A Little Respect
(reason #13—with a new class comes a new vision)
I started writing about Marx 13 days ago as a sort of reprise of my 13 days of Halloween. Though I finished my horror essays with “Why We Need What We Fear, Part 2,” I’m not really near the end of my Marx material so much as reaching a point where I can feel we the need to look back at the connections.
I woke up thinking about this this morning, and I knew I wasn’t going to get anything done until I shared these thoughts with whoever’s been kind enough to follow along…..We’ve reached a point where the purpose in my even starting a blog has come clear. It’s been an intuitive leap since day one, but I can see the outlines of what’s taking shape.
Everywhere around me, I see the culture striving to do what our political organization can’t do—build real connections between those disparate and desperate people being tossed out of the system. It’s there in all of those bands of warriors at the end of all of those horror fantasies—Stephen King’s ka-tet (and even that rag tag band of people in Cell who, ironically, don’t go mad because they can’t keep up with technology), Joss Whedon’s or Buffy’s Scoobies joined by Potentials turned to Slayers, Phillip Pullman’s or Lila’s new alliances that overthrow the Authority, even (especially?) the zombies joined by the have-nots in Land of the Dead.
The Old Order is collapsing and tossing off outriders who have to learn to work together to build a new world worth living in. [I would love it if other people would write in to comments about other examples of this in popular movies, novels and TV shows—does Lost relate to this? Deadwood? Surely V for Vendetta as did the Matrix, although my memories of some of the details are a little fuzzy.]
And I hear this all over in popular music. Silly love songs have almost never been simply silly love songs, and when I’ve heard my recently displaced daughter and my wife (who’s faced some big career frustrations this year) sing along to the Fray’s “Over My Head,” I hear a refrain that speaks to and for this new class. When I hear Pink tell off the President on behalf of people who understand “hard work”--explicitly listing the homeless, those working at minimum wage, and the innocent victims of air strikes—I hear her speaking for this new class, just as I hear T.I. echoing these points with “What you know about that? I know all about that!” I hear Audioslave calling out to this new class when, on “Sound of a Gun,” Chris Cornell sings, “This is for the daughters and sons of the forgotten ones, learning how to stand.” And I hear it in Lil’ Kim, singing in Spanish and English, “No matter where you’re from, put ya lighters up,” and in Beyonce’s reckoning song written with every intention of summing up all the others, “Oh the time has come for my dreams to be heard.
It’s there in the way Ludacris admits he’s never done time but calls out encouragement and calls for solidarity with his brothers and sisters behind bars on “Do Your Time.” It’s there in the portraits of all the lost little girls in his duet with Mary J. Blige, “Runaway,” pledging to meet them out in the street. And it’s there in way Jay-Z raps with defiance on the “Lost One,” and the way Kanye West puts Common back-to-back with the Game on Late Registration, and the way the romantic individualist Andre shows he learns from the street savvy politics of Big Boi on Idlewild. This new class has find new ways to work and dream together.
And it’s there in the music of the very first person I blogged about, Kristie Stremel, a young woman who caught my ear nearly a decade ago singing about her own big dreams and speaking for those just barely getting by in a system that keeps getting meaner day-by-day. In that context, a song like her new one, “It’s Not A Phase,” a song that might have seemed like merely an anthem about sexuality (an endlessly worthy thing to be) in another time, shows itself to be about how nobody will be free until everyone is. It’s in the way the song ties health care into its most fundamental concerns and the way the great rock and roll refrain turns the whole history of the music on its side. “Everyone’s out tonight,” Stremel sings with that classic sense of rock and roll expectation, then follows it up with a perfectly frustrated contradiction…”Everything is all wrong!”
Our culture is struggling, perhaps blindly in the dark, but clearly and in many ways effectively, to build bridges between those being tossed to sea. This is something all of our previously existing political organizations can’t do.
Here’s how I tried to write about why in Monsters, Marx and Music:
Unless this new class organizes, the trends we are seeing today will simply grow more deeply entrenched--the vilification of the poor will continue to be nightly entertainment under the guise of talk shows and "Reality" TV. The court system will be rendered completely ineffectual by the mass media verdict. Anticorporate protests will be legally defined as "acts of terrorism.” Since the poor are being so effectively scapegoated as the cause of all of our social problems, the acceleration of the death penalty will continue through the complete elimination of the appeals process. Anyone who has the money will buy his or her way into gated communities. Big Brother surveillance techniques will grow even more sophisticated, as will high tech crowd control weaponry. We will be convinced that the loss of our individual freedoms is simply part of the price of living in a civilized society.
