Class is in session: a reply to Blakeley

Kulsoom Jafri contributed to this article.

Grace Blakeley has recently ignited a firestorm on Twitter over her pronouncement that:

Class is a social relationship rooted in production. Either you own resources critical for the production process, or you see your labour power to those who do. If the latter, you’re either a professional with some autonomy and some assets, or a worker with little of both.

It was arguably the next Tweet in the thread that inspired the most controversy:

Class has nothing to do with:
-your accent
-where you live
-where you grew up
-what your parents do
-where you went to school
These things remain important in supporting certain individuals to changer their class position, but they don’t come into the definition of class.

As a Marxist, Grace is correctly describing the concept of ‘class’ in relation to her theoretical commitments. But the problem with her statement is designating one theoretical understanding of class as the definition of class.

No serious socialist would suggest that Marx’s conception of class does’t reveal something important about capitalist economies: namely, that all persons who sell their labour power have a shared experience of being exploited. The mode of production at the bakery, the auto plant, and the Silicon Valley start-up have in common that the producers of surplus value in the workplace are distinct from the appropriators of that value.

Socialists like Blakeley are therefore disposed to stress that the employees (or contractors) at each of these production sites have a shared grievance. The capitalist order condemns them all to the injustice of extractive domination. Resistance to this injustice, then, presents a unifying politics that can bring together the largest social demographic (people who work) in an uprising against capitalism.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this story. In fact, it provides an invaluable analysis of how capitalism works and informs the objectives of socialist movements. Instead, the critical issue is what the story leaves out. The simplicity of this understanding of class obscures signifiant realities that, if not accounted for, will hamstring any meaningful effort to build a movement capable of actually challenging the global capitalist system.

The social science literature is littered with alternative conceptions of class that deviate from the simple Marxist binary of those who own the productive assets of society and those who possess nothing but their labour power. These alternative conceptualizations should not be dogmatically dismissed out of hand as they reveal crucial social facts that should inform any radical political project.

Some social scientists, for instance, depict class as a cultural practice — not a status one has based on their relationship to the means of production. Joan C. Willians has documented how, for example, a varied distribution of incomes and occupational prestige yields the reproduction of completely divergent social worlds. To oversimplify, one’s standing in the economic system results in subjection to particular kinds of pressures, and these particular pressures reinforce certain kinds of attitudes, beliefs, morals, identifications, and so on. The varying ways in which children are socialized across income brackets is illustrative.

Respect for authority is a heavily reinforced value in ‘middle class’ families — which Williams describes as between the 30th and 80th percentiles. Given the unfortunate reality of low social mobility, the prospects for children born into middle and lower income quintiles tend to be limited to work opportunities that demand and reward obedience. Early cultivation of respect for authority is thus an important social practice to ensure the future success of working class children. The habit of bucking authority is unlikely to yield desirable outcomes.

The opposite is the case for children of ‘elite’ families. Because these children tend to be destined for managerial, professional, and executive opportunities, a different set of more fitting values are celebrated: innovation, entrepreneurship, leadership, disruption, etc. Elite institutions look for these qualities in prospective admittees and hires. The famous University of Chicago undergraduate application essay questions are exemplary of this. In short, where the demonstration of obedience is often necessary for successful retention of jobs that await middle class children, adaptation and creativity are crucial for thriving in the positions traditionally reserved for those raised in elite circles. (See Bowles and Gintis’ famous study Schooling in Capitalist America (1976) for a powerful and expositive account of this dynamic.)

When Blakeley states that class ‘has nothing to do with what your parents do’ she is too quickly brushing aside key insights from alternative formulations of class, including how particular pressures that beset households of varied income levels (and occupational prestige) reproduce substantively divergent cultural practices. It is simply an empirical fact that what your parents do (and how much they earn) influences how you are socialized. And this is the problem with the reductive Marxist conception of class: it ignores the co-existence of these oppositional cultural reproductions that are so integral to how people view, and live in, the world.

