Did Marx invent “class conflict”?

Marx offered several theories of the modern world that he observed around him in mid-nineteenth-century Britain that have influenced much of turmoil that ensued in the following century and a half — theories about the “capitalist mode of production,” about the role that class conflict plays in historical change, about the determinants of the actions of the state. These themes are expressed in Capital, and in the The German Ideology and The Communist Manifesto decades earlier. So one might imagine that these are theoretical constructions of Marx’s imagination, a particular way of interpreting the social realities that he observed. The Right blames “Marxism” for discontent among many citizens in western democracies. Marx was a “radical,” and his radical vision of conflict and exploitation guided his narrative about the nature of modern capitalist society. Adam Smith had one vision of the emerging modern society, Thomas Carlyle had a different one, and Marx had a yet another. The reason working people are discontent, according to the Right, is that there’s too much Marxism around, too many critical theories that provoke conflict.

But is this the right way of thinking about the matter? I don’t think so. It puts the poet of modernity first, with imagination and rhetoric, and the concrete social processes and contradictions second. But that gets the story backwards. Ideas, including ideas about social relations among different groups in society, have had a role in historical development in the two-plus centuries of economic development since Mr. Watt turned on his steam engine. But the real history was written by actors and groups, considering and framing their own struggles, and seeking to maintain their footing in a changing world. These actors were often illiterate, poor, and disadvantaged. But they brought their own practical understanding to their situation in the social world; they brought social identities, they brought moral frameworks, and they brought practical skills of action and interaction to their struggles to secure their livelihoods and dignity.

Consider the brief sketches that Charles Tilly offered in 1978 of “collective action” in early modern Britain in From Mobilization to Revolution. Here Tilly has described two “riots” by ordinary villagers in 1765 against the establishment of new “houses of industry” (poorhouses where the poor were compelled to work for food).

The confrontations at Nacton and Saxmundharn acted out pervasive characteristics of eighteenth-century conflicts in Great Britain as a whole. While David Hume and Adam Smith worked out the relevant theories, ordinary Britons fought about who had the right to dispose of land, labor, capital, and commodities. Attacks on poorhouses, concerted resistance to enclosures, food riots, and a number of other common forms of eighteenth-century conflict all stated an implicit two-part theory: that the residents of a local community had a prior right to the resources produced by or contained within that community; that the community as such had a prior obligation to aid its weak and resourceless members. (3)

And these protests were not guided by “revolutionaries” in the background; neither were they inarticulate cries of protest against changes they could not understand. Rather, these ordinary villagers recognized well the actions that were being taken against them, and they came forward to resist.

Not that the fighters on either side were mere theorists, simple ideologues, hapless victims of shared delusions. Real interests were in play. The participants saw them more or less clearly. At two centuries’ distance, we may find some of their pronouncements quaint, incomprehensible, or hopelessly romantic. In comfortable retrospect, we may question the means they used to forward their interests: scoff at tearing down poorhouses, anger at the use of troops against unarmed crowds. Yet in retrospect we also see that their actions followed a basic, visible logic. The more we learn about eighteenth-century changes in Great Britain, the clearer and more compelling that logic becomes.

The struggle did not simply pit different ways of thinking about the world against each other. Two modes of social organization locked in a battle to the death. The old mode vested power in land and locality. The new mode combined the expansion of capitalist property relations with the rise of the national state. Many other changes flowed from that fateful combination: larger-scale organizations, increasing commercialization, expanded commercialization, the growth of a proletariat, alterations of the very texture of daily life. The new mode won. The world of the moral economy dissolved. But when ordinary eighteenth-century Britons acted collectively at all, usually they acted against one feature or another of this new world. On the whole, they acted in defense of particular features of the moral economy. (4)

Tilly’s interest in this book is a familiar one that recurs throughout his long career: analyzing the historical details that provide sociological insight into the processes of “mobilization and rebellion” when men and women find themselves in circumstances that are existentially threatening for themselves and their families. And yet, Tilly understood what Marx sometimes did not: that it is not true that “workingmen unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains.” In any real historical situation (except perhaps the Warsaw ghetto during the uprising, or with Spartacus in Thrace) the potential rebels always have something to lose; mobilization and rebellion are always risky and costly. Mobilization and rebellion require explanation.

Here Tilly provides a very compact description of Marx’s theory of class as Marx works it out in his analysis of the politics of the 1848 revolution in France:

If that is so, we might pay attention to Marx’s mode of analysis. Implicitly, Marx divided the entire population into social classes based on their relationships to the prevailing means of production. Explicitly, he identified the major visible actors in the politics of the time with their class bases, offering judgments of their basic interests, conscious aspirations, articulated grievances, and collective readiness for action. Classes act, or fail to act. In general, individuals and institutions act on behalf of particular social classes. (There is an important exception: in analyzing Louis Napoleon’s seizure of power, Marx allowed that those who run the state may act, at least for a while, in their own political interest without reference to their class base.) In analyzing readiness to act, Marx attached great importance to the ease and durability of communications within the class, to the visible presence of a class enemy. When Marx’s political actors acted, they did so out of common interests, mutual awareness, and internal organization. (13)

So, no, Marx did not invent class conflict. Marx was not the inventor of class conflict or the spark who ignited a motivation to find a pathway to fundamental change in the relations of power and property that govern the lives of ordinary people. Rather, he was the John Snow of early capitalism, the scientist who worked out which pump handle was giving rise to the cholera of fundamental inequality. As that timeless philosopher, Bob Dylan, put it, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Marx was the weatherman, not the weather. E.P. Thompson put the point vividly in The Making of the English Working Class: class was “made” through concrete historical experiences, and conflict was an unavoidable component of this making; link.

Who, then, is the actual author of “class conflict”? The modern world, with its economic relations governed by a system of property guaranteeing various extremes of inequality, and no guarantee that a humane social contract will emerge protecting the life interests of all parties — this is the circumstance that invented class conflict. There are powerful, pervasive features of our economic system that generate and deepen inequalities. The only check to this process is the organized strength of ordinary men and women, demanding a fair share of social cooperation, and all too often this countervailing force has not been sufficient. Social democracy  is a solution (linklinklinklink) — provision of extensive prerequisites of a decent human life to every individual (education, healthcare, access to a job); full and equal rights of political participation, real equality of opportunity, use of progressive taxation to ensure that everyone benefits from economic cooperation — and yet social democracy has been unconscionably hard to sustain in western democracies.

And in case anyone thinks that this is just an antiquarian question, relevant to Nacton and Saxmundharn in 1765 but not to Detroit, Atlanta, or Seattle today — just consider the devastation created by the current pandemic for people all over the country who are on the disadvantaged side of the buffet line: disproportionately without healthcare, disproportionately represented in “frontline” positions in the coronavirus pandemic, disproportionately forced to return to work in unsafe conditions or lose what slender entitlements they currently possess, disproportionately represented in the lists of sick and dying, … This is class conflict in our contemporary world. And the genuinely important question for Chuck Tilly’s successors is this: what kinds of mobilization are possible in 2020 to address the appalling inequalities of power, property, opportunity, and wellbeing our society has created? How can ordinary working people achieve and maintain the social democracy (link) that alone promises to fulfill the compact of the equal freedoms and human fulfillment of all people?

