by Karyn Pomerantz, 5-24-2019
People represent themselves in many ways. They indicate their pronouns to reflect gender identification or introduce themselves as belonging to a national or “racial” group. Adoption of the concept of intersectionality has made people further refine their identification with overlapping characteristics, such as an African-American woman or a biracial gay immigrant. People also define themselves as high or low income, employed or jobless, and professional or service worker. Those not included in a particular classification may advance the causes of those in another group, for example whites opposing racism and men opposing sexism. But the fragmentation of identity by personal characteristics leaves many to believe they can only unite with and owe their deepest loyalty to those in the same group or groups. This reduces those in other groups to allies rather than comrades.
What we rarely encounter is people defining themselves as members of a class within capitalism. When they do acknowledge class it is often to characterize (white) Trump supporters as members of the working class or the super-rich as members of the ownership class or power elite, the 1 percent. But class bridges all other identities because it defines one’s place in the economic hierarchy, regardless of personal characteristics, and as such serves as common ground for a unified struggle.
What is Class?
Class is not a matter of income, job, or material assets. It is a relationship between those who own and control banks, corporations, major productive facilities and large swaths of real estate, the ruling class, and those who work for them, drawing a salary or wage regardless of the amount, the working class. Those who control the economy and profit off the labor of others on the one hand, and those who must sell their labor power to survive.
There are gradations within each class. There are managers and supervisors across all industries; professionals such as lawyers, physicians, and financial advisors; and those in politics and government who serve the interests of the ruling class. They tend to be highly paid and delude themselves into believing that they are members of the ruling class, when in truth they may be fired or denied employment based on their political positions (teachers who oppose Zionism) or practice (abortion providers). Moreover, they are indirectly vulnerable to cuts in social programs or benefits demanded by the ruling class: health insurance cuts put medical staff out of jobs, as cuts to education spending lead to teacher layoffs. Many highly educated workers have enormous debt and are under constant pressure to boost employer profits by bringing in client hours, research dollars, or patients.
The so-called “petit bourgeoisie,” people who own small businesses, such as neighborhood grocery stores, family farms, retail shops, or restaurants, are a separate class. Their livelihood depends on extracting a profit from workers, not from selling their own labor power. However, they are far less wealthy than the major capitalists and often suffer business failures, especially when faced with competition from corporations and more secure businesses
Not everyone in the ruling class agrees on how best to sustain capitalism. Some disagreements result from competing interests in the marketplace. Agricultural companies promote immigration because they depend on cheap labor extracted from immigrant workers while companies not dependent on an immigrant workforce promote greater restrictions and use the issue as a wedge to sow dissension among the working class. There are also divisions on the merits of tariffs and how best to control global resources, such as oil supplies, precious metals, water and arable land. However, while there is disagreement over tactics, there is no disagreement over the ultimate goal: to preserve capitalism and maintain US dominance.
The government, although ostensibly neutral, is part of the ruling class. It represents the interests of capitalism, to maintain profits and access to resources, even if politicians of different parties disagree over tactics. Ultimately, it rules by force, be it with the armed forces overseas or the police, FBI and ICE at home.
The strategy for achieving this goal is to make as much profit as possible, monopolize worldwide resources, and prevent potentially destabilizing rebellions of the working class. Racism is the major but not the only tool they use to profit and maintain their survival. While no worker earns the full value of what is produced, black and Latin workers earn even less, and are more likely to work in low paid service jobs with fewer benefits. To keep profits high, governments spend lower “social wages” for education, housing and health care. These conditions cause extreme inequalities in health status with higher rates of infant and maternal mortality, and diminished life expectancy among black families.
Globally, capitalists from wealthier nations establish factories in other countries, such as Mexico and Bangladesh, where labor costs are cheaper, and environmental and labor regulations are non-existent or superseded by trade deals, such as NAFTA. Workers fleeing economic destitution in their native countries face terror from right wing nationalists and detention in the US and Europe
Sexism also creates huge profits by underpaying women and squeezing out unpaid labor women provide in the home. Overall, women earn around 80 to 88 percent of white men’s wages (depending on the study). The Census Bureau reports these median income percentages earned by women compared to white men in 2017:
Asian women earned 81 percent of white men’s income
White women, 68 percent
Latinas. 50 percent
Black women, 40 percent
Nationalism, similarly to racism, is also used as a tool to divide and conquer. It promotes allegiance to one’s country or group, usually to get workers to back imperialist policies that benefit the rich, turning people against their own class brothers and sisters abroad. Propaganda belittles these so-called enemies, calling working class soldiers and civilians of countries imperialists wish to conquer or control “ragheads” or other demeaning names. People oppressed by racist practices often respond with nationalism, preferring to organize separately, such as the Marcus Garvey movement to send black Americans “back to Africa.” In some situations black organizers have excluded white anti-racists from the fight against police brutality and unemployment.
