Class and Diversity in the Left

A recent expose in the New York Times documenting how U.S. corporations exploit migrant children sheds light on a crucial issue facing the American Left. Nowadays, many left activists rightly focus on identity politics. To them, diversity is the order of the day. No argument here. Years ago, Richard Penniman, aka Little Richard, put it clearly: diversity is a beautiful bouquet of flowers. But the celebration of differences oftentimes ignores what holds us together, what we have in common. The Times article makes clear what that is: It’s about class struggle, the battle against economic subjugation and oppression of the vulnerable.

Just look at what these desperate children are up against. Driven by extreme poverty that’s exacerbated by climate change, a by-product of capitalist consumer driven production, migrant children from Central America cross the U.S. border by the tens of thousands. Out of desperation, many are sucked into the maw of the worst labor abuses perpetrated by American business. According to the Times, food giants such as Hearthside Food Solutions lure these kids into the country’s most dangerous jobs. Suffering endless workdays and worknights, they are forced to meet the high-pressure speed-up routines demanded by corporate America’s incessant need for profit. Deadening fatigue and exhaustion, illness, and injuries abound. One young woman had her scalp ripped apart by a machine. According to the U.S. Labor Department, 12 child workers have been killed at their jobs since 2017. Then there’s the emotional toll of family separation, loneliness, fear, and the ruinous effect of sometimes being denied an education. Undoubtedly some of these teens identify as Nicaraguans or Guatemalans, many as straight, gay lesbian or bi. Some may identify as black, others as white or brown. Together these kids form a rich diversity of difference. Each is a unique living example of Kimberle Crenshaw’s valuable concept of intersectionality, the idea that each of us is a composite of multiple identities, including race, sexuality, and, of course, class too, among many others.
The shared horror these children experience demonstrates unequivocally how the relentless drive to exist is conditioned by their absolute dependence on the basic need to work under any conditions they can find, no matter how bad. Driven north by economic desperation, borders mean nothing to them. And why should they? As Canadian activist Harsha Walia declares in her recent book, Border and Rule, “the borders of today are completely bound up in the violences of dispossession, accumulation, exploitation”, and their intersection “with race, caste, gender, sexuality, and ability,” a global dispossession that has fired the engines of capital since the 16th century.  The horrors of child labor that Marx excoriated 160 years ago remain part of a system that sniffs every chance to eke out the last ounce of unpaid labor from the most vulnerable humans on the planet. 
In a truly humane and democratic world, diversity and difference would surely reign. But in this ugly real world where teenage lives from so many different places are stunted, injured, and destroyed, it becomes increasingly clear that the overarching reality that most threatens the very human need to exist is class oppression. Class is the relentless reality that compels people to live by serving the terms of capital, no matter where they come from, how young or old they are or how they “identify” as unique human beings. The only way that reality will change is when working people recognize and challenge class as the commonality of their oppression. Democratic power comes from unity, division is its nemesis. The Roman imperialists understood the counter-power of division. They called the strategy divide et impera, divide and rule. When will the American Left finally stop playing the Romans’ game?

Sidney Plotkin is a Professor of Political Science, Margaret Stiles Halleck Chair of Social Science, at Vassar College. He is the author of many articles and several books, including Veblen's America: The Conspicuous Case of Donald J. Trump (Anthem Press, 2018). William E. Scheuerman is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at SUNY Oswego. He is the retired President of the National Labor College and past President of United University Professions, the nation's largest higher ed union. A long-time labor activist, Scheuerman has written several books and numerous articles in both scholarly and popular journals. His most recent book is A New American Labor Movement: The Decline of Collective Bargaining and the Rise of Direct Action (SUNY Press, 2021). Read other articles by Bill Scheuerman and Sid Plotkin.