This is the second part of an essay, the first of which can be found here. It’s not necessary to read the first part, but I will be bringing in some claims that carry over from that essay into this one. In particular, I will hold that:
- Fascists and Socialists both respond to certain social ills in society (poverty, war, economic inequalities, loss of traditional values, etc.)
- Nevertheless, the two movements differ in two very important respects: first, they differ in how they diagnose the root cause of these problems. Fascists find the root cause in a change in the national character; socialists find the root cause in the capitalist mode of production.
- And second, they differ in their ultimate proposals for resolving the problems. Socialists fight for abolishing the capitalist mode of production and fascists fight for the means of strengthening the nation.
In this part, given my own commitments, I will make the assumption that socialists are correct with respect to 2. I won’t make an argument for this assumption, but will only say that it’s much more clear to me how a capitalist mode of production could result in the problems under consideration than how anything like a national character, national spirit, or whatever would do the same. I’m happy to say more in the comments if people are interested, but I don’t want to spend too much time on that.
Furthermore, I will also assume that if the socialist proposal to abolish the capitalist mode of production is to be successful, it will only be so through a massive collective effort in which the people themselves seize the means of production and re-appropriate them for social purposes rather than profit. In short, I’m assuming that successful socialism will be built from the bottom up and not imposed from the top down through a revolutionary vanguard movement. I take this isn’t a radically strange assumption to make, but it is one that would need an argument against a Bolshevik position. I don’t provide such an argument here (though, feel free to read my continuing series on The State and Revolution for my thoughts on Lenin’s philosophy). I do, however, want to stress that my taking the bottom-up approach is not meant to imply the necessity of any kind of slow, building, incrementalism or parliamentarism. I’m not here rejecting such a (relatively) moderate position, but merely stressing that a bottom-up approach doesn’t require taking such a position.
Finally, I will make the further assumption that if what socialism requires is a bottom-up approach, then it also requires a previously developed shared class consciousness through which the problems produced by capitalism are interpreted and understood. In other words, it doesn’t make sense for people to seize the means of production if they don’t see seizing the means of production as the solution to the problems they face, and they won’t see that as a solution until they understand how the current mode of capitalist production creates those problems and what their role is in this mode of production. What a successful bottom-up approach requires, then, is a class consciousness which lets people see themselves as part of a certain economic class as it relates to certain other economic classes within the capitalist mode of production. To assume that there such a class consciousness isn’t needed in a bottom-up approach is, it seems to me, tantamount to assuming that the seizure of the means of production will happen by instinct or without forethought, organization, or purpose. And this seems absurd (or, at best, utterly naive).
Behind this last claim is the more general point that the nature of some problems is such that the solution to those problems only appears as a solution once certain background conditions are in place. That is, the solutions appear only once they’re situated in a particular interpretive framework. Furthermore, there are times when not only the solution but the problem itself is obscured without such a framework (c.f. Miranda Fricker’s Epistemic Injustice for a much more sophisticated and philosophical take on this point).
As I’m writing this, the American left is, for the first time in my life (and the life of almost anyone else), having a revival. Here are just some anecdotal points that support this claim: in general, young people are being more critical of capitalism and more receptive of socialism (this link is a bit outdated, but I believe the trend remains the same); we’re seeing more and more young and solidly progressive candidates run in (and win!) elections; almost every candidate running in the Democratic party primary has (thanks to Sanders and Warren) been forced to take a further-left-than-normal position on universal healthcare, student loan forgiveness, free college tuition, income inequality, racial injustice, criminal reform, and climate change–many of these issues are actually being taken seriously for the first time ever; there seems to be a growing popular consensus against the pharmaceutical industry and its role in the opioid crisis; leftist proposals are resounding with surprising audiences; and, in general, it’s becoming more and more acceptable to call oneself a socialist. All in all, things appear to be looking up for those of us on the left.
