What’s needed at this political moment? 5 well-known leftists, 5 strong opinions

At the Working-Class Studies conference last weekend, I heard an amazing dialogue about class, race and movement-building by five progressive journalists and activist scholars: Juan Gonzalez of Democracy Now!, Frances Fox Piven, Bill Fletcher Jr. of Blackcommentator.com, and former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert of Demos, with conference organizer Michael Zweig, author of The Working Class Majority moderating.

I was struck by how openly they disagreed with each other in front of us 200 listeners, by how passionate all five of them are about creating a more just society, and by what vast depth of experience they brought to the panel. Here are some highlights:

Juan Gonzalez: We have to start saying “working class” again. When politicians say “the middle class,” their purpose is to exclude poor and immigrant labor from the American people. The key responsibility of progressives is to reject this concept of the middle class.

Frances Fox Piven: The Citizens United Supreme Court decision (allowing corporate personhood and unlimited secret spending on elections) raises the problem of propaganda in the US. We’ve always had corporate and elite propaganda, but now the problem is much worse. The complexity of the financial crisis makes populist organizing difficult. The Citizens United decision is responsible for the defeat of the Wisconsin recall vote (to remove anti-union Governor Scott Walker); we are watching the downfall of representative democracy. A disruptive movement is needed.

Bill Fletcher: Just as in the movie When Worlds Collide, in which only a few people can escape a collision of planets, the capitalist class senses an impending disaster – and the disaster is all of us! They learned from Obama’s election and the Wisconsin recall (47% is a lot of people) that they can no longer rule through electoral politics, and they are debating among themselves what other means they should turn to. That’s the implication of the Citizens United ruling. The chickens are coming home to roost on unions’ failure to educate their own members.

Bob Herbert: The US is in much worse shape than the media reveal. My next book is called The Wounded Colossus. 100 million people are poor or near poor, one-third of the US population. Even the solidly middle class are in deep trouble, heading towards poverty, with the cost of college,homes under water, debt, health care costs and no job security. We already were not a functioning democracy before Citizens United. President Obama won’t even say the word “poor,” only “the middle class.” There’s no way to replace 14 million lost jobs.

Frances Fox Piven: To revive working-class movements, don’t start with existing unions.

Juan Gonzalez: Latin America has broken free of the US and gone in a different direction; so have parts of the Arab world, charting their own course. US capitalists are desperate and are turning to re-conquering Europe by taking away its social progress. Immigrants are the most progressive portion of the US working class. Think about the Republic Windows and Doors occupation!

Bill Fletcher: Economically precarious white people must come to see that Mitt Romney is not their champion. How can that happen? The difficulty in building working-class solidarity is race. Saying “middle class” symbolizes escape from the bottom, from poverty. It’s not about tactics; first we have to re-shape the concept of unions by re-defining class.

Bob Herbert: There’s no coherent message, no definition of “working-class.” The one unifying issue is employment. If you don’t address race you’re lost from the jump. If people aren’t educated about divide and conquer tactics, about how their interests coincide, about the common interests of all who work, we won’t be able to fight back against divide-and-conquer.

Michael Zweig – If we buy into the idea that “most Americans are middle-class, except for the poor and the rich,” we’re buying into a racialized concept, because “middle-class” is presumed white and “poor” is presumed black. It’s wrong: two-thirds of the poor are white, and three-quarters of African Americans are not poor. In New Orleans, John Edwards stood in the Ninth Ward [a mostly black neighborhood] to announce his “Two Americas” campaign, but there are more poor whites than blacks in Louisiana. When you allow that to stand, then poor whites say, “What about me?”

Bob Herbert:  That’s an intellectual argument that won’t persuade white racists. Some whites don’t want to be associated with poor blacks. Just talk about jobs for all.

Frances Fox Piven: Bob says the two unifying issues are jobs and avoiding divide-and-conquer – but jobs have long been the Right’s issue; stressing them will lead to President Romney. We over-rely on jobs, but we do care about what kind of jobs, paying how much, producing what, how ecologically. Pay more attention to race. When the Tea Party members yell “Take it back!,” they mean take it back from people of color. We have to have a dialogue on race to get solidarity across race.

