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.
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!
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.
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.