Yes, boys and girls, that's our discussion question for today. I need explanations!
First, let us study this pertinent excerpt of historic text:
In 1922, the Nikowsskis moved to the Polish section of Chicago, and Dick went to work in a slaughterhouse where he worked six days a week, freezing in winter, sweltering in summer, making just enough to exist on, never enough to save anything. Nikowsski's description of this slaughterhouse in 1922 evokes for me an image of men in hell, condemned to shovel coal onto their own doom-fires.Excerpted from The Romance of American Communism by Vivian Gornick.
One of the men who worked in the slaughterhouse was a socialist, a thin, burning-eyed man in his thirties. Dick Nikowsski was twenty years old. This socialist worked beside Dick, and became his friend. He talked endlessly, obsessively about "the bosses" and "the working stiffs." Half the time Dick couldn't follow the socialist, didn't know what the hell he was talking about, thought only that he was going to get them all in trouble. But he liked the socialist because behind the rage he sensed something wild and wounded in the man, and besides, whenever there was a dispute between the foreman and a worker, the socialist was the only one who stuck his neck out for the worker.
Then, one day in summer, when it was so blistering hot in the slaughterhouse the sweat was pouring down into the men's eyes, blinding them, the socialist suddenly turned to Dick and said to him: "Do you know where the owners are now? Right now while you and I are here sweating like pigs?" No," Dick replied, "where?" The socialist took a folded page of newspaper from his pocket. "There!" he thundered. "At the coast!" Dick stared blindly at the picture of a group of men and women lying languidly by the sea. The blue eyes of the seventy-year-old Nikowsski stare at me, fifty years disappearing in their wide gaze. "I didn't even know what the coast was," he says in wonder as fresh as that of the twenty-year-old still alive inside him.
"Something happened to me then. I just stared and stared at that picture. Suddenly it was as if everything that socialist had been saying all those months clicked into place somewhere in my head, and I saw me behind that picture, I saw me knee-deep in blood and shit my whole life so that that picture could be taken. I don't know how to describe it to you, I don't think I even knew what it was that was happening, I certainly couldn't have put it into words, but something came rising up in me, so swift and so strong, it nearly took the breath out of my body. I can still feel it, the way I felt it then. As if it was coming right out of the center of me, as if it had been waiting there all that time, all my life, and now it had--just that fast!--run out of time."
I like that story because a similar thing happened to me. Very similar, and although I wasn't stuck in a slaughterhouse, I was doing some nasty work, scrubbing toilets and such. And I was significantly younger than Dick.
I soon learned what else was happening with this corporation around the same time I was working for them. My eyes were opened.
And my question is, why doesn't this happen now? Why has the right-wing Tea Party movement been so successful in cashing in on class resentment?
Where is the Left in these harsh economic times?
I have decided the Left is largely IN ABSENTIA because the American Left now comes from the elite class itself; their political convictions are basically a reflection of the warmed-over liberalism they obediently ingested while attending Good Colleges. They believe what they believe out of a sense of common decency, fairness and goodness. But not because most American Leftists have experienced classism themselves.
In fact, most have NOT.
The Left is therefore doing it FOR the poor bedraggled working classes... not for themselves. (They do not feel personally disenfranchised, they feel they are speaking up FOR the disenfranchised.)
And this is why they keep getting it wrong.
This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else's oppression.Keeping this statement in mind, we see why feminism, disability and gay activism (and other types of identity-based activism) has been so successful in the past few decades, whereas the American Left, no longer an actual product of the working classes, can no longer claim success.
--Combahee River Collective, 1977
The identity of Lefty is now that of the more educated person, someone who can afford to buy organic, who listens to NPR, who has the room to start composting. They read the New York Times, not the New York Daily News.
When an ignorant person is just becoming politically aware for the first time... can they look to the socialist working next to them on the job? No, because there aren't any. So, where do they look? They look to the TV, as always... and carefully segregated on certain channels, they see the people who are like them, and the people who aren't.
They look around and see common working people going to church to pray they can make it through another tough, back-breaking working week, as they watch the televised coastal elites make fun of church-going, ascribing religious belief to simple weakness and stupidity.
They attempt to get hired, and find that jobs have evaporated. Where did they go?--asks the worker. (And who has the ready answer for that? The right or the left?) Why are we bailing out rich Wall Street greedheads when I can't pay my mortgage due to unemployment?--asks the worker. (And who has the ready answer for that? The right or the left?) Why am I working harder and getting poorer, while Paris Hilton has time to make porn and waltz around in designer clothes and officially do nothing for a living? (And who has the ready answer for that? The right or the left?)
People join the group that is most like them. And this means that these days, American working people seem to be joining the Tea Party, the group that most LOOKS like them.
The American Left is no longer synonymous with "the workers"... It was once, but has changed dramatically. I now think of the American Left as the primary participants in identity politics, but not as the workers.
Discussion? Agree? Disagree? Although I'd like this to be a multi-part series, I am unsure of which direction I'd like to take this next... so COMMENTS PARTICULARLY WELCOME. (note guidelines for commenting; trolls will get the trap door!)