Adam Ash

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Monday, May 29, 2006

Deep Thoughts: on class

1. Why Class isn’t just another "ism" -- by Joel Wendland

What is class and what role does it play, if any, in the US in the 21st century? These are two questions raised in a recent book titled Class Matters compiled by a handful of New York Times journalists and other commentators. Is class an issue of status or education, or is it even relevant, the editors wonder in the introduction. Despite excellent, readable articles that handle a wide range of aspects of the class divide from access to education, income, geography and the gender gap, the answers provided by the book are less than satisfactory. For this reason, taking some time to define class seems as important now as ever.

People with Marxist, socialist or even radical democratic and liberal viewpoints often talk and write about class, class struggle and class consciousness as if shared definitions of these terms are well known, or as if experiences of class are common enough that working definitions aren’t needed. You know it when you see it, right? Unfortunately, this assumption may lead to misunderstandings and inaccurate analysis.

We can safely dismiss right-wing claims that class does not exist. Halliburton’s access to the highest levels of political power and billions in profits that enrich its owners, while 750,000 people live on the streets every day is but one example that puts that lie to rest. Indeed, during the 2004 election, the most politically engaged -- or class conscious -- workers were trade unionists (both white and non-white), people of color, women and others who fought the election of George W. Bush vigorously, whose political base, as he admitted openly, was the rich and powerful. Aren’t these facts indications of the reality of class?

So what is it exactly? In left US academic circles it is common to refer to the basic trinity of race, class and gender (some add sexuality, ability, nationality) that governs social life. While this is useful for explaining why people live their lives the way they do and the choices they make or are forced to make, these categories are often equated as “identities” that have similar causes and effects. Class is sometimes reduced to its effects -- income, education, status or attitudes. The term, “classist,” has even been invented to describe the prejudices of middle- and upper-class people against the poor. In a society that usually pretends class isn’t real and that all experience is individual, the reintroduction of some version of class, no matter how thin, is a dramatic improvement. Still, boiling class down to feelings or to its effects is unsatisfactory for Marxists.

Let’s look at some of the classic literature on the subject. For Marxists, class in general always results from specific historical conditions in which it is developing. In other words, to speak of class today, we must speak of classes under capitalism. Prior to capitalism, the definition of class was different. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels use terms like “social rank,” “orders” and “gradations” to name social classes. Before capitalism, classes were defined by non-economic factors such as “divine right” or kinship.

In his essay “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific,” Engels examines how classes under capitalism were formed. He argues that “the products now produced socially [under capitalism] were not appropriated by those who had actually set in motion the means of production and actually produced the commodities, but by capitalists.” In other words, private property and political power allowed capitalists to own and control all of what workers made. Capitalism changed the “means of production of the individual into social means of production only workable by a collectivity” of people. In this way, “social rank” and “orders” of pre-capitalist days were transformed into a capitalist class structure. This new situation “brought out the incompatibility of socialized production with capitalistic appropriation,” Engels adds. Laborers were turned into permanent sellers of labor power for wages, the previous order of social classes was eroded and the social system of capitalism began to produce two great economic groupings, “the capitalists on the one side, and the producers...on the other.” The antagonism between workers and the class of private appropriators (the capitalists), shared conditions of labor (or not) and dispossession (or ownership) turned workers and capitalists into distinct classes.

(It should be noted that Engels’s division of society into only two classes was a simplification of actual conditions. He made the generalization for the purposes of explanation. In other books and articles, both Engels and Marx would speak of classes outside of this two-class concept, for example, peasants or small business owners. Lenin would even argue that multiple modes of production with competing class structures could exist side by side in a single society, especially those in transition. Engels’s point here, however, is that a single mode of production comes to dominate over others, and when it is capitalism, the general trend is toward the elimination of other classes outside of the worker-capitalist class structure.)

In his own discussion of capitalism’s origins and development, Marx regarded class in general as a dynamic relationship of groups. What shapes class, Marx argues in Capital Vol. III, is “always the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers.” This relationship produces antagonism at the point of production and in society in general, transforming individuals, by necessity, into something greater than themselves. Individuals form a class, he notes in The German Ideology, only “insofar as they have to carry on a common battle against another class.” This relationship also creates distinct class cultures. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx argues that class conditions forcibly separate one group’s “mode of life, their interests and their culture from those of other classes.”

Once this relationship exists and antagonistic interests form, Marx states in The German Ideology,

“The class in its turn achieves an independent existence over against the individuals, so that the latter find their conditions of existence predestined, and hence have their position in life and their personal development assigned to them by their class.”

Marx qualifies this generalization to say that other factors also influence class and the determining role it has for people. In Capital Vol. III, Marx argues that class, “due to innumerable different empirical circumstances, natural environment, racial relations, external historical influences, etc.,” could show “infinite variations and gradations in appearance.”

In other words, important non-class factors (we might add gender, sexuality, nationality, ability and more to Marx’s list) affect class, how it functions, what effects it has on the individuals living it out.

Here, Marx doesn’t insist that class determines these other non-class factors. In fact he was arguing that they condition class -- how it “appears.” Marx also was not implying that non-economic factors mystify or distort class’s true appearance. He meant that certain non-economic factors cause class to operate in different ways under historically specific conditions. While the basic truth of the general concept of class remains, other factors make the lived experience of class unique to each society or sections of a society. For example, in a predominantly African American city like Detroit with an unemployment rate of 15 percent and a poverty rate of 28 percent, class experiences are infused with institutional racism. Things like racist “criminal justice,” uneven access to health care, environmental racism, limited political power and unequal distribution of public resources make the experience of class dramatically different from those of people who live in the predominantly white working-class communities that border that city.

