Saturday, September 24, 2022

On the new class fundamentalism

These are my comments from a roundtable organized by Igor Shoikhedbrod at APSA 2022. They are a first, rough attempt to think through issues of class in social theory and in socialist politics. They are both rather tentative and rather basic, but I hope they are also somewhat helpful.


I’m trying to figure out the new “class is fundamental” discourse. In some of its aspects, it is not so new. Adolph Reed has been pushing the same line for 35 years. Aging Trotskyists are not saying anything they haven’t been saying forever. But older tendencies have gained a new inflection by interaction with elements that are much more genuinely recent. The post-Bernie anti-liberalism of certain parts of DSA, the anti-PMC line being pushed by the romantic workerists who publish in Compact, etc., seem very conjunctural.

Within this context, what does it mean to insist that class is fundamental? 

I find this a hard question to answer, in part because it is hard to isolate the theoretical account offered by these authors from the critical attacks on others that carry the message. The critical attacks often seem to boil down to an imperative to say the word “class” more, and the words “race” and “gender” less. Nonetheless, the critique seems to be motivated by the sense that “class” cuts the social world at its joints. There is a conviction that organizing around racial, gendered, or other identities, and around injustices of status and standing, are distractions from (a) what is *really* going on, and (b) what might actually *work* politically.

"What is really going on": The fundamental social processes that drive, undergird, and explain the conflicts about status and standing and identity are the class processes of capitalism in its current neoliberal form.

"What might work politically": Naming and appealing to people’s material interests – which are their class interests – is both more motivating and more inclusive than naming and appealing to people’s status, standing, and identity, which are particularistic and divisive, rather than universalistic and unifying.

I understand the appeal of this, I think. The individual claims out of which these intuitions are constructed are themselves compelling. The class processes of capitalism are fundamental for understanding the world. Appealing to common and material interests, and building universalistic policy programs, are the best shot we have of moving things in a better direction. And yet, the class fundamentalist position as whole doesn’t seem to me to make much sense. When I think about how and in what sense each of the elements is true, then it seems impossible to combine them in the way that the new class fundamentalism does, and the whole things seems to fall apart. 

I want to look at the two aspects of the position in turn, and to point out where I keep getting tripped up.

In what sense, first, are class processes and conflicts the fundamental social processes that drive or explain other conflicts? 

Class is fundamental, in this sense, because production is fundamental. Class relations organize production, and so, since production is fundamental to the existence of human society, solving the class relation problem is a constraint on everything else that goes on in society. 

Now, you could say the same thing about reproduction. Since reproduction is also fundamental to the existence of human society, it might seem that relations of reproduction – sex and gender – are equally primodial and equally basic to everything else going on in society. But here there is an illuminating contrast. It turns out that human beings can reproduce the species in in a wildly divergent set of social relations. Reproduction does not require any particular social relations to be successful. That is, in the case of reproduction, stable functionality radically underdetermines social form. As long as there is enough food, humans find ways of reproducing the species, and the ways they find to do so are flexible and varied to an incredible degree. 

Not so for production. Production at a certain level – for a given population, at a given level of social wealth – binds us socially to a much greater extent. Hence, production relations are much stickier. We cannot produce food and technology for a world of 8 billion people, who are used to and reliant upon modern life, in just any old way. We are, in this sense, locked in – for now – to certain relations of production, and this means to certain class relations. 

Class, in this sense, names the relations of domination and exploitation that are productively necessary for a given society

The point of base-superstructure materialism is to underscore this fact, that class relations are themselves a “social technology” of production, and that more productive class relations are more powerful class relations, which tend to win out in competition with other, less productive class relations. (The mechanism of this winning out can vary. It might be that more productive class relations outspread less productive, or that they developmentally outstrip them, or that they lead to military overmatching, or…)

However, there are a couple wrinkles. First, a tendency is just a tendency, and will be more notable and stable at a large scale and over a long time than it is locally and at any given point. Historical materialism is not a species of determinism. Second, the more productive the economy, the greater the surplus, and the greater the inequality in how this surplus is spread around, the greater the “slippage” between socially necessary class relations at the level of the whole and the relations of production that obtain locally in any given workplace or jurisdiction or line of production. That is, the more productively developed an economy, the less likely its “competitive edge” is to be critically present in some one site or line of production.

In this situation – and it is, I think, our situation, to a greater extent than it has ever been any other society’s situation – class relations remain fundamental, but they are progressively distinct (without being independent) from work relations. Work relations – relations of domination and exploitation at the site of production – are labor-management relations, not proletarian-capital relations. Proletarian-capital relations obtain in an abstract but determining way at the level of society, which is mediated in its essential productive processes by the labor market. Work relations obtain in an empirically perceptible but overdetermined way at the level of everyday life, which is mediated in its contingent productive processes by all sorts of things.

This analysis – which is based on Marx’s distinction between abstract and concrete labor – highlights a constitutive obscurity in the new class fundamentalism's political project.

The injunction to focus on class in political practice is itself interestingly out of step with the injunction to trace things back to the political economy of capitalism. After all, “class” does not name a reality proper to capitalism, but a constitutive element of almost all human societies to date. The corollary of tracing the fundamental dynamics of capitalism would be an emphasis not on class but on the proletariat. But naming the proletariat would emphasize what so much of the new class discourse obscures, that the working class as the producers of things is not equivalent to the working class as the class of wage-workers, and neither is equivalent to the proletariat, the class of people dependent upon wages for life, whether they are working or not. 

I think this conflation of capitalist class relations with work relations is an understandable but regrettable feature of the new fundamentalism. 

Understandable, because it’s not as if capitalist class relations are independent of capitalist work relations, and work relations are much more empirically tractable and politically salient in an obvious way. 

Regrettable, though, because it leads this current emphasis on class to fall into a false opposition between “class-based” politics and other forms of political organizing. This is because, by shifting between features of the structural class relation basic to capitalism (between capitalist and proletarian) and features of one or another work relation, the new class fundamentalism makes its political task too easy. Class politics has the immediacy of work relations, but the universality of class relations. Class politics – like workplace organizing – appeals to material interests, but it also – unlike workplace organizing – has a national and even international constituency. 

There’s the old saying in labor circles that “the boss is the best organizer.” I think the new class fundamentalism wants this to be true, not only at the level of the shop floor, but at the level of society at large. And there are points in time when that actually seems plausible. In the second half of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, in Europe and North America especially, it was reasonable to think that capital organized labor at scale. The emptying out of the countryside, the massive amalgamation of the industrial working class in factory, mine, city, and district – all of this encouraged Marxists and other socialists to think that capital was itself forging the proletariat into a political subject with common experiences, common spaces, common mores and traditions. 

That belief is not reasonable anymore, about Europe and North America at least – and it was never as correct as it was reasonable. 

Cedric Johnson said the other day, at a panel honoring Adolph Reed’s work, that what victims of police harassment and violence have in common is not race but class. That is true – but it is also abstract. Around here, it may be that everything I see and know tells me that police harassment and violence are about race. And local truths about racial harassment and violence are no less true than local truths about workplace harassment and precarity and overwork.

It seems to me that the real challenge of a class-based politics in our world is that it is an inherently abstract, theoretical politics. Building a global alternative to the capital-proletarian class relation is necessarily the most challenging and difficult political struggle imaginable. It is tempting to think that there is some local crystallization of this abstract, global struggle, some everyday struggle that doesn’t have to be translated into this global struggle because it just is this global struggle in a bite-sized form. But I don’t think that’s true.