Marx on peasant consciousness


One of Marx’s more important pieces of political writing is the The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1851) (pdf). Here is his analysis of the causes of the specific nature of peasant political consciousness leading to the election of Napoleon III:

The small-holding peasants form an enormous mass whose members live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with each other. Their mode of production isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse. The isolation is furthered by France‘s poor means of communication and the poverty of the peasants. Their field of production, the small holding, permits no division of labor in its cultivation, no application of science, and therefore no multifariousness of development, no diversity of talent, no wealth of social relationships. Each individual peasant family is almost self-sufficient, directly produces most of its consumer needs, and thus acquires its means of life more through an exchange with nature than in intercourse with society. A small holding, the peasant and his family; beside it another small holding, another peasant and another family. A few score of these constitute a village, and a few score villages constitute a department. Thus the great mass of the French nation is formed by the simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes. Insofar as millions of families live under conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests, and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. Insofar as there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests forms no community, no national bond, and no political organization among them, they do not constitute a class. They are therefore incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, an unlimited governmental power which protects them from the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above. The political influence of the small-holding peasants, therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power which subordinates society to itself.

This a particularly interesting analysis of the social psychology of group solidarity, and one that has contemporary significance as well. It sheds a lot of light on how Marx thinks about the formation of class consciousness — even as it significantly misunderstands the agency of rural people.

What are the limitations of the French peasantry, according to Marx here? They are isolated, burdened, unsophisticated, primitive, apolitical, and ignorant of the larger forces around them. Therefore, Marx says, they cannot constitute a unified and purposive political force. (The photo of a battalion of Vietnam Minh troops in Indochina just a century later refutes this conception.)

From this description we can draw several positive ideas about the foundations of collective solidarity. Here are the elements that Marx takes to be crucial in the formation of collective consciousness in this passage:

  1. The group needs to possess “manifold relations” to each other.
  2. There needs to be effective communication and transportation across space, not just local interaction.
  3. There needs to be a degree of economic interdependence.
  4. There need to be shared material conditions in the system of production.
  5. There needs to be an astute appreciation of the social and economic environment.
  6. There needs to be organization and leadership to help articulate a shared political consciousness and agenda. 

And Marx seems to have something like a necessary and sufficient relation in mind between these conditions and the emergence of collective consciousness: these conditions are jointly sufficient and individually necessary for collective consciousness in an extended group.

There are several crucial ideas here that survive into current thinking about solidarity and mobilization. So Marx’s thinking about collective consciousness was prescient. It is interesting to consider where his thoughts about collective solidarity came from. How did he come to have insightful ideas about the social psychology of mobilization and solidarity in the first place? This isn’t a topic that had a history of advanced theory and thinking in 1851.

Two sources seem likely. First is the tradition of French socialist thought in which Marx was immersed in the 1840s. French socialist thinkers were in fact interested in the question of how a revolutionary spirit came to be among a group of people. And second is Marx’s own experience of working people in Paris in 1843-45. He writes of his own observations of working people in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts in 1844:

When communist artisans associate with one another, theory, propaganda, etc., is their first end. But at the same time, as a result of this association, they acquire a new need – the need for society – and what appears as a means becomes an end. In this practical process the most splendid results are to be observed whenever French socialist workers are seen together. Such things as smoking, drinking, eating, etc., are no longer means of contact or means that bring them together. Association, society and conversation, which again has association as its end, are enough for them; the brotherhood of man is no mere phrase with them, but a fact of life, and the nobility of man shines upon us from their work-hardened bodies.

Here Marx gives as much importance to the substantive relations of friendship and everyday association as he does to shared material interests in the formation of the class consciousness of French workers.

Marx’s misunderstanding of the political capacity and consciousness of peasant communities has been noted by many scholars of rural revolutions. James Scott once opened a public lecture on the revolutions of the twentieth century by saying that his lecture would only treat the peasant revolutions of the century. But he then paused and laughed, and said, this isn’t much of a limitation, because they were all peasant revolutions! Marx’s assumption that only urban workers were capable of revolutionary consciousness was a serious misreading of the coming century of anti-capitalist and anti-colonial struggles. (Here is an earlier post on Scott’s studies of peasant politics. Scott’s accounts can be found in Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance and The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. Eric Wolf’s Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century picks up similar themes.)

Also interesting in the Eighteenth Brumaire is Engels’ statement on the law of history as class struggle in his preface to the third edition of the book:

In addition, however, there was still another circumstance. It was precisely Marx who had first discovered the great law of motion of history, the law according to which all historical struggles, whether they proceed in the political, religious, philosophical or some other ideological domain, are in fact only the more or less clear expression of struggles of social classes, and that the existence and thereby the collisions, too, between these classes are in turn conditioned by the degree of development of their economic position, by the mode of their production and of their exchange determined by it. This law, which has the same significance for history as the law of the transformation of energy has for natural science — this law gave him here, too, the key to an understanding of the history of the Second French Republic. He put his law to the test on these historical events, and even after thirty-three years we must still say that it has stood the test brilliantly.

Engels plainly endorses the idea of laws of motion of society and the idea of class conflict as the primary motor of historical change. “History is a history of class struggle.” There is not much room for contingency or conjunctural causation here! But this is a dimension of Marxist theory that is plainly incorrect. Far better is to understand history in a more multi-factoral way in which contingency, conjunction, and agency all play a role.

Social hierarchy and popular culture

There is some interesting work being done on the sociology of taste these days.  I’m thinking specifically of a literature that has developed around the idea of “omnivorousness” and social status.  Richard Peterson initiated much of this discussion in 1992 with an article in Poetics entitled “Understanding Audience Segmentation: From Elite and Mass to Omnivore and Univore” (link).

Between World Wars I and II it was widely accepted in intellectual circles that the emerging mass media were  spawning an equivalent mass audience, an audience that was unthinking, herd-like, and inherently passive yet easily swayed by skilled political and commercial demagogues. (243)

But, Peterson claims, empirical research in communications does not bear this out; instead, the audience has differentiated into multiple audiences.  The simple model of a “highbrow discerning elite with well-refined tastes and … an ignorant and stimulus-seeking mass” (244) has been discredited. In other words, the simple theory of status that postulates that elites can be identified by a set of uniform refined cultural tastes does not hold up.

The hallmark of those at the top of the hierarchy according to the received elite-to-mass theory is patronizing the fine arts, displaying good manners, wearing the correct cut of clothes, using proper speech, maintaining membership in the ‘better’ churches, philanthropic organizations and social clubs, and especially for the women of the class, cultivating all of the attendant social graces. (245)

But, according to Peterson, this assumption can be tested, and it turns out to be incorrect. Peterson and other collaborators (Albert Simkus in particular) used social data sets to examine the distribution of preferred music styles across occupational groups arranged from high status to low status.  Their status hierarchy of occupational groups ranges from “higher cultural” — architects, lawyers, clergymen, and academics, to farm laborers.  And the musical genres include a list of 10 types of music, ranging from classical to country. Here is one of the central findings:

The data presented in table 4 do not show this clear pattern of aesthetic exclusivity. Indeed, the occupational groups at the top are more likely to be high on liking these non-elite forms while the occupational groups at the bottom are likely to be low on their rate of liking them. Only one category of music, country and western, fits the predicted pattern, while three groups, mood music, big band, and barber shop music, show just the opposite of the predicted ranking. (249)


Based on these findings, Peterson recommends junking the “elite culture-mass culture” distinction in favor of an “omnivore-univore” distinction.  There is indeed a significant difference in the cultural tastes of high-status and low-status people; but it doesn’t correspond to the elite-mass distinction previously postulated.

