Middle-Class People Facing Reality and Changing Their Role

For over six months, Seán Ruth1 and I have been working, and consulting widely, on a new document based on the current draft middle-class liberation policy. The working title of the document is “Changing Our Role.” We intend it to be the basis for producing a new, much shorter middle-class policy in the near future.

“Changing Our Role” describes the way the capitalist economic system works and the role of the middle class within it. It talks about the system as currently in crisis and beginning to disintegrate. Our environment has been and still is being damaged and depleted in the search for profit, and the resulting crises mean it is unlikely that global capitalism as we know it will ever recover. “Changing Our Role” says that this situation will be resolved, one way or another, during the lifetimes of many of us alive today.

The document analyses the role expectations for us as middle-class people and encourages us to be honest about what we do to help the current system. It invites us to decide to end class oppression, and to set up our lives to do this, even if at this stage we do not know exactly how.

EXPERIMENTING AT A MIDDLE-CLASS WORKSHOP

I was eager to lead a middle-class workshop for six Regions2 in England that regularly come together to work on class. I wanted to experiment with ways of discharging on some of the frightening and exciting things that Seán and I had been writing about.

Thirty-six people came to the workshop. Nearly half of us were elders who had been doing middle-class liberation work for many years. We also had one young person, five young adults, four people in their early thirties, and three in their early forties, as well as a few RC leaders who had been raised working class or owning class but now had middle-class jobs or lifestyles.

I started doing middle-class liberation work twenty-five years ago. For many years most of us who did it were white Protestant English Gentiles. At this workshop there were seven people targeted by racism, seven Jews, nine LGBTQ3 people (as far as I knew), and several people with disabilities. I think there are two reasons for this change: (1) the work we have done makes it safer for people from oppressed groups to decide to do the work, and (2) the work we have done makes middle-class Co-Counsellors able to show themselves more, so we can see our diversity.

English material4 sits heavily on all of us who live here, wherever we come from and whichever groups we belong to. It reinforces the middle-class message that we should all try to sound like Southern English people, and not express emotions loudly or emphatically, or do anything odd or non-conformist.

I decided my main aim for the workshop was to make it safe for us to speak from the heart and notice and reject our enforced assimilation. I didn’t know whether I could do this or exactly how to do it, but I had a lot of sessions about it. Two things became obvious to me:

  • I would not be able to do it on my own.
  • I had to give up entirely the idea of looking good as workshop leader. If that was one of my aims, even a secondary one, I wouldn’t be able to do what I really wanted.

I began asking others for help, and I began noticing how many people cared about me personally as well as being committed to class liberation work. This had been true for a long time, but my early material and my middle-class internalised oppression had made me feel as if they only cared about me, and were willing to work with me, on condition that I work hard, behave well, and do what they need or want.

The workshop began with a leaders’ afternoon, and I took some time in front of the group to describe what I wanted for the workshop. I mentioned Seán’s concept of “collective leadership.” I said that I suspected it was particularly important to middle-class people, because of our tendency toward individualism, but that I didn’t think any of us yet knew exactly what it meant. Part of it must involve creating a group in which all the members are thinking about the whole. I asked the people at the leaders’ afternoon to do this. Later at the workshop I asked everyone to think about the whole, and I believe that everyone did reach for it.

We started the workshop with a Co-Counselling session. (Middle-class people often go into a workshop, or any other situation, trying to find out and conform to the rules that apply in that particular time and place. A session can help us become more connected.) We followed the session with a rowdy game, and followed that with Shabbat.5 Shabbat is a time to stop everyday work and focus on the benign reality of ourselves and the world—a precious anti-capitalist legacy from the Jewish people. After Shabbat we introduced ourselves.

“Changing Our Role”—thirty pages long—had been sent out to all the participants prior to the workshop. The first thing I said at the workshop was that it was an important, valuable document and that there is an internalised oppression among RCers that often makes us underestimate the significance and power of our theory and the discharge process. I explained that we weren’t going to study the document but rather discharge about it, and that discharging denial was key to getting back our power.

