Vivek Chibber: “Bad Ideas” Aren’t Keeping Workers From Fighting Back

Vivek Chibber

Critics often say the working class doesn't fight back against exploitation because it's confused about its real interests. But this ignores how capitalism itself leads workers to resign themselves to their situation — and how we can overcome that resignation.

(Tim Mossholder / Unsplash)

Interview by
Paul Heideman

In the last half century, the advanced capitalist world has witnessed the juxtaposition of neoliberal immiseration with working-class political quiescence. Increasing exploitation and the destruction of the social safety net have not, by and large, produced the kinds of explosive class struggles that were familiar in the first half of the twentieth century.

In attempting to explain this, many theorists have turned to culture. Exploitation, they argue, will only produce struggle if workers possess a cultural framework pointing in that direction. It is equally possible, however, for workers to be absorbed into capitalist culture in various ways, leading them to consent to their own exploitation.

Vivek Chibber’s new book, The Class Matrix, examines this strain of thought, and finds it wanting. While acknowledging the important contributions theorists of the cultural turn have made, and recognizing how Marxist thought requires revision to meet their challenge, he argues that socialists must reject the notion that workers fail to fight back because something is wrong with their ideas.

Paul Heideman

Your book is dedicated to Erik Olin Wright. How did Erik’s work shape your own, and how do you see The Class Matrix‘s relationship to his thought?

Vivek Chibber

In The Class Matrix, I try to explicate a materialist theory of class. Erik Wright did more than any other theorist in the postwar era to develop this line of thinking. He based his work on Marxian theory, understanding it to be, at its core, a theory about the class structure and about how the class structure puts enormous constraints on both the form and the content of politics in capitalism.

The structure is able to do that because it generates the political interests of class actors around their economic situation, derived from their economic situation. The core idea in materialism, as Wright developed it, is that in their social and economic action, people largely pursue their material interests. Materialism is wrapped around the notion of interests.

This was at the very heart of Erik Wright’s theory. In recent decades, theories of this kind have come under tremendous criticism from cultural theorists, insisting that it’s not material interests that drive politics and social contestation but culture and the ideology of the actors.

This criticism called to question the very foundations of class theory. In the book, I build on Erik Wright’s work, which was itself, in my opinion, a quite conventionally Marxist account. The brilliance of Erik’s work is that even though it was laid out in the language of contemporary social science, with admirable clarity, it was very orthodox and very rooted in classical Marxian economics.

I’ve tried to build on that theory and to show that it can answer most of the critiques and challenges coming out of the cultural turn. In fact, it’s able to explain phenomena about contemporary capitalism that cultural theory frankly cannot.

Paul Heideman

As you say, the whole book is a response to the cultural turn in the moral sciences. What exactly does the cultural turn refer to, and how has it manifested in social theory?

Vivek Chibber

The roots of the cultural turn go back to the early years after World War II. It came into full effect in the 1980s, but its foundations can be traced back to the ’50s. At the core of the questions that motivated this turn in the early postwar years was the question of the working class in advanced capitalism and its relationship to the system. Classical Marxism had predicted that, because of the enormous antagonism generated by the exploitation of labor, workers would sooner or later come together under the banner of socialism and overthrow the system.

This appeared to be coming true in the early decades of the twentieth century. But by 1950, it was clear that this wasn’t happening in the countries that had not yet witnessed socialist revolutions. Why wasn’t it happening? This was the question that early postwar Marxists like Stuart Hall, Raymond Williams, and E. P. Thompson posed to themselves.

Their animating question was, why didn’t the Western working class overthrow the system the way early Marxists expected it to? Now, for most but not all of these theorists, the answer resided in culture. The reason that the working class had not overthrown the system was that it had been indoctrinated into capitalism through the various institutions of the culture industry.

And that was taken to be the answer to the puzzle. The argument coming from these early theorists was that Marxism had vastly underestimated the role of culture and the place of cultural institutions in the reproduction of capitalism. In order to understand how and why collective action was blocked on the part of the working class, you had to understand how these cultural institutions mediated workers’ understanding of reality.

