Erik Olin Wright - Understanding Class

okay understanding class the first part of the lecture is going to concern how we can bring into articulation different traditions of class analysis and this is there we go how can we produce an integrated class analysis that brings into alignment the Marxist Weber Ian and what some people call the durkheimian tradition of class analysis and I'll begin this by talking about the relationship between the idea of inequality in the idea of class and I'll do this through two stories or two parables first parable you all know the story Aesop's fable of the grasshopper and the ant so if you if just to refresh your memory the story of the grasshopper in the ant it's summertime the living is easy the grasshopper sees the ant busily working and spending day all day every day working to gather food for the winter and the grasshoppers is why are you working so hard there's plenty of food around just relax and the ant says no have to work for the future act to its middle of the winter the grasshopper is freezing hungry starving in the anti living in abundance now at the end of this story there's huge inequality right we have a rich aunt and a poor grasshopper and the explanation that's implied by the fable is that our entire explanation for the out the difference in their fate the inequality which we observe is due to the different attributes of these two creatures the richness of one has nothing to do with the poverty of the other we explain each of their conditions strictly by reference to attributes or dispositions of being either industrious or lazy which is of course the point of the fable that's kind of the neoliberal version of inequality in the world at large there are grasshoppers and ants in the world the answer rich the grasshoppers are poor and it's all because of individual responsibility okay that's Story number one story number two we have an academic course I hope not sociology but could be a sociology professor who has a very strict curve that's what we call it in the American system that means when he assigns grades he knows in advance how many A's how many B's how many C's he grades on a curve and this particular professor decides there's going to be one a and two beads and 25 C's class really a heart professor so this turns on students work hard they take their final exams and Mary gets the a and a sociologist comes along and wants to study the inequalities in the class at the outcome and observes that Mary actually worked harder than anybody else and the next grades were done by the second and third student who worked harder than all the people below and there's a perfect correlation between the grades people got and how hard they worked and so this rather stupid sociologist concludes that the grade distribution is the result of the efforts of the students now clearly that's an idiotic explanation the distribution has an independent set of causes it's determined by a process that's exogenously the behavior attributes and dispositions of the students in this case the professor and the crucial fact about the distribution is not the differences among students but the power of the professor to set the curve it's really the relationship between students and professors which determines the distribution a particular kind of relationship in which all power rests in the hands of the professor to set the distribution and all that the efforts of the students explain is why particular people end up where they end up but not why the distribution is the way it is that's two understandings of inequality you can refer to as individualistic explanations and structural explanations individualistic and structural explanations and this corresponds to two families of class concepts which can be referred to as gradation 'el theories of class or concepts of class versus relational concepts of class when politicians use the expression middle-class and American politicians talk about middle class tax cuts or the middle class being squeezed by the current polarization and income distribution they're basically using gradation 'el concepts of class and the names of classes in a gradation Alfredo have upper classes upper middle middle middle lower middle lower class under class those are gradation 'el terms corresponds to the individualistic conception of inequality and indeed in a lot of stratification research in sociology there's a kind of mapping of the distribution of individual attributes that's like the ant and the grasshopper on to the distribution of inequalities the amount of income and in that kind of framework the term class is almost a redundant concept it isn't doing much work it's just adding a simplified way of breaking up the gradation 'old istra bution relational concepts of class are very different in our story about the grading curve the professor is not just more something in which the students are less know there's a relationship which binds them together and the relationship that matters in this case is a power relationship in relational concepts of class the classes typically have names qualitative names names derived from the nature of the relation in which they are embedded so capitalists and workers those are names of classes within a particular kind of social relationship lords and serfs slave owners and slaves these are relational labels you can't even define the concept of slave owner without also defining the concept of slave this is a familiar point it's not you know hardly novel it goes back I suppose to Hegel if not before this idea that certain kinds of concepts get their meaning from their relationship to other things the the positions are derivative from the nature of the relation which binds them together now my purpose here and the rest of this part of the lecture is to review three