Class, we are often told these days, does not exist. Or certainly not in New Zealand. That’s when it’s mentioned at all.
It is certainly not, we are told, a useful category through which to approach the study of society, let alone the problems of society. And it is especially not a useful category upon which to base a perspective of fundamental social change.
It’s fairly obvious why the ruling class don’t like to talk about class, at least not in public. After all, their wealth derives from the exploitation of the working class.
But many people who would see themselves as progressive-minded and supporters of a more equal society don’t like to talk about class in New Zealand either. For instance, take the current concern about child poverty. Which class do these children belong to? Is it just them who are poor, or are their parents poor as well? Since these are working class kids and their parents are also poor and working class, then the issue of poverty is an issue of class not age. Yet the campaigns that exist around this poverty are child poverty campaigns, not campaigns against unemployment, low wages and benefits for the children’s parents.
The discussion around the misnomer of ‘child poverty’ and around issues like poor educational outcomes in many working class areas also use terms like ‘deciles’: decile-one schools, decile-one areas and so on. Or even more confusing terms, like ‘the lowest quintile’. But what are involved are actual living, breathing, struggling human beings and they are not so much members of a decile or quintile as members of a class: the working class. Terms like decile-one or ‘the lowest quintile’ are gobbledegook for what is really the poorest section of the working class. So why don’t commentators, officials and anti-poverty campaigners say “the poorest section of the working class”? Moreover, the poorer one section of the working class is, the lower pay rates in general will be. So it is a class issue and, indeed, an issue for the entire working class.
The desire to use almost any point of reference other than class has also been evident in the Occupy movement. Since New Zealand has had the least political Occupy movement in the world, the lack of class analysis among Occupy people has been especially pronounced. The Occupy people in Christchurch, for instance, harmlessly camped out in a corner of Hagley Park, with a big banner up saying “We are the 99%”. In fact, they weren’t even the 99, let alone the 99%. I remember attending a good talk there about major points in class conflict in New Zealand history, given by Jared Davidson. Most of the campers showed no interest at all in availing themselves of the opportunity to hear his talk and those that did and spoke during the discussion were advocates of “all you need is love”, “we just need to love our mums more” and hostility to concepts of class struggle because they were too conflictual and divisive.
One of the benefits of talking about child poverty rather than the class-based poverty that we actually have, or using terms like “haves and have-nots” or “the 99%”is that obscures real class relations, the basis of the organisation of capitalist society. Instead, a moral appeal is made to the “haves” or the state to be nicer. If only the “haves” paid more taxes and were more generous or public-spirited. Meanwhile the system of exploitation itself goes uninterrogated.
In the academic world, post-modern theorists have for several decades suggested that every member of society is an ‘actor’ or ‘player’ who performs a whole number of roles’ simultaneously. Thus someone might sell their labour-power and produce surplus-value for a capitalist – although this is a ‘role’ which post-modernists prefer to ignore altogether – but s/he is also a parent, a sibling, a child, a consumer, a taxpayer, a member of a gender, ethnic or national group, of a particular skin colour and sexual persuasion, a fan of particular types of sport and music and so on. None of these roles, it is suggested by the post-modern theorists, is or should be viewed as any more important, unless, perhaps, the particular actor chooses to make it so.
Moreover, like Madonna, people can supposedly ‘reinvent’ themselves by writing a new ‘script’ and taking on a new ‘role’. Post-modernism has had a particular appeal to middle class liberals. The men can ‘reinvent’ themselves as sensitive metrosexual guys through men’s groups, therapy, the right consumer items and discourses on the ‘new masculinity’; the women can ditch dreary husbands and ‘reinvent’ themselves as free-spirited women of the world. And novels and films featuring such female characters certainly have a substantial ready-made audience.
But for the majority of humanity, including in this country, our place in society is structured not by ‘scripts’, least of all self-penned ones, but by real, material relations. We must struggle to survive and make a life for ourselves in conditions over which we do not have control. Workers made redundant might dearly love to ‘reinvent’ themselves but cannot ‘reinvent’ the jobs and better wages which are needed in order to live. Workers run up against real obstacles in the real world which exists outside of post-modern discourse.
Our solutions therefore cannot be found in individual self-invention and ‘discourse’, but only in collective action at the level of society as a whole.
But, even if this is true, it might be argued, what sort of collective solutions are there? Why must they be based on class?
Farewell the working class?
