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Class War USA
Politics is a sideshow. Class war is the main event.
Everyone’s politics needs a frame. It needs an orientation, a guide, a defining system that decodes everything that is happening and provides a basic direction towards progress. Though everyone in a democracy rightly feels entitled to hold political opinions, frequently people lack that coherent frame, leaving them meandering through an endless series of gut reactions to an endless series of events. The ability to break out of the incessant news cycle—to settle on where we want things to go, rather than being dragged along behind the actions of others—depends upon having an overarching concept under which everything falls. Many doctrines will compete for your affection on this front. But let me humbly suggest that you adopt what I believe is the simplest and most accurate way to think of everything that happens in America:
Class war. It is the war we are all living through, in the land of the free. Look at all of politics through this lens, and everything snaps into focus, like the eye doctor finally presenting you with the right prescription. Try it!
As all the Marxists jump out of their chairs, let me be clear that I am not presenting this as some novel insight. Unfortunately, Marxist thought is mired so deep in jargon that it will never be able to pull itself free of the muck, communications-wise. The DSA-style socialists are better, but there is still a very dearly held way of speaking there that has the effect of elevating the insiders trained in its ways to the detriment of the regular people at large. If we think about “the left” not as the intellectual portion of the left but instead as “every American who can be wrenched away from the poisonous Republican vision of the world if they can find a better vision to hang onto,” it’s easy to see that Das Kapital will probably not be the work that propels it to popular success. Even the word “Marxism”—devoid of self-evident content, soaked in a century of vile red-baiting propaganda, and used most frequently by people who seem incapable of communicating in normal human language—is kind of a dead end. The left always goes on and on about the need to build a mass movement, but most socialist institutions are extremely bad at bringing in the masses. You can explain this with a structuralist economic and sociological critique, yes, but a lot of it is because they talk so fucking weird.
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Class war. The rich and the poor. More accurately, here in America, the investor class versus the working class. Who is the working class? People who work for a living. The vast majority of people! Who is the investor class? The tiny sliver of people at the top of the economic spectrum who live on the money they make by owning assets. Corporations are just the killer robots of the investor class, programmed to grow profits, roaming the earth with no preference for what they do or where, as long as they can transform it into revenue. You, a human, a member of the working class, would like to earn as much money as you can for your work. But corporations, the dutiful machines of the investor class, see your earnings as “labor costs,” which they will always try to minimize. To the extent that working people thrive, the investor class gets less. And they don’t want less. They are not programmed to take less. They are only programmed to take more. This is the tension that drives pretty much everything else in America (and everywhere, but let’s not range too far afield). It’s easy to understand. Look at your life! Now look at the billionaires. These two things go together.
“Politics,” for the most part, is directly downstream from class war. Electoral politics is nothing but one more good investment for the investor class. Fund politicians for millions of dollars, and reap billions of dollars in benefits via tax cuts and deregulation on the back end. Religious zealots and other varieties of true believers are enlisted as front line troops in economic battles that masquerade as culture wars. Regular working people are made to fight about racism and yell at poor immigrants and channel their very real dissatisfaction at their thwarted dreams into anger about Bud Light and Target and who can go into which restroom. And the investor class harvests their votes and chuckles and passes the tax cut and couldn’t really give a damn about the outcome of all the rest of it. This is “politics” in America in a nutshell. When viewed this way, the proper direction in which to channel your anger becomes clear.
People know this, just by living in the world, but mostly it seems so big and entrenched that fighting it seems futile. This attitude of helplessness makes it comfortable to outsource our political opinions to the two parties and carry on as best we can. Bernie and the DSA wage the fight for socialism nobly, but remain role players in the grand political landscape of today. It feels to people like there is nowhere to put their class rage, because there is not a mainstream political party that is ready to wave the red flag and tell the rich motherfuckers that we are coming for you directly. This helplessness and futility and weakness forced upon working people ferments into anger that spews out in many stupid and self-defeating ways. It is fuel that cannot seem to find an engine, so it just burns.
