preventative measure against a potential Left? An attempt through discursive power to disarm any possible counter-hegemonic forces from emerging? Do they hear and anticipate a coming insurrection (like Glenn Beck did back in 2009)?

It seems like the Right is pushing too far though. Are they not inadvertently creating an opening for a Left with all this talk about ‘communism’, a potentially different form of society, and about ‘class’, the unacknowledged fact of social life? Are they not over-stretching themselves and putting themselves in danger, by pushing (in the middle of a recession) to raise taxes on low-income households on the grounds that those households are not really poor because they in fact own luxury items like refrigerators? (This is when record percentages of people are living below the official poverty line, alarming levels of malnutrition are being recorded, increasing numbers of people are skipping meals to get by, and even taking their own lives). Is the Right not producing the very discourse which at any time could be turned against them?

Where the Left has been incapable of politicizing the issue of class, the Right has done it instead, creating an opportunity for the politicization of class conflict from below, for a Left offensive. We’ll see if something will be made of this.

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