This is perfectly reasonable in many ways; the challenge, as this generation of Marxists understood it, was simply to see how the culture industry works and how it affects social and political contestation. You see this being done in the Frankfurt School and also in the early New Left. E. P. Thompson’s great work, The Making of the English Working Class, also tries to look at how the church and other religious and cultural institutions affect class formation.

In this respect, the turn to culture was very much a wrinkle within the Marxist tradition. It tried to fill out what they thought Marxist theory had left as an unexplained black box. But by the ’80s, this turn became much more aggressive in its claims.

Paul Heideman

Aggressive how?

Vivek Chibber

The early years of the cultural turn were committed to filling out the dots, the causal chain, that connected structure to action. But it took for granted that culture was either helping or hindering people understand their position in the system. But the basic rules of the system — its fundamental constraints — were still taken to be set by the class structure. The puzzle was to figure out how the cultural institutions mediated its influence on social actors’ consciousness.

By the ’80s, there was a much more ambitious set of claims, which insisted that if interests have to first be interpreted in order to become efficacious and motivating, then the act of interpretation has to play a central role in class action. And if that’s the case, the problem is — and this is the cultural argument — that we can’t assume how the class structure will be filtered into people’s consciousness, because the intervening cultural norms, ideologies, etc., are very local and highly diverse. The cultural filter in, say, India, will be very different from the filter in Birmingham. And if that is so, then the same class structure will be interpreted in very different ways, leading to very different sorts of action in the two settings, even though they are both capitalist.

So the interpretive process has to be seen as the key element, and it also has to be acknowledged that it will be highly variable, and hence the way the class structure generates action will become quite unpredictable. It becomes prisoner to local mores, local norms, and local attributes. So the cultural turn ended up questioning the idea that the class structure, wherever it is implanted, will exercise similar effects and have similar constraints. Class structure becomes prisoner to local cultures.

This leads to the final step in the argument: that if the class structure’s efficaciousness depends on its local interpretation, its local interpretation is doing all the work. All social reality becomes highly variable, culturally constructed, not simply culturally mediated. Class therefore becomes the product of culture rather than something that’s interpreted through culture.

So, by the ’90s, what we had was a social constructionism. In the nineteenth century, we would have called it “idealism” — where ideologies and culture do the work in political contestation rather than being in some way secondary to material constraints that people experience.

Paul Heideman

You’re critical of the cultural turn, particularly in its more aggressive form. In your book, you say that the theorists of this turn nonetheless have some important questions right. What does the cultural turn get right?

Vivek Chibber

In the book, I argue that the reason the working class does not spontaneously or routinely rise up and overthrow the system is not because it’s steeped in ideology, or that it’s fooled by culture, or that it’s suffering from false consciousness. The reason it doesn’t do this is because of the material constraints that the class structure puts on collective action.

The singular fact about the capitalist class structure is that it binds the two classes — capitalists and workers — in a very unequal way. Workers have to not only come together politically as actors but they have to do so against the much greater resources that capitalists have, and against the very real risks and the costs that they have to bear if they are going to overcome the resistance of the capitalists.

Capitalists routinely don’t even have to organize themselves. They have the structural advantage of the workers needing them more than they need the workers. Capitalists can literally sit back and wait for workers to come to them looking for a job. As long as the workers show up for work every day, the capitalists’ subordination of the working class is kept intact.

In that situation, if workers are going to come together, there’s a baseline level of risks and costs that they have to be able to absorb. Now, in order to absorb these risks and costs, the key component of all the things that have to come together is a cultural one. One of the main ways that the labor movement has found working people able to come together is forging a sense of collective identity and a sense of mutuality, so that they are motivated not simply by material interests but also by a sense of obligation to other workers.

This sense of obligation is what we call solidarity. And it has an irreducible cultural component to it, a component of identity formation. The key point here, of course, is that it’s identity formation around their interests. The interests still put a constraint on the range of identities that they can undertake. But it’s going to have to be some degree of cultural work that gets it going.

This role of culture is something that the cultural turn helped us identify and understand as an important component. The problem was that they elevated it and pumped up its importance to a level that is impossible to sustain.

