the Disillusioned kid: Classy Response
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Friday, April 15, 2005

Classy Response

Alex Gregory's Sleep of Reason continues to be a though-provoking read and is well worth taking the time to read. Not that I agree with everything he says, mind. On Wednesday he posted some thoughts on class (entitled 'Classy Rant' if you wanna read it for yourself) which I feel compelled to take issue with.

Alex makes two key assertions.: (1) Relationship to the means of production (the cornerstone of Marxist class distinctions) is of less value in modern times than it was when Marx was writing; (2) People within society are not arranged in tiers, but along a continuous spectrum. While I broadly agree with Alex on both points, I still think that class analysis and even the concept of class struggle is of value today.

Alex concedes that relationship to the means of production is still a useful rule of thumb. This is indeed the case and I think it was always a mistake to reduce class down to this alone. Such a reduction ignores the existence of a class between the owners of the means of production (the bourgeois of Marxist rhetoric) and the workers (the proletariat) who are forced to work for the former, but exert influence over the latter by means of a virtual monoply control over information, skills, knowledge, and positions relevant to daily economic choices and decisions. This class includes managers, intellectuals and probably teachers (depending on who you ask). While they do organise the workers for the owners, they also pursue their own independent interests. The significance of this class becomes clear if one applies a consistent class analysis to the various state socialist regimes (such as the USSR) as it becomes clear that in these countries, it was this class which came to power.

An undue focus on means of production also ignores other factors. Those who fall within the same class also tend to socialise, go to the same clubs, play golf together and send their kids to the same schools. The upshot of this is that they will tend to share many of the same ideas. For what it's worth, I think the Class War Federation's attempt to put forward a more complex analysis of class is well worth looking at (for a extract from Unfinished Business the Federation's most theoretical work, see here).

On this basis, I think we can argue that the reduced relevance of means of production based analysis does not neccesarily preclude the possibility of classes. This, then brings us to Alex's second contention. Of course he is quite right that there is a continuum on which we are drawing neccesarily arbitrary lines, but I question whether this need render the concept of class valueless.

Consider the concept of nationhood. It is widely accepted in liberal and leftist circles that nationality is an artificial construct and there is no doubt that it is. If we look to nationalism's role within the context of decolonisation, however, we see that the adoption of national identity by a group can help them to cohere, making them a more effective unit and helped them to overthrow colonialism. Race has played a similar role in the struggle against racism. Problems arise, of course, in the aftermath of the collapse (or weakening) of the system which is being opposed. Once that has happened there is a danger that the identity which has previously been cultivated and proved to be so useful can actually become divisive if not actively reactionary. For this reason I am quite drawn to Murray Bookchin's suggestion in Listen Marxist that what we need to cultivate not a class consciousness, but an unclass consciousness, but that's a subject for another post.

My key point is that arbitrary distinction, or no, class analysis has the potential to play a useful role in the armoury of modern progressives. People are poor, not because of some inherent flaw on their part, but because of the way the system operates. For their lot to be drastically improved that system is going to have to be changed. Those who benefit from it have no reason to bring about that change and every reason to seek to prevent it. Straightforward efficacy and solidarity with the oppressed require that we side with those at the bottom of society.

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