Sunday, 15 June 2014

Understanding Class, a Rejoinder

Timothy Scriven has written a blog post in which he lays out his understanding of the Marxist theory of class. Tim has declared that his post is written in the hopes of stimulating debate and discussion and I offer this response in that same spirit.

Tim begins by arguing, reasonably enough, that in order to understand something you need to know what it is for. He then explains that the Marxist theory (at least, in his interpretation) differs from most other understandings of class in that its aim is not primarily to analyse society as it now but to identify how the system can be overthrown. As Tim puts it "Marxism sees everything in actually existing society through the lens of revolution." He makes clear that this does not mean that Marxism cannot analyse the existing state of affairs but that, as he put it "...its primary concern is with the instabilities, tensions and lines of possible motion within the system."

While Tim doesn't explicitly quote Marx's famous Eleventh Thesis on Feurbach "Up until now, Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point, however, is to change it." that quote would seem to me to undergird his whole article.

This would seem to raise the question of why overthrowing the system is so important. Tim will go on to tell us that he doesn't want to overthrow capitalism just for the fun of it. He writes:

Our objection is that capitalism in its hundreds of years of operation has killed and shortened the lives of billions and drained much joy from the lives of billions more. We are not rebels without a cause... we are instead desperate people.

A number of objections could be raised here, but the deepest objection seems to me to ask how Tim thinks he knows the system has these features which merit its overthrow. The obvious answer would be that this conclusion is drawn from his examination of the system as it currently exists. The problem is that Tim has told us that his analysis of the system takes the overthrow of the system as it's starting point.  If the starting point of your analysis is the overthrow of the system and you claim to derive your belief that the system should be overthrown from the same analysis, you would seem, at least prima facia, to lay yourself open to a charge of circularity.

Tim, none the less, thinks that he can make the case for why the system ought to be overthrown. He makes a number of points in support of this:

To mention just two: we destroy vast quantities of food because the starving who need them who need them can't afford them and we seem to find it inordinately difficult to prevent our species from roasting itself to death since trying to do so would interfere with profit.

I can't deny that Tim has a point. The fact that wealthy nations destroy food because that's the profitable thing to do with it while famine continues to exist in the third world is a blight upon the present system and upon humanity. In wanting to end this, Tim stands shoulder to shoulder with Catholic Social Teaching.

Having said that and having declared that I'm a long way from being any kind of friend of unregulated capitalism, some of what Tim has to say strikes me as more than a little overblown. When I read Tim's comment which I quoted earlier, about capitalism killing billions and draining the joy from the lives of billions more I really wasn't convinced. Are there injustices which Capitalism (especially in its untrammelled forms) creates? Yes, I believe there are plenty. But compare the lives of many who, by today's standards are considered 'working class', 'struggling' or even 'poor' to their counterparts a hundred years ago let alone at the dawn of the industrial revolution. Is it not plain that the worker of today is better fed, better housed, has a wider range of educational opportunities and travel available?

Having established his starting point, Tim goes on to declare that aim of his analysis of class is to determine which force has both the interest in and the power to overthrow capitalism. Tim likens this to the plot of a classic detective novel.

We seek to identify a group with means and motive. We call the hypothetical group who have both the means and motive the 'proletarians'; after a Latin word meaning that the group of people who had nothing to give but their own bodies and wombs.

Now, it's a very long time since I studied Marx's sociology in any serious way and I don't have a direct quote to mind, but Tim's definition here seems to me to stand Marx on his head. When I first read The Communist Manifesto (longer ago than I now care to admit) it seemed pretty clear to me that Marx and Engels started with the fact of the Proletariat's existence and saw it as their task to demonstrate that it was in the Proletariat's interest to overthrow the existing system. On Tim's view, it is analytically true (ie. true by definition) that, if any proletarians exist, overthrowing capitalism is in their interest, it is then the Marxists task to show that anyone fitting this definition of a proletarian actually exists. I have to say, I'm not at all clear why Tim's variation should be considered any kind of advance.

Those are my initial thought's on Tim's post. Obviously, I'm not a sociologist and I'd be interested in Tim's, or anyone else's response to my thoughts.


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