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Class Traitors, Class Transitions

January 29, 2011

I wonder whether Moses, after being kicked out of the palace and downgraded to the slave caste, ever felt nostalgic for his royal upbringing. Same for Siddhartha, who left his princehood by choice and became an ascetic. Did St. Francis of Assisi, who shunned his cloth merchant inheritance, ever miss strutting down a 13th-century street in a fly outfit? What was it like for St. Clare, a follower of Francis, to abandon her landowner life and found the Order of Poor Ladies?

These folks all share certain dimensions of class transition, along with some leanings toward class treason — though I hesitate to call any of them class traitors because, while they attempted to carve out alternative, anti-hegemonic lifestyles and communities for their followers, to my knowledge they did not explicitly, politically confront the existence of the class line itself. (Someone please correct me on this if I’m wrong!)

Lately in my own life, I’ve been noticing painful areas in my move away from liberalism (and/or nominal radicalism) toward a politic that actually centers the working class and the dispossessed. This process, for me, involves somewhat shameful, tender stuff.

Culturally, I grew up with the kind of middle-class-ness that emphasizes intellectual entitlement, “leadership,” individual accomplishments with ‘community’ benefits, and working hard to become a professional with specialized, elite skills deployed to enrich and better the world. Children like me were constantly affirmed as capable, competent, creative and unique. Especially as an only child with an underdog ancestry of slaves, Negros, dirty-Jew immigrants and Nazi death camp survivors, I came to understand my life as practically the telos of a trans-generational fight for freedom, accomplishment, and the ability to “give back,” using my own unique talents, once a certain level of success was achieved.

Growing up this way was, for the most part, tremendously fun. I liked school, and was good at it. I wanted to embrace every area of knowledge. Learning — about the Tang Dyasty; about cirrus clouds; about The Grapes of Wrath — was the greatest game imaginable.

Later, in college and beyond, I’ve been lucky to discover and share in some radically loving, tender, rigorous, inter-personally courageous communities that use mind-blowing skill and heart to navigate tricky emotional experiences. For me, though, the tremendous beauty and deep work of these groups has seemed extremely middle-classed in a whole host of ways.

And so, recently, in certain settings, I feel both at-home and uncomfortable in environments of unbridled curiosity, of de-politicized valuation of individuals, and of warm emotional/spiritual communication and practice. They’ve left me feeling both uplifted and lonely.

Because what has been missing (more accurately: barred) from this world-as-my-oyster acculturation, and from my “be-the-change” mindset, is acknowledgment and practical understanding of the fundamental contradictions of the class society in which we live. The contradictions that say that a certain group survives by owning the means of production, with the global-scale imperative to exploit those they employ; while others survive by selling themselves to these owners, with the goal of being exploited as little or as painlessly as possible. In my experience, the occlusion of these contradictions is not just a blind spot, but an active process of forgetting and not-naming that provides the foundation for a certain type of individualism. The status quo (and its fraternal twins, progressivism and idealism) indeed provides a very stable base on which to mold a person of excellence — or of spiritual serenity — or of self-care savvy.

chakaZ at Kissing in the Dark has a recent post (cross-published at Advance the Struggle blog) that beautifully illustrates a class-conscious extrapolation from individual experience to the larger realities of systemic oppression and resistance. Waiting seven hours to have a tooth pulled because you can’t afford to save it: not an underdog-genius, Pursuit-Of-Happyness tale; not data for another book or article on US health care reform; but a sobering reflection on classed reality, paired with a developing consciousness poised to transform that reality.

This re-politicized world is the subject that I now commit to studying. But studying sure doesn’t feel like a game anymore. And contributing toward the expropriation of the ruling class (a.k.a. making a revolution) never earned anybody a blue ribbon at the science fair.

What, if any, of the cultural norms of my middle-class upbringing — especially the practices that I still feel genuinely connected to — might continue to benefit me and my increasingly mixed-class communities? Which elements of that world’s warmth and lovingkindness can be translated to a political project I believe in; and which ones will only shrivel up if transplanted from their native soil of miseducation, active ignorance, and dedicated reformism? What can class treason mean for the lived process of identity?

