More on class and activism

October 31, 2008

I discussed a lot of the issues I brought up in this post with my friend The Historian, as well as reading the excellent posts on Pink Scare.  This led to an email, which part of which I’m publishing here as well.

 Dear xxxx,  

 So I actually spent a fair amount of today, when I wasn’t busy with work, thinking about our conversation last night.  Basically, I would agree that at this moment class seems the best site of struggle for revolutionary change.  I think that’s true because the gains made by other movements, like feminism, anti-racism, and gay rights, have been important but are often co-opted by capitalism.  Capitalism is able to modify itself and live to see another day.  

I will however attach the caveat that such a movement can only succeed if it recognises that capitalism intersects inextricably with racism, sexism, abelism, homophobia, transphobia and other oppressions.  

There are two reasons for this.  First, the intersection of oppressions means that if an anti-capitalist movement isn’t also fighting sexism, racism, etc., it’s probably not doing a very good job of fighting capitalism.  A woman worker’s experience of capitalism can’t be separated from her experience of sexism, nor can that experience be reduced to class.  Moreover, sexism, racism & capitalism all work together – and not just in a simplistic “dividing the working-class” way.  “Heavy care” work in the NHS, for example, is largely done by women of colour because of the combination of gender roles (women do care work) and imperialist racial roles (people of colour as little more than pack animals).  An anti-capitalist movement that fails to understand this can’t possibly succeed.  Our modern ideas of gender & race were forged during the industrial revolution but are not merely byproducts of it.  Pardon the academia, but the relationship is more dialectical; they fed into each other, shaped each other, promoted each other & supported each other.  At this point in time, these oppressions are like a giant ball of tangled wool – it’s impossible to pull at one strand and hope that that particular strand will come free, or that the ball will magically unravel.  Instead, the hard work of carefully picking our way through individual strands lies ahead of us.  

 Secondly,  as with so-called identity politics, a movement based solely on class will just lead to the privilegeing of working-class white, heterosexual, able-bodied, cissexual men at the expense of others.  We will have a socialist utopia where women are still doing all the dishes.  Lesbian separatism came under a lot of fire in the 1970s from working-class women of colour, not only because it failed to address these women’s needs to work with  men in their community in opposing shared oppressions (like racism), but because it just ignored the differences of race and class among lesbians.  Rather than creating a non-hierarchical movement, white lesbians became the elite.  

In envisioning this class-based movement, how we define class obviously matters.  There are disadvantages in this case to both the Marxist and what I’ll call Liberal (North American) view of class.  Interestingly, I think it should be noted that these definitions are not completely separate.  Obviously, the Marxist working-class are more likely to be “poor”.  But, there’s also a fair amount of slippage in how the terms are  used, even among orthodox Marxists.  When I said in the last meeting that assuming that everyone has a garden in London is classist, which everyone agreed with, I was using the Liberal definition.  A well-paid lecturer or accountant can afford a house with a garden, so clearly not everyone in the Marxist working-class is living in flats.  When we object to classist stereotypes in the feminist movement or in the media, like the use of the term “scally” what we are really objecting to is the denigration of the poor.  Our activism also tends to focus on the most vulnerable workers, like the Tubecleaners, who are struggling the most financially.   

The Liberal Definition of class is in a way more inclusive when we talk about organising along class lines, as it extends to basically anyone who is low-income.  However, as you pointed out last night, there is serious potential for conflict within the movement because of different short-term interests (I’m assuming the end of capitalism is in everyone’s interest in the long-run).  Farmers and workers might not necessarily see eye-to-eye because of their different short-term goals – it is not necessarily obvious to farmers why they would benefit from the workers seizing control of the means of production, and certainly small business owners would not like this at all.  Organising around the Liberal Definition would also mean probably not working with the more affluent members of the “marxist” working-class.  However, these people often have the most resources and the most personal freedom, and therefore can participate in social and political movements with the most impunity.  When I was helping to organise my call centre, the reason I was brave enough to do it was the fact that I knew I could afford to lose my job.  

However, there are also serious issues with organising solely along the Marxist definition of class.  First, a lot of orthodox marxists I’ve met have an unfortunate tendency to an “us & them” mentality.  Some of the conversations at the Marxism 2007 conference were fairly bloodcurdling, as speakers suggested with a straight face simply killing the entire bourgeoisie if you wanted your revolution to succeed.   People’s politics aren’t reducible to class – farmers, small business holders, doctors, other professionals, even people from wealthy backgrounds may support or come to support an anti-capitalist movement.  Ultimately, like racism & sexism, capitalism damages the people who benefit from it most as well.  We shouldn’t assume the existence of enemies.  Furthermore, in a socialist utopia, we’re still going to need farmers, doctors, etc.  Someone has to grow food, someone has to cure the sick.  The revolution is going to have to include people who aren’t working-class.  

