Though Occupy Wall Street, the Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns, and other developments have brought the themes of class and economic inequality back into public consciousness in recent years, this resurgence has been accompanied by denunciations of Marxism as an outdated framework for social and political analysis. Pundits and politicians warn us of the dangers of focusing too much on class or treating it as in any way “more important” than other social identities or forms of hierarchy.
These popular refrains echo claims that have become dominant in academic social theory for decades. Where Karl Marx and his followers saw economic forces as central to understanding social stability and conflict, proponents of “the cultural turn” in social theory give pride of place to noneconomic factors. If class is a matter of a person’s location in an economic structure — whether, say, they own means of production or must sell their labor for a living — then class has little predictive power in explaining why people do what they do, culturalists argue. We should look instead to contingent cultural factors: social norms, values, and religious practices.
It’s easy to see the attraction of these arguments. Despite renewed concern with economic inequality represented by Sanders and related phenomena elsewhere (Corbynism in Britain, Podemos in Spain, La France Insoumise), class-based critiques have failed to capture the support of the working classes on a large scale. The old parties of the Left are in decline, with ever more workers gravitating to the Right. Global politics continues to undergo class dealignment: compared to the early and mid-twentieth century, class is becoming a less and less salient category of political identity and conflict. Partisan divisions are hardening, but no side credibly claims to represent the interests — or can win the loyalty — of workers.
If class is so important, why do so few people think so? Why, as the chasm of economic inequality widens, aren’t workers rallying around the red flag and trying to overthrow the system?
In his recent book, The Class Matrix: Social Theory After the Cultural Turn, sociologist Vivek Chibber argues that dismissing the importance of class analysis is a grave error. A proper Marxist understanding of class, he argues, can rise to the challenge of culturalist arguments in social theory. But more than that, Marxism can give us a framework to understand why workers under capitalism will be more likely to acquiesce to the capitalist system than to revolt against it — and can shed light on how to make revolutionary change a reality.
Economic Structure and Culture
At the core of Chibber’s argument is an elegant explanation of the relation between the class structure of capitalism and culture. Culturalists argue that all intentional human behavior is mediated by the “interpretive work of human actors,” as social theorist William Sewell puts it. For a social structure — like, say, the capital–wage labor relation — to become effective in motivating behavior, the agents participating in that structure must learn and internalize the appropriate cultural scripts.
This argument, Chibber writes, suggests that “the very existence of the structure seems to depend on the vagaries of cultural mediation.” If I am a worker, I must learn and internalize the fact that I have to find and keep a job in order to sustain myself, and I must learn and internalize the norms and habits required to do so (norms of speech and dress, certain skills, a “work ethic,” and so on). If I’m a capitalist, I need to learn and internalize the fact that success means maximizing profits, and I must learn and internalize the norms and habits that allow me to do that (a single-minded focus on expanding market share and cutting costs, for instance, which requires a ruthlessness in dealing with my employees.)
So, it may seem that human motivation is explained by culture “all the way down.” But this isn’t so. Though culturalists are right that people must adapt to certain cultural scripts to participate in social structures, Chibber admits, it doesn’t follow that these cultural scripts have causal primacy in explaining the structure. Instead, the economic structure itself explains why people need to learn and internalize the relevant scripts in the first place.
Consider what happens if a worker fails to internalize the cultural script appropriate to their role. That means they will fail to secure a job; or, if they do manage that, they won’t be able to keep it for very long. The outcome will be destitution, hunger, and worse. Likewise, a capitalist who fails to internalize the script relevant to their role will soon find their firms going under — and if they don’t get their act together, they’ll eventually find themselves in the desperate situation of a propertyless proletarian.
For capitalists and workers alike, the economic structure generates powerful material interests that compel them to internalize the cultural scripts corresponding to their class positions. The fundamentals of their individual well-being are on the line if they fail to do so.
None of this is to deny the importance of culture. But it is to say that, if we want to understand why people in capitalist societies act as they do, economic structure must be given a primary explanatory role. This claim is borne out, Chibber argues, by the global spread of capitalism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Far from particular cultural understandings being either prerequisites or insurmountable obstacles to the development of capitalist class structures, the imposition of capitalism has transformed cultures around the world — including those once thought to be inimical to capitalist relations — to suit its purposes.
The False Explanation of False Consciousness
Marxists argue that capitalism essentially involves the exploitation and domination of the working class by the capitalist class. Because they don’t have access to “means of production,” workers must sell their labor power to those who do: the capitalists. Once a worker secures a job, they are subject to the tyranny of the boss, who will attempt to get as much work out of them for as little pay as possible. Though workers are the ones who produce the goods and services that the capitalist sells, the capitalist gets to keep the lion’s share of the social surplus produced by their employees in the form of profits, while workers receive a pittance in the form of wages.
This antagonism of interests involved in the capitalist–wage labor relationship, and the harms it imposes on workers, leads to conflict. Marx, observing the nascent labor organizations and political movements of his day, thought that this conflict would take on an increasingly collective and revolutionary form: workers would band together to resist their exploitation and eventually “expropriate the expropriators,” abolishing private property and doing away with capitalism entirely.
