Mike Naylor has written a succinct response to Mark Fisher’s “Vampires’ Castle” article. Though I’ve already more or less said my piece on the matter, Naylor’s narrow focus on the issue of class in Fisher provides a convenient excuse for me to flesh out some ideas about its social, political, and cultural dimensions. I’ve been meaning to write something up on it for a while now. But before we embark on that divagation, let’s first attend a few things Naylor writes in critiquing Fisher. Toward the end, he avers:
We should reject Fisher’s call to ignore oppression, as if our lack of thinking about them makes them go away.
Certainly, ignoring oppression won’t make it go away. But compulsively talking about and splitting hairs about oppression isn’t necessarily a way of thinking about them. More often than not it’s an unthinking procedure ritualistically invoked, which gives the false appearance of probity and depth while in fact it remaining at an extremely superficial level of abstraction. If anything, the obsessive focus on all the particular ways one is oppressed obscures more than it clarifies the universal unfreedom of modern society: namely, that which is entailed by capital’s continued dominance over the process of production. Though intersectionality claims to finally address the actual complexity of life under the capitalist social formation in all its empirical messiness — casting light on the manifold, multiform imbalances and power dynamics — in truth it only further confounds the situation. Even the language used in trying to grasp these different aspects of oppression bespeaks an abiding confusion over how they all fit together. All the talk of “intersecting,” “overlapping,” and “interlocking” “networks,” “systems,” and “modalities” of “discrimination,” “subjugation,” and “interpellation” (concepts pilfered from the coffers of the Theory Industry these last thirty years) is simply a safeguard that ensures identity politicians won’t be surprised by new forms of oppression that await discovery or invention.
(On this note, some perceptively quipped: “Isn’t ‘intersectionality’ just another name for what we used to call [the Freudian and Althusserian concept of] ‘overdetermination’?” They’re right, you know.)
By relying so heavily on flimsy neologisms like these, identity politics is thereby allowed to neglect and even studiously avoid confrontation with the overarching totality of social relations under capitalism. Apparent heterogeneity here masks underlying homogeneity. Seemingly centrifugal tendencies toward dispersal and diffusion veil capital’s propensity toward concentration and centralization. Rather than reveal the true magnitude of this historic impasse, the ongoing crisis of bourgeois society, identity politics seizes upon the accidence and minutiae of everyday experience and anoints these as crucial sites of “struggle.” Every perceived slight, asymmetry, or indiscretion, no matter how minor, is exaggerated and thereby elevated to a matter of life and death. The fear is that without scrupulous attention to detail, revolutionary politics will end up reproducing the very forms of oppression they ostensibly seek to overcome. However convincing this oft-repeated argument might seem at first blush, it should be remembered that means and ends are not always identical when it comes to politics. Far from taking problems such as racism, sexism, and homophobia seriously, moreover, the Left seems to subscribe to the naïve belief that structural forms of social oppression can be corrected simply by codifying and bureaucratizing the way that people talk about them.
The points Naylor makes in criticizing of Fisher’s idea of class are well taken. Cultural markers such as accent or inflection, habits of dress or behavior associated with a given social stratum can hardly be considered constitutive features of class. These vary too much over time and space to have any enduring value as indicators of one’s socioeconomic standing or origin. At most, they can be considered a loose set of criteria or ensemble of expectations that stereotype different groups of individuals throughout society. It would make no sense to either exalt or abase someone on the basis of such qualities. Members of the working class should do not deserve to be demonized as “chavs,” but neither should they be condescendingly valorized as somehow more “authentic” on account of their unpretentious, slangy speech or charmingly direct mannerisms.
Still, there is some difficult in disaggregating exactly what “class” refers to in different contexts. The most famous, and certainly the most objective, definition of class is probably the socioeconomic one. Individuals are grouped according to their relationship to the means of production. Either they are dispossessed and have nothing to sell but their labor, or they own means of production and enough accumulated value to employ others to work these instruments. Lenin provides a fairly serviceable summary of this way of viewing class:
Classes are large groups of people differing from each other by the place they occupy in a historically determined system of social production, by their relation (in most cases fixed and formulated in law) to the means of production, by their role in the social organization of labor, and, consequently, by the dimensions of the share of social wealth of which they dispose and the mode of acquiring it.
Another aspect of “class” pertains to consciousness and ideology. What does it mean to say that workers are susceptible to bourgeois or petit-bourgeois modes of thought? How can someone’s subjective consciousness be so out of step with his objective existence? One of the recurring mistakes of historical Marxism was the assumption that the working-class would automatically come to recognize its own best interests lay in socialism. It has repeatedly expressed bewilderment whenever the working class acts against that which might lead to its practical self-emancipation. This is what Wilhelm Reich referred to as the “rationalist” fallacy committed by Marxists down through the twentieth century. “False consciousness,” despite the facile objections raised against this figure of thought, is nothing other than the rift or disconnect between subject and object.
Several conclusions flow from this analysis:
- First of all, “class” has political, cultural, and socioeconomic dimensions. Marxism’s insistence on the centrality of the working class owes to its objective position within capitalist society, i.e. the socioeconomic aspect of its existence as class. Under capitalism, the only group universally necessary to the reproduction of its social relations is the proletariat. Labor and capital are not merely antithetical, but mutually constitute each other as well. Without labor there to mediate, fructify, and augment the original value invested in production, capital cannot continue to exist. Without capital’s prior investment and employment of workers in the productive process, the working class ceases to exist. This is why the abolition of capital would simultaneously involve the self-abolition of the proletariat. Incidentally, this is what necessitates a dialectical approach to the evaluation of social antagonisms under capitalism.
- Second, the political connotations of class have to do with the group’s conscious organization and coordinated transformation of the world. Marx once wrote that “the working class is revolutionary or it is nothing.” Given the present configuration of forces within society, if we are to believe Marx, it is difficult not to conclude from this that the working class is nothing — at least for now. Without class consciousness, the proletariat is nothing more than a pool of exploitable labor. This is why someone can be accused of petit-bourgeois consciousness regardless of upbringing or working-class credentials.
- Third, the cultural signifiers attaching to class is already well fleshed out by Naylor in his critique of Fisher.