Classes and their Conflicts
In set theory, the term “class” denotes a collection of objects (and sets). Thus, a social class is simply a group of people defined according to particular criteria. But if we want our examination of classes to be of practical value to our political analysis, we have to define them on the basis of politically relevant characteristics: position in the production process, share in social wealth, and social habitat.
Objective and Subjective Interests
Different classes have divergent interests which stem from their position within the framework of material conditions. In order to be precise regarding this matter, we need to introduce a differentiation between objective and subjective interests.
The subjective interest of a class is simply that which the members of this class de facto want or demand. When 80% of the blue collar workers cast their vote in favourof the right-wing populist candidate Norbert Hofer in the Austrian presidential elections, this means that right-wing populism represented the subjective interest of the Austrian blue-collar-workers at the time of the election.
The objective interest of a class, in contrast, is defined as that which objectively allows it to gain economically, to accumulate political power and/or improve the well-being of its members. Thus, the objective interest of wage earners is to receive higher wages, while those who have to pay those wages are, of course, interested in keeping wages as low as possible. The existence of objective interests is completely independent from the question whether they are being recognised. To return to the example of Austria: the subjective interest of the Austrian blue-collar-workers (that Hofer will be elected) contradicts the objective economic interests of the class; Hofer wants to deregulate the job market and cut funding to social security. Such contradictions between objective and subjective interests must be explained via reference to the critique of ideology, they point towards a lack of knowledge or hope. The Marxist concept of class consciousness refers to the correspondence between objective and subjective interests: the more people recognise their real, objective interests, the better they can purposefully change the status quo in accordance with their own needs.
Regarding objective interests another distinction has to be introduced: the distinction between the common interests of those who constitute a class and the interests of its members as individuals. So far, we have treated the objective interest only as a common class interest, that is, as an interest shared by all members of the given social class. But in real life, the interests of singular individuals may be in conflict with the shared interests of the class as a collective.
This does not only imply that a few individuals may have some objective interests that other members of the same class don’t share, but rather that all individuals of a class have different objective interests if we view them as individual actors than they have as a collective. For example, if the bribe is high enough, every worker has an individual, short-term objective interest to become a scab; however, the interest of the workers as a collective consists in successfully executing the strike in order to realise better wages for everyone. Considering this rationality trap, a classes ability to act as a unified entity largely depends on its ability to generate solidarity and commitment.
The Socio-Material Roots of Consciousness
Everyday interactions and social environment exert a massive influence on thought – this is the core insight of historical materialism. The way a person lives and earns money produces a correlating mentality and world-view. This means that the deviation of subjective interests from objective ones is not just a random occurrence on an individual basis. On the contrary, irrational subjective interests can arise systematically as the result of the material conditions which affect a certain class.
The capitalist ideology, according to which everyone can rise “from dishwasher to millionaire”, and that “only personal merit counts”, has its cause not so much in deliberate propaganda by the elites, but rather in everyday experience under capitalism. There are indeed some opportunities for advancement in a capitalist system; although, as a whole, it generally constitutes a zero-sum game where one worker gains what the other one loses, individual participants can quickly get the impression that their happiness and their wealth depend primarily on their own accomplishments. This holds true especially for those who work in self-employment/as freelancers, i.e. for the petty bourgeoisie. The situation of marginalised and poorly paid workers, on the other hand, creates only resignation and a feeling of impotence which can only be overcome through collective organisation. For this purpose, the internet offers itself as an excellent tool for creating digital networks. The differences between rural and urban life are another material factor which has an impact on the mentality and world-view of people.
First Dimension: Formal Position in the Production Process
The formal position that a group of people assumes with regards to the capitalist production process is a major factor which determines objective as well as subjective interests. In order to determine this formal position, we have to ask: how does someone make their money, what is the basis of their everyday life and their economic existence?
We use the term capitalist class to denote those for whom capital is the primary source of income. Income from capital is defined as any kind of earnings resulting from private property. This denotes profits which derive from owning means of production, for example: factories and offices, and also includes rents from housing, rare resources, and land ownership. Members of the capitalist class are objectively interested in perpetuating the system of private property and therefore the capitalist mode of production. Class-conscious capitalists are thereby, generally speaking, enemies of those who wish to implement a socialist economy.
