The importance of being uncivil

To manage the conflict between capitalism and democracy, society “needs the cement of morality,” of which the norms of civility are a part.

SOURCESocialist Worker
Image Credit: Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Some years ago when the top administrator at my university passed me in a hallway and, smiling, said hello, I replied, “Don’t expect civility from me.”

My breach of academic decorum was as startling to me in that moment as it was to the colleagues who witnessed it. But even more startling was that I was expected to bid this administrator – whose financial scandals and excesses were paid for with staff layoffs and the cancellation of retiree health care – a good morning.

It’s no surprise, then, that I cheered the staff of the Red Hen restaurant in Virginia for refusing White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders a place at their tables. I likewise applauded the protesters whose chants of “If kids don’t eat in peace, you don’t eat in peace” drove Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen from a high-end Mexican restaurant.

Amid the horrors of a president and his very own Aunt Lydias caging children and jailing their parents, I also find hope in resistance-defending op-eds like Sarah Leonard’s “Against Civility: You Can’t Fight Injustice with Decorum” and Gary Younge’s “Donald Trump’s Enforcers Have Lost the Right to Civil Courtesy” that crack open the threat to democracy posed by the elevation of manners over justice.

It’s high time we took W.H. Auden’s upside-down adage “If you would civil your land, first civil your speech,” and put it back on its feet: No civility in our speech so long as the incivilities of internment camps, travel bans, police murder and more rule our land.

Here, though, I also want to probe just why it is that wherever there is resistance to social injustice, civility enforcement clicks into top gear – and does so not only to prescribe politeness and restraint, but to change the subject altogether.

Consider: When the U.S. Congress passed its 1836 gag rule, banning any debate of slavery and abolition on the House and Senate floors, its proponents attempted to redefine the fundamental problem – and the fundamental peril to democracy – from slavery to incivility.

A little more than a century later, as historian William Chaffe details in Civilities and Civil Rights, white progressives in Greensboro, North Carolina, placed such a premium on being open to “discussion” about school desegregation that they crowned tolerance, not racial integration and justice, as a democracy’s highest ideal.

And just a few years ago, when students marched at the University of Missouri, former President Barack Obama proclaimed that the crisis on college campuses wasn’t racism and rape culture, but “an unwillingness to hear other points of view.”

Like the “white moderates” Martin Luther King Jr. despaired of in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” such champions of civility are “more devoted to order than to justice,” favoring a “negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

But why such devotion? And what exactly is so threatening about the tension created when restaurant workers withhold their labor from the White House’s apologist-in-chief or when students unite against separate and unequal education at a plantation-style university like Mizzou?

The answer can be found once we grasp that under capitalism, civility codes function not to facilitate and expand democracy but to enforce its strict limits. “[V]ast areas of our daily lives,” Ellen Meiksins Wood points out in Democracy Against Capitalism, “are not subject to democratic accountability but governed by the powers of property and the ‘laws’ of the market, the imperatives of profit maximization.”

Negative peace – freedom from what Wood sums up as “rule by the demos” – is essential to capitalism’s ability to divide, control and exploit the multiracial, multigendered working-class majority. The tension created by even the most seemingly peaceful forms of protest against exploitation and oppression stems from the disturbance of this negative peace.

It is hard to imagine, for instance, a more restrained scene than that which took place last month in the Red Hen restaurant: Owner Stephanie Wilkinson quietly informing Sanders of her staff’s decision not to serve her, inviting the rest of the party to remain and declining to present them with a bill for the cheese plates they’d already consumed.

But the danger of this moment to the existing social order is found not in tone, but in content. By polling her employees and honoring their democratic decision not to serve Sanders, Wilkinson transgressed two boundaries on which capitalist social relations depend: the market should operate free and amorally; and the workplace must remain a realm free from workers’ democratic decision-making and control.

When subordinated and oppressed groups encroach upon the rights of profit and the unjust social institutions designed to safeguard those rights, they suggest the possibility – the threat – of rule by the demos.

A vast coercive apparatus exists to curtail such threats, from the Black Codes and Jim Crow laws borne of the post-Civil War danger of Black and white workers and sharecroppers organizing together, to 21st-century restrictions on speech, assembly and union rights.

But as Leon Trotsky pointed out in his classic pamphlet Their Morals and Ours, a society that “pursues the idea of the ‘greatest possible happiness’ not for the majority, but for a small and ever diminishing minority…could not have endured for even a week through force alone.”

To manage the conflict between capitalism and democracy, society “needs the cement of morality,” of which the norms of civility – turning the other cheek, taking the high road, hospitably entertaining all viewpoints and so forth – are a part. Through “official morality,” Trotsky argued, “the ruling class forces its ends upon society and habituates it into considering all those means which contradict its ends as immoral.”

This enforcement of official morality and civil manners doesn’t come from the ruling class alone.

Relied upon are legions of “petty bourgeois moralizers” – the liberal moderates who, in Trotsky’s time, shuddered at the idea of siding with the Spanish proletariat in armed struggle against the rise of Franco and fascism, and who today equate upsetting Trump White House officials trying to dine in upscale restaurants with state-sanctioned abuse of African Americans seated at Woolworth’s lunch counters.

A case in point of middle-class moderates enlisted by capital to denounce an overwhelmingly peaceful and highly organized democratic upsurge can be found in the response of Progressive-era reformers to the 1912 Bread and Roses strike.

