Can there be a working class culture & experience?

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platypus working classOn October 20, 2014, the Platypus Affiliated Society invited three panelists to discuss the concept of working-class culture, its history, and what it might mean today. Among the panelists were NSCAD Prof. Bruce Barber, Platypus member Chris Mansour, and Mayworks Halifax organizer and Solidarity Halifax member Sébastien Labelle. Below are the questions asked of the panelists and a written transcript of Sébastien’s response.

1) Was bringing together a contingent of artists and formulating specific aesthetic sensibilities under the aegis of a working class culture a necessary aspect of revolutionary organizing? Is it still necessary today?

2) Can artistic and cultural forms be given to the wide swath of an international working class experience? Is it desirable to do so?

3) What does it mean to create a working class culture today when an organized working class is at an historic low? How is class consciousness related to cultural movements, both in the past and today?




Depicting Work, Class and Revolution

Have artists speaking to or on behalf of a working class and its cultural sensibilities been a necessary part of revolutionary organizing? In my opinion, without a doubt: yes.

A political project necessarily needs to be communicated, and since an artist’s fundamental purpose is to communicate through various methods of narration and through the creation of symbols, artists are in effect important motors for the advancement of political ideas and projects. Also, collectively, artists weave and sustain a cultural fabric that hosts and channels sets of ideas and values, which, aggregated together, represent our collective human imagination. Put together, all the works of all the artists form a tapestry of our collective imagination. Where artists play an important role in revolutionary struggle is in challenging the limits of our imagination. In other words, challenging our ideology – our way of thinking of the world – and stretching it into new horizons of possibility, new ways of thinking. In Marxist terms, revolutionary artists engage in hegemonic battles (that is, battles of ideological dominance – making certain ideas and meanings dominant: not forced, but accepted as norms as they become understood as common sense). These battles are waged over the signifying concepts we use to make sense of our world – like justice, democracy and humanity. Artists can depict in material form and communicate the ideas of what these things mean to us in oppositional or subversive ways that stretch our ideological limits. The common understandings of justice or democracy, as ideas, are shaped and limited by the way they are currently materialized in our social structures. But artists, and political organizers generally, can make us imagine new meanings beyond what we see and take for granted, and redefine what the new common understandings of these concepts can be. In organizing or populist terms, artists can raise our expectations in creative ways about what these things mean, and compel us to confront and change the conditions that keep us from meeting those new expectations.

Back to the topic of working class culture. Within a past political project that positioned a working class as the driving force of revolutionary struggle, it was without question necessary to have people committed to materialize and communicate the imaginary field put forward by this political project, both to the working class itself in order to raise their consciousness about their condition and role, and also beyond it in order to generalize the acceptance of this worldview and place it in cultural dominance – that is, make it the new normalized common sense of how we imagine ourselves and what we should expect of our social world.

So again, to me, the answer to the question of whether or not artists are still needed or necessary in revolutionary organizing is obviously ‘yes.’ However, the answer to whether or not artists are still needed to formulate and depict a working class culture is: well, that depends. That depends on how they would define, and therefore depict, a working class today. It depends on whether artists are responsive to the changes in our social understanding of work, class and revolution, or whether they are simply nostalgically repeating the same romanticized clichés and stereotypes of past depictions of a working class. Here I’m referring to the quintessential images of white men in overalls working in manufacturing or extractive industries. Just like this panel of three white men, this is not representative working peoples or of revolution. It isn’t now and it never has been. So artists, like revolutionary organizers generally, need to recognize that and change those habits.

Working people are also female, queer, of colour, Indigenous and of differing abilities. The Khyber Centre for the Arts recently hosted a fantastic exhibit curated by Robin Metcalf titled OUT: Queer Looking, Queer Acting Revisited. The show was a remounted and updated retrospective of queer activism through the artistic materials produced during decades of struggle in Halifax. This is working class culture. Despite the fact that there were no miners, fishermen, auto plants, banjos or red flags depicted – the working class was certainly depicted, and it was most certainly revolutionary. If we take the Occupy slogan as a general measure – the 99% vs the 1% – then roughly 99% of the people represented in that exhibit were working class. We also need to recognize that among miners, fisherman and assembly line workers, there were and are queer people, people of colour and people of differing abilities – even though 20th century depictions of the working class suggested otherwise.

At Mayworks Halifax, a union sponsored arts festival of which I’m an organizer, we make very conscious efforts in our programming to challenge working class stereotypes and offer a program of events that is much more reflective of who workers are and what are workplace issues. A few years ago, we programmed a play that examined mental health and the services in place for people suffering from mental illness. In response to our choice of programming, some people asked: “what does that have to do with unions?” – as though no one who goes to work or belongs to a union suffers from mental illness. Most of us spend huge amounts of time in our lives at work. So for someone who doesn’t benefit from white, male, cis or able-bodied privilege, a lot of the racist, sexist, transphobic and ableist bullshit they have to deal with comes up at work. So unions need to take those issues very seriously, and artists formulating a working class culture need to include those struggles within their own work.

Considering all that, and because we’re discussing the role of art within an organizing strategy, to me the important questions to answer pertain to organizing: what should artists depict in a revolutionary struggle today depends on who we should be reaching out to and organizing, and under what unifying commonalities.

Working Class Revolution?

Since the 60s and 70s, the notion of a working class revolution has largely been abandoned. This, in my opinion, is due to two main factors.

