4 September 2019
In the Summer of 2018 myself, and two strangers were recruited to run a workshop about class at the Scottish Radical Herbal Gathering. It was not the place I was expecting to be invited to start this work, but it was the invitation I got. The three of us met a couple of times, and were in regular communication. With the exception of collective panic the day before we felt well prepared. The workshop went reasonably well, there were failings of course, the three of us had not facilitated together before, so there was a little creakiness, but our styles pretty much balanced out.
Whilst we used some techniques and ideas from the work done by Class Action in the U.S, we embedded a greater emphasis on the material and economic factors of class, rather than the stress of cultural and social signifies that is at the centre of much of the work that organisation have been doing and inspiring both in the US and the UK.
Our aims at this point; to create spaces for those from economically marginalised and “lower” class backgrounds to articulate their experiences; to encourage those from economically secure, and comfortable backgrounds and social and cultural power to challenge themselves individually and collectively, and finally to examine the ways in which our lives are shaped by our class position. These three have remained at the centre of the workshops we’ve done in the last 12 months, although others have been added and taken away depending on the context.
One of the many concerns going into the workshop, was that those with relative economic power would start dropping their shit on folks from poor and working class backgrounds. Thus for the first workshop we limited cross class discussion.
Cross class discussions, along with time to create solutions have been the two parts of the workshops that we’ve been consistently most apprehensive about. To paraphrase one working class participant during the recent two day workshop, there’s not enough trust built up to start making plans. Poor and working class folks will often have multiple negative experiences of working along more economically secure and culturally powerful comrades, whilst organising in leftist organisations. The time spent in these workshops is not going to be enough to forget those experiences in one big swoop. Often poor and working class folk are keen to keep chatting with others who have similar experiences, and only tentatively begin engaging in cross class dialogue.
The workshop at the herbal gathering was a little under 4 hours, after this myself and one of the other facilitators decided to keep pursuing this work. We organised a 1 day workshop at the Glasgow Autonomous Space, this went well. We felt it was heading in the right direction, encouraging greater transparency of economic conditions between comrades in radical social movements. As well as provoking discussion around the ways in which different forms of social, cultural and economic capital manifest themselves and create power dynamics within groups and organisation who have a mixed class based.
It should be noted that neither of us pretend we’re doing this from a neutral position, I come from the underclass/poor communities within the UK, whilst my colleague was raised in blue collar rural Canada. We’ve both built up various forms of capital in the last decade as well as differing levels of economic security, we still maintain what some might call “chips on our shoulder” or others might name “the legacy and trauma of economic marginalisation”. We’re committed to radical social movements and the end of capitalism, but believe that the radical social movements we have are not fit for purpose, and that we must restructure and build the economic power of our social movements so that they can support the activities that are needed.
Following the workshop in Glasgow, we were asked to facilitate a 2 day work shop in Scotland, specifically around Coop’s and Class. In being able to focus on co-ops, we were able to bring even more focus onto economic positions, engaging not just with wage but wealth as well as inherited economic wealth both already received and what is expected further down the line. For good and bad housing and workers co-ops are relatively common and stable entities within leftist and progressive movements in the UK. They can be perceived as a places were radical political thought intersects and occasionally does battle with capitalist logic. What comes out victorious in those battles is debatable, but we have had enough experience with co-ops to understand that the class dynamics which play out within them, have very clear parallels with those existing in wider society. We decided to spend the first day focusing on those class dynamics, allowing the 2nd day to explore how those dynamics might then feed into the co-operative enterprises that folks were taking part in and how they might be improved.
We broke the groups into four caucus’s via a series of questions responded to on a spectrum line. These questions focused on particular class signifiers such as family wealth, educational success and the amount of meals missed as a child. We also touched upon the ways in which the class system is racialised and gendered, how much we do this is always a question and something that we need to continue to work on over time. Whilst race and gender play a significant part in the formation of the class system as well as the ways in which class dynamics play out, they are two areas that can and have been weaponized by economically secure and comfortable folks against those who are economically marginalised. It’s a tricky balance, and one that our workshops have yet to address as well as we’d like.
The participants were asked to go into their caucuses on several occasions to explore issues that had arisen during the group exercises and as a way to share learning and offer support. During the first day participants shared their class histories, which we’d asked them to prepare prior to the workshop, we had asked themselves to engage with the following.