different relational concepts of class structural based on these kind of structural analysis of the nature of the relations in which people's lives are embedded or their economic positions are embedded these are three different relational concepts of class and then I want to show you how we can actually bring them into alignment and we can see them as three different aspects of a more unified class analysis so integrating relational concepts of class here are the three traditions of relational class analysis first the Marxist tradition the key term that's used to define the relations through which classes are specified are relations of production and in the kind of classical Marxian formulation different modes of production are based on different types of relations of production and within these different types of relations of production different kinds of classes can be defined and in the kind of simplest and first order version of this conceptualization in each case two basic classes are defined by the nature of the social relations that tie them together and I've given you some of the names already capitalists and workers lords and serfs slave owners and slaves these are different kinds of relations of production which define different types of class positions in the Marxian tradition then the the diagnosis of what's important about those relations that's so far I've just given them names but what matters about them which makes them distinct kinds of relations of production are the forms of exploitation and domination that are bound up with them and of course it's a big an elaborate problem to give precision to that I'll assume that at least you have some basic ideas to what that's all about that's the Marxian relational class analysis the key idea in the Bavarian class analysis the the term which has become the way people talk about it our market capacities its market relations into which people enter and which defines their class positions for weber classes really only exist in capitalism weber explicitly rejects the idea that slave owners and slaves are distinct classes they're distinct status groups but not classes classes in Baber are explicitly restricted to the kinds of social relations that occur in market societies and in particular developed market societies that is capitalist societies it's a capitalism specific concept and the key relations that matter for weber are market relations what people bring to the market to sell to others and within that set of market exchanges weber comes up with in fact the two same basic classes marks its sellers of labour-power and their purchasers capitalist which are the most pervasive form of class relation in Weber but then he also adds that well and certainly babe Aryans add I'm sort of alighting the distinction between Weber and neo vibe Aryans and Marxists and neo-marxist for our purposes we don't need to be too precious about those demarcations certainly contemporary very barians add well some people sell just their raw labour power other people sell skilled labour power or credentialed labour power and when they sell their credentialed labour they engage in a social relationship in the market with employers but it's a different kind of relationship by virtue of their control their own ownership of their skills weber market relations as the key relational feature of an economic system that defines classes now the third level the durkheimian class analysis I this probably is neo durkheimian rather than durkheimian because I don't think Durkheim himself ever referred to the division of labor as itself a class division the American sociologist who's kind of appropriated Durkheim and deployed it in a using class language is David Gruss key in a series of papers in the american journal of sociology in which he identifies classes with very fine-grained occupational decisions divisions occupational categories and argues that it's the relationships among occupations that define the structural positions within which class is most deeply inscribed he calls these micro classes in contrast to big classes which he characterizes both marxist and Bavarians when I first read David Gruss Keys work my reaction was to sort of throw up my hands in despair and say that's just the complete misuse of the term class we shouldn't call occupational categories classes micro classes we should just call them occupation a good term that describes them why do we need to amalgamate it into class I assumed I think half correctly but only half correctly that the reason David wanted to embed this in a class language was because of the status that the term class has in sociological theory you're kind of elevating its theoretical stature by calling these classes well that was a kind of uncharitable impulse on my part it then came to pass that I was putting the various things I had written about class over the last 15 years together in a book and felt that I needed to write a chapter about David Gruss key because he's quite prominent in the United States and I wasn't willing to write a chapter that had the form of a kind of two sentence chapter this is a completely inappropriate way of using the word class right and then write a meta theoretical chapter about the difference between words and concepts no I mean I have a this is an aside I have a general policy of wanting to do virtue centered critiques rather than just flaw centered critique so as I want to criticize work in a way that I can appropriate something interesting from it and if I can't unless the work in question is an enemy you know and I want to destroy it except in that special case I'd rather just not write about it than to just write about what's wrong in something so I set myself the task of reading more carefully than I had Russkies work and trying to appropriate