Accounting for culture in class analysis
Posted by Left Luggage on July 18, 2009
It seems one of our recent posts about the social class composition of the Left has come in for some criticism in the blogosphere. One blogger who linked to our piece this week reveals his inclusion of us in the round-up “led to some criticism in [his] inbox for [his] endorsement of that kind of class analysis”. It is a pity these comments were confined to private emails as we very much welcome constructive (in the sense of comradely) discussion and criticism on all the articles on Left Luggage.
In the post in question we tried to delineate two definitions of class, one based on a structural economic analysis (a broad definition) an one based on social or cultural criteria (a narrow definition). The point seems obvious to us. However, we can understand that many on the Left will recoil at such an argument. I had a debate recently with a friend who argued university lecturers were very bit as working class as factory workers. True in one sense, as we admitted. Yet to be blinded to the very obvious differences between these two groups of workers is to be blinded by one’s own ideology.
At its heart this is a strategic point. It is obvious that those on the Left are constantly having to make decisions about what issues to take up, what tactics to adopt, who they attempt to reach and how. Much of this is automatic and, one might say, unconscious; poeple do what is “common sense”. Equally, much of this, particularly in the far-left parties, takes the form of commands from above. Regardless, the point still stands.
Obviously there are an infinite number of possible options facing Left activists in making these decisions. Even more obvious is the fact that some actions (and slogans, arguments, issues etc.) will resonate more with ordinary people than others, some will be better at mobilising, some will be more effective in their goals etc.
Our argument is essentially culture plays a central role in defining what is “common sense” to different people. It would not be unfair to say that the Left pretty much has its own subculture that is reproduced by its members. It is also true to say that the social class demographic of the Left as a whole is not representative of either the population at large nor working class people.
If one takes account of culture and how ideas about what seems “natural” are formed, it becomes clear that an economic account of class is too crude a tool; even if the university lecturer and the factory worker have a similar position in the relations of production, this does not mean their ideas, experiences, culture etc. will be identical. Such an understanding, while valuable, needs to be supplemented by an understanding of social class and the role this plays in making choices. This affects the Left all the way down the line strategically.
Blogger Vengeance and Fashion makes the point well that the Left needs to engage the working class where it is, rather than where we wish it would be. He is referring the “ultra-Left” groups and the tendency to prioritise theory over action, and also the danger of action for action’s sake. But the point applies equally to the Left’s attitude towards “intervening” in struggles with its own ideas of the important issues facing working class people, rather than attempting the long hard task of understanding and building from where things stand:
More than anything, we need to open our ears and listen not just to other Leftists, but other workers, who often have a complex set of views that don’t fit into a box. Once we’ve listened, then we can make our comments, dealing with their concerns and interests, and broadening it out to the big picture, hopefully setting them on the way to looking at the system itself as a problem.
Criticisms, comments and stinging ripostes are, as always, very welcome.