[p2p-research] Who Rules America: Fresh Start For the Left

Paul D. Fernhout pdfernhout at kurtz-fernhout.com
Sat Aug 15 01:02:31 CEST 2009

It seems to me that this section of Domhoff's work could be rethought from a 
peer context?
"Fresh Start For the Left: What Activists Would Do If They Took the Social 
Sciences Seriously" by G. William Domhoff
#6. Redefining Who Is Us and Who Is Them
   Social scientists have done a great many studies documenting the 
inequalities and injustices of the class-based social structure of the 
United States. However, the evidence for class domination and extreme 
inequality doesn't mean that it makes good political sense to frame 
political conflict primarily in terms of one economic class against another 
in trying to bring about egalitarian social change. It tends to reduce 
political struggles to economic issues, and to create problems of defining 
who is us and who is them that have led to endless arguments about who is a 
worker, who is a petite bourgeois, and who is a capitalist.
   If the problem is developing new policies and gaining political power, 
which it is, then the struggle should be framed from the start as a conflict 
over power and values, not as a struggle between social classes. The 
in-group should be all those who come to embrace the program of the 
egalitarian movement, and the out-group should be all those who oppose such 
changes. If the conflict is framed in this way, an egalitarian coalition has 
a chance to win over the moderates, neutrals, and independents who currently 
identify with capitalists, and who might be offended by blanket criticisms 
of them as a class. It may even attract dissident members of the capitalist 
class who transcend their class interests, and in the process become very 
valuable in legitimating the movement to those in the middle who are 
hesitant to climb on board.
   But a class framing is not just a problem in terms of labeling all 
capitalists as enemies. Once the conflict is framed in class terms, those 
defined as members of the working class take on all virtue, and those 
outside the working class are ignored or demonized, whether they are rich or 
not. In fact, it is very difficult to decide who is in the working class and 
who is not, which leads to further problems for the movement. For example, 
those who are neither capitalists nor workers are sometimes called the 
"petty" bourgeois, which in theory means those who own their own means of 
production but do not exploit the labor of others, but in practice ends up 
meaning those people who are believed to be potential right wingers, a 
demonization which almost guarantees that they will become enemies of the 
left whether they started out that way or not.
   Doing politics in terms of class categories also make little sense 
because it does not sit well with most of the everyday working people to 
whom it is meant to appeal. The whole thrust of the average Americans' 
experience is to break down class distinctions, not heighten them. They do 
not like to think of themselves in terms of their class situation, which 
immediately reminds them that they are not rich and have a lower status than 
they might like. Americans never have liked the idea of class, and this is 
not simply a denial of reality or the product of ideological hype. It is a 
matter of what social identities people prefer to emphasize, which in the 
United States have not included class for a variety of historical reasons.
   Most Americans below the wealthy and professional classes understand that 
they have differing interests from the upper levels when it comes to wages, 
working conditions, taxes, and government benefits. Poll after poll shows 
that they would like to see their own interests realized, but not by 
defining one class against the other. It therefore makes no psychological or 
political sense to try to impose a class identity on people just because 
there's a social structure out there or some theory says it's a good idea to 
do politics in class terms.
   In addition, a class framing is problematic because many egalitarians who 
agitate for social change do not come from the working class, however 
broadly it is defined, which makes them look like they are practicing a form 
of noblesse oblige. They often come from professional or wealthy families, 
obtain good educational credentials, and find work in or around university 
settings. Rather than claiming that they speak in the name of the working 
class, which rings hollow with most blue-collar and white-collar workers, 
they should put forth a program based on planning through the market that 
alters the class structure, and then try to develop a value-based coalition 
that includes everyone willing to support it.
   The ideal model for a more open-ended framing of a social conflict is 
provided by the civil rights movement, which refused to define "whites" as 
the enemy, but only "racists" and "bigots." Racists and bigots included most 
whites in the South at that time, of course, so there was a clear opposition 
out there, but at the same time there was room for pro-integration whites. 
Drawing on the Christian tradition, the movement therefore was able to 
utilize the concepts of forgiveness, redemption and conversion in the 
service of strategic nonviolence to forge a black-white coalition. By 
opening its doors to people who believed in equal rights for 
African-Americans whatever their class, race, religion, or previous beliefs, 
the movement was able to use these concepts to make it permissible for 
