A scientific understanding of classes is indispensable for proletarian revolutionaries. Without at least some basic elements of an up-to-date class analysis, it is impossible to formulate workable revolutionary strategy or, in fact, to understand the most essential features of social life.
Classes are large groups of people with important common material interests. Of course, many other social groupings–including nations, races and genders–have material interests too. What sets classes apart is the fact that their common material interests are rooted in the specific relationships they have to the process of production. The class structure, in fact, is precisely the way that society is organized to produce goods and services–for both survival and profit–at a given point in time. It reflects a society’s underlying mode of production, as well as the social relations that that mode of production has generated historically.
Class struggle is so fundamental to politics because what is ultimately at stake is nothing less than the shape of human material existence–or its extinction as a species. The contradictions between classes, originating in this, the deepest level of human social life, are the forces that drive history forward. These contradictions, endlessly clashing, both generate and break down myriad other forms of social organization–forms which are, in fact, expressions of class. In turn, the results of class struggle force changes in the class structure and, ultimately, in the mode of production itself.
We can see this dialectic of change happening before our eyes. In the course of its rapid expansion, 20th-century capitalism created a new proletariat and antagonized the peasantry in the colonized nations. It also promoted the rise of national bourgeoisie’s and middle classes in the colonies which sought to control their own national economies. These class forces eventually combined in anti-imperialist united fronts to unleash a fierce storm of national liberation movements that threatened capitalist rule. In response, capitalism has been literally forced to break through to a higher level of global integration, transcending the old colonial paradigm and rearranging the class structure along neocolonial lines.
Class analysis may be critical to revolution, but it is practically a dead science today. The breakthrough class theory of Marx and Engels has become an ossified relic in the hands of the current Left, reflecting an opportunistic unwillingness to actually look at existing patterns of oppression and complicity.
Marx and Engels courageously challenged the orthodoxy of their times, fearlessly describing the brutal class reality they lived in. They applied dialectical materialism to the relatively meager information they had at hand. Lenin, Mao, Cabral and millions of other revolutionaries picked up the same science, and creatively applied it to a broader, more modern knowledge pool. And made revolution with it.
Today, however, most “Marxists” pay historical materialism the ultimate disrespect: treating this bold, pioneering revolutionary theory and method as if it were a static, finished set of commandments; hiding behind its inevitable early limitations and weaknesses.
It’s clear that the class structure of the modern world is different than it was a hundred years ago. It’s also clear that early Marxists had huge gaps in their knowledge. They were looking at a snapshot of capitalism in one time and one place. It is not surprising that they made mistakes; that they failed to predict today’s class structure in detail.
- Marx and Engels thought that the European industrial working class of their day would engage in “final class conflict” with capitalism within a generation. They were wrong. Today, a century later, capitalism is once again showing what a resilient, adaptable system it is, even as it spreads further disaster across the planet.
- Marx and Engels thought that the class structure was becoming bipolar, with almost all working classes tending to assimilate rapidly into a giant proletariat, while the bourgeoisie would remain tiny. They were wrong. They did recognize the existence of an opportunistic labor aristocracy. But never in their wildest dreams did they imagine the growth of modern mass consumerist middle classes–classes which exist today not only in the metropolis but spread throughout the colonial world.Nor could they foresee that the bourgeoisie itself would become a mass class on a world scale. Or that “obsolete” classes like the peasantry would play such important roles in the politics of the twentieth-century. Or that traditional indigenous peoples would rise up anew to challenge capitalism in the twenty-first. Or that the the proletariat, which Marx and Engels thought was almost mature as a class, would continue to emerge and evolve decade after decade without reaching its full social and political development.
- Marx and Engels thought that unwaged labor was significant to capitalism, but mainly treated it as part of so-called “primitive accumulation” leading up to the industrial revolution, or as a means of “reproducing” the lives of wage laborers. Time has shown the limitations of that perspective. Slave, semi-slave and unwaged labor, especially by women, has remained an integral part of capitalism, becoming more widespread and in some ways more central to the class structure. All around us we see examples of capitalism expropriating wealth not just through exploitation of “free” labor in factories, but through war, servitude, addiction and the commodification of the natural world. “Primitive” accumulation lives on.
- Marx and Engels focussed considerable attention on the particular legalities of ownership in the production process that existed in Europe in their day. They thought that individual, private, legal ownership of the means of production, and the existence of legally “free” wage labor in industry were at the heart of capitalism. By itself, this is far too limited an understanding of ownership under capitalism. Today we know that the bourgeoisie can own the means of production collectively, as it does, to some degree, in every modern society (notably, in the so-called “socialist” countries).
Legal ownership and real ownership are sometimes two different things in the modern world. We must ask three questions about ownership of the means of production: Who sets the means of production to work, who ultimately controls their operation, and who extracts the profits from that control? This may be an individual, but it seldom is. Money for investment is loaned by financial institutions, which pool the capital of thousands of people. Even in “free market” economies, large “private” corporations are collectively owned by their shareholders, none of whom usually holds a majority of the shares. A small directorate of the largest shareholders choose managers, set the direction for the corporation, and decides what to do with the profits. This is not so different from a so-called “socialist” enterprise in China, which is controlled by the Party (or the Army) for the collective benefit of a tiny ruling elite (with lesser profits and benefits down the line to smaller capitalists and middle classes).
We should keep in mind that the fundamental economic infrastructure required by all modern capitalist production–infrastructure which is part of the means of production– is massive- -and “socially” owned. In no way has the bourgeoisie has given up its ownership of these means of production, it has simply adopted a collective form of class ownership to serve its interests. Sometimes the same means of production–for instance the passenger rail system in the U.S.- shifts back and forth between “public” and “private” ownership according to the current preferences of the bourgeoisie.
In addition, we have seen the emergence of new forms of property–intellectual property, specific class entitlements for education and services, internationally-recognized warlord turf, business property, etc. These must be factored into our understanding of class structure.
To rebuild a revolutionary movement, we need to rediscover class analysis as a razor-sharp weapon. Like Lenin and Mao, we must refuse to allow orthodox stereotypes of class structure to blunt the proletarian politics of our time. Moreover, we must advance beyond the limitations of male politics and the exhausted paradigms of previous eras. We must be radical enough to recognize the transformed class structure we live in, and recognize ourselves within it.
Brief Observations on the Six Main Classes
The contradiction between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is the fundamental contradiction of capitalism. The economic relationship and political struggle between these two classes continues to determine the overall class structure of the world. However, both classes have undergone profound changes in the course of history, and their antagonistic conflict has caused other classes to emerge and change as well. In addition, classes and class relations from earlier modes of production continue to exist within capitalism.
In the classic orthodox Marxist view of classes, there was only one other major class besides the bourgeoisie and the proletariat–the petit-bourgeoisie. This class included three main components: the peasantry, the commercial petit-bourgeoisie, and the intelligentsia. The petit bourgeoisie was seen as a shrinking class: one that could play a critical “swing” role in politics, but that was being inexorably squeezed by the rise of industrial capital. In particular, the peasantry, the largest component of the petit-bourgeoisie, was considered to be on the road to rapid proletarianization.
