Democracy Against Capitalism: Class

Chapter 3 of Ellen Meiksen Wood’s book, Democracy Against Capitalism, takes up the issue of class. She says that class can be defined in one of two ways: “either as a structural location or as a social relation.” Kindle Loc. 1504, ital. in original. The first way takes an index and divides it into parts. For example, we rank everyone by income, then call the lowest quintile the lower class, the next three quintiles, the middle class, the 81-99% the upper middle class, and the rest the upper class.

The second way is to define class in terms of relationships, the relations of the members to the means of production, relations among themselves, and relations with members of other classes. In this treatment, the working class is people who have no direct access to the means of production and only have their labor to sell. Marx wrote:

“In the process of production, human beings work not only upon nature, but also upon one another. They produce only by working together in a specified manner and reciprocally exchanging their activities. In order to produce, they enter into definite connections and relations to one another, and only within these social connections and relations does their influence upon nature operate – i.e., does production take place.

I saw a folk musical recently in Chicago called Haymarket, about the Haymarket Affair, a general strike that turned violent in Chicago in 1886. The play opened with one actor singing a union song, Solidarity Forever. She encouraged us to join in the chorus, which, of course, I did. It was a great way to demonstrate how organizers of that day worked to instill a sense of comradeship among workers in different industries, a sense that they had a lot in common, a sense that they formed a class in opposition to the capitalists, a/k/a the “greedy parasites”. This is the last element of class in Marxist thinking. The class can be seen objectively, which Marx called a class-in-itself, but when the members become aware of their status as class members and begin to struggle together for a common end, Marx called it a class-for-itself.

This last point is illustrated by E.P. Thompson’s book, The Making of the English Working Class, which Wood discusses at length. The basic class structure is in place long before the members begin to understand that they are a class. People similarly situated in the relations of production experience them in class ways. Kindle Loc. 1614. Shared experiences bring them together. Ultimately the members of the class become conscious of the conflicts of interest and aggravation that are making them miserable, and those become the grounds of struggle. The struggle eventually leads to confrontation. Marx argued that in the long run those confrontations lead to socialism as the only form that gives workers a voice.

Wood identifies the relations of production in capitalism as exploitation, domination and appropriation. Neoliberal capitalism has jacked up these three relations at the expense of all workers. For example, meat companies use government regulations to increase the exploitation of meat cutters by increasing line speeds. Payday lenders suck money out of military families and other low income people, protected by the totally not corrupt Republican Mick Mulvaney. For domination, look at the way Amazon warehouse workers are treated. As to expropriation, look at the latest research on the impact of concentration of businesses on wage rates. Or just check out this simple chart, discussed here. The blue line represents corporate profits in constant dollars; the red line is wages in constant dollars.

The concept of class has received “remarkably little elaboration, either by Marx himself or by later theorists…”, Kindle Loc 1519, but it’s possible to identify several. Capitalists own the means of production and control access to them. The working class owns no assets and has no access to the means of production other than through individual relations with capitalists. They own only their own labor, and rely on their ability to sell that labor to stay alive and reproduce. Slaves don’t own themselves or their labor. Professional people, small business people and artisans own a little property and use it to produce goods and services for sale. Many of them are dependent on the capitalists in the financial sector through loans and leases, which compromises their independence as a class.

In America, everyone is middle class. Barack Obama appointed Joe Biden to chair a multi-agency Middle Class Task Force. The Department of Commerce was the only agency to respond, as I discussed here. The Department offered the following definition of middle class:

Middle class families are defined by their aspirations more than their income. We assume that middle class families aspire to home ownership, a car, college education for their children, health and retirement security and occasional family vacations.

There’s something fabulously American about that definition, so focused on the individual and so utterly indifferent to the context in which people try to achieve their aspirations. Also, who doesn’t want that stuff? The vacuity of the definition makes it clear that we as a nation are not willing to confront the implications of class.

In our highly differentiated economy, it isn’t easy for people to understand that the unpleasantness or worse that they endure in their jobs is common to everyone. That makes the nastiness feel like something specific to the job, a bad manager, bad policies or other excuses. We don’t notice appropriation because the capitalist pumps money out of workers using the “market”, and producers think it’s normal for the capitalist to grab all the profits. Somehow US workers don’t recognize that they are being exploited. They think their long hours and wrecked evenings and weekends and lack of vacations and medical and personal leave and lousy pay and benefits are just fine.

