On Harmony, Conflict And Class


I read an interview with George Lakey in this month’s. Peace News. Lakey is a life-long activist who re-imagined the nonviolent revolutionary strategies of Gandhi & Dr Martin Luther King for the modern era. In the interview he had some interesting things to say about class and conflict and it really got me thinking. Take this section for example:

“The function of the middle-class is to manage, and nurture the working class on behalf of the owning class. So it is bred into middle-class people from when they are little itty bitty people that management is key…..So, do you know any managers who have moved ahead in their careers because the people they are managing are constantly in conflict? No. The sign of a good manager is conflict resolution. The sign of a good manager is to have people working cooperatively together in a harmonious way.

Middle-class political pacifism similarly has a very strong interest in the common ground, in reconciliation. ”Let’s find a way to come together,” that’s very strongly the concern. So that is hugely a value in the middle-class, harmony and common ground.”

This seems bang on the money but the problem for me is that although in many ways I am middle-class, certainly by education, i.e. Prep school, Grammar School and University, I was never successfully socialised into this middle-class, ‘harmony above all’, disposition. As a result I have always found negotiating the British class system very difficult. To me it seems self-evident that conflict is inevitable, and indeed, in democratic discourse to be highly valued – “No dissent, no democracy!”

Thus I have a very direct attitude to conflict, always looking to recognise and publicly acknowledge it as soon as possible. I can see though that this often baffles and confuses my middle-class comrades who are always seeking above all to avoid conflict, or if avoidance cannot be achieved, to minimise or even deny the conflict is happening. In turn I find their deep-seated abhorrence of conflict to be equally baffling and sometimes disturbingly Kafkaesque in their weird “la, la, la,” fingers-in-the-ears denial.

For many years I have bought into the idea that this is my own problem, I am the problem if you will, there is no problem in the real-word, the problem is individual and psychological rather than social and situational. But I increasingly recognise that this is also a class issue.

Lakey himself was from a working-class background but often found himself operating as an activist in organisations unwittingly steeped in profoundly middle-class values. (He should try working in an English University!) Lakey brought to these organisations a very different perspective. As he says in the interview:

“ “Only harmony”, is insanity. “Only harmony” is death. So there also needs to be conflict. So the nonviolent revolutionary tradition is one in which the emphasis is not on harmony, it’s on conflict. Polarisation is the meat and drink of life. We have to have polarisation.”

I would go further and say that in social, moral and political discourse, conflict and polarisation are not only desirable, they are inevitable; they cannot be avoided. Power relations will always exist and the interests of the powerful will rarely coincide with those of the powerless. Thus the bourgeois notion of a harmonious, conflict-free world is a dangerous illusion that ultimately results in the promotion of bureaucratic processes over the exercise of empathetic human judgement; order & hierarchy over equality; security over freedom; and etiquette over spontaneity and creativity.

So how come despite the best efforts of the English post-war Prep school and Grammar school system I was not socialised into these fundamental middle-class values of harmony and civility at all costs?

My mother’s family were undoubtedly working class, my grandfather worked on the production line in the Coventry motor industry all his life and had walked from Halifax in the ‘30’s depression to get work in Coventry. I loved my Yorkshire Granddad very much, he was a very kind and in many ways an admirable man. But he was also extremely right-wing and I remember him in the ‘60’s defending Hitler and Mussolini on the basis that they had at least got the trains running on time. So in my Granddad’s case his classic tale of working class struggle through the depression of the 1920’s and 30’s had led not to Socialism but to a far-right Conservatism, bordering on fascism.

My father’s family on the other hand were religiously dissenting (Congregationalist), Petit-bourgeois shop owners and tradesmen; my fraternal Grandfather had come to Coventry from Torquay in the ‘30’s to escape his own tyrannical Victorian father, (who was a wealthy horse and dog-breeder to the aristocracy), by setting up a watch repair shop. Granddad Jury dropped a fair few notches on the class ladder to achieve this freedom but as is tragically so often the way, he in turn became a Victorian domestic tyrant who my own father tried to escape from. And in due course my own father carried on the tradition and………anyway, that’s another story.

The point is both of my parents aspired to escape from the limitations of their class backgrounds and become, if you like, properly middle-class; to own their own home in a nice part of town, to have a proper garden with a lawn, to drink wine rather than beer, to go on foreign holidays and to vote Conservative, which they always did.

To a modest degree they succeeded in their material aspirations, (although my father ended his days in poverty), but at a terrible psychological cost.

Culturally both of them were steeped in a pre-war working class tradition and my father especially never escaped from his robust, no-nonsense, disciplinarian and confrontational background. The existential struggle between a working class upbringing in which conflict was natural and inevitable, and their attempts to move into a bourgeois world of perpetual surface harmony in which conflict was only ever expressed through passive-aggressive snubbery* tore them and their marriage apart.

(*Snubbery – the use of the social snub as the ultimate weapon of conflict – I think I’ve invented a new word!),

For me personally it meant that although my parent’s aspirations were pushing me into a white-collar, middle-class world, at home I had no model of middle-class conflict resolution. At home I learnt that conflict was to be met head-on and with as much verbal aggression as could be mustered. Of course when I entered the bourgeois world this approach was seen as the sin above all sins, the crime of all crimes, the character defect that dare not speak it’s name!

I have discovered that in the bourgeois world you can literally say, and do, anything, as long as you say it without raising your voice, without directly criticising your opponent and above all without swearing! In this bourgeois world of perpetual harmony, to lie, to cheat, to steal, to defraud, to boast, to gossip, to dominate, and to bully, are all lesser crimes than openly engaging in conflict as conflict.

My failure to understand this has been a huge problem in my professional life and sometimes led me to profound existential despair. However, I can now see that what my class confusion brings to the activist table is a willingness and ability to take on conflict on as conflict, to call a spade, a spade, and to deal with what has to be dealt with courage and commitment.

In the Peace News article Lakey himself movingly describes how these different class perspectives were acknowledged within the, Movement for a New Society, the U.S. campaigning organisation he co-founded in 1971, and his conclusions are similar to my own. But for me the crux of the matter is defined and resolved, in the interview when Lakey talks about Dr King and his Nobel Peace Prize:

“When Dr Martin Luther King got the Nobel Peace Prize, there were a lot of people criticising because they said: “Wait a minute, we had harmony in our town and then Dr King came to town, and there was all that conflict, and there was blood on the streets. And the guy gets a peace prize for that?!”

So it comes to the very basic question of the definition of peace? Is peace about harmony, or is peace about conflict?

King said: peace is about conflict. Because peace is a concept that includes justice and you can’t have justice without conflict. You have to struggle, you have to polarise the situation in order to get something done.”

Says it all for me.

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5 responses to “On Harmony, Conflict And Class

  1. moelarrythecheese

    Yes, but the Beatles said “let it be.” What about that. The Beatles can’t be wrong – they were too hip, man.

  2. moelarrythecheese

    I suppose that your new word “snubbery” conveys an image of a “nose in the air” accompanied by the disdainful utterance “umph!” In response I would say “up yours!”

  3. moelarrythecheese

    Yes, your new word invention “snubbery” could take off. To be here at the start – that’s cool.

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