Tag Archives: Class

Wolff in Sheep’s Clothing

by Anne Archist, who apologises for the terrible pun in the title.

Lately I’ve been following Professor Richard D. Wolff’s “online classes” on Marxian economics (I’d recommend that people who follow The Great Unrest should skip over the “intensive introduction” course, because the applied course basically covers the same things anyway, and unless you’ve never encountered Marxist thought before, you’ll probably find he moves slowly a lot of the time even in the latter course).

He’s an interesting figure, and probably one of a handful of Marxists in history to have been educated at Harvard, Stanford and Yale (although he says his teachers, with the exception of one Marxist, never had any interest in or knowledge of Marx’s ideas, and that he essentially studied Marx in his own time). Wolff makes several points that set him apart from standard ‘Marxist’ academics – some of which are more significant or original than others – which I’ll summarise and address here; please do look into his work if you’re interested in hearing his own words or taking the ideas further. A side note: apparently his interpretation of Marx comes via Reading Capital – a book which is only partially available in English, though Wolff is fluent in French, so may have read the original – and many of the following ideas may therefore have come from Althusser or his students, for all I know.

Labour-Centric Analysis

The major point of departure that separates Wolff from a lot of other Marxist theorists or Marxian-influenced economists is that he conceives of class in terms of relations to surplus-labour rather than relations to the means of production. Rather than building up an analysis which includes concepts like the social relations to the means of production, or the labour theory of value, he uses an arguably simpler conceptualisation: “‘productive’ labour is required to live but it also produces a surplus; in our society many people carry out ‘productive’ labour but do not distribute the surplus themselves, allowing those who do distribute it to appropriate a portion of it for themselves without carrying out any labour”.

When I first heard this I thought it was just a strange and idiosyncratic way of explaining classical Marxist economic theory (particularly the critique of ‘bourgeois economics’ in Capital). After thinking about it some more and seeing how the analysis was applied, I realised that it actually has some major conceptual differences (even if they can be shown only to be differences of emphasis or explaining the same thing in different terms, which I’m not sure of). For instance, Marx’s theory of exploitation is generally taken to rest on the labour theory of value, whereas Wolff’s version of exploitation doesn’t even seem to require asking the question of what causes things to have the value they do; this question was a concern for bourgeois economics but shouldn’t necessarily be one for someone criticising capitalism (remember: Capital was Marx’s critique of already-existing economics, not a critique of capitalism).

Another example: the concept of economic democracy is quite widespread among socialists (to the point that Peter Tatchell, who nowadays tends to steer clear of socialistic language, issued a call for economic democracy), but the link between it and the labour-theory-of-value construction of Marxist theory has often been tenuous or indirect; the steps from demands about the distribution of property to demands about economic decision-making processes have rarely been well articulated. Wolff’s presentation of Marx’s argument makes this immediate and obvious – economic democracy is equivalent to the demand that the surplus should be distributed by those who produce it, an issue directly addressed by Wolff’s notion of class.

Exploitation and Surplus Production

According to Wolff, exploitation is merely what happens when one person labours so as to produce a surplus – that is, produces more than the labourer needs to sustain themselves – enough, in fact, to sustain other people too – and someone else appropriates and distributes that surplus rather than the worker distributing it themselves. Exploitation, then, is not about someone receiving more than they have contributed, as Roemer would have it (Roemer has offered different definitions of exploitation, but at least one of them amounts to “consuming more than you produce”). This is important because it heads off a serious problem with Roemer-style definitions, which is that they identify children, disabled people, pensioners and others who do not work as exploiters; on the contrary, Wolff identifies them neither as exploiters nor as exploited.

On Wolff’s view of things, these people are allocated (and consume) a portion of the surplus, but the important factor is not that they are consuming it but that someone else is allocating it. This seems to fit with a relatively superficial and intuitive exploration of human emotional and moral reaction – namely, we begrudge people who take things (that we have not offered) from us and give them to others, even if we believe that the others receiving them should have them. An example: If you were planning on buying someone a book as a present and someone else stole some of your money, bought the book with it, and then gave it to the person, you would be justifiably upset and morally offended by the thief’s behaviour, even though the endgame is the same.

