(these are the comments i made at the first "radical roundtable" - my thoughts on the question: "the economic crisis: what's class got to do with it?" it sounds like a "presentation" to an audience because that is what it was.)
My friend Michelle Gross gave me the title “people’s economist” almost a year ago, and it fits for me. I studied economics for many years and then I went out into the “real world” (using the term loosely) and worked in the financial sector for many more years. I gave up both the “ivory tower” and the “real world” and now I’m a radical, trying to use my experience in the service of a movement for economic justice. Those of you who’ve heard me talk before know that I love to talk about how the wealthy elites use language to disempower the rest of us. They use language to hide their own class interest, while deriding regular people striving for economic justice as being engaged in “class war.” I’ve talked before about the role corporations play in this deception. Corporations are giant piles of money with the rights of people under our so-called system of laws. But they are giant piles of money whose only purpose is to make more money. That’s money organizing in the interest of money. But it is not called class war. When labor unions organize to get better treatment for working people they call that “class war.” But the most powerful corporations own our media and create the dominant discourse. So it makes sense that corporate media normalizes the interests of the wealthy and powerful and tries to pass those interests off as if they are everbody’s interests. 'The business of America is business." "What’s good for wall street is good for main street. " My friend Jeff Nygaard refers to notions like these as “deep propaganda” – the stuff we are trained to just believe and not question. But I’m guessing most people in this room already agree with me that this mythology is bullshit. So I was going to talk about private equity funds and the “financialization” of our economy and how they caused the current economic crisis but even more importantly how the handling of the crisis shows that the financial elite truly are the un-disputed champions of the class war. These financial “masters of the universe” have triumphed over even other members of their own class. There was a time when corporations were supposed to make actual “stuff” (and their wealthy executives knew a lot about making cars, or railroads, or buildings) but the triumph of money over everything else is so complete now that the new guy in charge of General Motors knows nothing about cars, he is a “money” guy and that is considered the only expertise that means anything.
An apologist for the rich might point out that Bernie Madoff is a financial “master of the universe” and he is going to spend the rest of his life in jail. Do we have any apologists for the rich in the room? No. So, I’ll pose the question to myself, “what about Bernie Madoff?” Well Bernie Madoff did something a financial “master of the universe” should know not to do. He stole from the rich. Stealing from the rich is criminal. Stealing from the poor, working and middle classes is capitalism. Countrywide financial stole more money than you can count from those least able to pay. Did Countrywide financial executives go to jail, or did their company get bought out by Bank of America?
Everything I said to this point is stuff I was planning for the last month to talk about tonight. But this morning I had a thought. This is supposed to be provocative. It is not just about making people even angrier at the ultra-rich when there are no ultra-rich in the room to defend themselves. It isn’t really speaking truth to power, if no representatives of “power” are present. So I’m going to attempt to speak some truth to the people who are present. I think we all mostly agree that the greed of the very rich caused the current economic crisis, and the so-called solutions do not and will not ask the rich to pay or to fix their own mess. But I’m suddenly curious about “what class has to do with” the way WE are responding to the economic crisis. I am a founding member of a group called the economic crisis action group (ecag) which formed last October with the goal of helping to facilitate a coordinated left response to the crisis. The stakes are high. People are losing their jobs and their homes and every bit of security they might have thought they had. The safety net that was won over decades of struggle has been decimated to the point of uselessness. And the right has a coordinated response to every crisis – more racism, xenophobia, fascism. If we can’t get it together and offer alternatives, they will. Their alternatives scare me. So I’m pretty motivated. Without trivializing or belittling the efforts of ecag members some of whom are in this room and any of whom could beat me up pretty easily, I have been frustrated that we have responded to this time of great crisis mostly with theoretical discussion. Sure people come from different backgrounds, some people are one type of socialist, some another, some are greens, progressives, anarchists. And maybe it really is important that we figure out which dead communist had the most relevant analysis before we can move forward together. But the members of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign occupy the sheriff’s office and vow to stop home evictions with their bodies. We advertise their actions on our listserv and some of our members even show up. But overall our approach is about educating ourselves, discussing theory, debating tactics. Intense debate might get pretty uncomfortable, but it isn’t uncomfortable like teargas is uncomfortable. It isn’t uncomfortable like sleeping in your car or the street is uncomfortable. I had a boss who used to tell me that I couldn’t fight every battle, “you have to choose your hill to die on” she would say and she meant it in the theoretical way that a white middle class woman would mean such a comment. Class privilege is largely about having choices. But I sometimes think too much choice is suffocating us. My friend Joan Malerich says that we want the results of a revolution without fighting a revolution. I think if what we want could be achieved just by having the most thoroughly debated, well thought through ideas we would have won a long time ago. Yet many of us still believe we can discuss our way to the world we want to see. And I think class has a lot to do with that.