It's More Than a Class Thing When We Deal with Class Struggle

Ajamu Nangwaya

Dear UTA,
There are a number of points raised in “Revolutionary Ambition in an Age of Austerity: An Interview with Neil Smith” that I agree with. I will briefly engage with some issues around the class struggle before speaking to the manner in which race is missing or, at best, implicitly present in the discussion of class and capitalism by Neil Smith (and other white progressives). We are currently living through one of capitalism’s periodic crises and it is critically important for radicals and revolutionaries to include all relevant forces in their assessment of the forces of exploitation and social domination.

By being aware of the full range of experiences in our social environment, those of us who are working for fundamental social change will be better able to develop a political analysis and program of action that facilitates effective engagement and movement building among the oppressed. If we ignore race, gender, and other relevant forms of exploitation, we cannot help but have a partial and thus inadequate understanding of what must be done to challenge capitalism.

I love the fact that Smith speaks plainly about class struggle being relevant to today’s fight against the neoliberal phase of capitalism in North America and elsewhere. Too often, progressive voices converse euphemistically about the struggle to contain or defeat the economic and social policies of neoliberalism, but they tend to divorce that critique from the actual system (capitalism) that is generating economic and social inequalities and exploitation. If we are afraid of naming this particular infrastructure of oppression, how are we going to educate, mobilize, and organize people to challenge capitalism?

Some of us are quite willing to name racism or white supremacy as a structure that alienates racialized people in society. Are we afraid of coming across as too ideological by using the term “capitalism” and risking the possibility of being ignored by members of the working class and other oppressed groups? If the radical or revolutionary forces are actually doing organizing work among Fanon’s “wretched of the earth” in response to their expressed needs, the latter will not be scared of certain terms that we use to name objective reality. We need to be mindful of the fact that the Black Panther Party (BPP) was explicit in its critique of capitalism, white supremacy, and imperialism and were advocates of armed self defense. Yet the members of the Afrikan working class in the urban areas of the United States still used the BPP’s survival programmes that addressed their basic material needs. 

We are not simply dealing in semantics when we call for an explicit and informed critique of capitalism. The recent Occupy movement that emerged as a response to white North Americans feeling the economic and social fallout from the Great Recession of 2007/2008 is an example of a protest movement that was too timid in training its sights on capitalism (as well as on sexism and white supremacy). Racialized people were already experiencing depression-like conditions in the barrios, reservations, rural communities, and ghettos of the United States without any substantive attention from officialdom or white-controlled and directed social movement organizations. In my judgment, the mainstream of the Occupy movement was pro-capitalist. When that movement gave privileged attention to “corporate greed” or the “financial excesses” of the captains of industry and commerce instead of capitalist exploitation, it was implicitly suggesting that capitalism was not the problem. All we needed to do was merely restore the regulation of the economy that existed before the fall of Keynesian economics during the stagflation of the mid-1970s and the emergence of the neoliberal phase of capitalism. Such a line of thinking is aimed at reforming capitalism and not mortally wounding it.

Smith approvingly commented on the Occupy movement as being “emblematic of the kind of political mobilization that has to happen in response to the economic crisis and the broader predations of capitalist austerity.” But it is not enough to mobilize bodies. The people ought to be guided by ideas that are directed at the core features of the system and not ones that reinforce the major ideological edifices of a white supremacist, patriarchal, and capitalist society. By articulating the slogan “We are the 99%,” the Occupy movement made it clear that class struggle was not its goal (despite the ruling class’ war against the working class and other oppressed groups). This slogan affirmed the ruling class’ propaganda that North America is predominantly middle-class. It also included members of the dominant class in the ranks of those who materially suffer from class, gender, and race oppression under capitalism (the so-called 99 percent). Class struggle demands a class analysis and identification of class interests among the oppressed. It does not bode well for our struggle when we pander to populist inclinations based on a false sense of or desire for unity.

We do need unity of purpose among the oppressed in North America and other political spaces. However, when commentators like Smith critique capitalism and its impact on the working class and do not explicitly address white supremacy or racism as a system that impacts the lives of racialized members of the working class, they are actually supporting the erroneous outlook that a “one size fits all” approach based on the lived reality of white workers will benefit all workers. Even during the “Golden Age” of the social welfare state, racialized people in North America and Europe were not equal beneficiaries of that class compromise between organized labour, the state, and capital. White supremacy in the workplace confined many racialized workers to the secondary labour market or to the lower rungs of the job classifications system. Social policies in the areas of policing, education, social welfare, and housing made their living conditions much worse than those experienced by members of the white working class.

Smith seemed more comfortable addressing race in passing around consumptive questions such as housing, medical care, unemployment benefits, and the general welfare state. Race ought to be addressed centrally in our analysis and prescriptions on fighting capitalism. If we do not give the struggle against white supremacy and patriarchy a prominent role in our resistance to capital, we are likely to breed cynicism and detachment from movements such as Occupy – which largely did not resonate with racialized people in the US and Canada. Many racialized workers and communities saw the Occupy movement as being about the business of white people. Racialized workers experienced the devastation of the sub-prime housing catastrophe, unemployment rates that are usually twice that of whites, massive deindustrialization in the central cities, mass incarceration of racialized men and women, limited investment in urban physical and social infrastructure, and other social ills without an outcry from white so-called progressive social movements. If we are interested in real class struggle, we cannot ignore the impact of white supremacist and patriarchal ideas and policies in society and in the lives of the racialized members of the working class.

In solidarity,
Ajamu Nangwaya
Toronto, ON