Another advantage of this way of looking at things is that it illustrates an important continuity between capitalists and government officials which is often assumed by Marxists but rarely explained; both take part in the appropriation and distribution of surplus they have not themselves produced. Capitalists appropriate surplus in the form of profit (in fact, capitalists can appropriate surplus without making any profit, since  on Wolff’s view surplus must also be used to pay for ‘unproductive’ labour such as that performed by security guards), and the government (at all levels) makes decisions about taxation and spending which represent a further form of appropriated surplus. The state retains a unique position within the economy, however, in that it is capable of extracting surplus from more than just workers within capitalist relations – as well as ‘productive’ employed workers, it also claims taxes from capitalists, self-employed workers, ‘unproductive’ employed workers, etc.

The Feudal Home

Following on from the above points, Wolff also identifies husbands in the traditional family structure as exploiters within the home (whether or not they are exploited outside the home). Production takes place within the home as well as outside it (for instance, the wife transforms raw food into cooked food), and the wife produces a surplus for the husband (she cooks dinner for both of them, not just herself).  Specifically, he argues that the class structure within the traditional family household is essentially a feudal one, for two reasons.

Firstly,  the wife is not owned by the husband like a slave, does not contract her labour for pay like a capitalist worker, and does not distribute the surplus herself as in the communist and ancient modes. Wolff seems to function on the assumption that there are only five modes of production, so if you eliminate four then whatever you are analysing must be the fifth. Secondly, the marriage ceremony is apparently itself derived from a feudal ceremony in which the serf and the lord pledged to ‘love, honour and obey’ one another (I haven’t been able to verify this, and would be interested to see a source and read more).

Now, personally I’m not entirely convinced by this. That one ceremony grew out of another is an interesting and potentially informative historical fact, but it certainly doesn’t establish that both ceremonies establish the same ‘surplus relations’ (if you’re not convinced by that, consider the fact that Wolff has to refer specifically to “traditional” marriage because other modes of production exist within married households – therefore the exact same ceremony can be used to set up multiple different class structures). As for the other reason Wolff gives, it’s a bit of a stretch to suggest that there can only be the five modes of production that Marx discusses, and even if you do so, you could eliminate feudalism first on the basis that the woman is not ‘tied to the house’, or something similar, and therefore conclude by elimination that it was another mode of production.

The Revolution on the Home Front

I don’t have a concrete suggestion at the moment for what kind of class structure we should consider traditional families to have, but it seems to me that it may be more enlightening to identify it as a patriarchal mode distinct from the others, as some socialist-feminists such as Delphy have done. At any rate we can conclude that the family unit, though it operates in a society we consider to be ‘capitalist’, actually traditionally operates according to another economic model (and very rarely, if ever, operates according to the capitalist one – modern exceptions generally operate on the communist or ‘ancient’ modes). What is of great historical importance regarding this analysis, as far as Wolff is concerned, is not necessarily what the mode of production within the family should be called, but rather that it has changed and is continuing to change.

The ‘traditional’ marriage or family was much more common two centuries ago (though other forms existed even then), but the USA (and many countries) has seen a solid and consistent decline in the number of people living under this kind of arrangement for the last half-century. Some of this has been in the form of rising demands for sharing the burden of housework within marriages, but it has also taken the form of rising numbers of ‘single-person families’, groups of friends sharing houses (and the housework), etc.

In addition to this change, the labour force and the person-hours at the command of the market has swelled with increasing numbers of women who traditionally would not have worked, or would have worked less, or would have been self-employed, etc – this has taken place over a longer period, of course, and is perhaps more of a varied and complex picture, but it is a real change nonetheless. Wolff argues that these changes are important historical shifts – a class revolution, according to Marxian analysis – that have passed the left by, and that the political fallout of this is that the (religious) right have seized on them and used the negative aspects (like increasing levels of social alienation and isolation, or women’s low pay and harassment at work) to push their own agendas.

