Clinton, Classism, and Arendt’s Zinc Box Error

The errors and toxicity of anti-class politics

by Matt Stannard

The case for Hillary Clinton to be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee and likely the next President includes the argument, explicit or not, that the interests of multinational finance capital and those of people making less than $100,000, $50,000, or $20,000 a year, and the interests of this planet’s ecology, are all compatible. Systemically speaking, there is no evidence to support that assumption, nor any evidence favoring either Clinton’s “let’s work with ‘em, regulate ‘em a little but on good terms” or, for that matter, Bernie Sanders’s “let’s beat the hell out of ‘em” approaches. Both are based on a philosophy of contingent redistribution and regulation, which, along with reliance on philanthropy, is insufficient for economic and ecological justice, and in the present condition may even delay it.

Sanders, however, brings to the table the promise of immediate, focused relief for the poor, unemployed, and the economically insecure–the latter a category that includes half of the country, along with an aggressive environmental policy—and it’s critical that a synthesis of environmental and economic justice become the new policy norm. But Sanders brings an additional, more systemic message: Because multinational corporations and finance capital have colonized our political system, pushing back against that needs to be our highest priority–again, not through any material revolution, but by limiting, through judicial and legislative fiat, the power such corporations and wealthy individuals have on our political process. If the rich have the power to stop anything good from happening, we need to check that power first.

Although they are unlikely to succeed, Sanders’s proposals and arguments enrage moderates and liberals who believe either in the Clintonian compatibility assumption or have resigned themselves to accepting the dominance of money in politics. They appear to bother Hillary Clinton herself, who has gone so far as to level an explicit critique against them—one that sounds like a simplified academic debate argument against Marxism. Her rhetoric is striking in its explicit repudiation of class politics, as well as its straw-person characterization of socioeconomic concerns as reductionism:

“Not everything is about an economic theory, right?” Clinton said, kicking off a long, interactive riff with the crowd at a union hall this afternoon.

“If we broke up the big banks tomorrow—and I will if they deserve it, if they pose a systemic risk, I will—would that end racism?”

“No!” the audience yelled back.

Clinton continued to list scenarios, asking: “Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community? Would that make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight?”

It’s interesting that Clinton said “overnight.” Why would she need to say that? Because some part of her is aware that the long-term effect of increased economic security and material cooperation really is a more welcoming society—a more gentle, empathetic, and progressive society where the marginalized and disempowered are welcomed into community. But she dare not dwell on that thought too long. Instead, she reverts to the straw person—that anyone, least of all Sanders, is arguing that breaking up big banks would magically end identity oppression.

Of course, on the other side of the mainstream political aisle is a fascistic thug, and since a part of 1930s Germany seems to have beamed into 2016, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the universe guided me, in researching my introductory essay to my new book of poetry based on the work of Bertolt Brecht, to a fascinating artifact, a 1948 review by Hannah Arendt of a book of Brecht’s poetry. Arendt has much to praise in Brecht, particularly for his prioritization of social over personal diagnosis. She also seems to enjoy his eclectic poetic style–really a free roaming across styles. Arendt’s discomfort with Brecht’s poetry increases in proportion to the growing blatancy of his socialism.

Specifically, Brecht wrote a poem in 1936 called “Burial of the Agitator in a Zinc Coffin.” The agitator is clearly a socialist or a communist, and the Nazis buried dissenters they killed in zinc coffins to send a message to families and citizens that they could be next.

Here in this zinc box
lies a dead person
or his legs and his head
or even less of him
or nothing, for he was
a trouble-maker.

He was recognised as the root of all evil.
Dig him in. It will be best
if his wife goes alone to the knacker’s yard with him
because anyone else going
would be a marked man.

What is in that zinc box
has been egging you on to all sorts of things:
Getting enough to eat
And having somewhere dry to live
And feeding one’s children
And insisting on one’s exact wages
And solidarity with all
who are oppressed like yourselves. And

What is in that zinc box said
that another system of production was needed
and that you, the masses of labour in your millions
must take over.
Until then things won’t get better for you.

