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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?

[Photo: Annie Spratt via Unsplash]

What Happened To The Cultural Elites: Conclusion

Posts in this series

What Happened To The Cultural Elites: Changes In The Conditions of Production

What Happened To The Cultural Elites: The Capitalist Celebration

What Happened To The Cultural Elites: Entertainment Workers

What Happened To The Cultural Elites: I Just Work Here

Related Post

Symbolic Violence in Neoliberalism This post describes symbolic structures and cultural producers, sometimes called symbolic workers.

—————-

In this series I tried to figure out why the cultural elites didn’t react more strongly to the rise of neoliberalism. When I asked that question in this post I assumed that the cultural elites would see neoliberalism as a threat to their power, especially their ability to reproduce their class without interference because that is the source of their dominance. I got this idea from David Swartz’ book Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Writing this series has made me question the assumption, and now I think something else happened.

Early in the book, Swartz shows a graph combining economic and cultural capital. The graph indicates that some people hove lots of both, some have lots of one and little of the other, and others have varying amounts of both. The cultural elites might be taken to be the people with the most cultural capital and among them the people with the most economic capital. The justification for this is that as Bourdieu sees it, cultural capital can be exchanged for economic capital, and the people at the top of many cultural fields have done so and become wealthy. The entertainment industry is a good example. University top executives are another good example. It’s less true in some academic fields, but certainly there are many economists who have done so, and people from other fields have too.

In this description, cultural producers are the rest of the people who make a living by employing their cultural capital to create the symbolic structures that people internalize as part of their understanding of society. They are the lower-status academics, lower-ranking employees of the companies that make movies and TV shows, the content producers for newspapers and websites, copy editors and junior ad agency employees, comedy writers for late-night TV shows and sit-coms, most scientists, K-12 teachers and most musicians.

The cultural elites include the top TV and film company executives, top advertising executives, university executives and top editors and publishers of newspapers, and those of similar status in the businesses that produce cultural products. They also include the top individuals who work outside corporations, like top writers, directors, cinematographers, some artists, novelists, scientists and others at the top of their fields. Among this group are the top economists, people like Larry Summers and Gregory Mankiw.

From this perspective, we get to a good explanation for the failure of the cultural elites to oppose neoliberalism. They wound up being winners under the new discourse. They identified their interests with those of the economic elites, not those of the fields that provided them with cultural capital. They used their cultural power to select from the young people in their fields those who supported their views most slavishly, which had the extra benefit of securing and even increasing their wealth. Bluntly, they don’t oppose neoliberalism because they benefit from it.

If cultural producers know what’s good for them, they’ll do the same thing: support the neoliberal project in an attempt to convert their cultural capital into economic capital. That’s particularly true of the younger cultural producers, for the reasons laid out earlier in this series.

There are some groups of cultural producers who can and do safely resist neoliberalism. One group is the people in fields with little potential to convert cultural capital into economic capital, philosophers, musicians and writers, sociologists, anthropologists, and so on. Oh, and content producers who aren’t trying to get rich writing on these subjects.

Another group is those actively trying to replace the current group of cultural elites from the outside, by generating new ideas and theories. One example of this group is the MMT theorists; another is the Open Markets Institute. There are a few film makers, a few TV shows, and even an occasional cable news person who does a bit of resistance.

Finally, there are the young. They are in a good position to see the results of neoliberalism, and may provide the energy needed to move away from the dominant neoliberal discourse. There are new voices in the movies, such as Ava Duvernay, Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman), and Ryan Coogler (Black Panther), among others, who work with good screenwriters and other film artists. There are others in areas of culture I don’t follow. There are even some new aspiring politicians, many inspired by Bernie Sanders. I guess we can hope.

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That concludes my reading of David Swartz’ book. I’m still reading Bourdieu’s Distinctions, but it’s tough going and maybe not of general interest. I’m also reading How Will Capitalism End? By Wolfgang Streeck, a German Economic Sociologist. I’m thinking about making that the next book, but it’s so depressing I could barely find a bit of hope for the last paragraph of this series. We’ll see.

[Photo: Annie Spratt via Unsplash]

What Happened To The Cultural Elites: I Just Work Here

Posts in this series

What Happened To The Cultural Elites: Changes In The Conditions of Production

What Happened To The Cultural Elites: The Capitalist Celebration
https://www.emptywheel.net/2018/04/06/what-happened-to-the-cultural-elites-the-capitalist-celebration/cultural-elites-the-capitalist-celebration/

What Happened To The Cultural Elites: Entertainment Workers

Related Post

Symbolic Violence in Neoliberalism This post describes symbolic structures and cultural producers which I call symbolic workers.

