| Vivek Chibber The Class Matrix Social Theory after the Cultural Turn | MR Online

Review: Vivek Chibber – “The Class Matrix: Social Theory after the Cultural Turn”

Originally published: Marx & Philosophy on August 27, 2023 by Chris James Newlove (more by Marx & Philosophy)  | (Posted Aug 31, 2023)
| Vivek Chibber The Class Matrix Social Theory after the Cultural Turn | MR Online

Vivek Chibber
The Class Matrix: Social Theory after the Cultural Turn
Harvard University Press, London, 2022. 203 pp., hb £26.95
ISBN 9780674245136

The Class Matrix concisely and systematically argues the case for the continued importance of class for the radical left today. Vivek Chibber rigorously debunks various long held understandings that characterise radical left thought since the cultural turn. Chibber situates the cultural turn as arising from debates within Marxism (specifically the British New Left) on how to understand the seeming stability of capitalism in the 1960s and 1970s. Key moments in the cultural turn include the role of the New Left Review and the appointment of Stuart Hall as director of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University in 1968. Differing concepts of ideology were developed that sort to explain how workers were won over to consenting to their continued exploitation under capitalism. Chibber does not dwell on the origins of the cultural turn at great length. The growth of the ideas emanating from France of Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault and later Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard and the reception of these ideas in North American and British academia is overlooked, yet they proved crucial for providing the theoretical basis of a cultural and linguistic turn. The Class Matrix focuses instead on outlining a critique of the broad themes of the cultural turn rather than adding to the histories of its development.

Chibber convincingly argues that many workers do not consent to capitalism but are resigned to it. Ideology often plays the role of an after-the-fact explanation for an individual worker’s resignation to capitalism. The origins of workers’ resignation to capitalism are structural, the workers material well-being is bound up with their ability to sell their labour-power in the market and follow codes in employment. Regardless of the contingency of individual workers’ agency, there is a stability to how they must engage with employment to maintain their living standards. Economic compulsion sets limits to worker and capitalist agency.

Cultural differences are venerated by the cultural turn, however Chibber argues that as well as attempting to destroy aspects of oppositional cultures, capitalism as a system can either incorporate cultural differences or be indifferent to them. This is a refreshing stance, considering the dominance of ideas in radical thought that seek to describe the real or total subsumption of all aspects of human life to capitalism. Chibber argues regardless of the numerous cultural differences in the world, capitalism has universal features. Although all agents understand their lives via cultural embeddedness, the structural features of capitalism causally operate independently of cultural difference (41).

Workers and capitalists have opposed interests. The capitalist competes to make profit which is ultimately derived from the unpaid labour of the worker. The capitalist is compelled to lower the cost of labour-power and to increase productivity to increase their profits at a greater rate than their rivals. Failure to behave in this way by the capitalist will result in the destruction of their business. A constant source of antagonism is the labour contract; the capitalist agrees to pay a certain amount for the use of a worker’s labour-power, yet the capitalist is compelled to constantly change the terms of employment. The introduction of new technology, changes in the pace and intensity of work, changes in the control of managers all amount to an ‘incomplete’ contract (55).

Chibber agrees with Marx that capitalist and worker have opposed interests and that this will produce resistance on the part of the worker. This point requires reiterating in the context of the popularity of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s argument that the concept of class interests is inherently economically reductionist. Chibber disagrees with Marx that collective over individual resistance will predominate (18). This is an over-simplification of Marx’s views; at times it does sound like worker’s concentration and cooperation within production would automatically lead to collective resistance, at other times, particularly Marx’s interpretations of historical events, the myriad ways workers can be atomised, incorporated into political projects against their interests, divided by racism, are discussed in detail. To what extent Marx’s occasional pronouncements of the inevitability of collective struggle are an interpellation, an attempt to inspire the desired results, is open to interpretation. Regardless, Chibber argues that individual resistance is the norm and collective resistance is the anomaly under capitalism. Many workers are more likely to attempt to avoid work or slow it down than become active in a trade union. Although ‘shirking’ does often require collective coordination to some extent.

