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A Workshop Talk in New York

Sunday Morning Class—Middle-Class Workshop, New York City Regions 2 and 3, August 1998—Seán Ruth

At this point it is obvious from the work we have done that middle-class people are completely good. It is clear that we are innocent and that there is nothing we have to do to justify our existence.

I think of this work in different phases. In the first, people focused on their distress and tried to do the work because everyone expected it. They hoped that if they did this work, it would be safer for them in RC. In the second phase, since I became International Liberation Reference Person, we have focused on noticing that we are actually okay. It became possible to take our attention off the distress and put it on the people underneath. A lot of times, leading middle-class workshops felt like teaching fundamentals classes and reminding everyone that people are good. We are not an exception.

It is still important to middle-class liberation work to remember our goodness and to remind each other of it. We get to lead it from knowing we are good. It is important that we counsel one another from the place of knowing that this client is completely good, important that we stop worrying about cleaning up distress and start noticing the client. I’ll say more about this second phase of the work before saying something about our next steps.

When I first came to do workshops here, it was hard for people because they felt urgency to get on to another piece. At times people resented “wasting time” on getting close to middle-class people when it felt more important to get close to working-class people. It was as though the middle class were some kind of necessary evil we had to work with before we got to the real work. We are going to sell working-class people short if we leave out this step. They are not going to have our full selves if we haven’t done this part of the work. I want to say a little about some other bits and pieces involved in this work, all the time locating these other pieces on top of the importance of noticing our goodness and reclaiming our friendships with each other.

Middle-class liberation can get treated as a kind of personal development: “I do this in order to feel better about myself.” It is possible to get stuck there. “I go to support groups because it helps me personally.” That is important. We don’t need to be hard on people if that is what they are using middle-class liberation for. But we do need to hold out a bigger perspective. Part of this is finding ways to make the issue of class oppression real for people.

One particular thing seems to happen for middle-class people and probably also others in RC. On the one hand, the broad RC resource is attractive. We come into RC because someone is finally going to pay attention: “It looks like they can see the real me and I can get space for myself.” But RC comes in a package, and attached to the part about the person being good is the bigger perspective on class and the world at large. Because we are dutiful middle-class people, we want to also pay attention to class oppression. We try to take on the whole package. But sometimes in an unthinking way.

Because we respect Harvey, we assume that if he says capitalism is collapsing then it must be. We buy into the jargon of a collapsing society because it is part of the package and because we are good people. We say, “I can live with that.” We fudge. We parrot things we don’t understand, because they are part of the package. For example, we accept the idea of the classless society. But what does it mean to us? How does that idea actually feel? Or the notion of the collapse of capitalism. What does it mean? Are we really committed to it? If it happens, what will happen to me? And what will I do about it? It’s not clear that we actually understand any of it. We trust in the theory a lot, but we don’t always understand it enough.

I think it’s important, as we move into the next phase of our liberation work, to stop pretending that we understand these ideas. It is fine that we don’t understand. It is fine that maybe these ideas scare us. The important thing is that we try to figure out what they might mean for us personally—so that we work from a place that has meaning, not just out of duty or trust.

Because if we don’t make it real for us, we won’t do anything concrete. We take in the language and ideas because we are scared. “If I take all this on, maybe I will be safe when the revolution comes.” But some of us, if we are honest, are terrified that capitalism might collapse.

So part of our work from now on is making these things real to us. We need to stop taking other people’s phrases that we only half understand. To the extent we do understand, we understand intellectually, without a feel for where they touch us personally. We need to go back and re-connect with how class oppression really affects us—either currently or when we were growing up. Instead of using grand phrases without connection to what they mean, we need to begin talking about what is real for us. Then we will know what we are talking about. We will then get to think through what eliminating classism means and how it might feel if a classless society ever came about.

There’s another part of the third phase of our liberation work I want to talk about. We have tended to think of middle-class work as including getting back our connection to working-class people, and we have tended to think about that at an interpersonal level. “I personally will get close to some working-class people.” This, however, is only one piece. The exciting thing would be if we, as a group, could organise ourselves to get right in behind the working class, so that when they looked around, they would see an organised group of middle-class people committed to them. They would know we were there. They could depend on us to act with integrity.

To get to that place means we have to be honest about what these concepts about class and classism mean to us. We have to be honest about how we feel about capitalism collapsing and not pretend that it feels okay if it does not. I think it has not been possible to do this work until now because people have been so hard on us about our distress. It was not safe to admit we don’t understand half of what they are talking about. However, we are now at a point where, because it is clear we are good, being honest will not detract from our goodness or our significance, nor invalidate our right to exist. It is possible to begin looking at what this stuff means.

What will it mean to commit myself to eliminating class oppression? What will it mean to commit myself to eliminating capitalism? What will it mean to me personally? We have a picture of classless society, but not of what is involved in bringing it about. There is work to be done here. We middle-class people certainly have to do it, and I suspect other groups have to do some of it as well.

