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Tuesday, November 20 , 2018, 10:30 pm | Fair 50º


Wayne Mellinger: From Class Warfare to Class Envy

By luring us into endless shop-and-spend sprees, industrial capitalist society leads us to forget about class warfare. While the Occupy movement, occurring as it did during the deepest recession in the post-World War II history, briefly ignited “class consciousness” by directing attention to the super fortunes of the ruling elite, today we seem to be drifting away from any class-based activism.

Coming to political consciousness during the 1970s and 1980s, I never witnessed a time when the labor movement was the vanguard of progressive social change. A “rainbow coalition” of issues inspired the American left during this era, including struggles for civil rights, gender equality and anti-imperialism.

Long ago, “the workers” and “the capitalists” were sworn enemies with clearly conflicting interests. From the time of the American Revolution to WWII, many central changes in society were spurred on by the labor movement.

Today, workers and capitalists are increasingly united in the “pursuit of happiness” and the affluence inspired by the American Dream.

When Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels penned The Communist Manifesto in 1848, they famously stated: “The history of all hitherto know societies is a history of class struggles.” Class struggle was identified as the motor of history.

When “the have-nots” rise up against “the haves,” social worlds were thought to advance into progressive stages of social evolution. For Marx and Engels, capitalism was but one stage in this march of history, and they wrongly foresaw its imminent demise.

Having taken part in the violent uprising in Paris in 1848, Marx insisted that the working class was the “revolutionary proletariat” — the vanguard of radical social change. Because of their supposedly increasing victimization at the hands of the evil bourgeoisie, workers were seen as poised to launch a socialist revolution.

It has been 130 years since the death of Marx in 1883. Today, society’s “victims” hate not their oppressors — instead they envy them.

In the ensuing years, materialism and consumerism — the dogged pursuit of more and more stuff — have emerged as potent forms of social control.

The “average” American has largely been assimilated into the existing social order, and has given up dreams of fundamental social change, at least in its more revolutionary incarnations. Instead they dream of new Blackberries, iPods, SUVs and vacations in Puerto Vallarta.

Half a century ago, social critics John Kenneth Galbraith and Herbert Marcuse identified the manufacture of “false needs” as central to the union of opposing social classes. Technological advances touted by the “culture industries” are promised as the means to happiness. We crave new and shiny electronic devises and imagine that we need these toys.

The satisfaction of these false needs keeps us from questioning our lives and our society. As Marcuse states: “Independence of thought, autonomy, and the right to political opposition are being deprived of their basic critical function in a society which seems increasingly capable of satisfying the needs of individuals through the way in which it is organized.”

Technology thus becomes a tool of domination. Its magic lies in appearing so benign while actually enslaving us.

The manufacture of desires, and the stuff sold to satisfy them, blinds us to the complicity of our lifestyles. The pursuit of happiness through technological advancements leaves us unable to grasp the nature of our cage.

As we pursue “middle-class” lifestyles, we often largely abandon revolutionary aspirations. Supposed happy with our shiny new toys and “cushy” lifestyles, we conform to the status quo.

It can feel as though our every need has been catered to, but these false needs are planned to meet the requirements of systems of production rather than those of individuals. Shiny new toys do not guarantee lives of deep meaning. Moreover, they are central to the ecological ruin plaguing our planet.

The proliferation of popular media within the last half century has only exacerbated trends noted by Marcuse and Galbraith.

As more and more people become integrated into the system, the ability to think critically disappears, as does oppositional behavior. We don’t care that we have inadequate health care because we just got a new iPhone.

In sum, consumerism is a form of social control. The media teach us how to live, what to love and what we need. Satisfying these false needs gratifies us but perpetuates injustice because it distracts us from critical analysis. The endless need for more and more stuff simply brings us further into despair.

— Wayne Mellinger, Ph.D., is a social justice activist living in Santa Barbara and social worker for the homeless. He is on the board of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE).

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