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Our Class System Affects our Thinking

If one’s goal is a better system, then one needs to start with a good understanding of the system that exists. One needs to figure out who and what can make a change. Contrary to what anthropologist Margaret Mead said, and what anarchist Emma Goldman said, and what all the anarchists say over and over again: small groups do not make historical social change. Change comes from gigantic mass movements, and change becomes permanent when it is accepted by a majority, not before.

I didn't analyze it very well, I'm still working on it in 2015, but I could feel class from an early age. I was very aware that some people were owners and employers, like my Grandpa who owned his own drilling rig and the farm where we lived, and that there were workers like my uncles, and that there were people like us who depended mostly on welfare and handouts from relatives. I didn't know anybody higher up the scale than Granpa, but I knew there were people socially below us: Native American and African American families.

I own three books about my home area around Ada, Oklahoma. In two of them, sharp delineations are made between what one author called "the regular people" and "Ada's running crowd." If he'd known more about Ada and more about class, he would have probably called them, "regularly employed people" and "dispossessed farmers." The dispossessed farmers mostly lived in communities around Ada, but their children were very evident in town on weekend nights. Like me, virtually everybody in Oklahoma can claim "Indian blood," but the dispossessed farmers probably had more, because they lived close and rented land from the Natives from the 1850's until the Natives didn't have any left. Neither book says much about the 7 block slum, just "cross the tracks" from downtown Ada, where African Americans lived.

At the time of statehood in 1907, the majority of the people in Oklahoma were sharecroppers. When the dustbowl, the depression, and the New Deal did their magic in the 1930s, most of the sharecroppers found themselves homeless or marginalized. They might still live on rented rural property, but they depended on part time jobs, usually oil field related, to provide their only cash income.

When I was 14, we lived in town and I got a job making 35 cents an hour as doorman of the Kiva Theater. "Kiva" is an Indian word meaning auditorium or meeting place. The Kiva was the rattiest of the three theaters in town. Tickets were the cheapest, and most of our clientele came from the rural areas around Ada. Even though I was something of a "fancy pants" because I wore a tie at work, and because I made good grades in school, I got to know a lot of the teenagers from the rural edges of town.

Another way I learned about class was from my classmates. I didn't go to Ada High. I went to the much smaller Horace Mann K-12 school, which was a laboratory school for East Central State Teachers College. The education students experimented on us, but they were supervised by fully certified college teachers. There were basically two kinds of kids at Horace Mann. People who lived near there, including the children of the college staff, and didn't care about atheletics, made up one class. The others were the ones who had been kicked out of Ada High and were given their "last chance" at Horace Mann. Socially, the groups were very distinct, but I straddled them the same way I straddled the clientele of the Kiva.

By then, I had taken up alcohol, and my search for cheap booze brought me to "The Bottoms," the forbidden Black slums. I could get a full pint of "yellow lightning" whiskey for $1, less than half the price of bonded bootleg whiskey. It was against the law for me to even be there, so I had to learn where to hide when lawmen came by. I made friends among the other young drunkards and whores of all colors, and I developed a bit of sensitivity to why people I knew from one group could not socialize with people from the others. I knew that people lived in different classes, I figured out that economics was the underlying reason, and I noticed that strong differences in opinions divided one class from the other -- but not so much from individuals within each class.

My firsthand experience helped a lot when I studied class, much later.

Where did class come from?

Classes of people developed along with the first accumulations of wealth. Humans started out as hunter/gatherers who had no way to save anything. What they found, they ate on the spot. Then they went hungry until they found something else.

The beginnings of agriculture and animal husbandry changed the human situation. For the first time, humans could accumulate wealth, and it changed society completely. The men subordinated the women so that they could be sure who were their heirs. Matriarchies turned into patriarchies. Stronger men, or men who were better organizers, took over the surplus wealth and made everybody else work for them. So there were two clear classes: owners and workers. Originally, the workers were usually slaves.

Thus the pharoahs could pile up vast treasurers while most people worked as slaves. Kings and aristocrats tasted sublime luxury while most people lived as serfs in mud huts. Capitalist robber barons “hired” wage slaves to produce their wealth. And yet, there was still progress. Serfdom was better than slavery and wage slavery was better than serfdom.

What Difference Does It Make?

If we want to understand history and economics, we have to understand class. In modern society, there are basically three classes that matter: the employers, the workers, and the lost and confused people in the middle. Understanding the middle class isn't very hard, because they can't play an independent role. They follow the employers in most things, but they vacillate and don't have any consistent ideology. They hate it if you say that to any of them.

The two major classes are generally opposed to each other in economics. Nearly all of us in the U.S. are workers nowadays, the others are employers.

Most of us aren't very aware of the employing class. There aren't very many of them and they prefer to lie low. We might hear people say "everybody is for (this or that)" but everybody isn't. Everybody, for example, is not for high wages. The employers aren't. Everybody isn't for Social Security, everybody isn't for health care, everybody isn't for democracy. Everybody isn't for freedom. The employers aren't.

Most people work for a paycheck. The line, the most important line, between kinds of people, is the picket line. Those of us who support higher wages, better benefits, health care, etc, are the overwhelming majority of people. The other class is for lower wages, fewer benefits, no health care, etc, but they exist. They may be small but they are most powerful. What strengthens our side, what is good for our side, is progressive. What strengthens the other side is reactionary. We’re for knowledge, they’re for ignorance. We’re for science, they’re for superstition. We’re for free living, they’re for slavery. That simple. They are known nowadays as the 1%, or the 1/10th of 1%, but everybody knows who we mean. They are the people with the money. They are the bosses.

They're the ones in charge!

Where do we get our opinions?

What about their thinking? Well, the employers tend to like low wages and lousy working conditions while the workers want more wages and better working conditions. Our opinions, our values, change along with our station. We like to imagine that we thought up all our own values and opinions, but we didn't. Our class determines our values, but the other powerful class controls all the information sources, all the books, all the movies, all the radio stations, all the TV, all the newspapers -- and they push us like crazy to adopt their points of view.

Much later, in the factory where I spent my later working life, we used to notice the change in attitudes that went with promotion from worker to foreman. We'd say that the foreman's new necktie cut off the flow of blood to his head, so he couldn't think straight any more. But it wasn't the necktie or the flow of blood, it was the change in his (they were all men) situation. Even though we like to think of ourselves as objective or "fair minded," our class situation determines what we think about the major issues. It's not the other way around.

That's important.

These are things I was figuring out in 1978 when I met my partner.

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