Obviously, many forms of working-class culture have their own brands of intellectualism, creativity, rigor, unbridled curiosity, warmth, compassion, person-to-person validation, humility, elegance, emotional development, etc. etc. etc. But I don’t think you can just suddenly decide to switch from one acculturation to another. At least, it doesn’t feel like I can.

If retaining middle-class character were an apolitical issue, these choices would be easier. Race traitors, for instance, can go ‘head and keep their light skin; men (with all the messiness of that category) don’t need to change their assigned sex in order to be feminist. The political content is what matters most; not the hardware. But what is the “hardware” of middle-class culture?

In an “open letter to white feminists,” Jessica Hoffman contends that “white feminism” is itself a contradiction in terms, inasmuch as it is “a feminism of assimilation, of gentle reform and/or strengthening of institutions that are instrumental to economic exploitation and white supremacy, of ignorance and/or appropriation of the work of feminists of color.” Meaningful feminism, in contrast, requires “recognizing that safety in this society is a fantasy afforded only by assimilation to power, and the cost of that fake safety is the safety of those who cannot, or will not, access it.”

Is middle-class radicalism a similar oxymoron?

What do you think of these questions, friends? Do they even make sense? Don’t hold back.

ok — exhausted; got a cold; gotta run. love you, have a great weekend. here’s to the people in egypt, yemen, and tunisia.

hugs,

katie

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Sycorax permalink
    January 29, 2011 11:18 am

    Hey Kloncke, this is an excellent post! I think you raise important questions.

    I think the things you write about are an excellent step. I think the things that characterize middle-class activism are to name a few:

    1) lack of commitment, unwillingness to engage with that we don’t agree with

    Its easy to criticize but middle-class people often have the luxury to have a detached criticism that is not concerned with fixing that which it sees as wrong. We see this a lot in academia. Working-class peeps don’t have the luxury of disposable income to move around and create a new community when the one they are in is not up to par. This interdependent state can force a lot of change, sometimes difficult change, as we are forced to change in order to live and co-exist together. This is definitely something I have struggled with. Being in revolutionary organizations or dedicated to struggle has been the most transformative force for me, it has forced me to take (and continue to take) a hard look at myself, my lifestyle, my difficulties in working with people, etc. Especially at times when it may have been easier to just say fuck it and throw my hands up and walk away forever, condemn the working-class as hopelessly backwards and go back to trying to get mine. I’ve certainly heard this before from middle-class people who disparage workers as hopeless or too unfocused or unwilling to organize (shockingly a lot amongst the union organizer type). Without commitment there is no challenge for us to do the difficult work. This goes for anyone, people struggling with their own gender politics, their racial politics, class politics, what HAVE you.

    I think a lot of what characterizes middle-class unhealthiness is a lack of dependence on the people around them. The same goes for men to some extent. Because the world around them validates their view of working-class people, or of women, and because they may have the resources to control their surroundings, they are not forced by necessity to check themselves as much. Interdependency is a gift, as much as it is frustrating at times to feel helpless, and alone. When we are forced by necessity to reach outside of ourselves and figure out a way to connect with the people around us, because we need their help, and they need our help, we emerge healthier at the end.

    Those who are privileged have an increased responsibility to stay, listen to the criticism and not dismiss it. We have a responsibility to stay in the tension, even when it is excruciating hard to do so. This is what being a traitor means. Audre Lorde writes about how white feminists would often get mad or say that the black feminists who challenged them were not coming correct and needed to learn how to say what they were saying without anger. But Audre Lorde talks about how we have to take responsibility for our own discomfort when critiques come up, and examine how they make us feel and why they may make us feel what we feel. After all, everyone is responsible for their own feelings. How do our own feelings of defensiveness allow us to come to easy conclusions and avoid doing the difficult work on ourselves that we need to?

    This is something I struggle with, challenging myself, my own privilege, my own racial and class politics. If I am unwilling to challenge myself, how can I expect anyone else to hear my challenges?

