How class tunnel vision hurts social movements

(Flickr/Jeremy Keith)

One of the saddest things to watch is dedicated people in education and human services burn themselves out for lack of a winning strategy.

In the U.S. “playing defense” has dominated liberals and centrists since Ronald Reagan became President. Canadians started that disastrous policy more recently. This summer, I learned that in the United Kingdom the British have joined the defensive trend, along with too many places on the continent.

On its face, anyone who’s ever played checkers can see what’s gone wrong for advocates of public education, health care and other services. Gandhi said it long ago: you can’t win until you go on the offensive.

The strategy of the right wing is to put the left on the defensive by using every opportunity to cut the budget. In Reagan’s day it was the so-called necessity of buying missiles to prevent the Soviets from invading. Under George W. Bush we heard the arbitrary claim that Amtrak should pay its way, while in Canada at the same time there was a similar claim for the postal service. A long time ago the strategy of the U.S. auto industry was to buy public transit companies, cut the service and therefore force frustrated riders to buy a car.

Now we are told (in Canada, the U.K. and the U.S.) that the 2007-08 economic crisis has left our nations poor, although the 1 percent has never been wealthier.

The rationale keeps changing but the strategy is the same: starve the budget and run down the service until so many people get fed up that capitalist-friendly “solutions” — like charter schools and vouchers — start to look good by comparison.

Today we’ll use the analysis of class culture to turn this situation around and put the left on the offensive, the only place from which it can win.

In public education today, from preschool to university, we see middle-class people following their class script: work harder and “make do” in order to fulfill their mission. Principals in battered urban high schools hear about heroic colleagues who somehow make their schools work. Teachers, who are also fed stories about magician colleagues without textbooks and materials, are encouraged to dip into their own pockets to make exciting activities for their swollen classes.

Libraries, swimming pools, public transit, assistance for mentally handicapped, addiction rehabs — you name it, the story is similar. Middle-class professionals whose job is to teach and manage the working class, are stretched to the breaking point.

Those lucky enough to still have a union can fight a rearguard action, but the “educational alternatives” like charter schools are specifically designed to weaken unions. And chances are that the union is also dominated by middle-class tunnel vision, a fatal condition in the middle of class war.

In workshops, we do a simulation of class dynamics in which the game at one point sends the individuals representing the owning class out of the room to decide how the game should proceed from there. This leaves the two groups playing the roles of middle class and working class to their own devices. The facilitator gives them nothing to do. After a period of uncertainty, the two classes often come together, realizing that they are the numerical majority and that when the owning class comes back into the room with new rules, they can refuse to go along and play a more egalitarian game.

Another breakthrough insight happens later, during debriefing. Someone remembers that the initiative to get together to overpower the owning class usually comes from the working class!

The strategically disabling condition of middle-class people is the belief that they are in it by themselves, subject not only to individual isolation but also to the failure to look around for allies. That’s how deep the programming is: If you’re middle class you are supposed to be managing — in control — and if you are at a loss (and there’s not an owning-class presence telling you what to do), passivity is your lot.

Now we understand why college faculty members are so often passive when student movements emerge on campus and why public school unions often fail to make common cause with parents and other unions.

The good news is that even middle-class people can break out of cultural scripts; even professors can use critical inquiry to ask why they remain passive in the midst of the sharpest class struggle the U.S. has had since the 1930s, a war that targets them.

Working-class tunnel vision

The cultural attributes that go with being working class can also hurt strategy. A Canadian example is a militant union that for decades has extended its resources and energy to assist anti-poverty groups, aborigines and many other causes that are marginalized in that country.

Recently that union was thrown on the defensive and forced into a strike. Remarkably, the union failed to create a movement by gathering around itself the forces that it has helped.

To do so would have been a strategic no-brainer. But just as middle-class people are disabled by their own class training, so also are working-class people. The training goes something like this: “We are the hardy and resilient ones; it is for us to fight; we know how crucial our solidarity is for others but we can’t really expect and demand that they come through for us.”

It’s the attitude seen in the stereotype of the exhausted working-class housewife who “doesn’t want to be a burden.”

I see only two alternatives for us in what Warren Buffett describes as a class war: either we become strategically sharper, or we become aware of how much our class conditioning makes us duller, and then develop work-arounds.

Invite from the owning class its capacity for vision

“Inclusive strategizing” looks for ways not only to break out of middle and working-class constraints but also to enroll gifts from owning-class culture. The crucial gift at this time in history is vision. “Making the welfare state a little bit better” is not a vision.

The saddest thing for me about consulting with Wisconsin working and middle-class progressive leadership a year ago was the premise that “getting back to Democratic rule” was the implicit goal. That was nice for the Democrats and the 1 percent, maybe, but a goal for Wisconsin? How easy it is to disrespect the historical legacy of Wisconsin when we’re feeling desperate and have so thoroughly lost touch with vision.

A vital theme of owning-class culture is the “big picture.” The right wing easily puts us on the defensive because they know what they want. The counter-offensive that gives parents, school unions and others their only chance awaits the creation of vision. It’s vision that inspires people to go to the level of sacrifice that is necessary to win.

It’s no accident that the most militant segment of the Quebec movement that just won its five-month campaign against tuition rises was also the part that was visionary. According to an earlier report on this site, CLASSE organized half the strikers and most of the direct actions. It went beyond the defensive demand of “stop fee rises” and demanded an end to tuition entirely. (Long before it was a wealthy country, Norway had free higher education.)

I am not arguing that there is never a time for resistance with a goal of maintaining the status quo; a population might be so beaten down that the wise strategist knows that winning this modest victory is the main task for now.

In the larger context of class war, however, the defensive posture is for losers. To win, movements must take the offensive and fight for a compelling vision.

Of course there are some working-class and middle-class people whose temperament turns toward envisioning. If owning-class volunteers aren’t stepping forward in our movements, then movements need to learn how to support the visionaries wherever we find them.

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