Immediate Alternatives

What should the left be doing? Wolff is less precise on this point, as are so many academics. His strong point is analysing what has happened and what is happening, not what should happen next. Nevertheless he has some comments on this topic, which tend to contradict or bypass much accepted Marxist doctrine; rather than dealing with demands on the state and suchlike, he harkens back to early socialist and classical Marxist ideas.

The first suggestion is that the left should aim to make explicit to people the class shift that has taken place within the home, and that Marxist theory can understand both what was going on before and what happened to get to where we are now (and perhaps why it happened); this, he argues, would put us in a much stronger position to argue to working women that they should oppose exploitation (in the Wolffian sense) on the job as well as in the home. This would raise class consciousness and have a kind of detoxifying effect concerning people’s fears around Marxist theory and concepts like class struggle or revolution.

Wolff’s other major suggestion is that the left should take a more sustained and pro-active interest in cooperatives (and presumably communes). Rather than seeing a society which has an essentially monolithic capitalist culture and structure, he sees a world in which many class relations co-exist, intertwine, intermingle and contradict either other (such as the working-class husband who is an exploiter at home despite being exploited on the job); therefore he places less of an emphasis on ‘overthrowing’ or ‘abolishing’ capitalism in the sense that is common in the Marxist left today. This also links back to some criticisms he makes of Marxist figureheads such as Lenin and Trotsky with regard to their Marxian economic analysis, which he considers to have been poor at best due to their failure to properly change relations to the surplus (he considers the USSR to have been a kind of state capitalism because the state extracted and distributed surplus in basically the same way as private capitalists do).

A specific consequence of this is that he considers it a high priority to relate to forms of producing (at home and at work, presumably) which avoid the extraction and distribution of the surplus by another party or a minority of producers. His proposals are vague at best, and shouldn’t be taken as a solid political programme, but he seems to suggest that socialists and the labour movement should get behind cooperative enterprises partially for obvious reasons that this would be free of exploitation and show that it is possible to produce without capitalist arrangements and so forth.

An interesting elaboration on his thoughts on cooperatives involves an argument that attributes at least a portion of capitalist hegemony to the extraction of the surplus; specifically, if private companies can extract a surplus from their labourers and accumulate vast amounts of wealth in this way, they gain more control over the media, political campaigns, lobbying, etc. If, on the other hand, workers enter into cooperative enterprises and deny capitalists this surplus, that surplus stays within the working class, both diminishing the wealth available to the capitalists to carry out a programme of class struggle against workers and increasing the wealth available to the workers to carry out a programme of class struggle against capitalists.

Conclusion

In short, Wolff has some original ideas, an interesting spin on old ideas and some interesting analysis gained by applying old methods to current and historical events. I’d recommend that people interested in Marxist class analysis, whether or not you are a Marxist yourself, take a look at him and his interpretation of Marx. It’s certainly made me re-think my understanding of Marxian economics and given me a useful new tool to my belt of Marxian interpretations, analyses and concepts.

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Why Social Mobility is Shit (II)

by Anne Archist

The second lesson from our analysis of the concept of social mobility, which is much less significant but worth pointing out in the absence of its acknowledgement by the political mainstream, is that people can move down as well as up the social hierarchy. Not only this, but (in relative terms at least) every movement up is accompanied by (a) movement(s) down, and vice versa. Marx talked about one-sided ways of understanding a concept, and this is certainly something that most commentators are guilty of – social mobility is a good thing, right? After all, it allows people to end up better off than they started in life. But, of course, it also means that people might end up worse off than they started too. For everyone who wins the lottery, someone’s business collapses. For every child of a mining family that became a professor, a child of the bourgeoisie was forced to seek wages by an inheritance squandered by their parents.

Basically, social mobility is generally conceived as a matter of relations – the generally increasing wealth of society as a whole, even when distributed around the population to some extent, is not termed social mobility. People’s position improving relative to their barest physical needs is not, therefore, social mobility (on this normal interpretation of the term, at least). Rather, it is improvement relative to other people in our society that counts as mobility. I leapfrog you, leaving you no better off. Someone else takes my place, sending me crashing back to where I was before. None of this makes any overall improvement – social mobility, conceptually speaking, is a zero-sum game.

