Sunday, July 16, 2017

A Marxian class structure of 21st century capitalism

When we analyze something as complicated as human society, we have to make some simplifying assumptions. The Marxian notion of class is one such simplifying assumption.

Marx asserted that every individual's specific, concrete position in the social relations of production has a profound effect on their ideology, i.e. their moral and political thought, and that these positions are broadly generalizable, i.e. individuals' positions in the relations of production are typically not sui generis, and there is more variation between positions than within positions.* The question is not is this simplifying assumption true or false (it is both broadly true and broadly false), but whether it is true enough in ways that we can use to make meaningful explanations and predictions of social behavior.

*Observe that the opposite is true of the supposed objective and physiological characteristics associated with race: there is more variation within a race than between races, leading to the conclusion that these objective characteristics are not relevant in the construction of race, and that race is, primarily, a social construction.

The relations of production and the associated class structure are more complicated today than they were in Marx's time, but we can make some broad generalizations.

We can split up the economic roles in modern society into five broad categories, with some subcategories:
  1. The Capitalist Class, who directly own and control the processes of production
    1. Industrial Capitalists, who directly own and control the physical means of production
    2. Finance Capitalists, who directly own and control access to money
    3. Small Capitalists, the petty bourgeois, who directly own and control small productive businesses and employ others
    4. Rentiers, who live on pure capitalist income streams, but neither perform nor hire significant productive labor.
  2. The Professional-Managerial Class, who use education and specific professional expertise to reproduce the system of social relations, usually for a salary
  3. The Working Class, who actually perform the acts of production
    1. The Labor Aristocracy, who are employed by capitalists, and by virtue of monopolies, command a portion of surplus value. i.e. they are consistently paid significantly more than their labor power
    2. Ordinary Workers, who do not have monopoly protection, and who are directly employed by capitalists; market forces may temporarily increase or depress their wages above or below the political cost of labor power
    3. Freelance Workers, who do not employ others but are not directly employed by capitalists.
    4. The Reserve Army of the Unemployed, who want but do not have a position as an actual worker
  4. The Lumpenproletariat, who either do not want or cannot meaningfully aspire to a position as an actual worker (excepting children, the severely disabled, and the elderly) and must live on the charity of the state or on criminal activity
  5. Other classes, e.g. soldiers, police, scientists, (adult) students

An empirical question, which I have not yet seen well-explored, much less answered, is to what degree and in what directions do ideological opinions actually match these economic classes? (Since I'm going to become a university instructor, perhaps I'll have an opportunity to look myself.) Still, intuition and common sense suggest (but do not, of course, "prove" or even provide evidence for) that class does affect ideology, that we can find at least demonstrable correlations between class and ideology, and perhaps even devise an identification strategy that would reveal a causal relationship.

The first objection is, of course, is that individuals do not neatly sort themselves into classes. What are we to make, for example, of a physician (labor aristocracy) who owns a rental property (rentier) and employs others in a medical laboratory (small capitalist)? But it is not part of the Marxian class theory that there are bright lines between each of the classes. Most people have a primary or dominant class role, even if they do have a toe in another class. More importantly, we should see people participating in multiple classes where the classes are already economically close. By virtue of his position in the labor aristocracy, our physician above already has access to a small portion surplus labor, which he holds in common with rentiers and small capitalists. We see very few ordinary workers who are at the same time industrial or finance capitalists.

A more salient objection is that there are other non-class factors, notably sex and gender, sexual orientation, race, and religion, that substantially affect ideology. I think the proper Marxian response is not rebuttal but concession. Yes, these things matter a lot, and while they interact considerably with class, they cannot be ignored or blithely subsumed into a class analysis. As a Marxist, I say that race matters, sex and gender matters, all the other categories matter, and in addition to class liberation, not just as a Marxist but as someone concerned with human liberation, I support racial, sexual, etc. equality. (However, if someone limits their feminism and anti-racism to endorsing only the proportional representation of women and people of color in the capitalist system, my support would be at best tepid.)

This blog is mostly about me thinking out loud: I need to see what I write to know what I think. Noting these objections, I'm going to explore the relation between class and ideology in subsequent posts.

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