Saturday, May 16, 2009

A few more jottings about Class

In previous posts I've focused in on one (Marxian) way of understanding class that I've argued has a certain critical potential and relative precision lacking in more commonplace or colloquial deployments of the concept.

According to the Marxist way of thinking about class that interests me, class is defined with reference to the position of people in the economic structure, to their relative holdings of power based on this position.

G.A. Cohen puts this nicely: "A person's class is established by nothing but her objective place in the network of ownership relations, however difficult it may be to identify such places neatly. Her consciousness, culture, and politics do not enter the definition of her class position."

In other words, class ought not be defined as necessarily including certain consumption habits, culture, consciousness, political conviction, etc. (even though it may turn out to be the case in many circumstances where we do, in fact, find a contingent correlation between class (defined structurally) and these other features).

One prominent objector (on the Marxist Left) to this way of conceiving of class is the important historian (of "The Making of the English Working Class" fame) E.P. Thompson. He has argued against structural definitions of class in many places, but most notably in the preface to the book I named above as his major claim to fame.

G.A. Cohen summarizes Thompson's argument neatly as follows.

Premise: "The connection between production relations on the one hand and consciousness, politics and culture on the other is not simple. There is logic in it but not law"

Conclusion: "Class is not a matter of production relations alone, but involves the culture and politics growing out of them. Class embraces a process of self-creation on the part of the production-relations-defined groups."

In the premise listed above, Thompson is worried about austerely "mathematical" definitions of class in which it might (wrongly) appear possible to "deduce the class consciousness which 'it' [i.e. the working-class defined as a 'thing'] ought to have (but seldom does have) if 'it' was properly aware of 'its' own real interests". Now the worry is well founded. Thompson recoils at some Marxist accounts (one thinks of Eastern-bloc 'diamat' and Stalinist orthodoxy) which reify the members of the working-class such that they can be manipulated mathematically and expected to be mechanically determined by certain economic features of society. This is a worry any sane person should share.

Nonetheless, Thompson's worries do not entail his conclusion that we shouldn't define class structurally. Again, Cohen puts this succinctly:

Thompson has it that: "production relations do not mechanically determine class consciousness" (call this p). He concludes, therefore, that "class may not be defined purely in terms of production relations" (call this q).

As Cohen (correctly, in my view) points out, p is true, but q simply doesn't follow from it. "We are at liberty", Cohen argues, "to define class with more ore less (if not, perhaps, 'mathematical') precision, by reference to production relations, without inferring, as Thompson says we are then bound to do, that the culture and consciousness of a class may be readily deduced from its objective position within production relations." One analytic reason why not is that, typically, Marxist conceptions of class are supposed to be deployed in order to aid in explaining some features of social consciousness and culture. This would not be possible if certain ossified features of consciousness and culture were written into the definition of class itself.

So class is a rather precise matter if we understand it in this way, that is if we understand it as a critical/analytic tool that enables us to talk about the relationship that people in societies stand with respect to the economic organization of production in those societies. What's not so precise (and I think being able to say so is an advantage of thinking about class in this way), is how class interacts with many other political considerations, with culture, with consciousness, etc. The precision of thinking about class structurally, in part derives from the fact that we have severed any necessary, a priori, connection between someone's class and their consciousness, politics, etc.

It seems to me that this way of thinking about class cuts down on the possible megalomania of the class-designator as a way of explaining all other political/social phenomena that sometimes arises in vulgar-Marxist arguments. Understanding class structurally makes clear what the relative advantages of class analysis are, while also being totally unambiguous about where the concept has nothing to say. In other words, this conception of class is ripe for intersectionality theses, rather than being shaped beforehand to resist such attempts at uncovering ways in which different modes of domination interact.

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