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Letter from Freedom X

Caste vs Class?

  • Essay
  • Oct 30 2019
  • Fred Dewey
    Fred Dewey is a Los Angeles and Brussels based curator, activist, editor, text artist, and author of The School of Public Life (doormats/errant bodies 2015) and from an apparent contradiction in Arendt to a working group method (re: public 2017). He has led working groups on Hannah Arendt in Europe and the United States. In 2017, he conducted a Berlin-wide mobile working group with ZK/U, The Portable Polis. He was director of Beyond Baroque in Los Angeles from 1996 to 2010, has published cultural and political essays internationally, and co-founded the Neighborhood Councils Movement in Los Angeles, in response to the LA riots, helping place the councils in city law.

"The great failure of the left has been to not be able to deal with caste" Arundhati Roy, Guardian 5.31.19

Traditional notions of "class," "working class," and "class struggle" are central to Marxist and left arguments. They and related terms are considered set, as are relations, as in the inherent connection of the working class and the left. All of this now seems rather in question. There was a time when the major battle was indeed between "capitalist bosses" and "workers" striking for better wages, conditions, and rights, a struggle the left led. Yet even in what some might call those "heroic" days, another struggle was disguised. This is clear today in countries such as India and pretty much throughout the Third World: an implacable, semi-permanent political/economic order dominating the majority, who must suffer conditions and who are convinced to accept not governing. Strikingly, this is increasingly the form developed countries are taking. Power has grown both more concentrated and more detached, effectively annulling representation and increasingly rights themselves.

Caste is political, class is in origin economic. Caste is maintained by an array of belts and gears, those of skin color, culture, self-belief, rituals, imagery, organization of materials, and force and violence held in reserve, displayed in demonstration cases, like lynching in the American South, and today, unjust wars, the jailing of whistleblowers, and more. There is no possibility short of massive, total, and often bloody transformation to remove caste rule. You really can't struggle in a caste system; the whole thing needs to be thrown out. A ruling caste refills its positions, changing its face to maintain dominion, but the underlying structure, almost taboo to even be addressed, does not change. Those in the ruling caste have rights, power, and can make decisions about how the larger frame is organized. They have freedom, and speak of freedom. The people, the vast majority suffering caste rule, do not have freedom but consume and acquiesce to the imagery and language hiding their capture. The people suffer, while the ruling caste lives in blissful, carefully maintained unreality high above. They manufacture endless lies of why this must remain so or is not the issue. 

During the first industrial revolution, it was clear who the "working class" was. The term dates from that era: people who worked with their hands, who worked the machines, who produced for others, who mined resources, and generally, who generated what bosses and owners profited from and traded. But who established this infernal structure then, and how? Who creates value now? Society has changed, as has the world pattern of production. What has not changed is that the body of the people animate and accept a society's structures, filling them with life, even when all material elements are made by workers far away. There is massive expropriation, perhaps more than ever. But it is different and far more sophisticated. It isn't just in manufacturing, production, and so on, but in meaning itself. Theory has not done much better than the parties who ceased to defend the people from expropriation. Political inequality goes beyond mere value. Nor is it a mere idea.

The issue in caste is the expropriation of power. An example of this is how often political rights are treated as distractions when facing the larger structure, sometimes even dismissed. Rights aren't enforced, so how can they matter, some understandably ask. But if anything, rights are more necessary and neglected than ever. When a caste rules, rights are downgraded to privileges which the rulers grant or suspend. People in a caste system accept they have no rights. The very concept of rights becomes meaningless. 

Standing almost alone, in crucial battles in Germany in the first two decades of the 20th century, the Polish thinker and organizer Rosa Luxemburg, who started from Marx, recognized that power lay in law-forming bodies protected by the parties - in the political realm. When Luxemburg spoke of the necessity for political education, she was calling for educating a political sense for people and workers, something more than consciousness or labor: how to recognize and fight for power, how to demand it and keep it, and finally how to insist on rights, power, and equality, and strike hard to get and keep these. It is true she spoke to what she regarded as a working class. But embedded in her principle of public life was a larger pursuit: the right to govern by the people. In a sense, Luxemburg discovered the right to have rights. She came to understand this by studying imperialism, and understood that this had utterly transformed the political problem. 

The mass strike was not merely a workers' strike. It extended to all facets of society, the military, and so on. It was a strike of all the people rejecting the lock-hold of a system that treated the people as cattle and most of all fodder for war and imperial expansion. This is why Luxemburg, finally almost alone, identified the SPD as the problem in Germany, not just the capitalist bosses controlling the economy. She understood economic bosses and political bosses formed the same order. They worked together to expand the ruling order's power. She argued that this would end badly, as it then clearly did in WWI, and then for her, and finally in the loss of general political rights, not just in capitalist countries but also communist. 

