Monday, September 1, 2014

Dimensions of ‘Class’

Satyaki Roy

Class has been a powerful analytical category in explaining social dynamics. In pre-classical ideas, class was identified in describing historical facts and normative positions. It is the advent of classical theory with Smith and Ricardo that made class an objective category in explaining distributions and tensions independent of technological and natural characteristics. But it is only in Marx that besides being mere distributional categories, class as a concept becomes alive assuming the place of both the subject and object of history. 

Marxist theory is class focused in the sense that it identifies the crucial dynamics of production, appropriation and distribution of surplus as one of the key social processes that earlier thinkers failed to take into account while sympathizing with the cause of the underclass. This however does not mean that Marxism recognizes only classes and class processes as the determinant of historical change. Rather class is the entry point in Marxist theory to see and find out how other social categories and processes influences surplus generation and distribution. The dominance of neoclassical theory in the discipline of economics abandons class as a unit of analyses. The ‘economic man’ is a construct which is uprooted from his socially embedded existence and acts as a representative individual claiming to maximize either subjective utility or profit. The post modern theories on the other hand celebrates ‘difference’ and negates all meta-narratives giving rise to absolute relativism, and therefore denounces class to be a defining mode of social organization. In spite of the fact that class occupies a key position in understanding socio-economic, cultural and ideological changes there had been involving debates within the Marxist circles in conceptualizing class, how classes become agents of change and hegemonic at certain historical points of time and especially how in the current conjuncture class relations for quite obvious reasons had become far more complex than that in Marx’s time. Ideas develop in dialectical relation with praxis and as Gramsci remarked praxis is history: Marxism as philosophy is history becoming conscious of itself. Therefore anyone who is interested towards radical transcendence need to study class not as an ‘objective’ conceptual category but also the making of the class and the way it emerges as the ‘subject’ of history.

The concept of class in Marx’s writings has not been very categorical rather attributed to various dimensions in different points of time. In The German Ideology, it is more in relation to conflict between dominant and dominated where the hierarchies of power are determined by ownership of means of production. In Poverty of Philosophy, it is in reference to increasing polarization between poverty and wealth and finally in the Communist Manifesto, Marx proposes the dichotomous structure where the society is being increasingly divided between two hostile camps: bourgeoisie and proletariat. As Bettelheim and others pointed out, the Marxist idea of class varies depending on their focus on: ownership of property; power/authority relationship; production-appropriation-distribution of surplus value. The variation actually reflects the fact that in Marx, class is neither an exclusive economic category nor a political/cultural identity devoid of links with the economic process of surplus production.

The dominant notion of defining class on the basis of ownership of means of production fails to explain the appropriation of social surplus by the bureaucratic class in erstwhile socialist countries. At later stages they amassed wealth having no formal ownership of means of production. On the other hand ownership of properties does not necessarily ensure enjoying authority as in the case of numerous share holders in a corporate structure. Therefore ownership criterion does not necessarily explain the notion of class. Class has also been defined as a process by Resnick and Wolff in Knowledge and Class. In this scheme class is defined as the process of production, appropriation and distribution of surplus value and acknowledges possibilities of multiple class positions of individuals in the complex web of surplus generation. In other words the definition of class in Marxist literature has not been uniform and this is precisely because dynamics of capitalism involves multidimensional modes of dominance that influences class process and also conditions the evolution of class.

The defining characteristic of Marxist idea of class and class struggle however is not fundamentally located within the intricacies of definitions but precisely in the recognition of class struggle as the driving force behind history: as the opening lines of the first section of The Communist Manifesto reads ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.’ Class thus assumes a pivotal position in social dynamics and Marx extends this analysis of dominant/ dominated to pre-capitalist societies as well. Thus we get a more generalized theory of social change, historical materialism that identifies phases of history according to core structures of ‘mode of production’. The historical tendency as recognized by Marx is towards a polarization and strengthening of the proletarian class that finally emerges as the ‘universal class’ representing the social cause. The notion of class in this case goes beyond the ‘economistic’ idea of class referring to objective locations in class process or production relations; rather it signifies a qualitative change, of class becoming ‘political’. The proletarian class in that case assumes a radical position not merely to defend its class interests alone rather emerges as the hegemonic class. Marx strongly believed on successful retaliation of the deprived in the course of history and the rise of the proletariat was conceived in the same token as a node of historical progression.
The making of the proletariat as the hegemonic class can’t be a pre-determined inevitability. Neither is the fact so evident that society is increasingly being polarized as the ‘two-class’ model suggests. Rather we come across a complex matrix of intermediate classes influencing and conflicting with each other. Marx although recognized the ‘new middle classes’ but believed that such classes align themselves depending on their positions in subsumed class process involving distribution and sharing of accumulated surplus. But more important distinctions were made by later Marxists in terms of class places and positions as well as differentiating ‘class-in-itself’ and ‘class-for-itself’. Poulantzas in Classes in Contemporary Capitalism talked about class ‘places’ that are structurally defined while ‘class positions’ that emerge through concrete struggles. Class dominance in this scheme works in three different spheres: economic, political and ideological and only the capitalist class is dominant in all the three spheres. There are intermediate classes that may have contradictory locations that is dominant in one and dominated in the other. The precise point being made is that class places can be different from class positions and secondly, there are intermediate classes between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat that assumes contradictory class locations.

