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
Caste system has always been a part of the society. It brings economic balance in the society. But then, corruptions leads us all to nowhere. Rich becomes richer at the expense of the poor.
I just hope that caste system will not affect how we treat others. Rather, it should be an inspiration to everyone to help each other grow economically.
Face it, class still counts. Are you the rich or the poor? This still matters.
I think there is still the boundary of gender and ethnicity that needs to be placed within this discussion. As a woman from an Asian background, it is increasingly hard to place myself within a specific class structure. Because although I have a middle class background, my outlook is different due to the fact that I’m not white and I’m not a man.
So, while I agree with your argument on the large part, and the necessity to engage with the terms around class difference – I dispute that it is a battle of the classes. The battle is much larger than this country – it is global and it is a battle of rich/white/male versus poor/non-white/non-male.
Our failure to recognise that has heightened the asymmetry of the labour movement – because that which is supposed to represent us, the trade unions, are still white/male dominated.
Until that structure is challenged and the body that represents the powerless adopts those other categories into their discussion, I don’t see a win coming soon.
But, perhaps you should have written Owen Jones’ book for him. I like your analysis much much more.
Thanks for your thoughts, in his book ‘Class Counts’ Wright obviously goes much further into these issues than I could have hoped to do justice to in a blog.
In fact he highlights that one of the main reason that class structure has become more complex is that people have cross class allegiances such as with your intern. However, this model is a good example of the importance of empirically grounding theory. In this case, despite the complexities of cross class allegiances, large scale and comparative quantitative analysis clearly shows that the values of people positioned close to the worker location will on aggregate have strongly differentiated values to people positioned close to the capitalist class location. An obvious reason for this is that interns such as yours are far less common than people without such strong cross class allegiance. Of course we can always find some cases which don’t fit with a certain model or theory. Popper would agree with you that one such falsification is enough to disprove a theory. However, doing so would also mean that we could no longer posit that women are discriminated against in the labour market as there are some women who are millionaire CEOs. Few people still consider a strict Popperian approach tangible (thanks to Khun this is even in the case in the psychical sciences! ). Lakatos’ approach seems far more applicable i.e. that a few falsifications do not disprove a theory but at some point they may become so over bearing that a research program must be abandoned or radically altered.
Although appealing in political terms, in reality I’m not sure that the ‘nonproductive rich’ exist. To do so they would need to stop their capital accumulating more capital– the rich could bury their money like a pirate but this seems unlikely. In reality if you are rich then you’re gonna have your capital held in some productive form such as stock ownership or land. Even if you were just to keep your wealth in a bank you would indirectly own large amounts of property and business through the bank’s lending. Clearly then being rich enough not to expend your own labour power is almost a prerequisite of being a capitalist.
I don’t see why Wright’s model is incompatible with unemployment – but I think it is a complicated issue and one would certainly want to differentiate the short and long term unemployed as it seems logical that the short term unemployed would maintain the values of their previous position while the long term unemployed would be best understood as a reserve of workers and thus, as they are without both position in the hierarchy or skills, they would form part of the unskilled workers location.
Actually, I think it explains third sector orgs pretty well. You have interns who are paid poorly as they are seen as still developing their skills and have no hierarchical power for which loyalty needs to be rewarded, you then have have assistants who are paid OK because they are seen as possessing skills but expel no hierarchical power, officers who are paid well as they are seen as experts but only have a small degree of hierarchical power and then management who are paid very well because they have both expertise and power. Age increases the opportunity for acquiring both skills and hierarchical power (through displaying loyalty to your superiors – hence why references from your previous manager are important).
I agree that gender can often have more explanatory power than class but that doesn’t mean that class in unimportant just as race doesn’t render gender unimportant.
Finally striving for conceptual clarity, as Wright does, is what separates scholarship from journalism and for that matter religion. Without analytical definitions I don’t think we can hope to further our understanding of the world.
I enjoyed it, and the broad argument seems clear – i.e. a cabinet of millionairres is pushing misery on a population of people at the other end of the spectrum. Or to put it in Alinskyian terms a group of ‘haves’ are enriching other ‘haves’ at the expense of the ‘have nots’ and the ‘have-a-little-want-mores’.
I did have trouble with the Wright model in the table though. Take a low or no paid intern with rich parents who begins work as a nonskilled worker. I think with Wright’s model they would start working life as ‘working class’ – which might jar with more popular definitions.
Similarly by situating model within the workplace I fail to see where the nonproductive rich (neo-feudal inherited wealth) or the nonproductive poor (the unemployed/lumpenproletariat) would fit in, never mind carers, students, children, the retired, the long term ill, and so on
Then I have trouble applying this to third sector organizations. There is certainly an element of class (popularly defined) in the arrangement of organizational hierarchies, but age and gender seem like much more stark indicators.
Perhaps he has answers for such questions, or perhaps I have misinterpreted his model, but i’d say on balance that while each person’s heritage of course influences their perspective, such rigid definitions have the potential to take away rather than contribute to class based analysis.
Its still a good article though
Hi Derek and John,
Thanks for the comments, definitely agree with Derek’s point on the importance of indigenous peoples. I was only really thinking in terms of UK and other OECD countries.
John I agree with your second point but I think that it is tied into your first point which I disagree with.
I certainly agree that people believe that the middle class exists but where the hegemony comes in is that everyone thinks they are middle class no matter their actual objective position. Secondly I think their is a common sense view that the furthering of class interests is not the motivation for the actions of the elite and to suggest that it is to be portrayed as a mad trot trapped in the 1970s.
What is necessary is a class coalition between those positions which are aligned to an anti-capitalist interest. This is the subject of my next blog.
I don’t think there is a hegemonic view that class no longer exists. I’m sure pretty much anyone you might ask would acknowledge that it does.
The challenge facing the socialist movement within this country is to persuade the large proportion of people who consider themselves members of the middle class that their lives would be improved by socialism.
Also important to think of agency and commons.
Indigenous in many parts of the world have increasing agency and work to promote commons. So in countries like Honduras and Peru both workers and indigenous are part of the process of political change.
Thanks for this useful article.