The oppressed majority

Amy Muldoon explains what Marxists mean by oppression--including the oppression suffered by the entire working class, notwithstanding the divisions built up inside it.

"The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles...Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes."
-- Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto

On the assembly line at a General Motors plant in Arlington, Texas (Jessica Rinaldi | Reuters)

IS THE working class oppressed? On a gut level, the obvious answer is "yes." But at the same time, many people associate the term "oppression" with the specific forms of discrimination and bigotry faced by parts of the working class, based on race, gender, ethnicity, sexual identity and so on.

What does it mean to say the whole working class is oppressed, in ways that are distinct from, though interwoven with, the special oppression of different sections within the class? Are we talking about the attitudes of the upper classes toward us, and the feelings of inferiority we carry--what is sometimes referred to as "classism"? Or the fact that we are ripped off at work for the portion of the value we create that doesn't make it into our paychecks? Is it that we don't control our work in any meaningful way and feel dehumanized?

All of these things--social status and discrimination, exploitation at work, alienation--are components of the experience of being working class, but they don't fully explain oppression in the way Marxists use the term.

The oppression of the working class is, in essence, its exclusion from political, economic and social power. In order for there to be a ruling class, there must be an oppressed class. Class is about power: the power to shape our world and our lives. The working class is systematically excluded from decision-making as a class for the simple reason that capitalism rests on the rule of the minority. This exclusion from any real power to control our own lives is as true in political democracies as in police states.

The conditions of oppression are a necessary component in a system of exploitation, and they exist in some form in every modern society. So we aren't just talking about the ruling class's attitudes of superiority--though this plays a role in the ideological maintenance of the class system--but the institutional relationships that limit access to resources and participation that might increase the possibilities for self-determination.

Class oppression, because it is universal among the majority class in society, can seem invisible. It is, therefore, unlike special oppressions suffered on the basis of race, for example--which serves the purpose among the working class of "dividing both to conquer each," as the ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass said of anti-Black racism among poor whites.

In his book Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, Frederick Engels talked about the necessity for a state power over and above society because class society "needed the state, that is, an organization of the particular exploiting class, for the maintenance of its external conditions of production, and...for the purpose of forcibly keeping the exploited class in the conditions of oppression determined by the given mode of production."

For this reason, it isn't possible for a section of, or even an individual from, the working class to not face any oppression at all: even an able-bodied, cis-gendered, employed, educated white working-class man is oppressed. This isn't meant to equate the lived experience of any two people under capitalism or to denigrate the impossible-to-miss special oppressions--of, for example, people of color, women, LGBT people--that compound, intersect with, and intensify the shared oppression of the working class. But it is true that class oppression has real, measurable effects in terms of life expectancy, health, education, housing, contact with the criminal justice system and so on.

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SOCIALISM RESTS on the premise of a self-consciously political movement of the working class. The working class won't overthrow capitalism or even overturn class relations in a specific workplace while fighting for a raise. It's the close relationship between economic exploitation at work and political and social oppression in the rest of our lives that contributes to the dynamism of working-class struggle and the possibility of the development of revolutionary consciousness.

Because of this, historically, the biggest working class upsurges have involved both economic fights and political fights. Those political struggles have been over the state's political regulation of the conditions of exploitation--like the general strikes for the eight-hour day--or explicitly political goals like winning a democratic constitution, universal suffrage or an end to occupation and war.

The state--which is what Marxists call the totality of the government, its elected parts and its much larger unelected sections--is obviously a tool in the direct oppression of specific sections of the working class. For example, it enacts and enforces laws that keep migrant workers as second-class citizens; it maintains different laws and policies that restrict equal rights for women and LGBT people.

But these are only some of the many ways that the state preserves class rule, as author Michael Zweig wrote in his book The Working Class Majority: America's Best-Kept Secret:

Some power is obvious and some is invisible. The power we can see we tend to identify with individuals. My supervisor has power. The President of the United States has power...But other kinds of power are easy to miss...Invisible force fields of power are built into the structures that hold society together, giving it shape, setting the paths for our opportunity, and setting the limits as well. We tend to take these for granted, internalize them, think of them as the natural order. But when some group of people seriously challenges this kind of power, in politics, in the culture, in assertions of new ways to organize the economy, what had been invisible roars into full view.

