On the possibility of a class coalition

Published online 26 December 2009.

This diary hopes to explore the possibility of a class coalition, in anticipation of the class battle which can be expected around “entitlement reform.”  First I introduce the topic, then I define “social class,” and lastly I discuss what sort of class coalition we need in this era.

This is inspired by Deoliver47’s inspired diary of Wednesday, “What Is A Progressive Coalition?”  Now, I’m mostly interested in Deoliver47’s diary for its citation of inspirational texts to form its argument.  First Deoliver47 cites Amazing Grace’s discussion of Fred Hampton:

Fred Hampton realized that the struggle of poor people could be most effectively addressed by coalition building among the disaffected and disenfranchised of all colors. The result was his “Rainbow Coalition”. Yes, that term was coined by Chairman Fred Hampton not Jesse Jackson.  With a reputation as a uniting force, he formed an alliance with the Black Panther Party, the former street gang turned activists the Puerto Rican Young Lords, the Young Patriots, a white, “Redneck” organization from Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, the anti-war group Students for a Democratic Society and the Chicano nationalist group the Brown Berets.

Then Deoliver47 turns to a discussion of César Chávez:

When César Chávez. and Dolores Huerta, formed the United Farm Workers and issued the rallying cry of ¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido!
the “pueblo” (people) they were uniting were not those who oppressed them.

This is good stuff, and I wish to build upon it a discussion, then, of the possibility of a class coalition.  Hampton and Chávez attempted to form class coalitions, and their inspiration moves Deoliver47.

I do recognize that this discussion also has something to do with other stuff, but I’m not going to go there right now.  If you want a close estimate of who is the real oppressor of American society, I’d recommend (for starters) a reading of the recent Alternet article, “10 Greediest People of 2009.”  Both Hampton and Chávez recognized the class nature of oppression: they knew of the great mass of people who spend their lives in struggle to meet basic needs while working every day — and of those who would like to work every day but can’t: those are in a group which is called the contingent working class.

OPOL’s diary of Wednesday night, “It’s Not Even Good Kabuki,” also brings with it a note of class difference.  Here is his reflection upon the last decade:

It was class war, and they won. Plain and simple. Of course they had to burn down the house to do it. The ownership class managed to steal all the marbles, leaving the economy a hollow husk that no longer has the capacity to provide jobs to the masses. I know there are people saying otherwise, I hope I’m wrong and they’re right but I expect job losses to continue to increase. I credit statistics but only so much. You know the old saying, figures can’t lie but liar’s can figure. I think ‘normal’ is never coming back. I think the rich people knew it too. That’s what made them go all whacky and just hold us up for all the money that was left. All in one last grab.

What we can say, concretely, is that in this era class differences are even worse than they were in the Roaring Twenties.  The destruction of the American middle class is only number 10 on Juan Cole’s Ten Worst Nightmares Bush Inflicted On America; yet nevertheless it’s one of the most painful of these nightmares.  The mall Santas report that kids are asking for socks this year; 49 million Americans did not have sufficient access to food last year, and the figure for this year isn’t likely to have been much better.

As for the actual economic prognosis, what we can read in the news is a combination of good news and bad news.  gjohnsit seems to have the most balanced take on this: his diary “Green Shooters v. Doom-and-Gloomers” explains that while the short term may look good, the long term doesn’t.  Our current Great Recession is characterized by high rates of long-term unemployment — all of which is to say that our unemployment rate is not only broader but deeper than it’s been since the ’30s.

Things suck, globally, and on top of that they’re going to get worse: the analysis of Shamus Cooke is apropos:

First Iceland, then Ireland, now Greece.  Much of Europe is mired in inescapable debt and bankrupt nations, the result of crashing banks, bank bailouts, and soaring unemployment.  The U.S. and U.K. watch from a distance, knowing their turn is next.

And, as Cooke points out, next on Obama’s wish list is “entitlement reform,” as he’s promised all along.  From the Cooke essay again:

The issue of the day is clear:  somebody must be made to pay for the economic crisis.  The corporate-elite is planning to push this burden on to the working class.   The working class must push back.

This burden-putting, then, will be the point of “entitlement reform.”  The question I am asking in this essay is: can the working class push back in such a context?  At all?


Now, as I pointed out in the abovecited diary, the Democratic Party is not a class coalition.  The Democratic Party is a coalition of disparate groups.  And some of these groups are in fact fractions of capital.  “Capital,” here, refers to the owners of the means of production: as Edward Wolff points out, the wealthiest 1% of Americans owns half of all non-home capital assets.  They, then, form a social class.