what's interesting about it and that's actually what triggered this reef formulation which I'll show you in a moment about how to put these pieces together so I now think it is indeed appropriate in a particular way to think of occupational categories as themselves class like categories at least if not you know capital C classes they're a particular kind of class which we can then make sense of in its connection to the vibe Aryan and Marxian concepts all right back to the main story we have these three types of class analysis the question is how can we put them together the device for putting them together is this wonderful poster from 1979 class consciousness is knowing which side of the fence you're on class analysis is knowing who's there with you I think it's a fantastic way of thinking about what class is all about I would add class analysis is also about who's sitting on the fence that's where my contradictory locations within class relations lies it's what class analysis do is describes the nature of the social relations with respect to a given fence that is an tagging and antagonism the social relations that bind people together some people are on your side of the fence and you want to know who else is there with you because in struggles they are your natural allies some people are on the other side of your fence you want to know who they are because they're your adversaries and then there's these characters that are sitting on the fence and they may be our allies and maybe not alibi allies and a lot of strategy and ideology and collective organization is precisely built around struggles over getting the people on the fence to take sides this I think by the way is a very relevant way of thinking about the problem in the absolutely contemporary situation of how to understand class struggle when a lot of people share the same adversary to share the same adversary they're all on the same side of the fence but they don't share the same position with respect to the conventional way of thinking about classes you can one way of thinking about that is there's a lot of people who are harmed by capital but who are not workers well that's a different way of exploring the problem of the commonalities on each side of the fence okay this is the general format of class analysis I would argue of relational class analysis it's point is to figure out who are my friends who are my enemies and who is on the fence now the trick for thinking about Marxist bayberry inand durkheimian analysis is that they're talking about different fences and these different fences are connected keep that metaphor in mind and now I'll give you the analytical framework in which we can do this so the framework is built around a game metaphor now this is not game theory so don't start either quaking in your Butte in your boots or pulling out your sort of antagonistic intellectual armory to attack rational choice theory this has nothing to do with that it's a game it's probably more of a sports metaphor than a game metaphor so think think of a economic structure as a kind of game then I'll explain this through sports to begin with the first issue is what game should we play you can imagine a world in which we had to choose between playing rugby or playing basketball only one game can be dominant only one game can get the big money in the market other games will just be for amateurs and there's this struggle over what game to play all the tall lanky people are struggling for basketball and all the you know robust and muscular shorter people are fighting for rugby and basketball wins well once you decide once the struggles over the game are done and you've established the hegemony or hegemony if you're from Britain of basketball as the dominant game then there's a question of what should be the rules of basketball now in the history of basketball the rules have in fact changed there's one really interesting change in the rules which ended up giving even more advantage to tall players which was a rule change in the 1950s which allowed you to touch the rim of the basketball hoop before that time you could not touch the rim if you made a basket but your hand touched the rim it didn't count and therefore there was no dunking now one of the great visually and aesthetically fantastic moves in basketball is to see Michael Jordan flying halfway across the court with this ball in his massive hand and then he slams it down through the basket well the powers that be and the that set the rules of basketball correctly realized that allowing the rim to be touched would be an enhancement of the excitement of the game rather than a degradation of the game and it wouldn't change the game of basketball into something else it would just become a new variant of basketball and in fact a better variant from the point of view of it as a spectator sport so that's the rules level the rules of the game in some sports there are real struggles over the rules of the game because there are different kinds of players which will be advantaged or disadvantaged depending upon what those rules are American football is in the midst of a big set of sort of controversies and dilemmas around changes of the rules of the game because of all the research that has shown how damaging to the brain concussions are and the effort to make American football less dangerous driven by the now unequivocal damage that it causes the players also risks undermining some of what makes it a great spectator sport which is precisely its violence so we have a conflict which the football league is struggling with well that's all about the rules of the game once the rules are set then there are issues of the moves in the game given fixed rules what strategies do you adopt to take advantage of the rules to maximize your interests and one of the