Bob Herbert: It’s not going to happen. Racism is too entrenched. The evil-doers are too well-funded. Blacks will get more by fighting for themselves, like in the 1950s and ‘60s. We have a black president who won’t even say the word “black”! Cross-race solidarity won’t happen.

Bill Fletcher: A militant African American movement is not inconsistent with working-class solidarity. When blacks are passive, racism and division increases. When blacks are active, they chip away at racism. A majoritarian block won’t include all whites, but will include some. To deconstruct the racial myth held by so many whites, we need a strong left, not wishful thinking about a “kumbaya moment,” but really dealing with the class divide.

Bob Herbert: They are still two separate issues: a militant black-initiated movement for racial justice and a working-class movement. If you focus on race, whites will bolt; they won’t enter.

Audience member: There were several historical moments when many whites stood up for black rights, in the 1930s, the 1960s.

Bob Herbert: I vehemently disagree. Most whites voted against Barack Obama. Look at the voting rights attacks now, and the police doing stop-and-frisk in New York City.

Juan Gonzalez: The persistence of racism is amazing. It used to be that the US was segregated in two homogeneous worlds, white and black. Today’s young people are different, even young whites; they live mixed-race lives. But the ruling circles need those divisions. We fail to understand the critical role of the mass media, the absence of working-class perspectives in the media. What newspaper is waging a campaign against inequality? We need independent media. Democracy Now! is a phenomenal success, but it’s just one show.

The discussion after the  panel was heated, with lots of arguing about racism, unions and movement-building strategy.

I noticed that the most pessimistic panelist, Bob Herbert, was also the one with the least activist experience; the most hopeful panelists were those who have been social change practitioners as well as political observers.

For myself, my reaction was to agree with Bill Fletcher and Frances Fox Piven that the solutions won’t be found just in electoral politics and existing unions; change will come primarily from movement-building and strategic campaigns of (nonviolent) disruptive direct action.

It would be great if this dialogue could continue here in the Classism Exposed comment section. What are your reactions to what these 5 diverse renowned progressives said?






10 Responses

  1. How about ALL of the positions are correct?! From my view, EACH of these positions considers one factor in a multifaceted challenge: that of responding to: 1) the multifaceted attack on Labor; 2) the unfettered assault from capitalists on the profits generated by the record productivity of labor; 3) the long-term attack on the suffrage (voting power) of black, brown, and poor people; and 4) the belief that Might (in this case, the amount of BANK one can bring to the table) make Right. In other words, if you can afford it, you can control it. The Elite class – created by self-interested C-Suite execs – decided that since they made the rules for managing the profits in their companies, they had the right to make the rules by which those companies operate in our economy. And this certainly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more they “took” (they didn’t EARN it; NO PERSON could – financially speaking – be worth 500-600xs more than any of their employees) – the more they had to insure that they would ALWAYS be in the position to take.

    Because of their creativity in stealing the value of all of our labor, we MUST have a multifaceted approach to changing this reality. I think ALL of those thought leaders have a piece of the answer.

  2. I find Piven’s statement that existing unions cannot be the basis of future social change to be intriguing. What kind of alternative union is she advocating for, if any?

    Another thing I am increasingly feeling is the complete lack of realization of economic connection among people–including different kinds of people “working” or “not working” within this social system. This “problem” (?) is connected to Durkheim’s and Parsons’ idea of social disconnection, disintegration, anomie, etc. With this thought in mind, I do ponder about the language of “working class” a bit–what is this group exactly justaposing against? People not working? People retired on pension? People not working due to inherited wealth (apartment rental units, savings)? Stockholders (and how much)? The landlords? Stocktraders?

    1. Jonathan M. Feldman

      The statement fails to understand that unions in the United States are not uniform, that progressives could build up the power of unions and radicalize them, if they designed statements to do so. The Steelworkers are now cooperating with Mondragon in Spain, that vast industrial cooperative. This is a very significant development, which any serious analyst must not ignore, even if there are constraints to various trade unions, one has to look at the anomalous unions (like the progressive UE) for some way out. The AFL-CIO’s industrial union department has advocated industrial policies which are essential. If the US does not embrace industrial policies, it will relegate many ethnic groups, whites, Blacks and Latinos to live in a permanently depressed economy.