The Obama administration, then, is also not the product of a class coalition.  The Obama administration attempts to work through class compromises, which is a lot better than the aristocratic bullying of Reagan and the Bushes.  The problem with these class compromises, as they are made today, is that the existing calculus of class power is marked mainly by the quietism of the working class.  This was evident in the machinations which led up to the current health care bill.

(A note of explanation — I’m not saying that the Democratic Party and/or the Obama administration are irrelevant — but I am saying that they aren’t class coalitions.)

Now, people throughout the world come in rich and poor.  There are 793 billionaires, about 10 million millionaires, and a bottom half of humanity living on less than $2.50 per day.  The global economy has a pyramid shape, with a few on the top and the many at the bottom.  But this is not coincidence, nor is it a byproduct of the grace of God or of the superiority of the genetic stock of the wealthy.  It’s a matter of CLASS.

There are indeed a number of different social classes; the marxist criterion distinguishes them best:

A class shares a common relationship to the means of production. That is, all people in one class make their living in a common way in terms of ownership of the things that produce social goods. A class may own things, own land, own people, be owned, own nothing but their labour. A class will extract tax, produce agriculture, enslave and work others, be enslaved and work, or work for a wage.

You can make a living in one of two ways: you can profit off of investments, or you can work for a living.  Sure, some people live off of handouts; they aren’t a significant statistical portion of the total.  But if you are an investor, you get 1) control over the means of production, and 2) control over the surplus, which usually means you can obtain the best quality stuff for yourself.  In short, there are at bottom these two basic classes, owners and workers, and the inequality of power between them is the fundamental source of the class structure.

There are also subcategories of class.  Some investors own stock, or whole businesses; others are landlords charging rents.  Some workers earn wages, others earn salaries or charge fees for services.  Some workers own their homes; others rent.  And then there are attempts to redefine the concept of class which bring the role of government into account.  Probably the sharpest among these is that of Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff, whose idea of “class” (in Class Theory and History) revolves around control of the economic surplus.  Here’s what they say:

In simplest terms, one part of the population does necessary and surplus labor and receives back the fruits of the necessary labor for their own reproduction.  These laborers deliver the fruits of their surplus labor — the “surplus” — to another part of the population, that then distributes it to still another part. (p. 8)

Thus “class” can mean control over the surplus, i.e. membership in the second and third classes, as opposed to mere participation in its making, in the working class.  With “Communism” as with “capitalism,” the most fundamental class difference is one of whether you’re a bigshot, or a mere worker.


So there’s a real need for some push-back in this era, from the poor, from the disenfranchised, from that portion of the working classes who don’t have it so great.  In short, we need a class coalition.  And the Democratic Party isn’t a class coalition.  So what is a class coalition?  We are not going to figure this out, unfortunately, by class analysis.  Here are some preliminary thoughts on what a class coalition might entail.

  • A class coalition would have to be by, of, and for the disenfranchised (see Fred Hampton’s example, above).
  • A class coalition would have to give the disenfranchised the opportunity and the right to “make a living” without being dependent on for-profit business.  It would, in short, have to work to give its members the right to live off of the land.  This is different from obliging them to live off of the land — but what it means is some degree, even limited, of independence from the corporate machine now devouring the world’s wealth.The point of this is that, in present-day corporate America, the corporations are “taking off.”  Having spent the last two decades enriching themselves while the rest of the country broke even, their owners are cutting their ties.  The working class needs a real, unmovable line of defense against this.  We want to be empowering people to develop “living off the land” skills — give them fish and they live for a day, teach them how to fish and, well, you know the rest.
  • A class coalition would make education its first priority — not career education of the sort promoted by Arne Duncan and not NCLB test prep education of the Margaret Spellings vintage, but education for collective empowerment.  Oh, there would be “content,” all right, and “skills” taught aplenty — the difference would be that the teachers would be empowering the students to make decisions rather than teaching them how to follow orders.  Such education would follow the outlines put forth in the major texts of critical pedagogy: Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of Hope, for instance.

A class coalition would, then, be in the business of empowering people to live harmoniously on the Earth, in a way which emphasized decentralization, democracy, consensus.  The only way you can have a genuine class coalition is if this goal is not compromised away.

NB: one of the ways in which we know that the Democratic Party is not a class coalition, in this light, is in the nature of the pie fights that take place around here, and which have been going on throughout the week of Mithramas.  “Your political-class elites suck; my political-class elites rock!”  That’s not how class coalitions are formed.


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