Capitalists can be subdivided into three distinct types: classical bourgeois, petty bourgeois, and rentier capitalists. The first type refers to those who obtain their income through the amalgamation of the productive factors capital and labour, for example in a factory. Classical bourgeois have an objective interest in prolonging the working day and reducing wages – this allows them to increase the margin of their profit. In contrast to the classical bourgeoisie, the petty bourgeoisie consists of those owners of means of production which generate their income only from their own work: the self-employed. Conflicts about the length of the working day and the level of wages are not of any immediate interest to the petty bourgeois because he/she neither employs people, nor receives wages. But just as the classical bourgeoisie, the self-employed have some objective interest in the protection of private property and therefore cannot be regarded as a target audience for the economic aspects of the communist project. Finally, we want to define rentier capitalists. Rentier capital is capital which generates profits without the need for labour power. A typical example for a rentier capitalist is therefore the landlady. The fact that rentiers receive income from private property entails that they, just as the other types of the bourgeoisie, have objective interests which are aligned with the preservation of the capitalist mode of production. As automation strides ahead and human work is becoming obsolete, all capitalists are slowly transformed into rentiers (owners of robots).
In contrast to the capitalists, those, who do not own capital but instead get hired by it, form the working class. Regarding the definition of this proletariat, it does not matter whether the employer is the pub on the corner or a major international company. We should not just imagine the classical steelworker of the 19th century when we think about this class; In fact the term refers to all people who receive a wage or salary. The working class has an objective interest in such changes of the law which lead to better working conditions – for example better wages, better job security or shorter work hours. Moreover, it is clear that under the assumption that an efficient, computer-based form of communism actually works, its realisation constitutes an objective interest of those who do not profit from capital income.
Today, the most important capital share is to be found on the stock exchange, the private possession of production means is shared amongst many individuals. At the same time, a not to be underestimated proportion of stockholders also work on a wage as proletarians. In some cases, the border between wage workers and capitalists is rather blurry. It is, however, clear that a group of people, who only derive a minor part of their income from capital (e.g. 10 %), has significantly lower “capitalist interests”, compared to a group of persons whose income is in majority derived from industrial profit, dividends or stock sales.
Second Dimension: Share in the Social Wealth
Apart from their formal position in the production process, some people on this earth are more prosperous than others. Some are extremely poor, while others live in incredible material wealth. The latter can clearly be identified as profiteers of the system; therefore, we can assume that they are less interested in a fundamental change of the status quo.
Those who are poorer, in contrast, have a strong objective interest in economical redistribution. As we can see, it does not suffice to just look at the formal position in the production process. A freelance software developer who only just manages to make ends meet is formally part of the petty bourgeoisie, but she still has a stronger interest in a communist transformation of the economy than, for example, an extremely well-paid engineer who, as a wage/salary earner, is formally part of the working class.
Third Dimension: Social Habitat
The city is the ideal-typical space of modernity. It is distinguished by a high degree of social abstraction and therefore by the anonymity of many social interactions. Life in the city grants easy access to a multitude of educational institutions and at the same time allows people to choose their peers according to their own interests and preferences. But in the countryside, access to theatres, universities, libraries as well as intellectual, political and artistic events is rather limited. Social pressure for conformity, on the other hand, is much stronger: in a small village, for example, the low amount of inhabitants means that individuals cannot be too picky about their social contacts. The level of education is generally lower in rural areas, so awareness of one's objective interests is, as a tendency, less prevalent. It is absolutely clear that there are many outstanding thinkers and extremely progressive people and groups in rural areas. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge the general tendency: In the past and present, left wing parties and revolutionary movements have more supporters in the big cities than in the countryside.
State and Class War
It has become clear that the interests of the different classes are often not compatible with each other, moreover, that the interests of one class often directly contradict the interests of another. As a direct consequence of these conflicts of interest, the different classes have to fight against each other on the fields of economy, public opinion, and politics in order to realise their aims. It is exactly this antagonism between the classes which the Marxist term class struggle refers to.