Furthermore, we have a good explanation in hand as to why we’re seeing trends like these. Namely, we appear to be in the midst of an acute crisis of neoliberal capitalism that started with the gutting of the public sector under Nixon and Reagan, which continued through the Bush/Clinton/W/Obama era, and which has been topped off with the disaster that is the Trump administration and its open cronyism. In that time, unions were destroyed, workers’ rights were rolled back, American industry died, the wealth gap grew astronomically, and wages stagnated as capital consolidated its winnings. What the millenial generation (my generation) was left with at the end of all this is worse than nothing: massive amounts of debt, no pensions, no job security, no prospect of home ownership, no accessible healthcare, and, oh, yeah, an unsustainable climate crisis that threatens all life on the planet.
So, as people my age and older look around and see friends and relatives dying from opium overdoses, as we realize that we’ve picked up six-figure debts to get useless college degrees, as we’re forced to live with roommates through our thirties just to make rent, as we make note of the fact that many of us haven’t been to a doctor or dentist in years, and as we come to terms with the fact that we’ll never have anything more than a precarious existence, we finally understand that nobody is going to save us and that the only means of stopping this is immediate collective action. Briefly put, we’re realizing that capitalism is making us miserable and that the question once again is (as it always has been) between socialism and barbarism. The reason we’re seeing a revival on the left, then, is because the situation has become unbearable and we’re on the precipice of a brave new world in which the revolution may once again become a real possibility.
That at least is the optimistic story.
Ever the pessimist, however, I think that this story, while partially correct and inspiring, is not quite accurate and that we should be much more worried about the trajectory on which we’re headed.
Let me explain. I think that we are, indeed, in a the midst of a crisis of neo-liberalism that has produced serious problems for the majority of people and engendered a palpable populist resentment in the population. People really are suffering and there seems to be a shared sense that something must be done soon to resolve these problems. However, this moment of crisis is not something that only the left recognizes and is aware of. Just as both the communists and fascists were responding to the same problems of capitalism in the early 20th century, so our modern day reactionary far-right and far-left movements are doing the same. And, just as the communists and fascists of the early 20th century responded with different diagnoses and solutions to the problems of their time, so our respective sides are doing the same thing now.
Now, if the assumption I’ve made about the need for a bottom-up approach in the socialist solution is correct, then what matters is whether the majority of the masses–those people most hurt by the current crisis–endorse our socialist diagnosis and solution, or if those same people make a hard turn to the right. The problem comes in if I’m right about my other assumption that in order for these people to come to our side and embrace our diagnosis and solution, they must have a kind of shared class consciousness. This is a problem because, on the one hand, I have no faith that there is a developed class consciousness for the majority of people affected by this crisis, and, on the other hand, the kind of consciousness that’s needed for a hard right turn is pretty much already in place. I’ll address both points.
With respect to the first, my general impression of most average Americans is that they simply do not think of themselves in terms of class in the terms necessary to make sense of the socialist solution as a solution. In terms of class, most people, I think, think of themselves in one of two ways: they either see themselves as part of “the middle class,” membership to which seems to extend to everyone who’s ever lived in the suburbs or owned a car, or as temporarily embarrassed millionaires who may not currently be rich, but who are well on their way.
The first is, of course, an absolute illusion and the label of ‘middle class’ is, as far as I’m concerned, completely meaningless. I suspect the primary drive in people’s identification as middle class is the conflation of ‘middle’ and ‘average’. Thus, what people hear when they hear ‘middle class’ is something like ‘the group of average people’ and when they consider where they are they reason something along the following lines: well, I know that there are people that are much worse off than me, and I certainly know that there are people much better off than me, so I must be the average; hence, I’m middle class. The little adjustments people make (“oh, I’m upper-lower-middle class”) are just reflections on how they situate themselves in relation to those like them. Crucially, to think of one’s class as defined in this way is to think of one’s class as determined by one’s current financial situation, which is to say that it’s not to think about class in the socialist sense at all! The latter, I take it, is a matter of the role that one plays and is expected to play in the capitalist mode of production and that is something totally different from where one finds oneself in the mathematical average in relation to others. This, for what it’s worth, is why, for example, making the same salary is not indicative of having the same class status (you and I might get paid the same as graduate students, but if you stand to inherit property, land, and a company while I stand to get nothing, we don’t belong to the same class). The fact of the matter is that these things come apart and while the majority of people are, indeed, average, they are not middle class.
