Two Classes, Three Classes (I)

I would claim that the question of whether we should be describing capitalist society with two classes or with three classes is a crucial one for modern communists. It is naturally one that has debated back-and-forth in various contentious forms for a while.

The simplest, though not necessarily the most illuminating, form of this is “are teachers part of the working class”. We can begin by observing;

1) To say that teachers are absolutely not part of the working class has a problematic “slippery slope” quality to it. The modern world is filled with low-level bureaucrats, “service workers”, and similar wage-laborers who’s job is at least partly centered around control, management and conditioning (or people whose skills might be considered a form of “intellectual capital”). This approach can involve a variety of arbitrary judgements or “reducio ad absurdo” arguments – for MIM Notes, only those third world workers paid the “global minimum wage” qualify as proletarian whereas for the “Nihilist Communists” a different small group qualifies as the “essential proletariat”.

2) To say that teacher absolutely are without worries part of the proletariat also results in some very problematic positions. There is no doubt that in many and ambiguous ways, a “middle class” exists today, meaning that a more educated sector of wage labors today imagines a return to a “sane” civil society where their bureaucratic role still has meaning. “It will be a great day when The Department of Defense has to hold a bake sale and teachers get to sit on $2000 toilets in between talking to corrupt subcontractors”. One notable weakness of the recent Occupy movements was the variety of unemployed professional who wanted to use the event to practice their skills of media-production, political organizing or labor-organizing.

So, clearly I think the truth is somewhere in between. One might argue that in a situation like that of the Bangladesh garment workers, class relations are unamibuous and that such factories unambiguously drain the life of their workers, putting them in the “nothing to lose but their chains” position right now. However, I would claim the question of a teachers’ movement has to look at whether and what point those with some small authority within capital’s bureaucratic machine are willing to “bite the hand that feeds them”. It is not impossible but it is not given.

This relates to the, uh, multitude of graduate students and even college professor who currently can be found in the “communization milleau”. That will be for another exciting episode.


6 comments on “Two Classes, Three Classes (I)

  1. husunzi says:

    What about peasants?

    • redhughs says:

      That is something of a different question, right?

      • husunzi says:

        Well I just mean you’re discussing whether there are two or three classes in advanced capitalism, and by the third class you mean the idea of a middle class between proles and bosses, but I think on a global scale there is a also major class we could still call the peasantry accounting for at least a quarter, maybe a third of the world’s population, and which relates to capital in ways distinct from either true proles or capitalists. I think questions of class struggle and world rev need still need to take this into account. I guess it’s a different question b/c you seem to be mainly talking about the US. But even in the US a lot of migrant wage labor is reproduced by some kind of peasant economy in other countries (Mexico etc). You could say those migrants are proles in their individual relation to capital to some extent, especially when they’re in the US and working or looking for a job, but from the perspective of their whole life and family, as semi-proletarian peasants, they’re also relating to capital not as (a) wage laborers but as (b) subsistence producers, often in struggle with capital over resources like land and water, and/or (c) as petty commodity producers (comparable to one sense of “middle class” – as commercial farmers, street venders, etc) either in competition with capitalist businesses, or being exploited via non-wage mechanisms such as credit and capital’s partial control over the agri-food production process (“pre-formal subsumption”). These non-wage relations to capital erupt into conflict everyday and lead to political formations like the Zapatistas, the MST, and La Via Campesina. I tend to agree with the traditional Marxist position that such peasant struggles against capital tend not to point toward communism, as proletarian struggles do. But still this is a huge portion of the global population, and arguably this type of struggle has been more salient since the mid-1990s (significantly influencing the Global Justice Movement etc), so it’s something that needs to factored in when we’re talking about class struggle and the possibility of communist rev.

  2. redhughs says:

    How much of world agricultural workers could be called peasants and how much could be called rural wage laborers would be a fine subject for research. I’ll admit that I probably wouldn’t do much more than Google for this kind of stuff but it’s possible others would be interested in posting on the subject later.

  3. sigismunddanielewicz says:

    First, I think it’s crucial to define what class actually is. And to preface that, I think that the Wobblies were completely dead-on when they said: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common” — meaning just 2 classes, but with myriad layers within them. So what is class? I’m with E.P. Thompson in rejecting static definitions that freeze it as a “thing.” As he points out, it’s a dynamic social relationship that can best be seen with an historical lens over time. He puts it best:

    “. . . the notion of class entails the notion of historical relationship. Like any other relationship, it is a fluency which evades analysis if we attempt to stop it dead at any given moment and anatomize its structure. The finest-meshed sociological net cannot give us a pure specimen of class, any more than it can give us one of deference or of love. The relationship must always be embodied in real people and in a real context. Moreover, we cannot have two distinct classes, each with an independent being, and then bring them into relationship with each other. We cannot have love without lovers, nor deference without squires and laborers. And class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs. The class experience is largely determined by the productive relations into which men are born—or enter involuntarily. Class-consciousness is the way in which these experiences are handled in cultural terms: embodied in traditions, value-systems, ideas, and institutional forms. If the experience appears as determined, class-consciousness does not. We can see a logic in the responses of similar occupational groups undergoing similar experiences, but we cannot predicate any law. Consciousness of class arises in the same way in different times and places, but never just the same way. (preface to The Making of the English Working Class, pp. 9-10)”