The right engine is: The labor movement. Not “politics” as it is commonly understood. A union. A union is a sleek and beautiful tool that is precisely built to wage the class war in the very way that normal people of all races and places and persuasions know that it needs to be waged. A union is the Avatar-style mechanized suit that working people can put on to find themselves newly able to battle as equals against huge monsters. Fuck a political party! They need you, not vice versa. Electoral politics are just the necessary thing at the very end of the political process. They are not the main show. The main show should be the labor movement. The main show should be you, in a union, together with all of your coworkers, who have the exact same material interests as you, all using your combined labor power to win the very tangible things that you need. That is the substance of the class war. That’s where it happens. To the extent that you can reorient your thinking away from MSNBC and Fox News and towards your union (or, more likely, your lack of a union, and how you get one), the more you will find yourself engaging in politics that is worth your time.
I am sorry to say that organized labor in America, as an institution, is broken. It has been beaten down and crushed and it now finds itself incapable of serving the number of people that need its help, and therefore the vast majority of working people don’t really think about it in the way I’m describing here. We don’t need to have a long discussion of how that happened here (but please read my book on this topic, coming in early 2024!). We just need to fix it. Many people are working to fix it. And you can help fix it, by setting yourself to the task of organizing your workplace. You can be the hero that we need, and the hero that you need—at the same time! By forming a union. It’s a really great thing. Try it. It will do more to transform this nation for the better than a hundred years of door knocking for a hundred Democratic presidential candidates.
What are the most important political stories in America right now? The Republican primary campaign? The Biden reelection strategy? The infighting in Congress? No. The most important political stories in America right now are thousands of striking hotel workers in California and thousands of striking screenwriters on the coasts and the potential of hundreds of thousands of striking Teamsters within the next few weeks. These labor actions go to the heart of what drives politics. They are the pure class war on display. They are, whether you know it or not, soldiers fighting a battle on your behalf. Their success of failure matters to you in a far more direct way than anything that is happening on the campaign trail.
Tomorrow is the 4th of July. It purports to celebrate the promises of America—promises that were farcical when they were made, and remain unfulfilled centuries later. Why? Because of the class war, and the fact that the same class that wrote the pretty promises has been continually refusing to fulfill them for that entire time, as doing so would imply that they would lose their supremacy. Intellectuals may be able to more finely articulate the contours of the class war, but its existence is obvious to everyone who works for a living. We just need to convince people that it is a war that is winnable, not some natural state of nature. That belief is the first step towards salvation.
Working people→Labor movement→Politics. This is the direction. This is the path. We keep on trying to skip a step, and consequently, we keep on losing the class war. I am writing this simplistic little essay not to break any new ground, but rather as a plea: Give the class war a shot. Think about politics as the outcome of this fight, rather than as its cause. If you don’t have a union, look into making one. Wave a flag tomorrow if you like. Or burn one. But don’t let that moment of desire for a better country dissipate. We need all the soldiers we can get.
I am on quasi-vacation this week, so if you find my work slothful and ill-conceived, I will attribute it to that. But I expect to have some very exciting news coming soon for the narrow demographic of “people who want to see me write more stuff about the class war.” Stay tuned.
You really should organize your workplace in 2023. Never a better time. To get in touch with a union organizer, contact EWOC or the AFL-CIO or email me directly and I’ll help you find someone. “I dunno, seems like a lot of work.” You know what else seems like a lot of work? A lifetime of increasingly inhuman hours on the job driven by the demands of a private equity firm that exists to enable five dozen people who went to Wharton to buy homes in Aspen with money that would have otherwise allowed your children to get braces without forcing you to become a DoorDash driver on the side. Forming a union is easier than that. Do it now.
Thank you to everyone who has subscribed to How Things Work. As I have stockpiled an array of highly dangerous but legal fireworks this week, I have felt ever more inspired to make this publication a bigger and better repository of essays and reporting that will help, in some small way, America to be drowned in the righteous fire of class warfare for years to come. This is only possible through the generosity of those who become paid subscribers. Please consider doing so if you have the scratch. All in together now.