We need to talk about class

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The Abbott government has announced potential cuts to welfare, and that it is targeting the welfare for the poorest and most vulnerable – Newstart and disability allowance.  While not going near the welfare that also targets the middle and even upper classes of parenting payments and maternity leave.  As Van Badham has noted, the budget holes could easily have been plugged by increasing tax on the wealthy.  However, there has been one word that has been missing in the analysis of this move: the dreaded c word, class.

In a New York Times article on 26th November 2006 Warren E. Buffet is reported to have said: ‘There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.’ Globally, the 2008 crisis brought an attack on global labour with harsh austerity, surge of racist and anti-migration attacks and the start of the dismantling of public education and social provision. This ran concurrently with the inability, or lack of will to regulate large capital along with the failures of climate summits to tackle anything of note including the global food crisis.

We are faced with urgent business right now, and Marx held up sufficient of a mirror to us that we can start to think about modes of action.  And the obvious term that comes out of Marx’s analysis, class, comes back into play.  But one of the problems we have seen over the last thirty years is the sidelining of this term, and many saying it doesn’t exist, or at least it is not relevant.  Yet there is no way that we can confront the current liberal capitalist system without at least some recourse to a form of class struggle from below.

This is not a new topic, which makes it strange how little it is used outside of Marxist circles.  But I firstly want to consolidate what class struggle actually means.  It doesn’t mean going back right back to Marx, but when political action unfolds there is a necessity to think about the class dynamics, which is a fundamental.  People immediately say that this is being reductionist.  This is not going on at all – there are plenty of feminist, racial, sexual struggles that are important and the intersectional nature of these are vital. Yet if we take the example at the proposed welfare cuts, they disproportionately affect women and those of racial minorities. What can be observed is the strong overlap with of class with other types of emancipatory struggles. 

Class happens when, in order to live, large numbers of people are systematically forced by their lack of access to productive resources to give a substantial part of their life’s activity, more than what they need to keep themselves alive, to others purely because these do control this access. And as Marx noted, the only way to understand this, why and how ‘surplus labour is pumped out of direct producers’, is to have a good, close look at ‘the empirically given circumstances’ that systematically require some people to give to others large parts of their time and effort or the results of them.

 The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu would also look at a number of factors the emergence of class formations.  For Bourdieu different types of capital – social, symbolic, cultural and economic make up the nature of modern class structures, with none of them being reducible to another. But what is important that even though class structures have appeared to change, Bourdieu argues that economic capital is at the root of other forms of capital. It is key to note that objective positions are not equal, but a hierarchy of power relations, forms of capital that are employed or deployed in these fields are strongly influenced by the background or disposition of its occupants, Bourdieu used the term habitus to describe these dispositions – i.e. cognitive or mental structures which strongly influence ways of viewing the world. It is habitus that gives unity and form to people’s practice in the fields that make up the social world. Social class formation is hence about a form of habitus that generates modes of practice, which then deploys or employs forms of capital. To understand social class is to consider how these forms of capital are deployed or employed in privileging or excluding occupants based upon their structured positions.

 Yet the word class has been removed from the daily lexicon, and is used as a signifier of fear.  Within capitalist society the notion of class itself is disavowed, Class, particularly within western societies, is considered to be an increasingly redundant notion. Instead other concepts have sought to explain social stratification, such as social class and ethnicity. Additionally, the affect of class has been transferred onto various cultural fetishes, such as culture itself (e.g. working class culture, sport, and topically alcohol and drinking) and most significantly commodity fetishism.  The anarchist Jacques Camatte, coming from a Marxist background, argues that the class distinction is diffused in late capitalism through the total domestication of humans and the establishment of a capitalist human community. This does not mean there are not classes, but their conflict is pacified and their relations are shifted. The relevant conflict (if any) comes to be between humans and capital or individuals and their own domestication, rather than between proletariat and bourgeoisie. 

Within this this modern universal imaginary, class relationships are claimed to not exist. Rather, we are all constituted on the same side of surplus-value. Ideologically, a sense of formal equality exists; all have the potential to consume and enjoy the fruits of production. Here exceptions to the rule are contingent aberrations, soon to be included in the universal set. Witness the construction of 3rd world nations as ‘developing countries’. It is liberal-democracy that is the primary societal value-identification in western societies. Capitalism, and the production of profit, is taken to be a natural existing state of affairs.

Be that as it may, this is also because the capitalist class does not want us to talk about class.  As soon as class is mentioned by anyone other than the right, it becomes ‘devise’ class struggle, or ‘class war’. Whenever “class warfare” is invoked, you can be sure that disproportionate or unjustified benefits for high-income earners or large corporations are under threat, benefits they would prefer to keep hidden. To accuse someone of class war is to suggest a rigid ideologue, someone motivated not by the national interest but by mere jealousy toward those more hard-working/intelligent/business-minded than party apparatchiks, even if a Gina Rinehart inherited the bulk of her wealth and then enjoyed the accident of an historical boom in Chinese demand.

However, when a topic attracts the ire of the bourgeoisie it is also a blazing red light that it must have some worthiness. As the results of the Oxfam study just recently released show that 85 people hold more wealth than nearly half the world. Identity politics falls into the hands of the big capitalists, relying on a banal individualism – not to say some identity politics are not worthwhile.  But class puts fear into the capitalist class.

In our modern social structure, class hierarchies continue to exist but are restructured along different lines. Because of the restructuring of the economy, the polarisation of the labour market and the globalisation of production the nature of at least the way we view and understand class has shifted. Post-industrialisation has seen the decline of working class trade unionism; however there are still professional hierarchies, and new forms of working class and middle classes occupations have appeared. We have also seen the rise of a high up managerial class, a class of workers that manage the interests of capital and finance. Then there is the constant that class backgrounds strongly influence life chances and opportunities. Hence there is still a hierarchy of social classes, but how we would define such classes has differed and changed over time. Inequality has become far more complex and multifaceted and access to the knowledge economy, strategic social network and cultural capital and patterns of consumption become important along side economic capital.

Nevertheless, even if class identity has changed in terms of it playing a central role in people’s lives and sense of self, this does not mean that class does not exist as an objective social reality. In contrast to more post-modernist approaches, social relations do not simply exist by the meanings people attach to them, they exist in real relations; relations that have an existence of their own, external to how they maybe perceived by people.  Social data shows that economic disadvantage has not left us, and is in fact a stark feature of the Australian socio-economic landscape.  And while relations of production have changed, the clearly still exists a dominant class that represents and dictates the interests of transnational finance and corporate capital.  In a study done by Bottomore and Brym in 1989, the found in a study of the capitalist class across different nations that each one still exhibited a class of capitalists who enjoy privileged access to power networks, which guard the interests and wealth of finance, corporate and the state. It is not hard, even with a cursory glance, to see the power of Gina Reinhardt, not to mention the myriad of backroom power broking done by development groups and other powerful capitalists.

It is this very class that is winning handsomely.  For me, one of the recourses to protect and prioritise the most oppressed in our society is to reclaim the notion of class. Although the reactionary right will always find it a dirty word, trying to cover up real structural divisions in society by deriding it, the left could do with going back to basics, and reclaiming class struggle as an emancipatory outlet – especially against reactionary Australian governments. What also needs to happen is an integration of class struggles from dispossession to working class struggles.  They need to be linked in.  It is clear that the capitalist class are getting filthy rich on our backs, whether it through the exploitation of refugees or those working in factories in the western suburbs. This is by no means an easy task.  Convincing the working class that they are indeed the working class and have differing interests to the capitalist class without being paternalist is one of the great issues of our time, but one that should be of the greatest importance. 

 

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