Democracy Against Capitalism: Notes on Class

In this post I described Ellen Meiksins Wood’s view of class from Chapter 3 of Democracy against Capitalism. In this post I look more closely at two aspects of class that seem especially relevant.

1. The small number of classes. Wood pointed out that the concept of class has not received much elaboration. Basically, we can identify three classes, the working class, the capitalist class, and the artisan/small business/professional class. That seems inadequate to describe the class structure of the US. Are there more?

Class is based on social relations, including primarily the relation to the means of production. It’s obvious that people have different levels of access to the means of production and different levels of control over use of the means of production. Meat cutters, Amazon warehouse workers, and the working class generally have no access and no control. At some point in a business hierarchy, that changes. People are given different access and different levels of control. At the top of each organization there are managers who have been given full access to the means of production and full control over their use. All of these higher-ups have control over assets, and more important, control over the people lower in the hierarchy.

It’s hard to see how to use this to identify a nascent class among those with some degree of access and control, such as supervisory and managerial workers. Classes don’t exist just because we can identify structural similarities. There has to be some way for them to connect across employers, so that they can see commonalities in their work lives and their social relations above and below. More likely many supervisory workers identify as producers first and managers second, so that many supervisory workers would see themselves in the working class. That becomes less so as we move up the hierarchy, where people begin to identify more closely with those above them. I’m pretty sure that people at the top of the hierarchy identify with the capitalists. Thus, it’s not likely that we will find other classes in this group.

Maybe a better view would be to identify classes based on actual antagonisms and conflicts. I’m not sure how that would work either. Maybe this difficulty explains why the concept of class has not been expanded.

But maybe it’s not a crucial issue. There are about 126 million private full-time employees in the US. Non-farm production and non-supervisory employment was at 104.5 million. Adding in government and farm workers and others not included would increase that number, so that about 85% of full-time employees are production/non-supervisory workers. It’s safe to assume that all part-time workers are in that category as well. If we take these groups as a proxy for the working class, we are probably safe in assuming that we are accounting for most of the population with our three categories.

2. Domination and hegemony.

Wood, following E.P. Thompson’s The Making Of The English Working Class, says that the working class makes itself as workers experience the relations of production and the relations with other people of their class and of other classes. Once the working class becomes aware of itself as a class, it is able to struggle over the surplus value it creates, and against the system that enables the capitalists to seize all of the profits. She acknowledges the difficulties this poses, including the “people’s own resistance to socialist politics”. Kindle Loc. 1982.

She sees a trend in Western Marxism to downplay or even reject the role of the working class in changing the capitalist system, eventually leading to socialism. But she says that change through the working class is the only way to bring about a socialism that is consistent with democratic values and political realism. Kindle Loc. 2001.

Wood says that the alternative to the leadership of the working class offered by some Marxists is change through other groups, especially intellectuals. She flatly rejects that approach, quoting Thompson from The Poverty of Theory claiming that their premises are profoundly anti-democratic:

… Whether Frankfurt School or Althusser, they are marked by their very heavy emphasis upon the ineluctable weight of ideological modes of domination – domination which destroys every space for the initiative or creativity of the mass of the people – a domination from which only the enlightened minority or intellectuals can struggle free. … it is a sad premise from which socialist theory should start (all men and women, except for us, are originally stupid) and one which is bound to lead on to pessimistic or authoritarian conclusions. Kindle Loc. 2006.

Pierre Bourdier focused his life’s work on the way systems of domination reproduce themselves, according to David Swartz in Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Here’s Swartz’ discussion of Bourdieu’s concept of symbolic violence:

Bourdieu understands ideology, or “symbolic violence,” as the capacity to impose the means for comprehending and adapting to the social world by representing economic and political power in disguised, taken-for-granted forms. Symbolic systems exercise symbolic power “only through the complicity of those who do not want to know that they are subject to it or even that they themselves exercise it. In using the term “symbolic violence” Bourdieu stresses how the dominated accept as legitimate their own condition of domination. P. 89; cites omitted.

I discussed symbolic violence in neoliberalism here. Wood no doubt accepts the idea that capitalists, the dominant class, try to impose their ideology on the working class, and to create the “people’s own resistance to socialist politics”. Bourdieu doesn’t say that symbolic violence works all the time. People retain their agency; they can change their habitus, the way they are predisposed to understand society and their place in it.

It’s also possible to resist symbolic violence. For example, in White Kids Margaret Hagerman, emphasizes that affluent white kids are not blank slates, but actively participate in forming their own views on racism which may or may not align with the authority figures in their lives. In the same way, all of us can resist the attempts of the dominant class to control our understanding.

Wood says people can throw off the domination that symbolic violence tries to create. Again, she thinks that this is the only democratic and politically realistic way forward. Given the large number of workers and their voting power, that seems true. The hope is that people can see the facts in front of them, and that workers would eventually figure out that they are being dominated and exploited, and that the surplus they produce is being appropriated by the dominant class and that this is wrongful. Some groups of workers have realized this and acted. But most people, including most workers, just keep working without thinking about what’s happening to them.