      1. Tucker

        Ironic to read your comments about radicalizing existing power. I have read through the sort of policy statement released about the cooperation between Mondragon and the Steelworkers, and they talk in there about an insistence on being able to bargain with management – even when it appears they may be talking about a democratically run cooperative in which the employees are the owners, so they would be bargaining with themselves.

        What is needed is Mondragon style cooperation, perhaps starting small and growing within communities. The unions could help people most by being independent, but it is not clear that they want to do that. Instead they wither and take the laborer with them, which seems to lead credence to the statement that existing unions cannot be the basis of future change interesting.

        So, as always, it’s up to all of us to make ourselves better.

        Thank you for your work.

  3. Jonathan M. Feldman

    This panel raised important questions about racial divides, the limits to some established trade union and electoral approaches and the like. But, it also missed many profound problems and came up with answers that are not likely to lead anywhere.

    Based on what was reproduced above, there were serious questions left unanswered and a kind of vacuum regarding the positive contributions of the Occupy, Oakland and related movements which go far beyond the racial divide politics assumed. If we consult the works of Malcolm X and W. E. B. DuBois we find a politics based on: (a) self-sufficiency, (b) economic democracy via cooperatives, and (c) an appreciation of issues related to the economic mobilizing power of engineers and technical workers. For a reference on this, see:
    M. Feldman and J.G. Nembhard (eds.), From Community Economic Development and Ethnic Entrepreneurship to Economic Democracy: The Co-operative Alternative. Norrköping: Sweden: Partnership for Multiethnic Inclusion. I am not advocating or endorsing all positions and views of Malcolm X and W. E. B. DuBois, merely suggesting that their relevant contributions to the discourse are important and don’t seem to have been adequately addressed by all the panelists.

    The panel, based on your portrayal, did not ask or answer any serious and more
    hardball questions about how to promote equality in the global and highly automated
    era. These questions relate to the following: (a) the control of capital, (b) the mobility of capital, (c) leveraging class resources, not simply ethnic resource, (d) creating a banking, research and development and workers’ control system that gives working people the power and initiative rather than allowing them to be passive, reactive victims. The ability of the economic democracy and self-reliance discourse to move us beyond victimization studies and ideology is very powerful, one recognized by W. E. B. Du Bois among others (see below).

    The panel apparently glossed over the whole New Economy Movement which recently had a conference at Bard College and some of the leaders of that movement are associated with the multi-racial “Cleveland Model” promoting economic democracy and alternative banks. For example, see this article: http://www.thenation.com/article/cleveland-model. It could be argued that Cleveland is the exception and not the rule, but it is a model that has strong elements that can be replicated, if only social movements and their foundation allies invested the necessary resources doing so. Democracy Now, to its credit, featured Gar Alperovitz in a recent episode, but much more can be learned from his work regarding the themes debated here. This initiative has mobilized persons who were trapped by the criminal justice system but are now worker-owners.

    The panel was also neglected and appeared to misunderstand the failure of the particularitistic politics of the New Left and the 1960s given that the panel was dominated by persons from that era. The politics of scarcity which “divide and conquer” is a part, has to be addressed by eliminating scarcity through inclusive programs. That is the conclusions of William J. Wilson, the more radical and early incarnation of the Swedish Social Democratic Party, theories of solidarity and the left. When whites and blacks cooperate in common organizations, sometimes the result is suspicion (or exclusion) and sometimes the results are positive (based on inclusion). We could do an empirical study of when the results are positive and how this has to do with the very design of the organizations and their systems of inclusiveness rather than some universal law about racial divisions. The Occupy movement has built up solidarity systems across the racial divide which should be studied, discussed and used as potential exemplars for rewiring civil society in the U.S.

    One could argue that in Sweden today immigrants’ social exclusion is a core problem, hardly addressed by ethnic-blind politics. Yet, there is something else going on. This has to do with the profound similarities between the early Social Democrats and the radical African movements of the past. The most effective radical African American movements, the Black Muslims, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit, both understood fundamental issues related to not just racial divides, but also leveraging economic power, i.e. the necessity of leveraging economic power. Yet, many of the panel did not address this core issue even of militant Black movements.