Several decades later, in the wake of the Russian Revolution, Lenin echoed Engels and Marx in his 1919 pamphlet titled “A Great Beginning.” “Classes are groups of people,” he argued, “one of which can appropriate the labor of another owing to the different places they occupy in a definite system of social economy.” But more than simply groups of people, Lenin argued two years later in Left-wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder, class is a “division according to status in the social system of production.” Note that status is an effect of class, which itself is a “division.”

Lenin builds on his view of class as a “division” in his 1919 speech “The State.” Class is “a division into groups of people” he remarks, “some of whom are permanently in a position to appropriate the labor of others, when some people exploit others.” More than being simply a division, class is a device for exploitation, or a relationship of power and dominance that permits one group to exploit another.

Lenin amplifies this concept in his 1921 speech on “The Tasks of the Youth League”: “Classes are that which permits one section of society to appropriate the labor of another section.” Here again, class is not simply equated with a “group” or “section” or “division.” In fact, Lenin regarded class as a power relation that propels capitalist production forward. Class, in other words, is the engine of the whole system.

Lenin viewed classes in their dialectical relation to the different sides of production. “Classes are large groups of people,” he argued in A Great Beginning,

“differing from each other by the place they occupy in a historically determined system of social production by their the means of production, by their role in the social organization of labor, and, consequently, by the dimensions of the share of social wealth of which they dispose and the mode of acquiring it.”

In other words, Lenin defined class within a complex of relationships involving all sides of production. It is a process that includes performance of labor, as well as the methods of appropriation and the distribution of products.

To sum up, Marx, Engels and Lenin defined class from three sides. It is an economic community affected by non-class factors, the defining relationship(s) at the heart of any mode of production (other than communism), and a process that makes up and conditions the process of the production and reproduction of capital.

Is it still worth viewing class this way, as opposed to how it was undertaken by the New York Times journalists? Yes. If class is viewed only as the effect of a glitch in capitalism that decreases opportunities for some people and creates poverty and unemployment, the race to the bottom in wages, benefits and worker protections, the lack of access to education, health care and political power, the solution is to increase opportunities or create programs that ease social ills. Tweak the system. This approach is worthy; indeed, working people should fight for social programs that improve their lives, strengthen their collective hand for long-term battles and unite them in common struggle. But this approach doesn’t eliminate a few sticky questions: why do sections of the capitalist class oppose those types of reforms? Are they just mean, or is there another motive? If glitches in capitalism can be solved with reforms, why haven’t they? Why haven’t reforms worked? Is it just bad management?

A Marxist view of class addresses the issue better because it allows us to see capitalism as a system that always reproduces these “glitches.” Class antagonism -- competing interests, not on an individual, but a social scale -- is inherent to the system and disproportionate political power ensures that the interests of the minority override the interests of the majority. Profits are put before people’s needs. Wars for oil based on lies rage. Environmental catastrophe looms. People die of treatable illnesses.

Class understanding shows us that the power and wealth of the minority, in fact, depends on increasing the exploitation of the majority. All of the reforms we fight for that alleviate exploitation will not be permanent until the class that makes up and unites the majority successfully implements democracy and controls the system it has created by its labor and transforms it into something new and just.

(Joel Wendland is managing editor of Political Affairs. Send your letters to the editor to

2. The Invisible Class
The source: “The Dispossessed” by William Deresiewicz, in The American Scholar, Winter 2006
from Wilson Quarterly Spring 2006

A vast group has gone incon spicuously missing from American culture: the working class. The population to whom the rusting phrase “blue collar” applies has become invisible largely because class itself isn’t part of a national conversation anymore, contends William Deresiewicz, an English professor at Yale.

It’s been a long time since TV shows such as The Honeymooners and All in the Family focused on people who earn an hourly wage and look like they live on it. Working-class characters are all over the place, but they’re usually there to do a job (cop, nurse), not to serve as the focal point. The omissions aren’t confined to the small screen. Mainstream movies are far more likely to depict trailer-trash stereotypes (see Million Dollar Baby) than the nuanced portraits of working-class characters in exceptions such as Mystic River and Good Will Hunting. And whither have gone American literature’s Steinbecks and Dos Passoses?

The reasons the working class is missing in action are no mystery, says Deresiewicz. The creators of mainstream American culture—“journalists, editors, writers, producers”—are children of the middle class themselves, and suffer from the usual myopias. Furthermore, it’s “kind of a bummer” to watch the struggles of real working-class life; the movies and shows that do so, such as Roseanne Barr’s Roseanne, are so rare they’re called “edgy.”

In a land where we’re all supposed to belong to one great middle class, sexuality, gender, and, above all, race are the dominant identifiers. That being black is a stand-in for being working class is evident everywhere. When the nation was shown images of Hurricane Katrina’s victims, it saw that they were black, not that they were laborers, waitresses, and bus drivers.

Class hasn’t entirely vanished from the national discourse. John Kerry’s loss to George W. Bush in the last presidential election has been painted as a drubbing of “blue state” elites by “red state” rednecks, otherwise referred to euphemistically as “ordinary Americans.”

But country music and NASCAR don’t sum up the working-class life, which “breeds its own virtues: loyalty, community, stoicism, humility, and even tolerance.” The middle class talks a lot about the latter, but “working-class people, because they can’t simply insulate themselves from those they don’t like with wads of money, are much more likely, in practice, to live and let live.”


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