contrasting classes as social categories with Class as a historical force

Christian Patterson
2018-11-15
Underground Mall

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One criticism I’ve heard against Marxism from anarchists is that society is too complex to be able to reduce it to a proletariat / bourgeoisie dichotomy. I don’t know if this is a common anarchist perspective, or just unique to some specific people.

But, in some ways, they’re right that the class dichotomy is reductive. In the United States, you could divide the working class into many different categories. There’s the wage-workers, the conventional proletariat. But this can also be divided into wage, and salary workers (who tend to be the working managerial class). The conventional wage worker can also be divided based on income amount. This difference often signifies the “middle class”, because there are working class wage workers like fast food workers who are a “lower class” than the six-figure salary wage worker.

You can then divide class further by separating freelance workers into their own class. You could separate people who do gigs through uber, lyft, etc into a separate class as well.

There’s also some people who blur the line. For example, is a CEO bourgeoisie? From my experience, Marxists say yes, and liberals say no. And on some technical level, the liberals are right, because CEOs aren’t the owners and they still do some work. But in a more realistic way, the CEO almost always partially gets paid in the form of company shares, so they are an owner on some level. And even if they’re not paid in shares of the company, CEOs reinforce bourgeoisie interests absolutely.

Similarly, we can look through other parts of history and see Marxist writers acknowledge a variety of classes. The Communist Manifesto opens with Marx listing a number of different classes, such as the Huguenots, and he uses specific figures, like Metternich and Guizot, as symbols of classes. Marx also acknowledged the petite bourgeoisie class, who were people who owned some means of production (for example, a small car dealership, a shop, restaurant, or single rental unit), but still had to work themselves, as opposed to the overclass, or high bourgeoisie, like Jeff Bezos and the Waltons.

More traditionally, the petite bourgeoisie was near-synonymous with the middle class. But with the concentration of capital in finance and banking, and capitalism’s tendency to allow large businesses to consume smaller ones, the middle class is primarily wage workers now.

Marx also acknowledged a class called the lumpenproletariat, or the underclass, who he was particularly hostile to (although he had a much more charitable and nuanced perspective on lumpenproles by the time he wrote Das Kapital). These are people who are very poor, and don’t work in conventional ways. The class would include: the chronically homeless, pimps, carnies, paupers, career criminals, street magicians etc. Marx and Engels believed that the lumpenproletariat are lecherous, have no interest in progressing society, and are self-interested.

Personally, Marx’s characterization of lumpenproletariats is the thing I disagree with most, but I’ll save that for another post.

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A great example of Marx’s more in-depth writing on class can be found in his texts like “The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850, his book about the Revolutionary activity in France at this time. Here are some passages from Part 1:

“It was not the French bourgeoisie that ruled under Louis Philippe, but one faction of it: bankers, stock-exchange kings, railway kings, owners of coal and iron mines and forests, a part of the landed proprietors associated with them – the so-called financial aristocracy. […]

“The industrial bourgeoisie proper […] was represented only as a minority in the Chambers. Its opposition was expressed all the more resolutely the more unalloyed the autocracy of the finance aristocracy became, and the more it imagined that its domination over the working class was insured after the revolts of 1832, 1834, and 1839, which had been drowned in blood. […]

“The petty bourgeoisie of all gradations, and the peasantry also, were completely excluded from political power. Finally, in the official opposition or entirely outside the pays légal [electorate], there were the ideological representatives and spokesmen of the above classes, their savants, lawyers, doctors, etc., in a word, their so-called men of talent.”

(This is just the beginning of the book, and the whole thing is in-depth like this)

In this passage, Marx highlights three subclasses of the bourgeoisie. Marx is treating class less like a dichotomy, but rather multiple sub-classes that represent the same interests. The industrial bourgeoisie were a minority, and were worried they’d be excluded from the bourgeoisie class character of the state. In other words, these industrial bourgeoisie were worried about losing their overclass status, by a concentration of power within other subclasses. This is how all of history develops.