This is not a useful view of class today. The intellectuals no longer constitute a separate class, but rather are associated with various classes. On a more fundamental level, one of the most important developments in capitalist class structure over time has been the persistence, expansion, differentiation and institutionalization of mass, “parasitic” middle classes.
There are four historical factors which underlie this trend. First of all, the peasantry has shown enormous staying power under the imperialist system. Imperialism has found that peasants can be effective agents for extracting surplus labor power from the agricultural proletariat for its ultimate benefit, and that semi-feudal relations in the countryside are highly compatible with colonialism. Although the recent waves of globalization are weakening the peasantry as a class, it is still the largest class, numerically, in the world (?).
Second, the proletariat has been repeatedly split, with its upper sectors being elevated out of the class in the form of a large labor aristocracy. To a smaller extent, proletarians have been siphoned into other middle classes as well.
Third, the global economy has come to rely on a huge mass of relatively affluent consumers as part of its drive for profit. This is no longer an optional sideshow for capitalism, nor is it a phenomenon confined to the metropolis. It is a structural adaptation, among other things, to the cyclical crises of overproduction that plagued early capitalism and which still threaten modern imperialism. The global middle classes make it possible for capitalism to survive and expand by churning commodities. They buy incredible amounts of goods and services in response to a cascade of constantly-changing “needs”–often artificially created–thereby allowing capital to both “realize” profit from producing all kinds of new commodities, and to make further inroads into the privatization of the natural world.
And fourth, the decentralization of state power within modern neocolonialism requires large classes of motivated overseers, guards and warlords. At times it seems that half the population is working to control the other half. As we shall see, this goes beyond mere appearances.
While all the middle classes share certain features, stemming from their essentially parasitic relationship to the proletariat and their consumeristic role, it makes little sense to lump them all together. The four main middle classes–the peasantry, the labor aristocracy, the commercial petit-bourgeoisie and the professional/managerial class, have distinct histories and distinct interests in the global economic order. Along with the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, these make up the six main classes in the world today.
1. The bourgeoisie, or capitalist class. This class has effective ownership of the means of production. In orthodox Marxism, this was understood mainly as a question of private legal ownership of raw materials, land, factories, machinery and other tangible property, which allowed the bourgeoisie to exploit “free” market labor. The stereotypical capitalist was someone who owned one or many factories, and who got rich from the surplus labor value of the workers he employed. While the expropriation of labor is still central to the class role of the bourgeoisie, the forms of legal ownership through which this process takes place have been revolutionized.
As Lenin pointed out, with the rise of imperialism, a higher stage of capitalism, important sections of the bourgeoisie became “parasitic” and lost their direct connection with production. They became finance capitalists–distant, partial shareholders in metropolitan corporations whose profits came from exploitation of labor in the colonies.
This trend has radically accelerated in our time. What Lenin observed as a merger of finance and industrial capital has become the complete dominance of finance capital over all other capital. Today, the most powerful fraction of the capitalist class–the tiny imperialist ruling class- largely serves as a worldwide loan shark, extorting money from impoverished parts of the world and setting global economic policy, while delegating the nuts and bolts of exploitation to the fractions of the bourgeoisie who still direct production and to local neo-colonial classes: dictators, warlords, drug barons, etc.
The finance capitalists continue to have “real ownership” of the means of production in the sense that they control them (usually through financial mechanisms), can dispose of them as they see fit, and are free to do what they want with the profits. But the increasingly indirect control over production has spawned new forms of bourgeois property ownership, including so-called “intellectual property.” The ruling class pays billions of dollars to acquire new technologies and commercial gateways which allow them to direct and profit from the economic activity of the economy as a whole. Individual ownership of individual means of production is less important than effective ownership of a defined portion of the overall means of production.
It’s important to point out that the bourgeoisie is currently engaged in a massive campaign of “primitive accumulation” which is bringing under their power whole new means of production. As Vandana Shiva and others have pointed out, we are currently witnessing a “new enclosure of the commons,” in which genetic material and natural resources such as air and water are being brought under the real ownership of capital. This process is fueling the rise of new industries, such as biotechnology and genetic engineering, which produce new kinds of commodities and new kinds of property. Ownership of plant and animal species and of the human genome is the object of frenzied competition within the bourgeoisie. Information, including personal information about workers and consumers, is also being progressively commodified, and new ways for the bourgeoisie to own and control it are evolving rapidly.
All of the capitalists share an interest in exploiting the proletariat and protecting their class control over the means of production, but here are significant contradictions between the imperialist ruling elite and the main body of the bourgeoisie, which has become a numerically large class. The ruling elite are in a position to make large-scale political and economic decisions which frequently have negative repercussions for particular groups of capitalists, especially those who depend on specific regional and local markets. The ruthless globalization presently embraced by the ruling class, for instance, is detrimental to, and opposed by, some smaller “rust belt” capitalists in the metropolis as well as some capitalists in the colonial world who are struggling to exercise control over their national markets.
2. The proletariat. Within revolutionary politics, understanding of the proletariat continues to evolve, while the class itself continues to evolve and mature. Defining the contemporary contours of this class, which the bourgeoisie both needs and fears, is in many respects the final test of class analysis.
Each major change in the capitalist system has caused changes in the character of the proletariat, which revolutionaries have been forced to take into account. Failure to recognize these changes, on the other hand, is a classic hallmark of opportunism. It is exactly when the proletariat begins to threaten the bourgeoisie’s power at a given stage of history that the bourgeoisie is forced to transcend its old forms of oppression, creating new divisions within, and supervision over, the proletariat. Radicals who cling to the old patterns and understandings are helping the bourgeoisie defend itself and expand its power over the proletariat.
The proletariat’s economic role as a class is to be exploited for its labor, which is the ultimate source of all capitalist profit. Proletarians do not own means of production in any way, but rather serve those means of production as a disposable source of labor.
The orthodox definition of the proletariat is that it is a class of wage laborers, especially factory workers, who sell their labor to capital. This definition has become more misleading than enlightening. Consider that by this definition, African slaves in the U.S. were not proletarians, while their overseers were. In the fuzzy thinking of middle-class theorists, all kinds of middle class people are purported to be in the proletariat, while millions of the most exploited, propertyless workers are defined out of the class because they don’t punch a time card or go to the the pay window on Friday. Various “creative” Marxists have fought to include airline pilots, doctors and even executives in their descriptions of the proletariat. Women who labor without wages in the home are generously “grandfathered” into the proletariat, but only if their husbands are factory or service workers–on the basis of his work, not theirs, in other words.
It is unquestionable that the factory (and the factory farm) plays a special role in the capitalist economy and in politics. The factory is a critical center of production, and creates a workforce which is highly collectivized, something which has led historically to relatively advanced levels of organized proletarian resistance. It is in manufacturing that profits squeezed from many areas of society are harvested. Furthermore, the economic relationships of classes under capitalism are most nakedly revealed in industry. It can be reasonably argued that the industrial proletariat is central to the proletariat, occupying a pivotal place in the class structure.
