Today the NYT began a series on class in America (link below). The information is bound to be interesting but the analysis is bound to be useless. This is because they don't have a politically meaningful model of social class: that is of the system through which a society reflects and enacts the economic relationships that determine the distribution of wealth in the society. The Marxist model of classes does accomplish this and the NYT dismissal of Marx early in the article, not only revealed the author's absolute lack of familiarity with Marx's work, it presaged the meandering recounting of ongoing research that followed. In this post I simply want to clarify some significant aspects of a Marxist theory of social class and show how they account for patterns that the NYT article, working without a cogent theory of social class, could only report.
The dismissal was given in the following quote in which the author also recognizes that modern sociologists must result to ever smaller divisions to account for their phenomena in any meaningful way, just as the Ptolemaic astronomers were forced to produce ever greater numbers of epicycles to account for the movements of the planets before the correct heliocentric model of the solar system was adopted.
"When societies were simpler, the class landscape was easier to read. Marx divided 19th-century societies into just two classes; Max Weber added a few more. As societies grew increasingly complex, the old classes became more heterogeneous. As some sociologists and marketing consultants see it, the commonly accepted big three - the upper, middle and working classes - have broken down into dozens of microclasses, defined by occupations or lifestyles." (my italics)
(1) Marx understood perfectly well that there were many social classes in society. His historical analyses of the 1848-51 Revolutions in France are probably first examples fine-grained sociological analyses of historical processes since Ibn-Khaldun; histories that paid attention to the specific behavior of social groups identified on the basis of their economic activity – workers, peasants, small shop-owners, landlords, factory owners, etc. Marx defined economic classes on the basis of an individual’s relationship to the means of production – the land, the infrastructure, and all of the material factors that enter into the distribution of goods and services, including money a form capital must assume for goods and services to be exchanged and distributed in a capitalist economy. He also recognized that different historical epochs had different class structures and that in real time these class structures from different epochs overlapped. XIX European societies contained classes from feudal agricultural modes of production – peasants and landlords - as well as the classes of the emerging capitalist mode of production, workers and capitalists, of which factory workers and factory owners, (morphed into today’s “labor and management”) is only an early and very abstract stereotype.. Shop owners, traders, barbers, prostitutes, and many other occupations have existed across historical epochs; others exist only within a specific historical epoch or mode of production. The relationship between capital and labor is the dynamic of capitalist economy and drives the historical trajectories of the societies in which it develops.
(2) Marx’s division of society into two classes: the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is an ideal sociological reflection of the relationship between labor and capital, the two economic categories Marx applied to the analysis of capitalist economy. In Marx’s theory the relationship between capital and labor is sufficient for determining the dynamic movement of the capitalist system in the abstract, its relationship to historically existing societies similar to the relationship between a physicist’s model of a dynamic system and the engineers realization of that abstract system in a specific concrete context where other factors need to be taken into account.
The NYT articles own listing of the relative status of the occupational categories hints at the correctness of the Marxist definition of class as the relationship to the means of production. Law, health, and computers stand at the top . . . It is not difficult to show how these function in the reproduction of capitalist circulation. Take the legal profession. The existence of private property is a precondition for capitalist production, in particular private property of the productive resources. The legal system is a huge edifice built to support and maintain the existence of private property. The vast majority of all laws in contemporary society concern property relations and these relations are implicated in all other branches of law not directly concerned with property. Little work is required to discover the intimate connection between property, the legal profession, and politics as the formulation of law which is the quintessential expression of society as well as control of State Power.. The “prestige” of the legal profession can be immediately accounted for from a Marxist perspective, using the same categories that are applied for understanding the other class criteria given in the NYT links.
One also can think about class in terms of how much command capital has over a person and how much command a person has over capital. This is measured by a person’s overall wealth. . Marx’s definition of a worker is anyone who has nothing to sell but his or her own labor, regardless of the occupational area in which they are employed. A capitalist, on the other hand, by virtue of access to capital, is in a position is in the position to command labor and thereby benefit in the surplus value, the profit, generated through the combination of labor and capital. Of course as an individual person, the capitalist still has his own labor power that he can sell but he or she doesn’t need to from necessity.
Marxist model of class is also sensitive to the technological dimensions of the economy’s leading productive activities, the activities that define the economy as a whole, as the energy and telecommunication/computer industries defines our own economy. This ability allows it to account for anomalies that the SES approach to class can only account for through the addition of new categories to its model. One such anomaly is given in the article’s description of “mobility at the top.”
Even as mobility seems to have stagnated, the ranks of the elite are opening. Today, anyone may have a shot at becoming a United States Supreme Court justice or a C.E.O., and there are more and more self-made billionaires. Only 37 members of last year's Forbes 400, a list of the richest Americans, inherited their wealth, down from almost 200 in the mid-1980's.
A Marxist analysis would immediately begin by pointing out that a major technological revolution had occurred during the period described. Although everyone remembers the burst of the 90s bubble, the fact is that many new new capitalists came on the scene with the first major technological revolution since the development of the aeronautics industry. Bill Gates, the world’s richest man, is most clearly emblematic of this “new money:” Notice also that the occupational category "computers/math" has emerged, a category that did not exist 50 years ago, as such, but would be "math/engineers" if at all. An important dimension for the study of class would concern the relationship between a family's accumulated wealth and how it becomes invested in different technologies, at which stage of the technological cycle.
The other accoutrements of class, the refinement and tradition, are really inheritances from feudalism and become increasingly irrelevant as the last vestiges of non-capitalist agriculture are destroyed.http://www.nytimes.com/pages/national/class/index.html?th&emc=th