Class still counts
The past year has witnessed an unprecedented level of class struggle, never before have the various mechanisms for mobilising class interests been so perfectly enacted. Sadly, I am not referring to the recent TUC demonstration or coordinated strikes. Unfortunately, no matter how positive, these acts are no more than flashes in the pan when compared to the real and relentless class struggle which is at play in contemporary society. This class struggle requires no fanfare of air horns; ringing out in parliament square to assert its power, in fact its silence is both a facet of its potency and evidence of its near all encompassing power. Sociologist Michael Mann terms the class relations of contemporary society as that of asymmetrical struggle. This is due to the near total dominance of the capitalist class over subordinate classes in terms of ability and willingness to further their interests at the expense of others.
Previously the increasing misery and inequality resultant for the current austerity program would have fed into what Polanyi referred to as the ‘double movement’, whereby the assertion of capitalists’ interests by increasing the level of suffering amongst working people lead to a reigning in of the capitalist class through trade union and electoral action. This resulted in various equilibriums throughout history in which class compromises were reached, the most recent being the post war years of regulated capitalism.
Since the 1980s any pretence of attempting to maintain or return to the Fordist class compromise has been jettisoned by both the Tories and, more shockingly, Labour. What is at first glance surprising is that the global financial melt down and the recession which followed it did nothing to hamper the furthering of the interests of the rich; acting instead to intensify them. As evidenced most obviously by the current grab to accumulate public wealth, through the dismantling of the welfare state and public services. Other examples, such as a political willingness to allow 12 million people* to linger involuntarily without a job , while forcing those lucky enough to have a job to work longer for a smaller pension and cutting services of those desperately in need of them while transferring the burden for their cost from the state to the individual, all highlight aptly the asymmetrical class struggle being waged on working people.
Such a reaction is not surprising, when we recognise that the economic crisis did not, as many on the left had hoped it would, act as catalyst for change to a more just system by highlighting the need for an alternative to the unstable and inefficient status quo. Rather the crisis acted only to exemplify the total weakness of subordinate classes, through both their ideological and organisational ability to put forward any meaningful resistance.
It may seem that to classify the coalition’s austerity program as an act of class struggle, is simply a rhetorical device lacking objective utility. In fact many people may cringe at terms such as ‘capitalist class’ and ‘class struggle’ thinking them outdated and alienating. Such a view is another example of the capitalist class’ ‘hegemony’, which is so overwhelming that it seems that even to suggest that the furthering of class interests may be motives for coalitions actions is to move beyond ‘common-sense’. However, we should also recognise that such misconceptions are also in part a result of the fact that people often lack conceptual clarity of what class actually means in concrete terms. By outlining definitional issues of class, the explanatory value of such an approach becomes much clearer.
Erik Olin Wright powerfully and analytically lays out the explanatory power of a Marxist-inspired conceptualisation of class. The kernel of such an approach is the view that within society there exists interdependent but fundamentally antagonistic relations between different sets of actors. These antagonisms are driven by the exploitation generated at the core of capitalism. Exploitation, Wright argues, is based upon three core concepts
1. “The inverse interdependent welfare principle: the material welfare of exploiters causally depends on the material deprivations of the exploited. The welfare of the exploiter is at the expense of the exploited
2. The exclusion principle: the causal relation that generates principle (i) involves the asymmetrical exclusion of the exploited from access to control over certain important productive resources. Typically this exclusion is backed by force in the form of property rights, but in special cases it may not be.
3. The appropriation principle: The causal mechanism which translates (ii) exclusion into (i) differential welfare involves the appropriation of the fruits of labour off the exploited by those who control the relevant productive resources. This appropriation is also often referred to as the appropriation of the ‘surplus product’”.
Such an elucidation of class is based upon a view of exploitation as being the determinate characteristic of class position. This is conceptually appealing for two interconnected reasons. Firstly, it conforms to a fundamental understanding of capitalism as being exploitative. Capitalism is founded upon the extraction of profit from labour by capital. Obviously, to term such extraction of profit ‘exploitation’ rather than simply a ‘transfer’ of wealth from the A to B is to apply a normative judgement to a social process i.e. that whereas certain ‘transfers’ are morally neutral or just (such as taxation), others constitute ‘exploitation’ as they are unjust. Exploitation then rests upon a theory of justice. It is not the purpose of this blog to discuss the fine details of justice but one particularly enlightening treatment of the subject is that of Gerry Cohen’s socialist reconstruction of Rawls‘ ‘Theory of Justice’ in which he essentially jettisons the ‘difference principle’ suggesting that in regards to wealth distribution strict equality is the only just outcome as it is the only outcome which all participants would agree to if they did not know the outcome of the distribution beforehand. Secondly, exploitation is clearly a conflictual social process and being so creates a rational for action amongst individuals i.e. it is the interests of capitalists to exploit workers as much as possible and it is in the interests of workers to resist their exploitation as much as possible. This creates a ‘political subject’ engendered with a rational need to expend agency in resisting and potentially overthrowing capitalism.