Still, there are other significant contexts in which capital expropriates the labor of proletarians. These require our attention if we wish to gain an all-sided understanding of the class. Today, as we experience a major increase in the mobility of global manufacturing, it would truly be foolish to depend on the outmoded model of life-long factory workers, living with their nuclear families in urban industrial districts in the metropolis. (In reality, this model was never particularly accurate.)
The realities of our times are that a major proportion of the proletariat is in the reserve army of the unemployed at any given time; that whole industries arrive in and then desert particular regions almost overnight; that much of the industrial labor performed in the current economy, just as in the past, is done by semi-slave and even slave labor; that the agricultural and service-sector proletariat is enormous, that women and immigrant workers are commodities on the world market, traded for their labor power; that whole capitalist industries rely on scavenging and on the extra-legal networks of the informal economy. It is an undeniable fact that much of the proletariat does not earn wages. It is also apparent that capitalism, far from eliminating unwaged labor, has expanded and extended it.
Just as our definition of the bourgeoisie has gone beyond the strictures of individual private ownership of particular means of production, so our definition of the proletariat must go beyond the narrow confines of wage labor at the point of production. Those who own no share of the means of production, and who live (or try to live, or are forced to live) by selling or “donating” their labor power to capital, directly or indirectly, are part of the proletariat.
Women are at the heart of the proletariat. This is true, and has always been true, of the industrial proletariat, where women’s labor is responsible for the highest rate of profit, and the greatest volume of profit, in the factory system.
Proletarian women’s centrality is even more obvious if we take into consideration the growing service industries, agriculture, women’s unpaid domestic labor in the home, and their key role in both the informal survival economies of the proletariat and in the reserve army of the unemployed. In cases where women work in the home, the patriarchal organization of the family frequently allows the bourgeoisie to buy the labor power of two people for little more than the price of one. The unpaid labor of housewives allows the capitalist to pay the husband a wage that would be too low for subsistence (“reproduction”) without her activity. Thus profit is actually wrung from both people–one directly, the other indirectly.
Gender has always divided the proletariat, with whole class fractions taking on genders. Under imperialism, and even more so today under the pressure of neo-colonialism, fractions of proletarian men are continually being split away from the class at both its upper and lower limits–being reshuffled into the labor aristocracy and the lumpenproletariat respectively. Increasingly, the gender line that runs down the middle of national working classes and working class families is becoming a series of explicit class lines. We will say more about this issue below.
Capitalism constantly forces large numbers of peasants and indigenous peoples into the proletariat. Today, the rise of factory farming and the commodification of the biological world are destroying the ways of life of millions of people who had survived previous waves of primitive accumulation. Resistance to this trend is one of the sharpest arenas for rebellion against neoliberalism: agrarian rebellions in Africa, the Zapatista uprising, and the “seeds movement” in India are only three examples of major struggles of this type.
The new economic order is rapidly internationalizing the proletariat. Large waves of migrant labor have characterized class society from the beginning, but neocolonialism is accelerating the pace and increasing the fluidity of labor migration, while it destabilizes long-established national working classes. This occurs because capital is also migrating as never before. Production disperses across national lines, new international divisions of labor arise, and key industries change their location from one year to the next. As a result of these unstable conditions, the world proletariat is gradually coming to share a common, cosmopolitan culture and way of life. A life, that is, of constant insecurity and movement, of unceasing search for survival spaces in the rapidly-shifting transnational economy. This reproduces on a higher, global level the circumstances Marx and Engels observed during the formative period of the European working classes.
3. The labor aristocracy. To many, it will seem heretical to treat the labor aristocracy as a separate class. Yet it is past time to acknowledge that this social grouping has “moved on up” out of the proletariat.
When Marx and Engels first noted the emergence of the labor aristocracy, it was made up of skilled and better-educated craft workers, whose privileges largely depended on the fact that their residual control over the production process (ownership of their own tools, determination of the pace of work, etc.) gave them special leverage in the labor market. The political organization of the labor aristocracy at that time was basically an extension of the medieval guild system, and reflected the conservative sentiments of workers who expected that their superior training would guarantee them preferential treatment. At the time, the labor aristocracy appeared in the form of a fraction of the proletariat, one which actually appeared to be on its way out as mass production took hold of industry, squeezing out craft work. Thus Marxists hoped that the labor aristocracy, once disabused of its relatively superficial illusions about the future, would join the rest of the class in revolutionary struggle.
It rather quickly became obvious that, with the rise of imperialism, the material basis existed for a more durable stratum of labor aristocrats subsidized by colonial superprofits. Engels noted with alarm that whole working classes in Europe had taken on the privileged economic character and reactionary political character of labor aristocracies, as “their” bourgeoisie’s began to rake in superprofits from oppressed nations in the periphery. We should keep in mind that this dynamic had already been well established earlier in the settler colonies (such as the United States), where masses of European settlers provided loyal shock troops to the genocidal advance of colonialism in return for small land holdings and privileged wages and working conditions. In retrospect, it seems obvious that in these settler societies the difference between the African, Asian, Latin and impoverished European immigrant proletariat on the one hand, and the white settler workers on the other, was a substantial class difference.
Lenin’s analysis of imperialism as a higher stage of capitalism included an explicit acknowledgement that colonialism had caused a full-blown political split in the working classes of the metropolis, and that any advance for the revolutionary movement there would require going “lower and deeper” into those sectors of the working class that were reliable because of their lack of privileges. But actually, as became clearer and clearer in the development of Leninist politics, it was the proletariat in the colonial world, along with their anti-colonial allies of other classes, who constituted the center of world proletarian revolution. Mao, Cabral, Ho Chi Minh and other leaders of the wave of national liberation struggle that engulfed the world after World War II knew for a fact that they could not rely on the privileged workers of the metropolis to make revolution in their own countries or to provide proletarian solidarity with revolution in the colonial world. At the same time, the labor aristocracy was being transformed into the site of an enormous explosion of consumerism and petty property ownership.
Being part of the labor aristocracy no longer necessarily implies the ability to perform skilled work. Rather, it comprises a way of life and social status linked to what have been defined historically as privileged jobs. Privilege does not arise out of the job description; rather, certain occupations are set aside as sites of entitlement. The jobs labor aristocrats actually hold are therefore as much badges of privilege as they are sources of production and surplus labor for capitalism.
A job that is proletarian in one society may be set aside for the labor aristocracy in another. For example, longshore work in the colonial world tends to be back-breaking and ill-paying. It is a proletarian occupation. In the metropolis, however, longshore work tends to be extremely well paid and sought-after, with many benefits. Longshoremen in the U.S. make as much as doctors and lawyers. (There are contradictory aspects to the job, since, while highly automated in most respects, the work is still often dirty and dangerous. But metropolitan longshoremen women have no reason to doubt that they are part of the middle class.) Although longshore workers in the metropolis and in the colonies carry out similar functions in the shipping industry, they have radically different functions in the capitalist economy and, needless to say, in global politics.
Some Marxists try to pass off the living standards and privileges of the labor aristocracy as the earned result of heroic labor struggle. There is a grain of truth here. Breaking into the labor aristocracy often does involve struggle, or at least using leverage from the struggle of others. The process of deciding which occupations will be linked to middle class entitlement is a two way street.
