Are you a Liberal? Do you think you’re “middle class”? Do you swear by individualism? Are you black or gay? Then this article is for you.
INTRODUCTION: With this document we inaugurate our series designed to serve as a “Virtual University”—an online curriculum—on social, economic, historical, and political affairs rarely touched by the establishment educational system, media, and other instruments that form and manipulate personal opinions. We have carefully picked these documents for their power to do more than just instruct and inform; they are also empowering, and, in more ways than you expect, transformative. And we harbor another simple ambition: to give the “students” of this online political curriculum an understanding of society and the world like they could have never acquired even after many long years of college and graduate studies.
As might be expected, these materials are remedial in the sense that they will likely go against the grain of what most of you in the audience have been taught to believe—and do believe—thinking that you have come to those conclusions on your own instead of as a result of overwhelming indoctrination from birth.
Given the importance and urgency of these issues, all we ask is that you examine the arguments and evidence we present with as much of an open mind as we have exercised when examining right-wing and establishment ideas, for many years, before arriving at these conclusions. None of us was born a radical—one who goes to the root of a problem, not a bad thing, and certainly not inevitably “a violent extremist”—as the term has been stigmatized by the powers that be and their innumerable paid apologists and propagandists found everywhere, from the halls of Congress, to the corridors of churches, the newsrooms of our media, and, of course, academia, to prevent people from exploring its actual meaning. We became radicalized as a result of our many firsthand experiences and impartial sifting of the evidence. We haven’t become rich or powerful as a result of such choices; quite the opposite, so think again if you believe that we do this for some ulterior personal gain motive, a common enough assumption often insidiously suggested by those who shill for those who really make the wounds.
Our first selection is Chapter 15 from Senior Editor Susan Rosenthal’s book, POWER and Powerlessness. Beware the Middle Ground discusses the role played by the middle class in history and social struggles. Class is something of a “dirty” suspect word, usually misunderstood and rarely heard, for that matter, in the American jargon in terms of self-definition, as the US has a long history of self-inflicted propaganda assuring everyone, beginning with the American population, that class is irrelevant in this rich and powerful nation. But class, understood in a deeper sense—not superficially, as when we hear CNN’s Lou Dobbs shed crocodile tears for the “eroding middle class”—is an immensely important category that explains a great deal about the condition of many people—maybe people just like you—and the nation they inhabit. “Class” in its most significant sense is not just about income, but about the power that a person has to influence the society that surrounds him or her. No wonder that it is precisely this deeper meaning that is banished from common usage.
But no one—regardless where you stand or think you stand—can afford to go through life a political illiterate in matters that go to the heart of everyone’s existence in society. This article is a down payment to correct that huge omission. By itself it can open the road to a much better grasp of these topics. Welcome, then, to our online curriculum! And don’t forget to subscribe with Jason Miller, this section’s editor, to receive additional materials. —P. Greanville, for the Editorial Board
BEWARE THE MIDDLE GROUND ||| By Susan Rosenthal
(Rosenthal provides a social definition of class in POWER and Powerlessness, Chapter 13. “Decide Which Side You’re On.”)
Compromise Always Favors Those Who Have More Power
In The Cancer Stage of Capitalism, John McMurtry compares capitalism to a cancer that threatens the human species. Like a cancer, capitalism seeks to expand regardless of what it destroys. McMurtry concludes that, like a person suffering from cancer, humanity must unite to repel the disease. Here the metaphor breaks down. A person with cancer has one goal — to defeat the illness. In contrast, humanity is split into classes with conflicting goals. As the cancer of capitalism grows, the capitalist class grows richer and more powerful. From the perspective of the working class, the capitalist class is the cancer because it imposes its sick rules on society. The middle refuses to admit that the conflict between the other two classes is irreconcilable. Middle-class appeals for unity disarm the working class — the only force that can cure the cancer of capitalism.
The capitalist class has no problem supporting appeals for peace and unity that do not challenge its power. In 1999, the General Assembly of the United Nations passed a Declaration “to promote and strengthen a culture of peace in the new millennium.” In 2000, the UN launched the International Year for the Culture of Peace, and the following ten years were declared the International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World. While the UN talks peace, it wages war. For the past 70 years, the UN has provided a humanitarian cover for the military aggression of the world’s most powerful nations. During the 1990’s, the UN imposed an economic embargo on Iraq that resulted in the deaths of more than half-a-million children. In 2004, UN forces helped to crush the democratically-elected government of Haiti and establish a murderous military dictatorship. The UN message of peace works like a drug to dull the pain of imperialism. Soothing phrases about peace seduce people into supporting a system addicted to war. There can be no peace without justice. As long as the capitalist class wages war on the working class, asking people to cultivate peace in their hearts is asking them to accept exploitation and oppression.
The noisy middle class and the invisible working class
Employing faux-populist sentiment, “liberal establishment critic” Lou Dobbs, who is actually a member in good standing of our beloved capitalist ruling class, is waging an intense agitprop war on behalf of America’s shrinking middle class. Dobbs’ “crusade” is driven—inter alia—by his knowledge that the middle class acts as the moat protecting his plutocratic castle.
Despite forming only 20 percent of the population, the middle class makes a lot of noise. Middle-class people write books, make films, set fashions, and are heavily represented in the media. They are consulted as professionals and experts, as people who know things, and they exhibit the confidence that accompanies this social role. The middle class makes so much noise that it exerts a far greater influence over society than its numbers warrant.
The working class is four times larger than the middle class, yet it is much less visible. Television is populated overwhelmingly by middle-class characters. When they appear at all, working-class people are generally portrayed as buffoons, bimbos, and deviants. The relative invisibility of the working class contributes to the mistaken belief that working people are not intelligent or mportant, let alone a force that could remake society. The middle class cannot imagine any system other than capitalism, having no respect for the ability of the working class to create a different world. Consequently, the middle class embraces the myth that the Russian Revolution was a palace coup, not a mass revolution. Without a shred of evidence, economic reformer Jeffrey Sachs states, “Lenin and a small group of conspirators were able to seize power with very little support.”162 Sachs cannot imagine ordinary people fighting for their own liberation; therefore, it could not happen. The Russian ruling class made the same mistake.
In Ten Days that Shook the World, American journalist John Reed recounts how Kerensky’s army marched on Petrograd, demanding that the workers’ government surrender. Who would oppose them? Two days before the battle, Petrograd was full of leaderless bands of armed workers, sailors, and soldiers. Yet, on the morning of the battle, this scattered, rag-tag army had organized itself into a formidable force. Reed describes how it happened.
