November 5, 2022
In Letters To Finkelstein
Finkelstein comments: One of my former students, also from China, replied to this posting.
Hi hi!! Thanks so much for reaching out, I was planning on writing to you as well! Yes, we have the same surname, isn’t that amazing? Not many people have our last name, maybe we share the same ancestors?
I appreciate Norman for forwarding your letter to me, and don’t worry, I see his “publishing” your letter on his popular website as a compliment, because truly, it is so insightful and well written. He cherishes good writing and honest, sincere discussions, and that’s why we love him. Your letter reminded me of my first time writing to him, as a poli sci major at Hunter College, taking his political theory class, and asking him to cancel class to attend Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign rally… He was, and is, the GOAT (admin: “GOAT” stands for ‘greatest of all time’). (he didn’t let us skip the class though, but later we did go to Bernie’s rally together in Queens in October 2019, exactly three years ago – feels like a lifetime ago now. I will never forget that beautiful day, with tens of thousands of people cheering for a socialist candidate, something called hope filled the air.)
In that letter, I told him how I, a newly transferred Chinese student, wanted to learn American politics as I thought it was the best system in the world. That was where I was at the time – a wide eyed and awestruck newcomer to the country, a diehard liberal, an avid New York Times reader. I left China because I hated what the CCP had been doing to our liberties and headed to this “beacon of freedom and democracy”. Well, let’s just say since then I’ve learned American politics as I intended to and had no choice but to become a communist. (jk, I’m a socialist now, because I haven’t really read any communist theories to call myself one. I’m also very interested in anarchism. But I’m definitely a sympathizer and all for burning down capitalism, and picking an “-ism” isn’t that important in my opinion.)
Not necessarily through books (although there are books that changed my whole perspective), but through real life experiences as a worker (especially as a restaurant worker throughout the pandemic), I have come to realize the exploitative nature and unsustainable paradox of capitalism – both in the U.S. and in China, and everywhere. I have come to understand the alienation, anxiety, and deep shame and guilt I’ve felt at all my jobs where I don’t feel any sense of belonging, have no access to the assets I’m helping creating, have no say in the decision-making, no control over my working conditions, no choice but to constantly compare and compete with others. Our whole life, we have to compete and get ahead, get good grades, get into good schools, get a good job, keep a good standing – otherwise we are a failure. Otherwise we are going to be homeless. Fear drives us to work, stress keeps us from sleeping at night, and leisure and pleasure are commodities the poor can’t afford.
I’m especially enlightened by your discussion of “labor aristocracy” and strikes. Under the current system, the only way individuals can secure a good life is by becoming better workers, which creates stress and anxiety on one hand, and hierarchy and class hostility on the other. Look at how some people who have “made it” talk about the poor or the homeless, as if poverty is a personal and moral failure, while being successful is proof of superiority. You talked about workers aligning themselves with the capitalist class, oblivious to the fact that they are closer to becoming homeless than ever becoming a millionaire. But isn’t this the old “divide and conquer” playbook designed by the ruling class? As long as everyone aspires to climb on top and stamp those on the bottom, there’s no class solidarity. I know this is by design, and we shouldn’t fall into the trap, but it’s really powerful. Here’s an example:
I live in a neighborhood that, like many other neighborhoods in NYC, is undergoing destruction – gentrification and development is the official name – old three-story buildings are being torn down, displaced by high rise luxury condos. Small storefronts are being driven out and displaced by chain franchises. Construction noise and pollution are on everything everywhere all at once. Behind the changing surface of the landscape is the displacement of people. Homeless people with their carts of belongings, the mentally ill, drug dealers and addicts, beggars, scammers, prostitutes – all these marginalized people, needless to say most of them black – line up the blocks from the subway to our building. No better place to go, they have decided to spend their days in front of the liquor store downstairs, where we live directly above. All day we hear them blasting loud music, yelling, cursing, harassing pedestrians. It has become such a neighborhood nuisance, and the building doesn’t know how to deal with them. We are mad, very mad, and we know they have nothing better to do, nowhere else to be, and we don’t want to get the police involved, but we are mad. It seems they are at war with us. The whole area – with its never ending constructions and traffic – is at war with us, the remaining residents, screaming for us to leave so our building can also be sold, knocked down, and developed for more profit. Our enemy is not the people downstairs causing trouble, I know, but God do I want to punch them.
There also have been several shootings and murders at night. I don’t feel safe.
Meanwhile the people behind the “developments” never have to deal with a moment of this.
How do we have solidarity with these literal gutter-dwellers (we’re not doing so much better than them, to be honest)? Or, how do they direct their rage and resentment not towards us, but towards the real bosses, who are nowhere to be found?
You talked about strikes as a remedy still within the framework of capitalism and not fundamentally challenging it. That’s true. I don’t have the answer as to how to destroy capitalism, but I absolutely believe we have the capability to do it, right now. The question is how to bring that capability into reality, and I think labor unions, strikes, organizing, etc, are among the real work. I also think the stakes have never been higher. We are literally heading towards a catastrophic ecological collapse and possible humanity extinction, so revolution could happen very quickly, within our lifetime.
I often think about how people in the West take their standard of living for granted. A lifestyle consisted of a detached house, a car (or several), year-round air control, new clothes every season, plastic packaged food, air travel vacations, disposable consumer goods, a new phone or computer every few years… This lifestyle is built on the cheap labor of underdeveloped countries, whose citizens may never achieve this level of comfort before climate change wipes their homes out. It’s always been like this, since the beginning of capitalism and colonialism. People in the U.S. say, McDonald’s workers in Denmark make $22/hr, why do our workers only make $15? Well then, why do Chinese workers only make $2, and arguably making more delicious sandwiches? Why does Starbucks pay its Chinese baristas a mere fraction of its US workers for making exactly the same coffee? Why do some lives matter more than others? Why is everything so unfair? How can we still live about our lives knowing this?
And what am I doing about it? Nothing, because I’m exhausted just trying to survive another day…
I’ve talked a lot but I’m sure we have a lot more to discuss. I’ve never known any Chinese Marxist before (in part because I was not a fan of communism for the majority of my life… ) and I’m interested in how you’ve come to think the way you think today. Let’s keep in touch and maybe meet in person? Again, thanks for the letter and I’m really happy to have met you. 🙂
PS: I saw this quote last night and thought it’s relevant to our discussion.
Not long after I arrived in the United States, I met an American woman at a friend’s home. She told me with apparent pride that her daughter was a cheerleader. I did not know what kind of leader that was. Hearing her explanation, I could not bring myself to present a compliment, as she obviously expected. I only wished that my eyes did not betray my disdain as I said to myself, “I guess this American woman has never dreamed of her daughter being a leader cheered by men.” I felt fortunate that I had been “brainwashed” to want to be a revolutionary instead of a cheerleader …
Was “brainwashing” girls to desire to be “young vanguards” in socialist construction more oppressive and limiting than “brainwashing” girls to desire to be cheerleaders for football games? No.
– Wang Zheng; “Some of Us: Chinese Women Growing Up in the Mao Era