Peterson and Kern’s “Changing Highbrow Taste: From Snob to Omnivore” (ASR 1996, link) carries this line of thinking forward.  Here is how Peterson and Kern begin their article:

Not only are high-status Americans more likely than others to consume fine arts, but, according to Peterson and Simkus (1992), they are are also more likely to be involved in a wide range of low-status activities.  This finding … flies in the face of years of historical research showing that high-status persons shun cultural expressions that are not seen as elevated…. In making sense of this contradiction, Peterson and Simkus (1992) suggest that a historical shift from highbrow snob to omnivore is taking place. (900)

“Snob” is defined as a person who does not like a single form of lowbrow or middlebrow activity, and “omnivore” is open to at least one such activity.  Here are the lowbrow activities they track: country music, bluegrass, gospel, rock, and blues (901), and the defining highbrow arts activities they select are classical music and opera.  Their empirical finding is that highbrows have increased their “omnivorousness” by about half a genre in a ten-year period of time from 1982 to 1992, from 1.74 lowbrow genres to 2.23 lowbrow genres (902).

They ask the natural question, what are some of the causes of this marked change during these years?  And they put forward five factors; “in concluding we speculatively suggest five linked factors that may contribute to the shifting grounds of status-group politics” (905). They cite structural changes in society (broader education and exposure to the media, for example); value changes (declining levels of racial exclusion and stereotype); art-world changes (decline of elitist theories of art, rising appreciation of non-elite art forms); generational politics (the rock’n’roll generation); and status-group politics (gentrification of “lower-class” artistic forms). 

This research is interesting in several ways.  First, it is a statistically sophisticated attempt to observe the distribution of cultural tastes across a population and across time. The statistical analyses in the two studies allow Peterson and his collaborators to sort through issues about within-cohort and across-cohort taste changes. So this permits a more nuanced observation of a shifting social reality. And second, it arrives at what appears to be a statistically sound finding — that highbrows were broadening their cultural tastes during the decade observed.  Highbrows became less snobbish.

So this literature provides some tools for observing and measuring the prevalence and shifts of things that seem highly subjective — musical tastes, in this instance.  And it suggests some ways of formulating and evaluating hypotheses about the factors that explain the observed distributions and changes.

This literature pays explicit homage to Bourdieu’s theorizing about taste in his Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, originally published in 1979 in French.  But the thrust of Bourdieu’s work seems to be quite different from Peterson’s. Bourdieu does indeed seem to believe that there are some very specific cultural markers that identify the elite class in society. He finds that one social group, the petite bourgeoisie, is indeed “omnivorous” in at least one sense: “Uncertain of their classifications, divided between the tastes they incline to and the tastes they aspire to, the petit bourgeois are condemned to disparate choices … ; and this is seen as much in their preferences in music or painting as in their everyday choices” (326).  But this statement seems to reproduce the elite-mass paradigm that Peterson rejects, in that it seems to position the tastes of the petit bourgeoisie intermediate between elite and mass tastes. 

Here is a fascinating and complex graph Bourdieu provides mapping cultural items against occupational groups (higher-ed teachers, engineers, secondary teachers, industrial employers, etc.).

Why peasant activism?


I have long been interested in peasant struggles as an historical phenomenon — for example, the causes and outcomes of the peasant rebellions in China in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Understanding Peasant China: Case Studies in the Philosophy of Social Science).  But it is also true that peasant movements are still visible in contemporary politics in a number of countries.  For example, mobilization by peasants and landless workers in West Bengal against the state’s proposed development of a Tata factory led to the project’s relocation to Gujarat (link).  In some instances and issues, peasants and other disadvantaged people come together as a mass organization to press their interests and concerns; in other apparently similar instances they do not.  How are we to understand this variation?

People are generally careful about their active political investments, especially when their choices can lead to serious personal consequences.  Are there good reasons for poor people to form and support organizations that seek strategies for expressing their needs and interests? Should they consider supporting demonstrations, strikes, and protests? What is the likelihood that social mobilization of the poor majorities in India, Egypt, or Brazil might lead to improvement in their daily lives?

A first point is fairly obvious. As a low-income society undertakes policies and strategies for growth, there are choices to be made. These choices have differential effects on different social groups.  And poor people and peasants are often at a severe disadvantage in competing over the terms of these choices within the formal institutions of government.  China’s decision to create the Three Gorges Yangtze River dam system created many winners; but it also created many millions of low-income losers whose homes and livelihoods were destroyed in the process (link).  Largescale social and economic change is a time when the stakes are exceptionally high, and having a voice is crucial.

A second point has more to do with the “normal” workings of power in a developing state.  Poor people’s interests are almost always overlooked or undervalued by official power-holders in developing societies — a point made thirty years ago by Michael Lipton in Why Poor People Stay Poor: Urban Bias in World Development (1977). And this is often true even within parties that are ostensibly devoted to the poor, like the Congress Party in India. Corruption by leaders and powerful organizations is endemic, and landlords, business owners, and the military almost always wield disproportionate influence in the corridors of power.  So if nothing is done to disturb this “tilt” in the political system, then the outcomes will be unfavorable to poor people.

Third, it is plain that the organized efforts of under-class people can be powerful. Women’s organizations advocating for environmental protection or property rights for women can push state and national authorities towards policies they would not otherwise have chosen. (Bina Agarwal has documented these processes in India; for example, here.)  Organizations of landless agricultural workers can pressure the state into adopting reforms and programs that provide some relief for their poverty. Mass mobilization is almost the only way to assert the material interests of the people.

Debal Singha Roy considers these issues in detail with regard to rural India in Peasant Movements in Post-Colonial India: Dynamics of Mobilization and Identity. Here is how Roy puts the point:

Social movements have always been an inseparable part of social progression, and through organized protests and resistance against domination and injustice they pave the way for new thoughts and actions that rejuvenate the process of change and transformation in society.  They bring forth for public scrutiny the hard and hidden realities of social dynamics. (8)

So, according to Roy, popular movements — e.g. peasants’ movements — can lead to measurable change in favor of the dispossessed. They do so by making injustice visible to the broader society; pressing effectively for social changes that improve the condition of one’s group; giving voice to segments of society who are almost always invisible to the middle classes; and asserting one’s own agency as a fundamental aspect of being human.  These are all reasons for thinking that social activism and social movements are important.

What about the rest of us? Is activism important in a modern market democracy? Frances Fox Piven argues that these points do indeed apply in modern market democracies as well. In her recent book, Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America, she lays out this case through a new analysis of American policy history.

This book argues that ordinary people exercise power in American politics mainly at those extraordinary moments when they rise up in anger and hope, defy the rules that ordinarily govern their daily lives, and, by doing so, disrupt the workings of the institutions in which they are enmeshed. (kl 23)

Piven’s basic view is that the structural inequalities of property and power in market democracies mean that electoral processes are usually tilted against the interests and concerns of poor and middling people. Electoral competitions are generally won by enough candidates reflecting the interests and world views of the powerful, that the perspectives of the poor and disadvantaged in American society rarely prevail in the statehouse or the Congress.  The exceptions occur, she believes, when poor and disadvantaged people find ways of expressing their interests through avenues that threaten to disrupt “business as usual” — boycotts, strikes, demonstrations, and other activities outside of formal politics. Rights of speech and association underlie many of these strategies, and they express a different aspect of democracy. And these in turn depend upon a combination of mobilization and a moment in time when such collective actions have the potential of creating significant disruption — when French farmers block roads to protest milk prices, for example.

