As the daughter of Korean immigrants in Texas, I grew up knowing that to get what I wanted, I often had to find a way to translate across difference. Cultural, racial, linguistic, and socio-economic differences distinguished my family from the families of most of my classmates. Although I did not have the words to articulate it at the time, I implicitly recognized that the meanings and sensibilities I had were not always legible to my peers. Although I studied their world, they did not study mine. To fit in and negotiate the social dynamics of high school, I had to find ways to either make my world legible to them, or assimilate into theirs. In most cases, because they were many and I was one, because they were the norm and I was the outsider, because they had the weight of history behind them and I was a callow teenager, I assimilated.
The fault lines of class, race, geography and party played out dramatically in the 2016 election, demonstrating how polarized and dysfunctional our politics has become. Our political system seems unable to address the long litany of crises facing us from climate change to extreme inequality to perpetual wars to gun violence. Politics is being fought as a zero sum game in which we are forced to choose between competing goods like growing the economy vs. fighting climate change, or immigrant rights versus the rule of law. These seemingly unresolvable policy fights reflect a deeper failure of our political system to realize the promise of democracy, where people from different points of view and persuasions are forced to recognize and negotiate their differences through public dialogue and debate. While segmented media bubbles and segregated social circles feed this kind of polarization and paralysis, organizing and coalition building especially across diverse social and class lines can reinvigorate our democratic process and develop more sophisticated policy agendas that integrate social and economic goods. This is the promise of cross-class and multi-sector coalition building that has been successful at the local level and that needs to be brought into our national politics.
In 1963 an obscure Marxist press published The Making of the English Working Class by Edward Palmer Thompson, an adult educator and one of the intellectual founders of the British New Left. By the time Thompson died thirty years later, Eric Hobsbawm, Thompson’s one-time colleague in the post-war Communist Writers Group, noted that he was one of the 250 most-cited authors of all time and was the most-cited 20th-century historian in the world.
The book is epic in scope. Thompson traverses the period between 1789 and 1832 to recover popular traditions and the gradual formation of working-class consciousness. It is an original and much needed account of the industrial revolution from the perspective of the English people. The Making transformed the discipline of history and influenced the post-sixties generation of historical sociologists as they rebelled against the consensus and modernizing theories that had dominated sociology. In the golden anniversary year of its publication, reassessments of the book and its author were commonplace in the British press. In contrast, Thompson and the book are mostly forgotten in American sociology. Why? Continue reading
It has by now become commonplace to interpret the June Days of Brazil (the surprisingly massive mobilizations that occurred in over a hundred cities between June 6 and July 1, 2013 to protest government failure and fraud, and to call upon the state to fix Brazil’s broken public services), as an expression of deep-seated dissatisfaction on the part of the new middle class, fruit of the PT’s policies over the past decade, now paying up to a quarter of their income in taxes, with the sorry state of their nation’s public services. It has also been common to point to the horrifically wasteful sums of public monies being spent on the mega-sporting events of the World Cup and Olympics as triggers for these mobilizations. While I think these interpretations are basically correct, I want to focus in what follows less on what prompted the mobilizations, and more on what they may mean for the future. Continue reading