Over the bleak plain on the cold quiet air spread the sound of battle, falling upon the ears of roving bands as they gathered about their little fires, waiting…So it was beginning! They made towards the battle; and the worker hordes pouring out along the straight roads quickened their pace…Thus upon all the points of attack automatically converged angry human swarms, to be met by [revolutionary officers] and assigned positions, or work to do. This was their battle, for their world; the officers in command were elected by them. For the moment, that incoherent multiple will was one will…Those who participated in the fighting described how the sailors fought until they ran out of cartridges, and then stormed; how the untrained workmen rushed the charging Cossacks and tore them from their horses; how the anonymous hordes of the people, gathering in the darkness around the battle, rose like a tide and poured over the enemy…Before midnight the Cossacks broke and were fleeing, leaving their artillery behind them.163
The muddle in the middle
Because the middle class has so much influence in society and dominates (or tries to dominate) the social movements, we need to understand the conflicting pressures that shape it. The middle class is in constant conflict, being pushed and pulled by the other two classes — squeezed by banks and finance capitalists on the one side and by workers’ demands for higher wages on the other. The conflicting interests of the middle class result in conflicted loyalty. On the same day, the middle class will side with workers against capitalists (opposing the loss of civil liberties) and with capitalists against workers (opposing a rise in the minimum wage). The conflict within the middle class creates conservative and liberal sections. The part closer to the ruling class promotes capitalism as the best of all systems. The part closer to the working class is more critical and wants capitalism to meet human needs. As conflict between capitalists and workers increases, the middle class is pulled apart, with one section backing the ruling class and another section siding with the working class. Let me repeat that class does not determine a person’s beliefs. Anyone from any class can be right-wing, left-wing, conservative, liberal, or revolutionary. However, people find it easier to hold beliefs that fit with their class function than to hold beliefs that conflict with their class function. And the function of the middle class is to manage capitalism, not replace it. The beliefs and behaviors most consistent with this function are: opportunism and compromise; individualism; moralism; liberalism; and idealism. [The latter not understood as selfless altruism and belief in noble ideals, but belief in fantasies that have no possible application to real circumstances.—Eds.]
Dobbs is also obsessed with the “illegal immigration issue” which he pursues with a fervor worthy of a better cause. Though he denies it, and is married to a Mexican American, his crusade can be fairly described as crypto-racist.
Opportunism and compromise
Because of its intermediate position, the middle class waffles between support for the ruling class and support for the working class. The capitalist class has no choice but to exploit the working class — ending exploitation would end capitalism. The working class has no choice but to resist exploitation — submission would result in being worked to death. The middle class is the only class that can choose which side to support. Like a middle child, the middle class sees both sides and wants everyone to get along. Compromise is valuable in a family or among friends with common interests. However, in a class-divided society, compromise favors those with more power. When push comes to shove, the bulk of the middle class will abandon its principles and side with the more powerful class. Such opportunism makes the middle class an unreliable ally. In times of peace, middle-class liberals deplore war. As soon as war is declared, they are the first to support it. In PR!, Stewart Ewen describes how middle-class intellectuals were recruited to promote World War I, “People who had once believed in the ability to use creative intelligence to bring about a more humane social order [became] dutiful technicians of mass persuasion, craven manipulators of consent.”
The middle class believes that it is possible to support both sides of a war, to back a military invasion and also to provide medical care for the civilian wounded. In the real world, one cannot be on the side of the invaders and on the side of the invaded at the same time. The best way to help the victims of war is to prevent war or to stop it as soon as possible. The capitalist class sets up clinics and other helping services to provide humanitarian dressing for its military aggression. The middle class keeps falling for this ruse, believing that it is helping the victim, when it is actually supporting the perpetrator. Politically, the middle class swings back and forth as the balance of forces shifts between the classes on either side of it. When the ruling class is on the offensive, the middle class falls in line. When the working class is gaining ground, the middle class becomes more radical. Unwilling to acknowledge their own opportunism, liberals refer to this back-and-forth movement as “the political pendulum.” The Claude Pepper Museum actually has a Political Pendulum exhibit, with the following description:
Over the years, America has altered between liberal and conservative ideals…Each year, Pepper Museum staff set the pendulum to reflect the country’s current leanings. Though the pendulum on occasion may swing disagreeably to one extreme, though we may sometimes display an attitude of which we will be ashamed subsequently, always the steady, pulsing heart of the American people will ensure that America does not lose its balance or its traditions.164
The pendulum metaphor reassures the powerless that, no matter how bad things get, they will (somehow) get better in time. In 2006, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert lambasted a federal policy that excluded poverty-stricken Americans, especially poor Blacks, from Medicaid. His conclusion was, “Someday the pendulum will swing back, and the government of the United States will become more representative and more humane.” Used in this way, the pendulum metaphor frees liberals from any obligation to organize against the system they criticize.
Workers can improve their work and their lives only through collective action. A single factory worker who asks for more pay has a snowball’s-chance-in-hell of getting it. In contrast, individual professionals advance by acquiring higher education and by making personal connections. The middle-class experience of individual advancement supports the belief that everyone should be able to advance the same way. Those who promote individual effort and ignore the constraints of the social pyramid end up blaming the victims of the system for their own misfortune.
The individualist approach to social problems is basically selfish. A common middle-class argument is that people who can pay for medical care should not have to wait in line with everyone else. The result of such thinking is a two-class medical system that offers top-of-the-line care for the wealthy and bargain basement care for everyone else. The collective alternative, providing top notch medical care for everyone, is rejected on the basis that the well should not have to pay higher taxes to support the sick.
Sections of the middle class are close enough to the working class to understand the importance of providing basic medical care for everyone. However, they stop short of demanding that everyone get the best possible care. The middle class accepts social inequality in the mistaken belief that society cannot provide for everyone. (The final chapter of this book counters this belief.) The individual outlook of the middle class ignores social factors and promotes health as an individual responsibility. A doctor advises a hotel worker suffering from overwork to take a vacation. A working mother with headaches is told to take more time for herself. How a hotel worker would pay for a vacation and when a working mother would find time for herself are not the doctor’s problems. Instead of challenging a society that demands too much and provides too little, the middle class lectures the victim.
…the warring classes will seek to gain victory by every means, while middle-class moralists will continue to wander in confusion between the two camps. Subjectively they sympathize with the oppressed — no one doubts that. Objectively, they remain captives of the morality of the ruling class and seek to impose it upon the oppressed instead of helping them to elaborate the morality of revolution.165 —Leon Trotsky
Moralism — the assumption that there is only one right way to behave — is a powerful form of social control. In reality, conflicting classes have conflicting moral views. Most working people would support Robin Hood stealing from the rich to give to the poor. They would also be sympathetic to a mother who stole food for her children. In contrast, the capitalist would condemn Robin Hood, throw the mother in prison, and put her children in foster care. The morality of each class represents what is right for that class. The capitalist class has only one morality — accumulate capital — and accepts all means to that end, legal or illegal (torture), moral or immoral (wars of acquisition). To stay in power, the capitalist class must present its “morality” as a universal morality (What’s good for business is good for America). When the authorities condemn stealing as wrong, they mean that stealing by workers is wrong because their own thievery is sanctioned by law (Seize the Surplus). When the people in power condemn murder as immoral, they mean that murder committed by ordinary people is immoral, because the cold-blooded murder they commit is completely legal (war and State executions).
Middle-class moralists help the capitalist class to impose its priorities on the working class. Consider these moralistic statements: Giving drug addicts clean needles only condones drug addiction. Educating young people about sex only encourages them to have sex. Providing access to abortion only makes it easier for people to be irresponsible. In real life, individuals behave as they see fit, and we all suffer when they are prevented from doing so safely. Clean needles and sex education reduce the harm to individuals and society that is caused by criminalizing drug use and keeping young people sexually ignorant. However, the ruling class is willing to risk individual and social safety to prevent people from making their own choices, and moralists supply the arguments that support this stance.
Middle-class moralism is rooted in the belief that we cannot change society; therefore, we must change ourselves by making the right choices and by living the right lifestyle. In reality, choice is determined by class. Under capitalism, the people with the most money have the most choices and the most power to shape society.