Undoubtedly, this fetishization of the middle class is also in part due to the fact that belonging to the middle class is constantly reinforced as being capable. To be of the lower class is to have failed, to be lazy, unmotivated, and stupid; to be of the upper class is to be hard-working, innovative, and smart; to be middle class is to be hard-working, competent, and ‘on your way’ to the top. This, I think, is why people also tend to view themselves in the second way mentioned above (i.e. as temporarily embarrassed millionaires): if one doesn’t think of themselves as lazy, stupid, failure (and who could live with that thought!), and if, at the same time, one realizes that they’re not where they want to be, then they must, by virtue of their competence and capability be in the middle class. But since competence, ability, and hard work are rewarded in America by becoming upper class, the current discrepancy between reality and ideology are explained away as a temporary setback–we’re middle class because we’re neither yet failures nor millionaires (but someday!). This, again, is just to say that even if people use the word ‘class’ in referring to themselves as being ‘middle class’, they are using the term in a entirely different way than we socialists use it.
[For what it’s worth, I consider the middle class to be comprised primarily of the managerial class that stands between the owner/s of the means of production (or the board of directors or whatever you want to call it) and those who actually do the physical or intellectual labor. They are always a minority. Apart from that, I’m also inclined to lump in certain members of the professional class whose role is to support the whole machine. These, too, are a minority.]
Now, in reality, most of the people who consider themselves middle class are either upper class (and do so out of a kind of incipient shame) or, more than likely, lower class. This isn’t to say that there aren’t people who accurately identify their class and understand its role in the mode of production. There are such people, but they strike me as a vanishingly small minority.
This kind of general mix-up and inability to see oneself as belonging to a particular class is, I believe, indicative of a general lack of class consciousness in America. Once again, I have claimed that the bottom-up socialist solution can only be seen as a solution if the people who are to implement it are capable of seeing why control of the means of production will resolve the problems they face. That, in turn, requires seeing oneself as part of a class that plays a particular role–i.e. having a class consciousness–and this is simply what we currently lack. The United States simply lacks an internalized, shared, meaningful category of class that can be plugged into the socialist framework.
What about the other side? I’ve stated that for any problem to be seen as a problem and for any solution to that problem to be seen as a solution, it must be nested in a particular framework. The framework that socialists need requires a kind of class consciousness that requires (at a minimum) the category or concept of class. By contrast, the far-right in its fascist guise needs different categories. They need the categories of race, sex, blood, character, morality, patriotism, spirit, and so on, along with the category of The Nation. Recall, as I’ve categorized it, the fascist diagnoses the problems brought about by crises of capitalism as problems in the national character (or one of the other categories) and proposes solutions that aim to fix those problems. Fascists might even take a critical eye towards capital, but, as always, this critical eye is one that looks at what capital is doing to the nation to corrupt it and how it can be reigned in to serve the nation better. What the fascist needs to have people see his diagnosis as the correct one and his solution as a viable one is to be able to employ the categories above in support of his framework.
Unlike us socialists, the fascist pretty much has his work done for him since the majority of people (across alllllll divides) use these categories to navigate social life and make sense of the world every day. Race and gender are, perhaps, the two most salient categories. There may be general confusion as to whether an individual belongs to the capitalist class or the proletariat class, but there can never be any doubt as to whether a person is male or female, or black or white. Society simply won’t allow it (c.f. Marilyn Frye’s “Sexism” on the former). In fact, the concepts of gender queering and race passing only make sense in the background of this deeply ingrained social practice to identify and categorize on the basis of race and sex (I call it a practice because while I see the practice of categorizing as something that humans necessarily do, I don’t think the practice of categorizing on the basis of sex and race as as necessary). Much the same can, I believe, be said about the other categories that the right requires.
