Notes on: Barbalet, J.  (1982) 'Social Closure in Class Analysis: A Critique of Parkin'.  Sociology 16 (4)

Dave Harris

There has been a resurgence of neo-Weberian approaches to social class, seen best in Parkin and Giddens.  These two draw different bits from Weber however—Giddens [The Class Structure of the Advanced Societies] sees class as determined by market situation, while Parkin sees class relations as power relations.  Parkin [in Marxism and Class Theory: A Bourgeois Critique] agrees that classes are not  social differentiations like any other, but nor are they merely the consequences of an 'interior logic' [of capitalism].  Class boundaries result from the interests and actions of members themselves.  There is an emphasis on closure.  We need to compare class closure with other forms.  We need a set of parsimonious concepts to do this.  For Parkin, definite types of closure can be seen as different directions in the exercise of power: downward power is exclusionary, and 'can be regarded by definition as exploitative'.  Any basis of exclusion might be used, however producing new groupings, including ethnic ones and intra class ones.

For Barbalet, it is right to see social strata as outcomes rather than as caused, as in classic conceptions of class relations.  Giddens is also right to stress structuration, especially through social mobility.  However, the issue is to see class relations in terms of relations with other classes, and here there are differences in terms of the processes involved, group action, for example rather than individual mobility.  Class reproduction rather than class renewal is the issue.  Social mobility can affect the crystallization of class and its solidarity, but power relations between the classes is the real issue.

Parkin's formulations are based on Weber's notion of power, and this is less coherent than Giddens's approach.  Closure and power are connected for Parkin: closure equals the mobilisation of power, while power is an attribute of closure.  But this is vague and circular.  For example exclusionary closure, by the possession of property or credentials, assumes that power is an attribute of property and credentials directly.  Actually, property and credentials involve merely a set of arrangements to restrict access, and this depends on a legal support—so closure can be seen as 'a conduit for the power of the State' rather than a strategy on behalf of an active class.  Habermas and Offe argue for the State as a necessary part of the framework of class relations, rather than just legitimating class inequality, but even so, we need to add something to Parkin's notion of closure as collective action. 

Turning to the other example of a closure strategy, what Parkin calls usurpation [a strategy used by those relatively powerless people to maintain borders and exclude rivals from jobs or housing], Parkin is more consistent here in that it is the power of members of a class which is mobilized, and closure is the realization of this power.  But again what is the basis of this power?  It can only be a threat of disruption, which can only be opportunistic rather than structured.  Again it is impossible to define the basis of this sort of power without circularity or without introducing some exogenous base.  The base is what's missing, and without it, Parkin can only offer a mere description of the current balance of power.  Class formation is not the same as class power, and different factors are responsible, even if class relations are indeed power relations.

Exploitation is not the same as closure.  Closure is a sufficient condition for exploitation for Parkin, who operates with a Weberian notion of exploitation, a matter of restriction of access to rewards and opportunities and life chances.  This can arise from competition though, and indeed, Weber's definition of competition is very similar.  But this sort of competition is not the same as exploitation, which is not competition for some independent resource: the members of the dominated class are the resource themselves, and exploitation creates conditions imposed on them rather than operating within them like competition does.  Exploitation involves the creation of productive relationships which produce surplus value, for example.  It is not like the zero sum game of competition over a fixed level of resources.  Parkin means competition not exploitation, because capital is only a 'right to deny access', to do with rights of ownership, not about productive capacities and advantages, not about appropriation, simply a matter of access.  The whole thing is limited to the provision of 'life chances', not about the relations of production which only feature exploitative relations.  Giddens has a similar approach, describing the production of life chances, but these still arise only from differential distributions: there is no account of production.

Let us consider intra-class divisions.  For Parkin, these are emphasized, and the same concepts used to explain them.  So there is exclusion within the working class, exploitation too, and it is the same kind that affects relations between middle and working classes.  It is true there is a lot of competition inside the working class, but this is explicable only once we have understood the basic relation of exploitation which explains the middle class/working class relation first.  Exclusions, like those by skilled workers or white workers, enhance the competitive powers of a group to bargain with capital, and therefore to limit their exploitation.  Parkin refers to 'exploitation by proxy' to explain divisions among working class groups, like those between migrant labour and the indigenous, and again these are often supported by the law or housing policies.  However, these are still best seen as a 'residue' of inter-class exploitation for Barbalet.  Exploitation by proxy represents a failure to mobilize power to prevent discrimination, and this is not the same as the positive mobilization of power to produce exclusion [seems a bit apologetic].  Intra-class divisions really vary according to the intensity of exploitation, the differential capacity to resist and the uneven way in which this capacity is distributed.

What about ascriptive factors in social relations—'racial', religious, sexual and ethnic identities?  All of these are examples of social class for Parkin in his special sense, but he actually offers two treatments of this problem.  In Class Inequality and Political Order, he sees status differences as autonomous from class ones, connected maybe contingently, as in Weber himself.  However, in Marxism and Class Theory...  class can arise out of any form of closure.  Again, for Barbalet, ethnic and the other dimensions are important, but they are not the same as class.  For Parkin, class relations are always about power, but not all power relations are class relations! All depends on tricks of definition.

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