Class as ethnicity

Image from the Dave's Part blog

At Prime Minister’s Questions this week, Gordon Brown delivered a particularly resonant line, claiming that Tory inheritance tax policy had been “dreamed up on the playing fields of Eton.” This has produced a howl of disgust from sections of the commentariat — tellingly, the Grauniad and the BBC at the forefront. We’re told that this is some palaeolithic regression to ‘class war’ and the ‘politics of envy’. And besides, voters don’t like it, so why dredge it up, since “it makes us almost as uncomfortable as the secrets of our sex lives.” (Henry Porter in today’s Guardian) We wouldn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable, would we?

Obviously, there is something hypocritical about the rallying to these class-laden terms. For example, Blair went to Fettes, the ‘Eton of the North’, and Harriet Harman was a pupil at the exclusive St. Paul’s Girl’s (not to mention her being the niece of the Earl of Longford). In other words, Labour MPs are hardly all organic representatives of council estates and back-to-backs across the land. So, even if the composition of the shadow cabinet takes things to an extreme, you might think the backgrounds of many in the Labour party makes any masses-against-the-classes rhetoric look somewhat awkward. True as this might be, this response alone fails to engage with any of the most important dimensions of discussions of class.

The most powerful and all-too-common temptation today is to think of class as a quasi-ethnic category, inherited from one’s relatives and indelibly imprinted by the circumstances of one’s childhood. Absurd as ideas like good ‘breeding’ sound — which revealingly distill the notions of biological and social formation — these categories persist in different forms at both ends of the social strata. I think John Prescott’s conception of class presents a version of this. For him, the experience of being a cruise-ship waiter confronted him with the sneering, unthinking arrogance of an aristocracy with an epic sense of entitlement. This was a glimpse of another world, where economic injustice was gilded with a particular aesthetic — accented and dressed, with time only for their own Oxbridge or titled elite. This, rightly, sparked resentment in him. But for a nominal socialist this seems curiously depoliticised, despite his calls for educational reform. Undoubtedly, education still matters in the reproduction of class distinctions, from the persistence of the old-boys-style networks of contacts and connections, to the creation of that distinctive public school confidence (on this see the discussions sparked off by Nina at Infinite Thought). But for Prescott, it feels like the passions fuelling his political invocation of class are the feelings of inadequacy which his failing the 11-plus brought on, alongside his disgust at the attitudes and sensibility of the upper-classes. These ought not to be brushed aside, but nor do they have seemed to have brought the structural analysis of class into constant focus. That is, his dysphoria was not properly put to work. Rather, class remained a matter of ‘roots’, and fundamentally a fidelity to the manners and milieu you found yourself growing up around. Economics seems only a peripheral aspect of all this — one more factor in making up your social life-world.

When class is discussed at all today, this kind of ethnological understanding is never far from the surface. Most people identify with the class they take their parents to have been, regardless of their current circumstances (something borne out by social attitudes studies, if I recall correctly). Here, we have seemed to have regressed beyond even the crude distinctions between the working class as manual or menial labourers and the middle classes as merchant, manager or professional. Instead, it’s your ‘breeding’ that counts: whether you grew up in a detached house, whether your parents went to the theatre or the dogs, how ‘regional’ your pronunciation. If class is this sort of inherited aesthetic-cultural mélange, hardened by a schooling to match, it is not necessarily an entirely worthless category. The issues around confidence and connections remain, for instance. However, something much more important is occluded, as can be seen when we adopt other class-based categories.

The classical Marxist understanding of class is not primarily cultural but economic. The proletariat are those who must sell their labour power, in virtue of lacking ownership of means of production. Conversely, the bourgeoisie own the means of production, and are able to hire workers, purchasing their labour-power, and appropriating the surplus value produced. These categories allow a structural analysis of society, whereby it becomes apparent that class struggle is a motor force of historical change.

This sense of class is obviously not orthogonal to the quasi-ethnic one to which most people seem to cling. Toffs tend to be stinking rich; and those filthy oiks tend to be poor. But what is harder to discern is the nature of the relationship between those facts. Conservatives often think that the cream has risen, that the industrious and thereby deserving can and do make it to the top. But the relationship between social structure and the abilities and character of individuals is far more complex than this, since it has a dialectical nature, insofar as people are not ready-formed but partly produced by the very social structures that they then find themselves confronted with. Insisting on the politico-economic conception of class, instead of the pseudo-ethnicised one, provides the analytic basis for opening up these questions. In doing so, it makes sense of an inherently political dimension to class, as part of its demonstrating that economics must always give way to political economy.

