In Search of Class Consciousness

In 1920, Lenin wrote the essay “Left-wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder” concerning the aftermath of the postwar German revolution and the abortive Communist revolution that occurred during it. Most of his essay thus is concerned with identifying those responsible for the failure of said revolution. He lays the blame squarely at the feet of the petty-bourgeois, who he claim possess

diffuseness and instability, that incapacity for sustained effort, unity and organised action, which, if encouraged, must inevitably destroy any proletarian revolutionary movement. [1]

This critique still seems relevant today, nearly 100 years after he wrote this essay. We have witnessed similar diffuseness and instability in the Occupy movement, which, unable to consolidate around a clear set of demands, served primarily as an incubator for activists who later took key roles in Black Lives Matter, the Bernie Sanders campaign, and even the Donald Trump campaign. Occupy’s rejection of proletarian identity, best recognized in their “We are the 99%” slogan, implicitly refused to recognize the systemic nature of capitalism. Instead, they shifted blame onto the “top 1%” of capitalists, absolving the rest of society that aids and abetts that same top 1%. As Lenin said,

It is a thousand times easier to vanquish the centralised big bourgeoisie than to “vanquish” the millions upon millions of petty proprietors; however, through their ordinary, everyday, imperceptible, elusive and demoralising activities, they produce the very results which the bourgeoisie need and which tend to restore the bourgeoisie.

As we saw in 2016, Occupy resulted not in a mass revolution and the toppling of Wall Street, but instead was merely one in a series of events that culminated in the election of Donald Trump. Occupy’s diffusive and non-proletarian nature also made it easy for the bourgeoisie to co-opt its message and monetize it. For instance, when the co-founder of the “Occupy Democrats” organization joined the board of advisers of a patent services company, this is how they described him:

Omar Rivero is the founder and editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats, a grassroots political organization that has close to 300,000 likes on Facebook. He studied Industrial Labor and Relations at Cornell University, earned a Master’s in European Business from the European School of Management (ESCP-EAP), and is now a political activist. Omar ran for office for the Florida House in District 118 and intends to run again in 2016.

In addition to being a rising political star, Omar Rivero is also an inventor and a talented entrepreneur. He has partnered up with World Patent Marketing to build and develop a multimillion dollar, futuristic social media network to compete with Facebook and Twitter. [2]

It is important to note that Rivero didn’t found Occupy Democrats until 2012, after the main Occupy movement had died down, its activists largely returning back to their previous lives. His attempt to “occupy” the Democratic Party was merely one of the latest in a long series of failed attempts at political entryism, and Occupy Democrats’ role in the 2016 election consisted mostly of creating memes to share among like-minded bourgeois liberals on social media.

Another common trait in American activism is the veneration of the “founding fathers,” the “American dream,” and a semi-mythological creature known only as “opportunity.” To quote Omar from the previous press release,

I am living the American Dream and I am going to make sure that every citizen in this country has the same opportunity that I had.

At this point, we should perhaps stop and ask ourselves what the “American Dream” really is. Its origins may be found in the settler mythos, and the first recorded reference to it came from a British colonial governor, who said Americans “for ever imagine the Lands further off are still better than those upon which they are already settled; if they attained Paradise, they would move on if they heard of a better place farther west.” [3]

Laurence Samuel argued more recently in his book “The American Dream: A Cultural History,”

For many in both the working class and the middle class, upward mobility has served as the heart and soul of the American Dream, the prospect of “betterment” and to “improve one’s lot” for oneself and one’s children much of what this country is all about. “Work hard, save a little, send the kids to college so they can do better than you did, and retire happily to a warmer climate” has been the script we have all been handed. [4]

Despite the fact that this “dream” has been proven to be a myth repeatedly, leading the late comedian George Carlin to joke “it’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it,” it has been unquestioningly embraced by many like Omar Rivero. Even Martin Luther King Jr, in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” tied the struggle for Black liberation to this nationalistic settler mythos:

One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. [5]

The prevalence of this mythos in American culture presents a serious problem for the struggle for proletarian consciousness. As I argued before, our reverence of the founding fathers is deeply problematic. Likewise, we embrace a Protestant work ethic despite the vast majority of our labor being absolutely unnecessary and superfluous. These are not new issues; this shared national identity and dream is a tool of capital, a very effective method with which the bourgeoisie can infect the ranks of the working and poor and turn them away from a proletarian class consciousness. As Lenin argued,

The abolition of classes means, not merely ousting the landowners and the capitalists—that is something we accomplished with comparative ease; it also means abolishing the small commodity producers, and they cannot be ousted, or crushed; we must learn to live with them. They can (and must) be transformed and re-educated only by means of very prolonged, slow, and cautious organisational work. They surround the proletariat on every side with a petty-bourgeois atmosphere, which permeates and corrupts the proletariat, and constantly causes among the proletariat relapses into petty-bourgeois spinelessness, disunity, individualism, and alternating moods of exaltation and dejection.

Thus our fight for freedom is not merely a fight against capitalism, but also the ideology that infects our society and hinders our fight. This, more than force of arms, is what necessitates the vanguard. It is entirely possible for self-organized armies of anarchists to fight against capital, as witnessed during the Spanish Civil War. But their disunity and internal divisions also makes them weak to divide and conquer strategies, which capitalists have perfected over hundreds of years of colonialism, both militarily and psychologically.