    Poor whites have been abandoned, many serve in the U.S. military because they have no options, they won’t find a politics that intentionally excludes them very appealing. The Old Left, which had many faults in terms of Communist Party paternalism and its very authoritarian ideology, did build some solidaristic systems across the racial divide, even if the Henry Wallace campaign gained very few white votes for example.

    The notion that the Left should not organize around the employment issue is a rather mistaken, naive and dangerous conclusion. One can simply repackage a Green New Deal movement as representing quality jobs, social inclusiveness, and environmental sanity. Many advocates of employment policies in the Left today, including unions and environmental groups, already make the links between the ecosystem and employment, although there are divides between unions and environmental groups when it comes to constructing gas pipelines and the like. Win-win coalitions exist in promoting mass transit and alternative energy. Many disenfranchised African Americans suffer from high levels of unemployment. They want jobs and the left should be figuring out how to make the jobs on offer sustainable. This is possible by mobilizing procurement and purchasing power, even if the U.S. Congress is unable to promote comprehensive and progressive policies on this score at the moment.

    James Geschwender’s “Race, Class, and Worker Insurgency,” is a book that clearly shows how African Americans were excluded and marginalized not only by the auto makers in Detroit but also by their unions. Yet, the Black Nationalist position of this movement was its great underdoing, eroding its capacity to gain support from whites who could be won over, (ignoring those who could not as politically irrelevant). There is nothing stopping even militant African American movements from entering strategic coalitions with white progressives who do exist in Oakland, the Occupy Movement, New York and elsewhere. Multi and trans-ethnic divides exist in contemporary social movements in the United States, but some seem to have neglected what this means for this debate.

    In the Global Teach-In, we have organized, http://www.globalteachin.com , we had the cooperation of both UE and the Ontario Federation of Labour, suggesting that labor unions are sometimes cooperating with progressive change politics. We have advocated a systematic way to leverage economic power in a language that gets us far more, in a more radical and effective fashion, that the assumptions of many from the New Left, see for example:


    The basic issue once you get and understand class should be de-alienation, which involves
    economic democracy. The Cleveland Model and the writings of various thinkers like Jessica Gordon Nembhard and others suggests that this kind of thing is not at odds with multi-racial or trans-racial politics and can be a necessary condition for advancing the status of African Amerians, as Du Bois himself recognized:

  4. Stan maron

    All I know is “black and white unite and fight”. Yes, of course I know it’s more complicated or is it that we are making it too complicated.

  5. Bill Shortell

    What irritated me the most was the quote (maybe misquote?); “Don’t start with existing unions.” Who is she talking to? Those of us progressives already in positions of responsibility in “existing unions?” There are thousands of us. None of us think there is any one “starting point.” We are grateful for and supportive of other movements, like Occupy and the Immokalee Workers.

    It will be very difficult in this period to get the phrase “middle class” out of the mouths of politicians. The bulk of people who vote resonate to that phrase. Union leaders are a different story. None of them should be using that phrase, which condemns the working poor to damnation. It’s all of our job to drive that term out of the goals of union leadership.

    “Working Class,” that huge majority which must work to survive, is once again becoming broadly acceptable.

    Full Employment, “Jobs for All” is the central plank of a working class platform. Having a paid job is the definition of self-respect in our society. Almost everyone can work, and wants to work. An important demand is to change the way people are hired.


    That’s the nature of employment today. 60% of workers get their jobs thru personal contact. Poor people, especially people of color don’t know anybody hiring. Affirmative Action has mostly outlived its usefulness, and that’s in a period when the gap between black and white unemployment is widening again.

    The answer is to pass a law that says all hiring, public and private, must be done thru the government. Experience, measurable ability, and first-come, first-served will be the standards.

    This is a color-blind demand that can energize poor youth. The schools in poor neighborhoods are collapsing because all the students know that education as a road to a good job is a cruel joke for them.

    This demand needs to be coupled with a demand for Shorter Working Hours. There is no other route to full employment in an economy that has reached such levels of productivity.

