Monday 30 March 2009

Class Matters

You don't have to tell socialists class matters. But incredibly, there are some social theorists and philosophers for whom this is heresy. I say to them how can you answer the six questions below without acknowledging the continued relevance of class?
*Distributional location: How are people objectively located in distributions of material inequality?
Subjectively salient groups: What explains how people, individually and collectively, subjectively locate themselves and others within a structure of inequality?
Life chances: What explains inequalities in life chances and material standards of living?
Antagonistic conflicts: What social cleavages systematically shape overt conflicts?
Historical variation: How should we characterise and explain the variations across history in the social organisation of inequalities?
Emancipation: What sorts of transformations are needed to eliminate oppression and exploitation within capitalist societies?

(Göran Therborn
From Marxism to Post-Marxism? 2008, p.144).


Anonymous said...

The other issue is the continued discussion of class in liberal sociology, but its incorporation into the identity trinty: race, class, gender, with the assumption that class "difference" is either natural, or a discursive construct.

If it's an identity trope, then class difference is a point of multicultural management and, if people are no longer articulating class identities as strongly as in the past, this feeds into the death-of-class notion.

Jerry said...

Blimey is Therborn still going on about this stuff?!

Your questions:

1. "*Distributional location: How are people objectively located in distributions of material inequality."

Petitio Principii fallacy ("objectively located in distributions...").

2. "subjectively locate themselves and others within a structure of inequality"

They don't, at least not in the way that Marxists would have it. (Didn't Therborn used to go on about 'contradictory class locations'? - if so, very convenient!)

3. "What social cleavages systematically shape overt conflicts?"

Sectional, plus self-interest. Mainly. Sometimes bolted onto a rhetoric of class conflict. Plus Petitio Principii fallacy again.

4. How should we characterise and explain the variations across history in the social organisation of inequalities?

Again there's a Petitio Principii thing. Once you start talking in terms of social organisation of inequality then you're automatically flirting with a class perspective (depending how you define class, of course).

5. What sorts of transformations are needed to eliminate oppression and exploitation within capitalist societies?

Yeah, and when did you stop beating your wife?

larry c wilson said...

Class doesn't mean much in a society where workers on an automobile assembly line really do define themselves as middle-class.

Phil said...

I should have made this clearer. These set of questions are derived from the mountain of empirical work Erik Olin Wright has done on class. Taking this into account plus the wealth of sociology that has been written on class this to me, speaking pragmatically and purely in a scholarly capacity, suggests there might be something in it. But Jerry, if dismissing class as a logical fallacy helps you sleep at night then go right ahead. Working class people will continue to produce the goods and services you consume whether you think they exist or not.

Phil said...

Larry, it doesn't really matter how people define themselves. If I worked in a factory, identified with Tories and loved my material possessions - it doesn't change the fact me and my fellows are paid beneath the full value of our labour power. Nor will that matter if I get made redundant and have to scrape a living together from the dole until I find another job.

Class does matter, whether someone sees themselves in terms of class or not.

CharlieMcMenamin said...

I've just finished the Therborn book by co-incidence. I found it pretty slight and disappointing overall: certainly the last of the three essays it comprises seemed pretty much a reading list with commentary rather than anything else.

Although Therborn quotes E.O.Wright on the salience of class, there is very little in the book which explains, as opposed to records, why it appears that class has become less salient over the last generation to how many people experience the world.(Which is not to deny the power of your last point about the reality of class relationships, even if I would demur from a full hearted acceptance of the Labour Theory of Value)

But, hey, you're the sociologist - what do you think ?

P.S. Thanks for the name check in the Carnival. I was surprised and pleased.

Phil said...

I agree with you Charlie, it is slight - I was expecting something much meatier. This will be reflected when I come to review it - a super serious piece for the Sociological Review and a polemic for Socialism Today. It reminded me a lot of Perry Anderson's book on Western Marxism - an intellectual excursion of the terrain, if you like.

Re: the salience of class and its disappearance as a key referrant for sections of the (academic) left and social democratic/labourist establishment, it is one of history's ironies that this came during a period where governments the world over were engaged in a retrenchment of class relations, power and privilege.

Very quickly I would explain the "decline" of class in Britain in terms of the following interlinked events and processes: strategic defeats of the labour movement; collapse of the USSR; wholesale adoption of neoliberalism by mainstream politics, deindustrialisation and decomposition/recomposition of the working class, move from larger to smaller workplaces, privatisation/individuation of communities and leisure time, rise of radical alternatives to class politics (new social movements, NGOs). Those are just off the top of my head.

Btw, you're welcome re: the Carnival. Fancy hosting one yourself?

CharlieMcMenamin said...

I certainly recognise the range of factors you list as contributing to a decline in, or at least a decomposition of, a 'sense of class' in this country. But I don't think anyone on the Left has properly theorized how all this fits together (if that doesn't sound too pretentious a phrase for a non academic to use).