Unfortunately, the bogus debate between “liberalism” and “conservatism” prevents most of us from seeing our way out of the forest of subjectivity. From the 1960s until very recently, most political dissent revolved around war, race, gender, environmental dangers and threats to individual freedom. To this day, the broad-based coalitions that protest globalized capital tend to coalesce around ideological consistency rather than class unity. The best known groups to raise their voices against capitalism are focused on an agreement around particular issues--the Greens with the preservation of the environment, Food Not Bombs with a pro-vegetarian, anti-military agenda, and various forms of labor organization, concerned with the very real dangers to their jobs wrought by international capitalist cooperation.
This is only natural. People are going to come together to assert their own personal and ideological agendas. But until these factions begin to see themselves as a body first and foremost unified by class, they will not be able to broaden their support and their potential to fight together on an ongoing basis.
Everyone in the labor movement is not going to sign onto a vegetarian program any more than everyone in the environmental movement is going to always agree with the specific concerns of labor. What they can agree on is that they represent the enormous class of people who have no real control over the will of big money. Right now, they are being defined as anti-corporate or anti-globalization, which has the disadvantage of sounding unrealistic and negative. Ultimately, without a vision of something to replace the class antagonism of capitalism, we can't expect to win….
Strategy and tactics for fighting the overwhelming power of globalized capital depend upon understanding the primacy of class. Fighting the wealth of the world depends upon a very clear assessment of limited resources and a clear perception of the shifting frontlines of the struggle. Ideological concerns must be weighed against the common needs of a class of over 200 million Americans, at least a quarter of whom live in abject poverty.
One thing the system does best is obscure the voices of those who suffer the most. Our society's selective hearing has much to do with our subjective concepts of class. It reinforces the greater, objective forces that silence some while allowing others to drone endlessly.
Teaching can be nothing more than a credentialing system for those who belong in positions of authority versus those who are expected to remain where they are. Teaching English, this division is particularly vivid. Who uses the modern equivalent of the Queen's English (Standard Written English) well? For the most part, those who grow up in literate homes and who are encouraged to read and write from an early age.
That doesn't mean my more privileged students write the most interesting essays or that they use the language in the most creative ways, but it does mean they can jump the hurdles of the academic system. A student may have nothing to say, but if she is well read and knows how to speak the language of the dominant class, then she can probably get by in academic writing.
Linda Stout, in her terrific, practical book, Bridging the Class Divide, describes the many ways in which poor people are excluded from political activism. Some of these problems are logistical, having to do with how and where activists organize and the practical barriers to poor people getting involved. The more insidious barriers deal with the subjective walls erected by American concepts of class. She talks about organizational structures in which more privileged participants feel comfortable speaking up, while the poor feel out of place. She also talks about a sense of history shared by liberal organizers.
But the first concern she addresses, and the one most fundamental to the others, is what she calls "The Wall of Language." She writes about how the organizing slogans of the poor were "corrected" by the liberal leadership. One example was a quotation from a child that read, "Something has to be wrong when the government spends so much money on the military and nothing on me." It was "corrected" to read, "I don't understand why the government spends so much money on the military and nothing on me."
The irony was, of course, that the revised statement was weakened from the original because the poor certainly did understand what was going on. Even simpler changes from everyday, slang or colloquial language to something more "proper" rob working class speech and writing of its impact, at the same time sending the message that the poor should not speak up because they don't know the right way to say it--which certainly implies they don’t know the right way to do it.
My greatest gripe with editors over the years has been when they have made such simple edits to my writing. I remember the first time an editor tried to refine my writing, arbitrarily changing "scary" to "frightening.” What sounded familiar in the original now sounded stuffy, and I sensed that minor change in wording put a trace of distance between me and the audience I was trying to reach. Our use of language is one of the most important political decisions we can make as writers. Who are we trying to reach? If we are trying to join hands with the great majority of people being most devastated by our current economic system, we must write in a way that's going to reach the most people. Building cool, ironic distance into what we say cuts our own throats.
It is the conflict in the world around us, the conflict between haves and have nots when we have enough for all, that allows a new way of thinking about just how this world might work. Unlike anyone before him, Marx was able to properly describe the conflict at the root of capitalism which allowed him to reach a theory of resolution.
To carry that science forward, to make a world where no one has to live in poverty and everyone has equal potential for fulfillment, the first step is to realize the potential power of class unity. This world's capitalist class is outnumbered by more than 9 to 1. In other words, those other 9 sell themselves to the 1 for the privilege of living. Meanwhile, 12 million children out of that 90% starve to death each year. If this were a just world, couldn't those 9 workers convince that 1 capitalist to give up his privilege so that their children could live? Of course they could. All 10 people could live together as equals. But in order to create the just world, the 9 have to recognize that they're all on the same side.