  6. JD

    I have a entire new theory lets get rid of the “Black Person” label in order to unite.
    1) What is a Black person? I f you look at most Black Americans DNA, their genetic make up shows they are more closely related to White folks. Most Blacks have over 27% European ancestry and about 40-50% African, and the rest denoted as Asian/other.

    2) For example, When DNA test were conducted on Blacks to parse out their background and heritage the figures were stated as before all blacks had European DNA. Many of them had up to 47% European DNA and were not talking about Biracial folks! The phenotype of Blacks (which is what we see) don’t match what they actually are their Genotype.

    3) If Whites start to see Black Americans as one of them over time it can change the dynamic of race. Throw out the one drop rule. This rule is flawed. No longer call Black people black- replace with Geno-whites.

    4) So why can’t blacks be called Genotypical White? Barbara Walters of whom all of us will say she’s White, well she only has 7% European DNA the rest 93% Persian/Jewish. Why is she considered White? She’s less white/European than most “Blacks”.

    5) I think if white folks stop seeing Blacks as the other, and actually one of them this can be a start to cure the Racial Divide- Ignore Phenotypes its all in the genes. We a more alike!! This idea of inclusion has been done with Italians. At one time in America Italians were not considered white. Another example Egyptians can call themselves white and they are in Africa.

    To naysayers this has nothing to do with not being proud etc., its about getting a piece of that White Privilege that all Whites rich and poor enjoy.

  7. Great article and excellent thought provoking comments. I would like to add something from the radical feminist perspective as a woman from the poverty class. Bob Herbert mentions that 100 million Americans are poor or near poor. But what he left out (no surprise, given that in this society men are the only “real people” who matter in any social justice discussion) was the inconvenient truth that over two-thirds of those poor and near-poor people are WOMEN. Misogyny and racism go hand-in-hand like peas and carrots. Women were the first group to be “othered” and after men figured out the mechancis of paternity, it was the oppression of women that enabled men to oppress and “other” men of different races. Hence, the birth of imperialism.

    What I see class justice activists doing that I find particularly problematic as a poverty class woman is the overlooking of the whole picture behind these “poor abandoned white dudes” who are eager and willing to sacrifice their own daughters’ basic human rights on the altar of the almighty phallocracy just to animate their ‘uniform’ of race and sex that they share with rich, white right-wing men like Mitt Romney.

    The fact is, white working class union men with middle class incomes and health and dental benefits and retirement plans never wanted women to have anything. They begrudged us the same jobs that they felt entitled to while also begrudging us paltry, inadequate welfare checks on “their tax dollars” in order to survive. I recall in the 1980’s with the Reagan Revolution aiming its Hotchkiss guns at poor women on welfare who, in many cases, were economically and socially excluded for generations by classism on top of sexism, and it was white working class union MEN who voted for Reagan TWICE as they drove around in new Ford trucks (that poor women like me could never afford in our lifetimes) sporting bumper stickers that read “Rush is right!”

    These white working class men — who were/are far better off than poor women — blamed “women’s libbers” for women “taking away “(white) men’s jobs” while at the same time saying that care-taking and motherhood wasn’t real work and was of no importance or value (not enough value to even be worthy of an inadequate welfare subsistence check) because giving men sexual gratification on demand and bearing babies is what women are for and if a woman ended up being a poor single mother it was her own fault. Even though it was rich white MEN who passed the Hyde Amendment and even though it was MEN who impregnated all those women and then abandoned them, or forced them to flee with their kids and the clothes on their backs after beating the shit out of them.

    Women as a demographic, remain the largest marginalized and oppressed group, have benefited the least these past 6,000 years of patriarchy, and we’re the ones that men blame for economic problems that were caused by other MEN in a male supremacist society that masquerades as a “democracy.” Social and economic justice for only the male half of the people at the expense of the female half is no real justice at all.

    Class justice activists hash out the problems of solidarity and white working class males’ politics, which are largely reactionary against the jobless poor and which are also sexist and racist and always have been, claim that “poor white dudes” have been abandoned by the Left and consequently find serving in the military to be their only option. But the huge steaming pile of pachyderm poop in in the middle of the room that everyone pretends not to smell is the fact that these “poor abandoned white men” are the collateral damage of patriarchy, and they are also patriarchy’s lifeblood. It is patriarchy that creates, reproduces and needs class inequality.