Liberal politics suit the middle class. The word “liberal” derives from the Latin word liber, meaning “free.” The middle class wants the freedom to conduct its individual affairs, unhampered by the demands of the capitalist class and by the demands of the working class.
Liberalism was a progressive force in the fight against feudal restrictions and in the fight against colonial rule during the American Revolution. Liberalism is also progressive in its demand to extend democratic rights, like the right to vote and the right to gay marriage. However, the contradictory position of the middle class creates a conflict in the heart of liberalism. Liberalism champions equality and individual rights and the right to privately own the means of production. These principles conflict in the case of slavery, where two people cannot be equal if one owns the other. The right to own slaves violates the rights of slaves. In industrial terms, the private ownership of production makes capitalists and workers unequal. The right of employers to control the labor process conflicts with the right of workers to control their work.
Under capitalism, medical formulations are privately owned (patented) to ensure that drugs will be profitable. The only way to defend the property rights of drug companies and the individual right of people to have medicine is to raise enough money to buy medicines for those who cannot pay. Such efforts are typically insufficient so that, in practice, the “right” to medicine is enjoyed only by those who can afford it. Liberals reject the collectivist alternative of providing free medicines to all because that would violate the right of drug companies to privately own medical formulations. On social issues, liberals vacillate between pro-business conservatives on the right and pro-labor socialists on the left. Where conservatives want to restrict the right to abortion, liberals defend a woman’s right to choose. However, liberals reject the socialist demand for all women to have access to abortion (free abortion on demand). Liberals talk left and move right. By rejecting social measures that would give everyone the same rights, liberals uphold individual rights only for those who can pay for them.
When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are
Anything your heart desires will come to you.
A lack of power nourishes a belief in magic. The middle class has neither the command power of the ruling class nor the organized power of the working class. Being the least powerful class, the middle class is steeped in idealism, religion, spiritualism, and wishful thinking. For the middle class, wanting something badly enough should be enough to make it happen.
Lacking power on its own, the middle class wants the State to protect it by curtailing the power of big business and the power of labor unions. This desire is expressed in the liberal demand that the State be a neutral force that favors neither capital nor labor. When the State displays its bias for the capitalist class, the middle class is shocked and outraged. For the middle class, the need for a neutral State becomes a moral imperative — the State should be neutral — followed by the magical belief that the State is neutral. Perpetual frustration results when the State does not behave the way it should. Overwhelming evidence that the State serves the capitalist class is dismissed with a variety of excuses: the right people aren’t in power; they don’t know what they’re doing; there are always a few bad apples. For the middle class, belief in the neutrality of the State is a matter of faith — a religion. No matter how much evidence accumulates to prove that the State is an instrument of class rule, the middle class cannot acknowledge what it feels powerless to change.
The idealism of the middle class feeds the magical belief that the world could change if people behaved as if it were already different. (“Be the change you want to see in the world.”) In this cozy fantasy, class divisions and State repression don’t exist. Cooperatives and utopian societies embody this kind of idealism.
Cooperatives and utopian societies
Capitalism makes life seem empty and meaningless by alienating people from their work, from each other, from themselves, and from the natural world. Understandably, some people try to create islands of equality and cooperation within capitalism. One of the better known examples is the Mondragón Cooperative Corporation in Spain.
From its origins forty years ago as an employee-owned cooperative manufacturing paraffin stoves, Mondragon has grown to 160 employee-owned cooperatives, involving 23,000 member owners, with sales grossing three billion dollars (US) in 1991. Statistics show the Mondragon cooperatives to be twice as profitable as the average corporation in Spain with employee productivity surpassing any other Spanish organization. It has its own bank, a research institute, an entrepreneurial division, insurance and social security institutions, schools, a college, a health maintenance system and a health insurance cooperative. It is focused on relational cooperatives dedicated to the common good.166
Statue to Robert Owen, Scottish 19th Century utopian socialist who envisioned a self-contained society in which human exploitation of fellow humans would be banned.
Can the cooperative model be an alternative to capitalism? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Like any other business, a co-op must compete as a capitalist enterprise. Those that cannot compete successfully go out of business; those that stay in business are forced to exploit themselves. The Mondragon Bookstore and Coffeehouse in Canada provides a good example. Everyone who works there is a co-owner, all work is shared evenly, there are no bosses or hierarchies and everyone earns the same wage. After nearly six years of operation…collective members, even those who have been part of the project since day one, still make only minimum wage—perhaps part of the reason some members have left so quickly….All but a handful of the original 10 have moved on.167
Most importantly, cooperatives in a capitalist system are not free to produce what people need, only what can be sold or traded within the co-op network or larger market. As Rosa Luxemburg pointed out 100 years ago,
Producers’ co-operatives are excluded from the most important branches of capital production — the textile, mining, metallurgical and petroleum industries, machine construction, locomotive and shipbuilding. For this reason alone, co-operatives in the field of production cannot be seriously considered as the instrument of a general social transformation…Within the framework of present society, producers’ co-operatives are limited to the role of simple annexes to consumers’ co-operatives.168
Most cooperatives consider themselves to be models of how society should function. Through the centuries, a variety of ideal or utopian communities have been constructed, based on the philosophies of their founders. During the Middle Ages, religious monasteries and convents offered sanctuary, learning, cooperation, and service. During the 19th century, reformers like Charles Fourier, Etienne Cabet, and Robert Owen created detailed blueprints for ideal communities that would be managed by intellectuals and financed by far-sighted capitalists.
Cooperatives and utopian communities offer working models of how society should operate, but they offer no way to transform society on a global scale. The assumption is that these models will be so attractive that, somehow, they will grow to encompass all of society. This is naive. The capitalist class will not abandon its power and profits for a more humane model of society. A second problem with utopian societies is that they are pre-planned, offering one right way to live and organize society. In real life, people have plans of their own. The job of planning society properly belongs to those who live in it, using whatever theories and methods seem best at the time. In contrast, utopian societies impose behaviors on people based on the founder’s values. A good example is PARECON, a model society based on participatory economics.
In PARECON: Life After Capitalism, Michael Albert describes his version of an ideal society. Like all anarchists, Albert opposes central planning as inherently authoritarian and undemocratic. He cannot imagine workers coordinating global production for the benefit of humanity. However, in a genuine democracy, people would be free to choose the method of organizing that works best in any situation. Some things, like fresh produce, are better produced locally, while other things, like pharmaceuticals, are better produced centrally. Restricting people’s choices in advance is bureaucratic.
PARECON is not based on the socialist principle, “from each according to ability and to each according to need,” because Albert distrusts that people could actually put this into practice. Instead, he proposes a complex “system of remuneration for effort and sacrifice,” in which those who work harder get more. How will effort and sacrifice be measured and by whom? Albert’s insistence on the need for an external measure leads to only two options: either a professional class of bureaucrats weigh and measure who does what or everyone is involved in weighing and measuring and no work gets done!
Despite its vision of equality, PARECON produces a two-class system where some are rewarded on the basis of effort and others are provided for on the basis of need or charity. The only way to ensure a truly egalitarian society is for everyone to contribute what they can and for everyone to get what they need. Reformers who reject the only force that can defeat capitalism — the power of the working class — are left with only idealism. Albert insists, “we need to incorporate classless values and structures in our demands, our process, our projects, and our movements.” This variation on “Be the change you want to see in the world” is bad advice for the working-class. The more workers ignore class divisions and cooperate with their bosses, the more they are exploited.