Yet it would be obscene to ascribe the superior material conditions of the labor aristocracy to superior combativeness or solidarity. At the same moment that white workers in the U.S. were being welcomed into the labor aristocracy in the 1930’s and 40’s by the Roosevelt regime, Puerto Rican proletarians trying to unionize were being gunned down in the streets. Obviously capital has reasons for cutting a deal with some militant workers and not others. Throughout the Third World, desperate and violent labor battles are being waged by the proletariat, while the established labor aristocracy in the metropolis wallows in consumer goods and pats itself on the back at cornball Labor Day marches and AFL-CIO conventions.
Today there is no reason for treating the labor aristocracy as anything other than a separate class from the proletariat. Or rather, today it is clear that folding the labor aristocracy into the proletariat is an exercise in denial and political opportunism. It has been many years since the labor of the privileged working classes in either the metropolis or the colonial world have been the main profit centers for capitalism. That role falls to the proletariat–mostly women and children, racially-oppressed and immigrant workers in the metropolis, viciously exploited semi-slave labor in the colonies.[See Ward Churchill on parasitism…]
Much of the labor aristocracy collects a paycheck. But as we have seen, this is only one part of the class’s remuneration. Just as the bourgeoisie owns much of the means of production collectively, so the labor aristocracy and the other middle classes “own” lesser shares of means of production, social wealth and social resources. Consider, for example, the question of home ownership, which is one of the hallmarks of the labor aristocracy. It is openly bragged by the bourgeoisie that this institution makes workers loyal “stakeholders” in the system. (Tax exemptions, etc.) Stock ownership has become common in the labor aristocracy. While in the past such ownership was almost inevitably mediated through institutionalized financial programs of various sorts (401k’s, pension plans, etc.), today there is a rapidly growing trend of direct payments to labor aristocrats in the form of stocks.
Another form of property ownership is possession of preferred race and gender characteristics, which are often created and assigned specifically to distinguish the labor aristocracy from the proletariat. (It is no accident that while the proletariat is centered around Third World women, the labor aristocracy is centered around white men.) Workers with these assigned attributes enjoy generalized benefits which they take with them from job to job, and in every area of life.
Today, access to information, one of the newer forms of property, is becoming a privilege of the labor aristocracy, along with the other middle classes. Labor aristocrats have a perceived “right” to internet access, so that they can monitor the stock market, comparison shop, pursue hobbies, organize political pressure and exchange messages without the constraints of “snail mail.” It appears that in the future more and more government and commercial services will be available exclusively, or readily, to those who are “plugged in”–meaning, those who own computer equipment, some technical knowledge, and can pay monthly fees for internet access.
There are many other benefits that commonly accrue to the labor aristocracy but not the proletariat: medical insurance, relative immunity from crime and police violence, functional social services, the right to unionize (and thereby institutionalize their class status), use of improved physical and cultural resources. Most of the labor aristocracy live their lives under radically different conditions from the proletariat–in different neighborhoods, with qualitatively better education, streets and utilities, with less polluted air and water (an increasingly important benefit).This class also has extended social mobility, which sometimes allows it’s members to cross over to the other middle classes.
The labor aristocracy not only has the means to consume disproportionately, but is actively encouraged to do so, and in fact tends to view itself as a consumer class rather than a producer class.
All modern classes are somewhat fluid, expanding to encompass new forces and expelling obsolete ones to suit the requirements of capital mobility. The labor aristocracy is no exception. As imperialism moves away from a strict metropolis/periphery dualism, and promotes the rise of a neocolonial class structure in every corner of the globe, labor aristocracies are being formed even in the poorest countries. Simultaneously, old metropolitan labor aristocracies are losing their automatic privileged status and being confronted with global competition. The world labor aristocracy will undergo continual change as the global economy changes. We can already observe that whole populations of workers are engaged in struggling and competing to become part of the modernized labor aristocracy. (Mexican immigrants…)
A countervailing force, however, is built into the basic character of the class. Namely, that to serve its multifaceted role, the labor aristocracy must be given a certain amount of security and stability. The types of benefits it receives from imperialism take time to actualize. For instance, the relatively privileged education of the labor aristocracy takes several years to complete, and tends to give the class a semi-hereditary middle-class entitlement. (This is one reason that labor aristocracies are often overdetermined by gender and race distinctions, which are considered inherited attributes.)
Besides, once privileges are granted, they are fiercely defended, with potentially severe costs to capitalist social order. We see this happening in the U.S., where growing resentment over its lowered status among the traditional white labor aristocracy has led to a rise of mass right wing parties and militias, and a broader backlash against globalization and multiculturalism.
On the other hand, imperialism is becoming more skilled at displacing privileged classes when their usefulness has expired. Settlers in the U.S. may be mobilizing to hold the line, but settlers in Azania/South Africa and Zimbabwe/Rhodesia have been gently eased to the sidelines.
What is it that the capitalism secures with the labor aristocrats’ paychecks and with the multitude of additional benefits and entitlements that make up that class’s middle-class lifestyle? First, a moderate measure of extracted labor power. (We should not overlook this.) Second, a virtual sump of commodity consumption, often prompted by artificially-induced needs. This function has become necessary to complete the spiral of capitalist expansion and profitability. Third, as we have mentioned, a politically loyal social base for imperialist projects around the globe and a buffer against proletarian insurrection. Fourth, a training ground for the other middle classes, including administrative personnel and small business people. (A plumber laying pipe in tract housing developments readily becomes an independent contractor, etc.) Fifth, a willing corps of (mostly-male) overseers, monitors, foremen, mercenaries, cops, prison guards and professional soldiers who are not afraid of physical activity and who are used to interacting with proletarians, including, in some cases, their wives, sisters and daughters.
This last function is of particular interest today. It is axiomatic that within many economic sectors, workers are segregated by gender. “Male” industries generally pay more and have better working conditions, while “female” industries are among the most exploitative, and so on. Even bourgeois commentators recognize this. What is often overlooked in male theory is that in a growing number of families, communities and nations, these women and men are actually in different classes. The border between the labor aristocracy and the proletariat is one place where this can be seen.
We are trained to look at class in terms of family units. If the “head of the family” is in a particular class, so are all the members of the family. But in reality, there are millions of households in which the men are labor aristocrats while their wives and daughters labor as proletarians in sweatshops and/or without pay under oppressive conditions in the home.
If a man is a skilled worker in Afghanistan, and his wife (who is considered in every way his property), does domestic labor and child care all day, is denied education and medical care, is terrorized on the street, and has no political rights, are husband and wife both labor aristocrats? True, the husband’s higher wage may mean a better standard of living for the wife -at his sufferance. But this hardly negates the vastly different relationships each of them has to the production process and to the class structure overall.
Likewise, if a father works in an auto plant in central Mexico, while his daughter moves to the border to have her health used up in a maquiladora, are they really in the same class? And how about a skilled worker in Los Angeles, who spends his paycheck on drugs and abuses his “housewife” and children? Is the power/economic imbalance here just a reflection of gender oppression? Or does it also reflect a relationship between two classes, with sharply different roles in the economic system? (The class distinction between labor aristocrat men and “their” women often becomes clear the moment they are divorced.)
