to Hell with the Middle Class

Based on the responses to my post last week “Organize the Unorganized?” it must have struck some nerves.  For better or worse.  I gave an extremely brief look at some of the history of organizing the unorganized, dynamics among craft workers, unskilled industrial workers, the unemployed and welfare recipients, successes and failures, problems of social leverage, etc.

Some announced, as though it were news, that organizing the unorganized was hard.  (Could that be why they’re unorganized?)

Others picked up on what I was saying and were eager to work in terms of class.

Then there were those who were offended at the words “organizing” and “poor” appearing in the same post.

… organizing “the poor” depends first and foremost upon becoming “the poor.”  Otherwise, it’s just one more case of salvationist liberals coming in as tourists, to tell the proles how to better live like liberals.

and

You can’t organize a group you aren’t already a member of. As a poor person, I am sick to death of meddling middling middles hand wringing about the poor only to blame us when shit hits the fan (think of all the moaning about undeserving people getting home loans). Unless you are one of us, then perhaps skipping the condescension and following the first rule of being an ally is best- shut up, listen, learn.

etc.  Totally disconnected from anything I had actually written.  My god, people!  Is it illegitimate to campaign for health care reform unless you’re personally sick?  (“But I might someday be sick.”  Yeah, and you might someday be poor.)

So I pointed out that I am unemployed with my benefits running out in weeks, my home facing foreclosure, 61, diabetic and essentially unemployable.  At that point, the tone changed.  But did my words became any smarter because of my revealed status?  And if I got a good job offer tomorrow, would my wisdom then be again discredited?  This is some of the ridiculous shit people get into.  I’ll say for the record that the wisdom of my words — or lack thereof — is the product of over 40 years fighting in the trenches, studying and writing on the history of revolutionary movements in the U.S. and abroad, and hanging out with some people who had an extraordinarily high respect for methodology.  The particulars of my life at any given moment certainly impact my passion.  But the truth is the truth.  Suffering is suffering.  Action is imperative.  Regardless.

AND THE SAME FOR YOU!

Case Study

The destructiveness of this pseudo-sensitivity is illustrated in the following:  San Francisco 1976.  Some of us were tipped off that the welfare department was planning to throw thousands of welfare recipients off the rolls.  We set up a table outside the welfare office day after day, signing people up, making announcements right inside the center.  Part of our campaign entailed knocking on doors in the city’s welfare hotels.  These hotels were the turf of some reverend who told us to stay out of “his” hotels.  Some of the ultra-radicals in the campaign (the most radical, by golly) agreed and we stayed out of the hotels.

And that asshole reverend never lifted a finger to stop the cutoffs.

Yes, there were days when white liberals were telling the civil rights movement how to behave, and men were patting feminists on the head, and the middle class was donating castoff dresses to the Salvation Army.  People fought for the right to define themselves.  But frankly, a once necessary fight for self-determination turned into benign neglect at best and at worst a separatist defense of turf while competing under the rubric of the Democratic Party.  Anyone who’s complaining that the middle class liberals are doing too much to organize the poor is completely out of touch with reality.  (I’m putting that charitably.)

Instead, the lament is how Obama is destroying the middle class.

To hell with that

I don’t really hate the middle class.  But I do detest the way the concept of the middle class is used by people to self-insulate themselves from the suffering of others.  The litany goes, “Why oh why is Obama destroying the middle class?”  “The middle class can’t make it anymore!” and variations thereof.  Hell, Obama is destroying everyone.  I’m sure people don’t mean it this way, but the implication is, “Destroying the poor is business as usual, but threatening ME?  Now they’ve gone too far.”

Oddly enough, I get the sense (please correct me if I’m wrong) that a lot of the people saying this are a whisker away from being what they would call poor.  The fear is almost tangible.  They do feel compassion for the poor.  That compassion permeates this blog every day.  But they are separated from their allies, their sisters and brothers, their fellow human beings, by their very concept of being middle class.

Ironically, the current notion of middle class (unlike the original notion, which was of a class BETWEEN the working class and the bourgeoisie), is a direct offshoot of what was introduced as a centerpiece of the campaign against communism in the 1950’s — America can never go communist because we are ALL middle class.

But to continue, I mean, how hard is it to simply say, “I am working class!”  Then we’re all in the same boat and can work out where to go from there, given our varying particulars.  This may sound like a cheap, simple trick on the face of it.  But try it.  It actually is hard.  It entails going against the pervasive disdain of American liberalism that portrays any concept of class as quaint and old-fashioned at best, and more generally too coarse and impolite to utter in decent company.