    2- I also think middle-class activism can be characterized by being overly theoretical
    3- Overly relativistic (all ways of doing it are good, we need to be comfortable with not being effective)
    4- Have an over-emphasis on moralistic politics that run people into the ground without recognizing that we need to take care of ourselves, and that it is middle-class activists who usually have time to take on EVERY single struggle, and go to EVERY single meeting. Having these expectations of people will chase anyway anyone with a real life and obligations.
    5- Superficially disavowing class privilege – i.e. lifestyle activists who act as if they are poor but really they have tons of money and material support. Why not instead of disavowing this support, share your resources as much as possible?

    That’s all I can think of for now. But this is definitely something I am thinking a lot about these days, and i think we should be thinking about it forever. Progress, not perfection. We must be forever works-in-progress I think. If at any point we stop challenging ourselves, I think it is a problem. We will never be perfect on any of these issues but we have a dedication to be open, that’s what matters.

  2. Roger Nehring permalink
    January 29, 2011 11:30 am

    I grew up in a working class family and culture. My dad worked in a factory all his adult life, except for a stint as cannon fodder in WWII. After retiring because his factory was closing up and moving South where ther were no unions, he moved to his state of birth and promptly found a job doing what he had been doing in a factory. I grew up in the Back of the Yards neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. As the neighbors would say it ‘backada yards” The yards referred to the old Chicago stockyards once largest in the US. We had a giant rendering plant two blocks away for a soap company. A tannery operated about six blocks south. The neighborhood was particularly redolent in summer. Across the street was a block square GM operation repairing the tractors that haul semi trailers. They worked three shifts so I went to sleep to the sounds of air hammers and compressors and arc welders, plus all the regular city sounds. Six of us lived in a four room cold flat with no yard or play area. Of fivekids my older brother and I graduated HS and I went on to college and grad school. It was a Polish neighborhood, lots of folks from the old country. Lots of churches, way more taverns. My grammar school was 60 years old when I started in 1951. When I started work in a factory part-time while in HS I walked a block to work. And after HS if I had wanted to stay in a factory, I would never have had to go more than thrree blocks away, in all likelihood.
    Sorry for the bio, but I was acculturated in the US working class and I wanted to establish that. My best recollection of my working class neighbors is that they were racist, homophobic, radically anti-intellectual, anti-feminist and incredibly narrow minded jingoists. It was a textured acculturation, but not one I would not wish on anyone’s child.

  3. nathan permalink
    January 29, 2011 12:07 pm

    Hi Katie,

    I’m finding myself more and more resistant to the term “means of production” even though the analysis behind it points in the right direction. It feels outdated, and limited. Liberating the material and the means to produce materials isn’t enough. In fact, it seems to miss the various forms of internalized oppressions and faux limitations people outside of the power circles have. I guess you might say that I continue to struggle with Marxist analysis as a vehicle for liberation, even as I see it as containing some of the necessary seeds.

    I think Roger’s points get at another issue here. The romanticization of working class folks that sometimes happens amongst Marxist groups. (I’m not saying you’re doing this Katie, but it’s something I’ve experienced.) My father is surrounded has been surrounded by the same kinds of anti-intellectual, racist, sexist, extreme homophobic stuff that Roger was. And parts of our family also fit that bill.

    So, one of the flaws of a lot of middle class activism, as was already pointed out, is it’s failure to balance theory and practice. Can I meet my cousins or uncle where they are, engage them as they are now, and find the common ground necessary to spring forth real change? Or on a larger scale, can middle class activists listen more, and dictate the terms of the movement less, while at the same time, saying or doing enough so that they aren’t just suppressing their views?

    That’s all I have right now.

    Nathan

  4. January 29, 2011 1:36 pm

    Moderator note: Sycorax posted a comment and asked me to take down so ze could revise. Done!

    Roger, yes, so much intra-class poison; and yet, many examples of grappling with and overcoming these divisions. I’m sorry you had to deal with that shit growing up. Thanks for sharing it here; I appreciate the chance to get to know The Man Behind The Comments a little better. ;)

    nathan, thanks for bringing up the question of the means of production. I feel you on the wording seeming outdated or inapplicable sometimes, but I think my reasons might differ from yours.

