Poor Karl, Still a Four-Letter Word
By Carl Finamore
It has been only a few days since the upset victory in Massachusetts of Republican Senator-elect Scott Brown and already some of America’s most prominent liberal commentators have opined on its significance.
Most have been blistering criticisms of President Obama for abandoning his popular broad social vision and replacing it with ineffective, patchwork legislation resulting from insider maneuvering. This is most apparent in the health care debacle but appeasing conservatives also explains delaying labor reform, postponing goals of gay equality and shamefully interfering in a woman’s personal right to decide when to start a family.
Then, there is the catastrophic diversion of billions of dollars to Wall St. instead of funding actual government-run infrastructure projects employing millions, a failure that can only be explained by Obama’s persistent refusal to challenge corporate control of anything – employment, health care or banking.
Yes, there is plenty to fuel the outrage among left-leaning supporters of Obama. Progressives for Obama even dropped their namesake from their title, renaming themselves Progressive America Rising. For these liberal and radical wordsmiths, that qualifies as much a stinging rebuke as it gets.
Another recent example of an extremely disenchanted Obama supporter is Ariana Huffington, co-founder of the Huffington Post. Normally a keen analyst of beltway politics, she is so distraught in her January 18 article that she calls upon us to “build a movement” in the streets to gain the reform so lacking in Washington. Good for her!
After only one short year, Obama is hearing, if not feeling, the wrath of his spurned ardent defenders.
Cogent criticisms indeed, but something is missing from them all. They are all consciously avoiding that one forbidden word in American political lexicon, just as entertainers avoided George Carlin’s notorious seven-banned words “you can never say on television.”
I would like to suggest it as the missing eighth word. Ironically, my suggested eighth word is actually included, as a homonym, in the title of Carlin’s 1972 classic album entitled the “Class Clown.”
Since then, many of the banned words from the album have successfully made it to both the “small screen” and the “mainstream” save for the one I inferred – “Class.”
No one in history is more associated with this word than Karl Marx who was neither the first to coin the phrase nor the first to define it. But Marx did something which no one before had yet done and that was to precisely assert that analyzing different class interests between the rich and the poor explains political outcomes better than anything else.
In modern terms, it means understanding that Obama has not betrayed his passionate supporters so much as he has faithfully represented rather well the class he supports, the same wealthy group of capitalists his party represents. Perhaps he may even believe the illusion, as many do, that there are shared basic interests between the rich and the poor.
This is where I, however, choose Marx’s analysis. Others may deceive themselves into believing that there is equal opportunity in this country as if both rich and poor have the same chances to be homeless and jobless.
But, on the contrary, understanding class as the basic origin of social and economic conflicting interests is indispensable to understanding events. Our observations become less personal and more objective. One’s appreciation of what is possible is not based on the false promises of a messianic individual but on a more precise analysis that recognizes the specific goals each class considers in their own best interests.
A class analysis means not focusing on shallow differences between vacillating Democrats and hard-nose Republicans. Instead, it means understanding that owners of the biggest stash of capital in world history are surely clever enough to establish and control a two-party monopoly that effectively funnels shifting public opinion into safe channels.
This more objective view also means giving advice to Obama individually, as so many liberals do, is understood to be a fruitless exercise. Instead, proposals should be aimed outward, to the people, and combined with a strategy to mobilize the overwhelming majority around their own clear social and economic interests.
As Huffington concedes, Presidents enacted most of this country’s major reforms as a result of movements being organized independently of the two-party Congressional caucuses. She cites the example of Martin Luther King and writes that he “showed that no real change can be accomplished without a movement demanding it.”
The powerful social movements in American history of trade unions, civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights were people organizing around their real class interests even if not openly acknowledged as such. Certainly the record of reforms vindicates the correctness of Huffington’s own personal awakening from her experience in the last twelve months: “the realization that our system is too broken to be fixed by politicians, however well intentioned — that change is going to have to come from outside Washington.”
In one compelling current example on the international scene, different class interests explains why the US-backed Haitian oligarchy could shamelessly shift $1 million a week to Wall St. bankers for debt interest while working-class and indigent families endured 60% unemployment. This analysis opens the door to figuring out solutions benefiting Haitians more so than the disingenuous and humiliating pity coming out of Washington.
But if all this is true, both domestically and internationally, why don’t more people realize it? Well, Marx experienced the same denial in his time and explained that "the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e. the class, which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force."
Of course, to be fair, most of the intelligentsia who think about class and the ideas of Karl Marx simply reject them after thoughtful consideration. But perhaps there are also not too few who consider their time in the national media would be lessened and perhaps their pocketbooks lightened. For others, the dominant culture is irresistible.
In any case, I am not destined to be appearing in the mainstream anytime soon, so I have nothing to lose by sticking to my guns and believing what has worked very well for me figuring out the world since I was out of high school – there is them that got it and then there is the rest of us! And those who are the best organized to achieve their goals usually have the best odds at winning.
Someday, when the majority of working people get politically organized as a class as consciously aware of their distinct interests as the capitalists are of theirs, there will be lots of hope renewed and many more social reforms achieved.
And as unlikely as it may seem today, once real change begins in this country, I don’t anticipate anyone taking Karl Marx’s name off the letterhead.
Carl Finamore grew up working class in Chicago and first heard a socialist Presidential candidate on the radio when he was 14 years old. Later, he was greatly influenced by veterans of the big labor battles of the 1930s, those who read widely, thought broadly and lived modestly. He retired as President, Air Transport Employees, Local Lodge 1781, IAMAW, AFL-CIO. He remains a delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council.