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On the misuses of class, post-Trexit

by Jack Copley on December 19, 2016

Following Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, a growing number of commentators have argued that we are seeing a resurgence in voting behaviour based on class interests. After thirty years of neoliberalism, working class people are finally responding to the attack on their economic position by rebelling against the political establishment. This notion has been boosted by a number of prominent pieces in the New York Times focussing on working class Trump supporters in the US Rust Belt. Some have taken this argument further, claiming that political elites have for too long focused on identity politics – particularly race and gender – at the expense of class politics. This centrist consensus has been termed ‘Wall Street plus identity politics’ by Thomas Ferguson, while Francis Fukuyama argued that the Democratic Party has abandoned the ‘traditional working class’ in favour of ‘a coalition of women, African-Americans, Hispanics, environmentalists, and the LGBT community’. For the left, this revelation supposedly holds more weight, because class politics should be our bread and butter. As a recent Open Democracy article stated bluntly: ‘Class matters more than hollow appeals to identity politics issues at the moment when class inequality is rising sharply’.

This notion that class eclipses race, gender, disability, sexuality in terms of defining a person’s political outlook is incoherent. As Gurminder Bhambra correctly points out, these arguments dismiss identity politics as ‘divisive’ while conceptualising class itself as a conscious identity. One identity – class – is simply privileged over others. This is a completely arbitrary theoretical move: what is to say that austerity will be interpreted by a person of colour or a woman as a class issue, and not an example of gender or racial oppression, when it is expressed in the form of the closure of domestic violence refuges or inner city community centres? Reducing class to a positivist category of direct experience and consequently prioritising it over race or gender is a political decision, and one which ironically perpetuates a ‘pernicious identity politics’, as Bhambra terms it.

For these reasons, it is crucial that critical voices on the left move away from an understanding of class as the foremost category of lived human experience. This is not only theoretically incoherent, but it also places the left in a reactionary position with regards to struggles against other forms of oppression. Below I will sketch out what I think is a more consistent approach to class, drawing on both the so-called ‘new reading’ and ‘open’ Marxisms.

For Marx, capitalist society is characterised by a tension between the transhistorical and the historically-specific. Humans have always produced ‘things’ (use-values) in order to survive, in order to grasp at beauty, in order to enquire about the world, in order to kill, in order to oppress and be cruel. Capitalism demands the production of things only insofar as they bear value, a historically-specific form of wealth expressed as money. Humans have always worked in various ways and under various conditions to produce these things (concrete labour). Capitalism demands that humans work only insofar that this work takes the form of abstract labour, meaning that it produces saleable things – commodities – that can be exchanged for one another. Wealth has assumed diverse forms in different human societies, from material goods that improve standards of living, to objects that purportedly bring spiritual enrichment. Capitalism demands the elimination of this diversity and the designation of one particular form of wealth – value, money –  as the sole determinant of social power, such that material wealth in the form of physical output can fall at a time of rising monetary wealth. In short: humanity, in all its varied aspects – good and bad – is directed by capitalist imperatives towards the unitary goal of the production of surplus value.

Class struggle, then, refers to the resistance to this tendency – it is the continuous battle between human heterogeneity and capitalist homogeneity. The imperatives generated by capitalist competition force the personifications of capital – capitalists – to discipline and mould people in all their varying colours, creeds, identities, desires into a working class that can produce the maximum profit for capital and which can be cast onto the scrapheap of unemployment when necessary. This working class never corresponds to a static category of people that can be identified by their occupation, subjectivities, or other empirical attributes. It is instead a dynamic category of human disempowerment for the purpose of the empowerment of capital. The boundaries of the working class are not imposed a priori, but are defined and redefined through the struggle for and against real human wants (progressive or reactionary). More importantly, struggles for higher standards of living, more leisure time, racial and gender equality, environmental protection, etc., are not separate from class politics, but neither are they struggles for a more empowered working class. Instead these are struggles against the transformation of great swathes of humanity into a working class. They are struggles for heterogeneous objectives against the unitary objective imposed as if from without by capitalist society. Class struggle is the spontaneous and irrepressible struggle of humanity against class itself.

This understanding of class rules out the use of ‘capitalist’ and ‘worker’ as categories of positivist social accounting – crude sociological pigeonholes within which to slot real individuals and to subsequently explain their electoral preferences. Rather, as Richard Gunn rightly argues, ‘class struggle is class itself’. The motion of this struggle has a structuring effect on the lives of individuals in capitalist society, giving rise to the constantly shifting sands of youth precariat, industrial proletariat, white collar lower middle class, professional middle class, and so on ad infinitum. No individual falls completely into the category of pure capitalist or worker. Instead, capitalist and worker represent two poles of capitalist society, between which real people lie on a spectrum that is always changing as a result of the battle for and against the maximisation of surplus value production.

As such, the relationship between class struggle and other forms of oppression is indeterminate. For example, on the one hand, capital has benefited from women’s unpaid housework as a mechanism for subsidising surplus value production; while on the other hand, capital has benefited from the increasing integration of women into the workforce, which has in turn challenged many patriarchal structures. Similarly, struggles against the imposition of capitalist imperatives have historically assumed both patriarchal and progressive forms. As a one dimensional social imperative to increase surplus value, capitalism is a ‘value-free’ arbiter, so to speak, in that it cares not whether it promotes racial equality or racial supremacy – so long as it is good business.

Two conclusions can be drawn from this. Firstly, critics of capitalism need to re-evaluate what the concept of class can explain. It is of very little use as a positivist category for explaining people’s formal political behaviour. As such, the calls that have emerged following Brexit and Trump to reassert class as the primary lens through which social life is experienced can and should be ignored. Yet as a critical category based on struggle, class is the only concept that allows us to understand the substance and trajectory of our social world. Secondly, as a battle between human heterogeneity and imposed homogeneity, the class relation has an ambivalent relationship with other forms of oppression. Amongst the plethora of human desires and wants exists patriarchy and white supremacy. These oppressions must be taken seriously and fought on their own terms – especially considering the frightening nationalist resurgences we currently face – without hiding behind the mistaken belief that the struggle against capitalism is the struggle against all oppression.

Jack Copley
Jack Copley is an Early Career Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study, University of Warwick. His research focuses on British political economy, financialisation, the capitalist state, and Marxist value theory. He has published in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations, New Political Economy, and Environment and Planning C. He is also co-founder of the podcast Political Economy for the End Times.

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