Among the many ‘posts’ of our post-infatuated academia and chattering classes, and closely connected to post-modernism, is post-Fordism. In books such as Andre Gorz’s Farewell to the Working Class: an essay on post-industrial socialism, it is suggested that factory-line production of the sort associated with Henry Ford is a thing of the past; the end of such production means the end of the working class.
The problem with such post-modern and post-Fordist analysis is that it tends to be based on what these academics see looking out their office windows. In many First World countries the ld smokestack industries are gone; using empirical deduction, the academics presume this must mean the working class has gone too. But statistics themselves show that not only is the working class still in existence, it’s bigger than ever. This is also true not only of the white-collar working class but also the industrial working class globally.
Take China for instance. The Communist Party’s development of a capitalist economy there has taken tens upon tens of millions of people out of rural areas and proletarianised them – ie, converted them into wage-labourers – on production lines in massive factories in the new industrial cities over the past three decades or so.
Similar phenomena can be observed throughout East and South-east Asia. Anyone who is familiar with volume one of Capital and investigates the development of the working class in this hugely-populated and important part of the world cannot help but be struck by the modernity and relevance of Marx’s analysis and the similarities between the factory conditions of the newly-industrialising countries and Victorian Britain.
But even in the developed Western world where most countries have been in slump conditions, on and off, for most of the time since the early 1970s, the working class continues to exist and grow. For the working class consists not simply of people employed in old smokestack industries, but also those who work in factories, offices, workshops, schools, transport, on the land, at sea, and elsewhere. Essentially, the working class is all those people who have no means of surviving except through selling their ability to work.
Just as the earth went round the sun regardless of pronouncements to the contrary by the medieval European church, the working class exists as an objectively-defined category regardless of whatever self-justifying and apologetic ideas may be fashionable in academia and politics at any one point in time.
Role of workers in society
Marx did not alight upon the working class as the social agent of revolution because he had a penchant for muscly, sweaty men on factory floors, but because he understood the unique position of the working class in society. What is crucial is the role played by the working class in making and distributing all the goods and services which society needs in order to function.
This insight has been succinctly put by Marxist cultural critic Terry Eagleton, in his humorous critique of the “celebrated triptych of ‘class, race and gender’” which was fashionable in some left circles in the 1980s. (This trend was especially notable in New Zealand.) Of the ‘class, race and gender triplet’, Eagleton notes:
“What these social groupings have in common is of curse the fact that they are variously oppressed, denied their full humanity; but Marxism’s interest in the working class is not at all in the first place to do with the fact that they are denied their full humanity. The proletariat is not a potential agent of revolutionary change because it suffers a good deal. As far as suffering goes, there are many better candidates for revolutionary agency than the working class: vagrants, perhaps, or impoverished students or senior citizens. Many of these individuals suffer more than your average worker who drives a Renault and holidays in Greece. But none of (these other groups) is even potentially an agent of social transformation, as the working class is. Unlike the latter, these groups are not so objectively located within the capitalist mode f production, trained, organised and unified by that very system, as to be able to take it over. It is not Marxism which selects the proletariat as a potential revolutionary instrument, but capitalism, which as Marx wryly commented gives birth to its own gravedigger. Radical politics is not just a matter of looking around the place, determining who is the most needy or desperate, and backing them against the system. Historical materialists can leave such a strategy to guilt-stricken middle class liberals.”
What about race and gender?
But if the working class is situated in such a position to give it the power to overturn capitalism, and its existence as an exploited class gives it a reason to do so, what has this to do with oppressed sections of society such as women, national minorities, homosexuals and so on? Are workers often not the most prejudiced on these questions?
The first thing to note about these objections, which are usually raised by people involved in single-issue campaigns and movements such as feminism and Maori sovereignty, is that much of the working class is itself female and/or Maori. Most women and most Maori are also working class.
But what is also decisive is that unlike any previous class which could transform society (eg the capitalists under feudalism), the working class owns no property and exploits no-one. The working class as a whole, including white, male, straight workers, cannot achieve liberation without overthrowing the system which oppresses most of the rest of society. As Marx put it, the working class is the universal class; its interests are the interests of humanity.
We can see this if we look at the position of even white, male workers in relation to women and oppressed ethnic or national minorities. For instance, the ability of the capitalists to hold down the wages of women and non-white workers in any country serves to lower wage rates as a whole because wage rates are constructed from the bottom up. Thus when the system of Jim Crow segregation existed in the United States from the late 1800s until the 1960s and denied blacks in the southern states such basic rights as the vote, wage rates for white workers in those states were lower than anywhere else in the United States. As Marx noted as early as the 1860s, labour with a white skin can never be free as long as labour with a black skin is branded.
