Tag Archives: Class

Class Matters: Betsy Leondar-Wright interview

Class Matters: Betsy Leondar-Wright interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
17 July 2018

Visiting Britain last month to co-facilitate a workshop organised by Peace News, US activist Betsy Leondar-Wright read two books to prepare: Owen Jones’s Chavs and Estates: An Intimate History by Lynsey Hanley.

Important books in their own right, they were especially pertinent as the workshop explored a topic that is rarely discussed: class and classism in activist groups and organisations.

An assistant professor of sociology at Lasell College, Leondar-Wright, 62, has spent her adult life exploring this contentious issue, publishing Missing Class: Strengthening Social Movement Groups by Seeing Class Cultures with Cornell University Press in 2014.

“Class-culture differences often hamper movement-building,” she explains in the book’s introduction. These differences often play a role in common organisational problems, she argues, such as low turnout, inactive members, offensive behaviour and certain members dominating discussion.

She tells me about her own elite class background when we meet in a central London hotel. “During my childhood my Dad rose through the ranks on Wall Street… he started out selling bonds and ended up the vice-president of an investment firm,” she explains.

“And my mum was a nurse and stopped working when I was born. So we kind of rose from middle middle-class to quite upper middle-class during my childhood.”

After attending a private school, in 1977 she dropped out of Princeton and joined the radical, nonviolent activist network Movement for a New Society (MNS) and became active in the anti-nuclear movement.

Hugely influential in its time, MNS ran workshops on racism, sexism and homophobia. After some members became angry at the classism that existed in the organisation, Leondar-Wright says there was an “internal class revolution” which led to workshops being introduced to deal with classism too.

Having co-facilitated many of those workshops, today Leondar-Wright sits on the board of Boston-based Class Action, an organisation that works to end classism and extreme inequality.

Why have activist groups that have a relatively high degree of awareness of racism and sexism ignored class for so long?

“The US is worse than Britain in how few people have class identities,” she says. “The majority of people if they are asked an open-ended question: ‘What is your class?’ people will say ‘middle class’ who have blue-collar working-class jobs and [so will those] who are very wealthy.

“It’s an absurdity of our culture,” she says about the aversion to using the term “working class.”

Even politicians on the left such as US Senator Bernie Sanders will not say “working class,” she says. “It sounds vaguely Marxist, and they are always on alert to not sound condescending and demeaning towards their voters.”

However, she also believes the left shares some of the blame, with what she calls “voluntary downward mobile” people — progressives who choose not to maximise their income — often obscuring and ignoring their own class privilege.

“So in the mainstream it is something to avoid — to identify as working-class. On the left something to avoid is to identify as class privileged. So between those two we are just a pit of confusion.”

Conducting extensive research on activist groups across the US for her book, Leondar-Wright found “a surprisingly large number of attitudes and behaviours” influenced by class.

“Two that really stick in my mind are language and leadership,” she says. “So language… vocabulary differences, how long or short you speak, humour differences, ways of speaking.”

For example, she found professional middle-class groups used more words but spoke less often, while members of working-class groups talked more briefly but more often.

Fascinatingly, she discovered working-class majority groups laughed on average once every 8.75 minutes, while professional middle-class majority groups only laughed on average once every 15.71 minutes.

She also highlights how university-educated activists are often attached to potentially alienating abstract terms: “They just have to say them. So among my radical friends there are people who have to say ‘white supremacy’ every time race is mentioned… there are people who have to say ‘patriarchy,’ people who have to say ‘capitalism’ and have to say ‘socialism’. Their radical politics are wound up in some word that compacts a whole analysis.”

This is fine as it goes, she says, “but one of the things that I want to persuade people to do is do not use your meaningful abstract word when you don’t have time to unpack it. Use it but don’t start with it. Start with something that connects to the listener.”

On leadership, she found “anti-leadership attitudes strongly correlated with professional middle-class and upper middle-class backgrounds.”

Meanwhile, in “the movement traditions that were majority working-class, there was just an acceptance that, as long as leaders are accountable, as long as they are acting on the community’s behalf, then it is a good thing. The strength of your leader is a good thing. It gives you more power.”

Though it’s a popular tactic among many progressives today, Leondar-Wright is highly critical of the concept of “calling out” — the “practice of if someone says something in which you detect some sexism or racism or classism you just immediately and loudly denounce them in front of others.

“It’s based on a misunderstanding of what causes change,” she argues. “It leads to people quitting groups and falling into factions and all these things that are not moving towards social justice.”

She paraphrases her MNS colleague George Lakey: “A university education trains you to sit in judgement of others. Professional middle-class dominated movements or elite dominated movements often get this harshness towards each other,” she adds. Calling out, then, often has a nasty element of classism to it.

Instead, Leondar-Wright favours the idea of “calling in,” a concept coined by African-American activists. This involves “moving toward” the oppressive person and empathically engaging with the person and their views, rather than shunning them.