So it seems that democracy almost requires a dynamic tension between formal representative politics and informal, nonviolent popular politics. What goes on in the state house needs what goes on in the streets of Madison if outcomes fair to ordinary working people are likely to occur.


Social mobility?

We often think of the United States as a place with a lot of social mobility. What exactly does this mean? And is it true? Ironically, the answer appears to be a fairly decisive “no.” In fact, here’s a graph from a 2005 New York Times series on income mobility that shows that the United States ranks second to last among Great Britain, US, France, Canada, and Denmark when it comes to the rate of income improvement over four generations for poor families. And here are two very interesting recent studies that come to similar conclusions — a report on social mobility by the Center for American Progress and a 2007 academic study by researchers at Kent State, Wisconsin and Syracuse. Here is how Professor Kathryn Wilson, associate professor of economics at Kent State University, summarizes the main finding of the latter study: “People like to think of America as the land of opportunities. The irony is that our country actually has less social mobility and more inequality than most developed countries” (link).

Basically social mobility refers to the likelihood that a child will grow up into adulthood and attain a higher level of economic and social wellbeing than his/her family of origin. Is there a correlation between the socioeconomic status (SES) of an adult and his/her family of origin? Do poor people tend to have poor parents? And do poor parents tend to have children who end up as poor adults later in life? Does low SES in the parents’ circumstances at a certain time in life — say, the age of 30 — serve to predict the SES of the child at the same age?

The fact of social mobility is closely tied to facts about social inequality and facts about social class. In a highly egalitarian society there would be little need for social mobility. And in a society with a fairly persistent class structure there is also relatively little social mobility — because there is some set of mechanisms that limit entry and exit into the various classes. In the simplest terms, a social class is a sub-population within a society in which parents and their adult children tend to share similar occupations and economic circumstances of life. It is possible for a society to have substantial inequalities but also a substantial degree of social mobility. But there are good sociological reasons to suspect that this is a fairly unstable situation; groups with a significant degree of wealth and power are also likely to be in a position to arrange social institutions in such a way that privilege is transmitted across generations. (Here are several earlier postings on class; post, post, post.)

A crucial question to pose as we think about class and social mobility, is the issue of the social mechanisms through which children are launched into careers and economic positions in society. A pure meritocracy is a society in which specific social mechanisms distinguish between high-achieving and low-achieving individuals, assigning high-achieving individuals to desirable positions in society. A pure plutocracy is a society in which holders of wealth provide advantages to their children, ensuring that their adult children become the wealth-holders of the next generation. A caste system assigns children and young adults to occupations based on their ascriptive status. In each case there are fairly visible social mechanisms through which children from specific social environments are tracked into specific groups of roles in society. The sociological question is how these mechanisms work; in other words, we want to know about the “microfoundations” of the system of economic and social placement across generations.

In a society in which there is substantial equality of opportunity across all social groups, we would expect there to be little or no correlation between the SES of the parent and the child. We might have a very simple theory of the factors that determine an adult’s SES in a society with extensive equality of opportunity: the sum total of the individual’s talents, personality traits, and motivation strongly influence success in the pursuit of a career. (Chance also plays a role.) If talent is randomly distributed across the population, rich and poor; if all children are exposed to similar opportunities for the development of their talents; and if all walks of life are open to talent without regard to social status — then we should find a zero correlation between parents’ SES and adult child’s SES. So, in this simple model, evidence of correlation with SES of parent and child would also be evidence of failures of equality of opportunity.

However, the situation is more complicated. Success in career is probably influenced by factors other than talent: for example, personal values, practical interests, personality qualities like perseverence, and cultural values. And these qualities are plainly influenced by the child’s family and neighborhood environment. So if there is such a thing as a “culture of poverty” or a “culture of entrepreneurism”, then the social fact of the child’s immersion in this culture will be part of the explanation of the child’s performance in adulthood — whatever opportunities were available to the child. (French sociologist Didier Lapeyronnie makes a point along these lines about the segregation of immigrant communities that exists in French society today; post, post.) So this is a fact about family background that is causally relevant to eventual SES and independent of the opportunity structure of the society.

But another relevant fact is the sharply differentiated opportunities that exist for children and young adults from various social groups in many societies, including the United States. How is schooling provided to children across all income groups? What kind and quality of healthcare is available across income and race? To what extent are job opportunities made available to all individuals without regard to status, race, or income? How are urban people treated relative to suburban or rural people when it comes to the availability of important social opportunities? It is plain that there are substantial differences across many societies when it comes to questions like these.

Education is certainly one of the chief mechanisms of social mobility in any society; it involves providing the child and young adult with the tools necessary to translate personal qualities and talents into productive activity. So inequalities in access to education constitute a central barrier to social mobility. (See this earlier post for a discussion of some efforts to assess the impact of higher education on social mobility for disadvantaged people.)

And it seems all too clear that children have very unequal educational opportunities throughout the United States, from pre-school to university. These inequalities correlate with socially significant facts like family income, place of residence, and race; and they correlate in turn with the career paths and eventual SES of the young people who are placed in one or another of these educational settings. Race is a particularly prevalent form of structural inequalities of opportunity in the US; multiple studies have shown how slowly patterns of racial segregation are changing in the cities of the United States (post). And along with segregation comes limitation on opportunities associated with health, education, and employment.

So the findings mentioned above, documenting the relatively limited degree of social mobility that currently exists in the United States by international standards, are understandable when we consider the entrenched structures that exist in our country determining the opportunities available to children and young adults. Race, poverty, and geography conspire to create recurring patterns of low SES across generations of families in the United States. (See an earlier post on Douglas Massey’s analysis of the mechanisms of race and inequality in the US.) And limited social mobility is the predictable result.

Theories of the Chinese Revolution

Let us consider a question fundamental to twentieth century world history: why did the Chinese Communist Revolution succeed? Was it the result of a few large social forces and structures? Or was this a case of many small causes operating at a local level, aggregating to a world-historical outcome? (See an earlier posting on “small causes.”)

It should first be noted that the CCP’s path to power was rural rather than urban. The Guomindong (GMD) had effectively expelled the CCP from the cities in 1927 and had detached the Communist Party from urban workers. (Note that this runs directly contrary to the expectations of classical Marxism, according to which the urban proletariat is expected to be the vanguard of the revolution. A massive contingency intervened — Chiang Kai-shek’s ability to wipe out the urban Communist movement in the Shanghai Massacre.) Further, the turning point in the fortunes of the CCP clearly occurred in the “base areas” during the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45): the areas of rural China where the CCP was able to establish itself as the dominant political and military force opposed to the Guomindong and the Japanese Army. The success of the revolution, therefore, depended on successful mobilization of the peasantry in the 1930s and 1940s. How are we to account for its success?

This question has naturally loomed large in Western discussions of the Chinese Revolution since 1949. Two influential theories offer political culture and class conflict as causes of revolution, and neither of these high-level theories appears to be altogether satisfactory. A more plausible analysis refers to the local politics of class. Rather than postulating a single large causal factor, it is more plausible to understand CCP success as a concatenation of a number of small causes and advantages, deployed with skill and luck to a successful national victory.

