What is working class culture?
This question arose as part of a conversation about convincing members of Canada’s newest union, Unifor, to make saving the planet from climate change a priority.
“You’ll run up against working class culture,” said a friend who considers himself an anarchist.
“What do you mean?” I responded.
“Consumerism. High paying jobs with lots of overtime to buy ever more stuff, two cars, a big house in the suburbs with NASCAR and hockey on the two big screens in the basement, plus Housewives of Vancouver on the TV in the kitchen,” he said. “And how many thousands of your members build cars, dig up the tar sands and work in oil refineries? How can people with jobs like that ever be environmentalists?”
The first response I thought of was: “Are you saying soldiers never turn against war? Because history proves they do,” which spun the argument in another direction.
But the subject of working class culture lingered. Is there one and is it defined by consumerism? Or are there many, including ones opposed to the “culture” that TV tries to convince us is how we all live?
And regardless if there is only one, or many, where does it/they come from? Does culture simply happen or is it imposed upon us? Is it something that we can consciously build?
Certainly working class movements in the past have sought to educate themselves in an attempt to create an explicitly anti-capitalist culture. Many social democratic, anarchist and communist groups, including unions, grew into mass movements precisely by challenging the dominant ideology and suggesting an attractive, believable alternative. Rather than bemoan, but accept, the culture that rulers imposed on the working class, social democrats, anarchists and communists instead talked and listened to their fellow workers, convincing them that an alternative to capitalism was desirable, possible and necessary.
Those of us who understand that capitalism is environmentally unsustainable must do the same work today. We must inform people about the importance of immediate action to slow global warming and fix other ecological rifts that threaten human existence on our planet. We must challenge the notion that capitalists will solve environmental problems when, in fact, they are the ones who profit from mining the tar sands and building the pipelines which threaten our children’s and grandchildren’s future. We must point out that constant economic growth (unsustainable on a finite planet) is at the core of capitalism. But most important of all, we must offer a vision of an alternative to capitalism. This system must be environmentally sustainable, more democratic, provide a comfortable life and be fun to build.
One such alternative to capitalism is economic democracy. This means replacing master-servant relations with workplace democracy, replacing capitalist title with equal human entitlement and replacing corporate ownership with social ownership. The essential ideas of economic democracy are: Expanding one-person, one-vote decision-making into every area where people work collectively, which is the vast majority of our economy; limiting private property to what is truly private and doesn’t give an individual power over others; replacing corporations with multiple democratic owning communities based on the appropriate level of government, local, state/provincial, national or international.
In an economic democracy individual greed could not overrule the collective good, which would be determined by democratic means. When the majority of people understand the causes and dangers of global warming, their governments and collective enterprises would become agents of change rather than barriers. Entrenched interests who profit from spewing ever more carbon into the atmosphere would not control them. If workers and communities ran industries, such as the automobile and oil sectors that must change or disappear if we are to make the necessary drastic cuts in carbon emissions, they would be a lot less likely than profit-addicted corporations to blackmail society into supporting private interests that damage the environment. Worker and community- owned enterprises would support just transition strategies to move jobs from polluting to sustainable industries. They would also be much more likely to promote an alternative culture of artistic leisure over mindless consumerism.
Environmentalists in and outside the union movement should not cite “working class culture” as an excuse to avoid raising critical issues about the jobs we do. Hundreds of millions of workers have proved capable over the past two centuries of managing the contradiction of opposing capitalism while seemingly dependent on capitalists for their jobs. Pointing out how capitalists use jobs to blackmail us into supporting their interests helps people understand why capitalism is the problem, not the solution. Rather than being a barrier to environmental understanding the fact that capitalism cannot do what is necessary to repair the damage it has already done, is a powerful argument in favour of building a working class alternative to the current system.
Strong, democratic, environmentally conscious, militant unions are one of the keys to success in this project. Such unions do not shy away from difficult but necessary discussions.