I would have you make up your minds that there is nothing that you cannot do for yourselves. You do not need the capitalist. He could not exist an instant without you. You would just begin to live without him. You do everything and he has everything; and some of you imagine that if it were not for him, you would have no work. As a matter of fact, he does not employ you at all; you employ him to take from you what you produce, and he faithfully sticks to his task. If you can stand it, he can: and if you don’t change this relation, I am sure he won’t. You make the automobile, he rides in it. If it were not for you, he would walk; and if it were not for him, you would ride.
– Eugene V. Debs
In this second article in our series explaining socialism to kids, we take a look at a key concept for many socialists, particularly Marxists. What is “the working class?”
You’ve probably heard the words “working class” being used on the news lately. Especially during an election year, people will talk a lot about “working class voters.” Or sometimes you’ll hear them say something about a “working class neighborhood.”
Here in the United States, people think of the working class as folks who do factory work. Or sometimes they mean someone who works in a job that doesn’t pay very much, or one that doesn’t require a lot of education, or maybe one that involves a lot of hard physical work.
There’s another meaning of “working class” though, that’s really important to socialists. Socialists believe that this special classification of people are the ones who can transform society and lead the world to freedom and equality.
Who is the working class?
In order to make the things that we need for our lives, two things are required. They are labor power and the “means of production.” Labor power is the ability of a worker to do something. It could be making a sandwich or driving a school bus or writing computer code, or anything else that workers do. The “means of production” is everything the worker needs in order to do the job. In a sandwich shop, means of production would be things like the building, the ingredients, the cash register, tables and chairs – everything needed in order to prepare and sell and serve the meal so the customer can eat it.
Under our capitalist economic system, a pretty small percentage of people own these means of production. They are called owners, or bosses or “the ruling class.” All of the rest of us, who don’t own the means of production and must sell our labor power to the bosses so we can earn money to live, are in the working class.
It doesn’t matter what type of work a person does, or how much money she makes. If she doesn’t control the means of production, she is part of the working class.
Why is the working class important to socialists?
Working class people can have it pretty rough. We have to show up when the owners want us to show up. We have to do what we’re told. If we don’t, we might be fired from the job and not have money to buy the things we need in order to live. For a lot of workers, it’s a struggle every day to keep our jobs and earn enough to survive. It’s especially hard for people with limited education and skills, for single parents, or for anyone with extra challenges in their lives. Lots of times people have to choose between taking care of important things at home, and doing what they have to do to keep their jobs.
It seems like the bosses sort of have us in a bad situation. Since they own the means of production, they can order us around and we pretty much have to do what they say. Some owners (or the managers they hire) are nice people, and try to treat their workers with kindness and respect. Still, the worker always knows that he has to do what the boss says or he might lose the job.
So, how can a group of people like the working class, who seem so powerless, be the ones to transform society? If we have to do what the bosses say, how can we possibly lead anyone to a better world? It’s because the working class has a secret super power. The power is called solidarity.
Although an individual worker may be powerless to defy the owners, when workers stand together in solidarity, they can change the world. The ruling (owning) class is so small, that they can’t possibly do the work themselves. Without the workers, no work gets done.
When workers decide together to stay off the job until their demands are met, it’s called “going on strike.”
Think of your favorite sandwich shop. If all of the workers decided not to show up to work, there would be nobody there to make the meals, to clean the tables, or to take the orders.
Or think about an owner of a bus company. She would be sitting alone in a parking lot full of empty busses if the drivers decided not to come to work. Without the working class, everything in society stops.
So when workers stand together in solidarity, they can show the bosses that it’s really the workers who have all the power – in the workplace and in society. But it’s only when they stand together as one that this becomes the truth.
What can solidarity do?
When workers join unions, and stand in solidarity together to make demands, they can get the bosses to pay attention and give in. In fact, before the struggles of unions in the early 1900s, people sometimes had to work fourteen hours a day or more, six or seven days a week. Workers formed unions and went on strike to demand an eight-hour work day. Later, they demanded higher wages, and benefits, such as vacations and health insurance and days off when they’re sick. These things that so many of us enjoy and take for granted today were not given by the owners simply because they wanted to be nice. They were won by the workers who stuck together and demanded them.
Workers can demand and win things like better hours, better working conditions and higher wages for their own jobs. But they can also work in solidarity to make a better society for everyone. Unions have fought for things like an end to child labor, laws regulating workplace safety, a minimum wage for all workers (even ones not in unions), Social Security benefits for retired workers, and so much more.
Working Class Solidarity for a Better World
For socialists, the goal is a society where we do away with the ruling class owners altogether. In a socialist society, the workers would control the means of production, and would share in all the decisions about what to produce and how the work should be done. There wouldn’t be an owner to boss people around. We would rule ourselves in fairness and equality. We would do this because we’re all in the same boat. In the words of the Wobblies (a union that started more than a hundred years ago) “an injury to one is an injury to all.” We would all stand up together in solidarity for a just and equal share of society’s bounty and an equal say in society’s decisions.
So yes, my dear. We are a working class family, and proud of it. It’s up to us to always show our solidarity with other workers, and to fight together with them for a better life for all of us.
In the words of the famous socialist and philosopher Karl Marx “Workers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains!”
Chris Hedges and Ralph Nader speak about Nader’s Breaking Through Power event being held in D.C. this week, and about what it will take to bring democracy to America. Hedges opens with these thoughts.
