Lately I’ve been rereading one of the books on my list of awesome resources in literature. I had almost forgotten why I had put Where We Stand: Class Matters by bell hooks on there in the first place, but it has been blowing my mind (as it did the first time I read it a number of years ago) and really has me thinking about issues of class in my life and our society, so I wanted to take some time on here to reflect on some of hooks’ points and how they relate to our wider struggle for class justice in our society.
One of the concepts that comes up a lot in her book is that of “class solidarity.” Indeed, the very notion of solidarity is key to my understanding of justice and social change. After all, I am a straight, white man from an upper-class, Christian background who is working to combat oppression. There is no real way in which I am oppressed, yet that does not exclude me from anti-oppression work. In fact, it simply means that I have to work in spite of or through my privilege to realize any change, and that often means working in solidarity.
Now, the concept of solidarity is perhaps a topic for a separate blog entry entirely, and I don’t want to get too distracted from my original purpose, but I am curious to hear from my readers. What does solidarity mean to you?
When I was reading the chapter “Class and the Politics of Living Simply” from Where We Stand: Class Matters, I was struck by hooks’ words about “class solidarity:”
To stand in solidarity with the poor is no easy gesture at a time when individuals of all classes are encouraged to fear for their economic well-being. Certainly the fear of being taken advantage of by those in need has led many people with class privilege to turn their backs on the poor. As the gap between rich and poor intensifies in this society, those voices that urge solidarity with the poor are often drowned out by mainstream conservative voices that deride, degrade, and devalue the poor . . . we need a concerned left politics that continues to launch powerful critique of the ruling class groups even as it also addresses and attends to the issues of strategic assault and demoralization of the poor, a politics that can effectively intervene on class warfare (hooks p. 46)
Indeed, as hooks suggests, the gap between rich and poor is growing in this country. As I note in “The Wall,” approximately 13% of the American population is officially classified as living within 125% poverty level ,where a family of three would earn approximately $17,163 per year (U.S. Census Bureau) while the top 1% of wealth holders in the United States owns roughly 50% of all financial and business wealth, and the top 5% owns almost 70% of such wealth (Gar Alperovitz, the Lionel R. Bauman Professor of Political Economy at the University of Maryland, College Park). The disparity is only more extreme when we look at the global economy.
Now, I often say that this is confusing to me because to challenge our economic system at its core inequality and disparity is to challenge capitalism itself, and that gets into some pretty big picture and heady stuff. Honestly, while I love waxing philosophical with my friends about the merits of capitalism, it is not what I am truly interested in. My interest lies in what we can do interpersonally to change some of the systemic structures that lead to such inequality.
But hooks is right. To talk about class inevitably leads to derision, degradation, and devaluing of the poor in this country. For instance, I was recently having an argument (no . . . I can’t even say discussion due to the hostility being thrown around in this space) with a long-time friend’s father. While the argument actually had nothing to do with class (it was in fact about the merits of the Iraq war), he started complaining about “folks who want more entitlement and not earn it.” He continued, “What would happen if all those people were told to stand on their own to feet for once in there [sic] life and stop bitching about how unfair life is? I’m sick to death hearing and seeing this country pulled apart.” As a middle-class man who admirably has worked hard his entire life for what he has, he is speaking directly of the class division that hooks talks about in her work. He is pissed because the narrative has been caste (mostly be the media, which, interestingly, is owned almost exclusively by the super rich) is that people at the bottom are sucking resources from working people and killing this country like a bunch of parasites. As hooks puts it:
Significantly, while the uncaring rich and powerful, especially those in control of government, big business, and mass media, were and are at the forefront of campaigns to place all accountability for poverty on the poor and to equate being poor with being worthless, lots of other nonwealthy citizens have allied themselves with these groups . . . It has served their class interests to perpetuate the notion that the poor are mere parasites and predators. And, of course, their greed has set up a situation where many people must act in a parasitic manner in order to meet basic needs – the need for food, clothing, and shelter (hooks p. 45)
The reality, though, is that those at the bottom actually pay the largest percentage of their income in taxes, while those on welfare (the supposed enabling program of the parasites) are most often legally-required to work to receive any sort of state or federal benefits.
