“Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires…“
The idea of “class” — or groups with a shared social or economic position in society — is not often talked about in the United States. How could class be important to people in a nation founded on the idea that they are created equal, where they can all lift themselves up by their own bootstraps & live the American Dream? Naturally, there will always be some wealthy folk at the top ( who worked very hard to get there, of course ) and, though we speak of a middle “class” of entrepreneurs, professionals, & skilled workers, there is no lower class. A working class, perhaps — but not a lower one. In fact, the working class is really just the part of the middle class that is facing the bottom. But none of those are really classes per se because people in the US can always change their socioeconomic circumstances with a little bit of hard work — easy as pie, right?
Or that, at least, is the myth that politicians feed to the economically secure and, for the past 80 years or so, this has been a pretty good vaccine against socialism in the United States.
Class & Class Struggle
In the United States
Before we look at the situation today, it is important to understand a few terms. Loosely speaking, a class is basically a group of people who share economic & social interests. For example, working classes tend to think higher wages are the best thing since sliced bread was invented, while business owning classes might favor lower wages because low-wages means greater profit. Inside of a class, individuals or sub-groups can be very different and other layers of identity ( like race or religion ) may even be in conflict — but, as long as a group shares fundamental economic interests, the group can be called a class. Make sense?
The Working Class
& the Ruling Class
From a Marxist point of view, a group is only called a class when they have a shared relationship to their society’s means of production, which is a fancy term for the materials, machines, & resources used to make all of the things ( If that term is new to you, consider reading “Social Revolution 101: the Causes of Inequality” ). This is a lot less complicated than it might sound at first! What Marx means is that the working class — or proletariat — is a class because workers do not own the factories where they work or the things they create. This shared relationship between working people ( not owning the means to produce wealth ) is what makes them the working class. In Marx’s view, the other major class is the capitalist or bourgeois ( say: boo-zh-WAH ) classes, often called the ruling class — these are the investors & business-folk. The relationship shared between members of the ruling class is owning the means to produce wealth, such as land, factories, resources ( like oil or water rights ), big piles of money, or even patents & intellectual property.
Now, any group that fits the description can be a “class in itself” but — when members of a class become aware of themselves as a class — it is a “class for itself.” This is called class consciousness. If a class in itself becomes a class for itself by achieving class consciousness, the members of that class begin to work together toward their common interests. As class consciousness spreads between the members of a class, they learn to value cooperation toward goals that are good for the whole group & not just individuals. That widespread yearning to help each other & to help the collective — even between people who do not personally know each other — is called solidarity.
And when class consciousness leads to mass cooperation & solidarity, a new possibility is born….
Class Conflict, Class Struggle,
or Class Warfare…
“There’s class warfare, alright, but it’s my class — the rich class — that’s making war. And we’re winning.“
-Warren Buffet, US Billionaire
Class conflict, class struggle, & class warfare are 3 terms for the same idea and the news-media commentariat uses them in ways that are mostly negative — & incorrect. Since popularizing the idea is certainly not in the interest of the wealthy class who owns the news-industry, the misuse of these terms may actually be an ironic act of class warfare. Anyway, class conflict, struggle, or warfare is just what happens whenever a class promotes its interests, which tends to hurt the interests of other classes. This is because all classes share important economic interests, which means that folks outside of a class — by definition — do not share the interest of the class. If they did, they would be in that class.
So long as classes exist, class conflict also exists.
Class Conflict is the Problem
& the Solution is Class Conflict
Class conflict takes many forms. If police break the bones of the poor to guard the assets of the 1% and private security bloodies workers who join a union, class conflict is violent. If currency speculators short an entire economy to siphon the wealth of all, class conflict is economic. If workers must accept lower wages or lose their jobs and dining franchises leverage our guilt to subsidize their payrolls by voluntary tipping, class conflict is coercive & psychological. If Big Oil spends millions to elect politicians who golf with their investors & the food industry uses patent law to crush family farms, class conflict is political & judicial. If public space is flooded by advertisers & state-propaganda while news-shows hide the people who die in their name, class conflict is ideological & cultural & moral.
The class war has been on for a long time — but we ( the People of the United States or something ) have not joined it yet. In recent US history, class conflict looks a lot like a conflict between a lion & an open can of tuna — class slaughter may really be a better way to put it. There are many good reasons that working classes did not find a viable, long-term strategy to build class conscious institutions in the US but life is too short & today is more pressing…
How Class Has Changed Today
In Marx’s day, the rural working classes were pushed into an industrial world that produced more with less work. Unable to compete with cheap, mass-produced goods in an industrial economy, the masses had to seek jobs from the class who owned the new machinery & factories. Bosses could pay lower wages for longer hours in unsafe workplaces because mass-unemployment gave them a big supply of people hungry enough to labor for less. Marx split them in 2 simple classes — the few who owned the land, resources, & factories and the many who only had their hours & days to trade.