Wood doesn’t make a lot of room for intellectuals, including herself. Maybe their work is to produce a competing ideology that respects working people?

8 replies
  1. Anura says:

    I think getting too focused on class is a mistake; even within a class, you can break things down into further classes. Classes are just where we draw the lines between different types and degrees of power, but everything is a spectrum. Someone in a poor neighborhood vs a middle class neighborhood may be identical in terms of job, education, experience, but they are in different classes purely because of the location.

    We need to focus on hierarchy, exploitation and power relationships in general. If you have a business in which purely due to structure all of the power derives from a single individual, then that individual will be in a position where they can decide what opportunities other people will have. That level of power naturally leads to exploitation.

    If you want to fix the problem, you have to make sure that all power is kept in check by democracy and that authority derives from knowledge and experience, rather than law. That has to be done through the structure of society; so the question is what can we do to change that structure? The political system is pretty engrained, large businesses are not easy to get rid of, but we can start cooperatives, we can open license products; there is plenty we can do today that will benefit people today.

    We can, within a capitalist economy, create a market socialist economy and compete with capitalist companies. The trick is to be expansionist without falling into the trap of focusing on growing the business, but instead focus on growing the community that business serves. In a capitalist economy, wealth is a measure of how dependent the economy is on an individual or organization; in a socialist economy we should seek for wealth to be a measure of the independence of individuals and communities.

  2. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Traditionally, political scientists demanded that a class be self-aware as class in order to be defined as a class. A difficult feat in a pre-literate society, where most people were born, bred, wed, and dead within a radius of five miles.

    That academic definitional rigor had the perhaps intended effect of reducing the existence or number of classes and the conflicts they posed to each other.  It seems only a minor extension of Bourdieu’s observation – that one of the goals of the elite is to create an environment where the many follow the rules of the game without being aware of them – to add, “or being self-aware of belonging to a class.”

    For the academy, denial of class status meant denying the legitimacy of studying the needs and circumstances of those otherwise in it.  The requirement enforced conformity among the elite – the most important attribute to remaining in it, which is little more than  a variation on omerta.

    Generally, it is a denial of commonality among those who might be its members.  More importantly, it s a denial of the conflicts they might share in opposition to the elite.

    It benefits the American conceit that we are a classless society – obviously incorrect, but once prevalent.  Its equally absurd conclusion – a social management tool of neoliberalism, as it was for the Lochner era elite – was that our conflicts are solely individualistic.  Denying that conflicts are shared among a wide swathe of dissimilar Americans is to deny them shared agency to do something about them.  Which gets us back to Bourdieu and to, say, Taft-Hartley.

    This is not an academic debate.  Brett Kavanaugh is a devout courtier for those who rigidly adhere to these beliefs; he seems intent on making them law again.

  3. lefty665 says:

    There are really only two classes, we can argue whether it is the top 1% or .1% and the rest of us (debris). That is clear if we measure class by ownership of assets as is appropriate in a capitalist society.

    Enough workers became fed up enough with 40 years of neo liberal exploitation to elect Trump in ’16. The swing is likely to become even wilder in ’20 when that effort fails.

  4. earlofhuntingdon says:

    One could also say that there is only one color – white – and its absence – black. All else is commentary – or in between.

  5. lefty665 says:

    Or, the absence of color is white… In class, the ownership of assets is defining. With the exception of a very few at the very top of the heap we are all 2nd class. Professionals or ditch diggers, it makes no difference. In the end the super rich will clean all our clocks. Our illusions of substance are ego, nothing more.

  6. irivis says:

    Am an avid new reader of this site for past several months.  Will not post often as there is not much I can add.

    On the topic of this post, I would like to share that I have learned a great deal from the writings and presentations of Yanis Varoufakis.  He was the finance minister of Greece during the height of their financial crisis.  I do not want to presume that you are unfamiliar with him, as I don’t know your past discussions.  But if you have not been on his website lately, there is a treasure trove there.

    Here is an excellent recent talk:

    There is a question from the audience at about 1:14:00on the topic of classes.  The third questioner, I believe.

    And another informative discussion:

    Hope this works, as I have seen people have difficulty with links.

    Really appreciate all the information in this blog and discussion.

  7. Robin says:

    Capitalism and Democracy are an unholy marriage. Senator Warren’s attempt to clean up our government needs to stay front and center in the media.

  8. Masagata says:

    There are 4 classes in US according to Yumiko Kobayashi, Japanese business consultant working in Silicon Valley.

    Elites like Paris Hilton, Professionals like IT ventures, most of others are poor, no middle class, but one rank below is droppedouts like illegal immigrants.

    Once you are born in one of these categories, it is very difficult to move to other class but most poor Americans believe they can like Hollywood fantasies!
    For details, please the below article,


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