Proletarian: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, August 2022

I sat at Nati’s Restaurant in Ocean Beach for a late brunch on a Sunday afternoon. It was 1986. I was on my third Negra Modelo when the waitress served up my heaping plate of Machaca con Huevos with dolloped sour cream, refried beans, Spanish rice, escabeche, pico de gallo, and a stack of corn tortillas. I had high tolerances in those days so I wasn’t even buzzed as I dripped Tapatío hot sauce on my aromatic food.

I had a few drinking routines when I was gainfully employed and living in San Diego. Weekdays after working as a typesetter I bought 16-oz cans of Schlitz malt liquor and drank in the privacy my Pacific Beach apartment. I occasionally went to shows on Friday and Saturday nights. Whether at bars like the Casbah or Spirit Club, or larger venues like the Pacific Palisades or Adams Avenue Theater, I drank my crap malt liquor before the show in my parked car. I didn’t want to be buying expensive, watered-down drinks at some punk dive bar. I’d do a little day drinking some Saturdays and Sundays starting at Nati’s before hitting the Pacific Shore Lounge, then the Beachcomber in Mission Beach and ending up at the West End or the Silver Fox in Pacific Beach at night. The idea was cheap drinks and happy hours, and if I got too wasted by the time I got round to Pacific Beach I could always park my car and walk home.

As usual Nati’s was full, with a line out the door. I’d just started eating when the deuce next to me opened up and Mark Johnson sat down. Mark was 40, a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party who ran the RCP’s youth wing, the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade (RCYB). Mark and the RCYB were hoping to recruit “rebellious youth” into the party’s ranks, with the RCYB recently targeting punks. I was a punk and a left anarchist transitioning into Marxism at the time, known for my broadside Point-Blank and regularly publishing the monthly punk zine San Diego’s Daily Impulse. But I was older than the average punk, though not as old as Mark. We’d run into each other at various local punk shows and political events, among them the RCP’s brief-lived No Business As Usual front organization. And he’d tabled at my 1984 Balboa Park Anarchy Picnic and my 1985 Mariner’s Point Hardcore Picnic. Ours was not a friendly rivalry but an open political antagonism. When the Hardcore Picnic turned into a full-blown riot provoked by the SDPD Mark at first said I was responsible for the mayhem, then proceeded to fundraise on behalf of those arrested. Since I’d sponsored the picnic, I got the lawyer and organized the successful legal defense. So when I hit him up for that money to help with our expenses he handed it over, minus a not insignificant “service charge.”

“No surprise finding your petty bourgeois utopian anarchist ass here in OB’s remnant hippie-dippie countercultural enclave,” he said after ordering.

“This from the man whose shitty vanguard party had its vulgar Leninist origins in the ‘60s Bay Area,” I replied between mouthfuls. “And I’m working class. A prole. A bonafide wage slave. I own nothing but my labor.”

“It takes more than exchanging your labor power for wages to call yourself working class.” Mark switched into pure Maoist mode. “Or claiming you own no other means of production. You gotta have the correct class background, correct class aspirations, and correct class stance to qualify as a proletarian.”

I knew the basics of Marxist class analysis though not its nuances, so I kept quiet. I paid for my meal as Mark’s Carne Asada con Huevos arrived and I left without another word. I’d been bested by a Mao cultist so the exchange stayed with me.

According to Marx, class is a social relationship between the workers and those who own the means of production and extract surplus value from their labor, the bourgeoisie. Also called the capitalist class, it rules society but it’s a small social group compared to the much larger working class. Anyone who sells their labor for wages is a worker, but in Marx’s day there were other social classes in the mix. There were vestigial classes from the waning feudal social order—various formations of aristocracy and peasantry. And in the newly emerging capitalist social order there was the small-holding petit bourgeoisie and the lumpenproletariat criminal underclass. Finally, there were déclassé elements like the intelligentsia.  But for Marx two trends in this schema were considered paramount; that the ever-expanding working class was transforming into an ever more powerful industrial proletariat thanks to economic industrialization, and that eventually all of society would polarize into just two contending social classes—the proletariat versus the bourgeoisie—that would engage in open class warfare.

Now I’ve always worked, exchanging my labor for wages, when I wasn’t actively avoiding work. The abolition of work has always been a focus of mine. Thanks in part to a family inheritance, I’m now comfortably retired from wage labor.

My mother was from a Polish middle class family and my father from minor Polish aristocracy. They raised me middle class in a bourgeois European cultural sense. As a refugee from the second World War, dad joined the US Army. He became a US citizen, qualified for GI benefits, got a college degree, and bought a house. He moved from blue collar to white collar, ultimately becoming an upper management Federal government civil servant and elevating his family into the middle class.

I have always stood with the working class and its revolutionary aspirations, but now like any respectable Marxist I’m for the proletariat abolishing itself as a class through its self-emancipation. Whether I’m truly working class is complicated.

