Class and Socioeconomic Status: Why Organizers Should Make a Distinction

by Vincent Kelley on January 27, 2015

iww

 

A 1911 Industrial Worker publication advocating industrial unionism based on a critique of capitalism. The proletariat “work for all” and “feed all”

            “Class” is a prominent term in the discourse of left and progressive organizers across the globe. From the faith-based social justice activist in the American heartland seeking to assuage rural poverty to the revolutionary Maoist in Central India militantly confronting the state, class is not only a useful, but even unavoidable category of analysis. But despite its wide usage, or perhaps because of it, the concept of class is often left muddled by otherwise analytically scrupulous organizers.

In the pages that follow, I hope to dispel some of the confusion around the term class and move toward a working definition of the same. I will move toward an account of class through a contrast with the idea of socioeconomic status. I say working definition because class is, at the most gross level of description, a social-historical contradiction and, therefore, is subject to change. But at the same time, since class contradiction is essential in the reproduction of capitalism, only its secondary characteristics—not the contradiction itself—can change as long as the profit system exists. Indeed, class changes insofar as there are different historical stages of capitalism, e.g. mercantile, industrial, monopoly, monopoly-finance, etc., but it is also the social glue that provides us with the grounds to describe all of these distinct historical stages under the single rubric of “capitalism.” My aim here is not to trace the shifting character of class over time, although this is an important task, but, rather, to demystify the social core of class that persists throughout capitalism’s various historical stages.

Why is such an account of class necessary? First, and most basically, if we intend to bring about a classless society, we need to understand what class consists in. This seems obvious in theory, but, in practice, many radical organizers fail to define what exactly the class society is that they wish to do away with. While the injustice of a society of rich and poor, of haves and have-nots, can kindle a moral fire, these vague terms do not constitute a cogent political analysis let alone effective political line. Second, while debates surrounding the relationship between class and other categories such as race, gender, religion, disability, nationality, and sexuality are of the utmost importance to left and progressive organizations and movements, and constitute the bulk of our internal debates, they are futile without a cogent account of class in itself. Though class is dialectically constituted by its relationships to these other categories, without a basic working account of it as a category unto itself, it is essentially rendered a useless term. Some may be content to discard the concept of class as too complex and multi-constituted to be useful, but such a bumptious disposal would be politically suicidal for the world’s exploited and dominated, whose collective political interventions depend upon it.

I argue that class is a category independent from socioeconomic status (SES) and that a conflation of the two leads, intentionally or unintentionally, to a reformist politics based on gradated sliding along a social continuum rather than revolutionary politics grounded in radical social transformation. By making a distinction between class and SES, radical organizers, to paraphrase Marx’s words, will not only be better equipped to interpret the world, but also to change it.[1]

SES is conventionally defined as an appraisal of an individual or groups’ social-economic position within society based on a combination of income, education, and occupation, and, occasionally since sociologist Dalton Conley’s much-needed intervention into the literature, wealth.[2] It is an inherently gradated concept, in which individuals and groups can slide up and down a social/status continuum over time. As such, it is useful to social scientists who employ statistics to answer, for example, questions of social (im)mobility and stratification in particular time periods, places, and social contexts. Furthermore, SES is a potentially helpful concept for the left since it is amenable to a materialist analysis that empirically traces the real, concrete conditions within bourgeois society. Indeed, in contrast with the idealist underpinnings of much contemporary “post”-(modern/marxist/humanist, etc.) theory, which elevates the linguistic and discursive to the forefront of social thought, the metrics of SES are still firmly anchored in material reality.

While the concept of SES has its benefits, it is not synonymous with class. This is not to say that it is an altogether unhelpful concept; it is just to say that it is distinct from the category of class, with which it is often equated. SES is a purely descriptive concept. That is to say that, while it tells us how society is, it doesn’t tell us how society works and, thus, how to change it. Social scientists can draw conclusions about how society works from SES data, but this requires a significant helping of alternative methods and ideology wholly independent of the metrics of SES itself. Put another way, SES is a decidedly apolitical concept; one can engender many different conclusions about how society works from the exact same SES metrics. Indeed, SES can be wielded not only by the social justice-inclined researcher in an appeal for “fairer” distribution of the products of social labor, but also by the most reactionary neoclassical economist to advocate for further evisceration of the social state and its concomitant restraints on capital.[3]

Furthermore, SES is also highly amenable to a culturalist analysis masquerading as progressive politics, a practice that is highly visible among the liberal and conservative petit bourgeois alike. In this modality, as literary theorist Teresa Ebert notes, class becomes synonymous with “classy,” a mere substitute term for the performance of consumption.[4] As a result, class is transformed not by changing who controls the means of production, but instead by the individual whims of the (petit bourgeois) consumer, who uses the agency provided by her SES to perform class as she chooses. Thus, “class” is understood as a purely symbolic form of social power, which, unlike material economic power, is accessible to the petit bourgeois individual.

