Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 17 – social classes

The relations established when people produce together is fundamental to the overall position they occupy in society. These relations of production are therefore fundamental to all the social and political questions faced by individuals.

Yet in mainstream conceptions of politics these fundamental relations do not exist – rent, profit and wages are all the expressions of relations of production but they are simply treated as a given, and the distribution of population in receipt of them also simply assumed.  Instead of examining the foundations of society, what already exists is simply assumed to be natural.

The class categories that are employed, such as ‘middle class’, are politically loaded to express either neutrality between those who work and those who own capital, and/or beg the question of what these people are in between.  Old class categories such as A, B, C1, C2, D and E are recognised as outdated even in their own terms while newer categories such as these don’t explain anything, while smothering fundamental divisions.  In Britain, and also Ireland, cultural expressions of class such as speech come to represent class, again without explaining it. Politics, as marketing, packages people into all sorts of random categories, from ‘squeezed middle’ to ‘just about managing’ to ‘people who get up early in the morning’ and ‘hard working families.’   How could real alternatives to what exists arise from such misconceptions?

All these categories appear as more or less random aspects of the lives of working people who above all else have to work for a living but cannot be categorised as such, cannot be informed that their fundamental characteristic is one of class defined by relations of production.  Other divisions heaped upon them, such as those based on religion or race, help make this a reality while these and other basic divisions such as sex overlay such division, adding, reinforcing and obscuring all at the same time but never replacing or eradicating.

Identification of new categories of social existence – be they defined in workers’ roles as consumers, the ‘affluent worker’, or as producers, ‘professionals’ or ‘precariat’ – might reflect some reality of capitalist development but never at the most fundamental level.

Marx doesn’t reject the reality behind these categories but sees their elaboration as the working out of the contradictory development of capitalism:

‘Incidentally, . . . although every capitalist demands that his workers should save, he means only his own workers, because they relate to him as workers; and by no means does this apply to the remainder of the workers, because these relate to him as consumers. In spite of all the pious talk of frugality he therefore searches for all possible ways of stimulating them to consume, by making his commodities more attractive, by filling their ears with babble about new needs. It is precisely this side of the relationship between capital and labour which is an essential civilising force, and on which the historic justification—but also the contemporary power—of capital is based.’ (Marx, Grundrisse)

This property of capitalism is not incidental, as Marx notes, ‘the simple concept of capital has to contain its civilising tendencies etc. in themselves; they must not, as in the economics books until now, appear merely as external consequences. Likewise, the contradictions which are later released, demonstrated as already latent within it.’

The unavoidable development of capitalism by its nature contains contradictions that are fundamental to it, and being fundamental, involve progress that presages its supersession by an alternative social system, based on its massive increase in the productivity of labour.  This gives rise to variations in the roles of workers in production and to their relation to, and aspirations for, the fruits of the productivity of labour in their role as consumers.

The relations of production therefore define the classes which individuals belong to, even if they have not the slightest notion that this is the class position they occupy or even misinterpret their class interests, whether due to racism, nationalism or whatever.  In reality most people do understand that they occupy a particular class position, and are members of a class, although fewer then define themselves and their social and political interests with class politics consistent with this position.

This is truer of individuals within the working class than capitalist class, whose members generally have a much higher level of consciousness of their membership of their class and appreciation of what political interests they therefore must pursue as a result. While socialists usually concern themselves with the point of view of the oppressed and exploited class and their political ideas; when it comes to the consciousness of the exploiting classes, the decisive role of production and productive relations on the form of political consciousness is much more apparent.

The rich are more conscious of their wealth and its source, because they have it, than those who actually created it but do not.  They are more conscious of who they continue to get it from, and their competitors for it, from within their class and from other classes.

This, however, does not also prevent some of them from misinterpreting their class interests or making erroneous political calculations. Not everything individual capitalists do reveals their essential ‘true’ nature and ‘true’ interests.  This is one reason why socialists should not simply seek the opposite of what one political representative or section of the capitalist class happens to advance at any particular time, but seek to identify and advance the political interests of the whole working class independently, taking account of the whole constellation of class relations.

Today, we only need to think of the numerous and varied state, state-sponsored and private think tanks proclaiming the benefits of capitalism, forecasting its development, developing policies for it and providing consultants to implement changes, to appreciate the level of class consciousness of the capitalist class, and also its variety of outlooks.

