Class Solidarity: What It Is and How You Can Engage in It
One of the most famous quotes about class in the U.S. is often attributed to revered novelist John Steinbeck. But the line actually comes from Canadian writer Ronald Wright, who paraphrases Steinbeck in his 2004 book, A Short History of Progress: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Convoluted origins aside, the phrase has stuck, and remained firmly fixed within the U.S. political imagination, particularly in regard to how we talk about class and economics. It also provides a handy, albeit flawed, interpretation of class solidarity.
And what is class solidarity? Simply put, it is the tendency for people of a certain economic or social class to feel affinity for and share interests and political goals with members of their own class. Class solidarity is the glue that holds segments of society together, and can be a powerful tool for organizing and defending our communities. Broadly speaking, there is the working class — the workers who sell their labor in order to survive, known in Marxist theory as the proletariat — and the ruling class, or bourgeoisie, the bosses and managers who profit off of workers’ labor.
Their interests are diametrically opposed, and the two classes are fundamentally in conflict with one another, given that the ruling class’s primary goal is to subjugate, exploit, and extract as much labor as possible from the working class without sacrificing any of its own profits. The rallying cry to “seize the means of production!” is based on the notion that the workers who actually produce and create things of value should be in control and redistribute the profits, instead of the bosses who do nothing but hoard that wealth for themselves. The tension between the two — the haves and have-nots, the makers and the takers — is the definition of class struggle.
The proletariat has long been an exploited and marginalized group in the U.S. and around the globe, but not every member is class-conscious, i.e., aware of their place in that greater struggle. Much of the blame for that lies on the enduring myth of the American Dream, a fallacy which politicians and wealthy elites have long relied on to mask their malevolent machinations, and that they continue to push on the working class to cover up their own failures and abuses of power. After president Ronald Reagan kneecapped the labor movement in the 1980s and the Democratic Party did little to halt its decline, many workers lost access to unions and the class consciousness that came with them. As the Democratic Party struggled to connect with lower-income voters, some turned to Republican-branded, racism-informed populism, despite the right’s enthusiasm for slashing social programs that benefit the working class and boosting handouts to the wealthy. The ensuing loss of a strong class identity left many people adrift. Even with today’s revitalized labor movement, there is much work to be done.
The sentiment behind the apocryphal Steinbeck quote is that poor and working-class folks have bought into the lies they’ve been told and are now determined to bootstrap their way up into the loftier tax brackets they’ve been promised they could reach — even if they have to stomp on the necks of their peers on the way up. “I guess the trouble was that we didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians,” Steinbeck actually wrote in 1966, gloomily pooh-poohing the revolutionary devotion of his own Communist friends. “Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.”
Many people in the U.S. do still believe in the idea of upward mobility and meritocracy, and cling to the notion that it is possible to achieve what they desire if only they work hard enough and play by the rules. It’s a nice idea, but is unfortunately little more than a pipe dream in a country where pervasive, structural inequalities are baked into the country’s own founding documents. As the coronavirus pandemic has made clear, those who control the flow of capital are concerned first and foremost for themselves, their peers, and their bank accounts; that’s why so many of the proposed aid packages in Congress focus on bailing out corporations, cutting taxes, and otherwise providing handouts to the ruling class. The vast majority of Democratic and Republican politicians are the same in that respect. As Billy Bragg once sang, “Money speaks for money,” and the ghouls haunting the halls of Congress are far more beholden to their corporate donors than to any working or unemployed person in this country. So who comes to speak for the skin and the bone?
To their grudging credit, the ruling class has always been a cruelly glinting beacon of class solidarity. When challenged or threatened, the rich will always circle the wagons to protect their own interests, whether it’s lawmakers gift wrapping treats for big banks in the midst of a global pandemic, a queer talk show host defending a war criminal, or celebrities quietly accepting piles of cash to perform for murderous dictators. They implicitly understand that a class war has been raging for centuries, and that they have been on the winning team since we started keeping score. And of course they want to keep it that way, because in historical terms, when the working class does finally rise up against their oppressors, things have a way of getting a bit…messy.
But thanks to a mix of rising inequality, revulsion at the brutality of the Trump presidency and the ensuing wave of activism against it, and, for some, hope inspired by the Bernie Sanders campaign, the past several years have seen an explosion in explicitly leftist working-class organizing. Class consciousness is rising, and as more and more members of the younger generations reject capitalism, cracks have begun appearing in the establishment’s political façade. Mutual aid projects have sprung up everywhere to help working-class people cope with the coronavirus pandemic, and to support workers on the front lines who have been neglected or forgotten by the powers that be. Labor unions have mobilized in response to the police killing of 46-year-old George Floyd, releasing statements calling for justice and demanding police accountability. City bus drivers in New York and Minneapolis have refused to transport protesters arrested for speaking out against police violence because, as the Transport Workers Union put it in a tweet, they “do not work for the NYPD. We transport the working families of NYC.” Class solidarity can be as simple as wearing a mask and observing social distancing rules when you go to the grocery store, or as intensive as building up a community garden and organizing deliveries to help feed your neighbors. Keeping one another safe is an act of radical love as well as crucial political praxis.
The lessons of the past were learned with workers’ blood, and we’ve been paying for the bosses’ mistakes since antiquity. Now, as the government continues to muddle through its botched, heartless response to a panoply of crises — from the coronavirus to the recession to the surge in job losses to the looming storm of evictions on the horizon — workers, unemployed people, and those who are incarcerated are again offered little option other than to grit our teeth and say our prayers. All workers are essential, and yet even those whose labor is most needed to keep people alive and day-to-day life functioning are being mistreated, underpaid, and sent off to work without adequate protections.
Right now, class solidarity is not only a good and necessary means of navigating the world around us and looking out for our more vulnerable neighbors. It’s a strategy for survival. No one is coming to save us; our only hope is one another.
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No Class is an op-ed column by writer and radical organizer Kim Kelly that connects worker struggles and the current state of the American labor movement with its storied — and sometimes bloodied — past.