This didn’t happen. There were, of course, socialist revolutions in countries where capitalism was just starting to develop, beginning with Russia in 1917, but these societies soon degenerated into authoritarian regimes and by the end of the century were evolving in a capitalist direction. In the West, socialist parties gradually accommodated themselves to the capitalist system and eventually moved away from even promoting significant reforms to the system and representing their traditional working-class bases. Even labor unions have now been on the decline globally for decades.
Why didn’t Marxism’s revolutionary prophecies come true? According to thinkers of the New Left, the answer lies in culture. Workers do have an interest in organizing collectively to defend their well-being and, ultimately, in overthrowing the capitalist system. But they have been thoroughly indoctrinated by bourgeois ideology to accept the system as morally legitimate, and anesthetized by the shallow consolations of “the culture industry,” the promise of consumer goodies, and the like. If only workers could pierce the veil of illusion and recognize their true interests, the thought goes, they would revolt.
Chibber deploys his materialist understanding of class to dismantle this argument. The problem with this explanation is that, as a result of their class position, workers daily experience pervasive harms and loss of autonomy at work, anxiety over finding or keeping a job, and the struggle to maintain a comfortable standard of living. To say that the working class in general has fallen prey to ideological indoctrination is to say that ideology has overwhelmed these prominent features of workers’ lived experience — that the influence of “bourgeois culture” is so strong as to induce systematic “cognitive breakdown” — in other words, false consciousness. Worse still, this explanation bizarrely positions the theorist as having more insight into the workers’ experience than the workers themselves.
And, in fact, workers do often resist their exploitation. They shirk when they’re on the job; they call in sick when they’re not; they occasionally engage in acts of petty theft and sabotage against their employer. These widespread forms of individualized resistance show that working people aren’t simply dupes of pro-capitalist myths.
Why Workers (Only Sometimes) Revolt
So, why don’t workers revolt? The answer lies in the costs and risks associated with collective action. Workers depend on their jobs to sustain themselves and their families. It is not the case that workers “have nothing to lose but their chains”: in organizing or taking action with their coworkers, they could very well lose their livelihood. “The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all,” the economist Joan Robinson quipped.
Besides the vulnerability to unemployment, there are plenty of other obstacles to a strategy of collective resistance. Workers have diverse interests that sometimes push against collective action. For instance, while the vast majority of workers would benefit from building powerful labor unions and political organizations in the long run, in the short term, lucky or very skilled workers may be able to secure a better deal for themselves through individual bargaining with employers.
Then, there is the problem of free riding: while everyone benefits from the fruit of collective effort, no individual worker will be worse off if they don’t contribute. That creates a strong incentive for workers to shirk their responsibilities to collective organizing efforts — but, if enough individuals shirk, the efforts will of course fail.
Chibber’s conclusion is that Marx was wrong to think that capitalism would naturally produce its own “gravediggers.” Instead, the material interests generated by the class structure usually militate against collective action and instead push workers to advance their interests by working hard and “keeping their heads down,” while engaging in occasional acts of individualized resistance. New Left theorists who say workers don’t revolt because they’re under the sway of bourgeois ideology make the same mistaken assumption as Marx — they think the reasons for workers’ acquiescence must come from outside the economic structure. In fact, in most times and places, the class structure provides strong-enough reasons of its own to eschew collective resistance, let alone revolutionary activity.
But workers can and do sometimes organize together to fight their exploiters. Under what conditions does collective action become feasible? A crucial ingredient, Chibber argues, is the creation of a culture of solidarity:
[Workers] have to make their valuation of possible outcomes at least partly on how it will affect their peers; this stems from a sense of obligation and what they owe to the collective good. . . . In directing every worker to see the welfare of her peers as of direct concern to herself, a solidaristic ethos counteracts the individuating effects normally generated by capitalism. In so doing, it enables the creation of the collective identity that, in turn, is the cultural accompaniment to class struggle.
When workers come to see their own well-being as bound up with that of others, the normal obstacles to collective action become smaller. They become more willing to take individual risks, and they become averse to free riding on the efforts of their comrades.
Again, culture is constrained by material interests here. A solidaristic ethos is not the same as an altruistic ethos, in the sense of a selfless concern for the welfare of others. Solidarity is rather about forming a sense of reciprocal obligation around shared interests. Knowing that, in the long term, they all stand to benefit from strong workers’ organizations, workers internalize norms that change how they weigh the costs and risks associated with collective action. My sense of obligation to my coworkers may allow me to overcome my fear of the boss’s retaliation; it may encourage me to see an individual wage increase here and now as less important than the security offered by a union contract; it will make me see free riding as a shameful betrayal of my comrades.
Where workers build cultures of solidarity, they are more likely to pursue, and succeed in, strategies of collective resistance. But we should emphasize that class-based organization is not the only way that workers under capitalism might pursue their interests collectively. They also of course belong to formal and informal organizations based on race, ethnicity, religion, kinship, and other social identities. Workers may use such networks to navigate the vicissitudes of labor market competition by hoarding resources and job opportunities; the usefulness of these strategies gives rise to justifying ideologies of racism, ethnocentrism, and the like.
