Class matters

Pyramid of Capitalist class system

By Poejesh and Erik

Dit artikel verschijnt in Krantje Boord #9 Oktober 2011

In the first part of this series we want to discuss class analyses in general. Of all the left intellectual traditions Marxism has presented the most elaborate and valuable theoretical instruments for class analyses.

Although Marx never systematically answered the question “what constitutes a class?”, nonetheless class is a pivotal concept in his work. Most of this work then will revolve around three problems: the relevance of class as an explanatory category, the problem of class consciousness and the new political strategies we need in the struggle against capital.

So let’s pose the question: what is class? Because of the centrality of this concept within so many areas of social theory and political movements, it is obvious that a lot of the ambiguities and problems have to be investigated before one is able to develop a theory that is complementary to the problems of contemporary class struggle.

If we accept that class struggle is the motor of history, it is obvious that we have to define its preconditions. One of these preconditions is the consciousness of the social actors of their class interests within a given class structure. Class consciousness has been a main concept whereupon our political activities revolve around, we have to understand what it encompasses and how we can actively stimulate it. A lot of the traditional Marxist rhetoric has lost its explanatory and policy-making validity.

Traditionally class has been defined as a social group whose parameters are based on their relation within social production, which themselves are determined by property relations within a specific historical and socio-economical context. So if we look at capitalism as a historically determined mode of production, we can observe that the means of production are owned by a minority which we traditionally call the bourgeoisie or capitalists. So we already have identified one of the classes within contemporary capitalism.

On the other hand we have the great majority of people who do not own the means of production and who have to sell their labor-power in order to satisfy their daily needs: the proletariat. Between the bourgeoisie and proletariat there has always been a conflict of interests due to their relative positions within property relations. According to Marx society as a whole is more and more splitting up in these two hostile camps (also called radical polarization).

After the second World War and the subsequent globalization of production, this trend has not been realized in the Western world. So we have to ask ourselves whether the traditional Marxist class analysis can sufficiently provide us with a better understanding of the current state of affairs. The answer to this, of course, is no. But the essence of capitalist property relations haven’t changed, and so the categories of bourgeoisie and proletariat are still relevant today. What this theory lacks, however, is a certain degree of sophistication; for example, how can we understand the phenomenon of the middle class? It is obvious that there are a lot more sections between and within the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. In the words of the Marxist sociologist E.O. Wright we need a new elaboration of abstract structural maps of class relations, and the analysis of concrete conjunctural maps of classes-as-actors.

Now that we have explained the problem and pointed to the direction we need to follow to answer the problem, we can start by actually drawing these structural maps. This will be the subject of part two in this series.

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