Class struggle is an essential part of human history. Ancient Rome, for example, had the “conflict of the orders” and the civil war; the latter was a struggle between the “conservative” camp of the new nobility, represented by the Optimates-faction in the senate, and the middle and lower classes, whose interests were defended by another faction in the senate. This faction, which included the Gracchus brother as well as the famous general and statesman Julius Caesar, was fittingly called Populares. Likewise, the different political parties of the French Revolution can clearly be identified as the stand-ins for differing class interests: the royalists stood for the privileges of the nobility, moderate constitutionalists and Girondists supported the middle classes and the bourgeoisie, and the radical Jacobins and Sansculottes fought for the rights of workers and artisans, who constituted the mass of the urban population. Everywhere, the representatives of the lower classes can and will only enforce their demands if their supporters are able to apply real pressure. Such representatives always have their own agenda, particular interests which, regarding certain matters, contradict those of their base.
One of the most significant fields of class struggle is to be found in the state. Through its institutions and laws, the warring classes can implement and enshrine rules and structures which suit their particular interests. In todays’ climate, corporations and neoliberal political parties try to diminish worker's rights, while trade unions and leftist parties (ideally...) work towards higher wages and shorter working days. In this sense, the 2016 protests in France, directed against the neoliberal El Khomri law, a piece of legislation which was created with the aim of de-regulating the job market, were an expression of the struggle of different classes for control over the state: workers and students fought against a law which contradicted their class-based interests.
Successful politics in the minefield of diverging class interests is often charaterised by alliances between different classes under the leadership of political organisations. Often, this is the only way to concentrate enough influence and power to win over the other interest groups.
In view of their objective societal position, the poor and those who depend on wage labour have a significant interest in a fundamental, communist transformation of society. Moreover, an analysis of socio-material factors suggests that urban populations have to be the primary audience of our politics.
This does not imply that, in the early stages of the construction of our organisation, we should only or primarily recruiting from the pool of the urban poor. Instead, it means that we are obliged to adapt our strategy to the knowledge that certain classes and groups are more receptive to our program than others. Class analysis looms large over marxism because it maps an avenue of escape, a way out of capitalism and into socialism. The pure realisation that capitalism is a system which is incompatible with the satisfaction of human needs does not generate any impetus to change the world. Only when the question of the transformative subject has been answered, we we start to plan practical steps. This question depends on class analysis.
Individuals can always diverge from the average of their class. There are extremely wealthy capitalists which have sympathies for communism because of rational insight or some biographical reason, and on the other hand, there are workers who are convinced conservatives or neoliberals. So we should not forget that class analysis can only show us tendencies, it can never be used to accurately predict the political views of a real, singular person.
The transformative movement and organisation has to be careful when forming alliances and should not fall prey to opportunism. It is important that the general strategy of the transformative process should not be denied just in order to appease this or that class to integrate it into the movement. On the other hand, we can not afford a naive idealism. At the moment, we can imagine political scenarios where the transformative movement, in order to fight the petty bourgeoisie or to defeat fascism, is forced to ally itself to different groups of the “establishment”. Such an arrangement has to be carefully evaluated in order to prevent the surrender of the own political program and the disillusionment of supporters. An alliance which does not allow for the implementation of the goals of communists can only be formed in accordance with the current tactical needs and should be ended as soon as it has fulfilled its purpose.
1. Game theory deals with the theoretical investigation of rationality traps; an example of this is the famous prisoner's dilemma.
2. See also: History and Class Consciousness by Georgy Lukácz.
3. With regard to the phenomenon of bogus self-employment, it must be emphasized that the people in question are in fact workers; in any case, the legal status of “self-employment” favours a systematic misunderstanding one's social role.
4. And of course the industrial proletariat continues to exist, especially in emerging countries such as China. Recently, industry has increasingly been relocated to Indonesia.
5. In the Estates struggles, the legal privileges of the old aristocracy (patricians) could be largely broken by strikes and other forms of solidary struggles of the so-called plebeians (not aristocrats).
6. Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus and Caius Sempronius Gracchus advocated a land reform that would allow landless proletarians and impoverished smallholders to get land at the expense of rich landowners. Tiberius was later murdered by the Optimates, Caius was forced to commit suicide.
7. Constitutionalists, i.e. the advocates of a constitutional monarchy, insisted, as did the Girondists, on the so-called right to census elections. This allows only the wealthy “active citizens” to vote.