Tag Archives: US politics

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: How I Lost by Hillary Clinton

Book Review: How I Lost by Hillary Clinton
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
7 August 2017

Since Trump was elected President of the United States the Democratic Party establishment and Hillary Clinton supporters have blamed everyone – including FBI Director James Comey, the Russian government and backers of Bernie Sanders – except the Democratic candidate herself.

How I Lost puts the spotlight firmly on Clinton, arguing she lost because she is “an economic and political elitist and a foreign policy hawk divorced from the serious concerns of ordinary Americans”.

The book’s wheeze is that Clinton is the author, based on the fact it’s largely based on Clinton’s own words taken from her campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails and Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails – both leaked by Wikileaks last year. However, Clinton’s authorship is a red herring – it is former Wall Street Journal correspondent Joe Lauria who provides the important context and inconvenient facts (for Clinton anyway) to help the reader make sense of all the leaked information. Wikileaks Editor-In-Chief Julian Assange provides the book’s foreword.

The emails paint a picture of Clinton and her team as deeply Machiavellian characters, her “embrace of centrist neoliberalism” completely out of touch with our turbulent political times. Journalists are shown to have an extremely cosy relationship with Clinton’s campaign, while emails are presented showing that Clinton’s entourage and the Democratic Party establishment colluded to crush Sander’s insurgent campaign to be the Democratic Party’s nominee for the presidency. The Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee sent Clinton’s team advanced warning of questions to be asked by the audience in debates between Sanders and Clinton, while the DNC’s Chief Financial Officer suggested to the DNC Communications Manager that Sanders should be challenged about his religious beliefs, which they saw as a potential weakness.

On foreign policy, the emails highlight Clinton as an aggressive military interventionist in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and the “shit show” (Barack Obama’s description) that is Libya. Though she publically called for the US setting up no-fly zones in Syria, in a private 2013 speech to Goldman Sachs she suggested caution as it would “kill a lot of Syrians.”

So how can Trump and the Republicans be defeated at the next presidential election? Lauria is clear: the Democrats need to “find a candidate seriously committed to reversing the betrayal of the party’s traditional working-class base and restore the badly eroded New Deal.” Who that should be is unclear, though one thing is undeniable – it can’t be Clinton or someone with her politics.

How I Lost by Hillary Clinton is published by OR Books, priced £14.

Book review. ‘Trump Unveiled: Exposing The Bigoted Billionaire’ by John K. Wilson

Book review. Trump Unveiled: Exposing the Bigoted Billionaire by John K. Wilson
by Ian Sinclair
Red Pepper
April-May 2017

“A narcissistic, bigoted, even idiotic fool”, Donald Trump “is just a petty, vicious, angry man”, argues John K. Wilson in this short primer, published just before the US presidential vote.

Written in a no-nonsense, straightforward style, Trump Unveiled shows just how frightening Trump’s election to the highest office of the most powerful country in the world really is. The chapters on Trump’s racism, misogyny and his belief in wild conspiracy theories are often both hilarious (Trump reportedly told one woman “Once you made love to me, you’ll never to able to make love to anybody else”) and horrifying (he is a climate change denier). The American president is a “sociopath”, Tony Schwartz, the co-author of Trump’s 1987 book The Art of the Deal, said last year. “I genuinely believe that if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization.”

However, though it is important to highlight Trump’s unsavoury business dealings, ignorant arrogance and often contradictory political positions, arguably progressives need to jettison this often highly personal criticism and start to think systematically, radically and self-reflectively. Why did huge numbers of Americans vote for The Donald? Like many liberals, Wilson focusses on Trump’s outrageous public statements and behaviour while failing to seriously engage with the fact his campaign was likely successful because he repeatedly talked to working people about trade, jobs and declining industry.

The key task for the left now is to work out how Trump can be defeated – something Wilson’s book offers few insights on. In the short-term there are hopeful signs: his poll ratings are disastrously low, his administration is looking relatively weak and, as the growing scandal over the resignation of his National Security Advisor shows, wholly incompetent. In the long-term the left needs to be organised and powerful enough to make sure a credible, socialist-minded candidate gets the Democratic nomination for president. Given that Hillary Clinton’s enthusiastic backing for Wall Street deregulation and the North American Free Trade Agreement ultimately boosted support for Trump, a neoliberal, ‘pragmatic’ candidate is simply no longer an option.