“What’s your understanding of yourself as a person of your specific classid entity? What have you experienced regarding your identity? How does this affect the person you are today? What are some feelings or emotions that come up as you think about how and what influenced your identity over time?What other social identities (gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, ability and so on) are also important to the way you think about yourself? How do these identities intersect with your class experience and affect the person you are today?”
On their own we asked them to map their economic, social and cultural capital, and show the ways in which one form of capital had been or could be transferred into another form, eg: high levels of institutional education is a form of cultural capital but can be transferred into economic capital even it’s owner chooses not to carry this out.
The four class caucuses were called Capital Heavy, Plenty of Capital, Mediocre Capital and Capital light. We did this as terms like middle class, working class, professional middle class, lower working class are deeply limited, but more importantly the names of caucus’s reflect our long term aims, that of the redistribution of the capital within the entire working class in order to build radical social movements can destroy the owning and ruling class. The middle class and working class terminology has it’s uses, and for the most part was the language used by the participants, but we as facilitators avoided it as it’s liable to create unhelpful binaries. Some of us have been given more rewards, power and agency by the capitalist system, but that’s created multiple stratas of the working class, strata’s which we need to dissolve. We feel those in the capital heavy and plenty of capital groups need to be encouraged and supported to recognise their responsibility in carrying out redistribution of the capital they have been bribed with amongst their comrades and wider community.
We’ve devised twists on standard facilitation exercises in order to encourage deeper thinking about the ways in which class strata positions play out within our organising, collective dynamics and life in general. On the Sunday we used both Diversity Interviews and the Fish Bowl exercise to encourage further interaction and engagement between the class caucus’s. The diversity interviews in particular got positive feedback. In these one person from the Capital Heavy and one from the Capital Light caucuses was interviewed by a facilitator. They were asked a serious of questions relating to their class background, classed experiences particular those in social movements and their thoughts on financial collectivisation and redistribution within social movements and radical collectives. Those not participating in these appeared very engaged, and it was fed back that they amongst the most interesting sections of the weekend. When using the fishbowl exercise we placed six chairs in the circle and asked for one volunteer from each of the caucus’s to start off in the middle, the two extra chairs being available for those from the capital light and mediocre capital to step into if they wanted to support their comrades. The other participants were allowed to tag in at whatever stage they wanted, and those in the circle could ask to be tagged out. Both the capital light and mediocre capital participants were asked to start off the exercise with questions for those from the upper two caucuses. This exercise took a little time to get going, possibly due to my own lack of clarity in explaining the exercise, possibly due to general apprehension about raising conflict in public, possibly due to other non-class factors at work within the dynamic. Both myself and then my co-facilitator then intervened by entering into the fish bowl, after this, either due to what we said or because our actions made the purpose of the activity clearer, some momentum and a more interesting dialogue began to take place across class.
Either side of these exercises on the Sunday, we first introduced three case studies were cooperative projects engage with economic inequality in a practical way. My colleague had carried out interviews with members of these projects and wrote up the findings which the participants then read, shared and discussed. Later when working in either the collectives they work with on a regular basis, or within the context of creating new projects these case studies were used as starting points. Several folks informed us that the case studies helped with thinking beyond their own experiences and were thinking of ways in which they could be used in different contexts. I won’t go into the detail about the possible new projects, although they included a crisis fund, establishing poor and working class organiser grants, speculating in the housing market, and other possible ways in which social movements could create greater economic resources using the tools of capitalism.
I think the weekend went relatively well. The feedback we received from the participants was as ever interesting, one dynamic in particular that has come up at the last two workshops is that some in the “lowest” caucus will defend the challenges made by the facilitators of those in the “highest” caucus, stating that the emphasis should be on the collective rather than the individual. Whilst this isn’t a challenge I find particularly convincing, I do find it oddly encouraging that folks are keen to place that emphasis the collective. These workshops certainly create discomfort and sometimes pain for those participating in them. For some they have been one of the few times in which they have discussed their classed experiences with those outside their immediate circle. I have confidence that just as we each need to unpack the ways in which we have internalised white supremacist patriarchy, we need space to individually and collectively unpack the ways in the class system shapes our lives and our movements. These workshops are space for that, but they should not be the only space. We will continue to do more, and are looking to create tools for folks to do this work at home and with their communities. Until then if you want to write your own class histories using the questions above, you could share them with your collectives and see if they start to open up spaces for deeper conversations.
If we continue to replicated the class dynamics capitalist society produces within our social movements, those movements will continue to fail.