While my book definitely argues for putting material constraints, or what Marx called “the dull compulsion of economic relations,” back at the core of class theory, it does not by any means call for an excision of culture from that theory.

Paul Heideman

At the same time, one of the more provocative and unexpected arguments in the book is that cultural theorists and the thinkers of classical Marxism shared some key presuppositions on these questions concerning the role of the class structure and the production of social stability. What do these two groups of thinkers have in common?

Vivek Chibber

The New Left thought that it was waging a theoretical revolution. It thought that it was bringing in culture to a theory that had hitherto ignored it, and was thereby answering the puzzle that the theory was unable to answer. The puzzle that they thought they were answering was, why doesn’t the working class organize collectively and challenge its bosses?

Now, the question was in some ways novel, because it hadn’t been posed in such a stark way before. But the New Left shared a key presupposition with the classical theorists, and this supposition was that the role of the class structure was to pit employer and employee against each other and to thereby be a source of conflict. That was it. Insofar as that system is not overrun by that conflict, it must be because of mechanisms and institutions that are outside the class structure.

The class structure is seen by Marx, by Lenin, by Luxemburg, and by the postwar theorists as the source of instability in capitalism. The cultural institutions, the “superstructure,” are seen as the source of stability. Stability comes from outside the structure; instability comes from within it.

My argument is that these theorists didn’t fully understand their own theory. If you think hard about Marx’s class theory, it’s pretty clear that the class structure is not just a source of instability. It does, of course, generate conflict. But it also lays the foundations for the stabilization of the system. The structure locks the classes into a perpetual conflict, as Erik Wright’s work explicates so well. But the conflict is asymmetrical. One side is constantly advantaged, and the other is disadvantaged.

The advantages are built into the structure itself. They are not contingent effects of cultural institutions or ideologies. If the advantages are built into the structure itself, then the answer to the question that the New Left posed was quite different from what it thought. The answer no longer resides in ideology and culture. It is that the class structure underwrites its own stability.

That is where this incarnation of class theory departs from the New Left. I would not call it a departure from classical Marxism. I think it develops the implications of classical class theory, but it is the case that Marx and the early Marxists insufficiently appreciated the implications of their own theory.

Paul Heideman

A central chapter of the book consists of an extended engagement with Antonio Gramsci‘s influential concept of hegemony, which has been widely used to explain social stability in capitalism. How do you evaluate Gramsci’s thought on this subject?

Vivek Chibber

Gramsci is widely understood to be one of the most brilliant Marxists of his era. I agree with that. The Prison Notebooks are an incredible source of insight and new ideas into the capitalism of Gramsci’s time and of our own.

I also think that he’s been quite commonly misunderstood. The most common understanding of Gramsci today is that he was a prefigurative proponent of the cultural turn. The Prison Notebooks as we know them, at least in the English language, are centrally concerned with the idea of how modes of production stabilize themselves, and where the source of stability is in any given mode of production.

Supposedly, Gramsci’s answer is that stability exists in the superstructure, in civil society, etc. This appears to anticipate the arguments that the New Left proposed in the postwar era. It’s no surprise that Gramsci became the most widely touted classical Marxist within the New Left, given his supposed attention to superstructure.

The minority view, which I also uphold, was available in the ’80s and ’90s but never gained the traction that the culturalist interpretation of Gramsci had. This view is that Gramsci was in fact as much a materialist as Lenin, Marx, or Luxemburg. So the New Left was correct in proposing that Gramsci had a theory of how capitalism stabilizes itself — the theory of hegemony. This theory is that workers are absorbed into the system through the engineering of consent to the system.

But the New Left interpreted Gramsci to be arguing that consent comes through intellectuals and cultural institutions. In fact, if you read the Prison Notebooks, it’s pretty clear that Gramsci didn’t believe that. In his theory, just like the theory of every other classical Marxist of his generation and earlier, the source of consent is based on how the ruling class manages the material interests of the subordinate classes — not through ideological indoctrination.

