Monday, August 21, 2006

Personalizing Class as Argument

Michael Yates's "Class: A Personal Story", in the July/August Monthly Review, is an excellent exercise in using personal narrative (informed by historical context) to generate a set of conclusions of concern to the anti-capitalist movement. His narrative is remarkably similar to my own, even though we are from different "cultures" geographically, religiously, etc. Below are the conclusions, but you should read about how he got there:
1. Those who would lead a mass movement must confront the fear that envelops the lives of workers. In practical terms, this means that we must engage in struggles to make life more secure. Efforts to keep intact and extend social security, disability benefits, workers’ compensation, and unemployment compensation are radical efforts. The same is true of the fight for universal, socialized health care, for the freedom and security of all immigrants, for a living wage for all workers, for an end to the doctrine of employment at will, for the right of workers to organize without employer interference, and many others. Even the environmental movement can and should be promoted in terms of human security. Working people always bear the brunt of environmental degradation and so-called natural disasters. Whatever benefits nature benefits workers. Insecurity and its attendant fear breed passivity toward authority and make it easier for the powerful to promote dissension and hatred of those who might otherwise be allies.
2. Although many have said it, let me repeat that there is no point to talk about class without making it clear that it is backward to talk about class without speaking about gender and race. We must unabashedly demand equality across all differences. We cannot tolerate restrictions on the right of women to obtain abortions. We cannot tolerate gender inequalities either at work or in the home. We cannot tolerate more than one million black men and women in prison. We must tolerate nothing less than full equality for immigrants, regardless of their legal status. If equality were the foundation of our ideology and if we succeeded in making it an accepted thing to believe in and fight for, it would surely be more difficult for employers to pit one group against another and for the state to get workers here to kill workers in other countries.
3. Workers receive a thoroughly uninspiring and mentally and physically destructive education. Struggles to expand and improve public education are, therefore, also radical struggles. The training of teachers is scandalously inadequate, and the freedom of teachers to teach critical thinking is uniformly circumscribed. Where are the teachers’ unions? Indeed, where is the labor movement? If only unions themselves took the time to educate their own members. If only the labor movement financed a network of labor radio stations, television programs, and newspapers. Working people are so misinformed and uninformed that it is no wonder governments everywhere can feed us daily doses of the most ridiculous propaganda.
4. Radical intellectuals need to stop talking to one another and actively engage the masses who alone can carry out a radical social transformation. Speak clearly. Write clearly. Seek a mass audience. And take democracy and an end to hierarchy seriously.

Yates's fine essay, along with one of my favorite essays in the blogosphere or any sphere, John Scalzi's painful and beautiful "Being Poor," form the basis of a narrative-based account of class which makes it more like, but still not exactly as such, "identity." Others can add to it, and can understand it. And it generates arguments that transcend the macro-micro narrative dichotomy, helping those of us who grew up poor understand the universality and historical context of our situations.

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