Using its mass media mouthpiece, the ruling class promotes an ideology of victim blaming to fragment the working class and generate hate. People are encouraged to believe that those most oppressed cause their own poverty and unemployment. Stereotypes abound: blacks as criminals and lazy, Asians as wealthy, and immigrants fleeing violence or poverty in their native countries as moochers or criminals. At the same time, better-off white workers get false credit for their industriousness and intelligence. These are myths. In reality, blacks and whites use the same amount of drugs, and undocumented immigrants pay taxes but cannot use public health and social service benefits, such as Social Security. Anti-LGBTQ ideology and anti-abortion pseudoscience divide people and distract us from holding the ruling class accountable for extreme inequities.
When nationalism and racist ideology do not control the working class from fighting back, the ruling class uses outright brutality and incarceration to intimidate and lock up the most rebellious black and Latin people who are disproportionately arrested and harassed.
Meanwhile capitalism creates conditions that endanger all workers regardless of income, “racial” group, nationality, or gender. Climate change imperils the globe, wars destabilize entire regions and kill millions, and high drug prices threaten the health of many with diabetes and other common chronic diseases. The unlivable conditions of global capitalism have generated “diseases of despair,” including addictions, suicide, and depression.
We Are All Connected
Visualize a pyramid with the ruling class sitting at a small sliver at the top and the working class inhabiting the broad base at the bottom. Within the working class there are men and women with many different income levels, sexual orientations, religions, nationalities, and “racial” categories. Yet all have the same relationship to the ruling class and the same self-interests and needs. Adopting a class perspective unites us all and focuses our activism on fighting capitalism, eventually replacing it with an equitable society. To succeed, we need to reject strategies that exclude people based on personal characteristics or that only organize people with the same characteristics. Materially, low or no wages for a super-exploited group reduce the wages of whites as well. In the enslaved South, black workers toiled for free while poor white workers couldn’t compete and faced massive poverty and unemployment. In some instances, such as Jones County, Georgia, whites and blacks united in guerilla war against Confederate troops.
We need to reject the theory of white privilege. While higher income white workers have more economic security, creature comforts, and freedom from brutality, they live in an increasingly repressive society with a resurgence of white nationalism targeting Jewish and Muslim people, and wars. It is no privilege to live in a world with so much suffering and injustice. Wages and access to affordable housing, education and health care are reduced by the very low level experienced by the most oppressed. We are all getting robbed, some much more than others, but organizing separately weakens us. Union organizing suffered from racism when unions refused to admit black or foreign-born workers, thus allowing the companies, such as US Steel, to hire them as scabs during strikes that generated even more animosity and race wars. There are many such examples in U.S. history.
Implications for Organizing
Unions, grass-roots organizations, students, and neighborhoods have united people to fight police brutality, low wages, deportations and detentions, and gentrification. We need to unite across these issues and not place the burden of opposition on the most affected people. Currently (2019), students, faculty, and residents in Baltimore have connected their movements against private policing by Johns Hopkins University, the police murder of Tyrone West, and Hopkins’ contracts with ICE (see http://noprivatepolice.org , Students Against Private Police, and Women Against Private Police on Facebook).
It is critical to unite the working class. If we allow one group to suffer injustice, the rest will suffer the consequences. In the 1980s and beyond, black men were dying of heroin addiction and treated as criminals, paving the way for massive incarceration. Now, white people are dying from opioid overdoses and cannot get enough treatment. If all people fought for substance use prevention earlier when black people were the face of addiction, the current epidemic may have been averted.
Joint struggles create relationships that can bridge superficial differences. There will be rocky times as people struggle to build trust and follow the leadership from people most affected by capitalism’s ills. We need unifying strategies that minimize and respect our differences, without ignoring and challenging the specific ways capitalism oppresses and exploits people. Fighting racism and other attacks is not a favor; it is critical to our survival. John Brown, the militant abolitionist, and Paul Robeson, the communist anti-racist warrior, knew this. Under the most divisive eras in US history (Civil War and early 20th Century), they advocated multiracial unity and resistance to slavery and lynchings. We need to follow their lead. We have the same opportunities today, to come together as a class to wipe out the devastation of capitalism.