Consider first a theory based on political culture. In a celebrated book in 1962 Chalmers Johnson argued that the CCP succeeded in mobilizing peasant support during the Sino-Japanese War because (a) peasants were nationalistic and patriotic, and determined to expel the Japanese, and (b) the CCP was the organization that showed the greatest military and organizational ability to oppose the Japanese military presence in China (Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power: The Emergence of Revolutionary China, 1937-1945). Johnson maintained that the CCP downplayed its social program (class conflict, land reform, etc.) during the war, in the interest of a united front against the Japanese, and that its social goals played little or no role in its mobilizational successes. Peasants therefore supported the CCP out of nationalism, and were, perhaps, unpleasantly surprised at the social program that emerged after the defeat of the Japanese. This theory made a feature of political culture — nationalist identity — the central determinant of largescale collective action.

Mark Selden, an American Marxist sociologist, advanced a very different view of the CCP’s success in The Yenan Way in Revolutionary China (1971). He offered a class-conflict model, according to which Chinese rural society possessed an objectively exploitative class structure in opposition to which the CCP successfully mobilized support. Landlords, moneylenders, and the state exploited the peasantry by extracting rent, interest, and taxes. The CCP provided a program of social revolution aimed at overthrowing this exploitative order, and peasants followed this program, and supported the CCP, in order to pursue their class interests.

Johnson’s theory hasn’t stood the test of time very well because there is a dearth of evidence to support the idea that ordinary Chinese people did in fact possess the nationalistic identity and political commitments that the theory postulates. The chief failings of Selden’s model are substantial as well, however. Selden assumed that the realities of exploitation and class are relatively transparent, so that peasants more or less immediately perceive their class interests. And he assumed that collective action follows more or less directly from a perception of class interests: if there is a plausible strategy for furthering class interests through rebellion (i.e., the CCP), then peasants will be disposed to do so. However, the social reality of China was much more complex than this story would allow, with region, lineage, and village society existing as a more immediate social reality for most rural people than class and exploitation. So neither Johnson nor Selden provide a framework within which a fully satisfactory theory of the revolution can be constructed.

A more convincing view has been offered by a third generation of historians of the Chinese Revolution. One of those historians is Yung-fa Chen in Making Revolution: The Communist Movement in Eastern and Central China, 1937-1945 (1986). Chen offers an explanation of the CCP’s mobilization successes that depends upon a micro-level analysis of the local politics created in Eastern China as a result of local social arrangements and the Japanese occupation. Methodologically his approach is microfoundational and localistic rather than sweeping and mono-causal. And Chen’s main findings disagree in some important ways with both Johnson and Selden.

The main elements of Chen’s analysis are these. First, he confirmed the Marxist view that the CCP had a coherent social program (land reform and fundamental alteration of rural property arrangements), and that the CCP made this program a central part of its mobilization efforts. This program implicitly defined a forms of class analysis of rural Chinese society into poor peasants, middle peasants, rich peasants, and landlords, and endeavored to sharpen conflicts among these. Second, though, Chen rejected the view that these rural class relations and oppositions were fully transparent to participants, needing only the appearance in the village of a few ideologically correct cadres to mobilize peasant support. Rather, Chen held that the wide variety of rural social relations–lineage, family, religious organization, patron-client, friendship–worked as powerful brakes on the emergence of class consciousness. So a determined program of class-consciousness raising was needed, which the CCP attempted to provide through its “speaking-bitterness” sessions.

And, Chen maintained, peasants were highly skeptical of the ability of outside organizations to protect them against the wrath of local powers (landlords, officials) once the military threat had disappeared. A central problem of mobilization, then, was to create a local organization and militia that was capable of fending off Japanese and GMD military attack; that was sufficiently stable as to lend confidence that peasants could rely on it in the future; and to put forward a social program that would leave it well-positioned to begin the process of socialist reform through land reform, reform of credit institutions, and ultimately collectivization of agriculture and industry.

The heart of Chen’s analysis depends on the assumption that peasants are rational political actors, and will support a political organization only if they judge that (a) it will support their local interests and (b) it will be powerful enough to support its local followers. (This has a lot in common with Samuel Popkin’s arguments in The Rational Peasant: The Political Economy of Rural Society in Vietnam (1976).) Chen then considers available data on a large number of local communities in Eastern China during the war years in the base areas of the revolution, and finds that the CCP did a skillful job of satisfying both requirements. It was effective in creating military and political organizations capable of protecting local interests; and it was effective in communicating its class analysis to peasants in sufficient degree to lead to support for its revolutionary social program. But, contrary to the nationalist thesis offered by Chalmers Johnson, he argues that the CCP was very skillful in avoiding direct military confrontation with the Japanese Army.

Another impressive effort to provide a new reading of aspects of the Chinese Revolution is provided by Odoric Wou in Mobilizing the Masses: Building Revolution in Henan (1994). Focused on Henan Province, Wou attempts to uncover the complex set of factors that permitted the Communist Party to mobilize mass support for its program. He emphasizes organizational and political factors in his account: the strategies and organizational resources through which the CCP was able to move ordinary workers and peasants from concern with local interests to adherence to a national program. Wou provides fascinating detail concerning Communist efforts to mobilize miners and workers, Red Spears and bandits, and peasants in Henan Province.

Wou makes plain the daunting challenges confronting Communist cadres in their efforts to mobilize support at the village level: mistrust of outsiders, the entrenched political power of elites, and the localism of peasant interests in the region. Wou describes a social-political environment in the countryside that is reminiscent of Philip Kuhn’s account of the situation of local militarization during the Taiping Rebellion in eastern China—one in which elite-dominated militias had evolved as an institution of self-defense against bandits and sectarian organizations (Rebellion and its Enemies in Late Imperial China: Militarization and Social Structure, 1796-1864).

One of the most interesting and surprising findings that Wou puts forward is his contention that mobilization in Henan was not centered in remote and backward border areas, but rather included both remote and commercialized peasant villages (p. 129). This is somewhat inconsistent with Chen’s analysis, who focuses precisely on the tactical advantages of remoteness offered by the base areas.

Wou also makes an effort to crack the riddle of peasant mentality in China. Are peasants inherently conservative? Are they latently revolutionary, awaiting only the clarion call of revolution? Both, and neither, appears to be Wou’s assessment (p. 161). Wou finds a popular equalitarianism within Chinese peasant culture that provides a basis for Communist mobilization around an ideology of redistribution (p. 151); but equally he finds an entrenched hierarchicalism within Chinese popular culture that made subversion of elite power more difficult for Communist cadres (p. 135). (See an earlier post on the Chinese peasant on this subject.)

Wou also considers the political environment created for the CCP by the Sino-Japanese War. (This is the period treated by Chen’s book.) Guomindang power virtually collapsed in Henan Province, and the Japanese occupied eastern Henan in 1938. The three-way struggle between the Japanese, the Guomindang, and the Communist Party gave the Party new opportunities for mobilization against both its enemies. Here Wou makes the important point that structural circumstance—military fragmentation of society, in this case—only provides the opening to successful mobilization, not its sufficient condition. The organizational and strategic competence of the CCP was needed in order to make effective use of these new opportunities for mobilization. Successful play of the game of coalition politics gave the CCP important advantages during this period, and created a position of strength that contributed substantially to post-war success of the movement.