reasons why some sports don't end up with really stable rules is because of a kind of arms race of strategies in the moves of the game as players adapt to new rules they figure out ways of subverting them American baseball is like that the height of the pitching mound keeps changing because batters and pitchers keep adapting to whatever the height is and one might say that actually the the equilibrium is and is an unstable mound that it goes up and down each generation depending upon the skills and adaptation of the players alright enough enough of my sports analogy I think we can understand classes and class struggle with this triplet of levels of analysis using more sociological language what game to play can be thought of as the system level the rules of the game the institutional level and the moves in the game the situational level this language by the way comes from a much neglected but I think superb piece of work by Roger Freedland and Bob Alford written in the mid in the mid 80s called the I think it's the title is the powers of theory and the theory of power kind of a awkward title but a really interesting book in political sociology that's the whole book is built around this triplet ok so these correspond when we're now moving to social context rather than sports two different forms of conflict the conflict over what game to play is politically the conflict of revolutionary versus counter revolutionary politics the conflict over what should be the rules is reformist versus reactionary politics and the conflicts over moves in the game our interest group politics interest group politics over where the subsidy should be where the tax rate should be where the road should be built I mean all the things that people and groups caught fight over once the rules of the game are set the stake in the conflicts of what game to play it's capitalism versus socialism the rules of the game are the stakes are what kind of capitalism what should be the rules that govern the operation of capitalist markets labor markets and other features of capitalist economic structures and the stakes in the moves of the game are the immediate economic interests of groups within such a structure and to each of these then corresponds particular types of class analysis Marxian class analysis tells us the adversaries who are your friends who are your enemies and who's on the fence with respect to the struggles over the game itself capitalism versus socialism that's the Marxian problem that's where marxist class analysis is anchored what game should we play and my concept of contradictory locations within class relations as a way of understanding the non polarized character of class relations in actual capitalism's those contradictory locations are defined precisely with respect to the social relations in play over the game of capitalism what game should we play the vey Berrien problem is varieties of capitalism what are the regulations and rules which govern the exchange the exchanges that take place on the market you can have capitalism with a whole variety of different rules and these rules define categories of actors categories of actors have different interests to find with respect to the rules of the game of capitalism not just whether or not to play the game of capitalism and finally durkheimian analysis is really about the formation of groups with particular istic interests which they strive to achieve within a fixed set of rules this I think helps understand a certain historical progression in the sociological fashion around different forms of class analysis Marxist class analysis came into its own in the 1970s this was an era in which capitalism versus socialism in the Cold War was broadly understood nobody in the 1970s said Tina there is no alternative everybody believed there was an alternative some people said the alternative was lousy other people extolled it but the ideological and theoretical issues in play were always about capitalism versus its alternatives within sociology and that's when the Marxian current in sociology was revitalized and led to a focus on broad class mobilizations around the very character and possibility of capitalism of course in the early 1980s with the beginnings of the neoliberal transformation of capitalist politics the declaration by Thatcher that there is no alternative to capitalism correspondent to a shift of theoretical focus in economic sociology for sure from the problem of capitalism itself to the problem of varieties of capitalism and that was the period in which neova barian class analysis really became the dominant form John Gould for being the kind of iconic representative of that school of class analysis that was a class analysis in which the issue in play was what kind of capitalism and how do we understand different class forces and different class coalition's with respect to that problem finally in the 2000s there was a kind of transition from teen meaning there is no alternative to capital as – Tina there is no alternative meaning there's no alternative to neoliberal capitalism there was a kind of convergence in the feeling certainly in the policy arena we see political and economic and analysts all basically converging around the idea that we need to unfetter markets and have them work more efficiently we need to highly tailor our regulations to be market enhancing in Germany Merkel's famous aphorism that we need a market conforming democracy rather than a democracy conforming market became the dominant way of thinking about the economy and accordingly in that era the brusky type durkheimian class analysis becomes a if not dominant a more prominent way of understanding class classes are all the different groups that are formed within the economy russki insists that classes are not a cultural concept they are