This classical Marxist approach to class is important, but it can be enriched by introducing further categories. Michael Albert makes a distinction between workers and the ‘co-ordinator class.’ Both are subordinate to capital, but members of the co-ordinator class, such as lawyers, doctors, academics and managers, have a significantly larger degree of control over their labour in the workplace than other workers. Albert claims those in this class “accrue information, skills, confidence, energy and influence on daily outcomes sufficient to largely control their own tasks and those of workers below.”

This is a significant addition to the distinction between proletarian and bourgeoisie, and allows us to articulate further class issues. Within the co-ordinator class, stratification is taking place: professional judgement is being replaced by an increasing managerialism, pursued through a subjection to endless assessment criteria — an idiotic culture of distorting targets and self-justification. But just as unionised French workers cannot simply cling to Fordism, the co-ordinator class cannot simply repel attacks on their status. Again, Albert puts this well in his attempts to rearticulate socialism:

“Out with the old boss, in with the new boss” is not a strategy that ends bosses. To retain the distinction between the coordinator class and the working class would ensure coordinator class rule. Our movements and projects must eliminate the monopoly of capitalists on productive property but also the monopoly of coordinators on empowering work. Indeed, this is what reimagining socialism is primarily about.

Mark Fisher — aka k-punk — has recently underlined this need for an anti-managerialist front in his Capitalist Realism as part of a project of ensuring worker autonomy (see also his blog posts about class). So, again, we should not shy away from a class-based politics, so long as we’re employing the right sorts of class categories.

Update:  Guardian Daily episode: The return of class war — including some level-headed analysis by Madeline Bunting, insisting on the continued relevance of class in politics.

Cold World


The world of the happy is quite another than that of the unhappy.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.43

My copy of Dominic Fox’s Cold World: The Aesthetics of Dejection and the Politics of Militant Dysphoria arrived on Wednesday, unexpectedly early. It’s brief but potent, much like its recent and upcoming fellows in the Zero Books series, such as Owen Hatherley’s excellent Militant Modernism. The theme is artistic and political forms of deep sadness. It ranges from music (Codeine, Xasthur) to poetry (Hopkins, Coleridge, Larkin) to politics (Ulrike Meinhof and the RAF). This week Dominic has been posting excerpts on his blog, which give a good feel of the book as a whole. For what it’s worth, it comes highly recommended by me.

Against Spectacle

k-punk on the G20 protest and the response to the economic ‘crisis’. This follows up on similar analyses from Savonarola, Owen Hatherley (and another), and an earlier k-punk post.

The key issue is how to break out of the logic of protest-as-petition — pleading with the state to be nice, to play the role of the benevolent protector, when in anything like its current form it is structurally incapable of doing so. The response has to be twofold: directed at the level of the political subject and the institutions which it can shape and be shaped by.

Firstly, we need to bury the politics of ressentiment once and for all. It is fatal for all political action to remain an extension of an identity struggle, of simply standing up to be counted, earning the right to say ‘At least I did something‘. This type of politics — as a struggle for recognition, both cultural and institutional — has an important but nonetheless narrow role, and its heyday has long passed. It cannot serve as a paradigm for effective political action any longer. That it still does, with its remnants lingering on in the anticapitalist movement, can be easily explained: it is deeply psychologically satisfying. But it is becoming ever more clear — just think to the actual effect of the huge Iraq war protests — that it needs to be supplanted or supplemented by something different. What is needed is a mode of radicalisation, getting people interested and engaged in political action, but which moves away from a narcissistic model which privileges the authenticity of one’s feelings rather than the long-term impact of one’s behaviour. In short, more hard-headed austerity and less of the carnivalesque would not go amiss. And not for asceticism’s sake, but because it will be more likely to work.

Secondly, a new economism is needed, returning to the sphere of production as the site of struggle. With a moribund political climate (even in these interesting times), this is where capital can be challenged most effectively. David Harvey is right to call for a ‘socialisation of surplus’ — though this ought to be not just at a governmental level (e.g. progressive tax and spending policies) but at the local level. The aspiration would be for workers — both material and immaterial — to have far more control over the products of their labour. But initially it is the conditions of labour which are more readily influenced. Traditionally, of course, this has revolved around matters of pay, hours and especially in cases like industry, safety. However, k-punk correctly centres upon opposition to managerialism as the new great front. I think we should see this as bound up with the demand for worker autonomy — to be free from interfering micro-management and the panoptican-nature of modern working practices. Driving back these sorts of changes is crucial and not just because they are depressing enough in themselves. For, control over the workplace is a crucial part of the socialisation of its products. So too, Michael Albert (parecon aside) is quite right to stress that workplace control, as a platform for creating progressive institutions, is a crucial step towards normalising and reproducing radical ideas in society as a whole.