New Harmony, one of Owen’s visions that was never realized.
We cannot transcend capitalism by pretending that it doesn’t exist. Capitalism is not like a suit of clothes that can be removed at will. Like fish swimming in water, people live in a sea of relationships that are shaped by the rules of society (Seize the Surplus and Compete or Die). We can’t see these relationships, any more than fish can see the water in which they move. We can know how much capitalism has affected us on a personal level only after we are free of it. Of course, we should aim for equality and mutual respect in our personal relationships; however, people will fail to achieve this ideal, not because of bad character or poor motivation, as moralists insist, but because capitalist social relations are in our bones. The ability to sustain cooperative relationships requires personal confidence and emotional security — the very qualities that rulers
suppress in those they dominate.
Organizing methods are linked with class. The ruling class makes back-room deals and pays people to do what it wants. When acting in its own interests, the working class organizes at the point of production and on the broadest possible scale. The middle-class prefers organizing methods that suit small-scale activities carried out by like-minded people. A good example is consensus decision-making, or deciding by general agreement.
Consensus is the preferred method to use when deciding what to eat for dinner. When it comes to political questions, aiming for consensus favors those with the time and energy for lengthy discussions. Compared with students and professionals, working-class people have much less time and energy. When you have to get up early for work, you cannot talk all night. As a result, groups that promote lengthy decision-making discussions are usually dominated by middle-class people.
The consensus model claims to protect the minority, but it actually gives the minority the power to block the majority; a few dissenters can hold an entire group hostage. To prevent such paralysis, those who disagree are often pressured to go along with the majority, even when they are not truly convinced. The result can be false unity and underground dissent.
Indeed, systems of formal consensus often only work in practice by developing systems of informal control that will allow the majority to limit the ability of individuals to thwart the will of the majority. In North American native groups that use consensus, for example, it is often the case that tribal elders are able to exert enormous informal pressure on individuals who tend to disrupt consensus. (This is often missed by outsiders.) In some organizations using formal consensus, there is an informal process where people who do not “toe the party line” on issues seen as key to the organization’s identity or purpose are encouraged to leave.170
Consensus decision-making is promoted as more democratic than majority rule, when it is actually less democratic. Under the consensus model, everyone is presumed to be equal and there are no leaders, only facilitators. However, the more unwieldy the decision-making process becomes, the more likely a small clique will develop to make decisions behind the scenes. Because these people are not voted in, they cannot be voted out. The result is unaccountable leadership.
Large groups of people are better served by the working-class methods of majority rule and democratic centralism (discussed elsewhere in this book). After a certain amount of discussion, where disagreements can be aired openly, a vote is called, a decision is made by majority rule, and everyone abides by the decision. The decision can be re-evaluated at any time, and leaders can be replaced at any time. The consensus model avoids group discipline by imposing the discipline of social pressure. Under consensus, people are discouraged from expressing disagreements for fear of holding up the decision-making process. The result can be “groupthink,” where no one objects to a bad decision for fear of breaking consensus. Under truly democratic majority rule, people are encouraged to state their opinions because doing so does not hold back the decision-making process. After a decision is made, dissenters can continue to hold opposing views as long as they carry out the will of the majority. When a decision turns out to be wrong, and when dissenters turn out to be right, then the organization can change direction.
The consensus model can work for small groups, but not for large organizations. Groups that insist on using consensus as a matter of principle cannot grow beyond a few hundred people, at most. No method of organizing is more important than the need to organize millions of people to replace capitalism with socialism. On this, the middle class disagrees, preferring small over large, exclusive over inclusive, process over results, and talk over action. The middle class aims to change society, not by organizing masses of people to exercise their own power, but by relying on experts or dedicated individuals, playing to the media, orienting to the people in power, and not expecting too much. Consensus decision-making lends itself to these goals. The extent to which consensus decision-making is imposed on organizations indicates the extent to which middle-class politics dominate those organizations. Truly democratic organizations are free to choose their method of decisionmaking and their leaders, and they are also free to review and change their decisions as they see fit.
Actions speak louder than words
The best way to change society cannot be discovered through debate and discussion alone. At some point, people must decide on a course of action, carry out that action, and evaluate the results. Testing theories in practice provides new and unanticipated information about your abilities and limitations and those of your opponents. This new information leads to more informed discussion and more effective strategies, which must again be tested in practice, in a continual learning process.
What people say and what they do is often different because society is steeped in deception. When talk is cheap, how can you know who is really on your side and who is not? Fortunately, actions speak louder than words. During a strike, the co-worker you thought was your friend crosses the picket line while one you disliked remains loyal. On a demonstration, Officer Friendly pepper-sprays your face, while a homeless beggar comes to your aid. As the following example shows, experience is the best teacher.
Mark Ashton, who died of AIDS at age 26, was a member of the Young Communist League and a tireless social activist. He founded Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, a group that provided direct support to the Welsh mining community of Dulais during the “infamous” miners’ strike that began in 1984. He lives now not only in the memory of his gay brothers and sisters, but in the hearts of tens of thousands of straight people whose lives he enriched.
During the British miner’s strike of 1984-1985, a group called Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners collected so much money in gay clubs and pubs that it became the single largest financial donor to the strike. On picket lines and demonstrations, lesbians and gays stood with miners and their families. Both were attacked by police, and both were transformed by the experience. According to one gay activist,
A few months ago if anyone had asked us if this kind of alliance was possible we would never have believed it…All the myths and all the barriers of prejudice were just broken down. It makes me feel quite moved by the possibilities. You can unite and fight!169
After the strike, hundreds of miners and their families traveled to London to join the Lesbian and Gay Pride March. That same year, the National Union of Miners campaigned to incorporate gay rights into trade union policy. As one miner’s wife put it, “We’ve suffered over the last year with the police what they’ve been suffering all their lives and are likely to continue to suffer unless we do something about it.”
The process of struggle produces a depth of personal change that cannot occur through discussion alone. Co-ops and utopian communities struggle internally, removing people from the larger fight against capitalism. Why take on the system, when you can live and work in a feel-good community with likeminded people?
In 1880, Frederick Engels wrote Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, explaining how the working class could replace capitalism with an egalitarian, classless society. Having no confidence in the working class, the middle class prefers to concoct ideal societies that spring fully-formed from the minds of their creators.
Contempt for the working class
Most middle-class people look down on the working class. When a few are put in charge of the many, it is assumed that the few are more capable. The experience of managing others, and the belief that such management will always be necessary, leads the middle and upper classes to dismiss the possibility of majority self-rule.
The middle class cannot see the working class as a force for social change. In the 1980’s, economic reformer Jeffrey Sachs helped Poland’s mass working-class movement (called Solidarity) reconcile with the capitalist class because, as he put it, “What, after all, were the alternatives? Civil war? A quick descent into a new tyranny? Anarchy? A new conflict with the West?”171 The possibility of workers controlling society in their own interests was not on his radar screen. Michael Albert thinks that the working class is strong enough to defeat capitalism, but too weak to prevent itself from being pushed out of power by a small group of ambitious bureaucrats, what he calls a “coordinator class.”