    Basically, the reason I think the “means of production” or material power of subsistence continues to be a useful concept is that it underscores the life-and-death materialism at the heart of class relations. I completely agree that ideological oppression is important and won’t automatically be solved by material changes. To argue as much is just weird economic reductionism. But to me, it seems like a lot of folks on the Left focus almost all on ideology (or reformist economic strategies), and very little on materialism. Is that your impression, too?

    To me, it seems important to center the material (while looking at how it interacts with the ideological) in order to build sound strategy for transforming society.

    One analogy that comes to mind is the racist program of keeping slaves in the US illiterate. You could say that it was a matter of faux limitations, propped up by the racist ideology that held that Blacks were intellectually inferior. You could say that it is important to surreptitiously teach slaves to read, and I’d agree. But to me, what is more important is the slave relation itself: the material difference between master’s and slave’s access to the necessaries of life. Once a slave is freed and has equal power to the master (arguably hasn’t happened yet!), then I think the question of internalized racism and racist intellectual hierarchies can be addressed on a much more meaningful interpersonal and institutional basis. This doesn’t mean we should wait until socialism/communism to address and combat racism. And it doesn’t mean that distributing material power equally will automatically solve the various expressions of racism and social oppression. But it would go a hell of a long way.

    It’s like, to take another crudely classic example, if you try to deal with issues of sexism with a wife and her violently abusive husband, it would be weird to approach it without first examining whether she is still living with him and is economically dependent on him. And if she is, trying your best to fix that. (A)-number-one, no?

    Where I do think the “point of production” or “means of production” gets tricky is in overly narrow (factory-focused) definitions of production to which some old-school Marxists still cling. And it’s also complicated by the uneven cycles of industrialization and de-industrialization (and environmental destruction) throughout the world. So many people are jobless; so many people have no access to what could really be called the “necessaries of life” — instead they are growing Monsanto crops or surplus export coffee, or sewing cheap clothes and shabby-chic ethnic knick-knacks (proletarian women’s cheaper, “unskilled labor”), or frying fries at McDonald’s. So it’s sometimes unclear to me what the role in material revolution might be for folks who basically don’t have much contact with the “means of production” in a real way.

    Those are huge and separate questions that I’m not quite sure how we got to, but I like it, and maybe it should be the subject of a future post!

  5. nathan permalink
    January 29, 2011 5:00 pm

    Hi Katie,

    “But to me, what is more important is the slave relation itself: the material difference between master’s and slave’s access to the necessaries of life. ” Right. I totally agree here. In fact, I’ve had many conversations coming out of the work I’ve done in refugee and immigrant communities about these issue. Without the necessities of life, the rest of it can’t come. Having spent parts of the past month reading about the social justice work that Sister Chan Khong, Thich Nhat Hanh, and others did during the 1950s and 60s in Vietnam, it’s quite clear to me that any form of “Engaged Buddhism” has to address those necessities, or make sure they are addressed. This needs to happen on small scales (i.e. for individuals and small groups) and also needs to be a major plank in collective action platforms.

    “But to me, it seems like a lot of folks on the Left focus almost all on ideology (or reformist economic strategies), and very little on materialism. Is that your impression, too? ” Yes, I think this is fairly accurate. And it seems to me that is a product of being in a place with enough material resources to not have that in your face when considering avenues of change.

    I continue to have discussions about funding, fee rates, and other economics within our sangha. Just a few days ago, a woman who a few years ago had dismissed the problems me and a few others mentioned about having expensive fees for classes and meditation retreats now agrees something must be changed. The difference? She’s now our membership coordinator and has been hearing from poorer members firsthand about their frustrations with some of our fee structures, and their desire to participate more in the center’s activities.

    Going back to my earlier comments about romanticizing the working class, there are a few things I’d like to dig into further. First, all of those ills I mentioned re: working class folks are present in the rest of the groups as well. Anti-intellectualism is commonplace in the U.S. but I think to some degree, the reasons for it’s appearance within a given person or group are different. Poor folks often identify thinking, intellectual talk, books, etc. in relation to schooling, which causes all sorts of conflicting responses. I was just looking at a bell hooks interview where she’s talking about how in reading Freire for the first time, she felt included in an educational paradigm. That he pointed out the kind of education that had sucked the life out of the desire to learn for so many African-Americans and others. (And which still does.) I think also of my former students who often flipped between stories about education as a key to “success” to feelings of despondency and inferiority. Given that many had never had access to a decent formal education in their native countries, they were in a position of trying to catch up in a system that really never will allow for that. I’m convinced that coming up with entirely new ways of learning and studying together must be part of any transformational agenda.

