History, Class Struggle, and the Disconnect
History lays the framework for our future, a structure upon which we lay our fortunes. Society does not exist a-historically, it is always a contingent formation based on what came before it. Walter Benjamin’s description of Angelus Novus is a description of us, the people. We are the ones who are faced towards the garbage heap of history, while being blown forward into the future. Are we actively cognizant of history’s affect on our intuitive responses? On the organization of our society? On our collective responses to historical circumstances? Because history affects us regardless of our interpretive understanding of history, Howard Zinn’s much quoted statement should be taken as sacrosanct for any citizen of a democracy; “History is important. If you don’t know history it is as if you were born yesterday. And if you were born yesterday, anybody up there in a position of power can tell you anything, and you have no way of checking up on it.” Our unknown history is an ideological weapon used against us. History as the AR-15 of class warfare, spraying rapidly as it unloads round for round laying waste to everything in its path. History is the ideological tool of the ruling elite, who dictate to us our values. History is an unsavory colonizer corrupting our core. At least when placed in the hands of a few with power, when we are disconnected from history and they dictate what history is.
I bring this up, because I always like to interrogate the people I meet to see how they understand certain parts of how our society functions. You know, I say one of my (our) outrageous (probably rather sane) ideas and see what happens. Sometimes just for the hell of it, other times because I want to gauge where the populace is at in thinking “radical”. I think this is something often missed by us on the “left”. You know, we aren’t exactly polling people and finding out what they know about what we are saying, how we can make the message clearer, spread further. The polling data we do have is that most (if not all) of our message is spot on for the majority of the population. People want to expand Social Security, build co-ops and worker-owned factories, expand civil liberties, and create universal access to healthcare (amongst much, much more). Maybe the elites don’t, but we down here towards the bottom sure as hell do. But, we seem to be disconnected. Where does this disconnect arise from?
History is a good place to start, since a lot of leftist thought is about the historical rootedness of our being (fancy way of saying, history is important ‘cause it makes you, well, you!). For instance, I have recently been rambling on about the 40 hour work week to most people I meet, every poor schmuck I come across and berate. I state to them clearly that I find working anything over 40 hours a week an abomination flying in the face of decades of labor struggle. I give my 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, and I figure that should be sufficient for the business and sufficient to make enough to survive decently (it isn’t, but it sure as hell should be). I don’t even go into the idea of reducing work to zero by focusing intellectual energy on creating the technology to make a life of leisure for all possible. As I discuss the very basic idea of a 40 hour work week, most people reveal how disconnected they are from labor history and also solidarity with their fellows in the working class. Even scarier, they fucking want to work for someone else and think it’s just great to be a wage slave. Everyone has a micro-fascism in them I assume; some just hide it better than others.
The American value of work as an end in-itself has sapped from the proletariat any idea of work as merely a means by which we supply ourselves with the necessities for living. Work has been put on a pedestal. Turn on the T.V. and you have shows about how fun and quirky your workplace can really be. Not to mention the endless number of reality T.V. shows about work. And don’t worry; life outside of work is now blurred into work itself. Think about the hipster show, “Two Broke Girls”, where the whole thing revolves around their shitty dead-end job and a constant stream of crappy jokes. I understand why hipster waitresses fit the times we are living in. Paul Craig Roberts never stops demonstrating that the majority of jobs being created are exactly those low-paid service sector positions. But, really that’s not a shitty job; it’s really a fun place to be. At least that’s the set-up for it. And of course they aren’t really broke, but just having fun “doing poverty”. I shit you not, that was a concept used for a paper presentation at an academic conference about people in AmeriCorps. They “do poverty”; what a crock of shit. Or check out any series of man-comedies. You know the idiot shows about some group of dudes who hang out, drink, and of course work together (on top of all their sexism). This is most likely the nicer side of a nasty ideology that is crude in its individualism and brutish in its “Arbeit macht frei” connotations (“Work will set you free”, which was placed on the gates of Nazi concentration camps).
So, I was sitting there getting a haircut, saying to the nice gentleman, Toby, “I refuse to work more than 40 hours a week,” as he responded, “Man, I have to work 6 days a week no matter what. I want to work 7, but they stopped allowing us to work that much.” When I began to state that unions fought for a 40 hour week because we deserved 8 hours of leisure, 8 hours of work, and 8 hours of sleep, he did not register this as part of a struggle, but instead as not enough hours to get by. And when the unions were fighting for the 40 hour work week they were also fighting for decent wages (they were also quite lucky that the demand for labor outstripped the supply). They saw the two as inextricably linked; fewer hours of work and more pay. And of course it isn’t enough to get by anymore, because wages are declining even while productivity continues to rise. So, combined with the nasty ideology of work is the very real necessity to work. Material conditions push everyone further and further into a situation where the necessity to work excludes all other parts of life, to our collective detriment. And because Toby is forced to work, he adopts the nasty ideology of work to cope. Work is good, so I am good for working. The National Labor Relations Act be damned, along with the struggles it took to get it.