4. The commercial (merchant) petit-bourgeoisie. This class continues to play its long-time historic role in small-scale, local sale of commodities. The commercial petit-bourgeoisie has a dual character. On the one hand, most members of this class perform some labor, sometimes putting in long hours in their stores or service routes. On the other hand, the commercial p.b. often exploits the labor of small numbers of proletarians, and it owns or controls means of production (buildings, tools, etc.), goods, and other business property, some of which is contractual, not physical. (For example, a sales franchise.)
Because they are employers and property owners, and dream of making it into the bourgeoisie, the merchant petit-bourgeoisie has a natural affinity with the capitalist class. On the other hand, small businesses fail at an astronomical rate, and are subject to extreme economic pressure from market forces and economic policies out of their control. This makes the merchant p-b, especially at its lower end, unstable and permeable to other classes.
Members of the other middle classes–the professional/managerial class and the labor aristocracy–often try their hand at “becoming their own boss” by starting a small business, if only briefly. Sectors of the proletariat and lumpen-proletariat also move in and out of the bottom end of the small merchant class, since its activity overlaps with the survival economics of the informal economy and includes a large illegal sector accessible at times to the oppressed.
There appears to be a loose division of the commercial p. b. into two fractions. The upper fraction may own or lease valuable property, such as a store, or a sales franchise. This fraction sometimes provides goods and services for the privileged, but in any case participates fully in the commodity culture of the middle classes and lives a virtually identical lifestyle to that of the labor aristocracy and managerial/administrative class. The lower fraction, in contrast, operates marginally, usually in poor localities, and is constantly struggling to keep from falling into the proletariat. This fraction may own a truck and gardening tools, or a shuttle van (for instance), but may also live from day to day, hustling and retailing whatever it can at swap meets or door-to-door. (Salespeople who work on commission?)
5. The professional/managerial class. Like the other middle classes, this class has a dual nature. Its members “work for a living,” being either employed by capitalists and the state, or self employed, as is the case for many doctors, consultants, professional mercenaries etc. Some of jobs the p/m class performs are vital to production and to social life. On the other hand, the p/m class is removed from the proletariat by virtue of its ownership of education, information, and a share of middle class consumer society.
In general the p/m class can be divided into three major fractions. The first consists of professionals and managers whose skills and education are indispensable to production and social life. This includes many engineers, teachers, medical professionals and technical specialists working in industry and infrastructure. This fraction, whose status is based largely on education or training, is becoming increasingly socialized by imperialism. (The rise of HMO’s and group medical practices is the classic example.)
The second is made up of bureaucrats and supervisory personnel whose job is to implement labor discipline, make and implement business decisions and control society generally. Examples are army officers, business executives, welfare administrators and production managers. This fraction exists at the will of large capitalist enterprises and the state, and is at their beck and call. This tends to make its existence highly political. This fraction shares a culture of organizational skills and customs, which tend to be interchangeable from one job to the next, and which involve ordering, manipulating or setting policy for masses of people.
In the chaos of the transition from colonialism to neocolonialism, many of the social control functions of the p/m class are up for grabs. The power of centralized metropolitan colonial bureaucracies is fading, while the functions they used to carry out are being transferred to “multicultural” neocolonial elites and warlord armies. This is setting off turf warfare within the p/m class, as different ideological tendencies and social groupings compete for the bourgeoisie’s seal of approval across a wide range of conditions.
For example, there is a split in the African American p/m class between the integrationist “old guard,” which hopes to maintain its control functions within Black society through the familiar means of colonial civil service and social agency jobs, labor unions, electoral campaigns, etc., and an aggressive bourgeois nationalist trend which hopes to gain semi-autonomous warlordistic control over Black communities. (Jesse Jackson vs. Louis Farrakhan.)
Finally, there is a significant faction of functionaries, professionals, certain salespeople and managers whose economic function is virtually completely parasitic. That is to say, it has little to do directly with basic production or the command and control of society. Rather, it exists to promote consumerism, create ideological spectacle, and reinforce class distinctions in the culture. For example, the multi-billion-dollar advertising industry employs millions (?) of people, many of them professionals and managers, whose “creativity” is at a premium, but which is completely harnessed to creating artificial needs and needless market segmentation. The fashion industry is another example of an economic enterprise in which “creativity” and “talent” and “originality” on the part of professionals and managers is highly valued, but only to the extent that they produce quick turnover of commercially-successful trash and reinforce bourgeois ideology. The commanding heights of the fine arts establishment, Hollywood and the sports economy function on the same general basis. (The “working class” jobs within these industries are almost automatically tagged for the labor aristocracy.) Altogether, this sector accounts for a large share of economic resources in the metropolis, and a fast-growing share in the colonial world. It’s existence, and the existence of a whole class fraction subsidized to organize it, is proof that the consumeristic churning of commodities has become a key institutional feature of imperialism.
Since the sale of commodities is such a large part of modern economic life, the function of salespeople extends across class fractions and even, to a lesser extent, across classes. A salesperson may have considerable executive autonomy and responsibility, may work on commission, may work for wages under a variety of conditions, or may be paid through a combination of commission and wages. Some employees, for instance in telephone direct sales, may be proletarians. (Some in fact are prisoners.)
6. The peasantry. Marxists have been expecting this class to die out for years, but it remains huge. In part, the persistence of the peasantry reflects the fact that the globalization of agriculture has lagged behind the globalization of manufacturing practically-speaking. (This is being addressed by the current wave of genetic engineering of crops and privatization of plant and animal species.) In part it is because capitalist control over the markets for agricultural products has been sufficient to ensure that the bourgeoisie wrings vast profits from both the agricultural proletariat and the exploited peasantry (which often toils under conditions as bad as, or worse than, those of the proletariat). The continued existence of the peasantry has also, up until now at least, dovetailed sufficiently with imperialism’s political aims.
The peasantry is defined by its ownership of individual plots of land, suitable for a range of agriculture, from subsistence farming to small-scale commodity farming employing several proletarians. Historically, the peasantry is fanatically attached to its land, which often makes even poor peasants conservative politically. However, there is a significant range of conditions within the class which lead to different kinds of consciousness.
Mao divided the peasantry into the poor, middle and rich peasants. While all own some land, the poor peasants are often living on the edge of starvation, and must work as agricultural proletarians or tenants much of the year. The middle peasants can survive on their land, but generally rely on their own labor. The large peasants are relatively comfortable, sometimes making use of hired labor.
In many of the anti-colonial revolutions, the poor peasants, who Mao called “semi-proletarian,” played a key role in the struggle for national liberation and socialism because of the misery of their existence and their intense contradictions with the colonialists and the semi-feudal gentry. In the Russian and Chinese Revolutions, attempts were made to bring about the transition from peasant to proletarian in a planned way, as part of the socialist process. When these revolutions failed, much the old rural class structure re-emerged, while many were forced into the cities and became proletarians out of economic necessity.
