Thursday, October 9, 2008

Why Marx's conception of class still matters (continued)

In my previous post I roughly sketched what Marx's conception of class consisted of, keying in on the fact that it primarily has to do with the relationship of a group to the means of production. Now, I want to look at some examples of how this understanding helps us make sense of our current state.

To the extent that our society is still capitalist (based on wage labor, private ownership of the means of production, etc.), there is still a fundamental rift between workers and capitalists. Michael Zweig, in an article for Monthly Review, summarizes nicely one way to think about what the capitalist class looks like today:
The capitalist class are the corporate elite, senior executives, and directors of large corporations, whose job it is to give strategic direction to the company, who interact with government agencies and other corporate executives while leaving the day-to-day operation of their company to intermediate levels of management and the workforce. In this they are different from small business owners, who tend to work beside their relatively few employees and manage them directly. Capitalists make up roughly 2% of the population.
Zweig defines the working class as:
...those people with relatively little power at work -white collar bank tellers, call-center workers, and cashiers; blue-collar machinists, construction workers, and assembly-line workers; pink-collar secretaries, nurses, and home-health-care workers -skilled and unskilled, women and men of all races, nationalities, and sexual preferences. The working class are those with little personal control over the pace or content of their work and without supervisory control over the work lives of others. There are nearly 90 million working-class people in the US labor force today, thus the US has a substantial working-class majority (more than 62%).
Finally, Zweig understands middle class in the following way:
professionals, small-business owners, and managerial and supervisory employees. They are best understood not as the middle of an income distribution, but as living in the middle of the two polar classes in capitalist society. Their experiences have some aspects shared with the working-class, and some associated with the corporate elite. Small business owners share with capitalists an interest in private property in business assets, defeated unions, and weak labor regulations. But they share with workers in the work itself, great vulnerability to the capitalist market and to governmental power, and difficulty acquiring adequate health insurance and retirement security.

...Professionals are also caught in the middle of the cross fire...professionals closely intertwined with the working-class: community college teachers, lawyers in public defender offices or with small general practices, doctors in working-class neighborhoods, public school teachers...their economic standing have deteriorated along with the class they serve. But if we look at those whose lives are more fully involved in serving the capitalist class -corporate lawyers, financial service professionals, Big-Four CPAs, and doctors beyond the reach of HMO/insurance oversight -these professionals have risen with the class they serve.
Class, understood in this way, is an important critical tool because it scrutinizes the fundamental economic organization of society, rather than merely taking it for granted. It's not that we should not care about income disparities (and wealth polarization... which is far worse than income), but rather, that we must ask how such disparities arise. Moreover, income disparity cannot be the only metric. If we are concerned to understand fundamental political categories like emancipation, freedom, autonomy, power… we need to engage the fundamental structure/organization of the economic and social order.

This is what Marx was getting at, in the German Ideology when he said, “any distribution whatever of the means of consumption [i.e. income, material wealth] is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves. The latter distribution, however, is a feature of the mode of production itself.”

In other words, Marxists and radicals criticize left-liberals for only focusing on issues of distribution, or rather, only on re-distribution. That is, left-liberals focus on how best to re-distribute resources/incomes more justly given that the default allocation of the market is unjust. But, this leaves the question of the distribution came about entirely untouched… the liberals have nothing to say about production, social/economic relations as such, class power. Thus, liberals have no qualms with capitalism as such (to the contrary, they are supporters of it), but feel that justice requires ameliorating some of its ‘flaws’ (as though capitalism were a system set up to do anything other than create inequalities).

Alienation (estrangement) in the early Marx is a bit more difficult to make a short summary of, owing basically to its roots in Hegel. I think we can leave it aside here, because it’s not really central to the analysis of class in contemporary capitalist societies.

The current economic crisis is an excellent example of class power. There is a lot of legitimate resentment for the financial elite that has mismanaged huge institutions on which society currently depends (for better or worse... i would say for worse) a great deal. Even some nihilistic Leftists are taking the idiotic “Ron Paul” position on the bailout, claiming that these bankers “have made their bed, and now they should have to sleep in it”. But this crude position ignores the actual reality of how our society is organized.

As terrible a setup as it is, in our society capitalists (not democratic institutions) are put in charge of major economic institutions that determine the well-being of crucial sectors of the economy that aren't ostensibly related to the ‘financial industry’ proper. Worker’s jobs, pensions, savings, loans, mortgages, municipal budgets and college endowments are all tied to the health of the financial sector. Like it or not, this is an inescapable fact of our economy. Workers have no say in how these 'big' economic decisions get made, no way to demand that such decisions consider their interests.... yet they are totally vulnerable to the ramifications of these decisions in ways that capitalists are not (worst case scenario, corporate elites leave their powerful post with golden-parachutes). The answer can't be simply to 'punish' those who ran these institutions into the ground by letting these crucial institutions take everyone down with them.

We must make a crucial distinction between these institutions, and the class who runs them. The relevant ‘fuck you’, in this scenario, isn’t the one in which we flip off the institutions as well as the capitalists who own and control them… the only just 'punishment' would be to seize bank assets as well as these institutions under democratic authority, given that so much of society is forced into dependence on them.

Understanding the crisis in this light reveals a great deal of class power in this economic arrangement. Those who work for wages and have no say in the major financial decisions (made unilaterally in the speculative interests of capitalists), but they are also those who are hit the hardest when the capitalist's gamble doesn't pay off. And what's worse, the fact that capitalists own and control these crucial institutions translates to political power which they can use to pressure government into bailing them out of the mess they've made, leaving the vast majority of society out of the picture. The only sense in which the working majority is invoked in the deliberations among elites about 'solutions', is when the viability of these financial behemoths is endangered enough to threaten negative ramifications far beyond Wall Street.

So here are two instances of massive class power:

1. Capitalists, who own and control these financial titans, have power that derives from the leverage that comes along with controlling an institution on which the fate of society in large measure depends.

2. The State, light-years from being an institution that represents the majority of working people, is already predisposed to side against workers in favor of Capital.

It’s true, the old caricature of a top-hat wearing capitalist factory-owner beating down a bunch of soot-covered production-line workers is not the image we have of most working Americans today (although this situation is still hardly passé for a very real number of factory workers in the US, and far more in the Third World). It’s also hard to see how machinists and bank tellers have much in common, when we think of consumption habits, style and ideology. But taking a broader view of society makes it clear how disempowered both are.

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