A central tenet of Wou’s analysis is the importance of Communist efforts to improve material conditions of life for the populations it aimed to mobilize. Famine relief, formation of production cooperatives, and revival of the silk industry represented efforts by the Party to demonstrate its ability to provide tangible benefits for local communities (pp. 314-326). These efforts had at least two beneficial effects: they provided material incentives to prospective followers, and, less tangibly, they enhanced confidence among villagers in the competence and endurance of the Party.

Both Chen and Wou make important contributions within a third generation of historical scholarship and interpretation of the Chinese Revolution. Their accounts are to some extent complementary and to some extent inconsistent — as one would expect in detailed efforts to answer profound questions about causation. And both accounts share an important historical insight: it is crucial to push down into the local village circumstances of social life and mobilization that the CCP faced as it attempted to generate commitment and support for its movement if we are to understand why it succeeded in mobilizing support from millions of rural people.

Disaffected youth

Every city seems to have its floating population of disaffected youth — school dropouts, occasional workers, drug users, skateboarders, hooligans, street people. How much of a problem is this? What are its dimensions? What are the social causes that influence the size and nature of this population in Detroit, Manchester, Cologne, or Novosibirsk? And are there social programs that can significantly diminish the number of young people who wind up in this category?

As for the importance of the problem, there are at least two aspects. In some times and places this population becomes a source of violence — youth gangs, football hooliganism, shop window breakage, and skinhead attacks on racial minorities, gays, or other targets. But second, whether violent or passive, the precipitation of a sub-class of young people with no skills, no jobs, and no futures is a huge social cost for the societies that produce them.

Here I’m mostly interested in the processes of neglect and social-economic disadvantage that play into the mentality of some young people, leading to the formation of an individual social psychology that brings about the low-level anti-social behavior that is observed. Basically — why do some young people drop out of the process of gaining an education, building a career, forming a family, and looking forward to the future, and instead spend their time hanging out in the streets? The skinhead phenomenon adds another element that is also worth understanding but is not the primary interest here — a degree of organizational effort by political entrepreneurs who work towards mobilizing disaffected youth around racist and nationalist agendas. This falls under the category of social mobilization studied by people such as Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow, or Charles Tilly. But here I’m more interested here in the process of socialization at the individual level that leads to the phenomenon of disaffection. (Several earlier posts have addressed the mobilization part of the story — for example, here.)

Here is a very interesting academic study by Robert MacDonald of the making of a “youth underclass” in the UK. Here is how MacDonald frames his problem of research:

Most young people in the UK make relatively ‘successful’, unproblematic transitions from school to work and adulthood. What do we call those that do not? Labels imply explanation, not just description. Terms with academic and policy currency tend to define such young people by something they are not or by their presumed social and economic distance and dislocation from ‘the rest’. How we might best describe, explain and label the experience and problem of so-called ‘socially excluded’, ‘disconnected youth’ is the focus of the paper.

To use the term “disaffected” is to bring a Durkheimian mindset to the table; it is to offer the beginnings of a diagnosis of the problem as well as a description. The phrase “disaffected” (or its cognate, “demoralized”) presents the problem as one of disconnection from prevailing social values and alienation from a set of moral ideas about how to behave. The “disaffected” no longer believe in the old chestnuts about working hard, listening to one’s parents, showing respect to others, obeying the law, and conforming to society’s expectations. So on this line of thought, the anti-social behavior of young people in this category derives from their “demoralization” — their failure, or society’s failure, to absorb a compelling set of normative standards about personal and social conduct.

But here is a slightly different tack we might take here. Perhaps disadvantaged youth disbelieve because they have lost all confidence in the underlying promise: conform to these norms and you will have a decent life. In other words, maybe the psychological cause of these forms of youth behavior is economic rather than moral; they are deeply discouraged about the possibility of a pathway to a better future than the world they seem around themselves at the moment. “Hopeless and angry” is a different state of mind than “disaffected.”

And what about the factor of motivation and personal ambition? To what extent is normal youth development propelled by internal factors of motivation and aspiration? And how much of a role does a social context that “demotivates” young people play in this picture?

Another line of thought has emerged out of research on youth gangs — the idea of the positive forms of solidarity and community that are provided by the gang as a welcoming social group. Young people who have lost the social support of their families and other traditional organizations may find that the street gang is the closest thing to “home” that they are able to locate. These are social groups with their own codes of behavior — even though their largest effects are profoundly anti-social.

A common recourse when it comes to trying to explain these kinds of outcomes is to refer to various “breakdowns” — breakdowns of the traditional family, of schools, of religion, of community organizations, or of public values. These are the institutions through which young people form their social psychologies, their identities, and their basic values. But if the young person lacks an emotionally meaningful connection to adults through some of these institutions, where will those positive social values come from?

Finally, it is worth noting that poverty and socio-economic disadvantage are not the only settings where youth disaffection occurs. Many observers in the United States have written about the use of drugs by affluent suburban high school students and other forms of involvement in anti-social activities. Wayne Wooden’s Renegade Kids, Suburban Outlaws: From Youth Culture to Delinquency documents some of this behavior.

Why is this an important problem for “understanding society”? Because the social processes through which the next generation of citizens — children, teenagers, and youth — is shaped are deeply influential on the nature of the society that will develop in twenty to forty years. If “disaffection,” “anger,” “demoralization,” and a propensity for anti-social behavior are inculcated in a large minority of the youth cohort, then society is likely to go through some very hard times in the coming decades.

It’s relatively easy to find some dimensions of these issues on the web. Here is an interesting report on “football hooliganism” prepared by Dr. Geoff Pearson of the Football Industry Group. Here is a blog posting from the UK on youth gangs and terrorist organizations. Here is a quick report on skinheads.

Class in America

Are there social classes in America?

In order to answer the question in the affirmative, we would need to determine whether there are major social groups that are defined by their position within the economy, who share —

  • some degree of a common perspective on the world
  • some degree of a common culture
  • a set of distinctive economic interests
  • the potential of engaging in collective political action in support of their interests.

Does American society possess groups with these characteristics? Or, in the negative, is the American population so homogeneous (or possibly, so heterogeneous) in values, interests, culture, and politics, that the concept of class has no bearing today?

There are certainly occupational groupings in the American workforce. The United States Department of Labor makes use of a hierarchical classification of jobs in the U.S., with 23 major groups. These include management occupations, business and financial operations, computer and mathematical operations, architecture and engineering operations, food preparation and serving occupations, community and social service occupations, legal occupations, education, training, and library occupations, healthcare support occupations, and, eventually, production occupations. Within production occupations there is a further differentiation of jobs among supervisors, production workers, assemblers, fabricators, food processing workers, and so on for dozens of other sub-categories. So there is certainly a very clear occupational structure to the American economy, and the sociological pathways that convey an individual into a particular location within this structure are well-defined and impactful on the future quality of life of the individual.

So we might consider classifying these occupations according to some higher-level categories and then constructing a theory of social classes around them: management, unskilled labor, skilled labor, professional labor, white collar, blue collar, pink collar, manufacturing, service, agriculture. (See a prior posting for an effort along these lines.) And we might consider whether some of these groupings have the cohesion and sociological interconnectedness to constitute a “class”. Are unionized, blue-collar, industrial workers a “class”? Are non-unionized service workers a class? Are accountants, architects, and engineers a social class? Are nurses and other healthcare workers a class? Are mid-sized family farmers a social class? And for that matter, are the owners and top managers of banks, investment companies, and financial firms a class? These are fruitful questions, and they begin in a recognition of the complex occupational structure of the U.S. economy. Occupations have large impact on worldview, values, quality of life, and political behavior.