The conditions of work under capitalism reinforce the belief that workers could never manage themselves. Workers take no pleasure in being commanded by others to exert themselves to the utmost to produce in monotonous fashion for someone else’s profit. Those who consider the capitalist organization of work to be natural and inevitable observe workers’ resentment of their daily grind and mistakenly conclude that labor itself is repulsive to workers and must be imposed on them.
The alienated condition of workers causes them to keep their heads down and their eyes focussed on what is directly in front of them. Workers who are resigned to feeling powerless in this way are viewed as dull and incompetent instead of realistic. One manager told me, “Workers are not interested in the big picture. I spend a great deal of time explaining to my staff how what they do affects what others have to do and where they are in the big picture. More than once I’ve been told flat-out ‘I don’t care. Just tell me what to do.’” The depressed spirit of workers is wrongly assumed to be a lack of social interest, instead of the result of daily hardship, humiliation, and defeat. Failure to recognize the psychological impact of class oppression leads to the mistaken conclusion that workers could never direct production.
Contempt for the majority permeates society and all of its institutions. Contempt shows up in the panic myth, where authorities withhold vital information from the population on the basis that ordinary people have nothing to contribute and would only make things worse. Contempt is revealed in the systemic neglect of human needs, in the failure to provide for women and children, for the sick, disabled, homeless, and elderly.
Another form of contempt for working people is “consumer power” — the belief that people have more power as consumers than they have as producers. This is nonsense. Would it be more effective to protest Wal-mart’s policies by organizing 2,000 people not to shop there, or by organizing 2,000 Wal-mart workers into a union? Would General Motors feel more pressure to reduce fuel emissions if 2,000 people refused to buy SUVs, or if 2,000 auto workers went on strike? Some people argue that the best way to protest the horrendous condition of food animals is to convince people not to eat meat. In fact, the meatprocessing industry is notoriously inhumane for workers and for animals. The 2006 strikes in support of immigrants’ rights achieved what vegetarians have never accomplished; shutting down the nation’s feedlots and slaughterhouses.
Top-down reformism is also based on contempt for the working class. Middle-class reformers believe that experts and other professionals are the only ones who can solve social problems. The majority of people are perceived only as victims, with no power to solve their own problems. Top-down, “leave-it-to-us” reformers include charitable organizations (give us your money and we will take care of the needy), union bureaucrats (give us your money and we will deal with the boss), utopians (follow our model for society), politicians (elect us and we will take care of you), and advocates for politicians (elect them and they will make life better). Top-down efforts to transform society, however well-intentioned, keep the majority powerless.
The capitalist class cannot solve the most basic social problems: the need for jobs, peace, security, and a better future. A determined majority could expose the ruling class as corrupt and powerless and lay the foundation for an egalitarian society. However, the influence of the middle class makes it difficult to form a determined majority. The middle class wants to manage capitalism, not replace it. Instead of challenging the system, middle-class reformers lecture the people in power.
New York Times columnist Bob Herbert writes, “A fierce and bitter war — not bloody like the war in Iraq, but a war just the same — is being waged against American workers.” He describes workers suffering from unemployment, low wages, few or no benefits and overly stressful working conditions. He tells us that “…the right of workers to form unions and bargain collectively has been under assault for years” and that union-busting “…has been bolstered by the full force and power of the federal government, which puts struggling workers at a hopeless disadvantage.” At this point, one might expect a call to revolution. Offered instead is this jaw-dropping conclusion, “The president of the United States should be allied with working families in this struggle [against corporate union-busting].”172 When hard-hitting arguments collapse in a moral whimper, people are left feeling confused and powerless. The more skilled professionals are at criticizing the system, the more confusion and powerlessness they generate when they fail to offer solutions.
One New York Times editorial on homelessness chides, “the administration should stop hacking away at housing for the poor.” Another admonishes, “Banks do not have to gouge their customers just because the law permits it.” These appeals fall on deaf ears because capitalism is deaf to human need. The State takes from the poor to give to the rich (Seize the Surplus), and banks that do not gouge their customers are left behind by those that do (Compete or Die).
Liberal lectures can be invaluable in advancing the careers of the lecturers. Al Gore’s book, Earth in the Balance: Forging a New Common Purpose, was published in 1992. A year later, Gore was elected vice-president under the Clinton administration. During the eight years of his vice-presidency, environmental protections were dismantled at an alarming rate. In 2006, Gore released his film, An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We can do about it. This documentary highlights Gore’s commitment to environmental issues, while neatly avoiding any criticism of big business, of capitalism, or of the abysmal environmental record of the Clinton administration. This is public relations at its finest.
However accurate their criticisms, liberal lectures do not change the behavior of capitalists and politicians; they foster the delusion that the people in power can be persuaded to do the right thing. Appeals to the ruling class to have a conscience are like coaxing a rapist into providing rape-counseling for his victims. Liberal appeals to the working class are like persuading rape-victims to give the rapist-turned-counselor another chance. The middle class serves capitalism despite its good intentions. If this were not so, capitalism would cease to exist, because the ruling class is too small to control society on its own. The following sections explain how middle-class politics block human progress and why those who want to transform society must reject those politics.
Liberals and the Democratic Party
The two-party system depends on the ability of one party to serve the corporate agenda when the other party is too discredited to do so. —Lance Selfa
Republican button accusing the Democrats of mendacity. In reality, if anything, the GOP is even worse than the Democrats in terms of the Big Lie, but the problem is systemic. Save for a handful of courageous souls, the entire US political class is rotten, and the electorate faces only one party operating behind two masks.
In 2000, masses of people demonstrated against global corporate control. The anti-globalization movement formed the spring-board for a vigorous anti-war movement that challenged the U.S. invasion of Iraq before it even began. Four years later, the American anti-war movement was in a coma. How did this happen?
When social movements challenge the capitalist agenda, middle-class liberals push for unity with “progressive” capitalists. In the lead-up to the 2004 elections, the Democratic Party pressured anti-war activists to back their pro-war candidate, John Kerry. The only genuine anti-war candidate, Ralph Nader, was viciously attacked by Democrats who insisted that “a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush.” Leaders of the anti-war movement bought the argument that anybody would be better than Bush and that Kerry was the “lesser evil.” Anti-war protests were suspended to prevent embarrassment to Kerry. As a result, there was no organized outrage against the torture of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. forces and virtual silence when chemical weapons were dropped on the Iraqi city of Fallujah. The Democratic Party was willing to sacrifice the anti-war movement to get its candidate elected, and liberal leaders of the anti-war movement went along.
The Democratic Party is a graveyard for social movements. Every two years, liberal leaders divert the energy of social activists into electing capitalist politicians, no matter how many times this has proved to be a dead-end. The strategy of acquiring friends in high places becomes more important than grass-roots organizing, and activists are pressured to tone down their demands. The resulting silence on critical issues makes it easier for conservatives to advance their pro-war, anti-women, anti-gay, and racist agendas. The result is a more right-wing atmosphere that helps the “greater evil” politician get elected. In 2004, President Bush won his second term in office, because there was no principled opposition. Instead of taking responsibility for this outcome, liberals blamed the electorate for being too conservative! Liberals show their contempt for ordinary people when they insist that not alienating voters is more important than maintaining a principled position. It never occurs to them that voters are alienated by electoral campaigns that lack principles. Because liberals remain loyal to the capitalist system, no matter what happens, they are reduced to searching for minute differences between pro-capitalist candidates, none of whom will keep their promises after they are elected.