The way that the ruling class manages these economic interests is by presiding over the development of the productive forces, resulting in an ever-increasing level of economic welfare for workers. The workers consent to the system because they see themselves benefiting from it.

This goes against the culturalist interpretation of Gramsci, but in my view, it’s hard to read the Prison Notebooks and not come away with this more materialist interpretation. The interesting question is how the culturalist interpretation became so widespread.

But while I defend the materialist reading of Gramsci, I also believe that that theory, the materialist one, cannot suffice as an explanation for capitalism’s durability. Gramsci’s error, or at least the error of the way in which he approaches the question of hegemony, is that he collapses the question of capitalist stability into the question of hegemony.

There is an apparent assumption in the Prison Notebooks that once you’ve answered where consent comes from, you’ve also answered the New Left’s question: Why is capitalism stable? This is only possible if you think that stability is brought about exclusively by working-class consent. After forty years of neoliberalism, we have to doubt this argument.

The reason is that it’s hard to make the case that in the neoliberal era, from Margaret Thatcher to Ronald Reagan, the model of economics was popular with the population. It seemed that way in the early ’80s; it seemed like Thatcher and Reagan rose to power through a powerful electoral wave. But by the ’90s, it was becoming clear that the sense of cynicism, unhappiness, and basic alienation felt by much of the population was growing, not abating.

Suppose this is true. If it’s true, it means that even as capitalism was stable across almost five decades, consent was actually weakening, not strengthening. What would explain, then, the system’s stability, if consent is actually waning? The argument I’ve proposed is that workers accept the system not because they find it legitimate or desirable but because they see no other choice. In other words, they resign themselves to it.

This takes us back to what Marx called “the dull compulsion of economic relations.” It’s true that, at certain periods, the incidence of consent within the working class grows. This happens during periods of high growth, periods of increasing welfare, especially when you have an organized working class that can engineer a bargain for itself with its employers.

By now, we know two things. In the history of capitalism, this is more an episode than the norm in the West. In global capitalism, much of the working class has never been organized to the point where it can negotiate an exchange for itself of this kind. How, then, can capitalism remain stable? It remains stable because the “dull compulsion of economic relations” keeps bringing workers back to their jobs every day, whether or not they’re happy, whether or not they’re satisfied.

Stability, therefore, is aided and made easier through consent, but does not rely on it. It relies on material facts of the working class’s own situation, the difficulties of organizing themselves, and the fact that, at the end of the day, they need the job — even though they hate the job. Consent becomes a secondary mechanism to resignation when you answer the question that the New Left posed.

Paul Heideman

The question of what produces social stability in capitalism may seem like an odd one for a Marxist. Traditionally, Marxists have been more interested in revolutions, strikes, etc. But the last two chapters of your book make a forceful argument for why it’s a necessary topic for social theorists today.

How can the book’s theoretical arguments contribute to understanding the remarkable lack of systemic challenges to neoliberalism in the advanced capitalist world?

Vivek Chibber

The fundamental argument I’m trying to make is that the working class has to be seen as thinking, reasoning people, aware of their circumstances, aware of their situation, and reacting to it in the way that is most reasonable and most rational.

One of the unfortunate fallouts of the cultural turn is that it fueled a hubris and arrogance on the part of intellectuals: that workers don’t seem to behave and act in a way that their theories predicted they should. And if they don’t, it’s because they don’t understand the system — and, more importantly, their own circumstances — as well as intellectuals understand them. The idea that workers spontaneously consent to capitalism, and that this is why the system remains stable, is based on the idea that these workers don’t understand that they’re exploited and that the system is harming them. It suggests that there must be something wrong in their cognitive abilities.

But if you understand that the reason they abide by the system is because they understand all too well what they’re going through, but that they feel it unreasonable to undertake all the involved risks, the first task of the organizer is not to go and lecture them. It is to try to understand, in minute detail, the circumstances in the way of their coming together as a class, and to come up with strategies that reasonable, rational people will be willing to adopt — not strategies that treat them as dupes. And that is the first step toward building a political strategy to change those circumstances. That is the underlying motivation for this book.