If we all move together, we are not moving within the hierarchy but shifting the whole hierarchy onto different ground, still intact. John MacLean said “Rise with your class, not out of it” – the working class can improve their position as a class, and can eventually abolish the very social relations that make them the working class. This should be their focus, rather than the language of social mobility that implores workers to leave their class behind them and enter the ranks of small capital or the self-employed.

It’s interesting also to reflect on the way that social mobility is measured and conceptualised by the right. This is a methodological issue that threatens to slip into the analysis of those on the left, as methodologies and underlying analytical assumptions have been known to do in the past. Here’s an example: David Willetts is concerned about the effect feminism has had on social mobility. His reasoning is that many women have been able to take opportunities that would otherwise gone to men and improved their social positions. Of course, the reason that Willetts sees this as a threat to social mobility is that he conceives of the family unit as a single, indivisible economic entity, represented largely by the ‘male breadwinner’.

If Willetts conceived of social mobility on an individual level, the improvements in women’s social mobility would neutralise the damage done to men’s social mobility, as we’ve already seen. The reason that women pose a problem in this way of looking at things is that they themselves aren’t seen as worthy of assessing individually for their own social standing. Their social standing is, largely, that of their husband. Families are becoming less socially mobile due to the fact that generally families now consist of either two people who are well off and well educated or two people who are not particularly economically prosperous and averagely educated at best.

This means that there is increasing polarisation between family units in terms of, say, education, when you average out between the husband and wife. Before you could have relied upon well-educated men marrying poorly-educated women in order to create a tendency towards the mean. It also means that families are less likely to change dramatically in terms of income and so on – if the family’s income depends almost entirely on the man’s income, then the loss of his job will affect them much more than if his income only makes up half or a third of the income.

None of this has anything to do with individual people’s chances in life, their incomes or levels of education, their class membership, or whatever. It has to do with the way that these people come together into family units, and that is what Willetts is blind to; by taking the basic economic unit to be the male-headed family, he obscures inequalities within families and the social mobility of women (other than single women, perhaps, who may appear in his metrics as a kind of abberation). Willetts also seems to confuse inequality in household income with lack of social mobility, though it’s unclear as to what exactly his reasoning is from the way he’s been quoted in the press.

Why, then, do some on the left promote this apparently right-wing goal? Arguments over what will best promote social mobility abound, claims that the cuts to education will harm social mobility come even from hardline SWPers and so forth. It makes perfect sense that David Willetts should be concerned with social mobility – presumably he thinks there’s some link between meritocracy and social mobility (which, of course, isn’t logically the case since people’s position could change due to luck, as when workers win lottery jackpots), and that meritocracy is good.

But surely the left should be making the more politically explosive points against this agenda? When tories talk about social mobility they’re talking merely about: shuffling around who’s rich and who’s poor, not eliminating poverty; increasing competition for good educational opportunities, not improving educational opportunities for all; pitting ordinary working people against each other, not building cooperation and solidarity among them.

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Why Social Mobility is Shit (I)

by Anne Archist

Everyone’s talking about it. David Willetts has kicked the hornet’s nest most recently by arguing that feminism is to blame for reduced social mobility over the last few decades, but the concept itself is in widespread usage these days, from the left through to the government. Social mobility is good, we’re told; it gives people a chance to get on in life, to do better than the generations before them. That all sounds nice, but today I’m going to tear the whole concept apart like only a philosopher can.

The kind of social mobility we’re talking about here (and that most people are talking about elsewhere) is ‘vertical social mobility’. This is the idea that people can move up or down the social hierarchy. Some people are at the ‘top’ of society (generally those who are best educated, have the highest incomes, have the most political/economic power, know the most powerful people, etc) and others are at the ‘bottom’ (the opposite), with people in various layers in between, or a spectrum stretching from one to the other. To talk about (vertical) social mobility without imagining society in this hierarchical and unequal way renders it nonsense.

