Saturday, February 06, 2010

A note about class

The Existence Machine:

Many of us —- perhaps the majority of us who are relatively privileged enough to be salaried professionals —- are even constrained from describing our own situation as a form of slavery, so completely have we internalized these ideological biases, so narrowly have we defined freedom for ourselves. Yet how free do we really feel?

Probably one of the greatest misconceptions when it comes to Marx relates to the way he understands class and everything which proceeds from it: class conflict; class struggle; and the goal of a classless society.

Most of this misunderstanding owes to the prevailing use of "class" as a comparative measure of income within the liberal democracies: There are "upper," "middle," and "lower" classes.

For Marx, this conception of class as a specific location in an income hierarchy has little usefulness because, in contrast with economic liberalism, "having lots of money" is not the defining measure of human freedom. Human freedom means having control over your life.

The reason why "having money" is the loftiest goal in capitalism is precisely because capitalism doesn't offer anything else, and that is the point Marx is getting at when he frames his notion of class. For Marx, class is a relationship to those things required to have control over one's life -- and you either have possession of these things or you don't. This is what Marx meant by the "haves" and the "have-nots"; in his view, the history of human society is best understood in terms of the conflict between them.

What is useful about the Marxist understanding of class is that it is principally concerned with power, not outcomes. If we accept the liberal definition of class, then, as above, being a "salaried professional" imparts "privilege." Needless to say, this is true in some ways. But Marx would merely point out that what is given can just as easily be taken away, and that makes one a slave to circumstances; not to mention the whims of an employing (read: possessing) class.


Richard said...

Very well put, as ever. This in particular: "Human freedom means having control over your life."

JRB said...

Hey, thanks for the inspiration. I enjoy getting your take on Graeber, among others.

Anonymous said...

so true. working lately in property management for a couple of nicer condos in the d.c. area, rubbing shoulders w/lawyers, doctors, etc. getting them to see that owning a nice condo in a nice part of town & having a "nice" job isn't the pinnacle of existence is nigh impossible.

curious, what do you think of veblen's theory of the leisure class?

bonecrusher said...

Yes - this is particularly hard for Americans to understand. You, your boss and the senior VP of Marketing with the penthouse condo are members of the proletariat. Bill Gates and Paris Hilton are middle class. It's not clear if America ever really had an "upper class". Marx is using these terms differently than we do today.

JRB said...

Anonymous: I don't have enough of a frame of reference for Theory of the Leisure Class. I got it out of the library once but it went back in an unread pile. I remember looking at it, but it must not have grabbed me. You'll have to tell me about it.

Bonecrusher: It gets tricky as you ascend the managerial hierarchy. As ownership has become more diffuse (as with "publicly-owned" firms), executive authority has coalesced around management -- technically part of the wage-labor force but with very different powers. For these purposes, Marx is concerned with the difference between "producers" and "appropriators" -- those who produce something for use, and those whose living is made by denying the producer the full value of what is produced. This could include many tiers of management, even if they have been driven into the wage-labor force for the same reasons as the worker.

In the IWW, the distinction is simply drawn between those who have the power to "hire and fire" -- i.e., bosses -- and those who do not.

In retrospect, I probably should have framed this post differently. I'm beginning to feel confused myself! It would seem the "working class" is premised both on a relationship to the means of production and the role one plays in the face of this reality. Here I suppose I was interested in exploring the totalizing effect of dispossession on everyone at all levels.