The issue of center domination was and is built, legalized, and maintained by center parties and business cartels under them. It was these parties, fearing exposure and subordination to the people in the council revolution in Germany that had Luxemburg killed and that opened the door to Nazism. It was no small matter the leading left party, the SPD, in early 20th century Germany, approved war credits, and then, as the people rose against the ruin of war, organized the destruction of the widely supported council revolution, unleashing the Freikorps as a para-military force to crush people's demands forever. The army and existing military forces were reluctant to smash council revolts and engage in outright murder at home. So the SPD built the Freikorps from the dregs to get around this, creating a virulence out of the Center to obliterate anything that threatened the ruling caste. A new caste empire, and finally global mass murder, emerged as the final solution crafted by the center in Germany and elsewhere. This form was defeated at tremendous cost and bloodshed in WWII, but it is increasingly open to debate as to what ultimately replaced it, not just in the communist but also the capitalist bloc.

The school of public life, for Luxemburg, could teach us about politics and where power lay. For freedom to be understood and fought for, the people needed to experience the power they had, the lessons and responsibilities this involved, and how to achieve and protect beneficial conditions and a say in all affairs. There is a reason some refer to the Democratic party in the United States as the "graveyard of social movements." The capitalist bosses may be happy to see social movements die, but they do not hold the reigns on political and legal space; parties and politicians do. Permanent party-political and economic cartels are an example of how struggle plays out in the United States and Europe now as a caste affair. Some on the left continue to insist divisions between capitalists and workers are the well-spring of politics. While there may be little doubt so-called "capitalists," including corporate heads, hedge funds, Big Pharma, military industrial barons, Big Media, and so on fight to retain cartel power, little analysis exists to show how political cartels secure this, how "capitalist" positions are created by the laws that legislatures pass and executives execute, on taxes, wages, freedom of assembly, due process, and finally what can and cannot exist as a society. The issue is the durability and presence of rights that build and protect citizens' governance of conditions, the substance and weight of their political freedom against a permanent center. 

The emphasis on economic struggle takes the heat off those in a ruling caste waging political struggle against the people's right to broad and deep self-government. The people include the workers. What is attacked includes far more than wages and economic rights. Who, frankly, is the working class today? Is it not part of the problem to allow oneself to be defined by job position and job rights, rather than as a citizen with all political rights, including the right to be a person, not just a worker, to have self-governing power over all conditions? In the United States, African-Americans, Latinos, and feminists especially understood the need for a wider frame, but at the same time, the focus on governing in the factory and mines and traditional worker sites faded. Further, governing structures in private are different from governing in public, and the home demands privacy. But what of how a society as a whole is organized? Is this not a public matter? Yes, it is partly economic, but the economic part is just one in a wider terrain involving economics, culture, and all that shapes our lives. Is not a worker, like anyone, a person with full political rights? And is it not right as well that food, air, water, and land not be poisoned and ruined? Who is doing this?

To define one's problems as economic has been the default position of both capitalism and communism ever since political rights emerged on the world stage. As long as everyone is focused on getting and keeping jobs, on economic processes, on invisible hands, much like the current blaming of "the corporations," politicians and their management of society is immune to challenge. People seeking power must fold into one party or multiple parties that form the center, and as inexorably, watch as their power vanishes and the party rises. Far better to say all social entities not governed by the people are illegal, and that the people retain the right to rights robbed from them, foremost among them, the right to self-government, to self-organize for control of their conditions.

Disastrously, the language of the public realm, of the people concerning their power, has been approaching the status of a lost language. Serious skirmishes have erupted, in Spain, in Greece, in India and Africa and elsewhere, as the people rediscover this language and face the long-building rot of established parties and cartels. The ruling caste's control is formidable. As a result, the question of a lost language is not solely about those in a remote jungle threatened with expropriation. What matters is in all our homes and paths and workplaces and halls of law-making. Full public control of elections, commerce, culture, governing, resources, and all conditions goes beyond class. It extends to the furthest reaches of the Amazon or Congo rivers as well as those pried open to plunder anywhere, not just the factory worker, college student, software builder, or member of the ‚precariat‘ in advanced Western cities. This has for too long been the message to people all over: you don't matter, you're not the governors, we, under the guise of this or that fiction, can take your land, homes, resources, air, water, climate, and future, and decide for you so we benefit, not you, the world be damned. But on this earth, all have the right and duty to self-government, to protect their homes, loved ones, possessions, their "souls," the land and earth, the fruits of toil, and their political freedom. 

To bring this to fruition, a new language is needed, built perhaps on an ancient language people cannot afford to lose: that of their lives, fortunes, and the right to govern conditions. That a great battle is underway is clear, and so the people's need to fight for their right to govern. The need to struggle, just as the need to have an art and literature to describe, detail, and advance this struggle, is clear, but so is the need for victory. The ruling caste's methods have adapted to keep power that was never rightfully theirs, and their tools involve every aspect of our lives now. The old left impulse was grand in its way, as was the spirit of organizing to win better conditions and more dignity. But oppression and subjugation have shifted, and so must we. What has not shifted is the desperate need for the revolutionary spirit of the people against ruling orders, against ruling castes, everywhere. It is those who must suffer conditions who know them and know they need to be changed.



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