The same is true in relation to women. The ability of employers to pay women less than men and to use them as an industrial reserve army does not ‘privilege’ men as a group: it serves to depress all wages. Thus even the most chauvinistic male worker has a vested interest in supporting equality between women and men.
But, it will often be argued, what about women’s domestic labour? This ‘services men’ and therefore gives all men ‘privilege’. However, domestic toil is about ensuring that wage labour is reproduced and kept in a fit state to be exploited by capital – scarcely a ‘privilege’ for the men who have to go out and work 8-10 hours a day. It is the capitalists, not individual men, who benefit. Through imposing domestic toil on women – and, increasingly these days, men as well – the capitalists escape paying for a sizeable chunk of the social costs of the reproduction and maintenance of the labour-power they exploit.
We might also know that sections of the feminists who make this argument are often ensconced in middle-class occupations and incomes and are themselves frequently serviced by low-paid female labour and studiously ignore the fact that their own position in society is predicated on the continued subjugation of working class women (and men).
Not only do women as a section of society not occupy a position which gives them all a reason and position of power from which to act as the agent of revolution, women belong to different social classes. Female members of the ruling class have a vested interest in preventing the emancipation of working class women. In fact, upper class women are able to escape both domestic toil and exploitation in the workplace thanks to capitalism and the exploitation of female and male workers.
National minorities are also divided into classes, although commentators in New Zealand have the standard habit of pretending this is not so. For instance, the media makes constant references to “Maori say. . .” and “Maori are. . .” etc in relation to ‘race’ relations, water, and so on, whereas actually they are talking about a specific section of Maori and frequently it is a class fraction of Maori.
Another objection that is made to what we might call ‘the class approach’ is “Well, even if this is true, why don’t the workers act in a way that reflects what Marxists say their class interests are?” This is where the question of class consciousness comes in. The working class is not only an objective category: it is flesh-and-blood human beings and their consciousness of themselves as members of a class and their understanding of the world in which they live – social totality – is of crucial importance in determining how workers act.
The existence of the working class and its position in society does not mean the working class will automatically act to achieve its class interests and the emancipation of itself and society as a whole. This sphere of class consciousness and its vital importance to revolutionary change is largely ignored by many would-be Marxists, a fact which helps explain the dire situation of the radical left today.
Unfortunately, certainly in the West – and it’s particularly true in New Zealand – class consciousness, in any meaningful sense, tends to be absent more than it is present in the class. Why should this be so? What is class consciousness? How does it come into existence? What is the connection between the objective aspect of the existence of workers as a class and the subjective aspect of their consciousness? How does this connection help explain the situation today – one in which workers’ struggles are at an all-time low? And how can this situation be challenged?
View from the left
Much of the left holds the view that workers’ consciousness develops spontaneously out of their conditions of existence. Thus the role of ‘Marxists’ is reduced to patronising workers by telling them what they already know (“wages and conditions are crappy”), urging them to do what they already do (“fight for better pay”, “Vote Labour”), and provide networking tips (“link up with other workers in struggle”). Workers have, of course, been doing all these things for a very long time but are no closer to liberation than 100 years ago.
The idea of introducing Marxist ideas into the working class, a necessity for which Lenin argued vigorously, finds little support among would-be Marxists and the non-Marxist left alike. Often they argue this approach is “elitist”. But if anything is elitist is the idea that Marxist theory is for them alone and that workers are too thick to understand it and so any old dross and absurd advice will suffice for the mere proles. In fact, this form of ‘anti-elitism’ is simply a way of denying workers access to rigorous Marxist political education and a scientific analysis of the system which exploits them. Instead, it reproduces the division between manual and mental labour created by capitalism itself. The ‘leaders’ and ‘intellectuals’ do the theorising; the ranks just go out and sell the party paper; the workers just get patronised with the kinds of advice mentioned above.
For genuine Marxists, however, the perspective is rather different. If we live in a class society and the ruling ideas are therefore those of the ruling class it is not possible for workers as a class to spontaneously come to understand the need to overthrow capitalism, let alone develop the kind of analysis of the workings of the system needed for the revolutionary project to succeed.