    The aforementioned “sociological net” tries to capture standardized indicators or variables of class, often involving primarily consumption habits and behavior. This allows for various layers — upper, middle and lower — variations of middle-class alone, based on nothing more than estimations of personal prestige, occupation, possessions, education, value orientation, etc. Hence some sociologists identify as many as 6 classes. Most settle on 3 though.

    Marx, within his project of critiquing political economy, worked these
    ideas out pretty thoroughly identifying the class relation as being based on one’s relation to production, identifying the proletariat that those whose sole means of subsistence — and therefore of reproducing themselves — is selling their labor power. With the move from formal to real subsumption of labor under capital, this relation has become much, much more complex, with whole sectors like F.I.R.E. (finance, insurance, and real estate) expanding massively and having a near parasitic relation to production, while at the same time playing instrumental roles in maintaining the ability of capitalists to siphon off surplus value. Whole new sectors have been created of unproductive workers, both manual and intellectual, who function to circulate value using more and more advance technologies of the spectacle, like in advertizing and marketing. Others work in constantly evolving sectors of communication and transportation, where they facilitate accumulation in an interdependent production systems that stretches across the globe. Yet many workers in the middle layers have confused class loyalties and act in the interests of their bosses and the whole system of capitalist social relations, in stark opposition to their own material position in that system of exploitation. Every prole who enforces the logic of their boss is a class betrayer, yet many are conditioned by the commodification of all aspects of social life to this unquestioningly.

    In the U.S., this plays out as overt class denial, which is easy to do since it’s been over a generation since there were widespread class-against-class forms of mass struggle. Again, this is where E.P. Thompson’s work is helpful. The concept of class presupposes that there has been contestation that draws out class contradictions. Here’s how he put it:

    “. . . far too much theoretical attention (much of it plainly a-historical) has been paid to “class,” and far too little to “class-struggle.” Indeed, class-struggle is the prior, as well as the more universal concept. To put it bluntly: classes do not exist as separate entities, look around, find an enemy class, and then start to struggle. On the contrary, people find themselves in a society structured in determined ways (crucially, but not exclusively, in production relations), they experience exploitation (or the need to maintain power over those whom they exploit), they identify points of antagonistic interest, they commence a struggle around these issues and in the process of struggling they discover themselves as classes, they come to know this discovery as class-consciousness. Class and class-consciousness are always the last, not the first, stage in the real historical process.”

    And this also exposes the recuperative role of Leftists, but particularly of the Leninist and PostModern variety, whose programs often are for nothing more that “progressive” capitalist development. Here’s how Thompson articulates it:

    “. . . it has become very clear in recent years that class as a static category has taken up occupation within very influential sector of Marxist thought as well. In vulgar economistic terms this is simply the twin to positivistic sociological theory. From a static model of capitalist productive relations there are derived the class that ought to correspond to this, and the consciousness that ought to correspond to the classes and their relative positions. In one common (usually Leninist) form this provides a ready justification for the politics of ‘substitution”: i.e. the ‘vanguard’ which knows better than the class itself what its true interests (and consciousness) ought to be. If ‘it’ does not happen to have that consciousness, then whatever it has is ‘false consciousness’. In an alternative (very much more sophisticated) form — for example, with Althusser — we still have a profoundly static category; a category which finds its definitions only within a highly theorized static structural totality, which disallows the experiential historical process of class formation. Despite this theory’s sophistication, the results are very similar to the vulgar economistic version. Both have a similar notion of ‘false consciousness’, or ‘ideology’ although Althusserian theory tend to have a larger theoretical arsenal to explain ideological domination and the mystification of consciousness (last 2 quotes from “Eighteenth-century English society: class struggle without class?” in Social History, Vol. 3, No. 2 (May, 1978), pp. 148-149).”

    So now that I’ve name-dropped and quoted heavily to define class, here are some of the obstacles I see in the U.S.:

    [The following work-in-progress attempts to explain the lack of a class analysis in the U.S.]

    Many working class people accept the myth of the U.S. being a classless society. With class contradictions today reaching a starkness not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s, this appears to be fading. Here are some reasons why people believe the myth:

    1. The U.S., unlike Europe, never had feudalism, so it went through a much different transition to capitalism. It had slavery, but that began with colonization. It never had the rigid, stratified hierarchies of the caste system of older societies.

