Wednesday , May 22 2024
Class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs.

Reflections on Class, Class Consciousness, and OWS

“Class” is a touchy subject in American political parlance. Any talk of class – apart from the purely descriptive sense of the term whose main purpose is taxonomical, to tell you where you stand along the American hierarchy of values and our peculiar measure of success – is bound to be disturbing because it runs counter to the American Spirit, the idea that we can become whomever we want to become, that there’s no stopping us if we’re ambitious and enterprising enough, that the sky is the limit. But you know the rest. The American Dream writ large is the incarnation.

So no, I’m not speaking here of our middle class or of our lower middle-class, not even of our upper class and beyond. These are taxonomical categories; and when so used, they’re denotative of our standing in society. And given upward mobility, another indispensable element of the American Dream, it’s no wonder these terms are uncontroversial. In fact, they perpetuate the myth of “belonging,” the myth that we’re all in the same boat, that only our abilities, determination and hard work separate one from the other. And given equality under the law, we surely must live, or so the story goes, in the best of all possible worlds. Legal protection, coupled with unlimited potential for individual success, surely must sound like a dream come true. Indeed, it’s the unique accomplishment of liberalism, classical or modern, that it perpetuates this dream.

Which is why whenever “class” is used in any way other than as a taxonomical term, denoting our present status in society, with a mind, of course, to our unquestioned assumptions as to social fluidity, it is bound to evoke a negative response for it strikes at the very core of our beliefs. “Class warfare” is the extreme form of the adverse reaction, and we’re surely familiar with the accusation: it’s un-American, we’re told, undermining the very spirit and principles upon which this nation was founded, inciting violence at worst, social unrest at best. And given that we’ve shed all pretense at class by virtue of either birth or privilege, unlike some of our Continental brethren for whom the vestiges of the Old World, it’s arguable, still remain, no wonder we’re getting incensed. For it’s our creed, our article of faith, that not class but meritocracy rules, no ifs, ands or buts. And that if anyone doesn’t make it “the American way,” it’s their own damn fault. Thus the myth is kept alive.

There are indications this is about to change. In any case, so think Barbara and John Ehrenreich, the authors of a seminal article in Mother Jones, “The 1 Percent, Revealed,” and their identification of OWS as the catalyst. Now we know beyond any doubt, say the authors, what kind of people comprise our ruling class, the despicable 1 percent:

[It’s] … the bankers [stupid[, hedge fund managers, and CEOs targeted by the Occupy Wall Street movement. They have been around for a long time in one form or another, but they only began to emerge as a distinct and visible group, informally called the “superrich,” in recent years.

One only wonders what took us so long to have ever come to this realization. Did we really need OWS to bring things into sharper focus? But let’s suspend our disbelief for a moment and try to embrace the stance of extreme naiveté.

Aside from the growing income and wealth disparity which have come to afflict well nigh every segment of our society – which trend, by the way, has long been in coming, certainly before OWS was a figment in anyone’s imagination – the Ehrenreichs build their case by deconstructing another fashionable term of late, “the liberal elite.” [By “liberal elite,” they mean academics, media figures, well-educated middle managers, highly trained engineers, trial lawyers, teachers, doctors and social workers – in short, “the professional managerial class” – but you get the idea.]

The argument is two-prong. First, the liberal elite took a hit just like everyone else has; consequently, it, too, is bound to join the ranks of our disenfranchised. Second, and more important, it has always been a make-believe category, a political rather than sociological construct.

And here, the Ehrenreichs are at least partly correct to credit our Right with this spurious construction (I say “partly” because our Left hasn’t exactly endeared itself to the hoi polloi) so as to create a diversion which consisted of pointing to an imaginary rather than the real enemy. With the help of OWS, however, the authors argue, this illusion has been shuttered. Now we know who the real enemy is, “the [despicable] 1 percent, revealed.” To which I say, what a bunch of malarkey!