To him the simple fact that I refused to work more than 40 hours meant I was a lazy, entitled degenerate. I would have liked him to see it as part of a struggle the whole working class should be proud of and continue to push forward as a part of our fight for a life with dignity. You know, people got smashed in the face with batons so you could sit your happy ass on the couch (or go on a run, whatever suits you) after working 8 hours. Not 10, not 11, not 9, and not even 8 hours and 1 minute (ok, I do recognize the laws we have on working hours are in many ways occupationally specific, but you get the general point). It’s like the Monty Python holy hand grenade, “7 is right out, 9 is too many, 8 shall be the number”. Kind of arbitrary, but it breaks the day into thirds. And it could even be lower. Especially when accounting for surges in productivity. But, they got us like rats on a wheel with no way off. I should not be shocked, as the whole labor analysis of life has been decimated. There are not enough organizations (many destroyed over the last 40 years) maintaining the system of knowledge that took decades of cultivation to bring to a point where it made an impact upon our country’s political economy. We are adrift in a sea of a-historical mayhem, unmoored from a tradition that led to the best this country had to offer; a decent life.
Nor was Toby the only person I recently encountered who was disconnected from labor history. I was at a bar the other night with a good friend who works on cell phone towers. In the midst of beer and smokes, he proudly proclaimed, “I try as fast as I can to get to 40 hours a week, so I can start getting that overtime pay. I usually work 80 to 90 hours a week.” When I began to tell him that the 40-hour work week was won by struggle, by people striking, being shot at, and being beaten he replied, “O ya, the civil rights struggle, man we already won that.” I was mortified, responding, “No Rico, the labor struggles from the late 1800s through to the 1930s got you a 40 hour work week.” He just had no reference to it, no idea of what I was getting at. For him, as for many Americans, a person who only wants to work 40 hours is lazy and ain’t out to get that money. It was just an absolute disconnect from the history of the working class. As should be well known, a class can be a class in-itself (objective socio-relational economic position based on the organization of the economy), but not necessarily a class for-itself (an inter-subjective position based on our solidarity in pursuing similar interests to accrue benefits to our class). If we do not share an inter-subjective position, if we are not connected to each other based upon class position, we are a disconnected group; divided and well conquered for it.
These stories can be told ad nauseum. It is similar to people blaming unions for our current predicament, even when union membership has been on a downhill slide for quite some time (20.1% in 1983, 11.3% in 2012). This blaming of unionists is alive and well in the discourse of my friends hailing from the right-to-work state of Texas (with a median hourly salary of 12 dollars an hour, higher than minimum, still poverty-level wages for a family of four). Or the oft-stated, “if they want more money they can get a better job”, even when there are approximately 3 applicants per 1 job opening or the fact that the median wage has been declining with 50% of workers making equal to or less than $27,519 per year. The one-sided class war is being won daily by the capitalist class who has centralized control of the means of production in their hands, while we are all scrounging around for a dollar here and a dollar there. And here we are, fighting for more hours instead of better pay. Here we are calling other people lazy for believing that life is about leisure and not about work. The disconnect is horrific as it decimates class consciousness. It is also horrific for turning everyone into the police of everyone. Work or will we judge you! And harshly at that!
This demonstrates a very serious problem of how people are organizing knowledge and analyzing their social position. The only referent most people have to historical knowledge is the culture industry. When is the last time you turned on the “History” Channel? If you like fake theories about aliens, Nazis, or hybrid alien-Nazi programs, then you are at home watching this dribble (ok, they did air Howard Zinn’s People’s History; so, not all bad). But, don’t expect to find anything bordering on history useful for emancipation, or anything bordering on empirically-valid history for that matter. Listen to a rap song; it is all about money and fame. Listen to a pop song; it’s the same. None of our mass culture in any way connects people to each other, except through a very depressing version of the “American Dream”. It definitely has no links to labor history; actually, it is completely antithetical to labor history. Everything the culture industry produces nowadays hates the working class. So now, even the working class hates the working class. What a horrendous value, forcing us to be against ourselves.
And then, this culture takes pride in allowing everyone to air their baseless opinions and claim them all equal. But, opinions are just that, opinions. And when you state a historical fact, people will tell you it is opinion and everyone has one. They are all very postmodern without having read a damn obscure word written by a literary “theorist” or a francophone philosopher. Which I like, I like the sophism, but I think it becomes quite detrimental when you use it to fuck yourself over. Because, you know, you are an “individual” with “personal responsibility” and society never fails you, only you fail you. What a load of horse shit. Yes, we can fail ourselves and there is a very real need for self-empowerment, but society can be and is oppressive. It is much more oppressive when we do not have any bearing on where the oppressive system comes from.
