In the first of series of posts on Marxism, John Quiggin goes in search of the revolutionary working class.
It takes Professor Q an entire paragraph to establish that no such class exists and that the revolution is off.
Most Marxists (and recovering Marxists) seem to have come to terms with this. But some still insist that nothing short of revolution can save society from the miseries of oppression, exploitation and alienation. Their careers are dedicated to establishing the causes of this misery and the reasons why reform is hopeless.
While Quiggin rejects the idea of a revolutionary working class, he doesn’t reject the idea of class. As he explains in his post:
… there clearly is a self-conscious and generally dominant class, centred on control of capital, but including plenty of people whose source of power and wealth is derived from their job rather than from capital income. On a narrow definition, it includes the top 1 per cent of US households which now receive 25 per cent of all income and hold around 35 per cent of all wealth. More broadly, the top 20 per cent of the population has, in broad terms, increased or maintained its share of national income as the top 1 per cent have become richer. This broader group controls more than half of all income and wealth.
Most of the political elite in developed countries, but particularly in the US, consists of members of the top 1 per cent, or aspirants to rise to this group from the top 20 per cent. Moreover as well as controlling much of the political process through direct participation or political donations, this class exercises power directly through ownership of capital and particularly through control of the financial system.
It turns out that almost everyone in the bottom 80 per cent would benefit from policies designed to curb the power of the top one per cent. And an egalitarian political movement might also appeal to the "broader interest of those in the top 20 per cent of the population in a juster and more stable social order" after all "unlike the top 1 per cent, this group can’t easily insulate themselves from society as a whole or count on passing on their own social position to their children."
The trouble is, there’s no political party or organisation ready to step up and lead the movement. Social democratic parties "seem either hopelessly compromised or ineffective, while the Greens seem to be stuck as a permanent minority." And this is where Quiggin seems to run out of puff. What comes next?
Hang on … what do you mean by working class?
Quiggin’s argument about class is influenced by G.A. Cohen’s book If You’re an Egalitarian How Come you’re so Rich. According to Cohen:
The communist impression of the working class was that its members
1. constituted the majority of society;
2. produced the wealth of society;
3. were the exploited people in society; and
4. were the needy people in society.
There were, moreover, in the same impression, two further characteristics consequent on those four. The workers were so needy that they
5. would have nothing to lose from revolution, whatever its upshot might be;
and, because of 1, 2 and 5, it was within the capacity (1, 2) and in the interest (5) of the working class to change society, so it
6. could and would transform society.
Quiggin argues that after we exclude business owners, people on welfare and non-needy workers, we’re well short of a majority. And it seems that any definition of the working class that stretches to a majority will include many people who are not exploited or desperately needy and therefore do have something to lose from revolution (Luke Roelofs has more on this).
However, if Cohen’s four features that define the working class, Quiggin has an idea:
… the case to be made against the top 1 per cent is that:
1) They constitute a tiny minority of society
2) they consume far more of the wealth of society than they actually contribute
3) they exploit their control over capital for their own benefit
4) they are the primary obstacle to meeting a wide range of social needs
Which reminds me of the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.