    But one of the challenge points, I think, when considering large groups of poor folks coming together is that any one of those ills mentioned above, the racism, homophobia, sexism, anti-intellectualism, etc. – can bring movements crashing to ground. Within the Karen community (originally from Burma) here in Minnesota, I watched over and over again how sexism caused some women to shut up and go along, other women to leave working on community issues, and still others to spend most of their energy trying to fight against it. The biggest difference here between a middle class based movement is that the vast majority of poor folks are both struggling to get or maintain having those basic material necessities, and also that the amount of collective time/energy available is less. So, these realities need to be part of the picture. I think middle class activists often fail to consider that others aren’t going to have piles and piles of time and material resources available to spend on handling every internal conflict that comes up within a larger group. Spending weeks on end parsing phrasing for a press release or group mission statement might be considered a huge waste of time amongst poorer folks. (And I’d argue it probably is often a waste of time, having been in a few situations like that myself.)

    Beyond this, given the shooting in Arizona as one example, I’m convinced that without placing efforts toward “internal revolutions of the heart” within the center of any movement, it’s going to end up being a bloodbath. Or the replacement of one oppressive group with another. Perhaps material necessities for all is placed together with internal revolutions of the heart as the tandem “inner-outer” focus of the transformational agenda…

    Nathan

  6. January 30, 2011 10:33 am

    Like Katie, I come from a “middle-class” background. Sort of. I never had to do without the necessities, and I was taught to think of myself as special because I was smart (i.e. did well in school). So I feel the same contradiction.

    The solution, as best I can figure it, is to de-center myself — that is, to recognize that people from different socio-economic circumstances exist, that they have issues I’ll always be unaware of, and that therefore I’ll always have blind spots.

    So much for me.

    On this question of class vs. oppressions, which I’ve been thinking about a lot in the past six months, it seems to me that it’s a paradox. You can center class, at which point you have to admit that those who are socially oppressed are, on average, the most oppressed by class. At that point, you have to center oppression, and then you have to admit that oppression at its worst results in economic – material – inequalities.

    To put this in context, I’ve been keeping an eye on what’s happening with our public schools in Seattle as revenue shrinks. Schools have been re-segregating so that the district can save money on transportation. Class sizes are going up, and that special ed students are being mainstreamed without the necessary classroom assistants. And so on . . .

    What does all this mean?

    The word that hasn’t come up in here (but has in other posts from Katie) is intersectionality. Often, intersectionality is discussed without class. How can a critique of class be included in a theory of intersectionality?

    I’m also interested in the term “caste” as it relates to all these intersectional issues. I recently read Selma James’ “Race, class, and caste” (http://zinelibrary.info/files/james-sexraceclass-read.pdf) and wonder if any others use the term “caste” in a Marxist analysis.

    Final note is I like this from Nathan: “Perhaps material necessities for all is placed together with internal revolutions of the heart as the tandem ‘inner-outer’ focus . . .”

  7. February 2, 2011 4:23 pm

    @kristinking: yeah! Sex Race and Class was the first piece we read in the Marxist Feminist group I’m a part of in the Bay Area. Super useful. I don’t remember off-hand other Marxists who use “caste” regularly, but I’ll ask around and get back to ya. (Or, of course, if anyone else reading has suggestions, please share!)

    One thing I appreciate about class/caste analysis in a Marxist framework, and which is different from what I was taught in Women Gender and Sexuality classes, is a focus on the ways in which elements of oppression can translate into levers of revolutionary power and action.

