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
As I write this response to Gabriella Coleman’s fascinating work on the hacker communities that develop Free and Open Source Software, and engage with the question of the political role of such collectives, Edward Snowdon has become the latest protagonist in a protracted and deep struggle for “information freedom” to surface into the public consciousness.
Whilst the cases differ, the underlying sensibilities—and logics—of these various social actors overlap. As Coleman begins to explore, strong ethical commitments to a liberalism based upon freedom of speech and citizens’ right to privacy underpin a core element of these various collectives of “information activists” who are responding to a range of corporate and state violations of such values during an era of unprecedented, and expanding, rates of production and distribution of data and information. Continue reading
At the Working-Class Studies conference last weekend, I heard an amazing dialogue about class, race and movement-building by five progressive journalists and activist scholars: Juan Gonzalez of Democracy Now!, Frances Fox Piven, Bill Fletcher Jr. of Blackcommentator.com, and former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert of Demos, with conference organizer Michael Zweig, author of The Working Class Majority moderating.
I was struck by how openly they disagreed with each other in front of us 200 listeners, by how passionate all five of them are about creating a more just society, and by what vast depth of experience they brought to the panel. Here are some highlights: Continue reading
Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America, by Barbara Jensen. Cornell Press, 2012.
And unlike most things I’ve read about kids disengaged from school, which focus on their deficits and fret about their life chances, Jensen, a counseling psychologist who has long worked with such kids, celebrates the working-class cultural strengths that motivate some of them, even as she is realistic about their struggles.
Reading this wise and evocative book through my own lens of wanting to organize progressive social movements, I saw that the working-class cultural traits she describes are some of the essentials of movement-building.
“If there’s no rebel energy, there’s no movement,” the late working-class activist Bill Moyer wrote in Doing Democracy. He didn’t mean violent rebellion or randomly scattered rage, but strategically targeted rebellion against unjust power-holders. Tame tactics would never make social change. Looking around at the devastation in the U.S. economy and environment, it’s clear that too many of us are taking terrible injustices sitting down. We have a society-wide shortage of rebel energy, as Bruce Levine. Continue reading