At this point some perspective is needed. What, exactly, is the scope of the project we find ourselves facing? It would seem that attitudes toward home ownership might serve as a useful proxy for petty-bourgeois ideology. The U.S. Census Bureau provided this helpful table:

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In 2016, there were 135 million housing units, or 1 unit for every 2.4 people in the United States. (Coincidentally, this should disprove the notion of a housing shortage: what we have instead is an unequal distribution of housing, with 17 million vacant units.) Of these 135 million units, some 58 million are owned by landlords, who have always been a core part of the bourgeoisie. Of the remaining owner-occupied units, then, it is worth examining which owned outright, and which are mortgaged. Fortunately, FiveThirtyEight examined the results of the American Community Survey for us and produced this useful graphic:

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Extrapolating from the survey results, we can then estimate that roughly 27 million households own their homes outright. Of these, it appears at least a third own more than one property, according to this HUD paper on second ownership. Combining the various statistics, we may infer that around 43% of all US housing is owned by 7-9 million households. This allows us to set a lower bound on the size of the bourgeoisie class in the United States.

Subtracting that same amount from the 75 million total owner-occupied housing units, the remaining 66 million or so–57% of all households–might be expected to fall into the petty-bourgeoisie: some saddled with mortgages, some not, but all wishing they could enjoy the luxury of rental income. Considering how home ownership is an integral part of the American dream, we should further question how much of the remaining 36% of renting households aspire toward ownership. For that, we may turn to this blog post from the National Association of Realtors, which unfortunately paints a bleak picture for communists:

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According to NAR’s Aspiring Home Buyers Profile report, 90% of renters – nearly 33 million – “want to own one day.” If we add these renters to the 66 million who already own one home, we may then place an upper bound on the petty bourgeois of 99 million households, or roughly 85% of all US households. This means that only 8-9% of households have rejected this key part of the American dream mythos for whatever reason.

At this point some might be tempted to throw up their hands and ask how revolution is possible if >91% of the populace will resist. We may, however, want to reconsider our preliminary classification of renters after considering the other points made by the above chart. A large majority of those 33 million renters cannot afford to buy housing, and this statistic is unlikely to change in the future since high housing prices benefit the existing owners. Second, buying a home requires saving money for a down payment of at least 3.5% according to FHA rules; this merely adds to the impossibility of purchase for renters, given the tendency to live paycheck-to-paycheck at lower income levels.

Furthermore, there may even be inroads to the masses of “homeowners” thanks to financial engineering techniques introduced by capitalists. One such technique is the ARM, or adjustable-rate mortgage. Most notoriously employed in the lead-up to the 2008 housing bubble, these loans are made at low initial rates to convince renters that homeownership is possible; by the time the loan “resets” to a higher interest rate later on, the selling capitalist is long gone and the “owner” is left paying for a loan they cannot afford, which typically leads to foreclosure and a return to renting.

This forced division of class between owners & aspiring owners without sufficient means is something that can, and should be, exploited. It’s always worth remembering that capitalism requires exploitation to function: it always has, and will continue to, alienate the petty bourgeoisie if left unfettered. This is why Lenin advocated for “prolonged, slow, and cautious organizational work” to re-educate the petty-bourgeoisie.

Accelerationist purists believe that communism is the inevitable result of capitalism consuming itself. On this point, I disagree. History does not follow a path toward freedom. If it did, debt and slavery would never have emerged around the same time as agriculture. The alienation of labor by capitalism can just as easily be used by fascists to attract support from the proletariat, as we witnessed in 1930s Spain, Italy, and Germany, as well as recently with Brexit, Donald Trump, and possibly Le Pen in France. The policies of fascism, such as imperialist war and full employment, can then be employed to propel capitalism through its crisis stage of contraction and into the next bubble of expansion. For this reason, we may conclude that capitalists may be reliably expected to turn to fascism rather than allow fully automated luxury communism to exist.

At the same time, there seems to be a tendency among revolutionaries of both anarchist and Marxist persuasion to dismiss the potential usefulness of capitalist alienation. If we can provide answers for the alienated petty-bourgeoisie before fascist propagandists do, we may discover an opening. Lenin’s concept of the revolutionary vanguard is not outmoded; if anything, it is more relevant than ever in an accelerating capitalist world. The vanguard’s primary job is education since revolutions arise from class awareness. If we can provide for both the physical and intellectual needs of the alienated masses, then we should let the capitalists embrace their worst exploitative tendencies domestically: it may become our best recruiting tool.

References

  1. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/lwc/ch05.htm
  2. http://globenewswire.com/news-release/2015/02/23/708599/10121333/en/Omar-Rivero-Founder-of-Occupy-Democrats-and-Outspoken-Opponent-of-Patent-Troll-Scams-Joins-World-Patent-Marketing-Board-of-Advisors.html
  3. https://books.google.com/books?id=DlmrAAAAIAAJ&lpg=PA513&ots=QGpNa8Mn5t&dq=Origins of the American Revolution (1944)&pg=PA77#v=onepage&q=77&f=false
  4. https://books.google.com/books?id=domiAgAAQBAJ&pg=PA7#v=onepage&q&f=false
  5. https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html
  6. https://www.census.gov/housing/hvs/files/currenthvspress.pdf
  7. https://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/how-many-homeowners-have-paid-off-their-mortgages/
  8. https://www.huduser.gov/periodicals/ushmc/spring2004/article_ushmc-04q1.pdf
  9. http://economistsoutlook.blogs.realtor.org/2017/02/14/affordability-is-main-hurdle-for-aspiring-home-buyers/

 

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