The capitalist class developed out of an urban class, with its closest historical links being to merchants and artisans who were self-employed during feudal times. However, at this time, merchants and artisans were a class underneath lords. But as technology developed, the capitalist class morphed, as groups of people’s relation to the economy changed.

Marx and Engels were not the only ones who wrote about classes this way. In fact, pretty much every practical Marxist theorist writes about class nuance. For example, much of Mao’s early writing is about the interaction of different classes, such as the Warlords before the Republic of China, the landlords who imposed bourgeoisie force on rural Chinese, and the cadre capitalists who specifically benefited from urban Imperialist interest.

The impact of this is that class is a way of grouping people with similar relationships to the material economy. There are many different ways of grouping people, and many potential sub-groupings as well. But the reason we can understand class on a dichotomous level is because of the relation to the means of production specifically. Earlier, I said there’s many different classes based on relation to the material economy, but the key object of value in a capitalist economy is capital. While there’s many ways to relate to the economy, everyone is either on the side of capital, or the side of the worker. The idea of Marxist class struggle doesn’t reduce classes to two categories, it understands Class as a dichotomous force throughout history, based on relation to the primary object of value at the time.

In feudal Europe, the lords were the overclass because they had control over the food and land. Peasants were the underclass because they performed labor on the land, to harvest the food. At this point in history, land and food was the most valuable form that someone could possess. Many groups had different relationships to other aspects of the economy, but all of them were either on the side benefiting from the distribution of land and food, or the side being exploited by the distribution of land and food.

Under capitalism, you could easily say that wage workers and freelance workers are a different class. And I would agree, the wage workers and freelance workers have differing class characteristics, even though class distinctions get blurrier at that granular level. But, the determinant factor of class forces is relationship to the means of production, ie property.

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There are members of the working class, who are conventional wage workers, but still reinforce the bourgeoisie class interest. This is why someone can cognitively understand that all capitalist economic relationships are exploitative, and at the same time, feel like one of their managers is cool, and one is an asshole. The asshole manager is an asshole because they’re actively and directly letting you know that you are being used for your labor power, and they’re going to get as much value out of that is possible. The irony though, is unless you work at a small business, these low-level, shift supervisor-style managers don’t actually have stakes in the means of production, but they still enforce that power dynamic.

This new type of managerial class, the supervisor-turn-manager, the worker devoted enough to the company that they would take a minor pay raise for more responsibility. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But it’s a relatively new phenomenon, to consider employees who are lower and lower in the company hierarchy to be managers.

The capitalist response to this would be “that’s great, more and more people are managers.” The issue is, more people are considered managers, but less people are getting managerial wages.

This is a purposeful effort from the capitalist class, because if there’s a retail store with two managers a shift, and the managers make a few dollars more per hour, they will feel more closely aligned with the owning corporate entity.

The managers are a rung below the ownership class, but they feel aligned with the ownership class. The more people who feel like they’re “in the club”, even if they make $13/hour, the more they will represent the forces of capitalist interest.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon writes in The Philosophy of Poverty (Chapter VI. Fourth Period. — Monopoly):

“As for the personal composition of the company, it naturally divides itself into two categories, — the managers and the stockholders. The managers, very few in number, are chosen from the promoters, organizers, and patrons of the enterprise: in truth, they are the only associates. The stockholders, compared with this little government, which administers the society with full power, are a people of taxpayers who, strangers to each other, without influence and without responsibility, have nothing to do with the affair beyond their investments. They are lenders at a premium, not associates.”

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There’s two ways class is used, both general and specific. Class is discussed in both purely economic terms, or terms influenced more by social positioning. There’s a lot of ways to understand class, both as a Marxist and not. When people make the “Marxist class analysis is reductive” argument, they’re assuming that Marxists only understand class as a historical force. But independent of the many ways to subdivide classes, class forces still exist, and are reinforced in a variety of ways.

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