In fact, as Lenin noted, workers going about their normal business of being exploited and resisting this through trade union organisation will only, and can only, develop a trade unionist consciousness. This is still a form of bourgeois consciousness, he argued, since it does not at all question the very existence of exploitation and oppression, but merely seeks to improve the terms upon which these take place. And, given that trade union consciousness is itself sectional, in the sense of organising groups of workers in separate sectors, it often pits workers against each other – one union against another, male workers against women workers, white workers against workers of colour, immigrants etc – rather than uniting workers as a class.
Although some people on the left coined the term ‘false consciousness’ to describe the outlook of workers most of the time under capitalism, and it is ‘false’ in the sense that it works against their interests, the term is also something of a misnomer. For this form of consciousness is completely real in the sense that it is based on how things do actually appear under capitalism. It arises out of the very workings of the system itself.
For instance, the way capitalism operates mystifies the way in which exploitation (and thus the creation of surplus-value) is carried out in the production process. Workers can and do sell their labour-power at its value; thus a ‘fair’ exchange appears to take place. And, given that commodities of equal value are exchanged – labour-power at its actual value – the appearance coincides with reality. It is this exchange of labour-power at its value which gives rise to the consciousness of workers and the notion of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. What the worker does not and cannot see spontaneously is the crucial aspect that, in the production process, labour-power can create an even greater value. (See the article on exploitation, here.)
Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism explains the process of mystification, in which a “definite social relation between men” takes on “the fantastic form of a relation between things”. Only an understanding of the inner workings of the system – through the application of revolutionary science – can reveal this to the worker (or anyone else). Moreover, as Frank Richards has noted, “As capitalism develops, the connection between production relations and the complex forms in which they are expressed is increasingly lost.” For instance, this is particularly so with the rise of paper money and increases with the replacement of paper money by plastic cards and internet banking and payments. (For a more in-depth discussion of how capitalist ideology works, see here.)
We might also note here that the tendency of so much of the left to base its politics on the surface appearances and the existing levels of consciousness inevitably leads to a reformist practice. A gross example of this was in the 1990s when ‘far left’ groups restricted the politics of anti-French nuclear testing groups to demands which the New Zealand ruling class itself supported, while studiously ignoring NZ intervention in Bosnia, the most significant deployment of NZ troops in a combat zone since Vietnam. But it’s also evident in more recent practices like obscuring the capitalist nature of the SOEs, despite the fact that these were specifically established as capitalist enterprises. While much of the left essentially supported state capitalism and obscured the nature of these companies, a chunk of the SOEs got on with the serious capitalist business of laying off hundreds of workers in order to boost profits.
The question of class consciousness was considered vital not only by Lenin but a number of other major Marxist activist-theoreticians who came to prominence in the wave of revolutionary struggles which followed the working class seizure of state power in Russia in 1917. All these theoreticians were particularly concerned with breaking from the lifeless and reformist outlook of the Second International, which believed that socialism was inevitable due to objective laws operating above and beyond human consciousness and activity. Of course, this outlook quickly descended into the idea of gradual change within capitalism. In this case, the consciousness of the working class never need be raised beyond the most narrow trade union concerns because capitalism was developing into socialism due to all-powerful historic laws. (As Lenin noted of the Second International, “problems of revolution in general hardly concerned them.”)
Karl Korsch also analysed the way the Second International revised Marxism:
“a unified general theory of social revolution was changed into criticisms of the bourgeois economic order, of the bourgeois state, of the bourgeois system of education, of bourgeois religion, art, science and culture. These criticisms no longer necessarily develop by their very nature into revolutionary practice; they can equally well develop into all kinds of attempt at reform, which fundamentally remain within the limits of bourgeois society and the bourgeois state and in actual practice usually did so. . .”
In this sort of practice, the parts of a unified capitalist system are broken up and each made the subject of separate complaints. This provides no challenge to the overall system at all. If the working class is ever going to get rid of capitalism it has to be concerned with the operations of society as a whole and with al the forms of oppression which are engendered by capitalism. In this way the working class ceases to be a class in itself, wrapped up in its own narrow daily preoccupations with survival and becomes the class for itself and, as the universal class, the social force representing the general interests of humanity.
To play this role requires workers mastering what Korsch rightly calls Marxism: “a unified general theory of social revolution”. Marxism embodies, as Korsch notes, neither pure theory nor pure practice, “but a single theoretical-practical and critical-revolutionary activity. It is ‘a method that is by its very nature critical and revolutionary’.” (The portion in single quotes is Marx’s own term.) Put bluntly, without the political education and transformation of consciousness of the universal class, the working class, there will be no challenge to capitalism.