So the first lesson we can take from our analysis of social mobility as a concept is that it’s incompatible with an equal, classless society. Social mobility presupposes a class divide or a spectrum of inequality; equality and classlessness makes ‘mobility’ impossible because mobility means (the capability for) movement from one point to another, and an equal, classless society is one in which everyone occupies the same social position – everyone is at the same point because there is only one point. Next time people imply that equality and social mobility go hand in hand, remember that while higher degrees of equality may correlate with higher measures of social mobility, real equality is incompatible with real social mobility.

Some people will be confused by the previous paragraph – generally more equality means more mobility, but the most equality means the least mobility? How can that be the case? Something that might illuminate the previous paragraph is the idea of multiple-peakedness; this is important in understanding certain aspects of politics. The idea is that not everything works as a linear improvement in a particular direction. It’s not true, for instance, that everyone who votes for the most right-wing party would vote for the second most right-wing party as their second preference (an assumption, incidentally, that seems to be underlying much of the AV debate at the moment; maybe I’ll talk about this more in a further post).

Suppose that a working-class voter is minimally class-conscious; they realise that free markets are just a route to the rich getting richer at their expense, and they know that they have a certain common interest with fellow workers in a similar position to themselves. They may also be racist or generally nationalist and short-sighted, however. That is, they may not be internationalist and may not understand their common interest with immigrant workers. They vote BNP because they see the BNP as a party that will fight for the native working class, will oppose free market profiteering, etc. Ignoring the question of how accurate this perception is, it doesn’t therefore follow that they would vote for UKIP or the tories as their second preference. Perhaps they’d vote Labour or even support the Socialist Party or something of the sort.

This is multiple-peakedness – the line on a graph that represents their preferences doesn’t have just one peak and descend in a straight line from there, but actually has a peak at each end. In this instance it’s probably double-peaked, with a gradual descent down from the far left towards the tories but then a big peak at the end representing the far right. In other instances there may be more than two peaks separated by troughs of varying heights, etc. Now we can apply this idea to the relationship between equality and social mobility; it may be that in, e.g. conditions present in Western European style broadly social democracies, equality and social mobility are correlated. This doesn’t imply that they will correlate in other conditions (other sections of the graph, as it were). After all, if a society is too polarised, mobility will be all but impossible too – social mobility is going to be low for slaves, for instance! – but if a society is equal enough then social mobility is going to be conceptually impossible altogether because there is no room to ‘move’.

While we’re on the subject, don’t forget the transformation of quantity into quality in terms of understanding the relationship here… This is the thing that Engels repeatedly explained in terms of water changing states – as water heats up (a change in quantity of energy), it eventually reaches a point where it boils (a change in quality of state). It could be that social mobility improves up to the point that it just becomes a socially/politically meaningless concept because there is little relevance to moving within the narrow constrains that a society that is basically equal. I’m not concerned here with laying out a strict analysis of the relationship between the two variables across the whole range of possibilities, but it seems pretty clear that at the extreme of total equality, social mobility is utterly non-existent. As I’ve said, social mobility presupposes an unequal, class-divided society.

Part II coming tomorrow…

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You want me to join your party? Come back when it looks like this.

by Anne Archist

“Well, I tell you what, boy. Ive been knowing you since you were knee-high to a grasshopper, n****r. and I dont know if I like communism and I dont know if I like socialism. But I know that that Breakfast For Children program fees my kids, n****r. And if you put your hands on that Breakfast For Children program, Im gonna come off this can and I’m gonna beat your ass” – Fred Hampton Sr quoting a black mother.

Most people will recognise the name “Black Panther Party” (BPP), even those who aren’t politically engaged. The party has a (perhaps deserved) reputation for troublemaking and violence, revolving largely around a popular early tactic of patrolling the streets to ensure police officers stayed within the bounds of the law in their interactions with black people. These patrols were armed with loaded weapons, though of course this was a much less remarkable phenomenon in 60s California than a rifle-toting militia walking the streets of Brixton would be! The enduring legacy of the Panthers in my mind, however, is their successful demonstration that large-scale social programs could be organised and carried out by self-organising communities (at least under the watchful eye of a revolutionary vanguard).

