What we talk about when we talk about class
In the course I teach on social class in America, I show students how capitalism generates inequalities in wealth, status, and power. What I offer is not a moral critique of capitalism but rather an empirically grounded analysis of how it works, at a nuts-and-bolts level, to create and maintain a disproportionate flow of material and symbolic resources to the capitalist class. That capitalism does this is, as Noam Chomsky might say, uncontroversial. Or, as a student double-majoring in sociology and business once said to me, “You talk about a lot of the same things my business professors do, but you sure talk about them differently.”
Once my students understand how capitalism works and the full range of consequences it produces, their moral intuition tells them what’s wrong with this form of economy. They recognize the unfairness of a system premised on the exploitation of labor; a system that allows wealth to accumulate to an unlimited degree and thus belie claims to provide equal opportunity; a system that wastes vast human potential; a system that undermines democracy by concentrating power in the hands of a relative few. I make the point that sociological analysis can’t tell us what’s right or wrong, but it can inform our moral judgments by helping us see how our social practices affirm or betray our best values.
The irony that hangs over our deliberations is that even as we pursue a critical analysis of capitalism—an analysis that exposes its inhumanity and thus at least suggests the desirability of change—the reality is that students aren’t in college to learn how to overthrow an exploitive and oppressive system. In fact, what they are seeking, most of them, is a comfortable place in that system. This is no fault of theirs; they are economically compelled to seek credentials and skills that will help them avoid the worst that capitalism dishes out and, if possible, benefit from what it dishes out to less fortunate others. Under other historical conditions, higher education might serve different purposes.
Professors are no less trapped; we have simply found our comfortable place in the system years ahead of the students who are still seeking theirs. It seems to me that our mutual entrapment, combined with the seeming intractability of capitalism, are what largely account for the turn away from political economy and toward cultural matters—the turn that has resulted in many Left professors, mostly in the social sciences and humanities, being seen as mere champions of political correctness rather than as serious critical intellectuals with something useful to say about how capitalist society works and how it might be transformed.
At the classroom level, this turn toward the cultural is reflected in efforts to teach students to appreciate diversity, examine their privileges, and reckon with the unconscious racism and sexism embedded in their everyday behavior. To be clear, I think these are good things to do; no destructive inequalities should be given a pass. The problem is that, as useful as these strategies might be for making our students more sensitive and socially aware, they let the class system off the hook. It thus comes to seem that inclusion and diversity within a capitalist framework are the only sensible goals to aim for.
By focusing so much on the cultural, we also end up abetting what Adolph Reed has called an identitarian politics of proportional inclusion. All will be well, we lead our students to believe, if members of historically excluded groups are allowed to enter, in proportion to their numbers in society, the ranks of bosses, administrators, generals, and capitalists. This sort of cosmetic change is unthreatening to those safely ensconced in the system, and it naturally appeals to those trying to find a place nearer to the top than the bottom. Inclusion, yes. Upward mobility, yes. Transformation? Only après moi, maybe.
A now-retired colleague of Marxist persuasion once remarked on what he saw as a telling omission on the part of many academics who study inequality. He observed that while everyone agrees that racism and sexism are wrong and should be eradicated, few people make the same argument about class. “Why is it imperative to oppose racism and sexism,” he asked, “and not class?” Between us, it was mostly a rhetorical question. We knew that the answer had to do with academics’ class privilege and need to embrace an ideology of meritocracy to justify that privilege. To call class into question would be to question not just a system of inequality but our own deservingness.
While social scientists certainly haven’t ignored class, the attention we’ve paid to it usually takes one of two forms: using class as a variable to predict the attitudes or behaviors of individuals; or studying the lives of people in certain class categories (e.g., ethnographic studies of working-class communities). Such studies can be useful for showing how people experience and are affected by their class locations. What’s typically missing, however, is analysis of how the class system works—how it is used by those who control the means of production and administration—to generate and maintain the inequalities that shape people’s lives.
Part of the problem is that some of the conceptual language useful for unpacking these matters has been stigmatized. The language exists but using it carries a high risk of being dismissed as an ideologue. To speak of a growing gap between productivity and wages over the last thirty years is acceptable. To speak of wage stagnation as a partial result of declining union membership is okay. To speak of ever more wealth accruing to the richest one percent is now within respectable bounds. But to speak of an increasing rate of expropriation enabled by capitalist victories in the class struggle is to invite trouble. Or invisibility.
This is not just a matter of how class is talked about in academic circles. How we study, talk about, and write about class has wider consequences. Focusing solely on diversity, inclusion, privilege, and mobility means having little to contribute when it comes to challenging capitalist power, advancing working-class interests, or transforming capitalism as a whole. It means, in effect, accepting a soft ringside seat.
If we hope to say anything useful about how to transcend capitalism, we have to examine the system itself—the rules of the game, the legal and political tactics, the ideological manipulation, the mechanisms of exploitation, the coordinated strategies of domination—not just its consequences for values, personal behaviors, and mobility prospects. We also need to take more seriously the implications of intersectionality.
Jargony though it might seem, “intersectionality” has two useful meanings. It can refer to the fact that we’re all caught in multiple systems of inequality at once. Our life chances and daily experiences are the results not just of class position but also, simultaneously, of race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and disability status. Intersectionality can also refer to how systems that create and perpetuate inequality—capitalism, racism, and sexism—mutually reinforce each other. It’s this latter sense of intersectionality, the structural sense, that has gotten lost in the cultural turn.
The failure to think structurally is evident in the term “classism,” which is meant to parallel “racism” and “sexism.” But whereas we grasp racism and sexism as broad systems of discriminatory practices and justifying beliefs, “classism” typically refers to what we used to call elitism or snobbery. A true parallel term would refer not to matters of attitude but to organized practices of economic exploitation and to the ideologies that justify such practices. It is this understanding of what class entails that also has gotten lost. Taking intersectionality seriously and recognizing that class is not merely elitism but rather a system of economic exploitation, has, as my erstwhile Marxist colleague suggested, a powerful implication: class, no less than racism and sexism, should be abolished—even by the moral standards of liberalism.
Cultural critique remains necessary. People live in a culture no less than in an economy. And if the truth is the whole, then both culture and social organization must be analyzed to arrive at a full picture of how any society works. But at this historical juncture it seems that our own frustrations and privileges have led us—academics who would presume to speak about class, about inequality, about change—to narrow our analytic view to the cultural and attitudinal. Ironically, by focusing on what has seemed most amenable to change we have perhaps impeded it.
Making the social machinery of capitalism the target of analysis exposes racism and sexism as tools of the capitalist class. Racism and sexism divide and weaken the working class and enable the super-exploitation of subgroups of workers. And by making these things possible, racism and sexism aid the accumulation of wealth that bolsters capitalist power. So if we are serious about eradicating racism and sexism and dismantling privilege, we must recognize that this can’t be done within a capitalist framework. By implication, a well-meaning liberalism that takes its own moral commitments seriously must oppose capitalism, or collapse under the weight of hypocrisy. Honest intersectional thinking, in other words, has to become radical thinking if it is not to betray itself and its would-be beneficiaries.
Michael Schwalbe is a professor of sociology at North Carolina State University.
—Counter Punch, December 7, 2016