But sometimes even the petit bourgeois individual, epitomizing what Slavoj Zizek calls “enlightened false consciousness”—the case in which “one knows the falsehood very well. . . but still one does not renounce it”—, is aware of the limitations of his symbolic power.[5] For example, an 18-year old coworker of mine—bright yet reactionary, an all too common combination after twelve years of ideological interpellation at the hands of the school system, the most important wing of the ideological state apparatus[6]—once told me confidently that “the middle class is really the most hurt by capitalism because, without capitalism, they would have the most power.” In one fell swoop, this young man eloquently illustrated that class is principally about material, not symbolic, power, and perfectly embodied the crux of petit bourgeois consciousness: the desire to have that which the bourgeois deprives the petit bourgeois of. In this account, the working class is erased from the concept of class itself, which is rendered the playing field of bourgeois and petit bourgeois interests and performances alone.

In contrast with SES, the concept of class tells us not only about how society is, but also about how it works and, therefore, how to change it. It does this by emphasizing a contradictory relationship, as opposed to a gradated one, within society, namely the antagonism between labor and capital. This contradiction is, in turn, determined by the relationship of social groups to production, the lifeblood of all societies and cultures, without which these societies and cultures would cease to exist. Indeed, contrary to the idealist assertions of some contemporary scholars, production—and especially material production—is literally the foundation upon which the infrastructure of the sociocultural world is built. If theory is an insufficient sphere in which to make this contention, surely the catastrophic converging ecological crises enveloping the globe, caused by the overshoot of physical planetary boundaries by material production, will bring the feet of such ungrounded scholars back down to earth, or at least what’s left of it.[7]

But I digress. The point is that class is a political concept: it recognizes that, in order for capitalist societies to reproduce themselves, there must be a structural—and structurally hierarchical—contradiction between labor and capital.[8] Without the ability of one class to command the labor of another, and the state and interpersonal violence that this commanding entails, the core of capitalist social relations would cease to exist. The labor-capital antagonism has, of course, changed drastically since the beginnings of capitalism, now manifesting itself in the increasing hegemony of monopoly-finance capital and the hyperexploitation of an international proletariat—primarily but not exclusively found in the global periphery—created by a fresh cycle of primary accumulation, but changes like these are simply variations on a theme, often ingenious variations created by the capitalist class and its allies, and that theme is class.[9]

But we know intuitively that, while the labor-capital contradiction may, as I contend, be the most necessary and essential characteristic of capitalism, it is not all that reproduces capitalist social relations, nor is it isolated from other social contradictions. To use just one example, the gendered dimension of class has been a pivotal factor in capitalism’s origins, sustenance, and growth. As political theorist Silvia Federici notes in her seminal book, Caliban and the Witch, “the exploitation of women has played a central function in the process of capitalist accumulation, insofar as women have been the producers and reproducers of the most essential capitalist commodity: labor-power.”[10] As such, to analyze and engage with topics like the reproduction of labor-power, the institution of unpaid domestic work, and the gendered fractures that these generate among workers, is not to abandon a class analysis, but is instead to offer one in a most appropriate manner. This is because understanding labor in relation to production does not in a moral way privilege production as such, but merely identifies it as the most indispensible activity in capitalist society and situates variegated forms of labor in relation to it. Hence, class analysis need not be mechanical, but instead can provide a highly nuanced account of the social world in relation to production, the engine of capitalism.

Another challenge of class analysis that demands attention to detail is the objective fact that an individual’s relationship to production does not directly and predictably correspond to her behavior in the political and ideological spheres. For example, a working class individual’s political and/or ideological practices may fall more in line with a petit bourgeois or bourgeois political line than that of a proletarian revolutionary. Thus, class, class-consciousness, and class practices can diverge and blur. Indeed, this process is what explains the ability of a section of the petit bourgeois to commit what Amílcar Cabral calls “class suicide” in order to fight alongside the working class, as well as what enables rightist tendencies to emerge within portions of the working class, such as what George Jackson, in his class analysis of the United States in the early 1970s, calls the reactionary “new pig class.”[11] Analyzing these sociohistorical particularities of class is not an abandonment of class analysis, but instead its very concrete practice, which can only be worked out through just that: practice. While revolutionary epistemology rests on the assertion of an objective class structure with objective consequences, this does not enclose upon the space for the subjective responses that explain the contingent incongruences between class structure and class practices. The fact that class inheres in production is essential if we wish to accurately describe the social world. But in order to change the social world through class struggle, production must be understood as the point from which to start, but not end, our battle against capital, which must be waged not only in the economic, but also the political and ideological spheres.

