Reason #12--It's Not About Conservatives Versus Liberals (or How Many Times Is Charlie Brown Gonna Trust Lucy With that Ball?)
Because of all of the confusion we have about class, average Americans have never been able to broadly organize based on our class interests. On one hand, Howard Zinn's indispensable A People's History of the United States shows that we have a long history of working class-based organization--from Shay's rebellion through 150 years of labor struggle. On the other, critic C.L.R. James wrote the argument American Civilization to show how America’s political struggles have been impoverished by an inability to come to grips with the already socialized nature of modern capitalism.
For well over a century, the wealthy class has worked collectively in its own interests. But the working classes have continuously aligned their interests with a political party that serves the interest of the rich. The most striking example of this is labor’s alignment with liberalism and, ultimately, the Democrats.
Liberalism has a list of appealing beliefs, but the roots of the philosophy lie in the economic needs of the capitalist class. For three centuries prior to the 20th Century, it was clearly understood that liberalism was a bourgeois ideology. Liberals believed in the individual freedom of the capitalist, free trade and free competition.
In the 20th Century, with the fragmentation of old Europe, the Depression and the rise of the Soviet Union, liberalism turned to an economic policy focused on maintaining world economic stability in the capitalists’ interests. For many objective reasons, the Democratic Party recognized the need to support a reserve labor force, use the central government to create new jobs and work to create international good will, but all of this was not as big a break with 19th Century liberalism as it might appear. It was a change in strategy, but the goal was the same—the preservation and advancement of capitalism.
American conservatism has always existed as a polarity to the concerns of the liberal capitalist ideologies. Early in our history, conservatives sought primarily to preserve the rights of religious institutions, aristocratic privilege and the protection of private property.
Depending on the fluid nature of individual concerns, aspects of both of these ideologies have appealed to America's working class at various points in our past. From the 1930s to the 1970s, liberalism's grudging willingness to tackle social problems for the sake of social order appealed to many working people, although the Civil Rights Movement was deeply divisive among this group.
Since then, conservatism has grown more popular because it learned how to create and exploit the working class's fear of losing all that it has, greatly embodied by a fear of crime. But neither ideology can seek equality for Americans while maintaining its prime objective, the preservation of a system that primarily answers to corporate power.
People know this. I'll never forget what one of my conservative students said to me during the Bush/Gore recounts--"I voted for Bush, but you and I both know neither one of those guys cares about us."
To really put the interests of the American majority on the table, we have to form a party unified by class (the class without the corporate dollars). There are now far more of us without any reason to trust this system and its stability, just as Marx predicted there would be.
Americans haven’t named this new class, but we see it forming. It certainly has many of the old "working class" in its ranks, but it also has former middle managers of oil and automobile companies. And—with recession-related downsizing and the number of Internet start-ups that are already beginning to decline-we see this new class growing rapidly.
A Marxist concept of class is really based on that polarity of wealth and poverty and which pole has you in its magnetic field. With the widest gap between rich and poor ever in American history increasing the past two decades, you and I are no doubt growing poorer. If we aren't individually, our friends are.
If we don't embrace Marx's concept of class, we merely resign ourselves to a system that operates with a force greater than any of us alone. Without being unified as a class, we can’t fight the increasingly rapid and inhumane cost of watching our society collapse. In the darkening days of capitalism, when a small band of the super-rich realizes the only way to impose their will on the people is by force, things can only get worse.
Hope lies in the power of the people putting an end to corporate rule. And we know that challenge will not be supported, as the two parties are, by corporate dollars.