And I get it, I really do. The disconnect was my life as well. I remember being an idiot when I was young and never hearing any critical questions about history. You know, no one ever asked where state capitalism comes from. It just was. Or it was given mythical connotations, where alchemist Europeans built it from nothing. But, I was lucky. I got out of my ignorant position because a few professors at a community college took it upon themselves to be critical and get their students to be critical. I was lucky, because I was not forced to go to college just to get a job, but was told to go to learn. Also, I was lucky that I had parents who saw education as an end in-itself and were willing to pay for it. You know, Dad wasn’t all that radical, but he at least had been on strike before. For me it could’ve been different. I could hate the working class, instead of wanting to raise it up. I could be acting like there was no labor struggle. And I am thankful every day that it didn’t turn out that way.
So, we need to reconnect us to history, to our past and its struggles. We need to recognize how history affects who we are, what we believe, what we value, and how we relate to each other. This is no easy task. There are powerful forces arrayed against us: capitalists, politicians, think-tanks, and the mass media. They don’t want an informed populace. They don’t want a population that recognizes its roots in the gauntlet of oppression the labor movement faced and triumphed over. Why would they? They are in lock-step service to their corporate overlords. When people are disconnected from history they are really just taking it from the “Man”, sometimes willingly as they enforce their own ignorance. And because people enforce their own ignorance, you can’t just say they are misled. At times people are active participants in their own oppression. Some people enjoy their oppression and want to further it. Others proclaim loudly they are free-thinkers, when every sentence coming out of their mouths is a talking point they heard on MSNBC, Fox News, or one of the other corporate-owned shill organizations. This is not thinking freely. Instead, it is not thinking at all. It is just following other people’s lines of thought. Following the same people who could care less about you, except as a passive consumer of the shitty product they sell you with all its flashing lights, glitz, and glamour.
What we need is some damn bravado. Tell your friend when he/she says something wildly inaccurate they are wrong. Drop some knowledge every now and again. Don’t be a pompous dick about it, but do correct them. It’s a new form of the “good friends don’t let other friends drive drunk”. Now it is, “good friends don’t let friends spew idiotic things about history” or “good friends don’t let friends hate on the working class”. Connect them back up with the traditions that made the working class strong. And it doesn’t have to be some shtick about join up with my ideology or my group. This is about common human decency and getting on board with a program fighting for that. History goes beyond any ideology, it always has and it always will. Life is complex; let us treat it as such. Let us build an ethics, rather than a political economy. Or at least, let us always constrain what our political economy can be by a universal and prefigurative ethics. And that ethics better be rooted in history and it best be about common human decency. Let’s begin forming community groups and educating each other again. Look I can’t read everything, neither can you. But, if I know a little and you know a little we can always know a little bit more.
And we do have places to start. The Howard Zinn Education Project is a wonderful resource for all ages to learn about history. Based in Zinn’s framework of history from below, the ZEP has lesson plans, teaching materials, and a large list of different topics. Or you could go to Popular Resistance’s website. They have tons of resources on building community organizations, messaging, ideas for struggles to be a part of, and even a weekly TV show online. You could also be sharing with everyone who will listen alternative forms of media people can access to get news relevant to their lives and a global social justice movement. Media like Alternative Radio, Democracy Now, The Real News Network, Richard Wolff’s Economic Report, Truth-Out, In These Times, YES! Magazine, Adbusters, This Can’t Be Happening! and of course CounterPunch. The list can be even longer. I would recommend to everyone that they go to John Pilger’s website and just begin watching his documentaries. Or check out other documentaries like The Take, The Corporation, Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, Flow: For Love of Water, or The Four Horsemen. It is not like there is an absence of a counter-hegemonic force. It exists and it needs to be spread far and wide. People are doing amazing things right now.
Remember then, if you remember anything from reading this essay. People must know history. They must know what is going on and why it happens the way it does. They must be rooted in that history. Don’t let your friends hate the working class. Don’t let them say counterfactual crap they learned from people who hate them. Let’s get back to the basics and starting recruiting people to the struggle. People are hurtin’ out there and they want to fight back. Let’s continue the push to organize, educate, and demand the impossible. Are you ready to wield the AR-15 of history for the betterment of the working class? I know I am.
Andrew Smolski is building his own micro-politics of desire little by little and brick by brick doing his part to rebuild the dreams of the oppressed, such as himself, for multiple better worlds. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org