Furthermore, multi-national corporations (the engines behind the super-rich) pay a roughly 2.3% tax rate! I sure as hell would love that tax rate!
My point here is the same as hooks’. We are living in a time of class-warfare (whether or not we like to admit it), and ironically, all the data shows that it is a war of the super-rich on the middle- and lower-classes, yet the debate has been framed as a war of the lower-class parasites and the “socialists” against everyone else. Though I am paraphrasing (because at this moment I fail to find the exact quote), Howard Zinn once called the United States the most complex and ingenious system of oppression the world has ever seen because it has managed to successfully keep those at the bottom fighting amongst themselves rather than directing their anger where it belongs: upward.
Sadly, I am as guilty of any of the classism that creates this fundamental problem of perspective. I don’t shop at Wal-Mart largely because of their corporate policies, wage depression, and union busting, but the reality is that there is something more there. I feel dirty when I go into Wal-Mart (and unfortunately not because of the crappy lighting or the skeeze left over from their most recent corporate board meeting). I feel dirty because I was taught (not so subtly) that “white trash” shop at Wal-Mart. I distinctly even remember being pretty young and having someone in my family state those very words as we left a Wal-Mart in Grand Junction, CO. “Man, Wal-Mart is filled with white trash!” Everyone laughed, and we went along our merry way (probably to Target, the middle-to-upper-class Wal-Mart with some pretty crappy corporate practices themselves). By my harboring those prejudices, I am playing into the game. I am acknowledging that I am somehow distinct and different from the lower-class masses who don’t deserve my respect.
Now . . . I’m not saying we need to dehumanize the rich (though maybe a few of them deserve it . . . come on, Tony Hayward!?). Instead, I am arguing that we need a concerted effort in our language and in our lives to humanize those less fortunate than ourselves! I would argue that such an effort is the first step toward solidarity. It can’t stop there, but that is a great first step! That’s why I loved this recent article that so beautifully humanized those faces that I so often turn away from as their (often dirty . . . note the dehumanization) hand is out, holding a cup for some spare change. Instead of sharing spare change, the article describes how a journalist recently gave panhandlers pre-charged debit cards in $50 and $75 denominations. I won’t spoil the article for you, but I thought the result went a long way in recasting the way that so many of us think of those who are sitting by the bus stop with their hand out and a cardboard sign. It certainly got me rethinking my own prejudices toward the homeless.
As I said, it can’t stop there. It has to eventually lead toward action that can lead to change, whereby there don’t need to be people in the underclass perpetually struggling to get by, where we recognize a certain basic standard of living that we will not let our brothers and sisters fall below. We need to work toward changing the very system that leads to such hurt felt by the middle class who are working hard for themselves while there are still people inevitably struggling in poverty.
Though I am not personally Christian, that is the most poignant example I take from my reading of Christ’s life:
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least among you, you did not do for me.” -Matthew 25:41-45
So I will leave you with a track from the album Revolutionary, Vol I by Immortal Technique, one of the most poignant voices for change in the music world – let along the hip hop community (though I will say that I am continually disappointed with his use of misogynistic and homophobic language in too many songs). My favorite line from “The Poverty of Philosophy” is this:
“As much as racism bleeds America, we need to understand that classism is the real issue. Many of us are in the same boat, and it’s sinking while these bourgeoisie mother** ride on a luxury liner, and as long as we keep fighting over kicking people out of the little boat we’re all in, we’re going to miss an opportunity to gain a better standard of living as a whole.”
Warning: Graphic Language
Peace be the Journey.
p.s. Just a cool little note about bell hooks. hooks does not capitalize her name because she wants her work to be the focus, the thing of primary importance, rather than the author.