Reconceptualizing class

Still, the concept needs some serious re-conceptualizing.  So here I turn to Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, and their books Empire (2000) and Multitude (2004).  I’ve read a lot of stuff over the years, and only rarely does anything blow my socks off.  But their books got me arrested on multiple counts of indecent exposure (and at my age that’s pretty indecent).  They’ve taken the core of Marxist methodology and not just tweaked it and updated it, but completely re-applied it to the modern world.  I’ll not say more, other than to pick out a few things they’ve written on class.  From Empire:

The composition of the proletariat has transformed and thus our understanding of it must too.  In conceptual terms we understand proletariat as a broad category that includes all those whose labor is directly or indirectly exploited by and subjected to capitalist norms of production and reproduction. … The fact that under the category of proletariat we understand all those exploited by and subject to capitalist domination should not indicate that the proletariat is a homogeneous or undifferentiated unit.  … Our point here is that all of these diverse forms of labor are in some way subject to capitalist discipline and capitalist relations of production,  This fact of being within capital and sustaining capital is what defines the proletariat as a class.

In Multitude, they take this further, choosing to introduce the concept of the multitude:

[W]e should also distinguish the multitude from the working class.  The concept of the working class has come to be used as an exclusive concept, not only distinguishing the workers from the owners who do not need to work to support themselves, but also separating the working class from others who work. … at its most broad, working class refers to all waged workers, separating them from the poor, unpaid domestic laborers, and all others who do not receive a wage.  The multitude, in contrast, is an open, inclusive concept.  It tries to capture the importance of recent shifts of the global economy … The multitude is thus composed potentially of all the diverse figures of social production. …

Note that word “potentially.”  Using the best of Marxist methodology, the multitude is not a thing but a process.  Continuing, this may strike a chord with the self-identified middle class:

… the social division between the employed and the unemployed is becoming ever more blurred.  … What is called the flexibility of the labor market means that no job is secure.  There is no longer a clear division but rather a large gray area in which all workers hover precariously between employment and unemployment.

This broader understanding does not mean there is no particularity.  The Facebook group Now Jobless Next Homeless (currently 589 members) is trying to use their resumes to jam the fax machines of our leading Democrats including Obama, Biden, Pelosi and Reid, campaigning for extending unemployment benefits beyond the current 99 weeks max.  Many of us are desperate people, but our leading Democrats say that more than 99 weeks isn’t politically feasible.  Not a single one has introduced a bill to extend benefits beyond 99 weeks.  The heroes of Accountability Now and ActBlue like Connie Saltonstall and Bill Halter are not calling for this.  So much for calling them insurgents.

So everyone in the blogosphere could join Now Jobless and participate.  I recommend this.  But consider the howl we attempted to raise about healthcare.  If we were to raise a similar howl for unemployment extensions through our political locations, that would greatly strengthen hand of Now Jobless, just as their campaign strengthens our hand if only we knew it.  (I’m aware that my use of I, we, our they, etc., is perhaps imprecise due to my/our various hats, so please adjust to taste.)  This would not be hard, but we lack both the will and the cohesion to do so.

But enough of this.  My fingers grow weary.  Better to touch the heart, with lines from a post from last week by nightprowlkitty:

Not “I will help you with your trouble,” but “this is my trouble, too.”  That’s really all there is to it, but for some reason it becomes complicated in action in this crazy world.

… Migrants living here who aren’t citizens are not the only ones suffering.

We suffer too.

It is the same suffering, there is no separation.

That’s what solidarity is.  Always has been.  Always will be.

31 comments

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    • RUKind on May 2, 2010 at 3:52 am

    If you’re a $250k+ family, you are at the bottom of what may be a middle class. You’re still a job loss and some time of no benefits away from being homeless and poor.

    I was dirt poor so long I learned to survive and enjoy life. I was middle class for a long time and I got to travel with a spouse and three kids about the same as dirt poor. Except we weren’t hitching and sleeping by the roadside. That came and went and I’ve been out of work for seven years. I’m 61  and way too over-qualified for any opening that may be out there.

    Fuck it. I’m hard “farming” my half-acre lot and about to add chickens to this suburban street. In my better money times I learned one thing. There are those who fly commercial and those who fly private. That makes a pretty good dividing line.

    My boss and I were both in that upper 5% and he thought he was part of the upper class. It was difficult to point out to him the asymptotic nature of that part of the income curve and just how low he was on it. If there was a GoogleWealth app he might have been a few pixels in this world.

    And for all those of us who are just a pixel of light gray and fading, here’s a present on the MAY DAY – the worker’s day:

  1. I just want to thank you — but I need to do a thorough re-read before I respond.  But, I think from a cursory view, so many of us can readily relate to it all said here!

  2. much less organize them. They consider their biggest problem in life “how to get ahead”, and worrying about the poor doesn’t help them achieve ever more income.

    OTOH, I believe that it’s the case that Americans are amongst the most personally generous in the world. Well, it takes all types, so there’s not necessarily a contradiction.

    I think it might help to focuss the discussion if we talked about members of the poor, middle, and working classes who are not already politically active, but could be recruited into activism. I tend to think that most politically active people are well intentioned, even if their ideas of what constitutes meritorious actions are radically different. So, even one believes that most middle class people are selfish, is there any chance that that really applies to the politically active or ‘could be politically active’ members of the middle class?

    I don’t think so, but I don’t have data on that.

