The recent success of authoritarian-populist politicians and the critique of globalisation, unemployment and social insecurity they advocate has prompted renewed attention to the question of class. In Germany, this debate has been accompanied by discussions surrounding the publication of Didier Eribon’s recent book, Returning to Reims. From afar, these debates could leave one with the impression that the left had abandoned the social question in recent years in favour of an exclusive focus on questions of social recognition and “identity”, e.g. questions of gender and sexual emancipation, or the struggle against racism and nationalism. This line of argument also tends to imply that these concerns are the domain of the urban, well-educated petite bourgeoisie, open to new communicative and cultural practices while consuming expensive, fair-trade organic products, yet blinded to the living conditions of the overwhelming majority by their own bourgeois Lifestyle.
Such segments of the petite bourgeoisie most certainly exist, however they do so alongside many others who participated in the World Social Forums, support the transition to a sustainable post-growth society, or are involved in the refugee movement. Perhaps the problem is more that the left tends to fall into two camps: those who are generally more concerned with questions of distribution, poverty, unemployment, wages and trade unions, and those more interested in climate change, food consumption patterns, emancipation from heterosexual normativity and racism, or democratic rights.
The left does itself no favours by construing a dichotomy between class and identity politics rather than exploring their intrinsic interconnection. In fact, many of the “identity questions” allegedly unrelated to distribution also have material implications: sexism, for example, leads to the discrimination of women at the workplace and in partnerships, relegated to allegedly female roles, paid less, and often trapped in precarious employment. Additionally, women workers are often subject to sexual harassment. Whether health insurance pays for abortions and whether these are performed in local hospitals can be crucial, even existential questions – particularly for poorer women. Racism serves as the foundation for the destruction of entire regions and the hyper-exploitation of large segments of humanity. The ecological question – healthy food, access to clean water, sustainable energy production or mobility – carries implications for more than just an allegedly saturated petite bourgeoisie obsessed with their own physical fitness and appearance. Workers are also affected when it comes to safe and healthy workplaces, air and sound pollution, medical care or food quality. Workers also suffer under conventional family structures and gender identities, as men and women with all of the social expectations these identities entail. Many workers are also gay, lesbian or trans people subject to harassment, state repression or (medical) violence because of their sexual orientation. It would be a mistake to view these moments of the life context of various groups of wage earners in isolation from one another, as such a move risks narrowing our understanding of class and construing false lines of Division.
It would be similarly false to present the working class as a unified entity, though it is true that all members of the working class belong to society’s “collective worker” (as Marx calls it in Capital). Although this fact represents a potential point of commonality and unity, shared identities and practical perspectives do not emerge from the relations of production automatically. The individuals and groups making up the collective worker exhibit a wide variety of orientations in terms of their lifestyles and world views – for occupational or workplace-related reasons, due to gender and familial divisions of labour, national background, age, education, formal employment status and job prospects, qualifications, concrete job and income, workplace size and position in the hierarchy, religious ties, organisational experiences and militant traditions, or membership in organisations like trade unions and political parties.
The collective worker comprises a wide variety of people scattered across the globe who collectively participate in the material production of life. Nevertheless, this commonality remains cut off from them under conditions of a privately-owned economy. The left does not exist by chance, but rather anticipates a humanity conscious of precisely such a commonality. The various currents and concrete forms of the labour movement and social movements are products of this contradictory process of the organisation of the collective worker. They emerge organically from the historical necessities put forward by a multiplicity of deeply heterogeneous individuals with divergent social functions, modes of living and attitudes, who seek to win their freedom by forming a collective capable of acting and reaching collective decisions about the shape of our shared co-existence. Large sections of the historical left, however, have restricted themselves to particular forms of industrial labour, namely heavy industry and materials processing, which led to a specific, naturalistic understanding of the material production of wealth in which toilsome physical labour occupied a central role. Trade unions and workers’ parties made this the central focus of their organisational and political activities for many years. Other forms of work (largely performed by women) such as housework, childrearing, caring for the elderly, and other forms of social reproduction were largely marginalised.
