18. Is the notion of "class" still relevant?

Submitted by Spassmaschine on December 17, 2009

Some people did not wait for these banlieue riots to explain that the notion of class is no longer relevant. Some say that the working class is integrated (as indeed it was said before May 68) through the Welfare State, and has internalised the order, the economic coercion and the requirements of capital. They say there are no more classes, only parts of capital, because labour itself is part of capital, and reproduces the labour/capital relationship more and more. What is your point of view?

Every time the proletariat leaves the stage, the theory of its non-existence comes up.

Although in France one wage earner out of three can be called a worker, the workers' movement as it used to exist in the US, in Europe and Japan until the 1970s, and later in Solinarnosc's Poland, has lost its social reality. It has started getting a new one with the (re)industrialisation of countries like China, but seems absent in old capitalist centres. So it's a temptation to look for a new revolutionary subject, more all-encompassing, less entangled in the social reproduction process, less inclined to be caught up in the work ethic and the glorification of industry. The former supposed springboard for historical change - the factory worker - is now regarded as an obstacle. Instead of depending on proletarians defined by their part in production, social change is said to be based on the radical nature of all those who stand outside production, because capitalism casualises them, makes them redundant, or even keeps them out of work nearly all their life. Most of all, instead of being centred round the struggle against exploitation, the revolutionary movement, according to some, has no longer a centre. In this vision, it develops out of a multipolar resistance against all forms of domination: the revolt of the wage earner against his boss, of course, but just as much the revolt of a member of an ethnic minority against white superiority, of a woman against a sexist, of the child against the adult, of the school kid against the teacher, of the sexual non-conformist against the straight, of street culture against "dead white male" literature, of the rank-and-filer against the leader, of the co-operative against the corporation, of autonomy against hierarchy, of the ordinary citizen against the government.

The defect of that perspective is not to be based on false realities, because nearly all of them do exist, but to pile up a set of phenomena, the addition of which does not explain how society functions, changes, and could be revolutionised.

The domination theory can be accurately described as a new form of anarchism. This word is not an insult. Anarchism has its merits, and this basic flaw: it interprets history as the age-old conflict of freedom versus authority, the individual or the self-defining group v. power, the order receiver v. the order giver, the commune v. the State, the bottom v. the top, and finally democracy v. bureaucracy.

Actually, it seldom happens that domination goes without exploitation. The dominant group usually gets material benefits. Domination is a condition of exploitation, and wherever the economy rules, exploitation is central. We do not live in a world of dominations, where capitalism is one discrimination among others, the biggest maybe, but no more important than dominations based on "gender", sex or 'ethnic" origin. Although the most important domination phenomena (private property, family, religion, the State) were born a few thousand years before the industrial revolution, it's capitalism that structures them now.

The accumulation of capital (by putting proletarians to value-productive labour) lies at the heart of our world, in a different way of course in Dakar, Berlin and Bombay, and different in the various districts of Dakar, Berlin and Bombay, and differing also according to the various moments of the life of the same inhabitant of one of these cities. The Senegalese lorry driver can rebel as a wage earner in his work place, only to turn into a sexist Muslim father and husband at home. The Bombay computer expert can work with an open "modern" mind in the morning, and at midday refuse a packed lunch brought by the hands of a member of the "wrong" caste. The double necessity, for the proletarian to sell himself, and for the bourgeois to get as much value as possible from the work capacity he's bought, that dual necessity does not explain everything, but without it nothing is understandable. What's theoretically at stake, and Marx was fully aware of it, is to acknowledge at the same time that this class structure drives the modern world and that neither in Berlin nor in Bombay or Dakar can the world be reduced to it.

Our position does not consist in reaffirming the existence of classes, nor of a class struggle. In the early 19th century, the best bourgeois historians were lucid enough to interpret the French revolution as a nucleus of class conflicts, as Marx admitted in his letter to Weydemeyer, March 5, 1852. The persistence of class struggle (or its exacerbation) does not depend on us. Our "problem" is not that it exists or not, but that it could end, by a communist revolution that has to arise in a society shaped and torn by the interaction of proletarians and bourgeois. It's no use regretting history has not given us "better" conditions for the emancipation of humankind : those are the only conditions we've got. (For some developments on classes, see the beginning of The Call of the Void, and the opening sections of our In For A Storm.)