Wouldn’t it be great to win the lottery and live like one of the rich and famous and powerful? At least that’s something to aim for, isn’t it, living the upscale life-styles the media flashes before our eyes?
Whoa! Is somebody screwing with our brains?
What exactly is the reality of our situations anyway? What do we need to be conscious of as economic, social, and political beings? For leftists, this is important stuff:workers need to have class consciousness and class solidarity to win out in the class struggle. Y’know, the old “workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains?”
So, what is your “economic” role? There are a bunch of possibilities. Do you identify yourself as being of the working class (the proletariat, the “proles” in George Orwell’s 1984)? That is, do you work for wages? Or are you of the revolutionary intelligentsia/organizer class living off the kindness of others? No shame in that. Marx, living in poverty, got financial support from Engels. People working for non-profits rely on the contributions sent in by supporters. We’re always being asked to throw in a few bucks to help this or that cause. Or are you of the lumpenproletariat- of the riffraff: criminals, the destitute, prostitutes, urban toughs? Or of the peasantry- perhaps one of the new, sustainable, organic farmers with a small family farm? Of the petit-bourgeoisie- a small business owner, perhaps a socially-conscious entrepreneur? Or a select member of the bourgeoisie- a capitalist, a majority owner / controller of large corporate holdings? How do you identify yourself?
As if labels matter. Well, they kinda do.
The glitch is that these identifications, like all labels, are intellectual constructs we come up with in trying to make sense of the realities. And the realities are complicated.
Say you’re a “professional,” someone who has an M.A. in counseling. You may be a prole if you earn wages as an employee of a school district, university, hospital, or large corporation. Or you might hang out a shingle and have your own clients and office personnel and are therefore of the petit-bourgeoisie. Or you might throw your lot in with the intelligentsia, using your understanding of socio-cultural systems and alienation to work on systemic change. Or you do some combination of them. So which are you? And do you have class consciousness? Or do you identify yourself as a professional and not use a “class” perspective at all and stand above the fray? That would lead to matters of social standing and a whole other way of identifying yourself.
So, what is your “social” standing? Is it a good thing to be white collar rather than blue collar? Or upper middle class rather than lower middle class? Or to be identified by your status, your social standing, rather than your economic class, like wanting to belong to a professional association rather than a labor union? Or like wanting to be a house slave rather than a field slave in the antebellum South, because house slaves had it better, despite the fact that they both were slaves?
Where are you in the pecking order? What respect is due you based on how much money you have or the way you make money? Should you care how others rate you? What privileges and benefits are associated with your social standing?
Do concerns about upward mobility and moving up the ladder, conflict with the horizontalism of class unity? Do status considerations help you navigate through life, help you make decisions, provide paths to power? Whoops, we’re getting into political matters, which leads, of course, into political ways of identifying yourself.
So, how do you identify yourself as a “political” being? There are political labels galore:conservative, neo-liberal, liberal, progressive, leftist, independent, socialist, communist, Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, in the Green Party or in the Tea Party. And there are more. And on top of this confusing diversity of political options, each label covers a diverse range of clashing beliefs and fickle practitioners.
Take “socialist,” for example. Lots and lots of variability there. Are you a scientific or a utopian socialist? According to Frederick Engels, the scientific socialist understands the contradictions and the fracturing possibilities inherent in the present capitalist system and therefore what kinds of changes can be expected, whereas the utopian’s head is in the clouds gushing about the beautiful future ahead but without understanding present realities and actual possibilities. You can read about it in Engels” fittingly titled short work Socialism: Utopian and Scientific first published in 1880.
Should you, as a socialist and as a worker, support your country when it goes to war (as most European socialists advocated vis-a-vis World War I) or should you oppose your country going to war, it being against working class interests for workers of one country to fight against workers of another country to protect capitalist interests (the position of most socialists in the United States vis-a-vis World War I)? You can read about these clashing perspectives in James Weinstein’s The Decline of Socialism in America, 1912-1925 published by Monthly Review Press in 1967.
Are you a democratic socialist or social democrat or democratic centralist or anarchistic socialist?
Does the socialist believe in the primacy of industrial workers or of craft workers or of sustainably farming peasants or of socially-conscious entrepreneurs or of the intelligentsia or some combination of them in actually bringing about change? Or does the socialist believe the role of any of them may be only to help speed up the coming changes, the changes themselves being the inevitable playing out of contradictions built into the system?
And the changes that the socialist advocates, are they slow reformist incremental changes or are we talking about systemic revolutionary change? And, if revolutionary, would it be peaceful or violent? In one country or worldwide?
All of these variations on a socialist theme are enough to make me want to ask the “real” socialists to please stand up and explain themselves.