I talked about assimilation. When we are born, all of us have to learn to fit into the rigidities of our particular family, culture, and society. This is our first assimilation, and it is enforced by young people’s oppression. For those of us who belong to targeted groups, a second assimilation, to the dominant culture, is demanded of us. This extra assimilation may feel (or actually be) necessary for our survival. It requires us either to “pass” as a member of the dominant group (giving up important parts of ourselves) or to accept our status as inferior. For some people—for example, people with darker skin or visible disabilities—“passing” is impossible, though they are still supposed to conform to the rules of the dominant group. For those who can’t or won’t “pass,” the requirement is to accept their inferior status and find ways of living with it. One of the roles of the middle class is to make both sorts of assimilation work.

I invited a woman who had been born and spent a lot of her childhood in a colony to talk about colonialism. She described how confusing it had been to realise that although the English colonisers obviously knew much less and were far less competent than the natives of the country, they were still somehow considered superior. She had puzzled over the idea that an ignorant English schoolfellow was “better” than she was. She’d had to watch her middle-class father use his skills and knowledge to help the colonisers rule.

Whatever form it takes, this second assimilation is painful and harmful. Nevertheless, belonging to a non-dominant group means having some idea that other ways of being exist. The most thorough “colonization” or assimilation is for those of us raised in dominant groups. Our minds are taken over6 at such a young age that it is hard for us to imagine what our true selves might be. And our privilege makes the enormous human price we pay hard to take in.7 We are set up to be oppressors, to try to get others to join us in at least the appearance of conformity. We become the assimilation police. I did a demonstration with someone who wanted her working-class partner to assimilate so that he would be treated better.

Tim8 sometimes talks about RC as an experiment, and that is how I thought of this workshop. I didn’t give much theory, because it was all in “Changing Our Role.” Instead I looked for ways we could discharge, and see each other discharge, that would allow us to resist middle-class and English oppression and decide to join a collective effort to end class oppression in all its forms.

I asked Karl Lam9 to lead an early-morning class on oppression, and almost all the workshop came. He reminded us of how oppressor material gets laid in. When we are hurt or witness someone else being hurt, the whole situation is recorded and becomes a potential trap in our minds. When reminded of it, we may replay it from any of the recorded positions—as oppressor, as victim, or as witness. Karl distinguished between oppression (the systematic mistreatment of a group by another group or by society) and oppressor material, which we all carry and which makes us lash out, try to hurt others, become indifferent, and so on.

Karl also led part of a class on Englishness. As he had explained in his Present Time article,10 anyone who lives in England becomes affected by the “goodness” myth of the “English Empire” (a more accurate term than “British Empire”). To get back to our true basic goodness, we have to see through and discharge the myths about English goodness, such as the myth that we fought World War II to stop fascism. After his talk, we divided into groups to discharge on “What is your relationship to England and the English?” We did this in mixed groups, as staying together and understanding that everyone carries both oppressor and victim material allows us to see and understand how the oppression works.

We tried an experiment to get us facing and discharging our denial of the current crises. Part of “Changing Our Role” says that capitalism is already disintegrating and describes how environmental destruction is likely to affect us over the next few decades. We read some of those paragraphs aloud, and after each paragraph, one member of a panel of young adults, and our one young person, took three minutes each to discharge in front of the group. We got to see the varieties of denial and glimpsed the despair lurking behind. Then we divided into groups of four to tell stories about the end of capitalism and what might follow. My thinking was that some things are so hard to look at that fantasising is the best way to discharge on them. This experiment worked well for many people, though not everyone could use it.

As you read this, you may have the impression, because of the subject matter, of overwhelming grimness. It wasn’t like that at all! Although we were looking at painful and difficult aspects of reality that could take us right back to our early defeats, we were tackling them in small bursts, with lightness and often laughter. The tone of the workshop was good, and people’s attention was excellent.

We looked at the nine role expectations for middle-class people described in “Changing Our Role” and worked in pairs on a version of four questions devised by Seán: (1) What are the role expectations for someone in your position? (2) How have you benefitted from your role? How have you resisted it? (3) How have you set up your life to end class oppression? (The answer may be “I haven’t.”) (4) If you were to reach for your full integrity, what would you do differently? We had a mini on each question, staying in the same pairs for all four questions.