As the industrial revolution mutated into a world-wide nuclear-wireless-computerized-industrial space-revolution, a lot of things changed. In the United States, factory & agricultural jobs have become fewer, while service industries ( retail, healthcare, dining, etc. ) now employ 80% of the workforce. Unlike the long hours & workweeks in factories of the 1800s, today’s service industry offers more part-time & fewer full-time jobs. Large numbers of part-time & temporary jobs make it harder for the working classes to organize unions and hides unemployment with higher but less-visible rates of underemployment. The overall effect is that the same relationship of exploitation exists between the ruling class & the working class, except the working classes are more fragmented & isolated.
Children of the Great Recession:
Cry ‘Havoc!’ & Let Slip the Dogs of Class War…
“To a large degree, these people, the millions of poor people in America, are invisible, living under the radar screen. Their suffering is not seen on our evening news. But it’s there.”
As the more-conservative influence of the Boomer Generation fades, the scales are finally beginning to tip and — at nearly 80 million strong — Millennials are now the largest generation in the US workforce. The children of the great recession — this is how Hillary Clinton described Millennials when she thought the only listeners were her wealthy class-peers. Then, WikiLeaks taught Clinton about the many risks of holding public & private positions during an election and the risk of Millennials spelunking your transcripts is apparently one of those. It is a pretty neat title, though — “children of the great recession.”
And it’s pretty accurate, too.
The Economic System Has Failed Millennials
The recession hit Millennials the hardest, right at the beginning of many of our adult lives. Also, we have not quite recovered but please — don’t wait up or anything. Ah, but maybe they don’t make make these bootstraps quite like they did when the Boomers were growing up. Or maybe they were made by one of the manufacturing plants that were abandoned when free-trade allowed them to set up sweatshops in other countries, instead.
The key to success, our parents & teachers told us, was a college degree — we listened & we are now the generation with the highest number of college degrees in all of history. We also have more debt than any generation in history, more of us are out of work than many other groups, and we are the first generation in the country to be making less money than our parents did at our ages, which we also spend more of to buy less. So yeah — we have that going for us, and — as the failed democratic candidate was pointing out — it is, indeed, something that is informing our worldviews, now.
And did I mention already that there are nearly 80 million of us? Because there are — and it bears repeating….
Was Bernie Sanders’ Political Revolution
The Beginning of a Greater Class Solidarity?
Up until the moment when democrats chose to run the one person who could lose to a racist clown, it seemed like 2016 might be the year that working classes finally punched the billionaire class right in its face. And then the exact opposite thing happened — but a self-described socialist did still get more primary votes from young people than both of the major party’s candidates combined. And that has to be worth something, right?
2016 also showed us that:
- Younger generations in the US — especially Millennials — have drifted much further to the left of Boomers than most had realized.
- A majority of people under 30 in the US now say they have an unfavorable view of capitalism. And more feel favorably about socialism than capitalism, too.
- More young people are unhappy with the levels of income inequality & unemployment than any previous generation in the US since polling was invented.
- Despite being the most educated generation in history, a majority of Millennials identify as working class.
Is the United States Finally Ready
For Class Conscious Movements?
Although it is pretty depressing that Donald Trump was able to become the president with votes cast by less than 1 in 4 US adults, there may also be a weird glimmer of hope. Half of us stayed home on election day because it did not feel worthwhile ( well, a mix of that & voter suppression ). The choice between 2 old, rich, white golfers has become so meaningless that being ruled by the cartoon of an evil landlord is not enough of a threat to even get 1/3rd of us to check a box that says “nope.”
Toward an American Working Class Struggle
“Sanders has mobilized a large number of young people who are saying, ‘Look, we’re not going to consent anymore,’ and if that turns into a continuing, organized, mobilized force, that could change the country.”
Bernie Sanders said the truth about class — that billionaires have no idea how it feels to have no money, no idea what not having healthcare is like, & appear to have no interest in helping people who do. The Occupy Wall Street struck the same chord a few years before — the 1% should not be ruling the 99%. Occupy & Bernie Sanders both swept the country for the same reasons. Sanders named the problem when no other politician would — and that is why people love him. Though Occupy was evicted & though Sanders lost the nomination, the popularity of Sanders’ insurgent campaign & the enduring influence of movements like Occupy are both signs that the US may be ready for class conscious movements to take root.
Millennials & working classes at-large have no reason not to fight the 1% tooth-&-nail- using every means they can — electoral politics, direct action, & revolutionary struggle ( if folks are still into that kind of thing ). We have nothing to lose — no wealth, status, or bright economic future in this system — and everything to gain.