And because what is in the zinc box said that
it was put into the zinc box and must be dug in
as a trouble-maker who egged you on.
And whoever now talks of getting enough to eat
And whoever of you wants somewhere dry to live
And whoever of you insists on his exact wages
And whoever of you wants to feed his children
And whoever thinks, and proclaims his solidarity
with all who are oppressed –
from now on throughout eternity
he will be put into a zinc box like this one
as a trouble-maker and dug in.


Irritated more than critical, Arendt accuses Brecht of ignorance, of letting his Marxism run wild, ignoring the true nature of Nazi oppression, political repression.  Brecht, Arendt writes,

deals with this subject as though it were simply the case of an agitator who “has agitated in favor of many things: for eating-your-fill, for a-roof-over-your head, for feeding-your-children,” etc. The point is, that an agitator with such slogans would have been so ridiculous in 1936 that nobody would have needed to put him out of the way.

This criticism is factually shaky and extremely unfair to the poet and playwright, himself a victim of Nazism. As John Simkin points out, there were still one million people unemployed in Germany as of 1937, and those in the working class who were employed were miserable–not merely as politically repressed subjects of Nazism, but uniquely as workers. The Nazis controlled trade unions and severely punished independent union activity. Wages were very low and did not increase with productivity.

So there was much for a socialist or communist agitator to fight against in Nazi Germany in the late 1930s. There was Nazism itself, which the far left did a much better job of both explaining and pushing back against than the centrists ever did. But there was also widespread exploitation of labor—from the slave labor that began to build the war machine to the conditions of the working class itself, conditions which, regardless of what the materially privileged Arendt thought, were pretty awful. If you were anti-capitalist and anti-Nazi, you were doubly marked, and it seems foolish in retrospect to suggest that agitation against poor wages and working conditions, and the unemployment of a million people, on top of the triumph of fascism, would have seemed ridiculous or that no such materialist agitators would be put out of the way. Tens of thousands of leftist political prisoners were put out of the way between 1933 and the end of the war. Arendt’s denial of this is criminal. She’s better than that.

Brecht figures strongly into a philosophical discussion of the way some liberals save their nastiest derision for socialists, and one needn’t be a Marxist or even a socialist to examine this. In Threepenny Opera, Brecht writes: “Food is the first thing, morals follow on.” Stripped of an understanding of class, identity politics often drifts into a morality-based critique of power, and while values are undeniably important (perhaps more important than orthodox Marxists admit), Ioan Davies’s interpretation of Brecht’s line in Threepenny expresses the hazard of morals that ignore materiality:

The struggle to be “good” is frequently stressed, but it is a fatuous struggle if it is not linked with the struggle to live . . . No matter how much individuals aim to be just, justice and morality are only possible if the social conditions are just. In fact the attempt is only worthwhile under such conditions: otherwise it becomes blind to the injustice of others.

I think that most of the public discussion about Clinton, Sanders, identity politics, class politics, sexism and emancipation conflates optics and policy. Clinton apologists also conspicuously erase the mainstream Democratic Party’s (and their candidate’s) synthesis of political liberalism and economic neoliberalism. It’s a dangerous thing, thinking that legal protections and moral inclusiveness are enough to check the abuses of the inegalitarian economy. It’s at least as dangerous as what Clinton apologists accuse the left of doing, assuming economic egalitarianism can, by itself, adequately address illiberal, racist, sexist, and other exclusionary cultures.

Clinton apologists are right: socialism alone, by itself, can whitewash identity oppression. But they stop there. One longtime friend recently described to me their excitement in hearing Clinton call for a society where more women and people of color inhabited positions at the top of corporate, academic, and political hierarchies. This friend dismissed my question about the injustices of the hierarchies themselves as “unrealistic” and “unpragmatic,” the latest form of classism and red-baiting that has been hurled at Sanders (who’s really not very red at all) by Democrats and Republicans alike.

