Class and identity crisis

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Third, the cultural signifiers attaching to class is already well fleshed out by Naylor in his critique of Fisher.

9 thoughts on “Class and identity crisis

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  3. Dear Ross,

    Please refer to Lenin’s “The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination” (1915). Specifically:

    That is why the focal point in the Social-Democratic programme must be that division of nations into oppressor and oppressed which forms the essence of imperialism, and is deceitfully evaded by the social-chauvinists and Kautsky. This division is not significant from the angle of bourgeois pacifism or the philistine Utopia of peaceful competition among independent nations under capitalism, but it is most significant from the angle of the revolutionary struggle against imperialism. It is from this division that our definition of the “right of nations to self-determination” must follow, a definition that is consistently democratic, revolutionary, and in accord with the general task of the immediate struggle for socialism.

  4. Ross,

    I mean to say, first, that Lenin and his comrades took struggles against oppression very seriously. I dig up this obscure old piece of polemic because your politics seem to be informed by a reading of this period of the workers movement as the last genuinely revolutionary moment.

    Second, I mean to imply that social democracy, in the old sense of the phrase, was sensitive to the relationship between the workers movement and the struggle against various forms of oppression. Lenin and Luxemburg disagreed on the best solution to the problem of national self-determination, but they would have both rejected a “class first” analysis that told oppressed people to wait their turn while the Subjects of History sorted things out. They would have rejected this point of view as oppressor nation chauvinism and hypocrisy.

    There are huge differences between their tasks and ours, but you are willfully blind to pretend that ‘proper’ marxists haven’t seen the relationship I’m drawing out here.

    • Yes, Lenin and his comrades took struggles against various forms of oppression very seriously. Revolutionary Marxists have always taken oppression seriously. This is why Marxists have always fought for racial and gender equality. During the period to which you refer, that of revolutionary Social-Democracy, the Socialist Party of Great Britain thus declared that “the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex” (1904).

      Nevertheless, you will notice that even here class struggle remains decisive in the historical movement against capitalism. There is a parallelism in the lines immediately following the passage you quoted, a reciprocity by which the crisis taking place in colonial fringe — perhaps precipitated by its declaration of independence — redacts upon the colonial metropole. Lenin advocated the right of nations to self-determination not simply for the sake of oppressed countries’ “independence,” but primarily for the sake of spurring revolutionary struggle in the oppressor nation. In the context of a revolutionary situation, he contended, crisis in the periphery could set off a crisis in the core (the widespread notion that imperialism will be broken at the point of its “weakest link”). Either way, for this to happen the coordination of the international working class is key:

      [T]he Social-Democrats of the oppressor nations must demand that the oppressed nations should have the right of secession, for otherwise recognition of equal rights for nations and of international working-class solidarity would in fact be merely empty phrase-mongering, sheer hypocrisy…

      [T]he Social-Democrats of the oppressed nations must attach prime significance to the unity and the merging of the workers of the oppressed nations with those of the oppressor nations; otherwise these Social-Democrats will involuntarily become the allies of their own national bourgeoisie, which always betrays the interests of the people and of democracy, and is always ready, in its turn, to annex territory and oppress other nations.

      The national question, it should be said, is complex. You mention Lenin’s disagreement with Luxemburg. Apart from some specific points on which they diverged, the two were absolutely united in their rejection of nationalism. Or even what the Austromarxists called “national-cultural autonomy.” But self-determination of nations applied only to territorially discrete entities, usually with a common language or relatively homogenous popular base. It did not extend to dispersed minority groups within a nation. So even though Jews were an oppressed minority in Imperial Russia, and blacks were oppressed minority in the United States, Marxists have always rejected Jewish nationalism (Zionism, Bundism) and black nationalism (such as the Black Panther Party).

      Proletarian men cannot carry out a successful revolution on their own. Only in conjunction with proletarian women will socialism be victorious. Women must participate in the emancipation of global humanity. The same may be said of race: working-class men and women of every race and nation must unite in order to overthrow the capitalist order. Such is the universality of Marxist politics — not a universality insensitive to particular conditions or complicating factors, but which subordinates these to the world-historical task that confronts it. It is why Marx referred to the proletariat as “the universal class,” because only it universally mediates capital as the organizing (dominating) principle of society. Capital can only be overcome “through a union, which by the character of the proletariat itself can again only be a universal one, and through a revolution, in which, on the one hand, the power of the earlier mode of production and intercourse and social organization is overthrown, and, on the other hand, there develops the universal character and the energy of the proletariat, without which the revolution cannot be accomplished; and in which, further, the proletariat rids itself of everything that still clings to it from its previous position in society.”

      Rosa Luxemburg is fairly exemplary in this regard. She may not have been a “woman of color,” as the current phrase goes, but being a Polish Jew in turn-of-the-century Germany was hardly an enviable position. Let alone being a woman with a fairly severe disability (her legs were significantly out of proportion with one another, making prolonged walking difficult and causing intense pain). None of these factors were the reason why people people felt the need to listen to her “voice,” however. People listened to Luxemburg because she was smarter than anyone else, more committed the socialist cause, and more adamant as a revolutionary.

  5. Ross,

    Again it seems that we attach different meanings to these words. Hazards of politics as textual interpretation, I suppose.

    But imperialism is real, oppression is real, they are materially related to class and labor and surplus value and accumulation in ways that are more than an abstraction. The approach of ‘black and white unite and fight’ has historically belonged to reactionaries in the labor aristocracy of the imperialist countries. It means “know your place.” It means “I’m for equality but…” It means “don’t be divisive.” The historical movements that have played a leading role in progressive struggles around the world rejected that approach as chauvinist and opportunist.

    I feel like there are many things left to be said, but I do not think it will be productive to say them. It simply may be that you do not agree, and there is little I can say beyond that, absent any common work in which to ground study, leadership, and criticism.

    I wish I had been able to convince you that the road you are on can only lead to contempt for the poor and the oppressed.

    Greater fool, me, then.

    Good luck in your work.

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