The False Enmity between Activists and Working Class Conservatives

In an interview released today, Fukuyama described the central problem with Occupy Wall Street as a response to the problems liberal democracies face today:

  I really do not take [the occupy wall street movement] seriously, because its social base is extremely narrow. It consists mostly of the same kids that were protesting in 1999 in Seattle against the World Trade Organization — anti-capitalists. The big problem sociologically for the left in the United States is that the white working class and lower middle class, that in Europe would be reliably social democratic in their political behavior, tends to vote Republican or is easily brought into the Republican camp. Until the Occupy Wall Street people can connect up with that demographic group, there is not going to be a big left-wing populist base of support in the US.

I do not believe it is an exaggeration to say that the social base of #OWS is no wider than that represented in the WTO protests. I would say it is an exaggeration to liken them in character. Compare for instance the 2010 G20 protests in Toronto to the 2011 Occupy Toronto encampment: while the means were very different, the feeling of the protests not similar at all, the basic political message was the same: build a consensus between the different social-justice, anti-poverty, anti-capitalist and anti-colonialist groups that already exist. The Occupy movement adds to this a central emphasis on rising inequality and on the power of the financial sector, but it limits its base from expanding too far beyond the familiar faces by insisting that the process of formulating demands and tactics be radically democratic “general assemblies”. These may have worked in Tahir where the demands were clear (“Down with Mubarak!”). However, the situation in North America is objectively much more complex, and while there may be a single united demand around the power of finance and inequality, there is no unity in how such a demand could possibly be met. The crucial difficulty, however, is that demands to motivate their base must, in fact, motivate their base – and general assemblies are structured to satisfy as best as possible those in attendance – they are poorly suited to formulating demands and rhetorical structures that will motivate the masses who vote conservative or republican, but who’s interests should naturally be supported by the left.

Fukuyama identifies the working class support of the Republican party as central to the crisis in America today. He explains that this situation is actually an old problem:

[T]his deep distrust of any form of government that goes back very far in American politics, and is today reflected in political figures like Sarah Palin, which holds against Obama primarily the fact that he went to Harvard. There is a kind of populist resentment in US politics against being ruled by elites.

and

The trouble is that in the United States it is extremely difficult to mobilize people around pure class issues. President Barack Obama was ostracized as a “European socialist” when he brought up the idea of higher taxes on the rich. These class debates are historically unpopular — except for a very brief period in the 1930s during the Great Depression.

So long as the American working classes refuse to organize around class issues #OWS will perhaps grow but will not build the level of support it requires to accomplish its goals. Concentration among #OWS activists on non-class based issues should be evaluated in terms of how they contribute to the basic cause of mobilizing around class issues. If activism around gender, race, or foreign policy issues serves to improve the epistemic situation of the working classes, then it serves the movement. But if organizing around what are sometimes called “non material issues” actually alienates the anti-elite working class, then perhaps they are counter productive.

The alienation between activists and their natural support class, in truth, runs in both directions – working class republican supporters dislike activists because they see them as anti-American, and activists dislike working class republicans because they are a little bit racist, or sexist, or imperialist. There is a profound belief in many activist circles that “it is not my responsibility to show you how you are oppressive or why you should change your views”, but this in truth amounts to a thesis of non-engagement. Non-engagement is a fine relationship with an enemy, but the republican( or conservative in Canada) voting working class cannot remain an enemy of #OWS activists if they wish their movement to succeed.

 

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