Some brief thoughts on Gibson-Graham, Wolff & Resnick’s “Introduction: Class in a Poststructuralist Frame” to their edited collection Class and Its Others before I go to bed. First, they usefully point out that “the language of class is inevitably performative — it participates in transforming economic and other social relations” (2), a poststructuralist insight which helps me in seeing how the discourse of class continually makes and re-makes its own hierarchies, perhaps even within Bourdieu’s relational space. But they also make a distinction between two different types of “discourse of class”, one being “the familiar and widespread sense of social distinction” and the other being “the more restricted economic sense first systematically expounded by Marx” (2), and then proceed to shoot at that “familiar and widespread” definition, arguing that class cannot “be seen as ordained by or founded on positions in a larger social structure or as constituting social groups (classes) unified by commonalties of power, property, consciousness,” or other factors (9). The problem is, though, that they’re setting up this “a priori social structure” (9) as a straw man, something already existing, when the fact of the matter — as already discussed above — is that it gets enacted every day.
The alternative they offer, with which I’m by now so familiar as to be quite happy not to have to read any more of their work, is the definition of class as exploitative process. Interestingly, they set up this very restricted definition and then argue that they’re connecting it to “gender, race, sexuality, and other axes of identity” (2), while ignoring all the other experiential “familiar and widesrpead” aspects of class. I mean, talk about myopic. So it got me to thinking: since the three (well, four, if we look beyond the pen name) of them declare themselves Marxians and declare their definition of class as exploitative process to be Marxian, what does Marx himself actually say? My complaint, of course, is that the English word “class” refers to some sort of grouping of people, and once you discard that definition, you’re no longer talking about class, whatever fancy language about processes and adjectives versus nouns you might want to bring into the picture.
So what word does Marx use for class? Is there a German word in his work that we consistently translate into “class”? One helpful clue: the version of the Communist Manifesto that English speakers are familiar with — the one that begins, “A specter is haunting Europe — the spectre of Communism” and talks about the “class antagonisms” of the “two great classes directly facing each other” — is the English translation edited by Engels and published in 1888. In this document, “classes” are the “subordinate gradations” of “a complicated arrangement of society into various orders, a manifold gradation of social rank” (The Marx-Engels Reader 474): nothing about processes there, I’m afraid. Seems to be all about groups of people. But perhaps the Manifesto is a special case; perhaps the language comes from elsewhere. Take a look at The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “In so far as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that divide their mode of life, their interests and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile contrast with the latter, they form a class. In so far as there is merely a local interconnection among these small peasants, and the identity of their interests begets no unity, no national union and no political organization, they do not form a class” (The Marx-Engels Reader 608). Class, again, seems to refer to people being put into groups according to certain criteria.
As a society, we know what we’re talking about when we talk about class, even if we can’t always say what all our criteria are or how they work together. The fundamental — dare I say empirical? — experience of class depends on commonalties and differences. I profoundly disagree with Wolff and Resnick and Gibson-Graham: while it may be useful to put people into certain groups according to the roles they play in exploitative processes, class itself is not congruent with those processes. While claiming such congruence may be convenient, it ultimately obscures more than it illuminates, for the sake of theoretical prettiness. An alternative: while Bourdieu’s classes are infinite, they follow the logic of commonalties and differences in the way that they coalesce into larger and broader class groupings the further away they get from the perceiver’s individual class, as evidenced in Davis, Gardner and Gardner’s 1941 study Deep South. Is class economic? No, it’s not — but it’s connected to economic concerns. Is class real? Yes — it’s as real as the differences between you and me.