I Live in a Ghetto

Some social analysts argue that those who live in ghettoes may be unable to effectively organize for change because a self-destructive “ghetto mentality” obstructs such efforts.

I live in a ghetto, with all its attendant social pathologies:  isolation from the outside world; customs, language, and behavior alien to the larger society; inability to act collectively in the common interest; and class and racial homogeneity.  Ghetto life is like living in a state of siege.  The residents display a smug self-confidence and false bravado to cover up their fundamental insecurity.   The only security against a hostile environment is sticking with one’s own kind.  Although some may describe it as a community, it is a socially fragmented aggregation of individuals doing exactly as they please.  The result is an inability to accomplish meaningful political and economic change.

It is a white upper-middle-class progressive ghetto: the so-called “Pioneer Valley” in western Massachusetts.   Similar ghettoes exist in various parts of the country, but they are all pretty much alike.  Like many others, this one centers on institutions of higher education, namely the “five colleges” of Amherst and Northampton.   These ghettoes constitute perfect case studies of why and how progressives in America have failed to do little more than stem the tide of reaction, and why and how they are failing to move this country in a positive direction.  For those of us who call ourselves socialists rather than progressives, there is a lesson to be learned here: we need to pay more attention to how we organize ourselves and its relation to class consciousness.

In my thirty years living in the Pioneer Valley, I have been involved to one extent or another with antiwar groups, anti-racist efforts, educational programs, progressive Democrats, a teachers union, community organizing, and electoral politics.  In every single case, I encountered and worked with numerous thoughtful, committed, and hard-working individuals, many of them consumed by their activism, but singularly unsuccessful in doing much more than bearing witness to the evils they oppose or winning small victories in limited arenas.

The key word here is “individuals.”  The problem is the individualistic mindset that goes with being white and upper-middle-class.  Most middle-class people are uncomfortable with notions of solidarity, resent being told what to do, and jealously guard their autonomy.  Thus each activist tends his or her own garden and posts a “No Trespassing” sign.  There are no collective farms in the Pioneer Valley. 

I have never encountered an activist organization in the Pioneer Valley with a designated “chair.”  No one is ever referred to as a “leader.”  None of them appears to have a permanent structure of any kind.  There are no officers, no members — just informal groups with ever-changing rosters of people who attend meetings, although there is a set of “the usual suspects” who attend all of them and have disproportionate influence on their development.  Activist groups rarely enter into coalitions, and even when they do so, never for any length of time.

Similarly, the program of these organizations is whatever is decided at any one meeting; if it is carried over from one meeting to the next, it is because one individual has assumed that mission as his or her own.  Otherwise, it is abandoned.  By the same token, no one is expected to be responsible to anyone else except himself or herself; organizational responsibility is an alien concept.   It is also considered impolite to criticize.  Each individual’s comment is considered as valuable as anyone else’s, and no one has the right to evaluate it.  At worst, it might be ignored, but always with a smile and a polite nod of the head.  Conflict profoundly disturbs middle-class people, and psychological approaches to difficulties are favored over political ones.  When a local initiative to expand municipal benefits to gay couples failed, the organizers reversed Joe Hill’s famous maxim by calling meetings to mourn the defeat.

Leadership in such groups means one person who does everything.  Most of these confuse motion with progress; the point is to attend as many meetings as possible and be at as many places as possible.  These people work alone, joining others only on an ad hoc basis — they are the movement.  Although some are personally modest and self-effacing, many others succumb to the temptations of self-promotion.  Local media coverage of prominent activists often reads like People magazine.  A recent celebration of Martin Luther King Day in Northampton bore a striking resemblance to American Idol.

Lip service is given to diversity and duly practiced in the “safe” case of gays and lesbians.  But Pioneer Valley activists feel secure mostly among themselves, and the difficulties of interracial alliances threaten that security.  Although the Pioneer Valley adjoins two cities — Springfield and Holyoke — with heavy African-American and Latino populations, they might as well be on different planets.  There is little or no communication or connection between them.  More subtly, class bias is a dirty little secret of the Pioneer Valley activist community.  Working-class white populations are ignored, disdained, or shoved aside to build condominiums for middle-class progressives.  All of this is too often layered over with a sense of self-righteousness and smug self-satisfaction that further enhances the social isolation of Pioneer Valley progressives.   One of the nicknames for this area is “Happy Valley.”

It is not that these people are insincere, ignorant, or hypocritical.  It is that they are firmly middle-class.  They simply cannot stomach collective action that threatens what they believe to be their personal space.  Ultimately, most also fear a radical transformation of society, even though they may claim to desire it.  It is very comfortable in the Pioneer Valley, and one can rationalize that uncommon comfort by taking individual and mostly symbolic actions against political and economic ills without risking anything.  Of course, there are a number of radical activists in this area who have gone beyond that and risked their lives or freedom for social change.  But they are a largely older group and a distinct minority.  “Virtual organizing,” such as MoveOn.org, is much more comfortable for the new generation of middle-class progressives than face-to-face organizing.  No structure can develop out of this approach.  Thus, as in so many other places, the middle-class peace movement that sprang up before the Iraq War disappeared as quickly as computer images as soon as hostilities began.

The result of all this is political failure.  There is no permanent organizational core and no leadership cadre to carry forward whatever victories may be achieved or to mobilize the troops for another battle after a defeat.  Everything depends on the whims and moods of individual activists acting on their own.  The radical right, organized on anti-democratic principles, rigid reactionary ideology, and explicitly unchallengeable lines of authority, ends up the victor.

Thirty years ago, I was fortunate enough to work with an inner-city interracial community organization headed by former Communists.  It certainly had its flaws, and it was not explicitly socialist, but as a result of that experience I learned about solidarity, organizational responsibility, the realities of interdependence, the importance of structure (as well as the difficulty of keeping it democratic), and the inevitability of conflict and struggle.  That organization, although in altered form, still exists in the same location fifty years after its formation.

A successful movement to transform America is going to have to shed its middle-class ghetto mentality and the individualism that goes with it.  This is no easy task for a middle-class American, as I discovered in that organization.  It is also not easy for an activist group to take that path without sacrificing democratic values in the process.  Progressives in the Pioneer Valley and elsewhere are spinning their wheels and stuck in the mud because they refuse to face up to those issues.   I believe that socialists in this country have also paid insufficient attention to them.  If we are serious about achieving socialism, we are going to have to do a lot better.

Michael Engel is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Westfield State College.  His publications include The Struggle for Control of Public Education: Market Ideology vs. Democratic Values.  He lives in Easthampton, Massachusetts.