Materialism and activism

There exists a common desire among middle class leftists to lessen class inequalities and increase the living conditions of the poor. There have been attempts (in vain as of late) to even the divide, but it seems that the one thing that is not attempted is to understand the mentality as well as the realities of the people they claim they fight for.

A middle class friend recently criticized me for being “too materialistic.” My family has experienced generations of poverty, only recently (during my lifetime and only within my nuclear family) crossing over into the lower middle class, so I feel that I have many tendencies that are a result of my socio-economic position. It seems that the less one has, the more materialistic one is; those who have money often take it for granted, never having been without, while the poor spend a good deal of time thinking of things they do not have. Now, I am not bitter, but I am particularly offended that someone who has had a more comfortable existence would fault me for wanting more and for taking the steps to achieve.

As I thought recently about the history of armed uprising in the world, I came to the realization that no country or group of people has risen out of poverty or oppression primarily through the help of others. Although successful revolutions are rarely completely independent of foreign aid, most of the planning and execution is carried out by the oppressed themselves.

Expanding this pattern beyond armed uprising, when one looks at reform, particularly in the United States, most positive (more specifically, left) changes in favor of the poor and working class have been brought about by the actions of the affected masses. These activists are only slightly aided by outside sympathizers, and it is hard to argue that reforms brought about by the American labor movement wouldn’t have happened without the aide of a few progressive politicians. Militant organizations such as early labor unions and the IWW (International Workers of the World) achieved far more than the “radical” bourgeoisie. In fact, once the unions became more established and hired specialists that were unable to identify with the workers they ceased to be effective in bringing about positive reform, and became corrupt.

Looking at the motivation of the two groups (the poor leftist as opposed to his middle-class counterpart), one notices striking differences. Poor activists are fighting to improve their standard of living; they are fighting to better feed and house their children. The middle class activist is looking to alleviate the guilt he or she feels as a result of privilege. For example, during a Verizon strike in Western Massachusetts a little over a year ago, I spoke with one of the striking workers. I asked him what his goal was, naively expecting an answer involving socialism or something of that nature, but he told me he wanted better pay for himself and his co-workers and more time to spend with his children. It was then that I realized my own ignorance. I was there to offer my support, but the wage increase he received was not due to my marching in a picket line. Despite my “superior” education and socio-economic standing, this telephone worker had done more to make things better than I or a thousand of other pseudo-leftists.

Another fitting example is the civil rights movement. One would be foolish to say that Kennedy was responsible for civil rights legislation. The credit goes to oppressed African-Americans. The desire on the part of blacks to better their lives, not the actions of a few guilty whites, led to these reforms. I may be going out on a limb here, but it seems like the deadly blow that has slowed the path to equality for African American people was dealt by white liberals themselves who focus more on the achievements of the past (as well as refusing to accept their own racism) rather than the current state of inequality.

My argument here is not to motivate concerned people of privilege to stay out of the realm of political activism, but to encourage them to let go of their feelings of superiority. The poor are not wrong to be materialistic. It is the desire to have more and to live under better conditions that drives the successful, truly dedicated activist to create change. My response to that friend is this: “The poor man who strives for more for himself is no more materialistic than the starving man who thinks only of food.” This aspect of poor and working-class culture is simply a manifestation of the inequalities inherent in the current system. The only way to end materialism is to end inequality and injustice. Only then will I cease to desire more.