I had better preface what I’m about to say by declaring that apparently, I have a far greater faith in the intelligence of the American people than the Ehrenreichs do, even if that intelligence is unarticulated most of the time. They speak of distraction as though a major impediment to attaining class consciousness; and on face value, of course they’re right. But c’mon now, distractions are part of life. If we make use of ‘em, it’s only because they serve their purpose. It’s not exactly as though distractions were supposed to take over and supplant our entire thinking processes. And if we make use of them, it’s only because we find them convenient insofar as they enable us to hold on to our biases, our age-old prejudices and stale ideologies, their function being none other than to provide us with an excuse, a perfect pretext.

Which is to say nothing yet of the authors’ greatest omission, excluding from consideration all those for whom distraction, apart from being a factor, any kind of factor, isn’t even a part of their vocabulary. Yes, what I mean here is our growing underclass, our poor and our “invisibles,” our Niggers, our homeless, our gays, even our women, all those who no longer have any stake in America because America had failed them time and again, all those whose main business of living is sheer survival, nothing but making do, may the devil take the rest. None of those folks give a damn about who exploits whom or why. It’s a fact of life to them , plain and simple; besides, they haven’t the luxury. All they need to know, “it’s the Man.”

It’s rather ludicrous the Ehrenreichs and their ilk should be pontificating from their bully pulpit so. I’d the last person to deny anyone the faculty of hope, but I can’t help but detect a major disconnect here between the authors’ guarded optimism and the underlying realities, realities they’re so out of touch with that they are not even acknowledged, let alone considered. As a result, not only is the growing bulk of the American public excluded from their analysis; to make matters worse, even those who by all means ought to be affected by the rapidly deteriorating economic conditions – our dwindling middle class facing the imminent threat from foreclosures, shrinking incomes and job loss – end up being minimized: diversion is being posited as having been a major barrier to attaining class consciousness while the root causes are conveniently ignored. Now that the bubble is burst and we know who the real enemy is, a brighter future awaits us all, we’re told.

There’s no question OWS has been and continues to be a great many things to a great many people. Thus far, it has attracted the homeless and the marginalized, the most disaffected members of unionized labor as well as the government employees, even some of our intelligentsia,I daresay; and with a bit of luck, its appeal may become more universal. But for the Ehrenreichs to claim the movement has reached anything like a widespread support simply flies in the face of the facts. Indeed, for all the genius behind the OWS slogan, “We are the 99 percent,” the emblem of the Occupy movement, isn’t it rather revealing that by and large, the bulk of the American public, the very people who ought to have embraced the OWS message as though their own and run with it, remains unconvinced? In fact, most are repelled by it. I’d be the first to say the reasons are many and varied, but surely, some of it has got to do with the fact we’re not all that comfortable yet with this “class thing.”

Which again goes to show you can never trust a member of the intellectual elite to offer a valid self-critique, not as long as they’re still bona fide members of the elite. Come to think of it, an open rebellion by the scribes, taken as a class, has been a rare thing indeed. True, there have been incidences in ancient China, but don’t forget: Confucius was a conservative and the arch defender of the imperial rule and the status quo. What few intellectuals have come to lead and join the masses in their struggle – Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, and one may as well include Prince Kropotkin here and Count Tolstoy if only for good measure – they’ve always done so at their own peril by disavowing their class membership: they acted as individuals.

What then are the major impediments, then, to adopting the Ehrenreichs’ rather rosy picture of love reigning supreme and class solidarity in abundance? What are they willfully or ignorantly unaware of?

I’ve already alluded to some of the factors which continue to mitigate against class consciousness and a sense of greater commonality in American political and social experience – methodological individualism, the atomistic, Lockean conception of the individual as though (still) in a State of Nature, along with the emphasis on rights and rule of law aimed at protecting those rights as though the epitome of our freedoms, the legalistic conception of equality. Need I say more?

