Production (of goods and services) is a material necessity of every human society. Production of surplus is another material necessity if a society as a whole is to sustain itself, since not everyone is a producer. Organization of production in terms of appropriation and distribution of the finished product, including the surplus, is one of the key features that distinguishes human societies one from another.
These are fairly straightforward propositions and they form the basis of Marx’s economic and sociological analyses. It’s not on account of this, however, that Marx’s analysis suffers from disrepute but from his application of said premises. I’m speaking here of the surplus theory of value and his class analysis respectively. Why so? Because the first hinges on the notion of exploitation as the chief means of securing and disposing of the surplus. And the second – well, it suggests the idea of class struggle.
Both notions are unpalatable to the common sensibility we’ve come to associate with a genteel and enlightened society, especially one that bills itself a liberal democracy. The first on strictly moral grounds, and the usual denial takes the form of talk in terms of profit, or return on investment, both morally neutral turns of phrase, we’ve been made to believe. The second is simply antithetical to the very principles on which any liberal democracy is presumed to be founded, principles which espouse individual equality under the law, (which, in my mind, translates to “equal moral worthiness of persons”), liberty, and natural rights.
It stands to reason, therefore, that anyone who’s been steeped in this ideology should find both notions abhorrent and against the grain. Indeed, the notion of exploitation is usually explained away by reference to capital investment and ultimately, the idea of economic freedom. Likewise with the idea of class struggle. Since we’re supposed to be equal, the very idea seems preposterous. This is why a liberal democracy and the capitalist system of production are such happy bedfellows and tend to reinforce one another: since the former has the desirable effect of making us feel good about ourselves, the idea of exploitation is unthinkable. This is also why Marx’s socioeconomic analysis has all the markings of a repressed kind of discourse, no less repressed, it’s arguable, than the kind of discourse hinted at by Freud when he introduced the concept of the unconscious. Indeed, even the most progressive forces of the left shy away from Marxian discourse. Witness Paul Krugman, for instance, or any other Nobel Prize Laureate in economics: rarely, if ever, is their work couched in anything even approximating Marxian terms.
It should be noted that Marx’s isn’t the only definition of class and class structure. The theories of class based on property or political power are much older than Marx’s, and they still exercise powerful influence on everyday thought. The same goes for the theory of class based on consciousness: you are who you think you are, regardless of how they peg you. Marx’s contribution, however, is invaluable to our understanding of class structure and it forms an all-important adjunct to the older conceptions.
The French Revolution provided the impetus. Despite radical redistribution of political power and property, not to mention the most radical change in consciousness, the noble slogan which prompted this epochal event, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” failed to materialize. Marx traced the abject failure to not going the extra step: restructuring the workplace so that the workers would have total control over the means of production and the disposition of the finished product, including the surplus, in short, the communal type of organization. The same criticism could be launched with respect to the Russian Revolution of 1917.
The following table offers a fair, albeit schematic representation of Marx’s analysis of human societies in terms of organization of production:
of producers control
disposition of product,
including the surplus)
(Producers have no
say in the matter)
Note that the status of property is not a determinant as to whether the economic system in place is an exploitative one. Feudal class structure, for one, as defined by organization of production, was exploitative; yet landed property was being assigned or held in common. Conversely, the “ancient” class structure, as exemplified by, say, self-employed persons or the artisans of old – think of the cottage industry in pre-industrial England – was non-exploitative in the Marxian sense; yet the private property system remained intact. Consequently, there is no necessary entailment in either direction. Admittedly, the matter of private property is somewhat murky under the communal mode of organization. Is the property Ki>private when it’s held in trust or in common? Can we even speak of property in the latter instance? Such questions are not easily answerable but they needn’t detain us here. Suffice to say that on Marx’s analysis of class structure in terms of organization of production and exploitation, the status of property is not a decisive factor.
Also note that each of these organizational forms, along with the corresponding class structure, may co-exist within any given society (although some forms are more dominant than others). Ours is a perfect example. Though the vast majority of the populace stands in the employer-employee relationship to one another and therefore, in Marxian terms, in a relationship marked by exploitation, this arrangement by no means preempts the field. Many Americans are self-employed and proud of it: there’s nothing like being your own boss and that sentiment, understandably, is shared by most everyone. Some are virtual slaves and great many others, as members of household, re-enact what amounts to a feudal type of relationship and class structure. Indeed, even the communal forms abound. Apart from the most obvious examples by way of cooperatives, partnerships and what have you, perhaps the most telling are networks, software engineers and Silicon Valley techies quitting their regular jobs and getting together, usually in somebody’s garage or Starbucks, to form joint ventures. The underlying idea is innovation since the corporate environment is stifling, and the term in use is “innovative entrepreneurship.” Little do they know, the good Republicans they are, that what they’re engaging in, the class structure they’re re-enacting day in and day out, is a communal class structure straight out of Marx’s playbook.
Lastly, one and the same person may well partake in multiple class relationships in the course of their life. A gang member, for instance, may be gainfully employed while the bulk of their time and related activities places him or her within a feudal class structure. Likewise with a respectable software engineer – Neo from Matrix comes to mind – who, in his spare time, runs a profitable business as a computer hacker. A good and unsuspecting hubby, while exploited in the workplace, could well be exploiting his dutiful wife. The same wife, if also employed to make ends meet, could well be experiencing a double whammy, both at home and in the workplace.
The last-mentioned scenario, by the way, offers as good an explanation as any as to why so many American households are turning single-parent households. It’s not “moral crisis” as the religious Right tries to insinuate but the women having had their fill and saying “No.” Yet the Left, for its unfamiliarity with, or natural resistance to, Marx’s class-analytics, is at a loss to counter this little tidbit of conventional wisdom with a hypothesis of its own.
So much for setup, and it’s more than ably argued in Richard D. Wolff’s first of the five-part online seminar, “Marxian Class Analysis, Theory and Practice.” I won’t bother you with the rest, which deals mostly with applications, except for two salient points. The first offers an insightful analysis of the conditions in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Our (mis)understanding of those conditions, the situation on the ground, is so skewed in fact that there can only one plausible explanation: the Soviet experiment, perceived by the Western powers as imminent threat, was vilified from the very start (which suggest that apart from repression, vilification is perhaps the most efficacious line of attack against unpalatable views). If there is a moral to the story, it is that socialism or communism, if either of those terms be understood to mean statism, which is to say, state control of industry and commerce, have nothing to do with Marx’s idea of organization of production along the communal lines. Unfortunately, the architects of the Russian Revolution hadn’t a clue. The second is rather straightforward and it touches upon the American labor movement and the failure of the Left. In focusing on improving working conditions, including the rate of pay, the condition of exploitation remained unaddressed.
This is no revolutionary tract. I’d have no idea how to implement the taking over the abandoned factories or the means of production, nor do I know whether such a project is even possible. The Argentine experiment provides some basis for hope, but then again, we’re talking here about different mentality, culture and history of political and economic institutions. Suffice to say, however, Marx’s theory of class structure in terms of exploitation as the chief determinant of class relationships offers a unique perspective to say the least. Professor Wolff does great public service to be offering this seminar online, and I can only urge you to take advantage of it.
It’s seven hours long and then some, but every minute of it, I assure you, is well worth it. Even if you don’t become convinced in the end, you will have gained an invaluable tool to help you understand present-day events in an entirely new way, including our economic crisis.