Reflections on Class, Class Consciousness, and OWS

Reflections on Class, Class Consciousness, and OWS

(A version of this article was published in Blogcritics on December,2011)

I

“Class” is a touchy subject in American political parlance. Any talk of class – apart from the purely descriptive sense of the term whose primary 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. And it’s 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 do know the rest. The American Dream writ large is the incarnation.

II

So no, I’m not speaking here of our middle class or our lower-middle-class, not even 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. They only perpetuate the myth of “belonging,” the myth that we’re all in the same boat, that only our abilities, determination, and hard work separate any one person from another. 

Add to this “equality under the law” — another premise that’s rarely if ever questioned — and 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, must sound like a dream come true. Indeed, it’s the unique accomplishment of liberalism, classical or modern, in that it perpetuates this dream.

That’s why whenever “class” is used in any way other than as a taxonomical term — denoting our present status in society and our unquestioned assumptions as to social mobility — it’s bound to evoke a negative response. It strikes at the very core of our beliefs.

III

“Class warfare” is the extreme form of adverse reaction, and we’re well familiar with the accusation. It’s un-American, we’re told, undermining the very spirit and principles upon which our nation was founded, inciting violence at worst, social unrest at best. And given that, unlike some of our Continental brethren for whom the vestiges of the Old World are still intact, we’ve shed all pretense at class in terms of either birth or privilege, it’s little 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. 

It’s thus that the myth is kept alive.

IV

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.

V

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 us 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 – a trend that’s been long in coming 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.]

VI

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). And the purpose was to create a diversion by pointing to an imaginary rather than the real enemy. With the help of OWS, however, the authors argue, this illusion was shattered. 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 far greater faith in the intelligence of the American public than the Ehrenreichs do, even if that intelligence is unarticulated most of the time. 

The Ehrenreichs speak of distraction as a significant impediment to attaining “class consciousness,” and on face value, they’re correct. But come on now, distractions are part of life. If we make use of them, it’s only because they serve a purpose. We find them convenient insofar as they enable us to hold on to our biases, age-old prejudices, and stale ideologies — their function being none other than to provide us with an excuse, a perfect pretext. Still, it’s not exactly as though distractions were supposed to take over and supplant our entire thinking processes. 

And that’s to say nothing yet of the authors’ greatest omission: excluding from consideration all those for whom distraction, apart from being a factor, any factor, isn’t even a part of their vocabulary. 

What I mean here is our growing underclass, our poor and our “invisibles,” our Niggers, our homeless, our gays, even our women. I mean all those who no longer have any stake in America because America had failed them many times over. I am speaking of all those whose primary 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. Exploitation is a fact of life to them, end of story! Besides, they haven’t the luxury. All they know, all they ever need to know — “it’s the Man.”

VII

It’s rather ludicrous that the Ehrenreichs and their ilk should be pontificating from their bully pulpit so. I’d be the last person to deny anyone the faculty of hope, but I can’t help but detect a major disconnect here. It’s a disconnect between the authors’ guarded optimism and the underlying realities — realities they’re so out of touch with that they aren’t 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.  

And in the process, “diversion” is being posited as representing a major obstacle to attaining class consciousness while the root causes — the very premises which underpin the American Dream! — are conveniently ignored. 

Now that the bubble has burst, the authors tell us, and we know who the real enemy is, a brighter future awaits us!

VIII

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 and government employees, even some of our intelligentsia, I daresay. And with a bit of luck, its appeal may become universal as time goes by.

But for the Ehrenreichs to claim the movement enjoys anything approximating widespread support flies in the face of the facts. Indeed, for all the genius behind the OWS slogan, “We are the 99 percent,” 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 for their own and run with it, remains unconvinced? 

The truth is — most are repelled by it. I’d be the first to acknowledge that the reasons are many and varied. But surely, some of it’ got to do with the fact we’re aren’t all that comfortable as yet with this “class thing.

IX

But again, this only 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 a class, has been a rare thing indeed. True, there have been incidences in ancient China, but don’t forget: Confucius, for one, 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 peril. Disavowing their class membership and acting as individuals was the ticket.

X

What are the major impediments, then, to adopting the Ehrenreichs’ rather rosy picture of love reigning supreme and class solidarity in abundance? What are they unaware of, whether wilfully or not?

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, Lockean conception of the individual as though (still) in the “natural” state, emphasis on rights and rule of law aimed at protecting those rights as though the epitome of our freedoms, legalistic conception of equality — these are but some of the elements at play. Need I say more?

XI

Let’s face it! American society is still riddled with divisions along racial and ethnic lines for the required 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 would be putting one’s interests above the interests of the community.

Even in Rome, the most imperialistic state ever conceived — a template for all imperialistic states to follow — better sense had prevailed.  

The Romans didn’t benefit from the liberal ideology that posits the individual in an ever-ending conflict with all other humans and the forces of nature. Yes, even the Romans, irreligious as they have been 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). It’s but a reconstruction of a civilization long gone –only an aid to understanding. 

One can never be sure, of course!

XII

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 the casting of lots by elected public officials, their term of office not to exceed one year. 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 they tell me.

XIII

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 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?

XIV

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, our acquiescence as the case may be — of the ruling class – as (distributive) justice?

If you’re looking to philosophical underpinnings that ground these conclusions, take a cursory look at Charles Taylor’s article, “The Nature and Scope of Distributive Justice,” in Philosophy and The Human Sciences, Philosophical Papers 2, chapter 11.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking to practical solutions, I can’t improve upon Marx’s definition of “class,” bourgeois edition, which ties the concept to the ownership of the means of production.: until the producers have total control over the disposition of their product, there’ll never be a classless society. And assuming now that a classless society is a desideratum — a condition whereby only meritocracy rules while birth, rank, or privilege are of no account — this ought to be our greatest aspiration

XV

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.

XVI

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 from the opening paragraph:

In this society, there is no powerful discourse on love emerging either from politically progressive radicals or 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.

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