Such collective identities, then — like class — have a basis in the economic structure of capitalism. Yet over time, workers’ prioritizing their identification with (say) members of their race or coreligionists makes it less likely they will forge large, durable coalitions to advance their interests and makes it easier for capitalists to pit workers against each other. (If a union refuses to admit nonwhite workers, for instance, it will sooner or later find the bosses employing those excluded workers as scabs.)
So, the reason to treat cultures of class solidarity as particularly central is not because we chauvinistically regard class oppression as more morally significant than other social hierarchies, as some ill-tempered critics charge. It’s because organizing along class lines is the only feasible long-term strategy for resisting and eventually overcoming capitalist domination and thereby undermining the material basis of racial and other forms of oppression.
Class, Politics, and Class Politics in the Twenty-First Century
It follows that class formation — the transformation of workers from a “class in itself” to a conscious, organized “class for itself,” in Marx’s terms — is an extremely fraught proposition. The material incentives generated by capitalism’s economic structure discourage collective class organization and instead push workers to seek individualized means of pursuing their interests or otherwise to fall back on networks of kinship, race, and so on that pit them against their potential comrades in arms.
Thanks to the heroic efforts of ideologically committed left-wing organizers to build cultures of solidarity, the workers’ movement was born and grew by leaps and bounds in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These organizers were aided by propitious circumstances. Rapid industrialization brought ever-greater numbers of workers into large factories and dense urban centers and decreased workers’ fear of long-term unemployment. In most of the capitalist world, workers were politically disenfranchised, strengthening their sense that they were unjustly treated and making clear the need to organize along class lines to demand political well as economic rights. Workers lived close to each other in city slums, segregated from other elements of society, facilitating an awareness of their shared interests and the forging of a collective identity.
These structural and institutional facts were fertile ground for the growth of powerful labor movements and socialist parties. Those organizations fought for a partial “humanization” of capitalism, redistributing wealth and income toward the poor and working classes. For a while, especially in the postwar era, rapid economic growth meant that employers could (reluctantly) absorb unions’ and left parties’ redistributive demands. Yet a decline in profit rates starting in the 1960s forced employers to be less tolerant, and capitalists began to fight back, successfully crushing unions and rolling back the welfare state across much of the developed world.
This story brings us to the neoliberal period, which workers haven’t yet been able to fight their way out of. For decades, they have suffered from stagnant wages and the erosion of public goods. At first, Chibber notes, workers responded by retreating from political activity and civic life. But recent years have seen active expressions of discontent, in the form of an uptick in strike action (though still at historically low levels) as well as explosions of anger at the ballot box in the form of support for populist, antiestablishment parties and candidates of both the Left and Right.
This pattern of working-class disaffection and anger is understandable in materialist terms — as are the obstacles to a renewal of the organized labor movement and mass working-class political parties. The structural and institutional factors underlying the birth and expansion of the Old Left are no longer in place. Globally, capitalist economies are now deindustrializing, which has meant slower employment growth; the dispersion of workers into smaller firms; and less job security. Workers in most capitalist democracies now have full political rights, and they are no longer geographically isolated in their own densely populated communities but spread out in the suburbs among other classes.
These facts mean the project of organizing workers has a totally different character than it did in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. “Workers’ electoral status and social conditions once worked in tandem with the class structure to push workers toward a common identity,” Chibber writes, “but this is no longer the case.” Their electoral status and social conditions today pull workers apart, exacerbating the tendency to adopt individualized or parochial modes of resistance.
Back to Class
The Class Matrix is not without its flaws. Nowhere does Chibber explicitly offer or defend a definition of material interests, a notion fundamental to his account of human motivation under capitalism and to his distinction between materialist and culturalist explanations of social structure. Nor does he discuss the connections between interests, preferences, and motivations — a topic that has long bedeviled philosophers as well as social scientists, and one on which Chibber makes some controversial assumptions that he does not entirely bring to the surface. (Very briefly: he seems to be working with a definition of material interests as universal components of well-being, rooted in human biological needs and capacities, that systematically regulate people’s preferences and motivations across cultural contexts. That is certainly a plausible and defensible conception of interests, but not, I think, a self-evident one.)
Finally, many of the book’s formulations suggest a dichotomy between individualistic forms of resistance to domination and class-based collective action. But as discussed above, and as Chibber himself acknowledges at points, collective strategies of interest advancement can also take the form of reliance on racial, ethnic, and other nonclass collectivities. There is, of course, an important similarity between individualistic forms of resistance and reliance on parochial networks to hoard advantage: they mean failing to unite workers to challenge capitalism at the root and are, for that reason, ultimately self-defeating.
However, these are complaints about presentation rather than substance. Overall, The Class Matrix is a clear, compelling, and systematic statement of the view that class is an objective reality that predictably and rationally shapes human thought and action, one we need to grapple with seriously if we’re to comprehend contemporary society and its morbid symptoms.
Socialists today face the difficult task of building cultures of solidarity on different, and less favorable, terrain than our predecessors. Whether and how exactly we can do so are questions Chibber leaves to his readers. But his contribution to understanding what class is, and why it matters, will likely be indispensable to finding the answers.