This moment in American history is what Antonio Gramsci called the “interregnum”—the period when a discredited regime is collapsing but a new one has yet to take its place. There is no guarantee that what comes next will be better. But this space, which will close soon, offers citizens the final chance to embrace a new vision and a new direction. This vision will only be obtained through mass acts of civic mobilization and civil disobedience across the country.
Nader is at his imaginative best these days. Many people are urging Senator Sanders to move beyond the election of 2016 toward a sustained program of activism, but Nader is the first I’ve read who articulates a practical strategy.
“What does he have to lose?” Nader asked of Sanders. “He’s 74. He can lead this massive movement. I don’t think he wants to let go. His campaign has exceeded his expectations. He is enormously energized. If he leads the civic mobilization before the election, whom is he going to help? He’s going to help the Democratic Party, without having to go around being a one-line toady expressing his loyalty to Hillary. He is going to be undermining the Republican Party. He is going to be saying to the Democratic Party, ‘You better face up to the majoritarian crowds and their agenda, or you’re going to continue losing in these gerrymandered districts to the Republicans in Congress.’ These gerrymandered districts can be overcome with a shift of 10 percent of the vote. Once the rumble from the people gets underway, nothing can stop it. No one person can, of course, lead this. There has to be a groundswell, although Sanders can provide a focal point”
Read the full article: Chris Hedges: Welcome to 1984 | Chris Hedges – Truthdig
With hands waving and flapping
His orange hair
pops to and fro
like a bobber
Since prison, he doesn’t like to be kept inside.
He is on this corner early every morning
and again at 3 o’clock
the hour that his Lord
gave up the ghost
He used to be a hustler
Now all he does is pray
Those who sometimes go out of the way
to pass by his corner
shout from the car
Bless you my brother
Pray for us
You know I will!
Flash of smile
Back to his duty
Bernardine Dohrn writes of her memories of Father Berrigan, from a time when both of them were wanted by the FBI.
Dan Berrigan refused to report to prison, and during his time “underground” he repeatedly appeared publically to conduct church sermons or to give anti-war speeches, further infuriating FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. His was both a playful “underground” and a passionately moral one. He wrote, of the Catonsville action: “Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children…”
The Weather Underground responded with a much less eloquent “communiqué” to “Brother Dan,” just after he was arrested in 1970. “We watched you, Dan, on TV when they took you to jail, smiling and with hands raised, handcuffed, giving the sign of peace. You have refused the corruption of your generation.”
I ran across these links today. Rest in power, Father.
The photo of Father Berrigan is by Jim Forest.
The YWCA’s Stand Against Racism event was held at the Kankakee Public Library on April 28th. My wife and I both attended. There were perhaps fifty or so others in attendance.
We watched this TED Talk from Verna Myers prior to discussion.
I think all of her points are apt. A society where we’re “colorblind” is obviously the goal, but we can’t get there by pretending it already exists. Moving toward situations that make us uncomfortable is also key to breaking down the walls that divide us.
Her point about the necessity of directly confronting racism, especially around people we love, is important. It’s a lot easier just to turn a blind eye. Although she uses the specific example of family gatherings, I think it’s also crucial to call out racism beyond our friends and families, in our workplaces, our churches and the broader community as well.
Green Party Presidential Candidate Jill Stein talked to Todd Chretien of Socialist Worker about why she’s running again this year and about the importance of an independent alternative to the two-party system.
Read the Interview: Thinking and voting outside the two-party box | Socialist Worker
Late last week, President Obama issued a proclamation naming May 1st, 2016 as “Loyalty Day” in the United States. The proclamation reads, in part, “On this day, let us reaffirm our allegiance to the United States of America and pay tribute to the heritage of American freedom.”
Loyalty Day was first celebrated in 1921, during the First Red Scare. It was originally called “Americanization Day” and was created purposefully to replace International Workers’ Day, the worldwide celebration of worker solidarity. It was enshrined into law in 1955 by the U.S. Congress during the Second Red Scare, and has been proclaimed each year by every President since Eisenhower.
Throughout history, control of the calendar has been used to set the ideological agenda. One need not look very far into the history of Catholic liturgical calendar to see this. Samhain was transformed into the Feast of All Saints. The Vernal Equinox became the Annunciation. The Summer Solstice became the Nativity of John the Baptist. The list goes on and on.
This practice has not been lost on our own ruling class.
Utah Phillips said “Yes, the long memory is the most radical idea in this country. It is the loss of that long memory which deprives our people of that connective flow of thoughts and events that clarifies our vision, not of where we’re going, but where we want to go.”
In the years of struggle to come, it is more important than ever that we cultivate the long memory. Celebration of International Workers’ Day is the foundation upon which an understanding of what it means to be a true American rests. Our heritage as fighting working class radicals must not be undermined by the false consciousness imposed on us by the One Percent.
Below are a few links, highly recommended for the occasion. For a longer read, I would also recommend Sharon Smith’s excellent history of the labor movement in America, Subterranean Fire.
Today Is Our Day – by Jonah Walters at Jacobin – This May Day, we should celebrate the historic triumphs of the labor movement and the struggles to come.
The legacy of Haymarket – by Sharon Smith at Socialist Worker – Sharon Smith chronicles the hidden history of the Haymarket Martyrs, the movement for the eight-hour day and the origins of May Day.
In celebration of May Day – by Andrea Bauer at Freedom Socialist – A reflection on Karl Marx and the struggle for a shorter workday.
I enjoyed this video from Democracy Now with historian Peter Linebaugh, author of “The Incomplete, True, Authentic, and Wonderful History of May Day.”
Our family will be in the Haymarket on Sunday for this year’s celebration.