Classes are therefore collectives and not simply an addition of atomised individuals.  Atomised individuals as such do not exist, as we are all products of families, friends, work colleagues, and those we interact with on a daily basis.  More than that, our lives are products of millions of people we will never meet who set rules by which we live, through laws, regulations and standards.

Literally millions of people impact on our lives in a way that we take for granted most of the time, as we must or we would spend our time thinking of nothing else.  The cooperation among millions of people to ensure our society works, produces and consumes, that we may continue to live, grows and grows every year.

When we enter the world we do not choose how we do so and do not choose to which class we belong.  Only in young people’s sci-fi films, such as ‘Divergent’, is it possible to pick how one wants to live in society and the role we want to play.  Our position in society constrains our choices and conditions how we lead our lives, so determining our view of the world, which we can never look at totally afresh, free of any preconceptions.  What we can do is become as conscious as possible of what these are.

When Marxists therefore define a society as capitalist we mean certain things which must be studied in order to be fully understood.  Even the idea of capitalism as an example of a particular set of relations of production must be determined through research and study involving understanding the practical reality of individuals’ everyday lives.  The limits of such explanation must be determined in the process, and cannot be taken as completed or timeless without need for continual rethinking and development, just as the world changes and develops itself.

In capitalism, the relations of production define the existence of a class that has to sell its labour power in order to live and, in order that they produce for society, that they be combined with the means of production.  These means of production include factories, offices, transport, shops, warehouses, docks, mines and all machinery and equipment of every kind that workers employ when they work.  The latter are owned by a separate class of capitalists, and sometimes the state rather than private corporations.

Just as there are no individuals who can properly be understood apart from the world they inhabit, with its many other individuals, so classes cannot be understood at the individual level.  A worker may negotiate a pay rise with an employer, but what makes the worker a member of a class is that they cannot survive without selling their capacity to work to a capitalist.  Similarly, a capitalist is just such a person because they own the office or factory and the worker does not.  They have the money to pay the worker for her capacity to work on their behalf.  This work is carried out not because of the consumption needs of the capitalist but because he wants to make a profit from the labour performed by the worker.

A well-paid worker, or someone who considers themselves middle class, can hire childminders or even a few hours of a person to clean their house, but they will never get rich doing so because the childminder or cleaner is not paid in order to make a profit.  The money paid in wages to the childminder or cleaner is not therefore capital aimed at procuring profit.  No matter how well paid the worker is, she will not be better off financially from having paid wages to childminders or cleaners.

The capitalist on the other hand will hope to make a profit and become richer through paying wages to his workers, who can indeed be childminders or cleaners, whose services are sold to others, and who are paid less by the capitalist than the value of the labour they perform on his behalf.

The worker on the other hand, no matter how affluent she is likely to become, cannot abstain from selling her labour power because she has no other source of income.  For the vast majority neither savings nor family support can substitute for their wage or salary.

In such a society, the need to sell one’s labour power exists because the ability to cosume at the prevailing standard of living expected in that society cannot be achieved through the worker labouring on her own behalf or through ownership of capital in any form, be it money or material means of producing commodities.

At the beginnings of capitalism peasants or farmers who owned or had customary rights to land could provide for themselves and did not need to sell their ability to work to someone else.  Capitalism sometimes drove them from their land in order to make them dependent on selling their labour power to capitalists.  Ironic then, that capitalist ideologues condemn workers for not standing on their own two feet while their system originates, and can only stand on its feet, through depriving the labouring population of its independent ownership of the means of production.

These are the characteristic relations of production under capitalism.  These relations dominate people’s lives because they determine what they do eight or more hours a day; what income and security they can provide for their families; what levels of consumption they can aspire to; and what general social characteristics they will share with neighbours and friends.  In short, all these social characteristics are entwined with the relations of production, which are therefore infused into every aspect of our lives.  Our culture as expressed in everyday behaviour is not reducible to our relations of production but neither is it separate from these relations, which define the fundamental social relationships of which our daily lives consist.

This is what is meant by the first section, quoted in an earlier post, of the ‘Preface’ of 1859 drafted by Marx:

“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter Into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”

Back to part 16

Forward to part 18

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