Do these economic-socio-political labels do any good? Well, yeah. Some of them, at any rate, do good in providing people with the semblance of community. If you and others identify yourselves using the same labels, you might think of yourselves as kindred spirits and form a community based on shared interests. But the label doesn’t say it all. You still have to get down to the nitty-gritty of figuring out what to do.
Which brings us to Allan Savory, developer of holistic management as a framework for decision making. He would ask us to lay out our holistic goal, the complex holistic context which would frame our thinking, as a first step in a process that would enable us to make decisions that simultaneously consider economic, social, and environmental realities, both short- and long-term.
And he would want us to say who is “us.” You can get into these matters in Savory and Butterfield’s 1999 Holistic Management:A New Framework for Decision Making.
I don’t think labels alone work to define functioning groups or spell out who the decision makers are. So I do a lot of head scratching when anybody asks me to identify myself. Admittedly, words are necessary for communication, but I have good reasons for treating labels with suspicion.
Number one:it seems to me that most of these identifications merely serve as guidelines for others to figure out how they think they should relate to me. They provide a quick but stereotypical assessment of whether I am a friend or foe. Labels keep us from the difficult, time-consuming, but necessary task of learning in concert what we can do about the mess we’re in.
Number two: as I have been pointing out, labels are moving targets. People don’t necessarily agree on their meanings. Arguments, disagreements, and misunderstandings may mean brittle, poorly functioning organizations, with people preferring to work on their own rather than collectively. Y’know, the Lone Ranger Syndrome, and the related “herding cats” problem that has organizations spinning their wheels?
Which leads to number three: efforts to stabilize meanings may result in rigidity, communities based on the sharing of labels may become doctrinaire, closing themselves off, checking members for the purity of their convictions, carrying out periodic purges to eliminate the heretics, and treating other, closely related communities as foes, this last problem evidenced by the splintering and infighting of the left.
It may be necessary to focus on place-based communities, on people who are living in the same settings, facing the same problems, the same societal dysfunction, communities being turned into sacrifice zones and resource colonies by the corporate face of the 1%. Indeed, communities may already be on the forefront of change, close to what Engels in 1887 described as just having taken place for the working class in America: a veritable revolution over the period of ten months involving “vast masses of working people, over a vast extent of the country, the simultaneous outburst of their common discontent with miserable social conditions, the same everywhere and due to the same causes, [making] them conscious of the fact that they formed a new and distinct class of American society.” The difficult task confronting communities coming to consciousness of their subservient condition is to operate democratically, addressing their settings and problems and dysfunction in a sustainable and corrective manner, and working in concert with other communities to both protect themselves and the environments of which they are part.
Here are two complementary approaches that can help in that project.
The Transitions Town model provides ways for our communities to acknowledge the mess we’re in and come together democratically to figure out what positive steps to take. See, for example, The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience by Rob Hopkins (2008). Reviewer Jerry Mander, founder/director of the International Forum on Globalization, put it this way, “Rob Hopkins has written the most thorough description so far of how we get from the present chaos of cities and towns that are killing the planet and the people in them, to viable new ecologically sustainable urban and rural systems. This is more than a theoretical how-to manual; it is based on his own team’s ground-breaking work, engaging whole communities in a transformative process that accepts the crucial need to reverse course, and has succeeded in doing so.”
The Community Bills of Rights approach advocated by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), and the hundreds of communities traveling that path, are models of how communities can use a rights-based approach to claim their sovereignty and protect themselves.
See, for example, Rebelling Against the Corporate State:Forging a community rights movement.
It contains Community Rights Papers, printed between 2014-2017, that re-frame contemporary and historical events through a Community Rights lens. From the foreword by Karenna Gore, attorney, advocate, writer and educator, and Director of the Center for Earth Ethics: “This nation was based on the conviction that local self-government was an inherent natural right. Only the voice of people who deeply care about the land they live on is powerful enough to push bureaucracies to pay attention to the ecological crisis. In the name of both American democracy and life on Earth, this community voice must be heard.”
I am not speaking academically about these approaches. The Alliance for Sustainable Communities- Lehigh Valley has been actively working on both.
The Alliance has endorsed the rights-based approach of the CELDF and, together with its Beyond Capitalism Working Group, presented CELDF programs, most recently the screening of Invisible Hand (see “Community and Ecosystem Protection: Two Films” on page 43). And we’re planning on holding a CELDF Democracy School early in 2019.
Another Alliance working group, Transitions Lehigh Valley, an official Transition US hub initiative, is presently focusing on Transitions U, which offers re-skilling and re-thinking programs, most notably Left Turn editor Fara Farbod’s courses on political economy and foreign policy.
Visit the Alliance website or contact me for more information about these approaches. I hope you will find both approaches worth checking out.
Martin Boksenbaum is a founding member of the Alliance for Sustainable Communities- Lehigh Valley. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org