Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Nothing to lose but our chains

In my reading for homework the other day, an author reflected on the early Christian communities (under Rome) in terms of class, and their class struggle. I found this refreshing in scholarly writing, about theology or anything else, and said as much with a wink to my classmates. Alas, the professor informed us that the author, a theologian, is in fact a Marxist and perhaps his terminology is not the most helpful.

alas, say I ... can't somebody raise the notion of social class, if not struggle, without defaulting to a Marxist position? With tongue only partly in cheek, I make public displays of sympathy with Marx (if not with Marxists) because the recognition of class structure in these post-modern times is usually illuminating. Certainly the notion of class has been discredited and mostly dispensed with, at least in conventional wisdom, because (1) this [pick your geo-political identifier] is a democracy and the people choose their government and (2) the free market is free to everybody, right? Unfortunately, that's the convention among the wage-earners and consumers who do not make capitalism's major decisions. The view from the elites of our time is rather that there is a clear gap between those decision-makers and the decision-followers. And hopefully the decision-followers will forget all about the the shell-games that were exposed in last year's economic meltdown.

Personally, I identify with the working class, and I know lots of workers who would resent any such label. However, I don't use it to describe my relative value in the world, since all of us are contributors to what we call society. I do use it to reflect my location among all the groups it takes to form a society. I am not lower-class; but I am a worker, who implements the decisions of the decision-makers in my industry. The decision-makers are more like theorists; the workers move the widgets, and we all get to see if the widgets do what the theorists planned for them to do. In this world, there are also people who teach; people who nurture; people who are mirrors (artists). Society moves and grows and hums along with all of these living, acting parts. I have no problem naming them "classes," even though it's kind of a loaded word.
But naming them is preferable to pretending they don't exist, pretending that each of us has individual "autonomy" as promised by the Enlightenment while none of us are taught to practise collective agency. If we do not individually recognize and claim the part we play in maintaining society (which ought now to be conceived as global), we can never really experience our own autonomy; that is, we will not connect to decision-making about the larger forces in our daily life. My point is, the group we belong to is one of those larger forces.
The corporate agenda is to have us believe that we are "free to choose" ... what to buy. If we have money. Last year's economic meltdown ought to be an object lesson for all of us consumers: for a moment the emperor stood naked, and all those financiers were called to account for putting profit above honest participation in society. (I don't know if the consuming class learned from that lesson yet, though.)
True democracy, true self-determination, is political agency. It is participation in the shaping of society: the conditions under which we go to work, secure shelter and food, celebrate our milestones and even recognize our significant relationships. Each class (and each of us probably belongs to more than one) has valuable and unique input into the shapechanging of society. People who labour, that is, carry out others' ideas, need to contribute their own innovations drawn from their experience, if an overall enterprise is to function optimally. The working class has something necessary to the entrepreneurial class ... for increasing profit, sure, but more holistically for making the enterprise a vital contributor to the health of our society. The entrepreneurial class does have something necessary to the working class, or to the non-waged working class, or to the class of elders who've left the daily grind of wage-working behind: in a capitalist economy, entrepreneurs activate the machinery of cash flow. This does not make the entrepreneurial class any more valuable than the rest. Government regulates behaviour, divvies up wealth, supports those outside the wage-working world.
-- wait a minute -- "outside the wage-working world??" Well, who says the government should support anybody who isn't earning their own keep? (you know where this is going.)

Because we all need reminding that we -- the collective, national, income-reporting variants of "we" -- value more than the creation of profit. We value people who are too old to work any longer; who are unwell; who are physically different from the norm and who therefore participate in our world in different ways; people who are too young or still uneducated; people who are just people. We want to take care of everybody: that's why we have a tax system, a federal government, a provincial government. Our structures are where WE put them, so that the mighty wouldn't exploit the weak, so that the Industrial Age wouldn't eat its children; so that more and more of us might participate in the vast web of relationships on this planet. Some through wage-work, some completely outside of it. It takes many classes of people to make the world go 'round. 6 billion individuals on the planet can never know their value and earth-moving strength, but millions of groups of them can build the world we want... the world we need.

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