In the first of three extracts from his new book, Radical Chains, Chris Nineham asks why the establishment is so desperate to suppress the very idea of class.
It is not surprising that Marx’s concept of class is unpopular in the mainstream. Marx’s picture of a brutally divided society with organised robbery at its heart amounts to a devastating moral condemnation of capitalism. It also directly contradicts the various ways in which the establishment want us to understand the world we live in. Their preferred model of society is a giant market in which individuals interact freely and equally. In reality, of course, individuals are born into society with drastically different levels of wealth. Marx stressed however that it is the way production is organised that more than anything shapes society. ‘The arrangement of distribution’ he says in Capital, ‘is entirely dependent on the arrangement of production’. What people consume, even what people regard as needs, depends in the first instance on what is produced in any given society. The way the goods are distributed depends on the distribution of wealth, itself determined by one’s position in the productive process.
Politicians also like to tell us ‘we are all in it together.’ This illusion can only gain traction because the economy appears to operate independently of human will and control. The idea can’t survive contact with an understanding that the whole system is driven by a tiny minority forcing profit from the labour of the many. We are also told that capitalist investors are ‘wealth creators’. Looked at from the point of view of class, the capital that an investor brings to the table has been extracted – stolen – from past labour. The investor is simply recycling the spoils to make still more money.
Marxism also challenges the idea that capitalism will ‘lift up’ the poor over time. Capitalism has produced unimaginable wealth, but as Marx predicted, its drive to keep wages down means that for most of its existence the distribution of that wealth has become more and more unequal. Forty years of neoliberal capitalism has brought us to the extraordinary point at which just eight men are worth as much as half the world’s population. Marx’s analysis leads to the devastating conclusion that the poor are poor because the rich are rich. Generalised poverty and inequality are a necessary outcome of a system based on competition for profit.
The most radical aspect of all of Marx’s class analysis is however that it shows that in the process of conquering the world and achieving by far the highest levels of exploitation in history, capitalism has created its own nemesis, its own ‘grave digger’ in the working class. Marx believed workers had the potential to overthrow existing conditions for a number of reasons. The first was directly economic. The fact that workers are denied the material benefits of a more and more productive society gave them an immediate interest in resistance. The second was that the degradation experienced by most of humanity under capitalism was concentrated in the working class. The denial of human self-fulfilment, the ‘notorious crime of the whole of society’, was most acutely experienced in exploitation and its attendant alienation. Workers have through their experience the most acute consciousness of the immensely destructive and degrading capacities of capitalist accumulation.
Secondly, as well as having an interest in change, workers have the means to make it happen. Just as workers rely entirely on capitalists for their livelihood, capitalists are completely dependent on workers for their profits. Powerless as individuals, collectively, workers have immense potential power. As Marx put it, ‘of all the instruments of production, the greatest productive power is the revolutionary class itself’. By forcing huge numbers of workers together at the point of production, capitalism creates a counter-power. Struggles over pay and conditions have the capacity to generalise into a political conflict between different class organisations:
Large-scale industry concentrates in one place a crowd of people unknown to one another. Competition divides their interests. But the maintenance of wages, this common interest which they have against their boss, unites them in a common thought of resistance – combination… If the first aim of resistance was merely the maintenance of wages, combinations, at first isolated, constitute themselves into groups as the capitalists in their turn unite for the purpose of repression, and in the face of always united capital, the maintenance of the association becomes more necessary to them than that of wages…In this struggle – a veritable civil war – all the elements necessary for a coming battle unite and develop. Once it has reached this point, association takes on a political character.
The exclusion of workers from the fruits of production and from any stake in society leads to a final, crucial characteristic. Capitalism has created a class which has no interest in exploiting or oppressing any other group. All previous revolutions, including the bourgeois revolution, resulted in the replacement of one ruling class by another. The emerging capitalist class fought against the localism, the fixed bonds and the backwardness of the feudal system, but they did so to establish a new more dynamic regime of exploitation. Because the economic project of the bourgeoisie depended on the exploitation of a new class, the new rights it offered for the great mass of people, even at its most radical, was limited to the realm of politics. The French revolution that began in 1789 was the quintessential bourgeois revolution. For all its achievements, the equality announced in its central slogan of ‘liberty, fraternity and equality’ turned out to be at best formal and political rather than material or economic.
The nature of the subordination and exploitation of workers puts them in a much more radical situation. Not only is the working class unable to exploit any other group, but for working people, political freedom without social and economic liberation counts for little. Real liberation for workers can only come by dismantling the whole edifice of society. For the working class, the end of its exploitation and oppression can only mean the end of the whole system, the end of all oppression, and the end of class itself. As Marx wrote in The Communist Manifesto:
All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air.
This was the central insight of Marxism, one to which Marx returned again and again. Workers ‘formed a class which cannot emancipate itself without…emancipating all other spheres of society’ he wrote in 1844-45. The next year, he and Engels wrote that the proletariat cannot liberate itself ‘without destroying the conditions of its own life…without destroying all the inhuman conditions in life in contemporary society which exist in the proletariat in concentrated form’. The sheer comprehensiveness of its exploitation and oppression made the working class a subversive force like no other, ‘a class which is the dissolution of all classes’, a class in short, ‘with radical chains’.