Democratic Party hagiography: the party’s leaders down the ages.
Sections of the anti-war movement continue to embrace liberal Democrats in the hope that they can change the Party as a whole. This will not happen. The Democratic Party will keep moving right until a serious and sustained movement from below forces it to the left. It will never move to the left on its own because the Democratic Party serves the capitalist system. There is no basic difference between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. Both supported slavery and continue to support the oppression of Black people; both are backed by big business; both support America dominating the world; both break strikes, persecute immigrants, attack women’s rights, and assault the poor. Both work to defeat any challenge to the two-party system.
Democrats are just as eager as Republicans to expand the American Empire by military means. In 1998, Democratic President Bill Clinton signed the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, formally launching Washington’s plan to force regime-change in Iraq. Less than two months later, Clinton ordered the bombing of Baghdad. And it was Clinton who presided over the deadly UN embargo against Iraq. Republican President George W. Bush could not have invaded Iraq if the groundwork had not been laid by the Democratic Party. In 2005, all but three Democratic representatives voted to continue the war. Whatever Democrats promise when they are not in power is negated by what they do in office.
It is obvious that women are oppressed in relation to men, that Blacks are oppressed in relation to Whites, and that homosexuals are oppressed in relation to heterosexuals. However, the middle-class does not see that the majority suffer by being forced into a social pyramid. The middle class assumes that those who stand a little higher up must benefit from the fact that others stand lower down. According to middle-class ideology, if men were not sexist, Whites were not racist, and heterosexuals were not homophobic, then equality could be achieved.
The middle class emphasizes the vertical divisions of humanity (sex, race, sexual orientation, nationality) while ignoring or minimizing the horizontal class divide. Yet, every oppressed group is divided by class. In all oppressed groups, the majority is working class, some are middle class, and a tiny few are ruling class. While middle-and-upper-class women, Blacks, and homosexuals suffer discrimination (their proportion at the top of society being considerably less than their proportion in the population), their lives are completely different from the lives of their working-class counterparts. As a Black woman, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice experiences oppression. At the same time, she belongs to a class that rules by oppressing the majority. Described as “the most powerful woman in the world,” her experience of oppression cannot be equated with the experience of the average Black woman. More than that, Rice’s elevated position depends on the degraded position of the majority of women and men, Blacks and Whites.
The Stonewall riots have remained a turning point for the gay and lesbian liberation movement.
In every oppressed group, those who belong to the middle-and-upper-classes have conflicting interests from those who belong to the working-class. This conflict is expressed in different strategies to fight oppression. Consider the gay liberation movement. In June, 1969, New York City police raided a gay bar in Greenwich Village called the Stonewall Inn. Unexpectedly, several thousand gay people and their supporters fought back. The Stonewall Rebellion inspired the formation of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) — named in solidarity with the National Liberation Front against the U.S. invasion of Vietnam. GLF chapters sprang up in cities and on college campuses around the country. The GLF was inclusive, containing gay men, lesbians, transsexuals, and people of color — many Blacks and Hispanics had participated in the Stonewall Rebellion. The GLF also worked with other groups, including the Black Panther Party. There was a sense of strength in unity, a common fight against a common enemy. All this changed as the ruling class reasserted its control.
By the mid-1970’s, gay liberation groups began to fragment under the influence of identity politics — the belief that oppression is a personal matter that cannot be understood by those who don’t experience it. As differences became more important than similarities, groups split to form separate organizations based on different forms of oppression. The fight for sexual freedom for everyone faded into the background and then disappeared.
In 1990, Queer Nation launched itself with the slogan, “We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it.” The word “queer” was deliberately used to emphasis the difference between gays and straights. Heterosexuals could not be members of Queer Nation; they were the enemy. Needless to say, the organization never grew beyond a few hundred predominately middle-class Whites. Queer Nation offered no strategy for workingclass gays to fight their oppression.
Gay Pride Day was launched in June, 1970, to mark the first anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion. Today, the fight for gay liberation has been sidelined by celebrations of “queer identity.” Pride Day has become a profitable event for gay-owned bars, clubs, bookstores, restaurants, travel companies, and other retailers seeking the gay dollar. An end to gay oppression would threaten this “pink economy.” Gays who felt welcome everywhere would have no need to patronize gay-owned establishments.
The middle class benefits by emphasizing the divisions created by oppression. Middle-class members of oppressed groups can be big fish in the small pond of their “community,” instead of having to compete as small fish in the much larger pond of society. Like all businesses, gay-owned businesses profit by denying equal rights, job security, and freedom from harassment on the job. In contrast, these remain key issues for all workers, gay and straight. One day of feeling free to be yourself, as good as it feels, is no substitute for a world in which you could be yourself every day.
Sexism and the feminist middle class
Winning the legal right to abortion in 1973 increased the ability of women to work outside the home. In Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, Susan Faludi describes how the New Right (which wasn’t new at all) fought to push women back into the home by making abortion inaccessible. As anti-abortionists picketed, harassed, and bombed women’s clinics, Christian fundamentalists and their supporters fought to restrict legal access. In 1976, the Hyde Amendment eliminated funding for abortions for poor women on Medicaid. Since Hyde [named after Illinois Rep. Henry Hyde, one of the most reactionary and contemptible Republicans in recent memory—Eds], a web of restrictive laws have made it increasingly difficult for women to obtain legal abortions. Between 1995 and 2002, states enacted 335 anti-abortion measures. By 2004, 22 states had imposed waiting periods for women wanting abortions, 21 states required parental permission, and another 14 required parental notification. In 2006, Democrats and Republicans worked together to outlaw abortion in South Dakota.
Regardless of your personal views on abortion, it is a big mistake to support any legal restriction on a woman’s right to choose. The right to control your body is a fundamental democratic principle. If the State can deny women the right to control their fertility, then no one’s rights are safe. A genuine democratic society provides all the options — sex education, contraception, abortion, support for having children — and trusts that people will make the best decisions for themselves. Of course, some people’s decisions will turn out badly. However, such outcomes cannot be avoided by restricting people’s choices. On the contrary, women who cannot obtain safe abortions have unsafe abortions, with their much greater risk of infection, infertility, and death.
American women are losing the battle to control their bodies. Employers can refuse to provide contraceptive coverage in their health plans, pharmacists can refuse to dispense oral contraceptives, and medical professionals can deny patients’ requests for birth control information. More than one-third of all American women live in the 87 percent of counties with no abortion providers at all. The Defense Department has a permanent ban on abortion, except to save the life of the mother. And more than four thousand female Peace Corps volunteers are not covered for abortion under their government-provided insurance plan, even in cases of rape or when their lives are endangered.
Whenever abortion is restricted or illegal, women with money have always been able to obtain safe abortions. Restrictions on abortion hit working-class women hardest. In New York City, before abortion was legalized, Black women accounted for half of the deaths caused by illegal abortions, while Puerto Rican women accounted for 44 percent of those deaths. Today, tighter restrictions on contraception and abortion are causing poor women to suffer more unwanted pregnancies and a greater risk to their lives from delayed and illegal abortions.