Wood has a different idea. She thinks that capitalism has successfully separated democracy from the economy. Everyone agrees that the government should be controlled democratically. People are taught that the economy is and should be controlled by private interests, and that private control should be sanctioned and enforced by government. Employers exercise domination and control in ways that would not be acceptable if done by the state. Employers restrict exercise of political rights in ways that are forbidden by the Constitution to the government. Fear of losing our income silences most of us at least occasionally.

Wood argues that the economy should not be separated from democratic control. She doesn’t offer a specific mechanism; she thinks that people will eventually demand change, and that the new controls will spring from democratic control over the State. She quotes E. P. Thompson who asked:

By what social alchemy did inventions for saving labour become agents of immiseration? Kindle Loc. 1739.

We can’t begin to solve the problems capitalism creates until we all come to grips with this question. And we almost know the answer, even if we haven’t verbalized it yet. It springs from the relations of the capitalist mode of production: exploitation, domination, and appropriation.

20 replies
  1. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Thanks, Ed, for this yeoman’s work (h/t E.P. Thompson). I highly recommend Thompson’s, The Making of the English Working Class.

    Thompson, a Cambridge educated English historian, was a pioneer of peasant and working class history. He helped add to the traditional political history of dates and kings – the people who count – the social history of the people who did the work. It became a popular new field of research.

    Elizabeth Warren might have been following your columns. Her announcement today:

    Warren’s proposal will go nowhere legislatively for now, but it should start a conversation. If there are several dozen Ocasio-Cortezes in the next Congress, that’s one place that conversation will take place.

  2. pseudonymous in nc says:

    “Shaq is rich. The white guy who signs his checks is wealthy.” — Chris Rock.

    The Kaepernick / NFL saga makes the point that even a well-paid sports star is typically a wage labourer, while a team owner is a capitalist, and typically a parasitical one. Aside: nowhere other than the US does the owner lift the championship trophy before the team captain, as if the team were a stable of racehorses. The only exception in big-league sports is the NHL, where teams are mostly white. Weird, that.

    (Movie stars are also well-paid wage labourers until they get rich enough to invest in studios and movie properties. Top-flight music artists are mostly wage labourers until they get rich enough to hire people who, say, buy Lithuanian supermarkets through Maltese investment vehicles. Paul McCartney learned that the real money was in publishing, and his chat to Michael Jackson about the topic led to Jackson buying the publishing rights to Beatles songs.)

    King Idiot can rant about firing NFL players who kneel not just because he is a shitty racist fucker, but because they represent the upper bound of the American working class. They are signed to lucrative contracts, have union representation, and don’t have to worry about paying medical bills as long as they remain in work, but their employment is more vulnerable than most of the people who can afford tickets to the game.

    And yes, you should read Thompson. He is a very readable author in his own right, as well as being incredibly influential.

  3. Watson says:

    “Class consciousness is knowing which side of the fence you’re on. Class analysis is figuring out who is there with you.”
    — Joe Slovo

  4. Godfree Roberts says:

    I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils [the crippling effects of capitalism], namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals. In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion. A planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child. The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.–Albert Einstein⁠1

    1 Albert Einstein. Why Socialism?

  5. Andy says:

    Capitalism is a revolutionary force that sweeps away everything in front of it and is not compatible with democracy or environmentally sustainable.  It is rapacious and insatiable. It cannot be tamed. To think otherwise is like taking a gorilla into your home as a pet and then being surprised when it rips your face off.

    “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” –Thomas Jefferson

    • Tracy says:

      And it is spreading around the world! I’ve lived in Senegal and in Thailand; in both places there is a coveting of collecting more and more “stuff” and awe of Americans who are viewed as swimming in absolute luxury. To an extent that is really crazy (but then, our own obsession w/ collecting more and more stuff is also crazy).

      (I’ve also lived in London for some time, but that, economically and values-wise, seemed so similar to the US it was not shocking; I was much more shocked by witnessing the aspiration to collect “stuff” in very poor communities in Africa and Southeast Asia somehow.)

      • Tracy says:

        Just to add to that, I think that there is a mythology about poor communities in developing countries that people there are intrinsically happy, b/c they don’t know what they are missing – but nowadays, with global media, satellite TV, cell phones, they do – they can compare and contrast, and they inevitably want the “stuff” that they see others having in the Western world.

        Even in my village in Senegal, when I was in the Peace Corps, there were some TVs (my host family even had one!), and it was a big event for a crowd of people to gather in the yard of a family who owned a TV and watch at night. Via this exposure to Western culture, people were able to compare what they had to what others in the world have, and so they started to want more.

