September 5, 2000
by Townsend Walker, Sr.
The Working Class Majority: America’s Best Kept Secret
Cornell University Press
There are two truths the gods of the land do not want us to know. One is that "the American experience is an experience of intense class difference." The other is that by edict of the ruling gods we are not to talk of those differences in terms of "class." To do so would be to expose America’s best kept secret -- that "a ruling class that could easily be seated in Yankee Stadium" controls the machinery of government and the conditions under which the rest of us live our lives.
There are also two myths they use to seduce us to their rule. One is that there is such a thing as the Great American Dream where any working class aspirant can find happiness in the form of economic independence and an indulgent lifestyle. The other is that ours is a democracy where the people rule. (Doubters surely have not read G. William Domhoff’s Who Rules America?) The myths, long believed as gospel, have perpetuated in power two political parties of incredible brazenness and political chicanery, exemplified in yet another -- auxiliary -- myth: that one of these parties is the party of the working class. "In fact," as Zweig puts it, "over the last twenty-five years Democrats and Republicans have competed with each other and copied from one another to...facilitate business profits." He continues: "During the Clinton years economic power tilted more towards capital because of NAFTA, repeal of regulation of the financial industry, and vigorous imposition of corporate interests in the global economy."
Such political schizophrenia among the American working class casts a pall over the political landscape. Yet, Zweig leaves with his readers a ray of hope -- tenuous, and emanating from a working class that has potential for revitalization and rebirth. Lest the hope be stillborn, however, "the working class (must) do better in the first thirty years of the twenty-first century than it did in the last thirty years of the twentieth. We will have to challenge the power of the capitalists in every aspect of society. In the turmoil of change that is sure to come, in the economy, in technology, politics and culture, the working class must be present with its own independent organization, if ordinary working people are to have a hand in shaping the future. These organizations need to be democratically run, in the hands of working people themselves, if they are to reflect the interests of the majority of the country." In a word, Michael Zweig is arguing that we must visualize working class rights as part of a wider struggle for democracy and that this is absolutely essential for the growth and effectiveness of the labor movement today. Power, and who wields it, is the name of the game. And so far, the working class has been on the short end of the stick.
The most important conclusion to be drawn from Zweig’s book, I suggest, is that the actualization of working class power rests ultimately on the recognition that effective and enduring power must have strong ethical underpinnings. "The moral foundations of working class power are respect for mutual aid and the recognition of social relationships for which each of us is responsible... To challenge capitalist power, working class power will have to assert a different set of values, more in tune with the reality of people’s interconnected lives, more respectful of the limits of individualism, but without denying individuality."
Zweig puts meat on the bones of this abstraction by citing "the single most famous statement attributed to an American labor leader. "When Samual Gompers was once asked, "What do workers want?" he responded: "More." But Zweig avers that "more" is not an adequate answer in today’s climate. "Reducing labor’s program simply to ‘more’ tends to rob the labor movement of its ethical power and imply that workers are simply greedy, the moral equivalent of capitalists." Nor will ethical underpinnings in a political vacuum suffice. A working class "movement seeking the moral high ground will need to join with and reinforce all other social movements that speak to us from the same high ground.... Working people need to be bold in the scope of their assertion of power, voracious in their desire to learn, and consistent in attempts to achieve social justice."
Ten thousand copies of this book in the right hands, diligently reflected on, studied and discussed, has the potential to galvanize a nation of workers to action and to restore "democracy" to its true meaning.
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