Richard Seymour’s blog: Lenin’s Tomb
In the Marxist tradition, the concept of ‘social class’ presupposes an inherently antagonistic social relation: by definition, a ‘social class’ either dominates and exploits another or is itself dominated and exploited by another. In the absence of any sort of political and economic ascendancy of one group over another — in the absence of any relation of overt domination and exploitation — there is in the Marxist sense of the term nothing that can be called a ‘social class.’
When Marxists analyze the structure of the social dimensions of society, what they look for are the telltales of concentrated privilege and power, of minorities lording it over majorities through or by means of stable, persistent and dominant institutional arrangements, be they the practices prescribed and enforced by the bureaucratic agencies of governments and corporations, or the manifestations of entrenched custom and culture.
Another way of conceptualizing a ‘social class’ is to group people not as Marxists do, on the basis of whether they are being exploited, but on the basis of a host of other criteria: some people have jobs while others are unemployed; some people are students and others are not ; some people earn less than $50,000.00 per year, others a whole lot more; some people are visible minorities, others are not – and so it may go, on and on.
Richard Seymour contends that the difference between this manner of conceptualizing ‘social class’ and that of the Marxist tradition hinges upon the difference between a ‘statistical-empirical’ approach to ‘class’ analysis and one that is ‘epistemological.’ The former approach yields ‘statistical constructs’ that may or may not correspond to groups actually or potentially capable of exercising political agency, whereas the Marxist approach does.
The difference, in other words, amounts to that between superficial and substantive relations, between what is not causally effective in the real world and what is. Students and non-students, for example, are not categories implying a political tension between those two statistically real groups; between students and non-students, there is no substantial conflict of interests that might potentially erupt into a bid to alter an actual balance of power or privilege.
On the other hand, people without a stake in the means of economic production, who have no say about who will have a job and who not, but who depend upon earning a wage if only to live in modest dignity, and who also happen to be the overwhelming majority — they live at the behest of the rich who own and control everything, and here we have an instance of two groups who do exist in political tension: a dispossessed majority in arbitrary subordination to the political whims of a vanishingly small minority. Clearly, between these two groups, between those who must work for a living and the owners of vast capital, the potential exists for a widespread disaffection escalating into a struggle for power and meaningful institutional change.
Which brings us to the nub of Seymour’s talk and critique: Guy Standing’s newfangled analytical category and ‘class,’ the ‘precariat.’ For Seymour, this purportedly new concept is actually an old, outworn idea, and one that in its usefulness falls short of that of the more parsimonious and more relevant Marxist notion of what constitutes a ‘social class.’
See the following post for a more in-depth exploration of Guy Standing’s concept of the ‘precariat:’ The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class — Guy Standing