Rethinking society

Posted: 29 January 2010 in Uncategorized
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Daniel Little’s project of working through the basic categories of social theory is quite valuable. Not that I’ve always agreed with him (e.g., here). But I certainly learn a great deal in reading his posts.

His latest–on social relations, processes, and activities—is a good example. Little introduces the idea that there are “persistent phenomena in the social world” that can’t be characterized as structures, organizations, or institutions but are better understood as activities and processes. In short, they’re more akin to verbs rather than nouns.

His examples are friendship, solidarity, and inflation. Let me try something similar with class. Within mainstream social science (except, of course, in mainstream economics, where class literally doesn’t exist), class is often conceived as a noun: underclass, middle-class, upper-class, and so on. Traditional Marxists, too, often invoke class as a noun: the bourgeoisie, the proletariat, the peasantry, and so on. Such notions of class as social things—as nouns—obscure the relational and dynamic dimensions of class.

One alternative is to rethink class in terms of process, and to investigate class processes as component parts of many (but not all) structures, organizations, institutions, activities, and relations within society. Thus, in Marxian terms, class processes—the processes of performing, appropriating, distributing, and receiving surplus labor—are one set of processes within society. They combine with—they constitute and are constituted by—other social (political, cultural, and economic) and natural processes to make up the social and natural worlds.

This notion of class is relational in that it focuses on pairs: performing and appropriating surplus labor, appropriating and distributing surplus labor, distributing and receiving surplus labor. And it is dynamic, in that class processes represent flows of surplus labor through time and across space.

Let me illustrate this idea with the (productive) capitalist enterprise. The enterprise is a social institution made up of many different activities: production, marketing, hiring, selling, research and development, and so on. These activities are, in turn, composed of social and natural processes: political (e.g., giving and obeying orders), cultural (e.g., notions of fairness and justice), economic (e.g., paying wages and salaries), and natural (e.g., chemical transformations). A subset of the economic processes are class processes: the processes whereby surplus labor is performed and appropriated (capitalist exploitation or, in Marx’s vivid language, the sucking of the blood of the laborers) and the processes whereby that surplus is distributed to others (call them subsumed or distributive class processes, the processes whereby others who do not perform or appropriate surplus labor—merchant capitalists, finance capitalists, the state, and so on—receive a cut of the “booty”).

What are the implications of such a notion of class processes? First, the focus is on participating in class processes, not belonging to one or another class. Second, there is no claim that class processes constitute the essence of reality: individuals participate in both class and nonclass processes, and the activities and institutions of society comprise both class and nonclass processes. Third, class struggles refer to situations in which there is tension and conflict over the quantitative and qualitative dimensions of class processes, not to who is doing the struggling.

That’s how Marxist social theorists begin to rethink society, from a class perspective.

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