still an economic concept defined by structure but it's the structure of immediate economic interests that define classes within a common and relatively fixed set of rules of the game this then I think is the way of thinking about these three types of class analysis there's a class analysis that's rooted in moves of the game under fixed rules there's a class analysis that's rooted in rules of the game under a fixed game and there's class analysis over the game itself now while I do think we can therefore combine these three I also think it makes a difference whether the class analysis is anchored in one place or another in this three level analysis the distinctive feature of a Marxian class analysis is not that it rejects the vey Berrien categories but rather that it anchors those baby Arian categories with respect to the problem of the game itself early in my career I was criticized by the British sociologist Frank Parkin who wrote a book called Marxist class analysis a bourgeois critique and it was extremely flattering to me at that stage I mean it was in the late 70s I was an assistant professor and he deemed me worthy enough to criticize in his book and what he said was inside every neo-marxist there's a vey Berrien struggling to stay struggling to get free right so he felt that my analysis was basically vey Berrien but I wasn't prepared to admit it later I had the pleasure of writing a sentence in something in which I said inside every left-wing bayberry and there's a Marxist struggling to stay hidden but the point was that um it's his accusation was true in one sense that when you look at my concrete class analysis when I study concrete societies and trying to understand the variation between Sweden in the United States and Japan which is what I did in the 1980s that's where my empirical work was lodged around trying to understand variation across capitalist societies that enterprise meant that I had to introduce a whole set of categories whose reason for existence really did come from the Weber Ian level from variations in capitalism so the question of skill and expertise and credentials played an important role in that work of mine I had to somehow contend with it how do I locate skilled people within a class structure well I didn't formulate it this way but I think what I was doing was locating them and their interests with respect to variations in capitalism rather than with respect to the problem of capitalism versus socialism what game to play was over rules of the game ok that is part one well it's well we didn't start AG I didn't start until quarter after right because with all the introductory stuff all right part two class struggle and class compromise so we're shifting gear now gears now from the analysis of class structures and different class concepts and how they fit together to the problem of class conflict and what I call class compromise in contemporary capitalism and in the course of this I will show the connection between that earlier account and this new model so we're starting afresh with some new conceptual material I first want to lay out a model that describes what I will call the conditions for class compromise in the Golden Age of developed capitalism's from sometime in the late 40s or early 50s to the early to mid-1970s and here's the basic model on one axis we have the power of the working class and on the other axis we have the realization of class interests and as a general argument I think most people would agree whether you're a Marxist or Weber Ian or neither that as working class power increases the ability of workers to realize their interests increase as well so we get a broadly upward sloping curve I've drawn it not as a linear relationship just on the intuition that small increases from nothing don't really give you much greater capacity to realize your interest so at some point you hit a an inflection point where your ability to real interest goes up since there are no natural metrics for either of these dimensions it actually turns out to be kind of arbitrary how you draw the shape of a curve the shapes of curves depend upon the metrics of the dimensions as we know not just the kind of discursive content of the dimensions but let's not worry about such grandiose problems this I think is a reasonable way of representing most people's intuitions about how the power of workers is is connected to the realization of their interests now here's how I would draw the relationship for capitalists the standard way of thinking about the relationship between the interests of the capitalist class and the power of workers is that it's a simple inverse relationship just the complement of the curve for workers but I don't think that's right I think there's a region of the curve which I refer to as the region of positive class compromise in which it's actually to the advantage of capitalists to have increasing power of workers if you're on the right side of that trough and that's because a strong working class can solve certain problems that capitalists have difficulty solving themselves and that was characteristic of the Golden Age capitalists have a real hell of a time solving the problem of wage rise under conditions of tight labor markets why because they poach each other's labor all right so if you're a self-interested capitalist then you operate under tight labor markets and you're having trouble attracting workers what do you do you raise wages to get workers to poach them from other capitalists well other capitalists do the same and you get wage inflation what does class compromise do when you have a very strongly organized working class workers say we will collectively restrain wages we will prevent capitalists from bidding up wages in exchange for the promise that our wages rise over time in conjunction