Trump Unveiled is published by OR Books, priced £13.

 

The US presidential elections: corporate power vs democracy

The US presidential elections: corporate power vs democracy
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
21 April 2016

With the 24-hour, wall-to-wall soap opera-style coverage, it is easy to get lost in the minutiae of the US presidential primaries. Seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination for the presidency, Senator Bernie Sanders recently noted “We need to break through the fog of the corporate media, which does everything that they can to keep us entertained without addressing the real issues… they talk about everything under the sun, but not the real issues.”

So what are the real issues when it comes to the US presidential elections?

Discussing the influence of money last year, former US President Jimmy Carter provided much needed clarity: “It violates the essence of what made America a great country in its political system. Now it’s just an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations for president or to elect the president.”

Comparing polling data with policy outcomes, recent research by conducted by two academics from Princeton University and Northwestern University provides hard evidence to support Carter’s assertion that the US is controlled by a monied elite. “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence”, note Professor Martin Gilens and Professor Benjamin Page. “Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association” they conclude. However “if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organisations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”

Professor Thomas Ferguson fleshed out the nefarious relationship between money and US electoral politics in his 1995 book Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems. Many view US politics through the wrong lens, Ferguson argued in 2010, “treating public policy as the result of the will of voters. But, in fact, American political parties are mostly bank accounts.” Ferguson maintains the historical record shows “parties are more accurately analysed as blocs of major investors who coalesce to advance candidates representing their interests.” Importantly, his theory posits that “on all issues affecting the vital interests that major investors have in common, no party competition will take place.” To take just one example, neither of the two main parties reflects the interests of the majority of Americans who have long supported an American national health service, according to repeated polling.

For Edward Herman and David Peterson the US political system is “an unelected dictatorship of money” whereby big business “vets the nominees of the Republican and Democratic parties, reducing the options available to US citizens to two candidates, neither of whom can change the foreign or domestic priorities of the imperial US regime.” Hillary Clinton’s conservative, business-friendly presidential candidacy is the perfect illustration of this. The former Secretary of State and her husband Bill Clinton have received $35 million from the financial services, insurance companies and real estate sectors since 2001, including $675,000 from Goldman Sachs for giving three speeches, aswell as the backing of the vast majority of the liberal media.

In contrast, CNN noted in January 2016 that left-leaning social democrat Sanders “has received vastly less media attention than” Clinton, “while his chances of becoming the party’s nominee were largely dismissed by pundits and commentators.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? “None of them, except the Morning Star, supported us”, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell explained earlier this year about the British media’s coverage of Jeremy Corbyn’s bid to become Labour leader. “Even the liberal left Guardian opposed us and undermined us at every opportunity.”

Like Corbyn’s inspirational grassroots campaign in the UK, Sander’s surging progressive campaign suggests the corporate-controlled political status quo is not invincible, that the popular will of the people can force its way on to the agenda in the right circumstances.

And like Corbyn and the British establishment – remember that a senior serving general threatened a coup should the MP for Islington North become prime minister – Sanders’s growing popularity has, according to commentator Brent Budowsky, put “virtually the entire Washington and Wall Street establishments… in a state of panic.”

Though a victory for Sanders in the race to become the Democratic presidential nominee would be an astonishing moment in US politics, unfortunately it looks like Clinton’s lead is insurmountable. But all is not lost for those who wish to see a more equal and peaceful world. As US historian Howard Zinn once noted “What matters most is not who is sitting in the White House, but ‘who is sitting in’ – and who is marching outside the White House, pushing for change.”

Therefore, with the climate crisis already upon us, Obama having bombed seven nations and talk of another financial crisis over the horizon, win or lose it is imperative that the mobilisation and energy of Sanders’s campaign is expanded and deepened into a sustained mass movement that can successfully challenge corporate power and the dark shadow it casts over US politics.