Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Why Marx's conception of class still matters

It is certainly true that the class structure of capitalist societies has changed a great deal since the 1840s (when Marx was writing his early works, such as the bit quoted by Arvilla which comes from his 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts). There is also no doubt, any meaningful Marxist analysis of capitalism as it exists today, would look a great deal different than the critique offered by Marx in the 19th century.

Nonetheless, Marx’s definition of class is no less relevant today than it was in the 19th century.

As Gwen notes in the bit Arvilla quotes, there is a marked difference in the Marxist understanding of class, and the way the term is used in North America. Let me try to critically distinguish them. In most American discourse, class is roughly equivalent (if not reducible to) the amount of money one earns in terms of income. Class, on this view, also has to do with the attendant consumer preferences, cultural convictions and styles that often accompany the amount of money one has. In its most crude formulation, this conception of class boils down to the ‘gap between rich and poor’.

In contrast, the notion of class that Marx developed was not at all reducible to earnings. Marx defined class in terms of one’s relationship to the means of production. While class in this sense is correlated with wealth/income, it is not reducible to it. One simple contrast between the crude American conception and the Marxist conception, is that for Marx, class is to be understood in terms of power (rather than income). It has to do with the distribution power in economic relationships relative to the way that production is organized. (Note, this is also how many radical thinkers [I'm thinking Judith Butler, for instance] understand gender: not in terms of essential characteristics, but as a power relationship).

Capitalism, is a form of social production dominated by wage labor, that is, the use of labor-power sold by those controlling no significant means of production.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx gives the most rough and ready summary of his definition of the two most opposed classes in capitalist society, proletariat and bourgeoisie. There, the proletariat is defined as “those who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labor increases capital.” The bourgeoisie, in turn, is defined as “a group whose income derives from the sale of commodities produced with the purchase of labor-power”. Labor-power is the capacity to do work. Notice, in the labor market, this is the only thing the wage-laborer has to offer in seeking to earn a living.

Another way to understand this is the following. Capitalists are the purchasers of labor-power, the working-class (the proletariat) are those who sell themselves to capitalists by the hour in order to earn a wage from their capacity to labor, to produce for the capitalist.

These two classes are of particular interest to Marx, because they are relatively new; features of industrial capitalism and not previous societies. Before industrial capitalism came into its own, there were still middle-classes (i.e. professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, etc.) and petty-bourgeois (those who own means of production, but on a small scale, where they usually end up doing a lot of the work themselves… think newspaper-stand or convenience-shop owners). Most professionals have “bourgeois” lifestyles, but this is only in rough terms of their levels of consumption. The interests of professionals (the middle class), despite their consuming habits, are often threatened by capitalist/corporate control of government institutions. Were they to stand up and demand something contrary to the desires of capitalists, they would be little better off (though, obviously still in a better position) than workers in trying to exact concessions and compromises from the ruling class. The middle classes and petty-bourgeoisie are better off than workers, but they aren’t therefore in a position of power in terms of their relation to the means of production. They aren’t in charge of the big cogs on which the economy runs, they aren’t able to move enormous amounts of capital at the drop of a hat, the yaren’t entrusted (as capitalists are) with providing employment or ruling the major productive and financial institutions in society. They are in a better position than workers because of their affluence, but let us not forget their position relative to way that production is organized in capitalism.

Marx is interested primarily in the proletariat and the bourgeoisie because they are new developments, and what’s more, because their interests are fundamentally conflicting.

Why is this? Because the capitalist seeks only to do one thing: maximize their profits. Labor is only one of the costs of running their business, and if profits are to be made as high as possible, it is best purchased at the lowest cost. This is very intuitive: under market conditions, buyers (capitalists) want to buy cheap, and sellers (workers) always want to sell high.

But contrary to the assumptions of neo-classical economics, this market transaction is by no means a free and fair one. Many of these points are astutely noted by Marx in the 1844 manuscripts. For instance, the sellers (the working-class) are burdened with special inequalities:

-they are forced to sell their labor power to survive

-they cannot manipulate technology (as capitalists can) to reduce their need for steady employment

-capitalists are under no urgent pressure to employ workers, they don’t fear going hungry or losing a home.

In contrast, capitalists not only are free from these burdens, they have all sorts of benefits at their disposal:

-they have purchasing power that far exceeds what is required for individual consumption

-they have greater access to credit than workers

-they have reserves against future losses (in contrast, when tough times hit, the working class does not have such reserves, because they are forced to spend most of their meager earnings in order to subsist)

-they have funds at their disposal for research and development

-they have resources for underselling and advertising

Thus, the interests of these two classes are fundamentally opposed, but they are not therefore equally empowered (as we’ve seen). Capitalists, under pressure of competition, are compelled to reduce the cost of labor as much as possible, thus the tendency of capitalists production is to sink the average standard of wages. (notice, that since the rise of neoliberalism in the early 70s, real wages have not only stagnated, they’ve actually dropped from their 1968 high water mark). The trouble is, laborers are human beings, not reducible or exchangeable with other raw-materials and commodities which capitalists purchase in order to create products to sell for a profit. But capitalism is not a system fundamentally concerned with human development as such, it is a system fundamentally driven by callous accumulation of profits.

Marx, in his analysis of the capitalism of his day, by no means thought that there were only two classes in society; rather, he emphasized the two classes that he felt made capitalism distinctive, that were most fundamentally opposed. Against the views of the classical economists and early liberal political theorists, Marx saw that although the replacement of feudal class arrangements with liberal capitalism was an improvement, capitalist society was nonetheless still a class society (although of an altogether different sort) which made it fundamentally opposed to a free society.

Capitalism has changed, however, and therefore so must our conception of class. I can’t finish this post right now, but sometime soon I will try to finish this thought by looking at how much of the Marxist conception of class is still worthwhile, by looking at a few examples (such as the current crisis, for instance).

1 comment:

Arvilla said...

Thanks for writing this T. Understanding this in the historical context is key. Material conditions of the historical moment, etc. :)

Sincerely looking forward to the continuation of this post.