The description of the cultural elites in this series is ugly: in a nutshell, they are so tangled up in the capitalist/market system that their intellectual autonomy and critical distance from authority is miniscule. In the related post linked above, I argued that it isn’t necessary to assume that symbolic workers are acting in bad faith. After all, they merely reproduce the structures they inherited from their teachers.

Recently I had an extended discussion with my friend Gaius Publius who writes at Down with Tyranny and at Naked Capitalism, and I have changed my mind. My post started from an idea I found in David Swartz’ book, Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu, that some of the structures that organize our understanding are denied structures, meaning that the people affected by them do not admit that they exist or that there is any other way to comprehend society. I argued that neoliberalism is a denied structure. But just because people deny a structure doesn’t mean that they do not see the results of their actions. In the case of symbolic workers, it’s more likely that they see the negative effects they are creating and keep working anyway. The higher up in a field or organization people rise, the less likely it is that they don’t the results of their actions and theories. At the top of fields and organization, denial is not possible.

The capitalist system creates all sorts of justifications for the projects it approves. The most obvious is that the market knows what people really want. The sixth sequel to the Fast and Furious series is just giving people what they want. The daily local news survey of fires, car crashes and shootings is what people want. The cable news patriotic theme music and fiery chyrons blaring out the latest bombing of other countries and the loving shots of dead people being carried to ambulances after the latest shooting are just what people want. People need to know about the latest fire, and there’s no need to explain why they need to know, or what could be done about it or which politicians and interest groups are stopping action because people don’t want that. If they did the market would provide it.

Another justification is advertiser pressure that needs to be dealt with so that more important work can be done. Or they say it’s a job, someone has to do it. It pays the rent and educates my kids which is at least true. Most fields of cultural production have some form of justification that relates to the field, as I show in the post about the economics field.

These justifications are out there waiting for symbolic workers who suddenly wonder if their work is contributing to the decay of communal society, if perhaps it’s creating distrust and fear, or reinforcing ugly and stupid stereotypes, or is causing direct harm. If the symbolic worker doesn’t look too closely, these justifications seem plausible. They are examples of some of the ways the existing system enables people to pretend not to see the results of their actions.

Swartz says that Bourdieu refers to this as misrecognition.

Misrecognition is a key concept for Bourdieu; akin to the idea of “false consciousness” in the Marxist tradition, misrecognition denotes “denial” of the economic and political interests present in a set of practices. Symbolic practices, Bourdieu thus argues, deflect attention from the interested character of practices and thereby contribute to their enactment as disinterested pursuits.
P. 54.

I like the term “false consciousness” better. Misrecognition connotes a mistake which ignores the agency of the symbolic worker. False consciousness has an implication of intention, or at least of willful refusal to engage with the problem, as in contemporary use of the term denial.

Neoliberal economists can see the results of their theories. They advocated relentlessly for the abolition of most regulation on the grounds that the marker would do a better job than the government. How could anyone make that argument in good faith after the Great Crash? But they don’t stop. They wrecked the antitrust laws, which has led to ridiculous levels of concentration in almost every industry. Now some of them argue that monopoly is not a bad thing, or that there is no such thing because a new competitor will arise. They are currently arguing against wage hikes whether through minimum wage hikes or a job guarantee. They don’t care about income or wealth inequality, which, they say, is the result of the markets in action.

In fact, it’s not clear what impacts their views have had that has any benefit for anyone but the rich few. With that record, which of them can plausibly claim not to be aware of their contribution to the sorry state of the personal finances of the 99%?

Another feature/bug is that day-to-day work keeps employees really busy, surrounds them with people who agree with them, and insulates them from critics. This is the defense Amy Chozick offers. Not once during the 1,226 days she covered Hillary Clinton did Chozick or her employers or editors ever stop to think about what heir coverage looked like to an outsider. Even after the disgusting coverage of Whitewater and the other phony Clinton scandals that followed, they got played by the Republicans and in Chozick’s telling, by the Russians.

Neither the neoliberal economists nor Chozick and her editors are innocents who misrecognize the results of their actions. They’re guilty of false consciousness, deliberately refusing to look at the consequences of their actions in real time, when it matters. Accountability is a way to force symbolic workers to confront the results of their actions. Firing and shaming people who cause damage is a good thing. But there is no accountabilty. They feel no responsibility to society and are held to no standards. None of it affects them; they do not suffer the consequences of their actions.

They just work here.