Today, that strike is celebrated as an example of mass nonviolent resistance against dehumanizing Gilded Age excess. But when the mill workers of Lawrence, Massachusetts, shut down their looms, the era’s chief reformers chastised them for, as Edward Devine put it, threatening “the fundamental idea of law and order” through the “violence” of refusing to work.

The workers had “traded oceans of sympathy” for “an ounce of working-class revolt,” mourned Walter Weyl. He did so in an issue of the Settlement Movement’s publication The Survey, which largely condemned the strike, with its inspiring singing picket lines and efficient worker-run kitchens, as a “riot of confusion,” even though the strike won some of the very improvements these middle-class reformers claimed to champion.

Of course, the mill owners should rethink their “work and starve” terms of work, opined Theodore Roosevelt in another leading progressive journal, The Outlook. But workers must also “understand and sympathize with management.”

Similarly, reformer Jane Addams offered in her still widely taught essay “A Modern Lear” (written after the Pullman Strike of 1894, but first published in a 1912 Bread and Roses strike issue of The Survey) an allegorical reading of class struggle, with owners and workers represented as father and daughters neglecting their duties to each other.

The largely female and immigrant workforce of Lawrence had pushed to make the conditions of mill and home public and subject to worker-led democratic accountability. Addams’ essay, conversely, served as an argument for leave-it-to-the-family, up-to-the-father privatization – the workplace, like a patriarchal family, a realm too sacred for public scrutiny and democratic interference.

In the case of Bread and Roses, coercion – including a troop of Harvard students excused from class and equipped with lethal bayonets for strike suppression – failed. But the moralizing of Devine, Weyl, Addams and others provided cover as the ruling class regrouped to undo the mill workers’ gains.

Like the white moderates King called out in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the allegiance of these reformers was to order, not to justice. Further, they made no distinction between “peaceful” and “violent” means used against that order.

For example, Wellesley professor Vida Scudder delivered a measured and moderate speech defending the strikers – and nearly lost her job for it.

What was so dangerous about this “singing” strike? By “folding their hands” and withholding their labor, warned John Graham Brooks in his Survey contribution “The Shadow of Anarchy,” the Lawrence mill workers revealed “an inveterate hostility to society as it now exists.”

On this point, Brooks and other enforcers of official morality are exactly right. The Lawrence workers were indeed hostile to (or at least had no illusions about) the civil institutions of their society – for instance, the state’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, whose director praised the police for clubbing children attempting to leave the strike zone – aligned against them.

Today’s protesters are hostile to a so-called justice system that upholds racist travel bans and lets killer cops walk free. The teachers of the Red for Ed strike wave have unleashed in presumed Trump country deep hostility to the legislatures defunding public education and the vast moneyed interests they serve.

And although my refusal to say “Good morning” to the contemporary university’s version of the Gilded Age’s robber baron was not a large (or particularly effective or strategic) act of resistance, it too revealed my hostility toward the idea of carrying out university business as usual while the university’s administrators were in the business of laying off workers.

“There is,” argued Trotsky, “no impervious demarcation between ‘peaceful’ class struggle and revolution. Every strike embodies in an unexpanded form all the elements of civil war.”

Mass strikes, mass social justice protests and other forms of resistance to exploitation and oppression all contain the elements of civil war – and are predictably and repetitively denounced as uncivil, immoral and extreme – because they suggest the possibility of dissolving the glue that binds the ideals of democracy to the rapacious, undemocratic practices of capitalism.

More, they suggest the glue of solidarity on which a genuinely democratic society might be realized. “It was the spirit of the strikers that seemed dangerous,” wrote left labor journalist Mary Heaton Vorse about the Bread and Roses strike. “They were confident, gay, released and they sang.”

Across the mill workers’ dozens of nationalities and national languages, Vorse reflected, “[h]armony, not disorder, was being established…a collective harmony.”

As Vorse makes clear, hostility to society as it now exists doesn’t mean that social justice activists show terms like understanding, patience and even compromise the door. Mass social movements depend on mass cooperation – on the exploited and oppressed creating, however tenuously and imperfectly, the plane of equality that is otherwise denied under capitalism.

Whatever their form, whatever their tone, such movements will also always be denounced in official circles as dangerous because, above all, they advance what Trotsky called a “revolutionary morality,” one that “[p]rimarily and irreconcilably…rejects servility in relation to the bourgeoisie and haughtiness in relation to the toilers.”

I caught a glimpse of such “collective harmony” and “revolutionary morality” – and witnessed the inveterate hostility of ruling powers against it – some years ago when students on my campus organized a large tent-city demonstration against the poverty wages paid to custodial and cafeteria workers and the denial of health care coverage to construction workers building a new student center.

On what turned out to be the tent city’s final night, the students invited faculty and staff to a potluck, and for the hour or two that we shared a meal – and shared meal preparation and cleanup, too – we experienced a university freed from relations of servility and haughtiness.

That night, staff and faculty returning to their homes and students retiring to their tents, the same administrator I later refused to greet called for police paddy wagons to descend on the green and round up the students. And no wonder.

While this tent-city potluck wasn’t a revolution, it suspended the decorum and deference that ordinarily rule academic life. It enabled students, staff and faculty to explore solidarity bonds that could mount a real resistance to university business as usual.

By civiling the campus green, these students were raising the possibility of genuine democracy – the genuine democracy that capitalism will oppose with civility when it can and coercion when it must.


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