Adonis Diaries

How tiring it is to organising with middle class comrades?

Posted on: June 19, 2016

What makes me tired when organising with middle class comrades

Grassroots organiser Nicole Vosper has been delving into the topic of campaign burnout on her website. In this post she looks at some of the issues around organising with middle class comrades

I have many middle class friends and comrades whom I adore, this post certainly isn’t directed at everyone. But after years and years of organising, coming up against similar frustrations, and after lots of conversations between working class mates, I want to write about what is draining about working with some middle class activists.

It’s important to flag up that I’m writing this as a white, cis woman in England and I’m aware of the privilege that carries.

I’m worried this piece will ignite a backlash, so I’m asking middle class folks that are triggered by this to perhaps talk to other middle class people and not email me about it. For once, please, just listen and reflect.

Also, because I want to be as constructive as possible, at the end of the post I’ve listed some of the character traits of middle class friends and organisers who don’t drive me up the wall.

Sari El Molh shared a link.

What makes me tired when organising with middle class comrades

  • Talking about the working class as a homogenous mass makes me tired. Assuming certain cultural stereotypes are working class and certain things aren’t is annoying. Likewise talking about working class people like they’re scum, sheep or brain-washed masses is patronising and elitist. Talking about how you can “reach out” to the working class is also problematic.
  • Romanticising certain aspects of working class culture is tiring, when growing up with zero money and zero financial stability is the least romantic thing ever. Similarly fetishising poverty, as if it’s a game or adventure, is an insult to folk who have no choice.
  • Feeling judged because I actually want a livelihood so I don’t have to relive the hell of not having any food in the fridge is tiring. Unlike middle class people we don’t have a safety net. We can’t play the romantic poor anarchist for ten years then inherit property. Flirting with poverty as a lifestyle choice is not the same as growing up in poverty.
    • Talking about working class people like we’re the problem, as if our lifestyle choices are the determinant of various forms of systemic suffering, is totally infuriating. It is politically naive and dangerous.
    • Perhaps one of the more dehumanising experiences in life is being treated like some kind of subject/object of study for academics.
    • I have left a prison-related conference in tears because of this. Being tokenised or used to further someone’s career is grim. It’s put me off the world of academia forever (there is no entry point for me anyway).
    • You expect me, and other working class folk, to get excited about your projects, campaigns and initiatives when they are not relevant to our lives. We face much bigger barriers to organising, yet we’re somehow meant to do a ton of extra work on top of the challenges of day-to-day survival.
    • We are generally organising on top of being carers, or parents, or supporting mates in prison, or recovering from trauma or alcohol, drug abuse and domestic violence that you may have not experienced.
    • (I’m aware not every middle class person has had a good childhood, I’m just trying to highlight a pattern). Often there are no structures in place to support us to participate such as travel expenses, childcare support and food at meetings.
    • You often judge our lifestyle choices and take positions of moral superiority. One of my favourite ever scientific studies was the one that showed people living on benefits had a lower carbon footprint than middle class ethical consumers. (carbon footprint? No need for explanation?)
      • It is alienating and disempowering when middle class people talk about experiences like they are completely universal. I spent a whole weekend with folks repeatedly talking about which international trip they were going to take next.
      • Seriously, it feels like we live on different planets. In extension of this, a common pattern I’ve observed over the last 15 years is that middle class folk are way more likely to volunteer abroad or do exciting things, like go on the Sea Shepherd, or go live in a tree-sit protest the other side of the world.
      • Or participate in grim colonial projects like paint school walls in Africa or whatever. There is a consistent failure to participate in any kind of grassroots or community organising in the UK and once again, working class organisers are left holding it all (and then being judged not radical enough).
      • Middle class people can tend to dominate meetings, especially at public events. There is a sense of entitlement that the whole world needs to hear your opinion and you have all the answers. Ever tried listening?
      • Middle class people can also tend to dominate movements and perpetuate a privileged position of nonviolence. I’ve been at protest camps that have felt like a love-in with the police and power structures that be.
      • It’s exhausting and frustrating when you dismiss potential comrades because of their language, background or behaviour and fail to remember it takes time to learn/unlearn how we act.
      • If I hadn’t had such solid self esteem, I would have abandoned all these movements years ago. It’s tiring when middle class people make unsupportive comments on our writing, grammar or language.
      • Not everyone has had the same level of education. It’s also really patronising when you talk as if we’re not smart because we might not have a degree.
      • In my early years of organising, so many middle class men would explain things to me assuming I didn’t know what they meant.
      • It’s tiring when you leverage your privilege in response to repression, whether by getting character references from people you know in similar positions of privilege, or simply having the financial support in your life which means you can focus on legal work. You don’t think about the repercussions this can have on people that can’t play this card.
        • And finally, what I’ve observed over and over again is this inherent need for middle class people to censor, control and mediate emotions.
        • There’s a deep fear of conflict, loosing status and control. I’ve been told to be less angry on demos, less emotional at events and more serious.
        • Stop telling me how to feel. When you’ve had a life of teachers, social workers and probation officers telling you how you should act, you don’t need the same mediating middle class behaviour in your collectives.

        So what does this have to do with burnout?

        Navigating this stuff constantly is exhausting. Never feeling like you fit in is disempowering, isolating and alienating. It is hard to feel supported by people who don’t share your reality. You lose affinity with people, groups and networks and are more likely to burnout and drop out.

        Fighting the state is hard enough without navigating a maze of middle class entitlement. And as a result these movements fail to offer me anything that can realistically improve my life or make surviving capitalism easier.

        Like I said at the beginning of the post, I do work with some middle class comrades whom I adore. I tried to think about what made them different:

        • They totally own up to their privilege. They’re honest about it. They take the piss out of themselves. They don’t try to be something they’re not.
        • They’re empathetic but not judgemental or patronising. They don’t pretend to have lived a different life than they have.
        • They take risks and do frontline work that threatens their privilege. They don’t expect it to be anyone else’s responsibility. Likewise they do the boring behind the scenes work too.
        • They leverage their privilege to support others. That might be lending someone money, or giving them a free place to stay for a while. Or it might be informally mentoring someone to improve their writing.
        • They’re aware of their speech and behaviour, how they phrase things so they are not offensive.
        • They don’t dominate meetings or movements or think they have all the answers.
        • They practically support people to participate by being militant that events are structured to support people to get stuck in (childcare, travel expenses). No one’s input is taken for granted.

        I hope people find this constructive, rather than critical.

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