Friday, August 31, 2012

Capitalist ideology and the war on consciousness

by Richard Mellor

Here in the U.S. the issue of racial or gender oppression is quite an acceptable topic of conversation; people accept that it exists despite those that deny it. It is an accepted social division is what I'm getting at.  Class oppression on the other hand is completely hidden.  The term working class will be more often used in the Wall Street Journal than in any union paper or even in many workplaces.  Many American workers use the term middle class to describe their social position and even those poorer workers are called poor or low waged, trying to become a part of the middle class. Here we have the rich, the middle class, and the poor.  There's  no working class we are led to believe.

Obviously this is true to an extent in all the bourgeois democracies but where workers have had their own parties, this has countered the ideology of the bourgeois significantly.  The bourgeois, in their mass  media anyway, attempt to deny the existence of classes, this is nothing new. In their serious journals that they write for themselves, they discuss the class nature of society more openly.

The main way of obscuring the class nature of society in the U.S. is to bombard us with the idea that we are in control of our own destiny.   If you are unemployed it's your fault; you made the wrong decisions in life. If you are poor, going through bad times, it's your fault.  You make the decisions and if you haven't made it in this world then you are to blame.  Obviously this is garbage, it serves the capitalist class well.  But the power of this argument has devastating psychological consequences. If you accept this idea in your own mind that everything is out there and you just have to have the will and the perseverance to go get it, when you fail you blame yourself.  You internalize all the anger that you have for being in this predicament.  Not being able to feed the kids, take your wife or partner out for a birthday meal, send your kids to private school because public education is in such a shambles.  If I were only smarter, prettier; white or male. I am worthless as I am, is what this ideology is attempting to instill in us.

I am reminded all the time of the power of this argument when I talk to workers around me in the course of a day.  I had a couple of conversations with two workers before I retired that just exemplified this process.  One was an old grizzly truck driver who had to come tow my rig because I broke down.  He was a real sweet guy, married four times and had a few girlfriends.  He was almost 60 and still working because he couldn't afford to retire.  He lived in a trailer home that he hooked on to the back of his pickup truck.

He was from up in the mountains, the Sierra between California and Nevada.  He had a class A commercial license for 41 years he told me.  He had hauled cattle and hogs through Utah and Nevada. He had driven almost every truck imaginable.  I was really impressed with the way he handled the tow truck.  He had to take the rear axle out of my truck so he didn't damage the transmission while towing. Just watching him hook my rig up, secure it, and make sure all was safe, was interesting for me to watch.

He told me he had a couple of daughters.  One was married to a manager for one company and the other was married to a doctor.  "My daughters are set for life" he said, "the old man's a bum but they're doing real well."  At first I thought he meant the husband of one of the daughters when he said the old man's a bum but he was referring to himself. Here he is almost 42 years at work but they were married to professionals, they had achieved, through marriage, the status of middle class.  I know in some sense he didn't really consider himself a bum because after I made some comment in response he said that money in itself can't make you happy.  And when I said that there are many stupid and unproductive educated people with money he didn't have a problem with that at all.  But with no real ideological offensive from the leaders of the working class on our behalf, some of the mud thrown, sticks.

But this came on the heels of a conversation I had had earlier in the day with a woman co-worker who drives truck. I raised with her the issue of class oppression that is in addition to the social discrimination that she faces as a woman. I gave examples of how a janitor or truck driver is seen in society compared to a doctor or lawyer.  Look at the movies.  When are there films about us, about our lives that don’t portray us in a negative light? If you look at Hollywood movies you would think that the majority of the U.S. population that work are cops and the rest of us live in nice houses.  No one goes to work really. I explained to this person about a sitcom episode I saw many years ago. It was the show Rhoda.  Rhoda lived above Mary Tyler Moore and was always looking for men.  One day her apartment caught fire and the fire department came.

Rhoda comes running downstairs to tell Mary that there were two gorgeous hunks upstairs putting her fire out.  She probably made some remark about wanting them to light her fire but...that's not my point.  She tells Mary that one was a law student and one was a medical student and they were working at the fire dept. for the summer.  This doesn't happen.  And this may seem a minor detail but the reason it was written in to the script this way is that they couldn't be ordinary workers; even from the “Labor aristocracy” like firemen.  She couldn't fall in love with a worker.

When I point out these examples of the ideology of the capitalist class painting workers in a negative light if they refer to us at all, my friend says that she doesn't notice that.  The implication is that she doesn't suffer from this; the idea that we are where we are because we are failures.   Or better, we are not doctors or lawyers because we are failures. I am not saying this is conscious.  It is a product of massive social propaganda.

But on the other hand, she will make the same comments at times when I discuss or attempt to discuss social or political issues.  Like many workers she will explain away her lack of knowledge about them as being her fault, her own ignorance.  It was funny today when I started talking about the revolution (U.S.) and how and why the states came to get two senators regardless of population.  She really thought about it and said that I really made her think about things.  I responded by saying that we all like to think about things, then she said, "yes but it hurts" and laughed.  This person has been a truck driver for years and is a good one.  She has worked around men all her life and is very confident as a driver but is having a hard time getting a full-time job right now; she was laid off from her full-time job.   She is too proud to seek help though affirmative action or stuff like that because she has always been able to do it herself. Seeking help implies that you are not capable, or worse, socialism.  But the rich get lots of help from their kin and from the government.

I think that this view is more dominant here in the US than anywhere else and it does more damage than anywhere else.  I think that much of the sickness, stress, alcoholism, drug abuse and violence that is so prevalent in the U.S. is connected to this view of the world that my condition is my own creation.

One final point with regard to this.  A friend of mine, a black co-worker, always used to raise the idea with me that there is a white way of thinking and a black way of thinking, when he tried to explain different views on social things that black and white workers have.  Naturally I would always argue that skin color cannot determine how you think, social condition does that.  Skin color can determine social condition in a racist society of course.  Anyway, one time we were working up in the hills where the more well off, predominantly white (not exclusively) people live and I must have made some comment about "these people" or something.  Some comment expressing my class hatred. It might have even been incorrect but the point is that he said that my problem was that I categorize people, put them in boxes.  I laughed and pointed out that he expects me to believe that there is a division in society, that division is reflected in a black way of thinking and a white way of thinking.  I accept reality and think there's a class way of thinking. 

He had to think about that one.

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