For Marxists it is not simply enough to repeat what Marx, Lenin, Korsch and Lukacs said about class consciousness seventy years ago: we have to examine society today to understand the kind of consciousness which exists now, how and why it exists in its current form, and what is required for it to be transformed. Consciousness in New Zealand today, for instance, is a product of the retreat of the working class following the end of the long postwar boom in the early 1970s, almost perpetual slump conditions over the two-and-a-half decades since the 1987 crash and the defeats that were inflicted on the class by the fourth Labour government and further codified in the Employment Contracts Act and benefit cuts of the early 1990s and later industrial legislation. It is shaped, too, by almost continual economic restructuring which has seen the massive downsizing in employment in industries like the meat works, car plants, ports, pulp and paper, forestry mills and the working class communities and consciousness developed around them.
The old ‘class politics’ of the trade union movement proved woefully inadequate to defend even union membership levels, let alone hold onto pay and conditions, let alone challenge the system of exploitation. Moreover, Labour – supposedly some kind of ‘workers party’ – was actually the party which initiated the blitzkrieg against the working class. Political and trade union labourism has been proven primarily a conduit for imposing the interests of capital onto the working class, although this lesson, even after al these years, has still not really sunk into much of the left.
In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels noted, “separate individuals form a class only in so far as they have to carry on a common battle against another class; in other respects they are on hostile terms with each other as competitors.” Thus the demise or substantial decline of traditional sectors of employment, the massive decline in class conflict and the exhaustion of reformism have led to the highly atomised and individualised consciousness of today.
This process was well-described by Bill Bainbridge, writing about the closure of the steel works in Newcastle in Australia back in the mid-1990s:
“Along with this loss of employment have gone the experiences of work and industrial struggle which were the core of identity formation for individuals within the working class. When these reference points are weakened or disappear, the individual comes to the fore as the sole co-ordinator of the myriad of cultural information and identities available. The individual must be able to invest the self with all the necessary skills for staying afloat in a highly competitive world. In this context the aggressive individualism of economic rationalism begins to strike an electoral chord, and the notion of labour as a source of identity and politics begins to look a little shaky.” (For the New Zealand situation, see here.)
The old reformist class politics cannot be rebuilt, as the failed efforts to do so indicate – the most significant being the Alliance. Both the material base and ideology of reformism have been exhausted with the exhaustion of capitalism itself. Thus workers are not about to rush to get involved in reformist parties and in trade unions.
Moreover, a whole new generation has grown up since 1984 – in fact, we’re into the second new generation of young people since then. These new generations have no experience and no attachment to the old labourist version of ‘class politics’ and ‘class institutions’ to which much of the left remains romantically wedded.
New politics needed
For these reasons, an entirely new form of politics has to be created. To be effective it has to start not from arguing over the terms on which workers will continue to be exploited and the world continue to go from crisis to crisis, nor from nostalgic attachment to old and discredited labourist institutions. Instead, it has to begin from the point that this present system is historically transient, has reached its limits and is now thoroughly inadequate for humanity; we need to get rid of it, lock, stock and barrel.
In the short to medium term – for longer than we’d wish, that’s for sure – the collapse of the old institutions and the forms of consciousness related to them – in the context of protracted slump – stimulate the appearance of all kinds of pessimism among large sections of the population. Hostility to science, rationalism and technological experimentation, coupled with the outbreak of moral panics, fear of crime, the desire to punish and so on, are all products of alienation and a decaying social order in which people experience the problems thrown up by capitalism as individuals and therefore as being personally vulnerable and powerless. This presents huge problems for the project of fundamental social change.
It is more important than ever therefore for Marxists to develop critiques of contemporary society and social trends and begin to try to consolidate a core of theoretician-activists who can argue these critiques convincingly and begin to help transform the existing consciousness. Of course, since we are not idealists we do not believe that this process can succeed in the absence of a social force capable of changing society; nor can it advance much in the face of unfavourable objective conditions.
However, the objective condition of capitalism today is that it is exhausted. The objective position of the working class still gives it a vested interest in changing the world – and the potential power to do so. Today, there are two keys to making this possibility a reality. One is changes in the objective conditions, in particular through some forward motion within the working class. We need this in order to be able to turn the second key much. This second key involves finding points at which the revolutionary ideas we develop can intersect with people’s active dissatisfaction with the harsh realities of life under slump capitalism and develop a conscious movement for a new society, one based on freedom and plenty.