While women lose the right to abortion, middle-class women’s organizations refuse to mount a serious defense of abortion rights. On the contrary, feminist author Naomi Wolf calls abortion a form of violence against women and a crime against women. She wants pro-choice supporters to join with abortion opponents to lower the nation’s “shamefully high” abortion rate and has even proposed a ban on abortion after the first trimester. This attack on women’s right to abortion is despicable and dangerous. Right-wing forces have restricted access to birth control information and technology, including the morning-after pill, so women need more access to abortion, not less. The question is not whether abortion is good or bad, but whether women have the right to decide for themselves. The real crime against women — the real violence against women — is denying them the right to make choices that protect their health and their lives.
The nation’s largest pro-choice organization does not defend abortion as a democratic right, rather, “NARAL Pro-Choice America works to reduce the need for abortions.” When a million supporters attended the 2004 March for Women’s Lives in Washington, DC, NARAL organizers did not use the occasion to launch a nation-wide defense of women’s rights. Instead, participants were instructed to get out the vote for Democratic presidential candidate, John Kerry. The event also featured Democratic Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton as an “honored guest” — a woman who calls abortion a “sad, even tragic choice” that shouldn’t “ever have to be exercised, or only in very rare circumstances.”173 Instead of criticizing Clinton, NARAL’s former president praised her for “reaching out to anti-choice Americans.” This is no way to fight for women’s rights! Feminism contends that women of all classes have more in common than men and women in the same
class. This is not true. When push comes to shove, middle- and upper-class women side with the men of their class. In 2006, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco told reporters that she would sign a near-total ban on abortion in her state on the basis that “the Legislature has spoken.”
Liberal women’s organizations view abortion primarily as a legal matter. However, in countries like Canada, where there are no legal restrictions on abortion, working-class women still have difficulty obtaining abortions because the medical system does not guarantee the right to any procedure. Being “pro-choice” is not good enough. Without access to abortion, women have no choice. As long as people have to pay for medical care, those with money will have more choices than those without. We need free abortion on demand, so that all women have the right to choose. This working-class demand is flatly rejected by middleclass liberals whose loyalty to capitalism is greater than their commitment to women’s rights.
Racism and the Black middle class
Before the civil rights movement, many people assumed that Blacks were less intelligent than Whites because so few Black people were middle or upper class. When the civil rights’ movement forced open the door to higher education and better jobs, a few Black people moved up the social pyramid. Between 1972 and 1991, the number of Black professionals increased 470 percent. Between 1964 and 2005, the number of Black elected officials rose from fewer than 200 to more than 9,100. Black people became mayors of major cities including New York, Chicago, Houston, Detroit, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. A few Blacks entered the ruling class: Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and a sprinkling of CEOs in top U.S. corporations.
Unfortunately, the growth of the Black middle class and the inclusion of Blacks into the ruling class have not benefited the majority of Black people, whose living conditions continue to deteriorate. There are two possible explanations. Some argue that the civil rights’ movement did not go far enough and a more vigorous struggle is needed. Others blame the victim by arguing that poor Blacks are just too lazy to better themselves. Many middle-and-upper-class Blacks adopt this second attitude because the system is structured to ensure that those who rise in the system adopt the values of the system, including the belief that anyone can make it if they try.
Capitalism uses a carrot and stick to divide and rule. Allowing a few people from oppressed groups to rise in the social pyramid is the carrot. The war on the poor is the stick. Those who get the carrot are expected to support those who use the stick. In this way, middle-class sections of oppressed groups are recruited to keep the rest down.
In the 1990’s, Black physician Louis Sullivan, Secretary of Health and Human Services for the first Bush administration, helped to launch the “Violence Initiative” that presumed Blacks to be genetically more prone to violence. Black mayor Thomas Bradley was in charge of the racist police force that provoked the Los Angeles rebellion of 1992. Former Black Panther leader Elaine Brown describes the current situation in Atlanta, Georgia.
What Blacks in Atlanta do is act as overseers and serve the interests of the rich whites…They serve as police, as jailers, as clerks in the county, state, city and federal offices — all to grease the wheels and make sure that no one steps out of line and messes with the money. We have a situation where a Black person in the city council is calling for the criminalization of the homeless by saying that they’re offensive in their behavior to the good tourists that come through Atlanta. ..You have a Black district attorney who started out his career as the first Black district attorney in the state of Georgia by prosecuting mainly young Black men under the new law that allows the state to try children as adults…It’s Black people themselves, elected and appointed, who have taken the machinery of government and instead of using it to serve the interests of Black and other poor and oppressed people, they have used it to serve the interests of the developers, the capitalists, the business owners and the big boys in Atlanta.174
Politically powerful Blacks like Clarence Thomas and Condoleezza Rice oppose affirmative action and other social measures to counter discrimination; they argue that Black people should elevate themselves through hard work and personal responsibility. In 1995, Black millionaire Ward Connerly led a successful crusade to ban affirmative action admissions’ policies at the University of California. This measure caused the number of Black and Latino students to drop sharply throughout the University system. On the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision (that ruled segregated schools to be illegal), wealthy Black comedian Bill Cosby slammed poor Blacks for not “keeping up their end of the bargain.” Feeding every racist stereotype, Cosby delighted conservative America by condemning Black youth and their parents for keeping themselves down. In attacking poor Blacks, Cosby [a billonaire] joins a chorus of Black professionals including New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, who rails against “the mass flight of black men from their family responsibilities, especially the obligation to look after their children.”175 Herbert barely pauses to acknowledge systemic racism as he attacks its victims:
Society is unfair and racism is still a rampant evil. But much of the suffering in black America could be alleviated by changes in behavior….much of the most devastating damage to black families, and especially black children, is self-inflicted…we have entire legions of black youngsters turning their backs on school, choosing instead to wallow in a self-imposed ignorance that in the long run is as destructive as a bullet to the brain.176
Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. chides, “We can’t talk about the choices people have without talking about the choices people make.”177 Herbert calls for a new civil rights movement, not to challenge racism but to change the values and behaviors of Black people. The truth is that a racist War on Drugs has incarcerated Black men in unprecedented numbers, tearing apart millions of Black families in the process. The truth is that decades of mass layoffs have eliminated most good-paying jobs and devastated Black families. In some places, like New York City and parts of Chicago, half of all Black men are unemployed. The truth is that most parents, Black and White, are working so hard to make ends meet that they have no time for their kids.
Black students don’t do as well as White students, not because they are lazy, but because America’s school system is segregated by class and by race. The wealthiest ten percent of school districts spend almost ten times more on their students than the poorest ten percent. Less money for students means larger classes, less experienced teachers, crumbling buildings, inadequate libraries, and reduced academic achievement for poor youngsters, who are also more likely to be non-White.
Investing more money in students leads to higher academic achievement. A policy to economically integrate schools in Wake County, North Carolina, showed amazing results for Black and White students. A decade before the integration began, only 40 percent of Black students in grades three through eight scored at grade level. Ten years later, 80 percent did. Overall, 91 percent of students in grades three through eight scored at grade level, up from 79 percent 10 years earlier. The truth is that all youngsters want to learn and will do well when given the chance. Instead of condemning the racism of the system, Black middle-class liberals lecture the victims.
