I’ve mentioned Erik Olin Wright’s Envisaging Real Utopias a couple of times, and I’ve also been reading David Harvey’s Enigma of Capital and Jerry Cohen’s if You’re an Egalitarian How Come you’re so Rich. In different ways, all these books raise the question: what becomes of Marxism if you abandon belief in the likelihood or desirability of revolution? To give the shorter JQ upfront, there are lots of valuable insights, but there’s a high risk of political paralysis.
I plan alliteratively, to organise my points under three headings: Class, Capital and Crisis, and in this post I’ll talk about class
The analysis of economics and history in terms of class struggle is the central distinguishing feature of Marxism, and remains essential to any proper understanding. That said, the specifically Marxist class analysis in which the industrial working class, brought together in large factories, and increasingly homogenized and immiserised, serves as the inevitable agent of revolution, clearly hasn’t worked and isn’t going to. In the standard path of capitalist development, the stage when industrial workers (defined broadly to include all kinds of non-agricultural manual workers) constitute even a plurality of the workforce turns out to be quite short-lived. In today’s developed economies, such workers are a small minority of the population, even if you throw in the 100 million or so in China. And the working class considered more generally, as people who earn their living from labour is too heterogeneous to form a self-conscious class-for-itself. In one way or another, Wright, Harvey and Cohen all make or at least acknowledge this point.
As Cohen puts it, the revolutionary working class postulated by Marx had to satisfy four conditions:
1) They constitute the majority of society;
2) they produce the wealth of society;
3) they are the exploited people in society;
4) they are the needy people in society.
To quote this summary from the Directionless Bones blog, 1. and 2. give the proletariat the capacity to revolutionise society, and 3. and 4. give them the reason to do so.
It seems clear, as Cohen says, that no sensible definition of the working class is going to satisfy all four conditions.
On the other hand, there clearly is a self-conscious and generally dominant class, centred on control of capital, but including plenty of people whose source of power and wealth is derived from their job rather than from capital income. On a narrow definition, it includes the top 1 per cent of US households which now receive 25 per cent of all income and hold around 35 per cent of all wealth. More broadly, the top 20 per cent of the population has, in broad terms, increased or maintained its share of national income as the top 1 per cent have become richer. This broader group controls more than half of all income and wealth.
Most of the political elite in developed countries, but particularly in the US, consists of members of the top 1 per cent, or aspirants to rise to this group from the top 20 per cent. Moreover as well as controlling much of the political process through direct participation or political donations, this class exercises power directly through ownership of capital and particularly through control of the financial system. Anyone who attempts to understand policy and politics without taking account of the central role of this class is doomed to failure.
Coming back to Cohen’s conditions, the case to be made against the top 1 per cent is that:
1) They constitute a tiny minority of society
2) they consume far more of the wealth of society than they actually contribute
3) they exploit their control over capital for their own benefit
4) they are the primary obstacle to meeting a wide range of social needs
In a Marxist analysis, it would be natural at this point to use the term “ruling class”, and to stress, even more than I have done, the point that much of what passes for political debate consists of little more than rearrangements of an executive committee derived from, and largely driven by this class. There is a lot to be said for this analysis, but in the absence of any prospect of revolutionary overthrow of the ruling class, it doesn’t seem to lead anywhere, except perhaps to defeatism.
And, in some parts of the academic left, defeatism seems to be seen as positively desirable. Once a critical analysis has been performed, demonstrating the hopelessness of any particular attempt to change existing structures without a revolution, the necessary work has been done, and it’s time for a well-earned cafe latte.
More commonly, perhaps, leftists continue to work on projects of reform and resistance with an implicit assumption that no fundamental change is going to take place, while maintaining a non-operational faith in the ultimate possibility or even inevitability of revolution.
If defeatism were obviously justified, this would just be a regrettable fact about the world. In reality, however, the dominant class suffered a series of historic defeats over the century or so between Marx’s own writing and the resurgence of market liberalism in the 1970s. The creation of a democratic welfare state, funded primarily by progressive taxation, produced societies with a more equal distribution of economic and political power than any seen since the emergence of agriculture, and with better standards of living for virtually everyone in the developed world.
And even after decades in which the upper 1 per cent has steadily gained ground, they remain far from omnipotent. Despite continuous attack, the basic structures of the welfare state remain intact, and there have even been some important extensions.
The existence of those structures mean that a relatively simple set of feasible political demands, primarily involving reversal of the losses of the past few decades, could form a basis for political opposition to the rule of the top 1 per cent. The key elements are fairly obvious, and include
- reimposition of control over the financial system
- restoration of a progressive tax structure, combined with a more vigorous assault on international tax evasion/avoidance
- shifting the burden of ‘austerity’ back to those responsible for the crisis, and rejection of cuts to the welfare state
- repeal of anti-union laws and measures to make union organization easier
Of course, setting out a policy program is one thing – the political movement needed to bring it into being is another. And for now, the ruling 1 per cent has managed to turn the anger generated by their failures to their own political advantage. But, far more than in the 1980s and 1990s, or even the first decade of the 2000s, the opening is there for a radical alternative. Even within the dominant class, faith in the beneficience of markets in general and financial markets in particular, has largely dissipated. What remains is a grimly determined class view that “what we have we hold”.
An effective political movement would mobilise the direct interests of the 80 per cent or so of the population who are losing ground in relative terms (and in the US in absolute terms) combined with the broader interest of those in the top 20 per cent of the population in a juster and more stable social order – unlike the top 1 per cent, this group can’t easily insulate themselves from society as a whole or count on passing on their own social position to their children.
There is no obvious political vehicle for such a movement. The social democratic parties (not to mention the US Democratic Party) seem either hopelessly compromised or ineffective, while the Greens seem to be stuck as a permanent minority. But there have been plenty of radical realignments of political party structures in the past, and they often happen just when they seem least likely.
That’s more than enough for a blog post. As always, I’m putting my thoughts out for discussion rather than claiming any finality for them.
fn1. I argued my position on this here. If people want to dispute this, along with Chris’ dismissal of Leninism, please don’t derail discussion on this thread. Just write something to indicate you’d like it, and I’ll open a separate thread for this topic.
fn2. Most notable are the Bush prescription drug benefit and Obama’s health plan. Although these measures were riddled with gifts to powerful interest, they nevertheless represent a very significant extension of the role and responsibility of the state to protect its citizens against the risks associated with ill-health..