Why hasn’t the proletariat won yet? In the Marxist tradition, the capitalist system was never supposed to last. Once the factory owners finished organizing the earth into one big workshop, the mighty proletariat was to stand up, shake off the burden of exploitation, and seize the world they’d built. But here in the 21st century, the ruling class still rules. What gives?
In the last century’s fourth quarter, disappointed Marxist academics tried to solve the mystery of the missing revolution. Back at the drawing board, these scholars concluded workers in the West had been bamboozled by capital, through mass entertainment and other forces, into losing track of their shared interests, while moderate prosperity had turned a particular set of workers into class hybrids. Concepts like the “professional-managerial class” (Barbara and John Ehrenreich), “cultural capital” (Pierre Bourdieu), and “contradictory class location” (Erik Olin Wright) abounded. Focused on questions of ideology and consciousness, the result was a cohort of self-described Marxists who were more interested in Buffy the Vampire Slayer than the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The situation has changed. In the United States, the 2008 financial crisis and Occupy Wall Street put class conflict back in the national conversation. Trailing the street movement, a cohort of left-wing ideologists rose to reinvigorate a more traditional Marxist doctrine. In his new book, The Class Matrix: Social Theory After the Cultural Turn, NYU sociologist Vivek Chibber calls for a return to the original, simpler set of coordinates. There’s an easier explanation than false consciousness; the precarious nature of collective action “guarantees that the baseline tendency in the system is toward stability” — no television brainwashing necessary. It’s a refreshing account, and Chibber performs some long-overdue work cleaning out Marxism’s 20th-century cobwebs, and yet, by the end, he somehow leaves the reader intellectually worse off.
Chibber dedicates Class Matrix to his teacher, Erik Olin Wright, who died in 2019, but he doesn’t engage Wright’s schemas directly. The student faces a different set of considerations: While Wright and his cohort struggled intellectually and emotionally with their own confusing class position as professors, declining job quality for academics means that today’s Marxist scholars — especially younger ones — don’t have much distance from the working class left to theorize. (There’s been similar movement in the media, at magazines, newspapers, and their online equivalents.) “The center has not held,” wrote the Ehrenreichs in 2013, eulogizing their concept of the professional-managerial class following Occupy Wall Street, “the PMC lies in ruins.” Vestigial embarrassment from adults making $40,000 a year is the remainder of what sociologists once called the “new middle class.”
Dispelling the idea of these intermediate class positions should lend some anti-capitalist clarity to the situation, and Chibber does give Occupy Wall Street credit for mounting the country’s first mass critique of capitalism’s structural logic in a generation. But when it comes to political action, Chibber writes that the working class still suffers from some essential maladies — existential problems of collective action with which anyone who’s organized anything is familiar. These include workers’ insecurity, which leads them to prefer short-term job stability over prospective long-term benefits, the heterogeneity of individuals’ workplace preferences, and the free-rider issue, wherein workers who don’t take the risk of organizing can still benefit from collective successes. These sum up to something like: Individuals are often, for various reasons, legitimately better off not joining the collective. That means labor organization is always an uphill battle.
Against Bernie Sanders–type stump-speech nostrums about everyone being better off together, Chibber warns that many workers offer perfectly rational accounts of how they can get more of what they want alone or with their exclusive gang. They can show how starting a fight with the boss will probably leave them personally with less, especially when they can always free ride instead. For each individual worker, a mix of negotiated consent and resignation is almost always a more strategic response than revolutionary struggle or even trying to start a union. The cultural or ideological model suggested that the block on the working-class movement was a collective mistake, a shared misapprehension; using game theory, Chibber fears it’s something much worse — a long series of correct individual choices.
The mechanical Marxism that Chibber uses has fantastic predictive power. “Class structure operates by dramatically narrowing the range of reasonable options for economic actors,” he writes. “These broadly similar responses at the micro level aggregate into macro-level social patterns.” It’s true, workers are compelled to work, and we do so with consent and resignation, and from that fact we can derive many more important truths about the world. But the flawed assumption here is that there is a straightforward relationship between a person’s class position and their allegiance in the class struggle. In the real world, it’s more complicated than that.
These questions have high political stakes. In a recent piece on the economics blog Phenomenal World, Marxist scholar Jairus Banaji dismantled a longstanding origin myth of what used to be the new middle class. For half a century, he writes, it has been conventional wisdom that German white-collar workers provided disproportionate support for the rise of the Nazi Party. The story was that, facing decreasing social esteem as they were lumped in with other workers, German office employees and professionals turned to Hitler and the right to protect their status. It’s a story that fits well with Chibber’s schema since it showed German workers following some kind of sub-class rational interest into the Nazi Party, but Banaji makes a strong case that that’s not what actually happened.
Though German white-collar unions did join with the Nazi Party, the white-collar workers themselves were much more divided. Nearly half of them lived in urban working-class districts and tended to vote for the left, just like their neighbors and family members. They did not behave like the economically maximizing individuals Chibber expects; the less secure a white-collar worker’s employment was, the more likely they were to be found on the left, not the right. Received knowledge about the composition of fascism’s coalitional support, Banaji concludes after reviewing the data, “bears considerable flaws.”
Rather than white-collar workers, Banaji writes, we should look to Germany’s industrial capitalists. These men were already thriving in the Weimar Republic, and game theory suggests they would be slow to hand the whole system over to a bellicose madman like Hitler. But what he finds instead is that the industrialists “bet on authoritarianism rather than subject themselves to democratic contestation, even to their own detriment.” In both cases — among white-collar workers and industrial capitalists — “political traditions, ideas, and mobilizations, rather than pure economic interests, paved the way for the Republic’s fall.” At a moment of far-right resurgence, there is no more important test for an analytical lens than its account of the coalitional support for fascism. Chibber’s flat game theory isn’t good enough.
There are two classes to capitalism: owners and workers. Over the past two centuries, there has not been one single day of true peace between them. But at the lowest scale, where the working class dissolves into human beings, capital’s laws of motion fall apart too. People make all sorts of predictable and unpredictable decisions. Strange, confounding variables appear: vices and virtues, tradition and psychology, character and happenstance, each soul’s incommensurable oddness. Individuals might be in two places at once or no place at all — most try their best just to stay out of the way. When you look that close, anything can and does happen. Labor leader Ronald Reagan champions the capitalists to victory in the Cold War. Factory heir Friedrich Engels gives money to his friend, a freeloading freelance writer named Karl.
Between the blinding chaos of capricious individuals blinking in and out by the billion and the mechanical grinding of two classes locked in conflict, there is a whole spectrum of activity. In social theory, this is where people make their own history, but not under circumstances of their own choosing.
The occult movement from micro to macro is not a mere process of aggregation; our circumstances do not simply add up to the world. This is fortunate because Chibber is right: All things being equal, prisoners tend to lose the prisoner’s dilemma. But all things are not equal, and there is room for struggle between the incomprehensible and the inevitable. If liberalism’s situation is so dire that Marxists are being welcomed into the American public sphere, it’s because we have something useful to say about how people come to create a world that’s much crueler and more self-destructive than any one of us would choose.
Class formation is intricate and fragile. Abstracting culture from economics is not a good way to think about this process, but neither is individual interest. Thankfully, there are alternatives, and a new cohort of Marxist thinkers — both post-Soviet and post-Buffy — has breached the American mainstream. They are charting the transformation of steel employment into health-care services, for example, the increasing economic importance of the family, the market’s failure to automate work, and a realistic path to a political decarbonization bloc. Beneath all these analyses is the expectation not only that unexpected things could happen, not only that people can make them happen, but that we will.