Wednesday 25 February 2015

The Postmodern Effacement of Class

From the mid-90s I became very interested in social theory for two reasons. In the first place, the clunky, cruddy Marxism imbibed at A-level were tools enough to help me understand the peculiarities of the social world. Was it a framework and a method appropriate to make proper sense of it? Or, indeed, had college taught me the proper stuff or instead sold me a pup that merely barked when Marxism was called? I was also very, very angry. Rather than let the SWP burn me up with pointless paper sales, I interrogated social theory and sociology for new ideas that might help change the world. When we finally got round to postmodernism and post-structuralism, precocious 19-year-old-me nommed it up. Its 'question everything' radicalism was very appealing. Here you had the flavour-of-the-decade and the philosophical knives were out. The Enlightenment and its unthought sexist, racist, and heteronormative assumptions got carved up in conference paper after article after book. Some of it was interesting and useful for refining my sensitivity to the subtle ways power and inequality operates, but ultimately it made me feel uncomfortable.

I'm from a working class family. My parents and grandparents had working class jobs, as did (and does) my brother. My extended family - aunts, uncles, cousins - all were from the sort of stock politicians fall over themselves to flatter and patronise. Despite being confirmed non-labour movement people, we never had it very good. My family lived in a small, cramped house and we knew some very tough times. Class is never a neutral demographic category, it wounds deeply and I am one of millions who carry the scars. This is precisely why Marxism appealed. It explained class, its role throughout history, and why it and capitalism are inseparable. If the history taught at school was the collective biography of the haves, Marxism was the story and condensed experience of the have nots. And this was also why your pomo types, be it the more activist-oriented scholarship of Michel Foucault or the sit-back-and-enjoy-the-show fatalism Jean Baudrillard, left me cold. In the name of anti-essentialism and anti-totalisation, Marx and Marxism was utterly dismissed as mechanical and irredeemably authoritarian, as if forced labour camps and the NKVD could be found wrapped up in the analysis of commodity fetishism and the materialist conception of history. When Marx went, so did any kind of class analysis. In book after book, it was explained that radical politics could do no better than contingent alliances between oppressed groups in pursuit of strictly limited objectives. There was no place for the experience of class and the place it occupies in a set of abstract but nevertheless real and systematic power relationships. It was as if millions of people like you and me didn't matter or exist.

Simultaneously, while the postmodern social theory I read was doubting the relevance and social weight of millions, the neoliberal restructuring of the world economy was in full swing. The political common sense was that the state should regulate capital and actively intervene in economic matters to secure socially just objectives were pooh poohed. At best its role was officially relegated to making one's country an attractive and safe place for footloose global capital looking to turn a buck. This may have meant holding down higher rate taxes, deregulating whole industries, and providing an educated and mostly docile workforce. At its worst, the state raged relentless class war upon social democratic reforms and labour movements. Once Thatcher had given the miners a kicking, the floodgates of privatisation really opened up. A deluge of wealth and power drained away from people who sold their capacity to work as well as those dependent on social security support in some way. Those at the very top were swamped by more cash than they ever could spend. The balance between capital and labour was tilting and inequality accelerated. Class analysis, which is and will always be relevant for as long as capitalism exists, became even more urgent, and yet was largely absent.

Why was there this disconnect between real world events and academia? 10 years before entering HE, class analysis generally and Marxism particularly were in rude health. My old university library had a well-stocked Marx and Marxism section, but the titles tapered off after 1985/6. It was as if the miners' defeat saw an almost withering of interest in the topic. In its stead came not only the fashion for all things post-structuralist, but also a wider sociological turn toward studying consumption and identity. This isn't to say academic treatments of gender, race/ethnicity, and sexuality suddenly exploded. They did not as throughout the 1970s and 80s they steadily grew in importance. Unfortunately, as the latter decade wore on as academic Marxism withered away so the politics that imbued this radical sociology slowly bled out. The collapse of the Soviet bloc at the 80s' end presented as the logical culmination of socialism's effacement in British academia.

Is that all there is to it? As any student of social dynamics will tell you, x does not translate automatically into y. The path of causation from one phenomenon to another is never smooth. Yet there are no real coincidences in the evolution and development of societies. Albert Einstein doesn't get much of an outing here, but he keenly observed that the gravitational pull of one object exerts a pull on every other object everywhere. There is a link, small, infinitesimal, and overwritten by the intervening influence of planets and stars between my laptop and the galactic centre, but it's there nonetheless. Similarly, the dynamic always moving/always changing stuff of social relations are interconnected and mutually conditioning down to the most micro of levels. This interpenetration constitutes social relations everywhere and encompasses all that have ever existed. Hence the triumph of capital over labour and the looting of the social commons that followed it on the one hand, and the voguish hegemony of a set of theories and thinkers who decried class analysis and declared Marxism old hat in the academy cannot be coincidental. The former conditions but does not determine the latter.

Going back to the angry young man I was (alas, the only difference now is I'm older), I didn't catch or appreciate any of this. The postmodern erasure of class for me was a function of faddishness, selling out, and the cotton wool cocooning of the ivory tower. In the context of the UK academic left, all of those were true, but they in turn were made possible and constituted by the myriad dynamisms spiraling outwards from that most key of class battles. What is required is an analytics of defeat, to understand how the state was emboldened, how an independent working class culture was weakened, how it impacted subsequent struggles and the mindsets of activists, how it helped efface class from popular culture, official discourse, media reporting and, for the purposes of this particular bugbear, how the comings and goings of academic personnel, balances of forces within the academy, the rise of vocationalism and traducing of the humanities interweave themselves, the events of 1984-5, and other continuities and trends not apparently immediately related to it. Irony of ironies, postmodernism's disappearance of class can only be exhaustively investigated with the tools and theories it rejected.