“I think that is really smart. It’s building the strength and the closeness and the solidarity of groups. To me that is a better practice.”

As she was researching her book, the Occupy movement sprang up in the US. Leondar-Wright was a keen supporter, though found it embodied many of the class-based problems she was researching.

“Some Occupy groups had gotten bogged down in group process quarrels and ideological quicksand,” she writes in the book’s conclusion.

Several of her initially enthusiastic friends dropped out of Occupy Boston, she explains, complaining of “long meetings, jargon, eccentric hand signals and a shortage of specific winnable demands.”

Observing a three-hour general assembly meeting, she observed many people of colour and with working-class accents were not fully participating.

“The much-touted horizontal participatory democracy of Occupy… seemed to make space for some process-savvy people’s voices but to shut out others, including some of those personally affected by the financial crisis that triggered the movement.”

Turning to the political upheavals in her own country, Leondar-Wright has been dismayed by the response of many liberals to the rise of Donald Trump and his supporters.

“We have these plutocrats and would-be fascists in power,” she says. “We’re panicked about what has happened in Washington, but also panicked and infuriated by the super, super classism among liberals and even some leftists.”

In an article published on the Class Action website earlier this year, she criticises the liberal elite’s focus on the “white working class” and use of classist language such as “stupid,” “crazy,” “deplorables” to describe those who voted for Trump.

Not only is it inaccurate — the white working class itself is politically diverse and, moreover, 54 per cent of college-educated white men voted for Trump — it’s also deeply unhelpful.

“Respectful engagement with someone offering a different worldview is the context in which people shift their frames,” she writes. “Ideologies morph over time. People change their minds. The people who horrify us, whose votes brought this catastrophe upon our land, they’re regular human beings. We demonise them at our peril.”

With liberal contempt for democracy and the general public seemingly rising after the election of Trump in the US and the Brexit vote in Britain, her fascinating analysis of class and classism is more important than ever.

As she argues in her book: “In a country with a working-class majority, a mass movement must be built with working-class cultural strengths in its bones,” something which if successfully implemented “could be transformative for future social movements.”

For more on Class Action, visit: classism.org. If you are interested in holding a workshop exploring class and classism in a similar way to Class Action, please contact Milan Rai of Peace News editorial@peacenews.info.

Book review: Tales Of Two Americas. Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation

Book review: Tales Of Two Americas. Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation edited by John Freeman
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
27 November 2017

Made up of contributions from 36 contemporary writers, Tales Of Two Americas explores what it feels like to live in the inequality-riven United States today.

As the US billionaire businessman Warren Buffett famously said in 2006, “There’s class warfare, all right but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” Since the financial crash class politics have taken on a renewed importance, especially in the past couple of years. “America is broken”, editor John Freeman argues in the introduction, noting the unease created by the soul-crushing neoliberalism that has dominated US politics since the Reagan Administration “became the pivot point of the 2016 presidential election”.

Mixing short stories, journalistic essays and poems, the collection includes some literary big hitters, including Joyce Carol Oates, Ann Patchett and Richard Russo. Rebecca Solnit explores the connections between a 2014 police shooting of a Hispanic young man and the gentrification of San Francisco, while Roxanne Gay provides a piercing story of a working class woman living in oppressive circumstances, determined to escape. My favourite piece is Sandra Cisneros’s moving and eloquent love-letter – of sorts – to Chicago, where she spent her poverty-stricken childhood. “In the neighbourhoods we knew, booze was easier to find than books”, she remembers. Also impressive is Karen Russell’s long, personal account of getting on the housing ladder in the liberal city of Portland amidst some of the highest levels of street homelessness in the country.

As with any edited volume, some pieces are more memorable and insightful than others. Rather than reading it at a gallop as one would a good novel, I found myself dipping in and out of the book, savouring and considering each contribution before continuing. At the very least the book is a brilliant opportunity to discover new writers who have a deep concern for the wider social and political world.

And it’s not all doom and gloom. In-between all the misery, violence, wasted talent, resignation and desperation highlighted by the authors, chinks of hope shine through. Fictional characters and real people endure, flourish, empathise, cooperate, resist and organise – qualities that will need to be seriously upscaled if President Trump is to be toppled and a fairer, more just and humane America established.

Tales Of Two Americas is published by OR Books, priced £15.

Stella Creasy: beyond wishful thinking

Stella Creasy: beyond wishful thinking
by Ian Sinclair
22 December 2015

Stella Creasy. Labour MP for Walthamstow since 2010. She’s brilliant, isn’t she?

