What can the new proletariat offer the world?
This question has been on my mind for a long time, the role of the proletariat in society, this modern day matrix in which we find ourselves today. As I sit back and observe my life reflected in world events, localized and marginalized as a result of the current economic crisis— I feel in spirit with those who fought the French revolution, the Cinderellas and the Oliver Twists, Sir Piri Thomas of Down These Mean Streets, the Irish famine, the fight for India, the plight of the Native American, the War No More lyrics: "I'm gonna lay down my burden, down by the river side, down by the riverside, down by the riverside." Although I have had the privilege of travel and completed many degrees, I am born of poor folk, working class people with history and stories, sweat and dreams deferred, the burden of a hard life whispering.
Today’s proletariat is a different breed, I believe. The notion that poor folk lack intelligence, unity and the ability to move beyond the simple, mindless, “petty” things we tend to busy ourselves with may be true for some (for even amongst ourselves we speak in code about the “element”) I’m convinced that the contemporary working class is far more intelligent and represents a far greater richness of diversity ever imagined. It could be a direct result of social media and technology, this rapid development of a new intelligence that is nuanced and organic, born out of the need for survival. It could also have something to do with the numbers. We must be in the billions, by now— the number of people on this earth that are forced to compromise themselves for a basic wage. The odds are in our favor.
The other night, while scanning my Kindle for a good book, I came across Charles Murray’s Real Education: Four Simple Truths. Here is an excerpt from the description of the book:
“America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted. An elite already runs the country, whether we like it or not. Since everything we watch, hear, and read is produced by that elite, and since every business and government department is run by that elite, it is time to start thinking about the kind of education needed by the young people who will run the country.”
When I read this, I felt a familiar sickness in my stomach. It felt like the kind of vomit that sits in your gut and makes you slightly dizzy because you know you’re facing a reality that just a short time ago, you thought impossible, insane, inhumane, unbearable. Murray articulates a world view that is raw and undoubtedly askew. I’m not sure if it is entirely new, this classist perspective but it’s astoundingly overt and in some circles considered normal and mainstream. We are living in a new society, aren’t we? One in which people believe a good education and all that comes with it should only be provided to the rich or those deemed "gifted." As an educator, how can I swallow this? If the world is divided up like this, as in Maggie Simpson Longest Daycare short film where the tiny tot is sorted out by “intelligence” and sent to a miserable, art-less, color-less, resource-less, dangerous “classroom” in the neighborhood Ayn Rand’s School—then what is my role here? What can I do in a world in which the value of some children’s lives is rapidly diminishing? The message is very clear.
“An elite already runs the country, whether we like it or not. Since everything we watch, hear, and read is produced by that elite, and since every business and government department is run by that elite, it is time to start thinking about the kind of education needed by the young people who will run the country.”
When I participated in a course on Leadership & Management of Humanitarian Affairs, I realized that education is not the only field that reflects the new world order. Rhetoric and the dissemination of humanitarian aid strategies based on pervasive class warfare fueled by systemic racism and the abuse of power over natural resources, coupled with the explicit reference to “norms” and the standardization of a global, professional elite who are convinced of their own superiority and incentivized to maintain control over “localized” communities permeates humanitarian discourse. I am sure you will find the same in healthcare, the entire social service sector, the penal system and so on.
What can the proletariat offer the new world? What is our purpose? Do we have something more to offer the world other than manual labor & mitigation? If it is not already too late, can the proletariat put a halt to the dangerous course that we are headed? Can the working class do something to return the world back to its original experiment in trying to build a democratic egalitarian society?
It’s hard to address these questions without knowing where we are in our journey, if its too late. Like the war to save public education, “public” anything. How can we know, really, the actual state we are in? How many battles have been fought and lost and how many still remain, if any.
Notwithstanding, just this weekend, I caught a glimpse into a new thought pattern. That is why I am writing— in order to think it through before the flash escapes me. Regardless of whether the elites have already overtaken the world, there does still remain a familiar framework in which we are all functioning, a framework that allows for critical thinking and essential examination of the functions of our society. So, for the sake of argument, let’s say that we are in a transition in which there is still something to fight for—then there is still time to consider this: The new proletariat has one, very important, very unique advantage over the elite. We “the people,” and I refer to those of us who are engaged in some way or another with social media and/or intelligent forms of communication—those of us who are acutely aware of the state of affairs and have articulated a passion to preserve the value of humanity—
We the people are in the unique position to mediate a new standard of global existence.
What does that mean: mediate a new standard of global existence?
It means that the contemporary proletariat knows how to work with the poor world from a position of empathy and compassion rather than charity. The new proletariat holds the power to build consensus without judgment and propose new forms of collaboration that do not perpetuate dependence but rather inter-dependence and mutual respect.
In A Bed for the Night, David Rieff writes:
“As I write, there are twenty seven major armed conflicts taking place in the world; 1.2 billion people are living on less than one dollar a day; 2.4 billion people have no access to basic sanitation; and 854 million adults, 543 million of them women, are illiterate. One of the most important things that has happened over the course of the past fifty years is that the world has increasingly become divided into three parts: the small, under-populated commonwealth of peace and plenty that is North America, most of Europe and Japan; the part made up of Latin America, the former Soviet Union, China and India, in which wealth and poverty coexist and where the future is unclear; and finally, above all in the sub-Suharan Africa and an area stretching from Algeria to Pakistan, there is a vast, teeming dystopia of war and want whose future no decent and properly informed person should be able to contemplate without sadness, outrage and fear.”
Then shortly after he adds,
“Of course, we in the West who live in such privilege should care more. It is right to do so, and we all know that. It is not as if, for all our comforts, we have forgotten to care… but, is it even possible for people who live in comfort to care deeply enough…?”
There it is. The glimmer of a new purpose, of hope. Who is in such a unique position to care “deeply enough,” if it is not we the people who do not come from “such privilege,” but who have because of an education, hard work or luck, had access to some or all of the benefits of such “privileged” societies of peace and plenty? Can this be it, the “new proletariat—?” A second or third generation middle class (or those who have recently fallen) who have lived both in the “poor world” and the privileged world simultaneously? Is it possible that this sudden polarization, this shift into poverty consciousness for some, has created a new intelligentcia that has power, power to transcend differences, who can communicate a new vision, who can defend a worthy cause, build a third party? Perhaps we are in a great transition and we “the people” are being prepared to become the great mediators of our time, mediators for a new world peace.