One thing I’m not is a Maoist who believes that “proletarian consciousness” is some kind of Leftist panacea. Somewhat akin to the class consciousness of E.P. Thompson and György Lukács—in which the subjective proletarian mindset arises out of protracted historical class struggles—proletarian consciousness is more likely to result from prolonged criticism/self-criticism party “struggle sessions.” And this bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the “conversion experience” of various religions. Acquiring proletarian consciousness is more important, and supersedes, all other markers of class—class background, class reality, class aspiration, and class stance—in the Maoist scheme of things. During the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, student Red Guards vied to become “more proletarian than thou,” summarily dismissing and denouncing each other, even industrial workers as not sufficiently proletarian. Pitched street battles were fought and lives lost over who did or did not have the correct proletarian consciousness.

I consider myself vaguely middle class nowadays, given how uneven my proletarian qualifications are. There’s all sorts of ways classical Marxist class analysis has been muddied by late stage capitalism. This ranges from the insignificant difference-without-a-distinction between wage labor and salaried labor to the more consequential growth of the white collar work that shades into the substantial managerial strata required by the state and corporate capitalism. Also needing a mention is the use of corporate stock ownership to differentiate between ownership versus control of the means of production. Then there’s the reality that individuals can occupy multiple social classes either serially or contiguously, personally identify with numerous classes, have family ties in different social classes, or take on momentary leadership roles that push class boundaries. Finally, there are the realities of post-Fordism; flexible production using flexible machines or systems and a flexible workforce, high-tech economies of scope, massive economic inequalities, decline of unions and collective bargaining, all within a post-welfare state and vast concentrations of speculative finance capital.

I’ve been discussing how to define the working class and what makes one proletariat as I examine my own sense of class. My intention is to eventually develop a comprehensive analysis of class along several lines of inquiry threaded through the usual, somewhat eclectic subjects I explore monthly. First, how is the concept of the working class relevant to the Left and society today and can the proletariat be the basis for constructing a genuine liberatory socialist society? Second, is it feasible for a relational class identity to be combined with the particularist/essentialist identity politics of race, ethnoculture, sex, and gender into a multifaceted socialist movement? Third, what is to be done with the concept of class under socialism, specifically with regard to notions of the nomenklatura (Michael Voslenski), the “New Class” (Milovan Đilas), and bureaucratic collectivism (Max Shachtman)? Fourth, can the concept and functionality of the working class be superseded by diffuse left-leaning populist movements (eg. Global Justice Movement, Occupy Wall Street)? Fifth, can the concept and functionality of the capitalist ruling class be replaced by notions of “globalist elites” (eg, European Union, United Nations)? Finally, is it time to question the working class as either obsolete (André Gorz) or a blind alley (Krisis Group) and how might we engage in struggle without classes?

I’m also interested in what “immaterial labor” and a “postindustrial society” mean? Is there such a thing as the precariat, a social class formed by individuals with no job security or no prospect for regular employment, and how does that differ from the lumpenproletariat? My proletarian self-education continues.

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Class power: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, November 2021

Two blasts of the two-tone metal whistle sounded most early afternoons in the 1960s, announcing the Helms Bakery man’s arrival in our San Bernardino neighborhood. He drove a bright yellow and blue Chevy panel truck emblazoned with the company logo and slogan “Daily to your Door.” The kids and housewives swarmed the truck on hearing the whistle and the driver stopped to open the double back doors to reveal long wooden and glass-fronted drawers redolent with the smells of yeast, flour, and sugar. Those drawers were stocked with freshly baked cookies, glazed and jelly donuts, cream puffs and pastries, while the center section carried dozens of loaves of bread and assorted cakes. Many were still warm from the oven. Continue reading

American socialism revisited: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, October 2021

Socialism for the rich; capitalism for the poor.

It’s an oft-repeated Leftist cliché that encapsulates an entire socio-political-economic analysis in a single sentence. It was first promulgated by Michael Harrington and frequently repeated by the likes of Noam Chomsky, Bernie Sanders, and Robert Reich. The gist of this argument is that capitalist corporations receive government largess in the form of subsidies, tax breaks, and favorable legislation while the general population is left to fend for itself. Big business regularly receives favorable treatment and corporate welfare from the government which allows corporations to “privatize profits and socialize losses.” The rest of us are shit-out-of-luck.(1) Continue reading

Socialism, American style: “What’s Left?” September 2012, MRR #352

American socialism.

Now there’s an oxymoron, if there ever was one. So, would it come as a surprise to learn that socialism is alive and well in this, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where individualism and competition are valued above all else? I’m not talking here about the US labor movement, the struggle for the 8-hour day and the 40-hour week, the IWW and the CIO, the Grange and Populist movements, the extensive agricultural cooperatives, the popular unrest of the 1890s, the 1930s and the 1960s, and the like. That’s the past. What I’m talking about is real, existing socialism, in the here and now, some of it among the most cherished and honored institutions this country has to offer.