Malcolm X used the following parable to explain the relationship between the Black middle class and the Black working class:
The house Negroes — they lived in the house with master, they dressed pretty good, they ate good because they ate his food — what he left. They lived in the attic or the basement, but still they lived near the master; and they loved the master more than the master loved himself. They would give their life to save the master’s house – quicker than the master would. If the master said, “We got a good house here,” the house Negro would say, “Yeah, we got a good house here.” Whenever the master said “we,” he said “we.” That’s how you can tell a house Negro. If the master’s house caught on fire, the house Negro would fight harder to put the blaze out than the master would. If the master got sick, the house Negro would say, “What’s the matter, boss, we sick?” We sick! He identified himself with his master, more than his master identified with himself. And if you came to the house Negro and said, “Let’s run away, let’s escape, let’s separate,” the house Negro would look at you and say, “Man, you crazy. What you mean, separate? Where is there a better house than this? Where can I wear better clothes than this? Where can I eat better food than this?”178
There can be no doubt that middle-class reformers are genuinely concerned about social problems. Many dedicate their lives to making the world a better place and sacrifice much to do so. However, the belief that change comes only from the top of society causes liberals to betray their ideals and their followers by demanding that we “give the system a chance.” This happened in the spring of 2006, when leaders of the immigrants’ rights movement initially opposed a bill that criminalized immigrants only to back another bill that was not much different. The same betrayal occurs in the labor movement, where union bureaucrats talk tough one day and collapse in response to employer pressure the next day. Anti-war liberals who opposed the prospect of war against Iraq did a 180-degree turn when the war began. As one liberal confessed, “I was against the invasion of Iraq, but now that we’re there, we need to finish the job.” This is nonsense. The longer the U.S. occupies Iraq, the worse things get. We need to get out NOW. The billions being spent on the war
can be given to the Iraqi people as reparations to rebuild their country.
In any real fight, liberals choose the road of least resistance — the status quo. When Mumia Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death after an unfair and politically-motivated trial, the National Association of Black Journalists refused to support him, even though Abu-Jamal was president of the Philadelphia chapter of the organization at the time of his arrest! This cowardly betrayal was attributed to members being “attuned to the subtle grunts and imagined nods of their employers in the corporate media.”179
In great social upheavals, sections of the middle class advocate caution and moderation, evolution,
not revolution. This liberal “voice of reason” betrays the working class by holding back the struggle
while the capitalist class regroups its forces. During the Russian Revolution, when the ruling class was thoroughly discredited, the middle class did all it could to prevent workers, farmers, and soldiers from forming their own government. In Germany, the middle class supported the Nazi Party’s efforts to rescue capitalism from the threat of workers’ revolution. Once the Nazis took power, professional associations of engineers, lawyers, doctors, psychiatrists, scientists, and other professionals rushed to pledge their support. Jeff Schmidt concludes,
Generally speaking, the greater the power, whether corporate or state or even oppositional, the more eager professionals are to subordinate themselves to it. The power’s morality or immorality has only a secondary effect on the professional’s eagerness to serve, because good subordinates don’t make moral judgements about their superiors.180
Countering middle-class politics
The middle class is not a uniform class with uniform ideas. Sections of the middle class can be convinced to fight capitalism, and most of the people in the grey zone between the middle and working classes can also be convinced. Socialists developed the tactic of the “united front” to help people with different ideas work together on matters of common concern. Too often, people let their disagreements about society hold back their efforts to change it. Human beings prefer to cooperate; conflict makes us anxious so when political disagreements arise, we tend to make
one of two mistakes:
• The first mistake is to be sectarian — to refuse to associate with people you don’t agree with. Hanging out with like-minded people is comfortable; however, organizations that avoid conflict by shutting out dissenters cannot grow beyond a small circle of friends.
• The second mistake is to minimize disagreements (“we all want the same thing”). Unfortunately, unity that is built by papering over real disagreements always breaks down under stress. Those who are loyal to capitalism and those who oppose it will forever be in conflict. When people can’t agree on the fundamentals, their organizations become paralyzed or split.
Conflict is distressing. Suppressing dissent is undemocratic. Pretending we have no differences is unrealistic. So how can we proceed? The first thing to determine is whether the disagreement is fundamental or not. That can be determined by deciding if a person has more to gain by preserving capitalism or by replacing it. Those who have more to gain by preserving capitalism will never be convinced to oppose it. In contrast, all workers and the more oppressed sections of the middle class would be better off in an egalitarian society. Therefore, despite the contradictory ideas in their heads, most people can be convinced of the need for socialism.
The united front allows people to fight together without having to agree on everything and without having to be in the same organization. For example, everyone and all organizations who want U.S. troops out of the Middle East should work together to build an anti-war demonstration. The anti-abortionist who opposes the war should be welcomed, despite her views on abortion. Working together against the war provides a space to discuss how the right of people to run their own countries is linked with the right of women to control their own bodies. Similarly, the racist worker must be welcomed on the picket line, where it is possible to convince him that his racist views hurt his class interests. The key is to be honest and open about differences and work together on specific activities, to acknowledge disagreements without letting them hold back the struggle. Over time, such discussions-within-activity help people to clarify and resolve their differences.
Movements against oppression contain people from different classes. As the struggle heats up, these movements inevitably split along class lines. The middle and upper classes will limit their demands to what can be obtained within capitalism. Such demands do not meet the needs of working-class people whose liberation requires an end to capitalism. These splits are inevitable. Socialists reject pleas for unity that would subordinate the interests of the working class to the interests of the middle and upper classes. A united front is not coercive; it is a free association where organizations holding different views can work together. Organizations participating in a united front retain their political independence, including the right to break away if that becomes necessary.
A workers’ party must represent the interests of the working class without compromise. Because middleclass views and methods undermine the fight for socialism, people who hold onto such views and methods cannot be members of a workers’ party. Membership must be restricted to those who are committed to putting the working class in power. A workers’ party cannot be a debating society or a platform for opportunists; it must be a party of action. Voting rights must be restricted to those who are actively organizing for socialism.
Those who do the work must make the decisions or they will be continually outvoted by those who assume the right to make decisions for other people to carry out. Socialists are often accused of having an agenda that undermines the struggle against oppression. On the contrary, socialists provide a unique and valuable contribution; they work to accomplish the goals of the movement by linking struggles against oppression and grounding them in the power of the working class.
Socialists raise the slogan “Gay, Straight, Black, White; One Struggle; One Fight.” That one fight is the fight to liberate humanity from capitalism and end all oppression. To win that fight, we need to build the broadest possible unity within the working class across divisions of sex, race, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, and so on. Socialists insist on bringing everything back to class because class is what unites the majority and gives us the power to change the world. The next chapter in my book explains how the material base already exists to create a classless, socialist society.
The middle class is full of well-intentioned people who want a better capitalism. Being socialized to manage the working class, the middle class rejects the possibility of workers managing society. The middle class works to lower expectations and limit demands to what can be achieved within the system. To win their rights in the present and their liberation in the future, the working class must organize independently of the middle class and its politics of compromise.
This material comprises Chapter 15 of Susan Rosenthal’s extraordinary volume, POWER AND POWERLESSNESS, a Cyrano Library selection. Dr. Rosenthal, a Senior Editor at Cyrano’s Journal Online, has been practicing medicine for more than 30 years and has written many articles on the relationship between health and human relationships. She is also the author of Striking Flint: Genora (Johnson) Dollinger Remembers the 1936-1937 General Motors Sit-Down Strike (1996) and Market Madness and Mental Illness: The Crisis in Mental Health Care (1999) and Power and Powerlessness. She is a member of the National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981. She can be reached through her web site www.powerandpowerlessness.com or by susanRosenthal@bestcyrano.org