Social Class and 'Race' .

This started as a preamble to a recent article on class and race, which you can find summarized here. The article represents a return to some earlier debates which attempted to apply marxist theory to contemporary social formations, although, rather curiously, the leading marxist theoreticians involved in those debates (Althusser and his associates, Poulantzas, or early gramscian writers -- and, of course, critical theorists in an earlier generation) are not directly cited here.

It is possible to sketch out the general issues before turning to the specific debate. Everything turns on an argument first established in Marx himself that capitalism is a specific social and economic system, quite unlike anything that has gone before. Although institutions and social processes are given the same names, they take on a quite specific form in capitalism. This is argued particularly with reference to the concept of labour (see my quick summary of the famous essay on the commodity form).

People have always laboured. There have been important social differences in earlier societies, social hierarchies where the labouring sectors usually ended up at the bottom, but there is something quite specific about labour in capitalism, Marx's argument suggests. It is  'free', that is not tied to specific regions or traditions -- labourers can move  'freely 'around the country, from rural areas to urban, from the UK to various colonies. The whole business of work is organised and maintained by a market, quite unlike the earlier ways of bringing labour and other factors of production together -- a network of traditional , religious or feudal obligations, for example. In particular, the exploitation of labour to generate surplus value is more efficient than ever, as the whole production system turns towards producing commodities for exchange, not goods for use as such. The market for labour enables capitalists to extract maximum surplus value while seemingly operating a  'fair',  'natural',  'inevitable', or simply  'efficient' system. Labour is bought and sold as if it were like any commodity, but it is in fact a unique commodity, because it is used to generate more value.

To be sure, the new system is still thought off in terms of the old ones, as suggested above. Occasionally, specifically capitalist institutions and ideas have to be buttressed by  'borrowed languages', such as religious, nationalistic, or traditional notions of 'the nation' or  'the people'. Of course these ideas can look as if they are completely independent, but they never are -- their use and function is to support the specifically capitalist system of production.

This leads to more modern variants to try and understand the significant aspects of social life in modern capitalism. Certain social divisions in particular seem to pose problems for marxist insistence that capitalist institutions, including a specific working class based on owning only labour, are more fundamental, that they constitute a whole economic and social system. Modern sociologists, for example, would want to point to important social divisions based on gender, ethnicity, or those apparently splitting the working class itself, such as the importance of having different levels of skill. The realm of politics with the modern state similarly seems to weaken marxist analysis, since it is clear that it is not just unrestrained market relations that organize production and consumption any more. It is this sort of analysis that has led to an apparent decline in the importance of social class in the marxist sense. More contemporary social divisions make more sense sociologically, and even politically -- all the resistance to capitalism, including strong political demands for better treatment, seems to be coming not from broadly based working-class movements, but from groups based on gender, ethnicity, or even region and specific political interests  (such as Green politics).

Marxist responses have largely taken similar forms. It is possible to argue, that:

(a) The form of the economy remains capitalist, still devoted to commodity production, and still based around market forms to organise production and consumption. ['The economy' is not the same as the bourgeois category of econmic activity, manufacturing etc -- it relates to a whole mode of production complete with its characteristic political and social forms] This argument is often expressed in the rather abstract terms of debate about  'economic determinism'. To simplify a great deal,  'the economic 'is seen as having two aspects or dimensions. When it refers to specific economic activities, such as the production of particular kinds of goods, the shift towards consumer goods, say, the decline of heavy manufacturing in Western societies or whatever, is clear that these economic activities are indeed deeply interwoven with politics and with the politics of consumption. However, the general context remains one of capitalism in thye sense of a mode of production-- the term  'the economic' refers to this overall system as well, and it is this overall system that still constrains and limits what can be done.

The notorious and much contested phrase  '[economic determinism] in the last instance' is the shorthand way of expressing this argument. For those with marxist sympathies, this offers a subtle and sophisticated way of explaining important constraints and limits to what looks entirely specific and free -- the growth of particular groups with specific identities, the emergence of single-issue and identity politics in particular. The critics say that the concept is incoherent and untestable, or, irrelevant -- the economic in this general sense may indeed determine in the last instance, but what is really important is what goes on inside the sphere of specific relations in the meantime. Thus we know that all politics may ultimately be constrained by the need to preserve a capitalist system, but there are important differences between, say, fascist and liberal democratic regimes. The categories of 'race' and 'gender' may reflect superficial differences -- but the differences are crucial to lives of people suffering from real discrimination directed against them on the basis of their identities.