While it's easy to recognize the second part of this equation--the way violent repression is used to maintain order, like with the coordinated evictions of the Occupy encampments in 2012, for example--it can be harder to understand what Zweig calls the "invisible force fields of power [that] are built in the structures that hold society together." As the American socialist Hal Draper wrote

It must be understood that the state is not merely a body of armed men. If it were, it would be a much simpler institution: simpler to understand and simpler to overthrow. While the state cannot eliminate force as its underlying sanction, it strives to reduce the use of force to a) an auxiliary method of control in the short run and b) as last resort in the long run.

There is a multitude of ways that the state facilitates the accumulation of profit, which is the driving force of the capitalist system. The state builds and maintains roadways, ports and other transportation systems that make production, distribution and consumption possible. It operates a legal system whose cornerstone is the protection of the right of a minority to profit off the labor of others because of its status as owners of private property. It assists and enables the flow of money in the financial system in ways that benefit the ruling class of its own country.

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IN THESE ways and others, the state creates a material environment for exploitation to take place. But the state also plays an ideological role in the oppression of the working class, by creating consent for the existing system. It does this in the first instance by facilitating the workings of capitalism, where if you don't work, you don't eat.

The state also lays the ideological groundwork for young working-class people to accept their station in life through a public education system that prepares them by supplying the specific skills required of them--and no more--at a given point in the development of the economy.

In the 1990s, for example, New York's then-Gov. George Pataki famously said that urban schools don't need as much funding as suburban schools because to be a cashier, you don't need more than an eighth-grade education.

The ongoing attacks on public education through charterization, mayoral control, standardized tests and funding cuts are the result of this conclusion reached by the ruling class--that the majority of working-class students simply don't need critical thought and don't matter as individuals at all. As the Marxist author Harry Braverman wrote in his Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century:

Whatever the formal educational content of the curriculum, it is in this respect not so much what the child learns that is important as what he or she becomes wise to. In school, the child and the adolescent practice what they will later be called upon to do as adults: the conformity to routines, the manner in which they will be expected to snatch from the fast-moving machinery their needs and wants.

Maggie Stokes, a fifth-grade student in Oakland, Maine, described the effects of such an education system: "Bullying has been a problem in my school because we don't have enough money to hire aides and counselors to help those students with behavioral issues. I was physically attacked, literally, by the same student numerous times because there weren't enough adults around."

Stories like this underline a fact about the ideology of capitalist society: You don't have to explain to someone that they don't matter--you just need to make them live through inhuman conditions, and they will draw that conclusion for themselves. Tragically, many people blame themselves for the hardships they and their families face--as they are likewise encouraged to do under this system.

In Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb's study of blue- and white-collar families' attitudes about class, titled Hidden Injuries of Class, they point out that plenty of workers are aware that not everyone is suffering equally, and that some people are actually flourishing:

Looking up the ladder of social hierarchy from where they stand, they imagine they see fewer and fewer people have been allowed the personal freedom to develop personal resources that others will value...They resent the fact that society has created a split between the many, who are just ordinary workers, and the few individuals who are members of the professional and upper-middle classes; yet despite this resentment, when they think of themselves personally as lost among the many, they are also afraid that there may be some truth to this image.

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THE DISAPPEARANCE of this idea of "class oppression" as part of the left's vocabulary isn't hard to understand. By most estimates, including people who describe themselves as leftists, the class in question has itself disappeared.

In the U.S., of course, there is a myth that we live in a "middle-class society." This is a deeply individualistic identity and a denial of the collective aspects of class. Instead, the myth focuses on income levels and consumer choices that constitute lifestyle differences, not structural relationships or power dynamics.

Michael Zweig explained the cost of this loss of working-class identity:

When society fails to acknowledge the existence and experience of working people it robs them of an articulate sense of themselves and their place in society. We know from the vibrancy of other identity movements that to silence and leave nameless a central aspect of a person's identity is to strip them of a measure of power over their lives. A full, realistic self-identity is a basic requirement for human dignity.

Working-class identity came under assault during the post-Second World War economic boom, when the U.S. working class saw improvements in its living standards and life prospects--concentrated, of course, among white, male, unionized workers in large industries, but that didn't make it any less real of a development.

The slogan of the era was "What's good for General Motors is good for America." Unions traded power on the shop floor, in the form of steward density and shop-floor committees, for increased wages and benefits. Successive contracts put more restrictions on organizing within the workplace--no-strike pledges became more common, tying the hands of groups of workers to use their economic power to address immediate greivances.

The profusion of consumer goods did close the lifestyle gap for some white, unionized or educated sections of the working class. But how people understood their material position was also defined by the destruction of the revolutionary left, due to McCarthyism as well as the betrayals of the Communist Party within the working class.