Chibber argues that individual resistance is more common as the risks are often perceived as lower than collective struggle. Employers may victimise trade union activists and workers lose money when on strike. Fundamentally the structures of capitalism appear as though capitalists and workers have a shared interest, the health of the firm is based on profits and workers’ immediate material interests are dependent on their employer not going out of business. Chibber argues that to counteract this situation requires two approaches: an effective trade union strategy that shifts the risk/benefit analysis of participation, and the fostering of a solidaristic culture in which sacrifices are endured for higher ideals. An effective trade union strategy can be defined as a militant and rank-and-file strategy in which victory is doggedly pursued. The formulation can also be used to hold back action by moderate forces in a union, waiting for the right moment, conserving resources, fostering the attitude that struggle should not be engaged in unless victory is almost assured. Similarly, despite the clarity of style, the political pronouncements towards the end of The Class Matrix have an ambiguous tone.

European social democracy (based on reforming capitalism via election to the capitalist state) is described in overly generous terms, largely focussing on the relatively high living standards of Scandinavian countries while ignoring the violent repression of workers’ struggles, complicity with racism and colonialism and support for imperialist war that has characterised social democracy from 1914 onwards. Statements such as ‘we do not, in fact, know that the more ambitious ideal of socialism is even achievable’, and that ‘social democracy at its peak might, in fact, be approaching the best we can do’ (141), clash with prior statements in The Class Matrix on the inherently conflictual and exploitative nature of all forms of capitalism. Chibber explores the possibility that the ruling class might see that the redistributive policies of social democracy could coexist with high profit rates, citing as evidence the relative economic consensus of the postwar years in certain countries. The account is an idealised version of developments; the ‘winter of discontent’ strikes against wage cuts and the fall in living standards during the Labour government of James Callaghan from 1976-79 is completely ignored in the British context and austerity is portrayed as being born with Margaret Thatcher’s conservative electoral victory in 1979. Chibber argues that there is now a generalised ruling class hostility to any form of redistributive policies, meaning a return to a postwar social democratic consensus is highly unlikely. Capitalists are the ‘best positioned’ to defend their interests against any impingement of their profits (153), while workers are only organised and combative sporadically. The increasing crises of the capitalist system and the limits to utilising a state reliant on the health of a national capitalist economy are not explored, even if these two factors severely restrict any social democratic strategy.

The Class Matrix displays the rare quality of a systematic and sustained argument, with concepts introduced, defined and inserted into the overall themes of the book. Chibber operates with a level of abstraction inspired by the Analytical Marxism of Gerald Allan Cohen that is both a strength and a weakness. Chibber’s argument on the independent casual effects of class relations, the place of culture, the problems with theories of ideology, the resignation (rather than active consent) many workers feel towards capitalism, are entirely convincing. However, the reader may occasionally be confused about which level of abstraction the arguments are being made. Chibber describes class as ‘the only social relation that directly governs the material well-being of its participants’ (17). A case could be made for this statement viewing capitalism as a mode of production at an extreme level of abstraction, whereas in actually existing capitalism, numerous forms of structural discrimination govern the material well-being of its participants. Taking one example, racialisation provides statistically predictable outcomes in countries both with legal forms of discrimination and those without. Many of Chibber’s arguments revolve around the ‘dull compulsion of economic relations’ in Marx’s terms (120). The violence of the state and the despotism within production under capitalism Chibber describes in Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital largely disappears. The restrictive background of economic relations needs to be integrated into an approach that takes greater account of the ruling class as agents pursuing a strategy to destroy their enemies’ movements. While the more directly political formulations may foster more confusion than clarity, the radical left will greatly benefit from the arguments for a rigorous class analysis made in The Class Matrix.

Chris James Newlove is currently carrying out research on Michel Foucault and the concept of civil war at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy (CRMEP). Research interests include: Decolonial Marxism, Black Liberation, Italian and French Theory.

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