Alienation and Freedom in Marx and McDowell

One way of taking Kant’s legacy in practical philosophy, and one which I favour, is as motivating the thought that responsiveness to reasons is a good gloss on the greater part of what freedom consists in. Part of what I find atractive about McDowell’s position is that it manages to bring this idea together with a story about experience as the locus of many such reasons, yet without falling into a dead-end version of empiricism. As it stands though, it can seem like a rather thin characterisation of freedom which is divorced from our embodied existence. After all, we are not just reasoners who passively observe the world, deciding what would be best to believe or do: we act in the world. So too, the material conditions we find ourselves in can prove to be a check on our freedom. One of the advantages of McDowell’s conception of experience is that its trajectory points in the direction of these issues. It does not simply relegate them to disparate senses of ‘freedom’ confined to the theory of action, morality or political philosophy. Rather, it provides a promising basis for a schematic integration of freedom across these domains and which explains their relation to the freedom allowed by our relation to experience.

We can see how the freedom secured by a rational responsiveness to experience opens out into a more robust sense of freedom by considering McDowell’s discussion of Marx:

Marx sums up his vision of what a properly human life would be in a striking image: without alienation, ‘the whole of nature’ is ‘the inorganic body of man.’ (MW p.117)

McDowell takes this to express the idea that when she is permitted to perform her human functions—something wage slavery prevents—then a person can be said to be at home in the world. This is a possibility that is closed off for animals, who remain alienated from their environments in virtue of their inability to resist the biological imperatives to which they are subject and to achieve what Gadamer calls a ‘free, distanced orientation’ towards their surroundings. Human experience is characterised by its ability to exert rational constraint, whereas animal perceptual responsiveness remains at the level of a causal response that, while purposive, does not allow the animal to respond to reasons that could be taken as such or become reflectively available to it. So, experience can be a condition of freedom since “experience enables the layout of reality itself to exert a rational influence on what a subject thinks.” In the same way, we can indict politico-economic conditions that force people to give up a free, distanced relation to the environment and respond to it as animals do in virtue of biological necessity. As Marx describes such a condition:

Man (the worker) only feels himself freely active in his animal functions of eating, drinking, and procreating, at most also in his dwelling and dress, and feels himself an animal in his human functions.

Thus, it appears that a unified account of freedom can be given that connects the sort of freedom derivable from experience enabling a rational response to reality with the sort of freedom that consists in the material ability to engage in rationally directed activities rather than ones which biological necessity forces us into in light of social conditions.

Kapital und Schwärmerei

1. David Harvey is giving a course that undertakes a close reading of the first volume of Capital, which you can watch over at (via NP).

2. Here is a collection of talks given at a workshop with Brandom in 2005. Immersed in Fred Beiser’s The Fate of Reason, German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism and Schiller as Philosopher as I have been over the last few weeks, I found the anaemic post-analytic approach of them somewhat grating. Nevertheless, there’s still some good stuff to be found in there.

Hegel and the Law of Non-Contradiction
Paul Redding
abstract :: sound recording (including discussion)

What are the Categories in Being and Time? Brandom’s Account of Zuhandenheit and Vorhandenheit
Bruin Christensen
abstract :: sound recording (including discussion)

Pragmatism, Expressivism and the Global Challenge
Huw Price & David Macarthur
abstract :: sound recording (including discussion) :: slides

The Significance of Embodiment – the Dangers of Leaving Nature Behind
Nick Smith
abstract :: sound recording (including discussion)

Kantian Lessons about Mind, Meaning, and Rationality
Bob Brandom
abstract :: sound recording (including comments by David Macarthur, and discussion)

Natural’s Not In It

This is just a quick pointer to N.Pepperell’s fantastic series of posts on the first chapter of Capital. In them, she explores Marx’s use of a broadly Hegelian methodology that insists on an immanent exploration of bourgeois economics. This is an approach to Marx that I wholeheartedly commend, and to see why one has only to begin to work through the exciting and rewarding reading that emerges in these posts.

Here are the links, in order of appearance so far:

Fragment on Textual Strategy in Capital

Reflections on the “Greatest Difficulty”

Nature and Society

Value and Abstract Labour as Real Abstractions

An Aside on the Fetish

Human Labour in the Abstract

An Aside on the Category of Capital

Value and Its Form – from Deduction to Dialectic

Subjects, Objects and Things in Between