“Understanding Class,’ by Erik Olin Wright, 2015
If you missed advanced sociology, this book is for you. I was trying to find a book that describes the specific nature of the class structure in the U.S. and this book only touches on that. It made clear that a material problem for revolutionaries in the U.S. is the complexity of the class system, which has many layers even within classes, layers that are also partially permeable. This is the material reason why working-class consciousness is so weak and fragmented here. Wright calls this problem that of a “contradictory location within class relations.’
Instead this academic book concentrates on the various sociological theories around class, but from a Marxist point of view. Wright is a mild-mannered left Social-Democrat from Madison, Wisconsin and takes on various neo-liberal, progressive and down-right reactionary theories on understanding class. He includes Piketty, Standing and Weber in his theory review, then presents his own. He makes the quite interesting point that capital will undermine its own long-term profit interests (and is doing so) in the pursuit of complete domination over labor.
Wright’s overall position is to find a ‘socially positive compromise’ within capitalism that will benefit workers the most. Think Sweden or Germany. He also attempts to integrate other theories of class into a Marxist paradigm – and I don’t think he fails. The Marxist position, in Wright’s understanding, is the most systemic and encompassing, but he tries to borrow from other theories that are based on solid evidence. I’m going to describe each chapter in which Wright challenges in a polite way some more conservative theories on class. You’ve run into people parroting these ideas, even though they might not know where they come from.
1. Wright first takes on the grand-daddy of bourgeois sociology – Max Weber. Essentially Weber did not believe that the working class was exploited under capitalism. Weber believed that class was exclusively summed up by status - the market skills and background employees brought to their jobs in a complex society. You know, ‘cultural capital.’ In essence, workers charge the bosses ‘skill rents.’ Wright agrees on a lower level that this is true of aspects of class, but points out that Weber’s formulation ignores the overall nature of the economy. Weber believed in a ‘rationalized’ economy which required ‘efficient’ employee functioning. This would allow economies to survive. Weber thus endorsed capitalist managers directing all the work of employees and opposed self-management or cooperatives or even co-determination. By extension unions, work councils, labor, socialist or revolutionary parties - all impinge on Weber’s idea of ‘rationalization.’
Oddly enough, while Weber denounces the ‘political incentives’ that might exist under socialism, he embraces the idea that workers under capital must treat labor as ‘an end in itself’ – another kind of political incentive, i.e. the Protestant work ethic. Weber does understand class position in the same way as Marx, in its relation to production and influence by materiel forces. Wright insists that the idea of ‘exploitation’ hovers in the background of Weber’s analysis but this looks dubious. Weber even theorized that slaves were not an exploited class, and if you can’t see that, you can’t see much.
2. Next up is Charles Tilly. Tilly’s jargon-heavy theory is that inequality might affect categories of people by gender, by ethnicity, by nationality, by language, by religion, by age cohort. But this is only to enable and stabilize exploitation. Tilly thinks that it is primarily organizations that construct this exploitative inequality, which includes corporations, businesses and government entities. It is there you will find the various forms of inequality – exploitation, opportunity hoarding, hierarchy, ownership. These result in categorical inequality, but also self-perpetuating social-Darwinian success for that organization. Tilly subsumes identity politics into class issues and opposes individualist understandings as ‘micro-level’ approaches to these macro-level problems.
Wright agrees with much of what he says, as Tilly merges Weberian and Marxist ideas in his theory, but criticizes him for making identity issues into ‘individualist’ issues when they are not.
3. The third sociologist is a guy named Aege Sorensen. Sorensen also embraces an exploitation / economic version of class over the ‘life conditions’ version of class that is the most common. Wright oddly agrees with Sorensen that you can avoid talking about the labor theory of value when discussing exploitation. Instead, according to Sorensen, the key to exploitation is ‘rents.’ Now the discussion gets completely ridiculous. You are thinking Sorensen is going to talk about landlords or banks gouging apartment dwellers or homeowners; or high-class French vineyards and corner restaurants selling their wares for a maximum profit because of their primo real estate location. Noooo! Sorensen basically believes that workers charge the bosses exorbitant ‘rents’ for their skills - and so the workers exploit the capitalists. Yes, you heard it here.
Sorensen thinks that unions negotiate ‘solidarity wages’ which gives lower-skill workers a bonus, to the detriment of every one else. (Has this guy been in any unions? It is the high-end workers who get the best deal in contracts…) High minimum wages also gives low-skill people an edge, as does a welfare state. As a result, all these effects create a ‘rent’ paid by the capitalists and petit-bourgeois to workers, who become ‘an exploiting class.’ Essentially Sorensen turns society on its head.