    I’m a big believer in asking questions – essentially getting data – rather than sticking to speculation. I can speculate with the most imaginative of them, but I still prefer to defer to data. The data I’d most like to have is “What would it take to make you politically active? And if you did become politically active, would you only be concerned about members of your own economic class, at least when it came to economic issues?”

    I realize this post is on the meandering side, but I’d like to throw another thing into the mix. A lot of lefties talk about things like ‘economic justice’, having a ‘right’ to economic benefits from the government, etc.

    However, I tend to think about many of these issues not in terms of some relatively abstract notion, but rather in terms of what I consider a natural way to treat an extended family. Basically, people tend to take care of their families, first. They take care of them to the extent that they are able. Thus, I don’t know anybody who tells their children “you have a right to expect us to pay for your college education”. However, most people, I believe, help their kids out with college expenses, if they’re able to. Very few parents, if their kids had trouble getting their first job, would throw them out into the street.

    Likewise, to get the middle class to think about the problems of the poor, and help them out with jobs, e.g., I personally don’t think it’s wise to talk about the “rights” of the poor. Rather, I would emphasize the notion of brotherhood, we’re all in this together, etc. I would point out to a middle class dude that it can be very hard to work your way out of, say, a crime-ridden ghetto, where unemployment for youth – who are typically paid minimum wage – can be well over 20%. I would then ask whether or not they’d appreciate jobs being created preferentially in poor neighborhoods, if they themselves were poor.

    Similarly with health care, I’d ask them how they’d pay $400 / month for health insurance if they were unemployed, or making $400 per week. (Plus, how they feel about $150 of that being wasted by parasitic healthcare companies, etc.)

    In terms of voting blocs, pro-jobs voting blocs should easily be able to span classes. I’m no economist, but blame lack of financial regulation and uncontrolled globalization as the main culprits making us poorer.* Fixing that should be good for working (or want to be working) people everywhere in the US.

    Finally, I’ll guess that the most effective meme to spread to our lackadaisical middle class friends, in order to spur them into the political process beyond voting, is the projections about outsourcing of white collar jobs. Middle class jobs, if you would. If they’re still too dense, selfish, whatever, to get it, well, it’s going to be that much harder for us less selfish people to feel sorry for them when they finally do get their pink slip, and start looking homelessness in the face.

    * Going forward, peak oil may introduce another force into the mix.

    • banger on May 2, 2010 at 2:23 pm

    We live in a culture that says to us: “you have no right to be here.” In other words if we aren’t serving some boss in whatever way he/she wants to be served we’re nothing. We all feel that, we all know that and we need to express that.

    It is a philosophical issue. Are we or are we not valuable as human beings? I say yes but I can also say why. I will leave a treatment of why for another time but we do need to articulate our fundamental values and why we have them. In the United States, as I see it, the main difference between right and left is that the left believes, however clumsily, that we are all connected and the right believes we are all separate and alone.

    On the whole, the mainstream in the U.S. is more right than left and has been steadily moving in that direction. What we need to do is convince other people that collectivist values are important for the individual because the logical result of the rightward drift is not individual freedom but slavery and serfdom.

  3. and it completely changed my perspective on history and society.

    One of the lessons I took away is that the differences between people on the lower rungs of society are largely arbitrary.  Going back to the colonization of the Americas, things like demonizing the native Americans, and treating blacks and poor whites as different seemed to grow out of a need by the owners to prevent their servants from organizing.  Divide and conquer, basically.  Give people with common interests a reason to distrust each other, and they won’t work together against their mutual foe.

    Another thing I drew from Zinn was that there are really only two significant classes.  The owning classes, and the owned.  There is a simple way to figure out which you belong to.  Are you worried about affording medical insurance?  Does the cost of gas impact your travel plans?  Do you intentionally purchase cheaper brands of food, clothing, and other goods?  Do you sweat come tax time?  Are you reading this blog?  Then you are probably one of the owned.  You may prefer a more dignified term, such as ‘worker’, ‘working class’, ‘proletariat’, or something like that, but face it, in the great Monopoly game of Life, you have to pay rent for every property you land on.

    I’m not sure where the bar is set for making the transition between being an owner and being owned.  Certainly, it requires being a multi-millionaire, and it helps if its a family inheritance, not the result of personal effort.  Winning the lottery certainly doesn’t count.

    Regardless, the point I’m trying to make is that every other rung on the social scale, homeless, welfare recipient, working poor, lower middle class, middle class, upper middle class, is a distraction.  These seemingly important distinctions, with their accompanying life experiences, unique culture and outlook, are all lies, meant to keep us, all of us who are owned, from working together and demanding a better deal from our owners.

    I don’t believe that there is a terribly significant difference in terms of security between someone who is ‘poor’ and someone who is ‘upper middle class’.  One bad day, one large medical insurance bill, or a bank screw-job, or a bad decision, could catapult either person into a nightmare in which they lose whatever material possessions they have, and quite possibly their mental or physical health, or even their freedom.

    This classist prejudice, poor against middle class or vice versa, is one of the greatest tools in the arsenal of the owners.  Every time we give in to it, we are playing into their hands.

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