The BPP published a party “organ” (that’s Marxese for “newspaper”) like most parties – called, unsurprisingly, ‘(The) Black Panther‘. They carried out political activity influenced by a Maoist theory and Black Nationalism, drawing up a famous ‘Ten-Point Program’ of objectives. Black Panthers entered coalitions with other groups and intervened in a wider movement, as might be expected of any Marxist organisation. The party relied on theoretical and official leaders (amusingly often referred to in Parliamentarian terms –  Huey P. Newton was the “defence minister”, while Emory Douglas was the “minister for culture”), committees and a centralised hierarchical structure. They were, despite their relatively separatist racial attitude, a run-of-the-mill Marxist party in the USA.

What makes the Black Panthers special in my mind is that they are the probably the best example of a party that took seriously the concerns of its working-class constituency in their everyday lives and instigated social projects to address them in a way that helped both the community and the party itself (by earning it a sympathetic reputation, increasing recruitment and donation rates, etc). Fred Hampton even went as far as brokering non-aggression deals between Chicago street gangs and diverting them onto a more politically conscious path by welcoming them into the “Rainbow Coalition” that also included Students for a Democratic Society, the BPP themselves, and other leftist-influenced groupings.

Astonishingly the party eventually established more than 45 “survival programs”, among which were the provision of: free breakfasts for schoolchildren, substance rehab, support for draft resisters, buses for those visiting prison inmates, free clothing distribution, educational programs, even their own ambulance and sickle-cell anaemia testing service! Quite how the party afforded to do this is utterly beyond me – I’d be interested if anyone has ideas as to whether they got funding from any major organisations or foreign powers perhaps… David Horowitz suggests that they received government grants, but also that leading members were embezzling funds – if true this makes the financial feat all the more impressive!

I’m reminded of a discussion at the Anarchist Movement Conference about surveying the opinions of local people about what the major local problems are and how they might be addressed, which are the highest priorities, etc. The goal of this is not, of course, to subordinate the activity of organisers to the will of the politically ignorant – we need not assume that if the survey says “immigrants out”, we should u-turn on a policy of migrant solidarity work. The information gives us a better knowledge base, they (I think it was Liberty & Solidarity) said, from which to conduct propaganda, attempt recruitment, initiate projects and so forth; there is still the possibility of interpreting the data through the lens of our own political theory and attempting to change opinions (as well as act on them) accordingly.

So what am I getting at with all this? Look at the left today. Discounting some anarchistic and often single-issue projects like Food Not Bombs, or else mainstream charity work/volunteering undertaken in addition to political work, can we seriously claim that we’re following in this tradition? I think not. Should we be? I think so – there could be plenty of theoretical justifications from Gramsci etc, but the point is essentially two-fold: firstly people need these things and secondly people will respond better to us if we provide these things. Is this just a cynical tactic of manipulation? No – as I said, the fact that people need them is an important consideration as an end in itself. Moreover though, the question is more one of getting publicity and attention, welcoming people into dialogue, showing that our political positions are not made up of furthering some vested interests or suchlike.

Sceptics should begin to understand the essence of leftist politics and the world we are trying to work towards when they see a woman leading evening classes on political theory or a man feeding hungry children before school. Obviously this question is particularly pressing at a time when government programs are being rolled back and so forth – Patrick has discussed this before. Let’s take the initiative and rediscover this tradition that stretches much further back than the Black Panthers (perhaps Edd could be convinced to write about some of their European forebears?), for the sake of our communities.

 

“You see, people get involved in a lot of things thats profitable to them, and weve got to make it less profitable. Weve got to make it less beneficial. Im saying that any program thats brought into our community should be analyzed by the people of that community. It should be analyzed to see that it meets the relevant needs of that community. We dont need no n*****s coming into our community to be having no company to open business for the n*****s.” – Fred Hampton Sr

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