Intellectuals and working class movements

Nathan Newman nathan.newman at
Mon Oct 19 20:18:12 PDT 1998

-----Original Message----- From: K <d-m-c at> To: LBO <lbo-talk at>

>it is a pretty weak defense to
>complain that it might take a
>few pennies or a little extra time to avoid a
>boycotted product.

-Perhaps it is lame. And the intra class warfare -is a big problem too, isn't it? Do you go about -telling poor people who wonder about the efficacy -of boycotts that they're lame?

How are boycotts and picket lines enforced? Some advocate violence and threats against those who violate them. There's a good working class history for that method, although I generally shrink from it.

Being condescending and socially sanctioning anyone who uses the boycotted products or crosses the picket line is another well-honored tradition. Generally, reasoned argument in favor of collective action opens up the sense that it is open for discussion and thus loosens the emotional solidarity bond that usually backs up collective social norms. Sure, our folks always debate the picket, the boycott and trash the movement leadership, but the moment of initial, emotional absolutism in applying social sanction is there as well.

Mike's "condescending" absolutism on the issue is actually a less intellectual approach than offering to sponsor a debate on the topic. Inducing discomfort is one way to enforce boycotts and strikes. If one person complains about Gallo wine, it sounds condescending. If everyone does, people tend to avoid serving Gallo wine to avoid the nasty comments and the boycott is reinforced.

Now, I appreciate your point that intellectuals are often condescending towards workers but I just don't see how that relates to Mike's comments (unless we are truly going to play a more-working-class-than-thou game here). I sure as hell don't think any boycott or strike is won by some Marxist kid coming to town and yelling at the workers to stop being dipshits and start overthrowing capitalism. It's what makes the Spartacus League such a ludicrous outfit. Most of the time folks are quite able to figure out what's bad about the system if given the power to overcome their fears - the whole empowerment idea. Strikes and boycotts are won by folks involved sanctioning each other, their friends and the broader community through families and through emotional/political appeals.

In the best case, intellectuals supply two things: sophisticated tools for combat requiring education and providing ideological educational products that, if useful, help people understand the next step in taking power. As far as tools, that includes organizing skills, legal help, computer training, research et al. Hopefully, as many of these skills as possible are diffused widely and rapidly in the process.

As far as ideology, most people in struggle try to frame their struggles in broader terms. If movies, music, books etc. help in that, folks will use them and learn from them and incorporate them into their own views. I am personally a fan of Gramsci's view of the diffusion of ideology through common sense and everyday institutions - but that is exactly the kind of emotional absolutism that you found condescending by Mike.

And I appreciate the contrarian argument but that is the most intellectual position possible. To play devil's advocate as if the end-product of the thought does not matter is a luxury, since in a lot of political situations it matters too much to play the game. That difference is one reason people often separate out educational/intellectual spaces from political spaces to carve out those spaces for the luxury of thought and contrarianism. And maybe you can argue that Mike violated this electronic intellectual space by letting dogmatic political absolutism intrude. But that's more of an argument that he wasn't being elitist enough, not the reverse.

--Nathan Newman

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