Today, once again, it appears that the peasantry is faced with gradual extinction as commodity production moves into every corner of the globe. But we must temper this observation with caution, because the peasantry still comprises about __% of the world population. Furthermore, peasant agriculture has proven highly suitable for niche markets in modern imperialism. Poppy and coca production for the drug trade, for instance, is one of the largest and most lucrative agricultural sectors. But given its illegality, this kind of capitalist agriculture is best performed by small-scale producers, while well-connected processors, distributors and money launderers skim off most of the profits.
Anywhere rural power is exercised by traditional feudal elements, or in a decentralized fashion by modern warlords, the existence of a hierarchical peasantry continues to be a viable way to exploit the rural proletariat, to ensure the existence of a loyal social base (especially among the rich peasants), and to organize agricultural production. Control over the choke-points of distribution and market price is often sufficient to centralize wealth for such ruling elites, and for global capital.
The peasantry, then, is actually an archaic class which has been carried over into the modern era. Compared to the other middle classes, the peasantry is less involved in consumerist activity and culture. Its stake in social wealth is still anchored in old-fashioned ownership of land, and the majority of the class exists in poverty in the periphery. Because it is so large, and so pivotal to both production and rural life, the trajectory of the peasant class will be a key determinant of class structure in the future.
The peasantry in most of the world is a male class. It is men who generally own the land, while women toil as agricultural and domestic laborers. This gender/class division breaks out into the open as rural society disintegrates under the pressure of penetration by commodity production. Throughout the colonized world, rural women are forced into factory labor and prostitution in large numbers, often subsidizing peasant men as they struggle to retain their land and old way of life.
About the Lumpen-Proletariat
The lumpen-proletariat is not a class at all in most respects, but a stratum of de-classed people. It is made up of broken elements of various classes, especially the proletariat and the peasantry, who have gone over to criminality as a way of life. The members of this stratum often continue to have residual ties to their classes of origin, but also tend to establish new stratifications within the l-p.
The l-p is often confused with the lower sectors of the proletariat, which of course is often unemployed and sometimes involved in illegal activity. Everyone who sells drugs, for instance, isn’t in the lumpen-proletariat. The drug trade is an industry–one that occupies the capital, talents and energy of people of all classes. This is true also of prostitution. But the true lumpen-proletariat lives completely outside of production, surviving parasitically off of the proletariat (and secondarily off of other classes) through crime and mercenary violence.
Often the product of genocide, drug addiction and economic devastation, generally unemployable and anti-social, lumpen forces have no fixed economic role in capitalism. In that sense, the lumpen-proletariat is the dumping-ground of class society. On the other hand, their rootlessness and desperation make the lumpen suitable for mercenary and warlord service to a variety of other class actors. This makes the lumpen-proletariat an important factor in the current period of social transition.
The lumpen-proletariat is overwhelmingly a male sector. This speaks to some of the seemingly contradictory features of modern class society. Oppressed as they are, proletarian women are actually more economically viable than many oppressed men. Because while the labor of poor and oppressed women–including unemployed women–is treated as a resource by capital, men are often considered to be more valuable as women’s overseers and keepers than they are for their own labor. Men who are not fulfilling even that “supervisory” role as part of a capitalist family or community, and who are not laboring themselves, are relatively dispensable to the imperialists.
On the other hand, gangs of criminal men can be useful in another way, by intimidating proletarian women, or providing mercenary counter-insurgency services to the bourgeoisie. Thus we witness charged situations like that in Juarez, Mexico, where proletarian women are the mainstay of the highly-profitable maquiladora manufacturing plants, surviving within an improvised web of women’s proletarian culture, while gangs of mercenary men connected with one or another drug cartel mercilessly butcher each other in open warfare, and terrorize the women workers on the streets outside the plants.
Cross-Class Alliances and Warlordism
Classes are the basic units of social organization, but large areas of social life are determined by cross-class alliances. For example, unity between the U.S. bourgeoisie and the U.S. labor aristocracy, cemented in the New Deal, was essential to the rise and maintenance of American imperialism’s world domination for decades. Similarly, it was a cross-class alliance of pro capitalist intelligentsia drawn from the bourgeoisie, the professional/managerial class and the labor aristocracy that created modern white supremacist and consumerist culture.
In this time of transition, not only are the classes changing, but also class alliances are shifting. In this regard, one of the most important contemporary developments is the rise of warlordism.
Warlordism is a phenomenon that arises in times of social instability and transition, when the former methods of social control and “legitimate” state power have been weakened. It consists of groups of armed men who forcibly fill the power vacuum left by the weakness or withdrawal of the state’s army or police forces. Although warlord groups may at times have popular support, they are inflexibly authoritarian formations, usually organized around personal military and nepotistic loyalty to a single leader.
Warlordism is on the rise today because neocolonialism is reshaping the global social order: breaking down national boundaries, “de-settlerizing” settler states, replacing colonial administration of the Third World with local neocolonial structures, raising up new middle classes in the periphery, etc.
The rise of warlordism does not imply loss of control by imperialism–far from it. It reflects, instead, adoption of a different type of control, overall more sophisticated than the old colonialism’s relatively-static micro-management of the colonial world. Imperialism is learning that it is much more efficient, and profitable, to let local and regional forces compete for control of markets, for resources and for imperialist approval. There’s nothing like “grass roots” initiative by local oppressors to expedite the extraction of profit. And warlords, grounded in the details of local conditions, have proven their effectiveness in breaking down “obsolete” regimes, or repressing radical activity.
We tend to think about warlordism as a phenomenon in the periphery–Lebanon, say, or Somalia. But clearly it is becoming a major factor in Eastern Europe. Similarly, the inner cities of the U.S. are one of the major growth areas for warlordism. Although the Black revolution of the 1960 and 70s was defeated, it demonstrated to the ruling class that direct colonial control over the oppressed had become risky and counterproductive. Imperialism’s decision to turn physical control over large numbers of African American and Latino communities to local gangs is revealing. It implies a major downgrading in the role of white settler institutions, and even of the now-integrated urban police forces. It also reflect confidence on the part of the ruling class that it can profit in warlordistic environments.
Imperialism isn’t fundamentally threatened by the occasional renegade warlord, because the global bourgeoisie controls the commanding heights of the global economy, which all the warlords have to deal with and respect. After all, in this commodity marketplace, the available space for large-scale attempts at economic self-sufficiency or independence have become highly constricted. Furthermore, imperialism is becoming expert at playing warlords and whole populations off against each other. Global capital is even creating new transnational “judicial” institutions, complete with “war crimes tribunals”. And in extreme cases, imperialism has naturally maintained its capacity to respond with overwhelming global military force.
Modern warlordism is interesting as a cross-class alliance, because it is a specifically male alliance, drawing on men from all classes. The warlord organizations of our day tend to be sophisticated culturally as well as militarily. They often contain well-trained modern professionals and merchants as well as lumpen mercenaries; they enjoy up-to-the-minute tastes in commodities and music; they employ modern media and keep track of current trends in the news. And they are almost universally violently repressive towards women. Most warlord initiatives are relentlessly patriarchal, often espousing semi-feudal, fundamentalist traditions of male supremacy. This is no accident. In a fluid economy and social system, in a time of transition and modernization, one thing must remain constant for imperialism–control over the labor of proletarian women.