(b) The form of the class system remains capitalist. The capitalist system cannot persist without the generation of surplus value, and that in turn involves a necessary class struggle. One class must generate surplus value, and then be persuaded or forced to let another class own it and dispose of it  (including returning some of it in the form of wages or other revenues). [Again, this fundamental kind of class division is not the same as what bourgeois social scientists call class divisions -- based on occupation or status] Of course, sufficient surplus value has been generated in modern productive economies to permit whole new types of employment removed from the direct struggle -- the so-called  'middle classes'. Nevertheless, the underlying class struggle is not absent, and it will re-emerge in a stark and polarized form in times of economic crisis. Ingenious analyses, like those of Poulantzas, have attempted to show how the different  'levels' of capitalist societies have an immediate and tangible effect on class membership too -- the political and ideological/cultural 'levels' clearly affect people's images and experiences of social class, but it is still the underlying capitalist mode of production that provides the major structuring impact, again  'in the last instance'. Naturally, the critics have similar responses to those outlined above.

For some analysts, the issue can be resolved by a historical analysis, and this is what is implied in the article under discussion. For example, people from ethnic minorities have been closely associated with class divisions in the past. The history of slavery and its crucial role in early capitalism makes this clear. To simplify, slaves were used to supply  the necessary labour in times of shortage, and this had to be justified by applying  various religious or political ideas to the practice -- arguing that black people were naturally inferior, or were savages unenlightened by Christianity or whatever. Had there been no need for slave labour, these ideas would have not had the social force that they took on. Incidentally, Marx's own remarks on colonialism are well worth reading in this context  (in Capital volume one, or look them up in the marvellous Marx - Engels internet archive).

In some colonized countries, the natives were particularly unsuitable as wage labourers, because they resisted or they had not developed the necessary work discipline but had clung to their traditional ideas. Australian Aboriginals and North American Indians were in this category, and thus were particularly likely to be described as 'primitive', and to be exterminated in one way or another as unproductive and useless. Maori resistance, incidentally, seemed much more vigorous and effective militarily, and so they were more likely to be seen as  'noble savages'. [I'm afraid I have not tracked down the specific reasons why slavery was not developed in those Antipodean countries. Maybe it was because convict labour was preferred and available in Australia, because European emigration proved adequate,  and maybe because Australian aboriginals did eventually find a place in a largerly agricultural economy - after the land had been acquired, of course. I also suspect that NZ was settled eventually after slavery had been abolished in the British Empire]. Marx's example is also used against those who think that wage labour was natural for Europeans. He tells the story of an industrialist who shipped his entire plant and work force to Australia, but was then discomforted to find that his workforce rapidly left his employ to set up businesses on their own.

However, some African peoples were far more suitable for labouring work, and, in a glorious entrepreneurial spirit, a substantial trade was organised to acquire slaves and ship them halfway across the world to where they were needed. In later times, those of African,Caribbean and Asian descent were encouraged to migrate to Europe, and again found themselves expected to take up classic working-class occupations in factories and transport. This provides a second articulation between class and race, and the issue is which of these determinants is the dominant one. On the one hand, many of the social problems encountered by Afro-Caribbean people and other minorities (BEM --black and ethnic minorities) were clearly associated with lack of power and economic resources  (including access to jobs, housing and schools). This form of division was disguised by additional cultural differences including those displayed by recent arrivals as 'strangers'. On the other hand, the cultural and ethnic divisions seemed powerful enough to split the working class as an effective political force at least, and thus displaced the whole issue on to the poltical level (and see Sivanadan on this). As 'the working class' divides and diminishes in current conditions (or do I mean 'takes on new forms'?), and as social mobility occurs (very unevenly in Britain it seems, with Afro-Caribbeans not experiencing the same rates as other ethnic minority groups), so the articulation of 'race' and 'class' comes apart and 'race' assumes an important role in its own right -- for many writers at least

That brings us more up to date and sets the scene for the specific article in question -- so over to my commentary on that

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