Wright points out that all of these ‘rents’ are actually mitigations of capitalist and rentier exploitation. Sorensen bases his ideas on a world of ‘perfect competition’ which does not exist. Additionally, people can be oppressed without being directly exploited – like the unemployed, indigenous people or other excess populations who are not needed for any economic role. As Wright sardonically says, racists said ‘the only good Indian is a dead Indian’ but the bourgeoisie doesn’t say, ‘the only good worker is a dead worker.’ (Unless they are on strike in South Africa…)
4. Michael Mann is the next up. Mann doesn’t believe that classes exist unless they act ‘for themselves.’ He does away with the concept of the Marxist category of class ‘in itself’ - or even analyzing classes as they exist - unless they form into social forces and class actors. To Wright, class locations, relations and structures are still important, while Mann thinks that this version of class analysis is only ‘on paper.’ Mann theorizes that only when a class expresses ideological, political, military or economic power does it really count or exist. Mann then oddly describes the ‘self-action’ of the American middle class / petit-bourgeois in the 20th century – professionals, small business men and corporate managers – and calls them class actors. Marx said that ‘history was the history of class struggle.’ Mann thinks that this struggle came out of nothing.
5. The next are two theorists, David Grusky and Kim Weeden, who believe that the only way to look at class is through job occupations or what you could generously call ‘micro-classes.’ They have come up with more than 126 job occupations that supposedly explain class society. Wright puts them in the micro-level sociological camp of Emile Durkheim, and thanks them for their meticulous empirical research. If you wanted a sociology of class that was limited to lifestyle, taste and social attitudes, their research might be useful. This is what Sarah Palin understands class to be. Wright compares them to a level of game theory. Marxists question ‘what game to play.’ Institutional theorists question ‘what rules to use’ in the already chosen game. And situational theorists like Grusky/Weeden look at the moves to use within the rules of the fixed game. As Wright says, “It is the class analysis for the era of triumphant neo-liberalism.”
6. Thomas Piketty is next. Wright nods to the importance of his massive work on inequality, “Capital.” Wright points out one main disagreement, as others have done, that Piketty does not describe what capital actually is. Piketty says one of the great sources of inequality is the super-salaries of corporate managers, and calls this ‘labor.’ Yet those wages are not from ‘labor’ but from their power positions running capitalist firms, basically gorging on the firms’ profits. Or as the jab goes, ‘having their hand in the till, not on the tiller.’ Piketty also confuses home ownership with ‘capital,’ which are two different kinds of assets. These are examples of Piketty confusing different sources into a generic ‘capital.’
7. Next up are two theorists, Jan Pakulski and Malcolm Waters, who argue that class does not exist in the U.S., as ‘social classes are dissolving.’ This in spite of all the empirical evidence to the contrary. This is a familiar argument made by Republicans and many Democrats, and Wright takes it apart.
8. Next is Guy Standing. He is the lead theorist of the ‘precariat,’ – the marginally unemployed, migrants and denizens who have few legal rights and educated temp or ‘gig’ workers. Standing calls all these a separate class from the working class. Needless to say, Wright easily dispenses with this formulation (along with Standing’s other odd ‘class’ definitions) by showing that the material interests of the precariat and proletariat are close – hence they are not separate classes, but different layers within one class.
Wright thinks for the ‘foreseeable future” (how long is that…) socialism is an impossibility. So as an alternative he creates various game theory graphs describing ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ social compromises within capitalism. He promotes union co-determination, cooperatives, ESOPs and union-based ‘solidarity funds,’ while advocating policies to redirect financial investment and for governments to build productive local economies. In this context, Wright thinks the Swedish/German model of social compromise benefits both capital and the working class the most.
Wright admits that the years between WWII and the advent of neo-liberalism (1945 to 1975) might be a ‘blip’ in the historical record of capital, but soldiers on anyway. He also admits that the social-democratic model, even in Europe, is under attack from neo-liberalism and decaying swiftly due to financial and social conditions. This however does not shake Wright from his political perspective.
“Capital in the 21st Century” by Piketty reviewed in two segments below. “The Precariat” by Standing is also reviewed. Other valuable books reviewed are: “Annihilation of Caste,” “Understanding Class,” “The Servant Economy,” “Rich People Things,” “The Liberal Class,” “In & Out of the Working Class,” “Behind the Kitchen Door” and “Class Lives.”
And I bought it at Mayday Books!
January 30, 2016