with productivity increases so there's a deal struck a quid pro quo we'll help you solve a problem and you'll help us solve a problem workers will have more stable wages workers care a lot about the volatility of wages by hitching their wages to productivity increases and not taking advantage of tight labor market that's what wage restraint by the labor movement in Northern Europe did in the 1950s and 60s and to a lesser extent in the United States as well well that's this idea that there's this upward sloping part of the curve if we can continue the curve however beyond just strong working-class power to dominant working-class power where workers are actually more powerful than capitalists well then the capitalists interest curve goes down again because at the extreme levels of working-class power a workers are able to dictate the conditions under which capitalists can invest they can control the allocation of capital not merely the compromise over the terms of exchange between capital and labor okay so this is the general shapes of what I call the class compromise curves next step of the analysis however is to impose some regions of these curves that are actually out of the out of the range they're not accessible and the first regions on the extreme left of the curve and the extreme right of the curve are excluded because of the fundamental structures of democratic capitalism of liberal democratic capitalism liberal democratic capitalism in its very structure so here I've added a political term to capitalism it's not just the structure of the game of capitalism it's the structure of the game of liberal democratic capitalism the secure property rights that are built into the game of liberal democratic capitalism exclude the right-hand part of the curve workers simply can't get that powerful because of the rules because of the exclusionary rules of that game liberal democratic capitalism and equally the extreme left hand part of the curve where you would have a completely destroyed atomized working class is excluded by the basic civil rights and and freedoms of association that are part Liberal Democratic capitalism so I'll refer to those as systemically excluded and those are excluded at the level of the nature of the game itself next there are what can be called institutionally excluded rules these are excluded by the particular kind of capitalism you have do you have a capitalism with a strong welfare state or a weak welfare state do you have a capitalism with exclusionary labor laws which make it tough to organize labor or loose and open labor laws all sorts of rules of the game that used to be described as the difference between organized capitalism and disorganized capitalism or welfare state capitalism and more liberal capitalism these are variations of the rules of the game and that excludes more of the curve and then finally you have what is the immediately accessible rate region of the curve this is the region where moves of the game occur and this is where the ordinary strategies of daily mundane politics and economic struggles take place and in the golden age the modal European country was somewhere on the upward sloping part of the curve okay now we're in the current era of stagnation and crisis how should we interpret this again here's the golden age what happens when we get neoliberalism globalization financialization and an erosion of democratic institutions okay neoliberalism shifts the rules of the game away from the right-hand peak so less of that part of the curve is exposed is accessible through moves of the game the rules open up more space on the more atomized low-power side of the curve and reduce the amount of space on the upper sloping part of the curve this by the way I've just shown the curve for the interests of capital not the curve for the interests of worker globalization and financialization affect the shape of the curve it pushes down the peak there's less bang for the buck as it were from class compromise less to be gained from class compromise not just because part of the curve has been excluded by neoliberal rules but because globalization and financialization of capital have affected the shape of the curve itself and the effects of austerity and the attack on labor and on the collective solidarity of workers because of increased migration among and fragmentation of the working class all sorts of forces at work in undermining the capacity to struggle shifts the modal country towards the downward sloping part of the class compromise curve now these this analysis is using the same triplet of concepts that was present in the three level three concepts of class relations in the earlier that's the connection that's being drawn here well what should we do if we wish to reverse this well this is a little mechanical it's sort of the best I can do the what we want to do is just reverse all the arrows right ok so this was the neoliberal era and so all I'm saying this is what I would call a glib analysis because I'm saying what we want to do is just reverse everything that's happened we need to reconstruct an affirmative state and a state that intervenes positively for in the interests of popular social forces we need to deepen democracy that will shift the modal country towards the right-hand side of the curve and we need to democratically regulate finance and strengthen the geographically rooted character of capital accumulation that's the way of thinking about the counter moves against financialization and globalization well I think I'll end there now you can get the thanks and we can open this up for discussion you you

  1. I was scared no analytical Marxists would still be alive today. It seems possible that Wright might still be alive; compared to G.A. Cohen.

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