The left neglected to devote sufficient attention to how the working class itself is rife with and structured by relations of power and domination. Marx addresses this very clearly in Capital, describing how men sell the labour of their wives and children almost as if they were slaves – yet Marx himself still failed to take gender relations, generational reproduction and thus the entire spectrum of bourgeois influences on the working class through moralisation of the family and sexuality into account. Historically, however, the working class was hardly ever “nationally” composed, due to the key function regularly occupied by migrant labour. By granting a segment of the “native” and urban working class a supervisory function, a degree of command over the work of others, better pay, better living conditions and social mobility for their children, the working class was hierarchized and divided. That said, experiences of the many forms of difference, identity and modes of living prevalent within the working class can also facilitate an enriching expansion of perspective which, in turn, moves towards a new form of class politics. This kind of class politics would be less about a reduction to one group of wage earners – industrial workers, the precariously employed – or the establishment of a common class identity, so much as a perspective of a new mode of production and life, of the complex interconnection between different forms of participating in the total labour of society. Here, three aspects are important:
- In the history of the left, the mistake was often made of seeking a common denominator to cohere different interests – so-called “objective interests”. Yet these interests can be very heterogeneous indeed: job security, wage levels, equal pay for equal work, shorter working hours, breaks, overtime or vacation rules, qualifications and prospects for advancement, less pressure from management, a regulated normal working day and a degree of self-determination at the workplace, tax levels, children’s job prospects, dependents in need of care, private relationships, urban and regional development, and many others. Not all of these goals can be brought together in every phase of the class struggle. The left, for its part, cannot afford to concentrate on one aspect which it identifies as the common interest of all wage earners in advance, as no such common denominator exists, nor could such interests be objectively determined given the constant shifts in the dominant contradictions and struggles in the circulation of all relations of dominance and exploitation. This does not entail doubting the objective nature of classes and class interests, but rather developing a different understanding of material objectivity. Objectivity consists not only of one’s position within the relations of production and access to means of production; objectivity cannot be reduced to economic interests and market positions. Instead, classes are determined by the totality of economic, political, and cultural relations and by their relation to one another. This relation is, in its totality, a relation of class struggle. In this sense, classes always encompass a wide range of class practices, which are the result of previous struggles and compromises between classes. These also include state practices of dominance (from legal framing of the right to strike, social policy, and the repression of left-wing organisations) and ongoing discussions in political parties or the media, as well as conflicts around the socialisation of individuals, their modes of living, or their eating habits.
As the modes of living and interests within classes vary significantly and are subject to continuous change in line with the capitalist dynamic, “class politics” is confronted with the challenge of taking not only labour, but rather all aspects of life and the class-specific practices of various groups of wage earners into account. Otherwise, the possibility arises that the interests of only one specific group will be asserted and generalised. The danger of this leading to exclusion and political inflexibility is obvious.
Of crucial importance, then, is which aspect(s) of life can summarise and represents workers’ problems – in which symbols, questions, and topics do they see themselves and their problems and perspectives reflected? It is thus not a question of finding the smallest common denominator, but rather of which topics, conflicts, and developments come to symbolise the many problems of crisis-ridden social misdevelopment, as well as one’s own exploited and dominated living situation. Such symbols can be taxation, general political incompetence, ecology, education, the family and gender relations – but also the nation or “foreigners”.
- The left must take all of these aspects into consideration and critically address them as products of the capitalist mode of production. It must demonstrate its willingness to support adequate solutions to individual problems, while continuing to emphasise the overall tendency of social development and the need for solutions to several larger problems: problems like environmental destruction, racism, sexism, the accumulation of wealth by a select few, and the burden of toilsome labour for the many despite civilizational progress, which have continued to grow and multiply over the last 400 years. The only real solution is to change the organisation of the entire ensemble of social relations in such a way that allows for everyone to fully participate in the social decision-making process. In turn, class politics cannot be based on a flawed reduction to the problems of a particular social group or class, but rather must enrich itself with the knowledge and awareness of dominance, degradation, and destruction in all areas of life.
The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci describes this social constellation as an historical bloc, an alliance of different subaltern groups with their specific modes of living based on various formulas. It is less a matter of radicalising and expanding spontaneous workplace struggles or waiting for new and bigger demonstrations or electorates and party coalitions; rather, such a bloc emerges from a shared understanding of reality and the formation of a common will to change the totality of social relations. As far as perspectives for the left are concerned, this means advocating for the notion that desperately-needed social changes (overcoming exploitation, ecological crisis, racism, sexual violence) are impossible as long as the capitalist mode of production remains in place. As long as social labour is determined by the market’s anarchic processes of supply and demand, the possibilities for solving major social problems remain severely constricted. Too many powerful interests have a stake in preventing such solutions.
- Many people reject being labelled or labelling themselves into a specific class. Unlike in the case of gender or national identity – which humanity absorbs in the form of centuries-old traditions and practices of domination renewed daily and positively occupied by the rulers themselves – many treat class ascriptions as a kind of imposition, anticipating on an individual and private level that which can only be achieved collectively and as a social relation, namely the overcoming of classes altogether. This is the historical goal of the socialist movement: “the abolition of the classes” (Marx). The difficult part of class belonging is that it is a coercive relation, entailing material dependency on others and demonstrating that individuals, despite all intellectual competencies, despite freedom and equality, despite democracy, are subjected to an all-powerful totality against which they are powerless, which they do not control, and which de-solidarizes them from others in society. It is thus paradoxical: the left is confronted with the challenge of arguing for the notion that people belong to a class while simultaneously advocating for the abolition of all classes as a defining relation between humans – in the same way that it fights for the abolition of oppressive forms of identity like “race”, “nation”, or “gender”.
But that, precisely, is the challenge: developing a critical rather than heroic understanding of “class” informed by the various existing forms of domination, in order to create moments in which the possibility of freely shaping social relations emerges through the interconnection of other emancipatory tendencies. This sort of orientation towards hegemony obliges the left to address the various emancipatory perspectives emphatically and over the long term, rather than instrumentally or tactically, in order to work towards an all-encompassing project of social emancipation. The left should work towards making an expanded conception of “class” and the free, self-determined, and cooperative shaping and steering of social labour into a political-cultural, hegemonic symbol, in which people recognise the possibility of resolving the many urgent social problems and challenges described above.