However, the growth of the ‘middle class’ has led to the suggestion that such antagonistic class relations are no-longer a useful way of understanding contemporary capitalism. Yet Wright argues, that a ‘middle class’ is not contradictory to such a model. Rather traditional Marxists have incorrectly considered capitalist exploitation of workers as the principle generator of antagonistic relations. These two ‘classes’ are in fact best understood as polarized class locations albeit “the fundamental locations within capitalist-class structure”. Seeing the capitalist/worker distinction as a location enables the class structure to be elaborated to an additional 10 class locations based upon: relation to the means of production, through ownership, authority and skill.
|Relation to means of production|
|Number of employees||Owner||Employees||Relation to authority|
|Many (10+)||Capitalists||Expert managers||Skilled managers||Nonskilled managers||Managers|
|Few (2-9)||Small employers||Expert supervisors||Skilled supervisors||Nonskilled supervisors||Supervisors|
|None (0-1)||Petty bourgeoisie||Experts||Skilled workers||Nonskilled workers||Nomanagment|
Such an analysis assumes that exploitation is not only grounded in the ownership of the means of production by capitalists but also the domination workers within production, and therefore class position should be determined by the relations of production rather than just relations of ownership. Thus it is possible to differentiate employees based upon position within hierarchy i.e. managers and supervisors exercise delegated capitalist-class powers through practising domination within production. Furthermore, the privileged position of managers within organisations enables them to gain higher wages. However, they also contribute to the surplus through their own labour and thus their higher wages may simply reflect a capacity to appropriate a larger part of the profit to which their labour contributes. So they might not be ‘exploiters’ (as capitalist are) but just less exploited than other employees. Therefore, Wright asserts it is more logical to see managers as occupying a privileged position within the process of exploitation. Secondly, employees who possess high levels of skills / expertise are also potentially in a privileged location within the exploitation relations.
Class structure is also further complicated as the petty bourgeoisie or self employed have not faded away as Marx envisioned. The self-employed own their means of production and therefore have a clear stake in private property; but at the same time, they are often threatened and dominated by capitalist firms. This results in a far more complex class structure than simply the capitalist / worker distinction. But nevertheless contemporary capitalism retains an objective class structure based upon antagonism between those aliened to the interest of capital and those aligned to the interests of labour. In the mid 1990s this class scheme suggested a class composition for UK in which the traditional working-class (unskilled workers) accounted for 43 percent of the UK’s population, while the extended working-class (unskilled workers + skilled workers + unskilled supervisors) equalled 64 percent.
Yet such objective classifications are only of real value if they reproduce subjective values insomuch that they shape individuals’ understanding of the world and its processes. Wright’s large scale quantitative comparative analysis shows that these grouping also displayed conscious antagonism towards each others interests. With the extended working class holding views which were sharply differentiated to the views of capitalists and their closely located counter parts (expert managers, skilled managers and expert supervisors). For example, in the US the extended working-class had values which were 22 percent more anti-capitalist than those of capitalists and their closely located counter parts.
This suggests that progressives must resist the hegemonic view that class no longer exists. We must highlight the daily class warfare which is being waged by the rich against the poor. We equally must resist the self-censorship which manifests itself through ‘middle class guilt’ and turns class struggle into a taboo subject. Working people feel disenfranchised because they are very much aware their interests and equally aware that no one is fighting for them. It is only by harnessing the powerful antagonisms and conflicts which capitalism generates that real social change is possible. It was such conflict which created previous ‘double movements’ and ended past capitalist extravagance. A new ‘double movement’ is well over due.
* Official unemployment is 2.5 million people but around half of the economically inactive (9.3 million people) want to work but are not classified as unemployed as they have not sought paid employment in the last 4 weeks