Warlordism is by no means the only mechanism for ensuring this, of course. In other places, and at other times, imperialism instead prefers to elevate the status of middle class metropolitan women, recruiting their complicity in the oppression of proletarian women in the colonial world. But the fact that imperialism encourages and operates through patriarchal warlordism is a revealing cut against the grain of “multi- cultural” mythology. It is an example of how patriarchy serves as the glue that holds the class structure together.
While warlordism is a particularly raw form of social control, it is actually just a local, mobile prototype of state power. Successful warlords can and do become the rulers of nation states. It is a relatively small step from neo-colonial warlord to neo-colonial dictator when imperialism decides it needs to regularize social life in a particular part of the world. For instance, the Taliban started as a warlord organization, but is now treated as a national government, praised by some capitalists for bringing commercial “stability” to Afghanistan.
The Informal Economy
The informal economy is a marketplace where the proletariat (especially the reserve army of the unemployed), the lumpenproletariat, and the lower fraction of the merchant petit bourgeoisie carry out economic activities that neither individual capitalists nor the state choose to engage in. In its present incarnation, imperialism can’t be bothered with organizing basic social services like transportation, child care and retailing in large areas of oppressed society. The profit margins are too low, or nonexistent. Whole countries of the so-called Fourth World, which capital has temporarily virtually abandoned, participate in the commodity economy with heavy reliance on the informal economy.
The capitalists are also aware that some economic activities, like the drug industry, operate more profitably (and more safely) when retail sales are left to local warlords and desperate individuals. Wherever there is a vacuum of direct imperialist economic supervision, it is filled by the initiative of small merchants, hustlers, flea markets, barter systems and word-of mouth networks to fill in the gaps. Like housewives, the participants in the informal economy work “off the books” to lay the economic foundation for “legitimate” profitable activity. And of course the informal economy provides other, direct benefits for capitalists by retailing commodities that would otherwise never reach a buyer.
Sometimes work in the informal economy merely supplements the wages of employed proletarians; sometimes it is the only available means of survival for both sellers and buyers. In relatively rare cases, an enterprise in the informal economy breaks the surface of the “legitimate” commercial world and elevates its owner into the merchant petit-bourgeoisie. Occasionally, the informal economy engages in competition with, and outperforms, businesses or state services in the formal economy.
Nationalism and Class Structure
Up until now, the principle unit of capitalist rule has been the nation. Capitalists of one nation competed (and waged war) against capitalists of another; exploitation was organized through a colonial and racial relationship between oppressor nations and oppressed nations; resistance took its highest form in struggles of national liberation, etc. This organizing principle of capitalism, this paradigm, is in decline in our new era. The success of the anti-colonial struggle worldwide and the globalization of capital are responsible for this change, which is highly disorienting for many anti-imperialists.
Marxists have in the past talked about the “three periods of the national question.” The first period was the period when nation-states were first on the rise, defining new markets and political structures as part of the revolutionary transition from feudalism to capitalism. The second was the period of chauvinistic struggle among capitalist nations, during which the bourgeoisie made reactionary appeals to national proletariats to betray internationalism and assist in the slaughter of fellow workers in other countries. The third period was the period of national liberation revolutions, when the assaults of colonized nations against imperialism represented the cutting edge of proletarian revolution.
Today we are entering a “fourth period of the national question.” National and racial boundaries are weakening, national identity is becoming more fluid. The imperialists have a “multicultural,” transnational strategy that has outflanked the old politics of national liberation from two directions. First, it has created new and extensive middle classes within oppressed nations, thereby weakening a key sector of the population’s solidarity with the national proletariat. Second, where formerly it was pinned down defending static positions, it has now embraced mobility–overriding national boundaries for capital and labor, and making extensive use of warlordism (often embellished, ironically, with transient “national” or “ethnic” characteristics).
The political implications of this transformation are enormous. Revolutionaries whose instincts and skills were honed in the post-war struggle for national freedom are now confronted with all kinds of mutant and degenerate forms of reactionary nationalism, opposed to the aspirations of the oppressed. Instead of an organic basis for a broad united front of classes in the oppressed nations, we now see the emergence of virulent strains of pro-imperialist cultural nationalism by would-be warlords and professional/managerial interests. Their aim is not national freedom, but winning the franchise for pimping the proletarians (mainly women) of their nation to the imperialist commodity economy. In this context, it becomes increasingly important to insist on the central importance of proletarian class resistance, and the woman-centered nature of that resistance, within the struggle against colonialism.
Summary: Features of the Current Class Structure
Marxists have been slow to recognize key features of capitalism as it has revealed itself over the last several decades. In addition, imperialism has entered a new era, which is changing the international class structure. We have touched briefly on the following points:
1. Ownership of the means of production is not limited to individual legal ownership. Various forms of collective ownership by classes and individuals have emerged and become widespread.
2. A new “enclosure of the commons” of natural and biological resources is occurring, representing a further wave of primitive accumulation. Information and intellectual property in general have become significant forms of property.
3. Classes tend to have genders. Class lines based on gender run through the middle of many families and virtually all nations. Women are at the core of the proletariat, while the labor aristocracy and the peasantry tend to be male classes.
4. The proletariat is not defined through wage labor alone. Slave labor, unwaged labor, unemployment and work in the informal economy are all characteristic of the proletariat.
5. Consumerism plays a vital economic role in the profit cycle, and in mitigating capitalism’s tendency toward overproduction. Mass middle classes are associated with this phenomenon.
6. Capital has become qualitatively more mobile and global. Transnational corporations and finance capitalists are often more powerful than national governments. The flip side of this is the relative decline of nation-states as economic and political agents. While imperialism is more centralized financially and more uniform globally in terms of commodities, labor forces, etc., than ever before, its preferred form of rule on local and regional levels has become more decentralized, more fluid, less constrained by traditional political structures. One symptom of the breakdown of the old order is the rise of warlordism.
7. Race, nation and gender are social constructs which were established and nurtured to organize ruling class hegemony and which were given substance by mass cross-class alliances. While all three constructs remain highly active, the boundaries of nations and races are becoming gradually more porous and flexible. Gender, on the other hand, is becoming the key site for the neocolonial reorganization of the imperialist social order. The all-important supervision of proletarian women is increasingly falling directly to a cross-class alliance of men, rather than being modulated mainly through nationality or race as it was in the past.
Hey, LB, have to say i’m in a grumpy mood. Hard to say what it is. Could be the increasing 21st century culture shock (more like whiplash, to me). My trusty little local bank just sent me a letter saying that it has officially been taken over by and now is–the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank Corporation. And i’m already getting bored with William Gibson’s cyberfuture (just read his latest, boring rerun). Could be i’m exhausted by having our hound drag me joyfully over the treacherous ice and hard snow at the park. But mostly, think i’m grumpy because of starting the third draft of this letter/ response to “Some Preliminary Thoughts”. Somehow, all this must be your fault! Pages of e-scrap lie all about me.