Her important work leading prominent campaigns against payday loan lenders and misogynist online abuse has had the liberal media and many activists and progressives falling head over heels in love with her. “In a field populated by career politicians guided by self-interest, Creasy is a rare thing: a woman of conviction”, enthused the Observer’s Elizabeth Day in 2012. “Creasy’s concern for her constituents goes beyond clever public relations or mere political rhetoric.” A year later the Guardian’s Esther Addley was singing her praises for making “one of the most striking and effective parliamentary debuts in recent times”. The Labour List website selected her as MP of the Year in 2012. Spectator magazine named her Campaigner of the Year in 2011. ConservativeHome has called her “Labour’s most interesting member of parliament.” Catherine Mayer, Time magazine’s Europe Editor, called her “Labour’s leader in waiting”. Creasy is “seriously clever but not… lacking in human understanding”, noted Meyer. “She’s engaged but not doctrinaire or tribal.”

Compare this gushing coverage to the following political record:

  • In March 2013 Creasy abstained on the vote about the Coalition Government’s Workfare programme, the scheme in which people on Jobseekers Allowance are forced to carry out unpaid work in order to keep receiving their benefits.
  • In July 2015 Creasy abstained on the vote for the Welfare Bill, which will cut tax credits, reduce the benefit cap to £20,000 (£23,000 in London) and called for £12bn more cuts. According to a leaked government memo, 40,000 more children will sink below the poverty line as a result of the benefit cap. Child Poverty Action Group noted “the majority of households affected by the benefit cap are lone-parent households and the main victims are children”.
  • In March 2011 Creasy voted in favour of NATO intervention in Libya, a chief cause of the ongoing violent chaos in the country which has destabilised surrounding nations, empowered extremists and played a central role in the refugee crisis.
  • In December 2015 Creasy voted with the Tory Government to authorise the UK bombing of Syria, tweeting just before the vote “Hilary benn’s speech has persuaded me that fascism must be defeated.”
  • In January 2015 Creasy voted to renew the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons system.
  • Creasy, according to the Guardian, was one of a group of Labour MPs who “grew exasperated by [Ed] Miliband’s leadership and quietly identified [Blairite candidate Liz] Kendall… as having leadership potential”.
  • Creasy backed Blairite candidate David Miliband in the 2010 Labour leadership race.

What these inconvenient facts show is Creasy is very clearly on the right of the Labour Party – a Blairite, basically – when it comes to many domestic and international political questions. She has failed to oppose Tory Government policies that will push more children and poor women into poverty, she has supported a highly interventionist foreign policy that will likely led to more violence and civilian deaths, and she has supported the most right-wing leaders in Labour leadership contests.

So, what’s going on here? How can Creasy be lauded by activists, progressives and the liberal media with the voting record and political actions set out above? To get a flavour of this support, witness the extreme deference of Feminist campaigner Karen Ingala Smith’s reaction to Creasy backing UK airstrikes in Syria (an action, let’s not forget, that will likely kill women and children and increase the terror threat to the UK): “I didn’t agree with your choice of vote re Syria but I respect that you made the decision that you felt was best. I also appreciate that you’ll be more informed about this issue that [sic] me… I’m grateful to have you as MP and would proudly stand beside you in solidarity.”

Is Creasy’s positive image among many people who identify as “Left-wing” simply down to ignorance of her actual politics? Have they been fooled by her benign sounding official title of “Labour & Co-operative MP”? She is certainly a good communicator and comes across as a genuinely sincere, human person. Perhaps this has blinded people to the reality of her voting record?

I wonder too if Creasy’s popularity is down to what Owen Jones describes in his book Chavs as the Left’s “shift away from class politics towards identity politics over the last 30 years.” In support of his argument Jones cites a search conducted of the academic resource MLA International Bibliography from 1991 to 2000. “There were 13,820 results for ‘women’, 4,539 for ‘gender’, 1,862 for ‘race’, 710 for ‘postcolonial’ – and just 136 for ‘working class’.” I suspect for many of Creasy’s supporters Feminism is their primary concern – and Creasy has certainly done great, essential work on defending women’s rights. But are people confusing Creasy’s Feminist activist with a wider radical outlook, when the two do not necessarily go together – and certainly don’t with Creasy.

And do we need to expand our understanding of what Feminist analysis and activism look like? Responding to the Guardian’s endorsement of Yvette Cooper in the Labour leadership contest because “a female leader would be a plus in itself”, Selma James and Nina Lopez noted that as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Cooper abolished income support and extended Labour’s work-capability assessment for sick and disabled people. “The money that recognised unwaged caring work, and enabled mothers to leave violent men, and disabled people to live independent lives is now gone or under threat”, explained James and Lopez. “Better men against sexist austerity than women for it.”

To be clear, this is not just about Creasy but the propensity of a certain section of liberal and leftist opinion to be taken in by slick PR, meaningless platitudes, impressive rhetoric and media hype – see Barack Obama circa 2008, Tony Blair in 1997, 2010 Nick Clegg and Hilary Benn’s Syria speech earlier this month. It seems to me that meaningful progressive change in society will only come when we bypass this kind of media-driven wishful thinking and will be built upon an accurate understanding of the political reality we wish to change. And the unfortunate truth is Stella Creasy has some very ugly politics indeed.