In an early-morning group for women and men, I read aloud a passage from “Changing Our Role” that encourages women to take responsibility for the future of the world and men to show their vulnerability and outrage. Because the oppression of women and the oppression of men are systematically tied together, to take these directions contradicts both our own internalised oppression and that of the other gender. I counselled a woman and a man, who each discharged deeply. Because I wanted us all to see each other’s struggles, for the mini-sessions that followed I asked the men to each choose a female Co-Counsellor.

By Saturday night my own efforts to face the extent of the destruction caused by capitalism had begun to depress me. I asked for help, and a couple of leaders gave me some time.11 I stayed awake a lot of the night, struggling to take a perspective outside the hopelessness.

I said to the workshop on Sunday morning that we cannot know what will happen to our world in the future. The processes that will decide by how many degrees the planet heats up are happening right now. We don’t know exactly how human beings will be affected. And we don’t yet know whether the forces ranged against capitalist destruction will be able to stop it or limit it. Re-evaluation Counselling is one of those forces, but we don’t yet know whether it can make an appreciable difference. But what an amazing time to be alive! This is a time when we each have a chance to affect what happens. Other (possibly worse) types of class society may replace capitalism, or human beings may succeed in building new sorts of non-oppressive societies. We have a role to play that is completely different from the roles that capitalism has laid out for us as middle-class people.

When planning the Sunday class, I originally had the idea of our thinking aloud about what sorts of societies are possible. But then it seemed as if we could not work that out without first discharging hard on wanting something better than what exists now. I decided to do the class on wanting.

I did three demonstrations, and we had long minis in between. I had realised that being asked what we want would bring up early material but not how powerfully and immediately it would do this. It led straight to early defeats and disconnection. How can we let ourselves dare to want better societies until we discharge these things? I thought of how political rhetoric about building good societies often sounds false, and I think this must be why. Even when the person talking is sincere, he or she is trying to think about the future without having discharged the early defeats. These early defeats have made us conclude that we have to settle for low expectations, little bits of hope, and disappointing conditional love.

DISCHARGING ON THE DESTRUCTIVENESS OF CAPITALISM

Since the workshop I have found myself discharging, in odd moments in my daily life, about capitalism’s destruction of lives. I think most of us need to do this much more than we do.

We don’t discharge about some things because they seem too small to bother about in comparison with the huge, terrible things we know are happening. But this morning I cried for a few moments at the cynical nonsense on a shampoo bottle, thinking of the wasted creative talents of the young adults who probably designed and wrote it.

There are other things we rarely discharge about because they are so enormous, so overwhelming, that we make ourselves numb. For instance, as I write, huge numbers of desperate people are drowning in attempts to reach Europe from North Africa. Such horrors become part of the background of our lives, so they don’t really enter our thinking. Yet as climate change and the capitalist crisis get worse, the numbers of desperate fleeing people will increase. We need to find ways of un-numbing. We need to discharge about these terrible events in order to think. This is the only way that the decisions we make about how to live will be based on reality. We can still (as Tim says) dare to be happy; in fact, we will have a much better chance of happiness. Ending denial and reclaiming our integrity so as to act powerfully are central to middle-class liberation.

Caroline New
Bristol, England


1 Seán Ruth is the International Liberation Reference Person for Middle-Class People.
2 A Region is a subdivision of the International RC Community, usually consisting of several Areas (local RC Communities).
3 Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer
4 “Material” means distress.
5 It is a tradition at RC workshops to celebrate Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath) on Friday evening, as a way to contradict anti-Jewish oppression.
6 “Taken over” means taken control of.
7 “Take in” means grasp.
8 Tim Jackins
9 Karl Lam is the Regional Reference Person for Cambridge, Herts, Beds, Bucks, and Norfolk, in England.
10 “English Liberation,” on pages 57 to 59 of the October 2013 Present Time
11 “Gave me some time” means gave me some attention.


Last modified: 2019-05-02 14:41:35+00