Class Conflict Is an All-Out Brawl, Research Time, 01/10/2013

Our lines of communication constitute genuine barriers for people. And I’m not talking about the internet, but about the much simpler communication of talking to people. Who are the people you talk with most frequently? What’s their background? Where do they live? What do they do for a living? What kind of apartments do they have? I, for example, work in universities for a living, and most of my friends in Hamilton I’ve met, at least in part, through my employment at McMaster. But in any city where I live, or even where I’m just visiting, I always drift toward the arts community, so befriend musicians, artists, filmmakers, and gallery owners. 

However, I don’t know a lot of welders. Yes, this is another post about ideas from Jean-Paul Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason. The part of the book I’m reading now is examining how aggregates of people become unified groups, and how those groups articulate themselves as a community or as a class. The central dynamic of this relationship revolves around who is alienated from whom, and how they achieve this alienation. Alienation sounds like a strange term, and an extreme term. But I think it does describe one way people interact, or rather fail to interact with each other. Sartre should be commended for explaining this often hifalutin idea in a way that communicates how ordinary the phenomenon is.

Say you spot someone walking on the street, who you can see begging passersby for change. However, you see the way he’s jittering a little bit, and you can plainly see he’s a drug addict. You don’t want to talk to him, you see no solidarity with him. He’s a drug addict, and you want him to get away from you. It’s entirely understandable. But it’s also alienation: the phenomenon, not only of being socially separate from someone, but from not even being remotely interested in bridging the gap.

This image became part of the narrative that cost Mitt
Romney the USA Presidency. I don't think it created the
public antipathy toward his character, but I think it tapped
into a widespread distrust struggling people have for the
very rich. When you avoid someone because you find them
distasteful, that's alienation. True no matter your class.
This gets to another problem I have with the way Marxist philosophy tends to be written. Its histrionic quality is unbearable, especially with talk about alienation and the other class barriers that, according to the dialectical analysis, leads necessarily to revolution. It wasn’t until I read Sartre that I really understood just how ordinary the phenomenon of alienation is. It’s just not really wanting to talk to someone. We’re okay with alienation when it’s a drug addict homeless person, or a creepy smelly dude in big glasses and jogging pants. We’re less okay when the relationship of alienation is between a rich white man running for president of the United States and the Mexican labourer come to shine his shoes. 

The hilarious, but perhaps also sad, aspect of this image is that despite its rhetorical power, it’s a completely misleading description. The image that became a popular meme was cropped to remove the detail that the Mexican-American was a TSA worker who was going over Romney with a wand scanner on an airport tarmac. The way the image was lit, you could easily mistake it for a shoe shine. But I fell for it completely until I was researching the image for this post.

Because the narrative of alienation really does make sense. So many interviews and public appearances Romney made during and leading up to the campaign revealed that he was, in terms of his personality, so out of touch with ordinary people almost to a level of autism. And I think if someone had examined him, at least with a DSM IV in hand instead of DSM 5, he might end up diagnosed with Asperger’s. We were able to believe that Romney was out of touch because we experience the alienation of the absurdly rich from the poor and middle class all the time. This is why rich people live in gated communities and private mansions behind security forces. They’d rather not talk to people who they find distasteful, and the middle class would rather not talk to them. 

One of the reasons George W. Bush was so successful with lower-class voters was because even though he grew up crazily rich, he projected a personality that showed he could still interact with people from all social circles (until Katrina, but that’s another post). Here’s the lesson every Marxist writer should learn: no matter how well we learn the macro-scale abstract class structures of our society, the everyday interactions of individuals at the meso-scale play a large role in helping constitute the solidity of class structures. 

And I find the super-duper-mega-hyper-rich to be distasteful myself. I’ve visited rich neighbourhoods and $2-million houses. I don’t feel comfortable there, but I feel perfectly comfortable in my low-rent neighbourhood of blue-collar workers, small business owners, and artists. I’ve taught students who grew up and still lived in the running-down old brick neighbourhoods of east and north Hamilton. I’ve taught kids who grew up in gated communities and condo complexes of Mississauga and Oakville, who thought I lived in the ghetto because I lived on the eastern side of the bridge over the QEW highway.

My friend M runs a contracting business: outdoor and garden renovations, mostly. I know him through his brother A, who is in McMaster's doctoral program in philosophy with me. Every now and then, we all party at their house, and I can joke around with everyone. There's always common ground in complaining about the aspects of our institutions that annoy us. We can laugh together, and learn about our different working worlds by working through what frustrates us. But then someone asks me about what I do for a living, the details of my work at the university, some of the esoteric qualities of my research. And I start to become uncomfortable. I've been getting along so well with people because I've been discussing what we have in common: those little frustrations that every lifestyle has some version of. Now I'm stuck explaining complicated and abstract conceptual theories and arguments, the part of my life that makes me different from other people.

Alienation goes in all directions.


  1. A very Gramscian post today, Adam. This leads me to I wonder how you'd feel about being pushed on the question of why you hold on to Marx despite so many critiques in this blog of Marxian and Marxist work/ attitudes/ style.

    Thinking analytically, Marx is clearly a highly symbolic figure, both in his negative coding as a thuggish brutarian on the (fairly far) right and in his positive coding as an emancipatory and enlightened figure on (I think, a much broader spectrum of) the left. And then there is a space where he is viewed as the only real thinker, someone everyone must contend with if not simply follow. You are clearly not in box 1 or 3, and sometimes don't seem very comfortable with box 2 either, although you seem to return to him quite a bit.

    I just pose this as a genuine prompt to you to consider. I know you connect with him a lot second-hand, by virtue of the people you deal with directly (as in Sartre here). It also seems like you have good friends and interlocutors who are dyed in the wool Marxians. And a third reason of course would be that Marx is an influential utopian, a group you're studying.

    Max Weber may do more for you than Marx, given some of your posts in the past; so, why Marx?

    (PS Don't feel like you need to justify yourself here, just thought it might be a helpful question as you sketch the groundwork of your utopias project.)

    1. Well, right now I'm in the very early stages of putting the utopias project together, which means going through revolutionary political theories and sorting which ones are worth engaging with most. You're a university researcher too, Tom, so you know how frustrating it is to get an article back from a peer reviewer who says, "Why isn't X in this project? You can't do project A without reference to X!" Usually these are just the petty cheap shots of neurotics who feel offended that you've left their pet theorist out of consideration. But if I'm doing a project on revolutionary politics, I can't not reference the Marxist tradition. So I am sort of in category three, that Marx or at least the tradition of theorists who descend from Marx are writers I have to contend with if my project is to be taken seriously. It's not because I believe it myself, but I believe there are enough other people who believe it to cause me problems.

      And I'm extremely critical of the Marxist tradition, as I am with any tradition of thought that aims for the revolutionary transformation of society to conform to some ideal. I'm reading some articles about Italian Fascism and the Futurist art movement tonight, so the blog will probably veer in a totally different direction Wednesday.

  2. Fair enough -- look forward to the futurist stuff.