What does it mean to be “working class?” The usual definition encompasses all those who own no significant income-generating property and must work for others for a living. This is a very large group, somewhere around 75% or more of the U.S. population.
Sometimes when people on the left use this phrase, or when they refer to the “middle class,” my political antennae go up. I’ve had many negative experiences of people throwing around these terms in a polemical and destructive way. There are organizations which no longer exist because of internal battles over the question of “who is the working class,” or the leadership’s attack on members considered not sufficiently rooted in “the working class.”
At the same time, I firmly believe that we need to affirm the realities of class exploitation as central to the oppressive system under which we live. We need to reject strategic perspectives which downplay the importance of the working class because the industrial sector of that class, in the United States, is declining in actual numbers. We also need to reject efforts to build an alliance of all of the disenfranchised and oppressed in this society without prioritizing class, as well as race/culture/nationality and gender, as key elements if that alliance is to be effective.
But the fact is that within this big working class are found a wide disparity of ideas. Many white, male workers look upon people of color and women as rivals, competitors for their jobs, their incomes or their neighborhoods. Racism, sexism and homophobia are very much alive among the white, male sector of the working class. This sector generally tends to be supportive of an aggressive, militaristic foreign policy. Basic principles of unionism—“an injury to one is an injury to all”—do not have deep roots among this group of workers.
Indeed, among certain elements of the working class [think the construction trades], “middle class” would be a more accurate description of both their income level and their class consciousness.
Among low- and moderate-income workers, however, where women and people of color are present in much larger percentages, the level of class consciousness, and therefore the willingness to take action against injustice, is more developed.
Why is all of this relevant? Why is it important? Why is it timely?
I’ve just come back from a successful, inspiring conference organized by the group I work for, the Independent Progressive Politics Network (IPPN). This gathering took place one month after another inspiring conference organized by United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ). Taken together, and building upon the massive movement for peace which we experienced prior to the Iraq war, they are concrete signs that we may be on the verge of a powerful, multi-cultural, independent people’s movement for justice and power.
Such a popular alliance, to be successful, is going to have to deal with many difficult twists and turns on the road to fundamental change in this country. A key one, almost the precondition for success, is the ability to bring and hold together constituencies and sectors that have very little history of working together consistently over a long period of time. And that is what is going to be necessary: consistent work on a protracted basis.
Such an alliance must be rooted in the working class, all sectors of it, some more strongly than others. It must also include people and groups from the middle class—-ministers, college professors, small businesspeople, doctors, lawyers, etc. Absent this breadth, it will be very difficult for the alliance to become the political force needed.
This presents a problem: there is a long history within the progressive movement of better-educated, upwardly mobile, white men dominating its leadership. Middle-class people, and workers infected with the system’s negative ideas and practices, need to recognize that their class position can lead to serious problems—elitism, hierarchical approaches to organization, racism and sexism (sometimes subtle but still negative), competitiveness and paternalism.
These issues have been front-burner issues for many of us for a number of years. Progress has been made. It is significant that both UFPJ and IPPN have elected national leaderships that are each about ½ people of color and ½ women. This is a very concrete sign of something at work within our movement that is hopeful and positive.
Let’s take this time of crisis and turn it into the opportunity opening up for us. The Bushites are on the defensive. The independents are getting better organized. Let’s sieze the time.