Recently I went back and re-read Hobsbawm's 'Forward March of Labour Halted' piece, which had a huge effect on me as a teenage undergrad.(&, yeah, I know you're probably not a fan, but bear with me). What surprised me, at this distance of time, was how deeply entrenched it was in the language and pre-suppositions of a predominately industrial labour movement: I'd just forgotten that we once thought and spoke like this throughout the Left.

I don't dismiss at all the importance of industrial organising. But I think it fanciful to imagine that a 'sense of class', much less class institutions, can be rebuilt on the same basis given the changes in the economic and social structure. I had rather hoped the Therborn book would provide a few pointers towards the emerging thinking on all this. It doesn't.

Re hosting the carnival: Mrs. Charlie & the kids think I spend too much time on the web already, so I better gratefully decline for now.

Phil said...

Actually, I've been thinking about taking a look at 'The Forward March ...' for some time now for this blog.

I became radicalised in the early-mid 90s when things were very shit indeed and since then I've been trying to grapple with problems around class and how to make Marxism politically attractive and relevant. This has continued over into my PhD where, among other things, I'm looking at how SP and SWP members have become radicalised during these "New Times" and/or managed to maintain their commitment. As well as being academically interesting (I hope!) it should prove to be useful material for anyone interested in rebuilding Marxist politics.

But rebuilding a sense of class is difficult. I do think most people see themselves in terms of class, but it is a completely empty signifier for them. What's really missing is a political sense of class. I think it can be rebuilt but it demands strategic nous and tactical flexibility on the part of trade unions and the left - such approaches must be as multifaceted as the class itself.

Phil said...

As if by magic, Andy comes up with something about strategy on Socialist Unity: here.

CharlieMcMenamin said...

Ah, yes, hegemonics crew.

Pat Devine, Michael Prior and David Purdy are all ex-CP (Euro wing) of course, as am I. I'm not sure about Andrew Pearmain.

Devine is an interesting economist who has linked up with the parecon people. I have downloaded the pdf of Feelbad Britian but, shamefully, have yet to read it. But I'm glad that some people have been quietly tending the flame.

BTW - given your own political background I thought you retrospective review of the New Times book last year was very fair minded. I still think the problems it pointed too are real,and much ignored on today's left, even if the solutions it offered didn't satisfy you.

rsrcher said...

One of the first comments here really gets at the heart of one of the big issues in current academic discussions of class that I'm familiar with - the idea of 'class' as an identity trope (along with gender and race). This characterization ("identity trope") is an accurate reflection of some work, but a poor slag-off for a lot of thoughtful analyses that might point to politically interesting lines of critique and possibility.

Most good sociology (etc.) recognizes that all three of these categories are collectively important in that they fundamentally structure social relations, including economic and political ones(individual 'identities' are secondary to macro-analysis) via discursive mediation - and thus have effects on perceptions of self and others that in turn affect our moral/ethical dealings with them (and end up aggregated and reimplicated in evolving cultural, political, economic and social systems).

This, in my opinion, and in relation to the question of 'class', one of the biggest challenges of neoliberalism - as Phil alludes to: the privatisation/individuation of communities and leisure...and pretty much anything else. This just cycles into the tendency to moralize 'class' position in terms of individual worthiness (obviously not new in itself) - which does play out distinctly in the social valuation of personal traits and characteristics associated with class (accent, manners, etc...we're back to N. Elias or Bourdieu, in a sense, but it's often not consciously seen). This kind kind of thing in part contributes to the kind of political consciousness people have, and legitimates current arrangements. It's not that class is (only) an identity trope, its that 'objective' and 'subjective' aspects of class play back into one anther (think of Nancy Fraser on the links between recognition and redistribution), and basic economic analyses - while of greater or lesser quality, and often very useful - don't seem to have quite done the trick (maybe tomorrow?). You can fight Political Economy with Political Economy, but it's a narrow path to take...

I think that Andrew Sayer's (Leicester?) and Bev Skeggs' (Goldsmiths) work on class as represented in lay morality, gov't discourses and pop culture clearly adds a lot to any analysis of the issue. Admittedly, some do seem to deny even the basic economic analyses of class - but my impression, in sociology that addresses the question at all, and with which I am familiar, is that most who sideline the category object to reductionist Political Economy interpretations - and that there is already tons of work that gets past this objection, without neccessarily getting it 'right' (Sayer, Skeggs, Bourdieu, M. Savage, D. Reay, etc, etc.) It's actually a little bit baffling to me how people just keep talking past eachother on this issue.

And in relation to the 'Labor Theory of Value' point of analysis, I think that is also vital to examine questions of precarity - precarious workers are almost never unionised, and don't really fit in most union structures - and intensification in work (no guaranteed living, but always on call) as incredibly significant to the lived effects of 'class' positioning- and as structurally important to current arrangments...