That variations in social and material wealth — not relationships to the means of production — begets meaningfully disparate cultural practices is a sociological reality of great significance and should not be neglected. It bears on pressing political issues, like perceptions of law enforcement, by breeding strong social divisions around them. Populations that consider respect for authority to be a virtue, for instance, are more likely to accept institutions that demand it — and those raised to be ‘disruptors’ will feel more at ease with destroying a long-standing institution like the police. This kind of class analysis can be a more helpful framing of the white working class’ support for law enforcement than moralistic (and individualized) explanations.

We could point to numerous other significant cultural practices — beyond respect for authority — caused by the differentiated pressures at each income level: the tendency to live far away from family, university attendance, religious affiliation, consumptive tastes and preferences, having children, active networking, and so on. These consequential disparities are sociologically determinative of how our societies function. Among other things, they nurture deep-felt social divides that can be difficult to dissolve. Merely reminding the urban, highly educated, childless, professional earning three times the median salary and the rural, religious, construction worker, with three kids, that they are the same ‘class’ ignores all of the important aspects of their social worlds that are entirely at odds with one another.

The American feminist write Rita Mae Brown, in an essay titled The Last Straw, perceptively captures the reductive nature of the Marxist conception of class:

Class is much more than Marx’s definition of relationship to the means of production. Class involves your behavior, your basic assumptions about life. Your experience (determined by your class) validates those assumptions, how you are taught to behave, what you expect from yourself and from others, your concept of a future, how you understand problems and solve them, you think, feel, act. It is these behavioral patterns that middle class women resist recognizing although they may be perfectly willing to accept class in Marxist terms, a neat trick that helps them avoid really dealing with class behavior and changing that behavior in themselves. It is these behavioral patterns which must be recognized, understood, and changed.

Perhaps it is unfortunate that we don’t simply have different words to describe Marx’s (relation to the means of production) and Brown’s (behavioral patterning) conceptions of class. But insofar as we don’t, we should avoid anointing one conception of class as ‘correct’ — which Blakeley seems to be attempting. The folly of dismissing alternative conceptions of class is that it threatens the viability of understanding how to build a robust and far-reaching coalition in the movement against capitalism.

If we do not understand one another, it is unlikely we will succeed in working together. Williams thus smartly formulates her text The White Working Class, as a guide to explaining the motivations of the white working class, so as to (in part) helpfully resolve the paradox that has puzzled many leftists: i.e. why they vote against their interests. A central thesis of her work is that the befuddlement amongst the increasingly professional-managerial types that comprise progressive political circles is the product of a ‘class cluelessness’ about the working class — specifically how the unique pressures they face reproduce the behavioral patterns that leftists tend to find alien and even objectionable. Ironically, perhaps it is us who needs educating by the working class, not the working class by us.

Blakeley’s faith that someday people of all backgrounds will overcome their false consciousness, obtain the truth of class consciousness, and link arms in a revolutionary movement against capitalism is admirable, but unlikely. Despite the best efforts of the left around the world, socialist-leaning parties are hemorrhaging working class voters — even according to Blakeley’s definition of what makes someone working class. The 2019 result in Britain saw the Conservatives make massive gains with ‘manual working class voters’ in the North, a block that has long backed Labour. Class identity is no longer the axis around which people orient their politics, thus rendering the Marxist narrative increasingly impotent from a strategic point of view.

Chantal Mouffe has argued that a successful left project will require the recognition that the antagonisms people confront are heterogenous. Individuals experience some antagonisms more explicitly than others. Student renters and migrant temporary agency workers with children are likely to identify different antagonisms as the predominant source of domination in their life. The job of the left is to find a way to unite these antagonisms in a ‘chain of equivalence’ — a story in which each person can contextualize their own struggle. The Marxist narrative that capitalists expropriate the surplus value produced by workers may have been the story at one point in time, but arguably it is no longer.

Employing a reductive conception of class will harm the left’s capacity to construct a narrative capable of uniting the many antagonisms people confront in their daily lives. We would be well served to utilize Marxist and non-Marxist interpretations of class to better understand the varied cultural practices that reproduce differentiated social worlds. Only this will allow us to develop a politics that meaningfully speaks across the significant divides that frustrate a broad-based movement against capitalism.

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