    There was NEVER any matriarchy that practiced imperialism, militarism, built rape camps, or thought it important to invent toxic chemicals while inventing toxic financial instruments. There was never any matriarchal society that had a poverty class. This is why male-centric communism and socialism fell flat on its face: male-centric communist/socialist movements were paternalistic and authoritarian.

    Since patriarchy needs militarism in the same way we need oxygen, it is patriarchy itself which created a class of poor abandoned and disposable white men and it is MEN at the apex of this male supremacist class-hierarchical status quo that are benefiting the most from making sure that there is a guaranteed disposable group of men left with no alternatives and opportunities except military service. What is sane about having one group of men ritualistically dressing alike and moving in unison (what’s with all the marching anyway?) and slaughtering another group of men that are also dressed alike, and then sanctifying a piece of cloth to “honor” the martyred serial killers while the “enemy” sanctifies a different piece of cloth to honor their martyred serial killers in the name of “peace” and “freedom?” Think about it.

    And the same corporate and ruling class — 98% of which are MEN — that creates and reproduces a disposable class of men likewise creates, reproduces and needs a guaranteed disposable group of women as the prostitute caste that can be raped and murdered by violent johns and pimps and pornographers with impunity.

    The way MEN are hired is “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” while the way WOMEN are hired is “it’s how “fuckable” you look on top of who you know and what your father’s class status is.” All of this occurs in a society in which there never were enough living wage jobs with health and dental benefits to go around for everybody who needed and wanted a job. The idea that the marginalized, underprivileged jobless poor “don’t want to work” is a flat-out lie. Every society teaches its members what they need to have or do in order to belong. Our society teaches us that “women’s work” of care-taking isn’t “real work” of any value, even though no society — patriarchal or otherwise — could exist and survive without that “work of no worth” that is mostly done by women.

    Poor women’s educational and job opportunities, limited as they are, are largely determined by our “value” as sexual commodities to MEN and our “worth” in terms of MALE defined use. Poor women who are fat, middle-aged, and who are otherwise not “fuckable” don’t have the money to pay for liposuction, abdominoplasty, boob jobs, expensive hair and skin treatments at day spas, fitness club memberships, etc., to help us out where biology and genetics failed us. We also don’t have a Rolodex of references from the “right” people in the middle and upper classes who can/will provide the necessary reference letters of recommendation for employment or for grad school acceptance. Hell, poor older women can’t even get any money to afford grad school in the first place! There is NO money for poor, marginalized middle-aged women to go to college and grad school.

    And there’s NO social support for us in academic environments, either. I know because I’ve been there, done that and I’m too poor to afford the T-shirt. I had to fight tooth and nail and fang and claw just to get my Bachelors degree as a poor non-traditional aged female student ten years ago, and even if I WOULD be able to get professors’ letters of recommendation for grad school (two of them who would probably be willing to provide that have since retired and died), there is no way I’d be able to go to grad school unless I hit the powerball jackpot.

    As it stands, women with Masters’ degrees and PhD’s often find themselves in jobs that pay less than the blue-collar union jobs at GE which are only open to men and where a male felon without even a high school diploma will get a $30/hr job with health and dental benefits and a pension that a POOR DISADVANTAGED WOMAN with a clean record and SOME education WON’T get.

    The answer to the classism issue is the same as the answer to the patriarchy issue: women must be proportionally represented in all levels of government, academia, and hiring — public and private — and access to an advanced education must be opened up to those from the most socially and economically underprivileged backgrounds of ALL ages, not just the young kids, who show an interest and have the aptitude for academia.

    What we need is a government that is a truly representative one of ALL the people — not just the male people, not just the class-privileged people, and not just the white people. And we also need to recognize those without PhD’s as the real experts of class/race/sex oppression because a lifetime of lived experience trumps a PhD on that score.

  8. Pingback : Betsy Leondar-Wright : Class and the Political Moment | The Rag Blog

Leave a Reply