The Immateriality of the Working Class

Anyone who today attends the showing of an anti-war or anti-corporate movie like those produced by Michael Moore will—if he or she is brave enough to notice-find that its audience is composed mainly of college-educated people, many of whom have master’s degrees.

It was not so 70 or even 50 years ago. In those days, the scruffy classes were the chief consumers of anti-establishment cultural fare.

The same thing can be said of today’s anti-imperialist actions. Working stiffs may have volunteered to defend Republican Spain, but today’s human shields in places like Colombia and Palestine come mainly from the ranks of college grads. Demonstrations against the war in Iraq mostly draw college students and middle-agers from the MA crowd.

This has been the case at least since anti-apartheid, anti-sweatshop and anti-globalization demonstrations swept Ivy League campuses in the 80’s and 90’s. Even pre-1970 protest against the Vietnam war-in the era of conscription and student deferments-was a largely collegiate affair.

Republicans, for the usual demagogic reasons, openly assail the demographics of the Left. They allege that activism is an affair of the “elite.”

The Left has responded by saying as little as possible about its class derivation. Shame keeps it silent.

What activists have generally said, during campaigns to organize campus workers, or to divest from apartheid, or to boycott Wal-Mart, is that they are acting for reasons of conscience. It’s as if they felt that it were a religious duty to ally themselves with the less fortunate–as if Dickens, not Marx, provided the text for their movements.

American Leftists do not see their lobbying, their demonstrations or cultural productions as acts of class solidarity. They do not see themselves, nor does hardly anyone see them, as members of the working class. Instead, they regard themselves and are regarded as sons and daughters of a fortunate “middle class.”

Marxists, or at least the members of the nation’s dozen Leninist sects-whose intellectual preparation, enthusiasm and persistence make them an important force on the Left even now–have generally agreed. They view college-educated folk as petty-bourgeoisie, as members of a fickle and frivolous class which, because it is destined to divide its allegiance between Right and Left, is an unreliable ally.

Yet most college graduates, and even most people with graduate degrees, do not take their livings from dividends, nor from what were classically called “the rents,” nor do they buy franchises from Starbucks or McDonald’s. They work for corporations and bureaucracies that serve the bourgeoisie, they pawn their liberty for consumer debt, and they face, more so every day, the specters of outsourcing, layoffs and pension-funding collapse. They say that they “own” their homes, but banks and mortgage lenders hold the notes; most people in the “middle class” are indentured to their houses. They are working folks, however literate or momentarily comfortable they may be.

The sects, heaving romanticized an archaic image of the working class, have encouraged highly-educated Leftists, who might have continued to organize their collegiate classmates, to cast their lots and spend their lives among the poorly-educated; the Greensboro textile union martyrs, two of whom were physicians, were shining examples of that.

The tactic of “industrial concentration,” as the transplant scheme is called, has over the course of 40 years neither slowed the decline of union membership, nor revived its once-militant spirit. Either the number of colonists-perhaps as many as 500 a year–has been insufficient, or the traditional working class has turned a deaf ear.

Most Leninist missionaries stay in their manual-work settings for less than five years. Disillusioned or exhausted, they then enter the college-educated workforce or enroll in graduate school, taking with them a good deal of class insight. But nobody calls upon them to spread class doctrines inside suburbia or in gentrified inner cities, where most of them ultimately settle.

These relatively seasoned agitators become, in one sense, tragic figures-but because of a hypocrisy of sorts. When intellectuals organize the folk, they inevitably encourage it to stay in its place, the better to make the Revolution. Instead of doing that, the fabled industrial proletariat, whatever its parent generation does to preserve, build or defend its union and community organizations, also does whatever it can to send its offspring to college. The effort succeeds often enough that the descendants of shop stewards don’t often preserve family traditions like packing lunch pails and punching time clocks. Almost everyone-Leninists excepted-tries his or her best to rise from the circumstances of manual to those of mental labor. The sons of daughters of the salts of the earth wind up living across the street from the collegians who, in the certainty of youth, tried to discredit the appeal of class mobility.

The Left’s doctrine of downward mobility has been assailed-if only in the politest way–by a handful of scholars, notable among them somewhat utopian Michael Hart of Duke and his co-thinker, Italian anarchist Anotnio Negri. Their 2004 “Multitude,” in a single chapter, 2.1, lays out the theory that highly-educated people in the overdeveloped world-advertising copywriters, journalists, teachers, chefs, programmers and IT operatives-are sensibly classified as “immaterial workers,” people who don’t produce tangible products, but are workers nonetheless. Hardt and Negri even argue that immaterials have the vaunted power to halt production, because in contemporary economies, factories don’t start their motors until marketing studies are done.

Until ten years ago, the attitude of the labor movement, seconded by most Marxists, was that Hardt and Negri’s favorites, as service workers, were mere auxiliaries of the industrial proletariat, and were probably unorganizable, besides. Such skepticism has wanted lately, largely because in order to survive, American unions have had to organize government, retail, janitorial and hospital employees. Greensboro’s textile mills, after all, have gone to China. The nation’s industrial working class has been so thoroughly decimated by automation and globalization that it today makes more sense to say that American industrial workers are immaterial, than to say that immaterials aren’t workers.

While it may be true, in the Marxist paradigm, that only industrial workers can bring about the Revolution, what is undeniable is that, in the United States, it is the immaterials who have distinguished themselves as the organizers of class solidarity actions, as opponents of empire, and as defenders of the rights of the people.

Hardt’s and Negri’s immaterials, even if they haven’t learned to speak in the name of their own economic self-interest-and even if they haven’t discerned their interests–are blindly leading the contemporary class struggle in the United States.

Their consciousness would be more advanced if American Leninists quit looking for signs of the Second Coming of the Great Flint Strike–and paid them mind. As Donald Rumsfeld might say, “We have to make the Revolution not with the proletariat we want, but with the proletariat we’ve got.”

DICK J. REAVIS is an assistant professor of English at North Carolina State University. He can be reached at dickjreavis@yahoo.com




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Dick J. Reavis is a Texas journalist and the author of The Ashes of Waco.

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