And, of course, the concept of the nation is something that all flag-waving, red-blooded Americans are familiar with. So, there should be no doubt that the majority of people have mastery of that concept either.
Crucially, what matters with this concept of the nation is that it necessarily requires that some people be excluded and others be included. The central question with the concept of the nation is always “who’s part of it?” The question is, of course, never satisfactorily answered and we know this. All people were created equal and those of the nation were guaranteed with the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, of course! Well, with the exception of those black folks over there who, thankfully, didn’t count as part of the nation! And the native people. And women. And immigrants. And the people of the territories. And foreigners in general And, well, frankly, everyone who didn’t own land. One way of reading the history of the United States is as one long struggle for the definition of who exactly gets to be included in the nation. (This truth has been partially obscured by the fact that, at least on the face of it, the requirements for who gets to be part of the nation were supposed to be pretty loose; hence the melting pot. But, as history tells us, in difficult times those requirements have been immediately tightened. This is happening now as well.) This is, of course, not new or surprising information for anyone, but it underscores the fact that this necessary concept has always been with us and is one that anyone who’s lived here even for a short time has mastered.
Now, what the fascist needs is to wed the concept of the nation with the categories and concepts of race, blood, sex, etc. and to put the blame on those latter concepts as they relate to the health and well-being of the former in order to explain the current crisis of capitalism. And this is precisely what is happening at the moment.
I don’t think that the people who voted Donald Trump into office are fascists. However, I do think that his campaign and administration (although operating as a baldfaced opportunistic kleptocracy) always have been. The very core of his campaign was built on literally restoring the nation, and the diagnosis it has provided for why the nation is doing poorly has, since the beginning been defined in terms of who is benefiting from the nation who shouldn’t be (these, for those of you who are unaware are, of course, illegal immigrants, then Arabs and Muslims, then black people in urban cities, then the feminists and educated elites who are out of touch with real Americans, and finally the globalists–I’ll let you figure out who those are). In short, since the beginning Trump’s campaign has united the concepts of nation and race, blood, sex, etc. as a way of explaining the problems brought about by this crisis of capitalism.
What’s changed since then that is worrisome is the fact that most conservatives seem to have come around to embracing something like this as well and are being completely open about it. (Here’s one example that is perhaps too on the nose but which I would be remiss not to bring up, namely, the Ohio lawmaker Candice Keller who blamed last week’s mass shooting in Dayton on gay people, drag queens, and open borders (her list of reasons is much longer!))
But all of this talk about Trump and conservatives is orthogonal. In fact, I might be completely wrong about the scope and extent to which this is currently a problem . Even in this unlikely scenario, what remains a worry is still the fact that the majority of Americans are already primed and have mastery of the concepts and framework of interpreting this crisis through the fascist ideology. By contrast, we on the socialist left lack the crucial necessary bit to gain popular support: class consciousness. And if the crisis of capitalism comes to a point, it seems much more likely that people will adopt a framework through which they can, at the very least understand the problems they face with the concepts they have than one which requires them to have new concepts.
Does this mean that we should give up? Of course not. Class consciousness can be generated–in fact, it must be generated–but it is not something that we should plan on happening automatically. We should not hope that the crisis will come to a head in such a way that everyone will just come to see the inevitability of socialism. This, I’ve argued, is much more likely to lead to fascism than it is to socialism. And if we want to avoid any vanguardist top-down imposition, we’ve got to get to work and we’ve got to work quickly since the problems that have been traditionally leftists talking points are beginning to be picked up by more and more fash sounding folks (consider, for example, this speech by Josh Hawley at the National Conservatives Conference; fans of philosophy will be glad to see Martha Nussbaum mentioned!)
Here, I’ll close out with just a suggestions on where efforts are desperately needed:
- We need a coherent and consistent notion of what it means to be of a certain class that is readily available, easily communicable, and resonates with people in a way that doesn’t require them to first learn Marx. That’s not to say that this notion of class needs to be non-academic, but only that it shouldn’t require being the most pretentious person on the planet in order to get it.