    In contrast, I feel like my formal (middle/upper-class) education boiled down to exercises in how to most astutely analyze the infinite facets of oppression and fucked-up-ness. The point was to theorize fucked-up-ness really well. This is also what I associate with intersectionality (the way I learned it, beginning with that Kimberle Crenshaw article): looking at how multiple oppressions are not parallel or additive, but combinatory and intersecting. So the way I read your paradox of class is kind of through this lens — looking at “harms” as an interplay between experiences of oppression (material and immaterial) and fundamental material lack. Is that accurate/fair? Not tryin to put words in your mouth, but this is my experience with it, and I wonder if it’s yours, too.

    Now, I do think that having a well-developed grasp on the functioning and playing-out of oppression is super important and can be very useful. Observing the harms half-hidden behind hegemony seems like Vital Step Number One. In the Selma James, though, as with Marx, I’m finding this cool new (to me) approach which still looks at harm/oppression/lack but then quickly and fluidly moves toward the seeds of liberation contained within the harmed/oppressed groups. So maybe more than a “critique of class” that we then incorporate into understandings of intersectionality, we have a theory of class politically centered on the potential for proletarian revolution.

    All this doesn’t have very much to do with my original post, maybe. Except that while I appreciate the real wisdom in your approach of “de-centering oneself” and basically practicing active non-knowing, and openness to other people’s experiences (much harder than it sounds), to me it also feels like an approach grounded in a “harms” perspective (i.e. minimize/get rid of harms as much as possible), rather than (though it’s not a clear-cut opposition!) a transformative approach that actively tries to work with the positive parts of one’s middle-class acculturation, and find ways of transforming the negative/harmful aspects at the same time.

    To put it another way, while I totally agree that de-centering one’s middle-class perspective and culture is necessary in terms of giving up power, automatic right-ness, and purportedly universalizable experience, I worry that part of what we mean by “de-center” is forget-about, stop-working-with, hide, minimize, or ignore. My point in this post was actually to look at both positive and negative elements of a/my middle-class subjectivity, and to go against the grain of more expected (maybe) class-baiting, class-berating, or class-critiquing. From some of the comments it seems like I possibly failed at this! hehe. Came off as judgmental of middle-class culture, rather than critically identifying with it.

    Anyhoo, hope some of that makes sense. I’m feeling a little all-over-the-place about this thread, even as I’m really appreciating the engagement, and struggling to work with the ideas in my day-to-day life.

    nathan, I super appreciate what you’re saying about the difference between intellectual elitism based on schooling, and truly liberatory education/learning paradigms. I’m really glad that there are schoolteachers out there who are hip to this difference, and trying to advance the latter. (even though it sounds from your blog like you were pretty isolated/lonely with these views in your last teaching job…..and i’m sorry for that, and empathetic to that loneliness.)

    As for intra-class conflicts and the scarcity of time for dealing with them, it does seem that revolutionary movements have been crippled by all kinds of internal factors, and that urgency/perceived lack of time has had something to do with the festering of these problems. But it also relates to the choiceful de-prioritizing of dealing with dynamics internal to a group. The lack of time idea only goes so far. (Though, again, I totally hear you on the swampish time-sucks of many middle-class workshop-focused social change orgs. I’m thinking of that article, “The Workshop Is Not The Work,” though I can’t find it on Google and don’t remember where I heard about it. Help, anyone?)

    I like Selma James’ arguments for autonomous groups (like a Women’s group whose members also do multi-gender organizing, and can come together to check any misogynistic dynamics that might be developing) as an approach to dealing with these intra- problems, but I do also wonder about the extra time required to be a part of multiple groups. Seems tough but necessary, to me. Not a very helpful opinion! :)

    Damn, this is getting long. Thanks for sticking with me, folks — I’m grateful, as always, to hear about how you see some of these issues playing out in your own lives. (kristin, your paragraph about de-funding public ed captured so much in so few words…..are you linked up with student/educator/worker movements in seattle? slash….i feel like we might know each other IRL somehow, but i’m not remembering! true?false? anyway, i so appreciate hearing a resonant voice from up the coast.)

  8. February 2, 2011 11:34 pm

    @kloncke – thanks for your thoughts. That helps frame things for me – the transformative / revolutionary potential. I’d be more coherent except that I just spent the last hour watching news from Cairo and I’m rather mentally and emotionally wiped. I don’t know you IRL :) but emailed you a while back.

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