Where does class touch me? It might be in a small, seemingly insignificant way. But if that is what it means, if that is what I can relate to, then that is the piece to work on. I get to notice how my life as a middle-class person is damaged and distorted by the operation of middle-class oppression. I get to be clear about it in a way that is real for me. I get to think about places I witnessed it happening to other people. No one in the room has escaped class oppression. We know about some of the mechanisms that operate to obscure it and confuse us, but we also know that by going back to the places where it touches us, and discharging, we can recover our real, personal understanding of class oppression. The goal is that when I build relationships with raised-poor and working-class people, I build from the place where I am connected to what is going on, and not because of a purely theoretical understanding of class.

Question and demonstration [Editor’s note: In the demonstration that follows the client reveals certain confusion and difficulty in articulating ideas. Instead of editing the transcription to make it easy to read, which we normally do with confusing text, we left its full flavor intact. We suggest you read it in that light.]

Client: I hear everything you say. If we are looking at the middle class from that point of view—us organising to back the working class—it is complicated to have both things where we look at middle class. . . . It is hard to stay claiming this knowing I am going to leave the middle class. That is implied here. It is inherently irrational—how can we?

Seán: We have many such questions we are not asking.

Client: If you say the working class is the class of the future, which I don’t disagree with, and say we are backing the working class: if you say that, there is another piece. Do you understand what I am saying?

Seán: Go ahead.

Client: Why can’t I articulate this? It is really important.

Seán: One thing that stops us from doing this work is that we want to have answers before it is started.

Client: No!

Seán: I mean in general.

Client: (laughs) That isn’t what this is about. I swear. I have never wanted to claim middle-class identity. This is totally new for me. If the working class is the class of the future, and I don’t disagree with that, then. . . . Okay. Identity: you claim it and discharge it and throw it away, right? You are saying we need to discharge to know internally, personally, what this means. I get that. And then you say, let’s do what we need to do so we can make decisions and act with integrity. Then you say the working class is the future. That is where we are heading, but we don’t know anything in between—but—in the meantime claim this. There are so many contradictions. I am sorry; I won’t get mad at you.

Seán: I want you to get mad.

Client: Then you say make a commitment to the working class. What about this commitment to the middle class? What would it mean for middle-class people to back each other. Wow, it would be incredible. It would be scary. We don’t have any models of this in our generation. You are leaving us in the lurch. You say, “Process this. Decide in your own mind.” I guess this is the point. We have not a clue. (laughter) That is what you’ve been trying to say. (laughter) Sorry to insult you. You say, “Love yourselves and love each other,” but, “I am about to leave tomorrow.” But first, “I claim you.” There is so much dishonesty; we pretend to know. Harvey may know. He talks a good talk. I don’t know. (discharge) I don’t completely believe this is the way out. At the moment it is the best shot we have.

Seán: I don’t know whether you realise it, but this is one of the most important sessions in middle-class work in a long time. The challenge at this point is to be honest with ourselves, and it is fine to be completely confused. This discharge is how we clear up confusion.

Client: That sounds so condescending, but I chronically feel condescended to.

Seán: You are working on important things. (Gives direction): “I don’t understand.”

Client: (discharge) It is about claiming something bigger, trying to be honest and trying to stay while building this. What is it we are trying to belong to? (laughter) You are very different than Harvey. You want somebody to explain it. You really have to trust yourself to do this work. I feel like I am going to pass out. It is so hard not to (tape unclear) as a young person trying to figure things out. So much comes in that you are not doing it right. You just want to get your mind to work separately from distress. It is so hard. (To Seán): Stop, quit, you don’t know more. Don’t think you know more, because you don’t. Those people who are noble and righteous get to the truth. Those are the good people.

Seán: When I started doing this work I had a couple of ideas I thought might be correct or accurate, but mostly I operated on trust that they were accurate. With a lot of this we squirm and are uncomfortable. But a day comes when you wake up and realise that you know. It shifts. What has been confusing and convoluted is simple. But you don’t realise what you have done to get there. At various points, I have realised, “I am sure about this piece.” This happens after long periods of wondering and hoping, and also trusting myself.

What is important is that we get to do this kind of work around all of the questions. One you can ask is “Will there be a place for me in a classless society?” Can we actually believe there is any place for us in the classless society? Not just accept the idea because we believe that it is good for everyone else. We need to ask these questions. This is how we get the answers.

Client: I know more already than is comfortable for me to admit. I need to work on trusting my mind.

(end of demonstration)

Middle-class people have different ways we cope with our conditioning. One is to buy into the system’s invitation: “Climb the ladder; you will feel better and have a better lifestyle.” In general in society at large, there is no credible alternative on offer.

We need to make class liberation real so that we can offer middle-class people an alternative that will communicate, that they will understand. One challenge as we move this work into the wide world is to drop the jargon. To be influential we need to hold out a vision that actually touches something for the people we are leading.

Last modified: 2021-06-01 12:29:59+00