More on working-class consciousness

Louis N Proyect lnp3 at
Tue May 21 07:01:19 MDT 1996

>Thanks for the appreciative remarks.  Your comment:
>>... It reminds me of my earlier participation in a certain
>>1970's tendency, in the American left which was heavily "industrialized"
>>... it would be interesting and useful to evaluate the positive lessons
>>that might be learned from this experience.
>is on the mark.
>In the early 70s I was a member of a small "independent Marxixst
>Leninist" collective that hoped to "organize the working class". There
>were 4 men and 3 women.  Although we all put in applications at
>factories all over Louisville, somehow the guys all ended up at
>Phillip Morris and the women at GE.  My ex is still at  PM.  He has
>been active in the union - shop steward, rep to the Central Labor Council
>and a labor rep on the city\county Human Rights Commission.  One
>woman went to work at one of Louisville's two Ford plants during a layoff
>from GE and then worked at Ford for years. (This plant lucked out, producing
>light pick-ups trucks and sport vehicles just when they became all the
>rage.)  The last I heard, she had an internship on the UAW newspaper
>& wanted to go to work for the international rather than go back in the
>factory.  I was in and out of GE from 1974 to 1991, laid off several
>times.   The collective was short lived, and the other people dropped
>out of blue collar jobs.  One became a lawyer, one a social worker; two
>had serious bouts with mental illness.  I got very burned out on the left
>(more from an ideological brawl in another organization I was involved in
>than the collective directly, but my marriage and association with the
>collective were casualties of that mess).
>After a while, GE just became the best job I could get, given my oddball
>work history, fairly useless English lit degree, and the state of the
>Louisville labor market which saw tremendous deindustrialization: losing 2
>cigarette factories, a Harvester plant, and an American Standard plant.
>We're talking places with 2000-7000 employees. GE steadily shed jobs for
>two decades to automation, sourcing and internal redeployment of work.
>The last time I got laid off, my kids were pretty well grown, I had started
>back to school and wanted to go to grad school, and I had had enough of
>jumping to GE's tune.   I knew I'd never up & quit while I was working,
>the money & benefits were too good, but once I got laid off that last
>time, even though I knew there was a good chance this time it would be
>short, I  moved back to my home state of Massachusetts and am now a grad
>student in Public Policy at UMass\Boston.
>I would be very interested in exploring the lessons of the "industrialized
>left" if anyone else is.
>I agree with Jim Craven that gossip can be petty and even vicious, but it
>also can remind us that we are human.  The ability to frame reality in a
>particular fashion does not convey immunity to its effects.  Gossip also
>forms connections, builds a web of common knowledge, interpretations, and
>assumptions about each other, about shared experience, about whatever else
>is out there.  It also is a way of shaping and enforcing value structures,
>albeit often cruelly and with intolerance of those who don't conform.  My
>point was that to a great extent the left is not in a position to influence
>that knowledge, those assumptions, interpretations and values. This is for a
>lot of reasons, not the least of which is that the capitalist class is very
>powerful and dedicated to discrediting the left, and very good at it.  (I
>once worked in a section with a solitary little man who would always read John
>Birch Society literature during breaks.  A woman in the section warned me to
>watch out for him because he was a communist.)
>But it is also because we are not, by and large, part of those connections.
>Because Maggie's there, hanging out in the break room, co-workers know she's
>been going to school and interested in feminism.  Mostly, they probably
>think it's a little weird and wonder why she doesn't get a job in an office
>or a university somewhere.  But when they wonder why their wives don't
>make enough so they can retire, there is a context for a conversation
>about women's issues and wages and inequality that you can't achieve no
>matter how many policy briefs you write or leaflets you hand out at the
>plant gate.
>Even when we are there, it's difficult to connect. (I know it was for me.
>I observed and listened a whole lot more than I ever organized or
>influenced anybody.)  One reason it is hard is that we do like to think
>about ideas.  I don't think this is a matter of intelligence or greatness
>of mind, but of education and socialization to particular ways of
>conceptualizing and making sense of things.  When I worked at GE, I was
>always reading.  I wouldn't stay on a job if I couldn't cop some way to
>read - either do some part of the job without looking, or beat the
>schedule by a few seconds, or trade off and on the line with someone else.
>I read the newspaper, books and magazines, and studied for classes in
>little bitty bites on GE time - and did good work too.  (Trust me, that funny
>noise in your refrigerator is not my fault.) Some people thought
>I was weird or that I was trying to get a job up front (literally where
>the offices were), or should want to.  I wasn't the only reader, but I didn't
>go in for romance novels or Louis D'Amour wild west tales (although I will
>confess to a taste for science fiction and sometimes spy novels); so there
>wasn't always a lot to share, but once in a while that happened, and sections
>of my newspaper were spread all over the line every day.  Everybody knew where
>to look for the sports scores or Ann Landers or the grocery ads or comics.  I
>might have been weird, but I was dependable.
>Sometimes the people it was easiest for me to talk to were the more
>consciously right wing types or low level management because they
>were used to getting information by reading and they kept up with some
>of the political and economic issues I was interested in.  But some of the
>hard core right I couldn't talk to at all without going into a rage or
>getting them into a rage.  The anti-intellectualism of many working people
>is a hard thing to overcome, especially since so much of  what is produced
>in the academy really is bullshit; and so much, whether deliberately or
>not, manages to couch ideas in jargon and technical expertise that most
>people can't begin to cope with.  On a visit back to Louisville, after I
>had left, a guy who has spent well over 20 years working in the factory
>at GE told me, "Laurie, you don't need a Ph.D. to know that in 50 years the
>United States will be a Third World country."  I would like to see anyone on
>pen-l match your evidence to his and then check back in 50 years.  This
>is the place about which William Greider said in Secrets of the Temple:
>"savvy economists" check up on production schedules at Appliance Park in
>order to verify their macro-economic predictions.  So if we wanted to
>verify we asked the guy whose cousin worked in the warehouse how full it was.
>This is research; this is gossip.  It all comes out the same.
>I'm not trying to trash intellectual understanding.  All the time I
>worked on the line, I craved it. I wanted a framework for what I saw
>around me and wanted to share ideas about it with likeminded people.
>I realize that no one person's experience contains the necessary and
>sufficient data to understand and confront global capitalism.  But
>somehow there is a missing link between the life of the mind and the
>lives of ordinary people.
>Finally, another reason it's hard for the left to connect has to do with
>something I referred to before.  It is often said that the right wing
>appeals to the worst in people. But that appeal would go nowhere if the
>worst weren't really out there.  There is something hard and cold
>and unconcerned about anyone or anything except "me and mine".  That is a
>core value of fascism.  Analysis can only go so far.  Sooner or later, people
>have to give a damn.  Some of what working people in the good old U S of A
>give a damn about is right on, and some of it is really, really frightening.
>                                ------------Laurie

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