Second, there is certainly a great deal of persistent social stratification in the U.S. The probability of a child’s remaining in the quintile of the income distribution where his parents found themselves is high; so the position of a family within the distributive system is fairly stable over time. And position within the income distribution has major consequences for a family’s level of consumption and quality of life. Being persistently “near-poor” is a situation of deprivation and insecurity that is sharply different from the life situation of the moderately affluent. So we might consider several large social groups based on income — the extremely poor, the working poor, the middle-income, the rich, and the super-rich. Within each of these categories of society defined by income we are likely to find some characteristic features of lifestyle, values, and existential dilemmas. So the basic structure of stratification of social goods such as income, health status, and education might serve to define large social “classes.”

Third, it would appear that there are clusters of values, styles, and mental frameworks that correspond to different economic segments of American society. This is the cultural dimension of the social reality of class. Patterns of use of leisure time, attitudes towards education, membership in different kinds of civic organizations, and attitudes towards other nations seem to distinguish social groups in America. So we might attempt to delineate social classes on the basis of clusters of values and mental frameworks. And this approach can certainly be approached empirically, through administration of instruments such as the World Values Survey and domestic equivalents. To what extent do studies like these demonstrate significant inter-group differences within the United States?

Fourth, it seems likely that there are differentiating patterns among various social groups based on the patterns of social relationships that exist within the group, that would be revealed by maps of social networks. And it seems probable that the distinct groups that emerge will have important economic relationships in common. (Here is an interesting slide presentation by Valdis Krebs that illustrates some suggestive applications of social network analysis.) Here is a hypothetical study that couldn’t really be performed but may be interesting as a thought experiment. Suppose we ask everyone in an urban population for the names of 5 non-family members upon whom they could call in an emergency to perform an important favor. Now draw the network map that results from this survey. Are there “islands” of separate sub-populations that can be discovered, where the great majority of links fall within the island and only a small number extend across to another island? And are these islands related in some important way to economic situation and status of the individuals who are included? Would this study map out groups that could be identified as “social classes”? It seems likely that the answers to these questions are affirmative.

Each of these is a different starting-place for a sociological analysis of social class in America. And if the theory of class is correct, we would expect that these different starting places would begin to converge around the same large social formations: occupations, incomes, cultures, and social networks may all call out the same large social groups.

Ultimately, the theory of class has to do with collective interests. We might say that the fundamental interests of a group involve income, job security, healthcare, opportunities, and pensions. A more intangible set of interests have to do with a demand for fair treatment in economic decision-making and a need for a sense of self-determination. And it is plain that there are business decisions and public policy decisions that are being made today that affect these interests very differently for different groups. This suggests that there are in fact large groups in American society whose members have shared interests with each other and who can be mobilized in political action in support of these interests. And this begins to suggest that class remains a social reality in America — and one that may become more politically salient rather than less in the coming decade or so.

What cannot be forgotten, though, is the fact that economic structures are only one aspect of the social mechanisms of distribution and control through which individuals’ status is determined. The mechanisms of race, ethnicity, migration, and gender all affect individuals’ core interests in ways that are somewhat independent from the structures of property and class we’ve been highlighting. And this has important consequences for political mobilization as well; it means that political affinities and action may be organized around race and ethnicity as readily as they are around wage labor and capital — witness the massive immigration rallies that took place in 2007, pictured above in the third image.

The sociology of class

According to the traditional definition, a class is defined in relation to the broad structure of the property system. A group of people belong to the same class when they occupy the same position within the property system governing labor, physical assets, and perhaps intangible assets such as knowledge or money. This is a structural definition of the concept of class. In nineteenth-century France we might have classified the population into land owners, capital owners, wage laborers, artisans, professionals (accountants, architects), intellectuals, government officials, civil service workers, small merchants, smallholding farmers, tenant farmers, landless workers, and lumpenproletariat. And these groups can be roughly triangulated according to their ownership of three major elements: labor power, valuable skills and knowledge, and economic assets (land, property, wealth).

Another way of putting the point is to ask: where does the individual gain his/her income — from the sale of labor time, from the sale or rent of physical assets, or from the sale or rent of expertise? Workers derive their income from the sale of their labor time; capitalists, financiers, and landlords derive their income from their ownership of physical and financial resources, and professionals, experts, and intellectuals derive their income from their possession of scarce expert knowledge and skills. (That’s Pierre-Joseph Proudhon pictured above by Courbet, an intellectual in artisanal garb.)

So we might capture nineteenth-century French social reality from this point of view along these lines:

Of course, things can be classified according to any principle we might offer. So the value of a particular classification must be justified in terms of the explanatory or causal work that it does. The explanatory thrust of the theory of class goes along the lines of a sociological hypothesis: people who have a similar location within a system of property relations will also develop other important similarities: similarities of thought, values, style, behavior, and politics, for example. And so Marx believed that structurally-defined classes of people were likely to further develop a similar class consciousness — a similar framework of thought in terms of which they understand the social forces around them; and he expected that classes of people would come to share a signature framework of political motivation — a set of ideas, interpretations, and values that would motivate them to engage in collective action together.

This is where the substantive sociology of class comes in; in order to provide credibility for this set of expectations about class consciousness and political motivation, we need to have some ideas about the concrete sociological mechanisms that might plausibly lead from “common position in the property relations” to “common forms of consciousness and political motivation.” And here there are quite a few things that can be said — both by Marx in the 1850s and contemporary observers in the 2000s. First, a common position in the property relations often implies a number of concrete similarities of experience across individuals — common features of the workplace, common neighborhoods in cities, common experiences in the system of schooling that is in place. These kinds of shared social positions suggest two things: first, a common process of shaping through which perceptions and motivations develop in each individual; and second, a common reality that individuals who experience these environments are likely to be able to perceive. It is highly plausible that a group of men and women who have spent their lives in a nineteenth century textile factory while living in a concentrated workers’ slum, will have developed a similar consciousness and social style from the discipline and work processes of the factory and their shared social associations in their neighborhoods.

So miners in Wales or northern Michigan are exposed to similar work environments; similar firms and styles of management; and similar life outcomes that might be expected to create a “miner’s consciousness” and a miner’s political mentality. Smallholding wine growers across the landscape of nineteenth century France are exposed to similar natural, social, and economic circumstances that are likely to shape the development of their personalities and worldviews, that are in turn likely to create an ideal-typical “wine grower” who fairly accurately represents the worldview and behavior of wine growers.

Second, there is a fact that is more apparent today than it was to nineteenth-century sociological observers, that has to do with what we now understand about social networks and social capital. Common locations of work and residence make it highly likely that occupational groups (miners, architects, professors) will fall within sharply distinguished sets of social networks, and they will have access to different combinations of social capital (civic organizations, religious groups, secret societies). And the consciousness and political behavior of an individual is surely influenced in very profound ways by each of these social categories — networks and social capital. So the fact of similarities in these respects is likely to give rise to similarities in consciousness and action as well.