Speedy said...

Well said. It struck me hard with New Labour (and when they introduced tuition fees) that they did not understand the mindset of the working class - because they (the Blairs and Browns) HAD NEVER BEEN.

This is the source of my bugbear - I see everything through that working class lens, but as someone who somehow managed to slip through those closing doors...

The bourgeois is much happy with the "isms" - anything to distract from what they are really afraid of, and yes - you may have a point that it is all one with "the defeat" of the working class, but was there ever truly a battle?

The bourgeois dominated discourse - either the Tory or the Liberal wing - for most of modern history. An organised Labour movement sprang up from grass roots and it took time for them to absorb it, but absorb it they did - and the result was New Labour, multiculturalism, post-modernism etc etc. That's why the American term "liberal" is so apposite for the modern left - it is simply a branch of the bourgeois interest.

History is cyclical - who (apart from a few historians) remembers the enclosures? The people were forced off the land and, those that didn't die, went to the city and fed industrialisation, then they became a force in themselves. De-industrialisation is a kind of modern form of the enclosures. The people are scattered again... what will the next cycle bring?

Phil said...

Good stuff. It's a horrible thing to have to realise, but we were defeated in 1985 - just as we were defeated in 2003 - and defeats have effects. You can't invest in politics when it's going well and then treat it as a game when it goes badly - or not without doing yourself damage.

In autumn 1991, I sat down to write (on my typewriter!) an article about how the effective demise of the Soviet Union meant nothing - less than nothing - to any leftist worth his or her salt. (We'd been denouncing the authoritarianism and brutality of Communism for decades, after all, and even the Trots among us surely had no attachment to Gorbachev's nth-generation photocopy of late Stalinism.) I couldn't get going on it, and after a few false starts I realised it was because the premise was wrong: the end of the USSR, and the end of the leading role of the CPSU in particular, were massive blows to the morale of the Left. I ended up writing that the fall of the 'Committee' (which had taken power from Gorbachev and then been overthrown by Yeltsin) seemed to have swept away all the other committees, back to Robespierre. A whole way of doing politics suddenly seemed less relevant. Unfortunately the Right saw that too.

Tennessee Jed said...


Charlie Mansell said...

Very thoughtful analysis. I like Erik Olin Wright's nnalytic typology for studying the challenges: I also like exploring capitalism as the currently most dynamic change system. It is decentralised and has no central committee. It's change agents seem to be its business units and their business plans and its revolutionary cells are its millions of marketing departments A long-term post-materialist human co-operation promoting alternative built around decentralised civil society social networks and community based social marketing is undercapitalised and not yet powerfully strong an alternative (and thus still needs to focus on the content with markets over the state, but it is developing as the evidence gathered here shows: Class clearly still has a massive role to play as it provides a form of analysis and metrics through inequality measurement that too often the left has lacked in other areas or not advocated enough due to polemical central committee approaches of claiming subjective views as objective truths. Keep up the throughtful postings they are much appreciated

Anonymous said...

Yes, David Harvey has said all this and more. It also what Eagleton & Zizek have been saying for over a decade. Get off the fence, class struggle is back!

Anonymous said...

I am from a working class background also but today I simply do not see it existing as a real conscious entity. It does not act for itself. It is at best a fragmented being.

If we accept the idea of 'I think therefore I am' then the working class is barely registering.

I would categorise England as predominantly petty bourgeois.

This is the fundamental issue.

Someone like speedy looks to some never existing golden age stereotype of the 'working class' with predictably reactionary results. speedy is someone who tries to keep the class conscius alive but does it from the far right.

We on the left have to work at doing it from the other direction.

But whatever, neither speedy or the left are changing the fact that the working class is not a conscious entity that thinks and acts for itself.

Only the deluded think otherwise.

Ecological Radical said...

Great post, Phil. By one reading, what you and other commentators seem to be saying is that the academic Left is defeated, and that this reflected the defeats of the British working class in 1984/5, and elsewhere by the fall of the Berlin Wall and Stalinism. This is how it feels to me, and the rise of pomo analysis is a retreat from any real analysis and, sadly, any commitment.

I agree that the reasons for this retreat can only be analysed through a Marxist analysis - as you say, the very analysis that pomo derides. Could I suggest that there is some hope in the rise of more rigorous Green and indeed eco-Marxist analysis; and that this does imply some political commitment by new generations of academics? Or is it all hopeless?

I would be very interested to see the kind of analysis of academic defeat that you advocate, but I do wonder what would be the effect of such an analysis. Might the postmodernists move over and concede the validity of class analysis? And how would that link to any hopeful signs that capitalism can and will be decisively challenged in the future?

Ken said...

You might find the controversies in and around the CPGB in the 1980s well worth revisiting in this context. For one side of it:

'Class Politics: an answer to its Crtics' by Ben Fine, Elizabeth Wilson and others was published in 1984; Ellen Meiksins Wood's 'The Retreat from Class: A New 'True' Socialism' in 1986.

For the other side, the online archives of Marxism Today from the late 70s on!

Speedy said...

On classism: "The juxtaposition of the the front and second rows [of his fashion show] is fusion, is the glass shattering of the class system, which is the new racism. Class is the new way to discriminate against people, to hold people down, to hold people in their place based on where their kids go to school, how much money they make, what they drive, where they live and what type of clothes they have and how much they have in their account for retirement. To somehow say this person right here means more than this person. I know I tweeted, 'Black lives matter,' but all lives matter. My doorman is more important to me than any head of any company. He keeps us safe. My driver keeps us safe."

Kayne West's latest interview, and his "controversial" view on class, according to the... Guardian. I like the way he says "new", which just goes to show...