    2. American society offered upward social mobility for some whites, but denied it to most non-whites. Since the second phase of Bacon’s Rebellion in the 1670s, race has effectively been used as a wedge to divide the class. With identity politics and PostModernism, race trumped class. Which gave the ideological ammunition to deny that the latter even exists.

    3. After World War II, the motor of capitalist accumulation shifted to consumerism. Today, 2/3 of production is for personal consumption.

    4. Cold War politics killed off the already irrelevant and weakened Old Left, which was easy for the right to do with the CP taking marching orders from Moscow for popular fronts for anti-fascism. The CP’s class collaboration in World War II began the ideological separation of race from class, making easier the denial of the latter. Marx became associated with class while Cold Warriors demonized Marxism. The New Left never went beyond being leftovers of their predecessors. Working class struggle since then has never approached the level of the 1968-1975 strike wave, that were mostly wildcats and “alienation” strikes.

    5. The Mass Media has become the opiate of the masses. Where once there was a vital working class culture resistance based on face-to-face interaction and spaces to facilitate that, now atomization is the norm. This goes hand-in-hand with suburbanization and consumerism. Debord’s Society of the Spectacle is a brilliant exposé of this.

    6. Labor’s connection to pro-capitalist Democratic Party; “The ballot box is the coffin of class consciousness” Alan Dawley wrote is his book Class & Community: The Industrial Revolution in Lynn. Labor unions give millions of dollars to the anti-labor Democrats and slightly less to the anti-labor Republicans. In recent elections the AFL-CIO contributed nearly half a billion dollars to the election industry; in the 2008 election the SEIU alone gave $80,000,000 to the Obama campaign.

    7. Ideological conditioning: Jean Anyon’s essay ” Ideology and U.S. history textbooks,” in Harvard Educational Review 49, shows that nearly all high school textbooks only teach about three strikes – the 1877 Great Upheaval railroad strike, the 1892 Homestead Steel Strike, and the 1894 Pullman Strike on the railroads – all of them brutally violent and all three ended in bitter defeat. The message is that striking is something that happened in the 19th century and to cast doubt on “striking as a valid course of action” today. Class struggle was something that ended in the past, so negotiating contracts and arbitration of grievances is not about class struggle but is about “industrial relations.” Unions are then seen to be representing workers as a “special interest” group, with their purpose being the substitution of “civilized collective bargaining for jungle warfare.”

    8. The expansion of credit. This follows the consumerism of #3. Until the current economic crisis, workers could acquire the middle class goods that they couldn’t afford by using readily available credit and tethering themselves to even further economic dependency. This made up for real wages that have been on the decline since the mid-1970s. The home ownership rate for the entire population is around 65.4% (and falling: it peaked at 69% in 2004), and with the refinance craze of the early 2000s, Americans put themselves even further into debt. Total individual debt was $15.8 trillion in 2012, more than the GDP of many countries. While the ratio of outstanding consumer debt as a percentage of disposable income was 62% in 1975, it reached a peak of 136% in 2008 (in the U.K. it was 163% in 2005); it is still around 125% today.

    * * * * * * * * *

    As for hunzi’s allegations about peasants and a “traditional Marxist position,” this needs to be challenged. This kind of “traditional” has more in common with the legacy of the sectarian left, be they Leninists, Trots, Stalinists, or Maoists, but NOT with Marx himself. At the end of his life, Marx began to question some of his deterministic ideas about linear historical trajectories towards revolution. In 1881 he began to exchange letters with Russian populist Vera Zasulich that led him to question his ideas of backwardness and through her influence, began to see the Russian peasant “mir” commune as a collectivized form of social organization might be able to skip the capitalist phase of history and be central to communist revolution. He saw, correctly I think, that relative backwardness could be turned to revolutionary advantage that was much more possible with Russian peasants that it would have been with reactionary German peasants at that time. Yet Marx also realized that by the time he was communicating with Zasulich, modernizations in Russia had already made the mir question a moot point.

    I’ve gone on much too long with this, but I’ve extensively researched the agricultural question and will post again on the ILWU thread. But I do find myself agreeing with Gilles Dauvé, who wrote in Eclipse and Re-Emergence of the Communist Movement, that “Agriculture is largely neglected by capital, on a world-wide scale, and only developed where it allows valorization.” Written in 1972, Dauvé’s statement reflects how peasants still exist because capital has yet to rationalize agriculture for large swaths of the planet; it’s content to allow the U.S. to control over 50% of the world grain trade, which is advantageous as advanced industrialization usually means a McDonaldized diet.

    • redhughs says:

      Thanks for the excellent reply. I have invited you to post to the blog.

      Just a note. There is a certain tension between “it’s crucial to define what class actually is” and “rejecting static definitions that freeze it as a “thing.”” If class is a dynamic, changing thing then sometimes we may want to define through the process about it. It think Derek Sayer goes into Marx defining his concept through use in “The Violence of Abstractions”.

      But that’s just a “refinement”. Good points in general. Hope to see more.

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