And, of course, there is the fact of the social reality of exploitation in each of these circumstances: miners and wine growers are subject to coercive social relations that succeed in separating them from a substantial portion of the fruits of their labors. Coal miners will identify the profit-driven mine owners as the source of their exploitation and wine growers may identify the wine jobbers who buy their product cheaply and sell it dearly in the cities as the source of their exploitation. But each group comes to recognize the social reality of the property relations through which their productive labor is “expropriated” by other powerful forces. Recognition of the fact of exploitation is a key component of the process of the formation of class consciousness.

So it seems plausible to suppose that there are identifiable social mechanisms through which occupational groups come to have shared worldviews and similar political behaviors. But the theory of class asserts more than this; it asserts that wage laborers in many occupations will come to recognize themselves as fundamentally similar to workers in other occupations. The theory of class postulates a sociology of “escalation” of class identity, from the particular occupation, work group, and neighborhood to the larger (and more abstract) class that encompasses many occupations and work groups in widely separated locations. So, it is postulated, fast food workers, auto workers, and air traffic controllers will come to identify together, not simply as a set of occupational groups, but as an extended group of “persons who are forced to sell their labor to capital in order to satisfy life needs.” And, further, the theory postulates that it will be possible for a strong form of group solidarity to emerge across this fairly heterogeneous and physically separated set of occupational groups.

It isn’t entirely clear what the sociological mechanisms are supposed to be that facilitate this escalation of class identity, however. Classical Marxism depends heavily on the idea of a party and a group of activists who do the “class education” that leads workers from a narrowly parochial view of their situation to one that encompasses the common situation of wage labor. But this depends on a fairly sizable historical coincidence — the emergence of a militant and disciplined class-based party. And it is very hard to see how non-planned forms of sociological change might lead to this escalation — hard to see, that is, how air traffic controllers, McDonalds workers, and steel workers might spontaneously come to regard each other as belonging to a single class subject to exploitation by another abstractly defined class.

Moreover, it is very apparent today that there are multiple axes around which collective identities can form. Kinship relations in southern China cut across structural class relations, and it is certainly possible that the Li clan will have a stronger sense of identity than the landless workers — even though the Li clan contains both landlords, peasant farmers, and landless workers. Religious affinities may be mobilized as a source of collective identity — again, with the likelihood of creating groups that cut across class lines.

So this line of thought suggests that there is a fairly large gap in the theory of class in even its application to the nineteenth-century case: the problem of how to explain the postulated escalation of consciousness from the particular work group and occupation to the more general category, “working class.”

This leaves for another posting the most important question: to what extent is the theory of class relevant to 21st-century society? To what extent can American political conflicts, perceptions, parties, and movements be explained on the basis of occupational and class identities? To what extent do the most important fissures in our society derive from economic conflicts that can be assimilated to the theory of class?

Power and class in the 21st century

We could say that power and class are the two most important determinants of everyday life in the 21st century. Class relations – determined by the property system and the basic economic institutions within which we live – determine our opportunities, health, quality of life, and sometimes our basic freedoms. Power relations influence our careers, our opportunities, our freedoms, and very basic aspects of our behavior and choice. It is reasonable to think that the system of power and class within which we live constitutes the basic framework within which our lives and purposes unfold.

Further, the two schemata of post-modern life are interrelated. The property system within which we live is like a medieval cathedral – it cannot stand without the buttresses of power that retain its structure in the face of countervailing pressures. And the relations of power that exist in a society often derive much of their voltage from the structure of property that exists. Property holders need, want, and gain power; holders of power gain property.

But post-modern life is not so simple. There are multiple cross-cutting identities and positions that influence personal outcomes, not simply class or power. Race, ethnic group, gender – these are social systems that have quite a bit in common with class, and they have relationships to power as well. Race, ethnicity, and gender are also “social processing systems” – one’s status within the system of race or gender immediately influences one’s opportunities, status, prestige, and – yes, power. And one’s position within these ascriptive systems also has implications for the class system; thus black workers faced a different working environment than white workers in the Detroit auto industry in the 1950s and 1960s, and female workers earn less than male workers in many businesses.

We might define power in these terms: “access to social and material resources that permit an individual or group to control or influence social outcomes, including the behavior of other individuals and groups, the distribution of things, and the configuration of social institutions.” And we can give a simple schematic description of the chief mechanisms and tactics through which control and influence are exercised in contemporary society: coercion, threat, manipulation of the agenda, manipulation of information and thought, and positional advantage. These are almost all relational characteristics — they have to do with the relationships of influence that exist among individuals and groups.

We can also provide a simple definition of social class: “position within a system of property relations, defining one’s location with a structure of domination, control, and exploitation.” The group of people who share a similar position within the property relations of a society constitute a class. Their circumstances, resources, and opportunities are similar to those of others in the class, and they have common interests that are in opposition to members of some other classes. So class works as a social sorting process: individuals are tracked into one class or another through specific sociological mechanisms (schooling, parental attitudes, neighborhood). And it works to assign very different ranges of material outcomes to members of the various groups; working class families wind up more poorly educated, less healthy, and more vulnerable to economic fluctuations than their counterparts in the landlord class, the financial elite class, or the capitalist class. Part of the challenge of developing a sociology of class involved identifying some of the concrete pathways of difference created by class with respect to specific opportunities – education, health, adequate nutrition, access to creative work, .…

Status and consciousness are also part of the sociology of class. Individuals develop specific features of mentality out of the experience they have in the class environments of their parents, their schools, and their workplaces. And these differences in turn give rise to differences in behavior — consumer behavior, political behavior, and inter-group behavior. And members of a class may acquire a common perspective on their situation — they may come to diagnose the social relations around them in a similar way, they may come to a common “class consciousness” that leads them to engage in collective action together.

Further, the system of class relations also creates specific features in the social networks that exist in a society. A highly democratic and egalitarian society would be expected to have a social network graph that is widely and evenly distributed across the population. But in our society, it is likely that a social network map of Chicago would be highly differentiated along class lines: business people tend to know business people, manufacturing workers tend to know other manufacturing workers, and so forth. (I am sure there is some good research on this topic, though I can’t put my hands on it.) This in turn implies that there will be significant differences across classes with respect to social capital — the ability of people to call upon their social relationships and associations in pursuit of their goals and interests. (See Nan Lin, Social Capital: Theory and Research.) (This point comes up in a different context in the earlier posting about segregation in France.)

The concepts of power and class are often linked. However, it strikes me that the two concepts or theories are not parallel; they do different work within our analysis of the society in which we live, and they require different kinds of ontologies in order for us to explicate them. “Class” is a situational feature for individuals; it defines a set of circumstances and opportunities that fundamentally influence the shape of their lives. In this respect the theory of class evokes structures first and agency and consciousness second. “Power” is a fluid characteristic of individuals within social relationships. As such, it evokes social relationships and social resources wielded by individuals and groups against other individuals and groups. “Power” is a feature of the individual’s position within a set of social networks and relationships, not a social structure. Class is more akin to “the mass of the earth”, whereas power is akin to “the ability to fly”. The mass of the earth determines the most basic feature of life on earth — gravity. The ability to fly is a complex and variable capacity that permits specific organisms and artifacts to accomplish flight within the general influence of gravity. What is complicated about this analogy is the fact that there are several sources of social “gravity” — including the structures of race, gender, and religion that pull, push, and constrain us in multiple directions.

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