Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Defining "working class"--why the Marxist definition seems so strange now

Gwen at High on Rebellion has a thoughtful post about her understanding of working-class as an economic state, as opposed to the traditional Marxist understanding, which suggests one is working-class defined by the worker's lack of ownership over the means of production. This Marxist notion seems a little irrelevant to Gwen:

One thing I find really interesting and sometimes really upsetting about Britain in general and the British Left in particular is that everyone but me and Tony Benn identifies as working-class. At the Marxism conference a few years ago, I attended a session discussing “non-productive labour”, which I interpreted to mean people working in call-centres and similar areas. Imagine my surprise then when university lecturers and senior civil servants start discussing the difficulties they face as non-productive labourers and members of the working-class generally.


I don’t think the traditional Marxist definition is very useful today, because it erases the genuine economic privilege held by a lot of people who don’t own the means of production. There is no comparison between lecturers and call-centre workers. Solidarity is not going to spontaneously appear between those two groups. Furthermore, it’s not clear that those two groups HAVE much in common. Is a middle-class lecturer going to vote to increase her taxes to provide cheap housing for a call centre worker? We know for a fact that a lot of them don’t.

The reason for the dissonance between my idea of class and the Marxist definition is a great example of this. Most radical leftist North Americans would use my notion of class. The cradle of parliamentary socialism in Canada is the Prairies - farmers who could only make ends meet if they all worked together started a political party. Socialised medicine in Canada basically started as towns pooling their resources to pay for a doctor who would then see anybody as required - because no one in town could afford a doctor by themselves. But by the Marxist definition of class, these farmers - who were up to their ears in debt, and there was a depression and a drought happening simultaneously - were petit bourgeoise, ‘cause they “owned” the farms and farming equipment (usually heavily mortgaged) and as such did not sell their labour but owned the means of production. The fact that they were dirt poor doesn’t seem to matter.

Being a relative newbie to Marxist theory myself, I'll admit I have trouble making sense of the resonance of talking about working class (as defined by means of production). It's not that we can't still divide people up based on their relationship to the means of production, it just seems a little pointless. Sure, in the industrial revolution there really were two major classes that mattered: those that owned the means of production, and those who lived tedious lives by producing capital for those who owned the means of production. The tragedy of being the proletariat isn't just about the living conditions the proletariat faces by not owning the means of production, but it's about a metaphysical problem created by this relationship to capital. The argument, as far as I can recall (and I may be doing it a great injustice here) is that the tragedy of not owning the means of production isn't just poverty in the sense we know it, but because it leads to objectification and estrangement: (From Marx's Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts)
Labour not only produces commodities; it also produces itself and the workers as a commodity and it does so in the same proportion in which it produces commodities in general.

This fact simply means that the object that labour produces, its product, stands opposed to it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labour is labour embodied and made material in an object, it is the objectification of labour. The realization of labour is its objectification. In the sphere of political economy, this realization of labour appears as a loss of reality for the worker, objectification as loss of and bondage to the object, and appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.

So much does the realization of labour appear as loss of reality that the worker loses his reality to the point of dying of starvation. So much does objectification appear as loss of the object that the worker is robbed of the objects he needs most not only for life but also for work. Work itself becomes an object which he can only obtain through an enormous effort and with spasmodic interruptions. So much does the appropriation of the object appear as estrangement that the more objects the worker produces the fewer can he possess and the more he falls under the domination of his product, of capital.

All these consequences are contained in this characteristic, that the worker is related to the product of labour as to an alien object. For it is clear that, according to this premise, the more the worker exerts himself in his work, the more powerful the alien, objective world becomes which he brings into being over against himself, the poorer he and his inner world become, and the less they belong to him. It is the same in religion. The more man puts into God, the less he retains within himself. The worker places his life in the object; but now it no longer belongs to him, but to the object. The greater his activity, therefore, the fewer objects the worker possesses. What the product of his labour is, he is not. Therefore, the greater this product, the less is he himself. The externalisation of the worker in his product means not only that his labour becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently of him and alien to him, and begins to confront him as an autonomous power; that the life which he has bestowed on the object confronts him as hostile and alien.

Let us now take a closer look at objectification, at the production of the worker, and the estrangement, the loss of the object, of his product, that this entails.

The workers can create nothing without nature, without the sensuous external world. It is the material in which his labour realizes itself, in which it is active and from which, and by means of which, it produces.

But just as nature provides labour with the means of life, in the sense of labour cannot live without objects on which to exercise itself, so also it provides the means of life in the narrower sense, namely the means of physical subsistence of the worker.

The more the worker appropriates the external world, sensuous nature, through his labour, the more he deprives himself of the means of life in two respects: firstly, the sensuous external world becomes less and less an object belonging to his labour, a means of life of his labour; and, secondly, it becomes less and less a means of life in the immediate sense, a means for the physical subsistence of the worker.

Now personally, I'm never particularly compelled by arguments like this. And I'll admit, I can't really defend why it is that I wouldn't be moved by this argument, when I certainly can't reject the logical rigor or make a good argument for why this wouldn't happen to a laborer and wouldn't be a problem. It could and it might be. This was a good argument at the time, because the poor people were the same as those who had no access to the means of production and the wealthy or bourgeois people were the people who owned the means of production. So not only were those without the means of production suffering from material deprivation, but they were also suffering alienation and estrangement as a result, which made these spiritual problems more to compound the horror of the material problems for laborers. It was an industrial economy so the lines were much more clearly drawn.

But nowadays, as Gwen points out herself, dairy farmer friends of mine or my friends who own a glass cutting firm, yet barely scrape by, control the means of production, whereas, the accountants in my office make a quarter million dollars a year, have a lot of leisure time, take their families on vacation, are by Marx's definition, proletariats, because they don't own the fiber optic network we operate on.

This isn't to say the problems of estrangement and alienation aren't still a problem for even these accountants, because they have an estranged relationship to the product (in this case, as us the case in our late-capitalist economy, a service) their labor provides. And this isn't to say that having these relationships to the means of production, even if the laborer makes a comfortable income, isn't worth a revolution simply because of the estrangement and alienation. But when it comes to a scenario like Gwen mentions where she's listening to academics talk about what it's like to be "working class," I too have to wonder if this reliance on Marx's definition isn't an attempt to throw a pity party for privileged people and isn't more than a little offensive in light of the very real and very starkly different material conditions academics have as opposed to, say, my roommate who has worked as a fruit sorter for 5 years and just got a raise to $12/hour...

Something about it strikes me as sort of...well...who cares all that much about estrangement and objectification when there is such stark material inequality. In the case, as it is now, when Marx's classes don't line up with level of access to resources, I have to question the use of Marx's definition any more.

But, I have to wonder if Gwen and I haven't misunderstood something about the use of these terms and Marx's definition and how it would apply today...

I'm hoping T or some other friendly Marxist passerby can shed some light on this for us.

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