In Germany in the 1930s, liberals who shied away from socialism were absolutely helpless to fight against Nazism. I fear that the current centrism of the Democratic Party establishment shares this inability. Because the standard-bearers of the Party support military intervention, tolerate coups in Central America, and support neoliberal free trade agreements that allow multinational corporations to supersede public interest and environmental laws, it has become very easy for Donald Trump to outflank his likely Democratic opponent and be a true populist—just like the Nazis did. Fascists always flirt with isolationism, criticize big corporations, and promise a few economically egalitarian policies. I already hear naïve Greens and others on the independent left cautiously praising Trump for attacking Clinton on her Iraq war vote. I hear them shrugging their shoulders and pointing out that his economic nationalism isn’t that far from Sanders’s, and that Trump is a more credible opponent of bad trade deals than Clinton.

Of course, Donald Trump isn’t a credible anything. He’s an incipient fascist and a narcissist with the tone of a domestic abuser, forging a politics of interpersonal violence that, regardless of his lies otherwise, will be scaled up to brutal militarism when, as President, he realizes he can’t verbally abuse other nations into submission. He’ll crush free speech, and labor, and anything in his way—just as he already has. In order to beat Trump, Clinton will need to go left. In order to beat Trumpism, we all will, and that means recognizing the standing of economic domination and the necessity of an ecologically sustainable economic justice. Economic justice, not liberalism-in-cooperation-with-multinational-corporations, is the antithesis of fascism. Nothing I have seen in the optics or policy universe of the Democrats indicates they can do this.

In this election cycle, I’ve stayed away from telling people how to vote. I’m chiefly concerned about the outcome of the Democratic primary race because of what it says about America’s attitude towards the economically disadvantaged, our propensity towards building sustainable economic justice, and our resistance to the colonization of the public sphere–and all life–by profit-driven corporations and the forces of finance capital. I believe we do, in fact, have to fix that “first,” although not necessarily temporally first. If corporate money can block all good ideas, this means it will block all of your candidate’s good ideas. This is a pretty devastating admission because it means you can’t leverage the power of any of your candidate’s good ideas back over it. It reduces your candidate’s policy positions to those that can co-exist with the needs of multibillion dollar corporations and extremely wealthy individuals. Number one on their agenda is stopping real progress on carbon-induced climate change, the long-term impacts of which are apocalyptic. Many of the injustices we are rightly concerned about across the entire array of identity-based oppression happen to a large percentage of the population every day simply because they are poor.

Pointing this out is dangerous—maybe not as dangerous as it was in 1930s Germany, but if a thinker as sharp and astute as Hannah Arendt had a blind spot on classism then, it certainly explains the active and passive red-baiting going on among otherwise progressive people in 2016 America.

Matt Stannard is policy director at Commonomics USA and director of the Materialized Empathy project. He provides research and communications assistance to the Public Banking Institute, speaks and writes on economic justice, and is the author of Love and Production and The American Commons, both of which will be published in 2016.

One comment

  1. The analogous comparison of Clinton’s (and mainstream Corporate Democratic Partyism) critical review of we liberals, in preference to a “let’s work with Corporate billionaires”, that our calls for economic justice should be shelved in lieu of other more popular political talking points such as racism and gender bias, to Hannah Arendt’s naïve and biased anti-socialism critique of Brecht’s classic “Burial of the Agitator in a Zinc Coffin” was spot on and to the point.

    Speaking of “naïve”, I confess to being a Green myself, yet by no means have I ever taken Trump’s empty rhetoric as being even in the zip code of offering solid solutions to the most basic of our man social issues of the day: Economic Justice.

    You made the point solidly and sufficiently, that without Economic means broadly based and universally distributed sufficient to be termed “just”, that even should we address racial and gender bias issues. that we are leaving the most practical need unaddressed. In that respect, I did so appreciate Brecht’s words which you reproduced in driving this point home:

    “The struggle to be “good” is frequently stressed, but it is a fatuous struggle if it is not linked with the struggle to live”

    Great article, and points well stated and sufficiently made.

    Dave Henderson


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