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Class as Part of the American Freedom Struggle

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I really appreciate this point Bernie Sanders made recently:

People are not truly free when they are unable to feed their family,” he said. “People are not truly free when they are unable to retire with dignity. People are not truly free when they are unemployed or underpaid or when they are exhausted by working long hours. People are not truly free when they have no health care.”

It’s a provocative argument, not least because it suggests that the thing we take to be the cornerstone of American identity—freedom—isn’t actually enjoyed by many Americans. According to the 2014 Census, 47 million Americans live in poverty today, including 20% of American children and 36% of black children. According to Sanders, these people have been barred from the individual liberty that is the birthright of every American citizen.

But is it true to say there is no liberty without basic economic security? And if so, has Americans’ conception of freedom as a mostly political condition been, in some sense, impoverished?

When we tell stories of the American road to freedom, which is how we do frame a lot of our historical narratives in popular memory, we talk about white male democracy as a sort of baseline, and then women’s suffrage, immigrants from Europe, the Civil Rights Movement, Cesar Chavez, etc. Today we are finding room in this narrative for the gay rights movement. It’s possible that we sometimes include the union struggles of the 1930s in this narrative, although I think that’s more of an explicitly left telling of that narrative as opposed to the stories that spark Americans’ belief in themselves as a great nation getting better all the time. There is really very little room in this popular narrative for class, as the way we tell these stories to each other precludes a slowly expanding circle of Americanness that is ultimately fairly frictionless process where there are bad guys but they unreasonable and the good thinking people can look down upon them. That’s why there’s room for Martin Luther King fighting in Birmingham but call for the end to educational disparities based upon race that might inconvenience those “good thinking” white people in 1970 or 2015 and people freak out. This narrative I’m laying out is obviously impressionistic for the most part, but can basically be placed in data points on this issue with the rise of the Wallace campaign in the North, opposition to busing, etc.

So if this process is supposed to be mostly frictionless there isn’t much room for criticizing capitalism since that’s our true national ideology, more so than Christianity. Americans’ reluctance to criticize the tenets of capitalism has always served business interests well, helps explain why the U.S. has never had a strong left compared to European nations, etc. And of course it’s powerful today, only now finally coming under some mild rebuke because of the extreme nature of income inequality, a rebuke that makes business owners think of a moderate mid-20th century-style liberal like Bernie Sanders as Ho Chi Minh and Occupy New York as the beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution.

But do Americans have freedom if they do not have access to good lives? Do they have freedom without jobs, without good schools, without access to healthy food or medical care? I would certainly argue the answer is no and I would say we need to frame these questions more centrally in the basic struggle for American freedom and that doing so would help us make these arguments more salient to everyday people.

On a similar topic, allow me to strongly recommend James Green’s new book on the West Virginia coal wars. I am reviewing it for an academic journal so I can’t do so here, but he expertly argues that we need to see the struggles of the coal miners in the early 20th century as absolutely central to our popular narratives of freedom. Given the utterly horrible treatment these workers received, including murder below ground and above, the widescale violations of civil and human rights, and the use of private armies to police the area, it’s a very compelling case to make. It’s also just a great read that would work as a holiday gift to someone interested in these issues.

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