There is also the issue, already discussed above, of privileging white working-class men by organising solely from a Marxist standpoint.  Affecting both kinds of class-based organising is the fact that other oppressed peoples may simply have different priorities.  Women may feel that sexism is more significant; people of colour may feel that racism is more significant.  They may feel that sexism and/or racism is why they’re poor.  Any class-based movement has to figure out how to reach out to these people and work with them – and not just lecture them about how wrong they are.  I think organising along the Liberal definition of class probably makes this easier.  Women who see sexism as the reason they are poor will still get involved in an anti-poverty  movement, but may not want to be involved in an anti-capitalist movement they don’t see as reflecting their reality.  

My solution is that we should be organising along both definitions of class.  Ultimately, despite my criticisms, I believe the Marxist definition is more transformative, but the Liberal definition is more inclusive and provides an answer to the plight of impoverished people who do not fall under the Marxist definition of working-class.  

I think here it is important to differentiate between short-term and long-term goals.  While both kind of organising should go on simultaneously, in the short-term, the Liberal definition is in my opinion more useful.  It allows the linking together of various groups and social movements, and for increased popular education.  It allows us to improve the material conditions of the lives of small business owners, for example (because no one should be struggling to make ends meet), while working to convince said small business owners of the wonders of anti-capitalism.    Alot of these changes will happen in the short-term within the system – I would favour, for example, government help to small business owners provided certain workplace conditions are met.  This may not be revolutionary in the short-term, but the revolution is unlikely to happen tomorrow and small businesses not only provide jobs, but their owners should be able to pay their heating bills.  In the long-term, organising along Marxist lines is more transformative, but the use of the Liberal definition in the short-term should have allowed us to integrate small business owners, professionals and farmers into our revolutionary society.


But I’ve been busy with real life.  Also, 3 comments were caught in my spam queue which were not spam, so sorry to those of you who were temporarily prevented from commenting.

In clarification to one of the comments:  I’m a Canadian living in the UK.

One thing I find really interesting and sometimes really upsetting about Britain in general and the British Left in particular is that everyone but me and Tony Benn identifies as working-class.  At the Marxism conference a few years ago, I attended a session discussing “non-productive labour”, which I interpreted to mean people working in call-centres and similar areas.  Imagine my surprise then when university lecturers and senior civil servants start discussing the difficulties they face as non-productive labourers and members of the working-class generally.

 Until yesterday, I thought this identification was based on two things.  First, an effort to ignore one’s own privilege.  People identify as working-class so they can think of themselves as oppressed, and therefore avoid having to take responsibility for being middle-class, not to mention being white or male if they happen to be either of those things.  In feminist groups I’ve been a part of,  one of the biggest obstacle to discussing race has been the working-class identity of group members.  People honestly believe that if they are working-class then they can’t possibly have white privilege.

 Secondly, I figured that part of it was cultural, especially Up North.  Most people here actually do have proletarian grandparents – my partner’s grandfather, for example, worked in the steel mills in Sheffield until they were closed.  So people were identifying with working-class as part of their culture without looking to closely at their current economic realities.

 Last night, however, thanks to a very interesting discussion with some orthodox Trotskyists, I realised that in fact, we’ve been talking at cross-purposes.  We’ve been using different definitions of class.

 For me, class is about a combination of things – the amount of money a person earns, the amount of money their parents earn(ed), the amount of options they have at a given time, the choices they are able to make, and envision making and generally the lifestyle they are able to lead.  I know that a lot of this is pretty intangible and nebulous, but so is the concept of class.   My mother likes to say that we’ve been broke, but we’ve never been poor.  Money was tight at various times in my childhood, but I never doubted I’d go to university – and neither did anyone else.  In primary and secondary school, I was seen by my teachers and peers as a bright, middle-class student – the principle demographic of universities in Canada.

 More recently, my partner and I have been flat broke – I mean, “how are we going to pay the gas bill this month” broke.  But if you look around our flat, we have a ludicrous amount of  stuff – a tv, a freeview box, two computers (I have a laptop, he has a PC), various kitchen gadgets, etc., – all bought for us by middle-class family members and friends at various times.  Even when there was mould growing in our wardrobe (I wish I was joking) we knew that if we ever were in serious danger of being evicted, our families would lend us money.  Most importantly, we knew it was temporary – even when things were at there most bleak, we had this sense that things would get better eventually (and they did).

