NeMLA 2013 Abstract

This coming March I will be presenting on the Representing Class Mobility: Time, Space, History, and Form panel at the annual Northeast Modern Language Association conference in Boston. My paper abstract is provided below.

“Capitalism is a Pyramid Scheme: Propaganda, Ephemera, and Narratives of Class Identity”

This paper begins with a meditation on the relationship shared between narratives of class identity and propaganda and ephemera that disrupt class identity at the heart of its formation. Narratives of class identity are parables of collective self-making situated at the interstices of state power, capitalist sovereignty, and self-image. Some narratives are uncritical, and, indeed, fetishize, the absolute hold capitalism has over self and collective identity. Others mobilize class as a mode of refusal—class is the initial node of connection between disparate communities bound to their work that allows for capital’s hegemony to be undermined. Propaganda and ephemera both suture a visual articulation of class identity to its narrative formation and compel a high rate of circulation between and among subjects of unequal class positions. In the contemporary moment, propaganda and ephemera are experiencing a renaissance in politically radical circles—with the national popularity of Occupy Wall Street and an increase in local labor struggles like those experienced in Wisconsin, varied and complex landscapes have emerged for visualizing and disrupting new narratives of class identity.  Here, I develop and focus my argument on the work of two, U.S. based collectives: Crimethinc Ex-Workers Collective Far East, (CWC), and Prole: “…for the angry wage worker.” For both collectives, class is not something simply categorical; its valorization is not easily incorporated into either a democratic discourse for equality or to the realm of identity politics. A category like ‘class’ is only useful insofar as it allows subjects to define a particular socio-political orientation under state power and capitalist sovereignty so that it might smash state power and capitalist sovereignty.

Here, I will consider two pieces of propaganda and ephemera, “Capitalism is a Pyramid Scheme” by the CWC, and “Work, Community, Politics, War” by Prole. “Capitalism is a Pyramid Scheme” is a visual and narrative play on the 1911 “Pyramid of the Capitalist System,” a piece of propaganda produced by the International Workers of the World. Beyond the IWW, the CWC describes the conditions of wage laborers in a globalized economy, claiming that capitalism does not merely determine the conditions of labor, but increasingly determines the conditions of life itself. There is no longer an easy division between one’s so-called ‘work life,’ and one’s ‘social’ or ‘home life.’ Therefore, the CWC’s propaganda is not produced for leveraging better working conditions, equality in the work place, or higher pay: it is an initial step for wage workers join forces and ‘establish another way of life.’ “Work, Community, Politics, War” better describes the politics of this position.  Written in the style of a graphic novel, Prole has produced a didactic tool; ‘WCPW’ establishes a general narrative of class identity in a time of globalized capitalism with easy divisions between bosses and workers, the rich and the poor, and the state and more authentic forms of community. The piece concludes by claiming that wageworkers of different economic, racial, and gendered backgrounds can unite and create a better world by violently opposing the capitalist system. In other words, community by and for the wageworker is created through the destruction of the socio-economic institutions governing the present. This paper concludes by considering the motivation and efficacy of these claims, exploring what it would mean to redefine narratives of class identity as a means to a ‘post-class’ and ‘post-capital’ society. pyramid_big

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