The first factor is postmodernism’s overthrow of the working class identity as being the exclusive driver of revolutionary change and the relegation of class as just another point of oppression alongside race, gender, ability and others. Postmodernism called into question the certainty of the social theories of modernism that claimed to be ‘one size fits all’ – the universal answer for social progress and emancipation for all humanity. Beginning in the 60s the social movements of the time were attacked for washing over any other type of oppression under the banner of class, and of sweeping under the rug the white supremacy, patriarchy and heteronormativity left unchallenged within the movements themselves and elsewhere. The excuse given from within those movements was that class came first in order to trigger a revolution, the other considerations came later, if they were even recognized at all. Of course, a deep distrust of those movements – and the associated conception of a working class culture – then followed.

The second factor in the abandonment of a working class revolution, in my opinion, is that there has been a steep decline in the intuitive recognition of a working class. Most people who should identify as working class simply don’t anymore – instead they increasingly identify as a middle class. The concept of a working class today has been heavily diluted inside a liberal reframing of class that ignores the dynamics of ownership and control and instead focuses on a scale of income accumulation (lower, middle, upper) – and an associated level of consumption – as a guage of personal accomplishment. In other words, the lines of class identification now are much less drawn along distinctions of who owns the things and places needed to produce, but rather along how much money we have available to spend individually.

This shift in class consciousness is due, I think, to the neoliberal shaping of our economy and the impact that has had on our social relationships. Neoliberalism is both a high intensity form of capitalism (free from government interference, except where government force is used in its defense) and its accompanying form of liberal values (hyper individualism and self-reliance). These have emerged in the late 70s and dominated the global economy and its core countries since. The factory floors as places of daily contact and long term bonding (and organizing) have largely disappeared in these countries. Now workers are increasingly scattered across small work sites for short amounts of time, isolated in cubicles or fending for themselves as freelancers. These material conditions are paired with the reinvigorated ideology of the American Dream where anybody can achieve material wealth through individual merit, and inversely, where anyone who fails to achieve material wealth only have themselves to blame. In this frame of thought, the Left wing analysis of social problems due to internal social friction (like class war, patriarchy or white supremacy) is obscured and replaced instead by a Right wing social analysis blaming the disruption of a unified community by perceived external threats (like immigrants, blacks or gays).

While all this has led to a wide abandonment of a revolution as a working class phenomenon, it certainly doesn’t mean that a revolution is no longer needed or that capitalism should be let off the hook.

A People’s Revolution

I would contend that class is not the universal point around which revolution will unfold. Class is still key for radical change beyond capitalism, but it needs to be re-imagined in a way where it can stand for a common struggle without being imposed as the common struggle. In my opinion, class needs to be re-imagined as part of a stream of struggles each pushing each other forward – if and when seen as part of a common fight. Of course, class oppression is the most direct point of oppression generated by capitalism. Capitalism being an economic system and class oppression being economic oppression. But that does not mean that it is the most acute point of oppression for anyone in any context.

Often marginalized communities will struggle for inclusion into the current social structures from which they are marginalized, which to an anti-capitalist will seem reformist (e.g. gay rights in the military or access to management jobs for women and people of colour). However, to deny the legitimacy of those struggles because they are not perceived as radical is to deny the privilege of straight or white men conferred by white supremacy, patriarchy and heteronormativity. White, or male, or straight activists have the choice of whether or not to struggle against racism, sexism and homophobia. People of colour, women and queer folk of course don’t have that choice – those struggles are imposed onto them. So those of us in positions of privilege have a responsibility to support those struggles against our very own privilege, but also to open up spaces – still in consideration of our privilege – to talk about anti-racist or queer struggles as also class struggles and vice-versa.

Capitalism is the motor of most of our present day global society and as such the driving engine of economic oppression and of hyper marginalization along many other points of oppression. Because of this, capitalism must be a focal point of struggle in revolutionary politics. Leaving it unaddressed will make any struggle unable to effect radical change – change that pulls out the problem at the roots, rather than simply alleviate it somewhat. Because many social sectors and identities are threatened by the logic of capitalism, the notion of working class struggle alone is totally insufficient to define the identity of those involved in anti-capitalist struggle.

Here, I’m speaking of course as an anti-capitalist. And in that analysis I also need to consider that working class struggles are also, more often than not, reformist (demanding immediate, but concrete amelioration of working conditions). And so, the necessity to open up the space for a radical understanding of capitalism’s role in economic class oppression applies here too. Just because surplus value, or profits, are extracted from workers will not mean they will automatically resist this. So since the antagonism against capitalism is not internal to the dynamics of production and labour, that attitude depends on how the identity of workers is constructed. That’s why there is nothing inherently anti-capitalist in struggles of the trade-union movement.

For all those reasons, I believe that a people’s revolution more so than a working class revolution is what we should be formulating, depicting and organizing. In this project, I see the role of artists as developing creative methods to accomplish the following tasks:

  • Pointing out the contradiction in the dominant neoliberal ideology – in other words, the gap between the promise and the fact.
  • Examining not only the objective dynamics of exploitation and resistance, but also the subjective dynamics of identification through the negotiation of particular and universal interests between various social groupings.
  • Challenging the argument that thinking about radical change necessarily leads to Gulags, which is the argument through which the existing order defends itself successfully even though exploitation and corruption is rampant under capitalism.


Note: Statements by Solidarity Halifax members do not necessarily reflect positions held by the organization.