 So, by my definition your average university lecturer is at least middle-class.  They earn a higher-than average wage, they’re very well educated and have options as a result of this, and most of the lecturers I know own their own house and their own car and lead comfortable lives.  They may have debt from acquiring their PhD, but they will be able to pay it off without it seriously infringing on their lifestyle.  This is obviously not universal – a single parent, for example, at a low-paying university may not have a middle-class standard of living.  But on average, a university lecturer is middle-class.

 However, the radical left in the UK tends to use the orthodox Marxist definition of class, which measure your class by your relation to the means of production.  So lecturers are working class because they don’t own/run the university.  When my Dad was working as a salesman he was working-class but when my parents ran their own business, we were petit bourgeoisie, even though we actually had more money and more financial stability when my Dad was working for someone else.  The people with whom I was talking tried to explain this as an issue of solidarity – there is no solidarity among the petit bourgeoisie.  But, actually, my parents continued to be decent people who treated their employees well when they ran their own business, whereas some of the other salespeople at the company for which my Dad worked were completely unethical and had no issues with exploiting anyone they could.  And it’s not just my parents – my experience of working for small businesses has been positive, whereas my line managers when I worked for a call centre (theoretically, my fellow workers) were very happy horribly exploiting me. 

 I don’t think the traditional Marxist definition is very useful today, because it erases the genuine economic privilege held by a lot of people who don’t own the means of production.  There is no comparison between lecturers and call-centre workers.  Solidarity is not going to spontaneously appear between those two groups.  Furthermore, it’s not clear that those two groups HAVE much in common.  Is a middle-class lecturer going to vote to increase her taxes to provide cheap housing for a call centre worker?  We know for a fact that a lot of them don’t.

 The reason for the dissonance between my idea of class and the Marxist definition is a great example of this.  Most radical leftist North Americans would use my notion of class.  The cradle of parliamentary socialism in Canada is the Prairies – farmers who could only make ends meet if they all worked together started a political party.  Socialised medicine in Canada basically started as towns pooling their resources to pay for a doctor who would then see anybody as required – because no one in town could afford a doctor by themselves.  But by the Marxist definition of class, these farmers – who were up to their ears in debt, and there was a depression and a drought happening simultaneously – were petit bourgeoise, ‘cause they “owned” the farms and farming equipment (usually heavily mortgaged) and as such did not sell their labour but owned the means of production.  The fact that they were dirt poor doesn’t seem to matter.

 In other words:  imagine what Soviet socialism would have looked like if the peasants had run the revolution.

 In fact, I think using this definition actually leads to more economic exploitation.  There was a great article in the LRB in which the author pointed out that, according to polls on this subject, most people in the UK, including a lot of wealthy people, identify as working-class.  So why aren’t we in a socialist paradise then?  Because if someone who owns a car and a house and doesn’t worry about making ends meet genuinely believes herself to be working-class, then the people who are struggling, who live in council housing and need benefits, etc., they are then demoted to the lumpenproletariat – an underclass.  If I, as a “working-class” person, has no trouble making ends meet, those who do are just lazy.  And thus, we have a society where everyone is working-class, and using terms like “scally” and “chav” is considered perfectly OK.

 As I’ve indicated above, this definition of class also erases other kinds of privilege. Traditional Marxism didn’t even attempt to deal with racism.  Engels made a brave attempt at dealing with sexism, but ultimately fails to properly account for the origin of sexism.  Yes, it’s probably true that once men got ahold of private property, they felt the need to control women’s reproductive systems in order to ensure that the property went to their biological children – but why?  Why should we care if our children our biologically ours?  And how did men get ahold of property to begin with, instead of women? Engels puts it down to men being hunter/gatherers – but why were they?  And why should that matter?  Especially as in a lot of societies, women are in charge of agriculture (like most of Africa today), so you’d think that land would be in women’s possession, as we were the ones working it.

 If everything is seen through a Marxist lens, then, there is no such thing as race privilege or gender privilege.  Being working-class is the ultimate oppression, and being white does not mitigate this.  There’s not even much class privilege, because there’s no difference between the university lecturer and the woman cleaning the university.

 Unfortunately, having finally realised what the issue is, I have no idea what to do with this information.  Simply saying “look, I am using a different definition of class than you, and also, you’re still white” is not actually going to accomplish that much.  Orthodox Marxists will just say that my definition of class is wrong.