Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Ovarian Roulette

"Class Lives – Stories From Across Our Economic Divide,” edited by Chuck Collins, Jennifer Ladd, Maynard Seider and Felice Yeskel, 2014

I came over to the U.S. on a boat – a big boat.  The QE-2.  My mother first took me walking through New York when we landed.  I saw a blind and crippled man sitting against a store-front selling pencils.  I stared at him as I walked past.  I had never seen such a thing.  I cried out and made my mother give me some money to give to the blind man.  What struck me was that everyone else was just walking by, ignoring this disaster on the street.  I was 5.  That is when I got my first inkling of class.

I still sometimes give money to panhandlers if they seem desperate, crippled, female, too young or have a great story.  Yet every socialist knows ‘charity’ doesn’t cover the grievous crimes of class.  It’s mostly a palliative.  People who think it actually solves the problem are lying, or Republicans. 
IWW Class Poster - Early 1900s U.S.

This book is full of short personal tales about what it means to grow up in different classes – or segments of classes.  There is even one section dedicated to those who have crossed classes.  Each features the dawning realization that everyone is not really in the same boat - some leak far more than others. 

The editors, who seem to be honest materialist liberals with a somewhat hazy idea of what class really is, have organized the stories into 4 ‘classes.’  A., the Poor Class.  B., the Working Class.  C., the Middle Class, and D., the Owning Class.  Their idea of class heavily relies on education, income level and accepted jargon, not relations to the means of production or the need to work or not.  They represent an organization called “Class Action” which educates people about class diversity in the same way that some organizations educate about ethnic diversity.  You will never see these people at a capitalist corporation however.  Diversity gives corporations a greater pool of employees and customers.  Paying attention to class just alienates their employees from them.  As one essay points out, some affirmative action actually benefits middle-class minorities only.  There is no affirmative action for the working class as a whole. 

POOR is a poor term for class.

I’m not using the term 'poor' for an economic strata anymore.  It is a dodge.  If you look carefully at people who are classified as ‘poor’ you many times see that they work, have jobs of some kind – sometimes 4 of them! - or work at essential unpaid or government-supported care-work at home, like taking care of children or sick relatives.  Nearly every one of these stories describe the 'poor' as being tenant farmers, house cleaners, jack-of-all-trades, volunteer workers, mill workers, bartenders or waitresses, childcare workers, etc.  Some are unemployed people, what Marx called the ‘reserve army of the unemployed.’  He divided this army into different layers, but still, they were nearly all workers.  That is until they hurt the working class itself through crime, in which case he christened them ‘lumpen-proletarians.’  Very few ‘poor’ people do ‘nothing.’  Even drug dealers and sex workers work.

The term ‘poor’ is the lazy class analysis of bourgeois journalists and academics.  The word fits into their neat scenario.  ‘Poor,’ ‘middle class’ and ‘rich’ are supposed to be how we understand class in the U.S.  This is a definition that blurs actual class, and that is its purpose.  Then there is the even stupider rightist variation, which is that class is based on what cultural values you have.  Brie or American cheese?  Wine or beer?  Christian or not?  Ad nauseum.  If the capitalists can convince people who are working class that they are middle class – viola, the workers feel better about themselves.  At least they are not ‘poor.’  Who the hell wants to be called ‘poor’ … or even ‘working class’?!  Sounds grubby.  I once asked one of the older men at the large bakery I worked at what class he was in.  He said, “middle class.”  He was covered with flour dust, wearing a paper hat, drove a beater car, was in the union and lived in an apartment.  But he must have felt better about himself.

The strong part of this book is that it shows that ethnic and gender thinking is limited, as class crosses through these categories.  Not all women, Latinos, blacks, whites, homosexuals or nationalities are alike, as each group in every nation in the world is stratified by class.  Can you say 'Carlos Slim?'  How many times have we read a laundry lists of various oppressions from fraudulent identity politicians without the word class or classism even included?   

There are various themes that crop up in the stories over and over.  People are ashamed of being in or from the various layers of the working class. They try to ‘pass’ and hide their class status or roots.  Many who have moved up in class still feel like they will be found out as frauds.  People change their language, upgrade their clothing, pretend that they have a clue about certain higher-level cultural issues that they really don’t understand.  They avoid letting people know they cannot afford certain things.  They try to hide where they live or the school lunch voucher in their hand.  Many have a difficult time ‘coming out of the closet’ as working class persons.  In this book, a good number became activists of some kind, so it might be a lop-sided sample. It is common that many people do not think about class until later in their lives – usually in public school or college where they are suddenly thrown into a class mixture.  Like sex, almost no one talks about it, certainly not in families or in school.  Class is the really dirty elephant in the room.

Of note, there is one terrific essay tearing apart the myth that ‘poor’ girls only want to get pregnant.  The writer in fact says ‘poor’ girls are always trying to figure out how to avoid babies because they know what will happen to them. 
Modernistic Class Poster - 2000s U.S.

Middle-Class is another poor term for class

Middle-class is the term favored by journalists, reformist union types and the Democratic Party.  This term also hides the working-class, just like ‘poor’ does.  The stories from these so-called middle-class people who have houses, post-high school educations and enough money to take vacations or go to summer camp (some of the cultural markers of the supposed ‘middle-class’ lifestyle) do not generally reveal what the parents did.  I would guess that some of the people in these stories are actually white-collar or higher-level blue-collar or 'pink' collar working-class – people who need to work to live, but were able to spin their skills into a better-paying job of some kind.  Of course, the ‘aristocracy of labor’ nowadays identifies more with the people above them than their own compadres, and you see this all the time  Small businessmen, most farmers, professionals like lawyers, doctors, professors, architects and low and middle-level corporate managers are the true ‘middle’ class.   Or as Marxists define them with a more beautiful French phrase, the ‘petit bourgeois.’ 

When you put it altogether, the working class has the majority of people in the U.S. by a long shot. That is true throughout the world. 

Many of the stories in this collection told by formerly working class people are ‘achievers’ who have gone to college and graduate school and now look back on their roots. This mars these stories somewhat, as they reflect their ambiguities.  Most of the ‘middle-class’ stories reflect a long delay in understanding class; guilt is the most popular emotion.  A desire to change the situation is also evident among some.  There is one story about the frictions within non-profits over class.  The stories from the ‘Owning Class” (some of whom are actually professionals in the petit-bourgeoisie and some of whom might be in the lower stratum of the ruling class, the 1%, etc.) are also full of guilt   Some of them are activists even with that.  Some find ‘cognitive dissonance’ between visits to their Financial Planner and work with disadvantaged people.   

If you are interested in the issue, this is an easily readable book that might make you think about your own life and background. However, don’t be guilty!  Guilt is the most pathetic response.  The editors want people to be proud of their lower class identity at least, and to avoid ignoring the issue if they dwell in the higher regions.  For workers, it’s “I’m Prole and I’m Proud!”  (Throw it down, James Brown!)   

The organization “Class Action” wants a society with less classism.  Marxists want a society with no economic classes at all.  Take your pick.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
March 4, 2015

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