The more intriguing debate however is that between the structural and politico-cultural notions of class. Cohen in Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defense gives the structural definition of class as a pre-given position according to the objective place in the network of economic relations. In other words ‘class-in-itself’ is constituted independent of the social, political and cultural engagements. It is the objective location within a specific production process that defines class-in-itself. Marx observes regarding the French peasantry in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that they do and do not form a class at the same time. Since they endure specific economic conditions, they are a class but at the same time it is mere aggregation, a mass rather than class: ‘much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes’. On the other hand in Poverty of Philosophy, Marx identifies that the industrial working class because of its specific relation to the process of production assumes an organic unity against capital. What Marx was talking about is not to make a pre-determined idea of potential classes rather hinted upon the complex fact that production relations or the objectivity can only create favourable conditions in the process of class formation. And these objective conditions vary according to the process of production and the nature of engagement or relations of production in the course of history. Marx makes a crucial distinction in reference to working class. They are naturally united against respective capital in the terrain of conflict between wages and profits and can identify their class interests unlike others that have amorphous grievances. But this specific unity against capital does not ensure becoming ‘class-for-itself’ which according to Marx essentially evolves from a process of political conflict of a class against class. Therefore even in Marx’s writings class positions are mutually constituted by structural positions and political conflicts. The relative importance assigned to structure and consciousness defines the divide between Marxist scholarships. On the one side we find Cohen having class defined and pre-determined by objective positions in production relations while on the other side we have E.P. Thompson viewing class as constituted by a form of conflictive behavior that generates conscious attempts to overthrow capital. In The Making of the English Working Class, Thompson defines class by ‘men as they live their own history’.

The moot point however in this debate is that classes and class parties are not defined solely by their objective origin of ‘place’ but rather by their positioning in the terrain of conflict. In other words the making of the class and its becoming of ‘class for-itself’ is actualized by the act of struggle, a struggle beyond the realm of ‘economic’, beyond specific ‘class interests’ and representing the ‘universal’ as the harbinger of social emancipation. In this argument, no class or political combination can be given a privileged position in the generic sense only because of structural positions; the historical advantages are realized only through praxis. Praxis creates the radical moment when the proletarian class emerges as the revolutionary agent to deliver its historical responsibility.

It is in the moment of transcendence the proletarian class assumes a revolutionary position and that is subject to a complex ensemble of factors. This complex ensemble as Althusser pointed in For Marx creates an accumulation and exacerbation of historical contradictions that are specific to time and space. How the proletarian class attains such hegemonic positions either by a class dictatorship or by emerging as a dominant class intellectually and morally before becoming ruling class has been a point of difference between Lenin and Gramsci. But Lenin, Lucaks and Gramsci held the view that the natural class consciousness that the working class attains through defending their interests against capital has to be transformed into ideological class consciousness. And this is precisely because the immediate reality in capitalism appears to be the same for both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The lived life is full of contradictions and irrationality, but to transcend beyond this lived experience demands a consciousness beyond ‘bourgeoisie immediacy’. This requires imputing the theories of social change into the proletarian class from outside otherwise the working class remains passive and submissive with fragmentary insights.

The making of the working class and the ‘becoming’ of a hegemonic class is a question that essentially belongs to the creative realm of praxis and as a result gives rise to new questions that demand further theoretical appreciation. We are increasingly drawn into a production process where the working class is fragmented and segmented day by day; it is a process that increasingly aims to de-materialize the essential objective advantages of the working class to get united. There are both technological and political economic dimensions to this and they mutually constitute each other. On the one hand technological changes allow fragmentation through de-centered structures of production and on the other, the defeat of global labour in the process of globalization increases disposable labour at the behest of capital creating serious challenge to the process of class formation. Segmentation and differentiation by creating core and peripheral labour, sub-contracting, casualization and so on allows capital to play the divisive trick. A new breed of workers are also emerging in the so called ‘knowledge sector’ apparently having greater autonomy over their production process. But how these ‘mind-workers’ are increasingly deskilled in the process of technological development with increasing standardizations are some of the issues that require greater attention.

The other important question of course is that the social structure is far more complex and so also the class configurations. The subsumed classes, that is, those that receive shares of surplus against creating conditions for the systematic production and appropriation of surplus value or non-class groups sometimes rebel from a sense of deprivation. The complexity of class process need to be analyzed and the moments of creative praxis bring other deprived sections of the society closer to the working class. The other critical question in countries such as India is to match the matrix of ‘oppressed’ with that of ‘exploited’. How to integrate the struggle for ‘radical redistribution’ with the struggle for ‘recognition’? A large overlap between the two exists but how social and cultural processes influences the class process, how emancipation means different things to different people, how economy, politics, culture and ideologies mutually constitute each other and tends to fracture the natural overlap between those oppressed and exploited —these are some of the questions that any project for social emancipation need to address.

The author is Associate Professor at ISID, New Delhi.

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