Let’s begin with American capitalism, of the corporate variety. Starting with William H. Whyte’s The Organization Man, published in 1956, there have been numerous exposés—nonfiction and fiction—contending that the American ethic of rugged individualism has been supplanted by a collectivist ethic that values teamwork, commitment, loyalty, risk aversion, and conformity. Amplify this with corporate hierarchies and the complete lack of civil liberties in the workplace. Then, combine this with a phrase that has become common since the 2007 financial meltdown, that American capitalism “privatizes profits and socializes losses” where banks and large corporations benefit from runaway profits but manage to fob off their losses onto the US taxpayer and society at large via government subsidies and bailouts, and you get a condition of state socialism for the rich and cutthroat capitalism for the rest of the population.

Of course, this description is also synonymous with corporatism, which is a polite term for fascism. Even if Israeli historian Ze’ev Sternhell’s assertion that fascism amounts to a combination of ultra-nationalism with non-Marxist socialism is accepted, the notion that America’s system of capitalism represents some type of socialism is a stretch. And thanks to Occupy Wall Street, a growing number of people disdain corporate capitalism altogether. There is a couple of examples of American socialism that are much more positive and far more popular.

Football, for instance. No, not soccer, which is played by most of the world. American football, which nobody else on the planet plays. Football, the quintessential American sport. The National Football League has 32 member football teams, and guarantees a rigorous profit sharing, an equal division of revenues from TV, ticket sales, merchandising, etc. Comedian Bill Maher argues that the NFL “put[s] all of it in a big commie pot and split[s] it 32 ways,” and contends that the NFL “literally shares the wealth.” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell admits that the League “combines socialism and capitalism” in a system “that has worked quite well for us.” Then you have the Green Bay Packers, a football team owned by the community of Green Bay, Wisconsin. A publicly-owned non-profit, the Packers are literally owned by their fans. Their bylaws state that the Packers are “a community project, intended to promote community welfare.” It’s the epitome of communitarian socialism in the quasi-socialist National Football League which, by the way, has legally banned any more Green Bay Packers-type ownership structures. But this community ownership scheme guarantees low ticket prices, sold-out games, fierce fan loyalty, and the Packers’ permanent residence in Green Bay.

For yet another example of good ole American socialism, we go big. Imagine an institution with 1.5 million members, with both the individual participants and the institution as a whole under strict government control. A combination of training, discipline and education creates an institutional culture that has a clear sense of both rigorous hierarchy and spirited camaraderie, a collectivist society in which cooperation, teamwork, conformity, obedience and loyalty are emphasized, and where the social unit takes care of its own. It is a thoroughly racially integrated institution that prides itself on providing equal opportunity and social mobility for all its members. Education and training are available at virtually every stage and age, with career education available for constant improvement, and a system of colleges and universities that are top notch. Housing is socialized, with the lowest ranks living and eating communally. Transport is socialized, as is medicine. Cheap, single-payer health insurance is available for all, and there is lifelong coverage for retirees. Excellent childcare is provided for working parents. And the difference in pay between the lowest and highest ranking members of this institution is only 10 times, quite a contrast to the 300-plus gap between CEO and lowest paid worker in the private sector.

What is this stunning example of socialism in practice right here and now in these United States of America? Why, the US military, of course. Retired four-star general and former supreme allied commander of NATO forces in Europe, Wesley Clark, once said: “It’s the purest application of socialism there is … It’s a really fair system, and a lot of thought has been put into it, and people respond to it really well.” He also said that the country could learn from the military’s sense of mission, and from its emphasis on long-term strategic thinking.

Be all you can be. It’s not just a job. It’s an adventure! The Few. The Proud. Indeed! The irony here is that this quintessential embodiment of state based socialism is, simultaneously, a conservative bastion of anti-socialism.

I had a junior professor in sociology when I was an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz, Wally Goldfrank, who told me that being drafted into the US Army was the best thing that ever happened to him. This was at the tail end of the Vietnam War, when the US military was considered a horror and an abomination, an institution that killed babies, perpetrated genocide, and promoted imperialism. Yet, for an upper middle class Jewish boy from Brooklyn, it was Wally’s first encounter with people of different races, in particular, black and brown folks. He considered the Army a profoundly democratic and democratizing experience. Now, at the time I attended UCSC, Wally was a full-on Maoist, an admirer of Red China, Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the People’s Liberation Army. So, there was some affinity between his politics and his evaluation of his military service.

There you have it. Three examples of American socialism. First, a dubious, quasi-fascist, corporatist socialism (Wall Street’s corporate capitalism). Then, a communitarian socialism (the NFL’s community-owned Green Bay Packers). And finally, a state socialism (the US government run military). No need to disingenuously excoriate President Obama or the Democratic Party as evil socialists. There is plenty of American socialism to go around.

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