“Some Preliminary Thoughts” is indeed thought-provoking to read, but very hard to respond to. After some flailing about (no, after much flailing about), have concluded that the problem is in the nature of this document itself. Your intention was for this to be a work document, like a checklist or a reference table. We all could use it to see if we’re on the same page on this question, to check out areas of sure-footed knowledge and areas of blankness, and to focus our thinking after years of wide-ranging discussions. Your summary did all this for us, and did it well. i’m more than a little impressed with your surprise contribution here.
The problem is that you went far beyond the limited “checklist” summary. Your restless political mind clearly was in overdrive here, and you filled in the blanks with a mix of summaries of traditional M-L thought and creative extensions of that into our new age. So my original intent (and perhaps i wasn’t thinking about all this clearly enough, being distracted by multiple demands right now) was not to discuss “Some Preliminary Thoughts” at all. It would be in the background, a useful checklist or reference we could refer to while we continued our discussions on class structure.
That didn’t work, because “Some Preliminary Thoughts” is like a rough draft (very rough, obviously) for a major document itself. It keeps irrepressibly pushing its way into my discussion. So am going to critique it on that basis, as though it were the first draft of your paper on overall class structure. This is a higher level of criticism of the writing itself than you planned on, but it seems necessary. In some places, you are merely sketching in blah-blah some general proposition about class that we both know quite well, just as scaffolding for the real focus on specific classes. However “unfairly”, am going to subject that sketchy stuff to criticism just as though you had really written it for publication. OK? As our bud Lenin often said, “Sometimes the most necessary criticism is the most unfair.”
First, some overall thoughts.
One thing that really struck me was that someone had finally done an overall class analysis of the present capitalist system. Really tried to do it, from scratch. Not just repeated what leftists wrote fifty or a hundred years ago. Maybe you’ve seen literature i haven’t, but this is the only such class analysis i’ve seen. By anyone in the u.s. Am i wrong? Hope i don’t sound stupid here to you, but i think even this very rough first draft is a real accomplishment. And by our provincial u.s. standards very daring.
The second thought is the question of…currents? trends? ( don’t know exactly what to call
this ). i mean, one of the endemic problems in how radicals think of class structure is that to us it’s too much like a structure (it’s something we inherit from our bourgeois Aristotelian ideological indoctrination). Rigid, house-like, fixed, a thing distinct and separate of itself. Which is may be useful as an abstraction to get an overview, but is not really true. Class structure is not really a set of boxes. That view leaves a lot of human activity out, a lot of what’s going on with our race and society out of the equation. Which actually makes “class” an artificially diminished and less important factor.
AIDS as a world epidemic wasn’t possible in the pre-industrial world, but in some societies now it is altering the very class structure. Same with genocidal wars of nation-building in the periphery waged with post-modern concepts of strategy (it would be interesting to examine these wars in a scientific way, to bring to light their class strategies and specific political military applications-~not simply to dismiss them as mindless racial savagery as the metropolis likes to).
One reason earlier communists here didn’t understand the class structure methodologically speaking was that they had this fixed, reified notion of class and class struggle. Rather than trying to find out what material changes in production, what larger social and environmental developments were inevitably changing not only the game but all the players. Like the global expansion of capital and imperialism’s absolute need to get over the colonial questions meaning that… Tim McVeigh was probably ordered to shine Colin Powell’s shoes! (smile). Like the over the-top imperialist plundering of Mexico leading to the forced mass migration of millions Northward, erasing the artificial border and re-Mexicanizing the Southwest–and increasingly, much of the u.s.a..
Like both Malcolm X’s line and “Settlers” being true views historically and culturally— but both also in one sense obsolete, now that the New Afrikan class structure is being allowed to inflate, to rise up vertically in a “normal” capitalist way. So that contrary to Malcolm’s mocking riff on the Black “middle class” being only pretenders—bank janitors saying “I’m in banking”, postal clerks saying “I work for the government”, etc.– real Black middle classes, actual Black capitalists, and a Black labor aristocracy as well have sprung into existence in only one generation. While the Black proletariat shrinks but also becomes even more women centered and under even more repression but in a very different way (this is an illuminating question: while New Afrikan proletarians here inside the continental empire are certainly much “freer” as individuals in the larger multicultural society (jobwise, residentially, educationally, etc) in the post-segregation changes, they as a whole are also much more repressed, doubly repressed, within their own society by the mass Black violence, Black drug neo-economy, destruction of community structure and warlordism. Plus being wiped out as a specific class).
A real advantage of your type of class analysis is that it doesn’t just pin labels (“working class”, “petit-bourgeoisie”, etc.) on what are basically white classes, and then throw New Afrikans, Indians, etc in as “less advantaged”, “more oppressed” add-ons. Which is how academics and revisionists have usually done it.
So we should think of class structure as like a biosphere, but also with Darwinian selection and evolution going on, and all on a material plane (not as social abstractions in our heads) with physical terrain, with the environment and climate and geological things going on at the same time. Throw in “time’s arrow”, too! i mean, remember Marx said that he wanted his writing to be just like life itself. (am coming back to this point later).
Back to my point about “currents”, in the context of your opening discussion of what amounts to the same thing, overall factors or observations. “Some Preliminary Thoughts” begins with saying: (page 1, 1st para.)
A scientific understanding of classes is indispensable for proletarian revolutionaries. Without at least some basic elements of an up-to-date class analysis, it is impossible to formulate workable revolutionary strategy or, in fact, to understand the most essential features of social life.
Certainly, this is true. It’s also a case of what i discussed earlier, of your sketching in short generalizations of what we both know, as scaffolding for the main discussion on specific classes. Given that, i still think it’s useful to point out the difference between this type of start and the start of the Manifesto (interesting that we’ve both been looking at it lately). Famously, Marx begins with, “There is a spectre haunting Europe.” That is, he begins with great drama, with the urgency of the real world crisis that he draws us into understanding. And it’s only in that unfolding clash that he delineates for us the different major classes.
This is not a question of writing style (tho he was undoubtedly a master of prose when he wasn’t putting us to sleep with “economics”). But rather a matter of political insight, of his talking concretely of what is central in the class politics of a place and time.
You continue: (page 1, para. 2)
Classes are large groups of people with important common material interests. Of course, many other social groupings-including nations, races and genders–have material interests too. What sets classes apart is the fact that their common material interests are rooted in the specific relationships they have to the process of production.
This is the kind of kind of Marxist class discussion that doesn’t work in my picky opinion, because it’s just familiar, unconsciously agreed-upon ritual words between author & reader in the old left movement subculture. Maybe those new to politics won’t really grab this, it’ll sound like pseudoscientific gobbly-gook (no cheap shots, please).
Since the chances are that your readers will have some political experience, let’s assume that they vaguely know this stuff. Maybe this kind of stuff can be more or less junked?
…The class structure, in fact, is precisely the way that society is organized to produce goods and services–for both survival and profit–at a given point in time. It reflects a society’s underlying mode of production, as well as the social relations that that mode of production has generated historically.
That hit me as the heart of the thing, something that i “knew” but don’t keep in focus—“class structure…is the way that society is organized.” This may sound like just basic common sense to you, but most left discussions of class treat classes as large, almost free-floating bodies of political antagonists punching away. The notion of the “structure”, the whole of all classes, having an identity and importance is not appreciated enough i think.