- We need to find a way to spread this notion to the most amount of people. In short, we need a propaganda arm. We leftists tend to write a lot, but this isn’t 1917 and people don’t get their information from Pravda (look, I’m guilty of writing this stuff for nobody to read this as well, so I’m not blameless). We have to find a way to make our point broadly accessible and appealing (Chapo Trap House is, of course, the prime example of an excellent way of doing this)
- This needs to be communicated to everyone of the working class. This probably means having to communicate with people who we disagree with; it might mean having to communicate to working class racists and sexists (yes, there are plenty of those). This obviously won’t be the task of everyone, but the development of class consciousness cannot be contingent on whether or not one already has the right view on every other issue. If we rely on only the non-racists and non-sexists to have class consciousness, then we are not working with any kind of majority (in fact, we may already be done)
- That being said, we can’t lose sight of the other things that we value. I think that the development of class consciousness is of absolute importance, but this doesn’t mean that we should, for example, make alliances with working class skinhead Nazi groups because they’re working class.
There are certainly more things to be said about this, and I’m eager to hear more in the comments, but I’ll leave it at that. The question, now, is whether there’s enough time to do this…
3 thoughts on “Horseshoes and Class Consciousness: Part II”
First, thanks for the good read. I’m not a communist or socialist by any means, but the insight I see here is that Americans have a stronger grasp of the concepts of race and gender and that this allows fascist messaging to be more accessible. I’m not sure this is just an American problem though (you probably agree with me on that). It appears historically, and even today, humans worldwide generally find race and gender easy concepts to grasp.
Reading this article made me think of two questions, which you are free to answer or not: first, why is class consciousness as a concept more difficult for people to grasp and, second, why is it much easier to grasp race and gender?
I don’t claim to know the answer to either but I think the difficulty in grasping the concept of class consciousness comes in part from it being too abstract. It takes more work for someone to understand class consciousness and, what’s more, to identify with their class.
Sorry for the late reply, I was traveling this last week. I think you’re right about your assessment and I can only venture a couple of guesses with respect to your questions. In general, I think it’s easier for us to grasp these two concepts because we learn them at mother’s knee as it were–at least when it comes to gender, that process begins almost immediately after birth. Babies are automatically gendered and others are encouraged to gender them from the beginning of their lives. Consequently, that concept becomes integral to how we identify others and ourselves since there’s never a time at which we *haven’t* operated with those concepts (the Marilyn Frye piece I linked to does a much better job of explaining this than I do). The same is true for race, at least in the States. In both of these cases there’s a kind of vicious cycle: the child picks up the concepts immediately because everyone around them already has the concepts and uses them to get around, and they have the concepts because their parents had the concepts and used them to get around etc. Following this all the way down, we either get to a point at which nobody had the concepts and a kind of race or gender consciousness was developed or imposed, or we get to some ‘natural’ bedrock (FWIW, people are much too eager to get to this “it’s just human nature” point, but that’s another topic).
I think you’re also right, in a sense, to say that the concept of class consciousness is abstract. Indeed, it will appear abstract as long as we lack the proper concepts to make it more grounded. What feels familiar feels less abstract regardless of how difficult it actually is to parse through. Think, for example, the fact that many people have and continue to navigate their lives with religious concepts–for example, there’s nothing simple about the concept of the Christian God, his relationship to his son (who is also him!), angels, the devil, heaven, hell, judgment, etc. Yet…people find these concepts much easier to grasp than something like the fact that they belong to a certain class and will, in all likelihood, remain in that class. The same is true for the concepts of race and gender. Not only are our race concepts in the states abstract and weird, they’re downright inconsistent–sometimes appealing to phenotype, sometimes to morphology, sometimes to heredity, sometimes to culture, etc. Nevertheless, people find them easy to grasp. Why these concepts should be easier to understand than those of class, is, once again, I think a feature of the fact that we’re taught how to use them and how to navigate the world with them from infancy and nothing like this is the case with class.