How does class matter?

The Standard of Ur, depicting Sumerian social classes, c. 2600-2400 B.C.E. Housed in the British Museum. By Steven Zucker, via Flickr.

The hardest job I ever had in a half century of social change work was coordinating a multi-class coalition. It didn’t simplify things that it was also cross-racial. Nor that it was composed of people who had substantially different politics.

I led the Pennsylvania Jobs With Peace Campaign for seven years, in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan’s White House was trying its best to undo the progress made in the 1960s and ’70s. Our chapter was part of a national campaign pressing to take money out of the military and use it for human needs. Our local chapter also pushed for decentralized people’s planning for economic conversion of military industries.

An advantage I had was that our campaign included a collective of the Movement for a New Society (MNS), a radical network that was already figuring out how social class influences the way activists do and don’t work together for change.

Sociologist Betsy Leondar-Wright has listed major social movements in the U.S. and identified their class composition. (See her website, ClassMatters.org, and her book Class Matters: Cross-Class Alliance Building for Middle-Class Activists.) She asked how successful they were in achieving their goals. Betsy found that the movements most likely to succeed were those that crossed class lines. The ones who achieved less were single-class, like blue collar trade union campaigns, or middle class environmentalist groups.

I don’t know of a comparable international study, but there are plenty of successful campaigns in the Global Nonviolent Action Database that are notable for their cross-class action. Take the Chilean overthrow of dictator Pinochet’s regime in 1988; students and other middle class elements joined the workers for five years to win against a police state. A cross-class coalition of Danes slowed down the Nazi war machine during German occupation between 1940 and 1945; they so dramatically frustrated German intentions that the generals had to tow half-built ships to Germany to finish them! The Danes worked so effectively that nearly all the Danish Jews were saved from the concentration camps. Students, professors and other middle class elements joined South Korean workers in opening space for democracy in 1986 and 1987. More recently, Tunisian students and lawyers joined workers in kicking off the Arab Awakening by overthrowing their dictator at the end of 2010 and into 2011.

A non-doctrinal way of working

In the late 1970s, the small MNS task group that launched us into class work was not impressed by a Marxist tradition of trying to empower people by starting with theory and ideology. Instead, the task group called us all together for an evening and formed small groups to share some of the features of our lives when we were children: Did we go to camp in the summer? Sleep-away camp? Did our families take vacations? Abroad? Were our parents sometimes unemployed? On welfare? Did we own or rent? What were our tables like at dinnertime? Crystal goblets or jelly glasses?

As the evening progressed we sorted ourselves out. The facilitators had us use colors rather than names to designate classes, reducing the emotional charge and keeping us focused on experience rather than on academic debating points. By the end of the evening the scales had fallen from many eyes, while others were newly confused.

“My parents didn’t tell me we were poor.”

“My mother and father came from really different backgrounds, and I don’t know what I am.”

“My parents said we were middle class but now I realize we were owning class — what was that about?”

Spinning off from that evening workshop were affinity groups, peopled by members who wanted to explore more. I’ll never forget the first meeting of the working class caucus, facilitated by Kenn Arning in his communal house. I was stunned by how many of us were present. It was Kenn who named it. “The reputation of MNS in the larger movement, is that we’re a bunch of middle class activists,” he said, “and I thought so, too. But what about this?” He gestured to the room of people.

It took a lot of chewing to get our mouths around all this: our own not-knowing, the sense some of us had that we were different from the middle and owning class comrades we lived with but without a method for figuring it out, the strangeness of our coming together in a room by ourselves, and also the comfort of it.

At the monthly meetings of Philly’s MNS, the class affinity groups began to report on what they were doing, sandwiched in between items like direct action campaigns, neighborhood organizing and the food co-op. The middle class group see-sawed between confusion (“How shall we define class, anyway?”) to moments of tremendous clarity (“We’re the ones who’ve been brought up to manage things and teach people stuff!”). The owning class reported that it was struggling with guilt over the amount of privilege its members had grown up with — realizing that guilt doesn’t actually help anyone but still having to admit they felt it.

And we working class people reported that we felt freer with each other than we did in the larger group, and realized that we must be putting some of our energy into fitting into the organizational culture instead of being our spontaneous selves.

The more that people listened to others in their affinity group, the more they realized that there is a kind of “culture of classes” — norms and values that go along with the spots their families occupied in the economic ladder. They realized that as children they were given messages about what’s right and wrong and that these messages were laden with class expectations. “Too loud!” is what middle class (and especially owning class) parents said about working class people. “Stuck-up and impractical,” working class parents said about the other classes.

And so, even with these MNS comrades who risked jail and more with each other in direct action, there were subtle ways that we judged and separated ourselves from each other based on class. Who knew? We radicals, who wanted to believe that ideas are everything, got a crash course in the cultural programming that lies in the unconscious.

I was grateful a few years later when I worked with the Jobs With Peace coalition. I knew to expect the subtle anxieties that came up, the need a homeless person had for extra support when sitting across the table from the millionaire, and vice versa.

I became practiced at listening to a union organizer complain to me after a meeting about the “spacey” woman who didn’t like the fact that her comment was ignored when, later, a man said the same thing and it was acted on. “What’s her problem?” he said with irritation. “She got what she wanted!”

I knew by then that working class people are usually brought up caring most about task, not process, because in their work life it’s the product and the result that counts.

And of course my shoulders were cried upon by middle class women who felt dismissed when they wanted to add to the agenda a concern about nutrition with a vegetarian option for the upcoming fundraising dinner and saw some working class guys rolling their eyes. (This was the ’80s.) Middle class people rarely know what a sacrifice evening meetings can be to people who started their hard working day at 7 a.m. The last thing tired people want is “unnecessary” agenda items.

The frequent collision of class cultures, with zero awareness by strong egos acting out class scripts, was sometimes funny to me and sometimes exasperating. The plus side was that when we took the time to fight with each other, and took the time to learn what was really at stake for the other, we were actually in the process of liberating ourselves from the rigidities of class upbringing.

One example was the struggle over how organizational representatives would make decisions together. Labor union people were most comfortable with the Robert’s Rules of Order. Most of us activists preferred consensus. At first, the debate was ideological: What is most “democratic?” On that level, we stalemated. Then the labor reps explained that accountability is usually built into union organizations such that they need to return and explain decisions made. The unions didn’t mind if their point of view lost sometimes, but it was important in such cases that the reps were recorded as opposed.

Those who preferred consensus explained that for them it was often more important to delay a decision to maximize the chance that a creative way forward would be found that was inclusive.

Each side began to hear the other, and through the dialogue we came to an agreement that we would ordinarily struggle to reach consensus, and when we didn’t get there and it was a matter of urgency, we could vote and an 80 percent majority would carry the day.

The debate was actually a bonding experience for our coalition. The union people found that “know-it-all” middle class people can actually listen, and the activists found that “rigid hierarchical” working class people sometimes work with a different set of responsibilities. I was ecstatic; we were learning about class, from the inside-out. Maybe we can learn to go beyond class, after all.

This story was made possible by our members. Become one today.