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labor “Bad Ideas” Aren’t Keeping Workers From Fighting Back

Critics often say the working class doesn't fight back against exploitation because it's confused about its real interests. But this ignores how capitalism itself leads workers to resign themselves to their situation — and how we can overcome that

Tim Mossholder / Unsplash

In the last half century, the advanced capitalist world has witnessed the juxtaposition of neoliberal immiseration with working-class political quiescence. Increasing exploitation and the destruction of the social safety net have not, by and large, produced the kinds of explosive class struggles that were familiar in the first half of the twentieth century.

In attempting to explain this, many theorists have turned to culture. Exploitation, they argue, will only produce struggle if workers possess a cultural framework pointing in that direction. It is equally possible, however, for workers to be absorbed into capitalist culture in various ways, leading them to consent to their own exploitation.

Vivek Chibber’s new book, The Class Matrix, examines this strain of thought, and finds it wanting. While acknowledging the important contributions theorists of the cultural turn have made, and recognizing how Marxist thought requires revision to meet their challenge, he argues that socialists must reject the notion that workers fail to fight back because something is wrong with their ideas.

Interview by Paul Heideman


PH

Your book is dedicated to Erik Olin Wright. How did Erik’s work shape your own, and how do you see The Class Matrix‘s relationship to his thought?

VC

In The Class Matrix, I try to explicate a materialist theory of class. Erik Wright did more than any other theorist in the postwar era to develop this line of thinking. He based his work on Marxian theory, understanding it to be, at its core, a theory about the class structure and about how the class structure puts enormous constraints on both the form and the content of politics in capitalism.

The structure is able to do that because it generates the political interests of class actors around their economic situation, derived from their economic situation. The core idea in materialism, as Wright developed it, is that in their social and economic action, people largely pursue their material interests. Materialism is wrapped around the notion of interests.

This was at the very heart of Erik Wright’s theory. In recent decades, theories of this kind have come under tremendous criticism from cultural theorists, insisting that it’s not material interests that drive politics and social contestation but culture and the ideology of the actors.

This criticism called to question the very foundations of class theory. In the book, I build on Erik Wright’s work, which was itself, in my opinion, a quite conventionally Marxist account. The brilliance of Erik’s work is that even though it was laid out in the language of contemporary social science, with admirable clarity, it was very orthodox and very rooted in classical Marxian economics.

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I’ve tried to build on that theory and to show that it can answer most of the critiques and challenges coming out of the cultural turn. In fact, it’s able to explain phenomena about contemporary capitalism that cultural theory frankly cannot.

VC

The roots of the cultural turn go back to the early years after World War II. It came into full effect in the 1980s, but its foundations can be traced back to the ’50s. At the core of the questions that motivated this turn in the early postwar years was the question of the working class in advanced capitalism and its relationship to the system. Classical Marxism had predicted that, because of the enormous antagonism generated by the exploitation of labor, workers would sooner or later come together under the banner of socialism and overthrow the system.

This appeared to be coming true in the early decades of the twentieth century. But by 1950, it was clear that this wasn’t happening in the countries that had not yet witnessed socialist revolutions. Why wasn’t it happening? This was the question that early postwar Marxists like Stuart Hall, Raymond Williams, and E. P. Thompson posed to themselves.

Their animating question was, why didn’t the Western working class overthrow the system the way early Marxists expected it to? Now, for most but not all of these theorists, the answer resided in culture. The reason that the working class had not overthrown the system was that it had been indoctrinated into capitalism through the various institutions of the culture industry.

And that was taken to be the answer to the puzzle. The argument coming from these early theorists was that Marxism had vastly underestimated the role of culture and the place of cultural institutions in the reproduction of capitalism. In order to understand how and why collective action was blocked on the part of the working class, you had to understand how these cultural institutions mediated workers’ understanding of reality.

This is perfectly reasonable in many ways; the challenge, as this generation of Marxists understood it, was simply to see how the culture industry works and how it affects social and political contestation. You see this being done in the Frankfurt School and also in the early New Left. E. P. Thompson’s great work, The Making of the English Working Class, also tries to look at how the church and other religious and cultural institutions affect class formation.

In this respect, the turn to culture was very much a wrinkle within the Marxist tradition. It tried to fill out what they thought Marxist theory had left as an unexplained black box. But by the ’80s, this turn became much more aggressive in its claims.

PH

Aggressive how?

VC

The early years of the cultural turn were committed to filling out the dots, the causal chain, that connected structure to action. But it took for granted that culture was either helping or hindering people understand their position in the system. But the basic rules of the system — its fundamental constraints — were still taken to be set by the class structure. The puzzle was to figure out how the cultural institutions mediated its influence on social actors’ consciousness.

By the ’80s, there was a much more ambitious set of claims, which insisted that if interests have to first be interpreted in order to become efficacious and motivating, then the act of interpretation has to play a central role in class action. And if that’s the case, the problem is — and this is the cultural argument — that we can’t assume how the class structure will be filtered into people’s consciousness, because the intervening cultural norms, ideologies, etc., are very local and highly diverse. The cultural filter in, say, India, will be very different from the filter in Birmingham. And if that is so, then the same class structure will be interpreted in very different ways, leading to very different sorts of action in the two settings, even though they are both capitalist.

So the interpretive process has to be seen as the key element, and it also has to be acknowledged that it will be highly variable, and hence the way the class structure generates action will become quite unpredictable. It becomes prisoner to local mores, local norms, and local attributes. So the cultural turn ended up questioning the idea that the class structure, wherever it is implanted, will exercise similar effects and have similar constraints. Class structure becomes prisoner to local cultures.

This leads to the final step in the argument: that if the class structure’s efficaciousness depends on its local interpretation, its local interpretation is doing all the work. All social reality becomes highly variable, culturally constructed, not simply culturally mediated. Class therefore becomes the product of culture rather than something that’s interpreted through culture.

So, by the ’90s, what we had was a social constructionism. In the nineteenth century, we would have called it “idealism” — where ideologies and culture do the work in political contestation rather than being in some way secondary to material constraints that people experience.

PH

You’re critical of the cultural turn, particularly in its more aggressive form. In your book, you say that the theorists of this turn nonetheless have some important questions right. What does the cultural turn get right?