In sum, all of this is not to conclude that organizers should discard the concept of SES; it is simply to state that class and SES are two distinct concepts. In fact, many leftists could benefit from a greater attention to the concrete political problems that arise from the very real gradations of SES. Indeed, some people intuitively identify with their SES position more than their class position since its parameters are highly empirical and commonsensical. Moreover, while they do not determine class, SES differences within the working class can present significant sociological hurdles in the process of organizing, namely by obscuring class interests. Put another way, while gradations do not make a class, they can divide one. All of this said, SES consciousness, if you will, is insufficient if we wish to not only describe and interpret, but actually transform, the roots of capitalism and bourgeois society. For this process, we must turn to the category of class as the antagonism between labor and capital, defined by each class’ relationship to the means of production, and the ensemble of social relations that spring from this contradiction. Indeed, rather than the gradated sliding of individuals or vaguely defined social groups along a continuum, revolution is, as Mao argued, nothing short of the overthrow of one class by another.[12]

 

[1] Karl Marx, “Thesis on Feuerbach,” Marxists.org, accessed December 16, 2014, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/theses.htm.

[2] In 1999, Conley made a strong case for the incorporation of family wealth into SES. See Dalton Conley, Being Black, Living in the Red Race, Wealth, and Social Policy in America (California: University of California Press, 2009).

[3] I borrow the term “social state” from economist Thomas Piketty’s monumental economic history, Capital in the 21st Century. See Thomas Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century (New York: Belknap, 2014), 471-492.

[4] Teresa L. Ebert, The Task of Cultural Critique (United States: University of Illinois, 2009), 102.

[5] Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989), 28-30.

[6] Louis Althusser, “Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatus (Notes towards an Investigation),” Marxists.org, accessed December 16, 2014, https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1970/ideology.htm.

[7] To those readers who may accuse me of conflating the material and the physical, I would point them toward sociologist John Bellamy Foster’s work on the “metabolism” between humans and the natural world. See, for example, “Marx and the Rift in the Universal Metabolism of Nature,” Monthly Review 65(7) (December 2013), accessed December 16, 2014, http://monthlyreview.org/2013/12/01/marx-rift-universal-metabolism-nature/ and Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (New York: Monthly Review, 2000).

[8] There are, of course, those who acknowledge the existence of class and class struggle and manage to find justifications for the exploitation and domination of labor by capital. Warren Buffet’s comment that “there’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning” comes to mind (see Ben Stein, “In Class Warfare, Guess Which Class Is Winning,” New York Times, November 26, 2006). But, as the neoclassical hegemony within economics has demonstrated, it is easier to obliterate the concept of class society than to try to justify such a society. Equating SES with class serves this neoclassical framework well and, by extension, neoliberalism and the international rule of capital.

[9] See, for example, John Bellamy Foster, “The Age of Monopoly-Finance Capital” Monthly Review 61(9) (February 2009), accessed December 16, 2014, http://monthlyreview.org/2010/02/01/the-age-of-monopoly-finance-capital/ and Bhaskar Sunkara, “Precarious Thought,” Jacobin.com, January 13, 2012, accessed December 16, 2014, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2012/01/precarious-thought/ for insights into the contemporary character of labor and capital.

[10] Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation (New York: Autonomedia, 2004), 8.

[11] See Tom Meisenhelder, “Amilcar Cabral’s Theory of Class Suicide and Revolutionary Socialism,” Libcom.org, June 9, 2007, accessed January 6, 2015, http://libcom.org/library/amilcar-cabrals-theory-class-suicide-and-revolutionary-socialism-tom-meisenhelder for a discussion of Cabral’s “class suicide” concept. For Jackson’s discussion of the “new pig class,” see Blood in My Eye (Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1996), 63.

[12] Mao Tse-Tung, “Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Human (March 1927),” Marxists.org, accessed December 16, 2014, http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-1/mswv1_2.htm.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Carl Davidson January 27, 2015 at 1:23 pm

I try to take an uncomplicated approach. Class is about one’s relation to production. In modern society, one can own means of production and hire others for explotation; one can hire oneself for self-exploitation, and one can be hired by others and be exploited by them. That makes for a capitalist class, a small producer class, and a working class. But there are many strata, income levels and other division among them. And any given person can be in more than one class at once, ie, a workers can run a small business on the side, or draw from a stock portfolio. Explotation means use for profit, not degree of oppression. Hence a worker at Microsoft making $100 an hour but producing $1000 a hour in value is highly exploited, even if not so oppressed. ‘Be his payment high or low’ was Marx’s phrase.

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