Intellectuals and working class movements

K d-m-c at
Tue Oct 20 04:50:12 PDT 1998

Weird Nathan. I guess I think I placed enough disclaimers in my post to be *very* clear that we weren't playing the who's more authentic game and that I certainly agreed that working class folks need to be *critically engaged* --but not condescendingly so. But of course, do ignore them, since if you'd read them and taken them seriously you wouldn't have had anything much to post about.

I completely agree with you regarding norms and the enforcement of them is central to social solidarity. However, there are fine distinctions to be made: shame is one of the more effective ways of doing this. You're very sociological Nathan and I appreciate that; it's an often absent perspective on these sorts of things. On the other hand, of course, going to far in the way you chastize folks and reinforce a new system of social norms may elicit only guilt. Guilt and shame are two different things. The former induces a kind of internalized self-punishment, but tends not to result in an effort to change one's behavior. The latter produced an internalized sense of having not lived up to one's ideals, and tends to result in learning and efforts to change one's behavior in order to live up to ideals of goodness.

So, condescension would be understood as a form of sanctioning that says: you're just as I expected you to be, what an effin' fool you don't know Gallo wine is a union busting firm, you shop at Walmart, etc. This would be a guilt inducing criticism. (now, of course, Mike wasn't necessarily doing this. I read his condecension in terms of *two* posts, but more on that later). It would be an especially guilt-inducing statement in the *social* context of an historic class antagonism between the working class and intellectuals, which as you must know is extremely pronounced in this country. This social context might perhaps mean that a statement like that may well be written off and dismissed by the objects of the sanction as yet another experience with a patronizing intellectual. "Oh great," one might say, "not only are we being criticized for swilling cheap, low class wine; now we're being told that by doing so, we're supporting a union-busting firm. Sounds to me like it's just another way to criticize our food, our clothes, our music, etc." I don't think either you or I want this, now do we?

(As an aside: Do you *really* want people to only do something because they'll be embarassed if they don't. Do you really want people to not cross the pickett line because they'll be jeered at or embarassed and not because they truly understand why it's important? Now that's PC)

OTOH, a shame inducing sanction against the habit of drinking Gallo wine would proceed quite differently. Firstly, one would be cognizant of this historic antagonism. Secondly, and specifically, one would focus more on showing how the habit of drinking Gallo wine or shopping at Walmart violated some ideal held by the sanctionee. Mike was doing this to some extent, "Gad, don't you people know that Gallo is a union busting firm. You should know better." It was more his delivery that seemed puzzling: the use of f*** , the failure to read Chuck's post and understand the context, stating the obviously on this particular list, all of which was followed by the SGs comment.

I happen to be sensitive to this issue right now for a *very* specific reason and it might be more illuminating than the above: One night a week I teach working class, mostly white students from interior Florida, in addition to a regular position at the main campus. I am Yankee from the North who moved from teaching mostly elite, white, upper middle class students at a small liberal arts college. As is my habit I have often use examples regarding racial/working class history and identity in my teaching. I had learned to negotiate the difficulties of this with upper middle class white students in certain ways and when I taught night classes at the extension campus, I learned to negotiate difficulties teaching this content somewhat differently for a racially mixed, working class classroom, but *both* of these classroom practices failed on every count in this new context. Why? I puzzled about this the first two weeks. By the third week, I found out why when one fellow said, jokingly but seriously, that I probably thought they were a bunch of redneck hicks and that, therefore, they were racist gun lovers. Because I'm from the North and the white working class southern students interpret me as lecturing *AT* them and presuming them to be racist, white trash in need of sermonizing. Not by any means what I do at all, but I got interpreted that way. Speaking about working class issues doesn't help much because then they think I'm lecturing them about the sins of being white trash, etc.

So, a particular socio-historic context mediates how I am read and interpreted. I need to be cognizant of this in my classroom pedagogy. Something akin to this cognizance of the socio-historic context and an attempt to sanction through shame (asking someone to live up to their ideals) rather than guilt (chastizing them as the bad people they have been assumed to be) is what I'm asking for from marxist intellectuals. My first posts to Mike were guilt inducing, to some degree, though I made clear that I respected his position. My second posts made more clear that I was dissapointed.

>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.

There's also a good capitalist (elitist, upper class, etc) history of violence to enforce norms. Sheesh.

>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.

I'm not quite clear what you mean here, especially with the first part. Are you saying that you don't agree with opeing up the discussion?

>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.

Oh great. That's just what I want. People doing things b/c they're afraid of what will happen if they don't, rather than understanding why and making reasoned decisions about doing so.

Yes, agreed with all that you say about the role of intellectuals and what they can provide to working class movements. Again, I *did* say that I think there's definitely a role.

>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.

Really? Absolutism? The beauty of a Gramscian perspective is that it opens up spaces for resistance against what, on some models of marxist theory, might appear to be a self-enclosed seamless system from which no one can escape the Juggernaut of capital and so, instead, they prostrate themselves willingly in front of it. On Gramsci's view, consent must be continually won and so power is *never* absolute.

>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

Nathan, dear, this *is* an intellectual space for the most part. So contrarianism is expected. Just because taking positions different from one's own has been a luxury afforded to the well off historically, it does not mean that it is a priori bad. I quite frankly cherish the 'luxury' I have to be contrarian. But, more politically, I think that internal criticism of marxist intellectuals and working class movements is *absolutely imperative* (irony intended) for without it we end up with dogma, unreflective thought, people without the capacity for self criticism, movements without the capacity for self criticism. And, I would hope that you would want working class folks to develop this capacity for self-criticism (self contrarianism) since that is one way of empowering people, particularly if those self critical comments take place in social, collectiv contexts. I hope that you would want the same for marxist intellectuals (there is a bit *too* much of that, though) AND activists.


>--Nathan Newman

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