Let’s face it!  American society is still riddled with divisions along racial and ethnic lines in order for the sense of solidarity to take hold. Equally prohibitive is the philosophy of methodological individualism, just spoken of, which inscribes the American psyche more so than any other human society, past or present. The most vulgar rendition of it is, individual success at all cost; a more benign one, putting one’s own interests above the interests of the community.

Even Rome, the most imperialistic state ever conceived, a template for all imperialistic states to follow, had better sense than that. But then again, the Romans hadn’t the benefit of the liberal ideology which posits the individual as though in a never-ending conflict with all other humans and the forces of nature, though in a state of conflict they most definitely were. Yes, even the Romans, irreligious as they were by today’s or the ancient standards, weren’t altogether taken in by the myth of individualism and the resultant hubris. Even they, the conquerors of the world, have known their rightful place in the larger scheme of things. For better or worse, they have always been humble enough to pay homage to Destiny (or Fortune, as the case may be, if gods happened to smile their way). It’s but a reconstruction of a civilization long gone, I’d be the first to admit it, an aid to understanding. One can never be certain, of course!

There have always been classes as far as human societies go, a ruling class, a priestly class, the scribes, the workmen, the artisans, the peasants and the slaves. Perhaps the Solon’s and Cleisthenes’s Greece was the only exception insofar as public officials were elected by the casting of lots, the term of office not to exceed one year; and in that respect, everyone was equal. Of course we must make an allowance here for the existence of slaves, which made the entire enterprise we call “direct democracy” not only possible but suspect as well.

“It was the economic necessity, someone always had to work in order to provide another person with their leisure, the least of which being, tending to the affairs of the state,” so says the conventional wisdom. “It’s preordained,” so we’re told.

So how are we to free ourselves, in that case, from this age-old pattern, this troublesome meme which appears so engraved in our hearts and minds that we can’t seem to think beyond taking advantage of others as a way of securing our own freedoms? And how are we do this in this land called America, once conceived as the Great Experiment but which, as a matter of fact, presents the greatest obstacle ever because the premises were all wrong? How are we to do this when individual rights end up masquerading as our freedoms and the rule of law – that unique expression of the will (or mere acquiescence, as the case may be, on the part of) the ruling class – as (distributive) justice?

If you’re looking for philosophical underpinnings which ground these conclusions, you’ll do well to give a cursory look at Charles Taylor’s article, “The Nature and Scope of Distributive Justice,” in Philosophy and The Human Sciences, Philosophical Papers 2 (see the featured selection). Meanwhile, if you’re looking to practical solutions, I can’t improve on Marx’s definition of class, bourgeois edition, which ties the concept to the ownership of the means of production: until the producers have full control over the disposition of their product, there’ll never be a classless society. And assuming now that a classless society is a desideratum for any democratic society worthy of its name, a condition whereby only meritocracy rules, whereas birth, rank or privilege are of no account, this ought to be our greatest aspiration.

The Ehrenreichs open their provocative article with a quote from E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class:

Class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs.

It’s a fairly straightforward definition, no doubt about it. I hasten to add, however, it hasn’t happened yet. We’ve got a long way to go.

Perhaps Bell Hook’s essay, “Love As The Practice Of Freedom” in Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations, another featured selection, should serve as a fitting conclusion. Let me cite the opening paragraph:

In this society, there is no powerful discourse on love emerging either from politically progressive radicals of from the Left. The absence of a sustained focus on love in progressive circles arises from a collective failure to acknowledge the needs of the spirit and an overdetermined emphasis on material concerns. Without love, our efforts to liberate ourselves and our world community from oppression and exploitation are doomed. As long as we refuse to address fully the place of love in struggles from liberation we will not be able to create a culture of conversion where there is a mass turning from an ethic of domination.

About Roger Nowosielski

I'm a free lance writer. Areas of expertise: philosophy, sociology, liberal arts, and literature. An academic at a fringe, you might say, and I like it that way.

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