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THEN, STARTING in the 1970s, this historic anomaly of rising living standards and the existence of the "American Dream" came to an end. The U.S. working class, like others around the world, entered a difficult and unstable period, with a labor movement where rank-and-file power had atrophied, and with labor leaders bound hand and foot to the Democratic Party.

This era of neoliberalism and a one-sided class war has continued for four decades, producing only a further intensification of exploitation in the recent past. To cite just a few measures.

-- From 1973 to 2011, worker productivity increased by 80 percent, while wages grew by only around 10 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

-- Working hours have increased to the extent that the average U.S. worker labors a full month longer each year than in 1970.

-- Workers have compensated for stagnant wage growth with a skyrocketing level of personal debt.

-- From a high point of 35 percent in 1955, the rate of unionization is down to 11.3 percent in 2011, with union density in the private sector down to 6.6 percent.

These indicators of intensified exploitation are the result of not only direct class battles at the point of production, but the increasing political disorganization and lack of power of the U.S. working class. The assault on American workers can be judged by what has happened in the political sphere as well as the workplace.

For example, Michigan and Indiana--states in the former industrial base of the U.S.--have passed right-to-work laws aimed at stripping even more power from unions, and there are more initiatives underway. Other state governments have carried out attacks on specific unions, like the teachers. Ohio Gov. John Kasich's statement shows the arrogant confidence of the ruling class today: "If they want to strike, they should be fired."

Meanwhile, free trade agreements have helped corporations relocate good-paying jobs out of the country and intensified international wage competition. Currently, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is being negotiated in secret among the leaders of countries on both sides of the Pacific Ocean, would give corporations more power to circumvent labor laws, in the U.S. and in other countries.

"They're throwing the kitchen sink at us," said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. "We're seeing people use the budget crisis to make every attempt to roll back workers' voices and any ability of workers to join collectively in any way whatsoever."

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AND YET the erasing of working-class identity continues today. Instead, working-class people who are suffering deteriorating living standards nevertheless describe themselves as middle class based on whether they a car or have a dishwasher in their kitchen.

In a society obsessed with consumerism, the ability of working-class people to buy iPads or own a home obscures the institutional relations between the classes. As Michael Zweig wrote:

Workers are consumers too, of course. But when our identity as consumer takes the place of our identity as worker, we lose something vital...A steady, consistent representation of workers as consumers undermines the working-class identity and weakens solidarity, to the disadvantage of workers everywhere. Ironically, the weaker working people are in their confrontations with employers and with the capitalist class in the larger society, the less will workers be able to improve their wages and so their status as consumers.

There are further consequences, too. Without possessing an oppressed identity, there can seem to be no explanation for the conditions of life for white workers, and white men workers in particular.

Thus, bitterness at declining life prospects can be directed personally: my supervisor or manager, my spouse. Or it can be directed at a social target--those who face special oppression, like Blacks or immigrants, for example. Scapegoating ideas like these can gain an even stronger hold in a segregated and atomized society where white workers feel vulnerable and victimized, and the competition for jobs has intensified.

In Worlds of Pain: Life in the Working-Class Family, author Lillian Rubin writes:

[P]arents and children live in a society where respect is accorded to the financially successful, where the mark of ability is represented by one's annual income. [Working-class] parents, believing they haven't "made it," feel unsure of themselves, their worth and their wisdom--a perception that is often shared by their children.

No words are necessary to convey these feelings. Children know. They know when their teachers are contemptuous of their family backgrounds...They know there are no factory workers, no truck drivers, no construction workers who are the heroes of the television shows they watch. They know their parents are not those who "count" in America. And perhaps most devastating of all, they know that their parents know these things as well...Why else would they carry within them so much anger--anger that lashed out irrationally at home, anger that is displaced from the world outside where its expression is potentially dangerous?

Recognizing the existence of a class-wide oppression of workers is critical for locating the potential for social and political solidarity, not just economic solidarity. Not acknowledging the universal condition of the working class does two things. It relegates higher-earning workers to a purely economic struggle, and denies the aspirations for liberty, freedom and dignity that all workers all lack under capitalism, both at work and outside it.

It's not the struggle for flat-screen TVs that motivates white unionized workers and a fight for dignity and justice that drives low-wage Black and immigrant workers. There is a longing for justice throughout the working majority in society that goes unnamed as long as our identity as working-class people and the oppression we suffer as a consequence is hidden. It is necessary for socialists and the left to speak these facts of life under capitalism out loud.