people to change their attitudes without violating their self-images as 
decent people ("saving face").
   This strategy also had great appeal because it made sense to the many 
"third parties" -- bystanders and observers -- outside the South who were 
witnesses to the struggle. In similar fashion, if a "cross-class" coalition 
is going to be necessary to assemble a majority for an egalitarian program 
in the twenty-first century, then it is better to begin with a political 
framing of the Us vs. Them issue that does not define one class or another 
as the enemy.
   This approach to social change receives strong support from a long 
tradition of experimental studies of in-groups and out-groups in social 
psychology. First, studies of in-groups and out-groups show how readily 
people create such categories, even when the basis for distinctions are few 
and minor, probably because being part of an in-group reduces social 
uncertainty, enhances self-esteem, and satisfies psychological needs for a 
sense of belonging and identity. Such studies also reveal how quickly people 
invest strong emotional energy in the categories, feeling positive toward 
those they define as in their group and, with the wrong kind of 
encouragement, highly negative toward those in the out-group. It is clearly 
quite easy to become extremely antagonistic toward opponents due to this 
form of thinking, which is why who is us and who is them has to be defined 
very carefully from the start.
   At the same time, experimental studies by social psychologists show that 
an Us v. Them framing is a powerful basis for a social movement. An in-group 
definition provides a strong sense of solidarity. It makes possible social 
comparisons with privileged exclusionary groups, which can generate a sense 
of injustice and contribute to a willingness to act. The problem, then, is 
to define the out-group in such a way that it is possible for people to 
abandon this group and join the in-group. Thus, the out-group should not be 
defined by characteristics that it cannot relinquish, such as gender, race, 
ethnicity, sexual orientation, or class origins. So, how should the conflict 
over transforming American society be framed by nonviolent egalitarian 
   Given the changing social composition of the Democratic Party, and the 
need to avoid a class framing of the in-group and the out-group, it is the 
"corporate-conservative coalition" and the Republican Party that should be 
the designated opponents of egalitarian activists. Indeed, they are the most 
clear, vocal, and organized opposition to any form of progressive social 
change, as evidenced by their economic and social policies since at least 
the 1970s. Framing the general conflict in terms of egalitarians versus 
corporate conservatives, and of Democrats versus Republicans in the 
political arena, has two distinct advantages in addition to avoiding a 
demonization of "the rich" or the capitalist class.
   First, these are categories from which people can remove themselves. They 
can change their minds and become Democrats, as many former Republicans in 
the Northeast already have done over the past 35 years. Second, these 
categories leave a great many people as "third parties" who do not feel 
labeled as enemies and put on the defensive by criticisms of the 
corporate-conservative coalition and the Republican Party. In exit polls in 
2004, 37% of the respondents identified themselves as Republicans, 37% as 
Democrats, and 26% as Independents. At the same time, 34% said they are 
conservatives, 45% said they are moderates, and 21% said they are liberals. 
Thus, a focus on the corporate-conservative coalition and the Republicans as 
the opposition leaves egalitarians with a potential majority of liberals, 
moderates, independents, and Democrats to win to their side.
   But who is the egalitarian "we" who do battle with the 
corporate-conservative coalition if it is not "the working class?" It starts 
with the multiple we's who currently make up the nonviolent insurgent groups 
in the United States, the coalition of white progressives, liberal people of 
color, progressive trade unionists, feminists, living-wage activists, 
environmentalists, gay-lesbian activists, global justice and anti-war 
activists, and anti-sweatshop activists who work together on many issues. 
 From there the coalition has to build out to the neutrals, bystanders, 
moderates, and skeptics who are the majority at the present time. Within 
this context, the movement has to offer everyone a shared common political 
identity -- "egalitarian Democrat" -- that does not attempt to downplay or 
erase their current social identities. It should be possible to be a 
feminist and an egalitarian Democrat, or a gay activist and an egalitarian 
Democrat, without feeling any sense of competition or contradiction among 
social identities.

So, is it egalitarian decentralist peerists versus inequalitarian 
centralized hierarchicalists? :-)

Although, still, I like Manuel de Landa's idea of a Meshwork/Hierarchy 
balance, so maybe it should be egalitarian balanceists versus peripheral 
extremists? :-)

Anyway, just trying a few terms. No doubt others here could do better. And 
we might not even agree on what these should be, because they do depend in 
part on perspectives and emphasis.

Anyway, the above is framed in terms of US politics, but no doubt these same 
trends apply to varying degrees globally.

--Paul Fernhout

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