        In Thailand, the aspiration to acquire stuff was so pervasive; the female Thai staff I worked with were obsessed with clothes and accessories, and other aspects of Western beauty like getting plastic surgery (Thailand, of course). They had some means, but weren’t rich, but it was a huge part of their culture.

        Unfortunately, we have exported some of the worst parts of our culture transnationally – certainly the coveting of more and more “stuff” and other vacuous aspects of our lifestyles.

  6. earlofhuntingdon says:

    MSNBC’s financial commentators – notably Sara Eisen with her “the US is the brightest spot in the world right now….Wages are the mystery component” – ought not to give up their day jobs. I realize that cheerleading is the only behavior possible for a financial reporter, but please.

    A 4% increase in consumer spending is not a sign that Trump’s tax cuts are working.  The two are unrelated.  But consumer spending is the alpha and omega of citizenship in America, so all hail 4%.

    • Pete says:

      And consumer saving has decreased from historical low level and consumer debt is up.  Context missing on purpose no doubt. Perhaps debt is the hallmark of citizenship in America.

  7. readerOfTeaLeaves says:

    The vacuity of the definition [of middle class in America] makes it clear that we as a nation are not willing to confront the implications of class.  

    Then again, if Biden – senator for decades from the very state in which corporations go so they can benefit from tax havens, the Chancery Court, and heaven only knows what other ills* – was in charge, I don’t find this at all surprising.  ‘Aspirational’ is Biden’s sweet spot, accountability metrics be damned.

    But tax havens, shell corporations, and other accounting shenanigans seem to have exacerbated the disjunction between capital and labor/democracy.  The problem with that disjunct appears to be that as it has grown wider, business vitality has declined, as too few consumers have too little money.

    * for Delaware Chancery Court, and as tax haven heaven, see Shaxson’s “Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World”

  8. orionATL says:

    people of one class should always be wary of people of another class who profess to understand and be concerned for their circumstance and welfare.

    there is political exploitation as well as economic exploitation.

  9. sand says:

    I just finished Dream Hoarders by Richard Reeves. Reeves was born in the UK and became an American citizen. He states that his favorite difference between the UK and US was the absence of a rigid class structure in the US. However, he argues that the class structure in the US is now more rigid in many ways than the UK. He believes we place too much blame for this on the top 1%, when we should really blame the top 20% or even 50% — AKA ourselves.

    He states that he has little support for this view among his friends who are loathe to give up the benefits of their mortgage-interest deductions, 401(k)s, 529s, and social security checks. So am I, as I plan my financial life within the rules that are currently in place.

    However, I didn’t ask for the government to put these rules in place. I’d support lots of change. I just need 10-30 years notice, depending on the rule. Otherwise, I’m going to feel snookered. For example, I’m OK with changes to my future SS benefits now, when I’m in my 40s. Make them whatever you want. I’ll be less open to change when I’m 64 (but I’ll survive if you still need me and you still feed me).

    Are we hoarding dreams?

  10. Ed Walker says:

    The example of pro football players above is instructive. They are exploited, of course, but have some protection through the union. They also have a union to protect them against appropriation, although there are issues there, especially for new players. Note that it’s a bit better in the NBA.

    So the owners make up for it with efforts at domination. Players are treated like meat, and the league with the assistance of the freakish rich conservatives and Trumpy work to deprive them of the social status they have earned.

    And what exactly do the owners contribute to the game? A bit of organization and financing. Just think how easy it would be for the players to create and operate their own league. Or how easy it would be for teams to be organized under the aegis of a town. Like say, Green Bay.

  11. Doug R says:

    All fine points but by emphasizing differences and putting people into boxes we’re doing what the self appointed “upper class” has trained us to do.

    Which brings me around to a quote attributed to Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela: “We are all cut from the same cloth”.

    Everyone has a part to play in our society and economy and the sooner we ALL realise it- rich and poor alike-the sooner we can pull together and help fix it.

  12. Tracy says:

    Ed, have you seen Sorry to Bother You? If you haven’t, I think you’d really like it, with your interests. Boots Riley really goes into class inequity and worker exploitation versus the power in organizing/ unionizing. It’s a thought provoking film!

    (BTW, on your last blog post in which I had commented about segregation in schools, you had mentioned that it was borne out in the study which you cited that when white parents sent their kids to lower performing African-American-majority schools, that they ended up pulling them out b/c these schools were so inferior – sorry I missed being able to comment, but I just wanted to say that this then goes back to the root of the problem, which is that we need to inject money into these economically disadvantaged, poor communities, also often the home of minorities, if we want things to change. Thanks for commenting on my comment last time, sorry I missed you but I like what you are doing on here, for sure! :-) ).

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