Making the Dull Compulsions Sexy Again

The Class Matrix is essential reading. It’s too bad it’s wasted on academics.

Making the Dull Compulsions Sexy Again

Review of Vivek Chibber, The Class Matrix: Social Theory after the Cultural Turn (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2022).

Vivek Chibber’s The Class Matrix should give the Left real confidence in class analysis and class politics. Over the span of a brief number of pages, it confronts the driving developments within social science over the past half-century while also seeking to resuscitate the theories outlined in classical Marxism with crucial modifications. It does all of this with a precision and thoughtfulness that all serious social analysis should aspire to.

Chibber’s interventions center around three points. First, a defense of a materialist conception of class structure against a host of critics both within and outside the Marxist tradition; second, a reconceptualization of the process of class formation based on the internally generated macro-dynamics of the capitalist class structure; and finally, the conceptual demotion of hegemony—the New Left’s favorite plaything—below the far more prevalent phenomena of resignation in explaining the stability of capitalism.

These contributions provide the essential theoretical foundation from which any meaningful progressive politics must proceed. It’s for this reason that The Class Matrix’s placement within the arena of academic debate feels inappropriate, maybe even wasted on individuals with institutional incentives to disregard it. The book’s academic placement makes some sense given the Left’s persistent relegation to academia—although this is a proportionally diminishing share of the Left as a whole. It’s unfortunate then that the location of the Left within the middle class receives painfully little treatment by Chibber. In a moment when the ramifications of this are increasingly relevant and debate has been rekindled around terms like “the PMC,” this seems to be a missed opportunity in an otherwise critical book for the Left.

Class structure possesses an overwhelming power to determine social outcomes—this is perhaps the crucial insight of Marxism. A person’s control over resources and assets places them into relationships with other people in specific social circumstances. People who do not have the resources to effectively sustain their material and mental needs must seek out relationships with those who do. These property-relations become capitalist class relations through unequal power, which enables those who own the means of production to live off of the products of those who have to work for a living.

Within this class structure, individual material interests are formed and labor and commodity markets are generated. A class of people is created who do not have ownership or control over assets necessary for self-sustainment and thus must seek employment in a labor market to earn wages to buy commodities to meet their needs. The distribution of property thus leads to specific social rules that force people to make decisions and be in relationships they might otherwise object to.

Very few socialists or Marxists questioned the accuracy or explanatory power of these fundamental claims before the mid-twentieth century. Earlier generations of leftists could take them for granted because their lives were enmeshed in concrete political struggles within trade unions, political parties, and revolutionary movements. It was only once the working-class movements began to face repeated defeat that the Left began to question the fundamentals of its own worldview.

What started as a productive enterprise of intellectual renewal within the New Left (and Western Marxism more broadly) soon turned into an off-ramp from class politics into academia. Within these solidly middle-class centers “a successful career depended on impressing deans and colleagues, who were interested more in how one fit in than in how one stood out.” Divorced from class struggle and debated within the ivory towers, classical Marxism was overwhelmed by foundational criticisms. Maybe the Left had been wrong about the reasons why workers don’t revolt against capitalism.

Chibber’s first intervention in the book is to argue against the contingency of what we might call “structural internalization.” Whereas participation within many social and communal institutions requires individuals to learn a set of culturally-specific practices and norms, class doesn’t. Whether or not you learn the appropriate codes, if you’re within capitalism, it is impossible not to participate in capitalist property-relations. Those who choose to protest face the dilemma of starvation and destitution. The reality of wage-labor transcends cultural differences, simultaneously incorporating local particularities when compatible and smashing antagonistic ways of life when they get in the way. Historically, the introduction of capitalism was met with resistance, as he notes, because people rationally understood all too well what the capitalist class structure meant for their social circumstances.

For early socialists, resistance to capitalism was taken as a given. Indeed, the structure of capitalism itself was expected to lead to rupture and revolution. Chibber argues that these early theorists’ social analysis failed in assuming that working-class resistance would necessarily be collective. This is where The Class Matrix makes its major pivot: whereas classical Marxism presumed the transition from a class in-itself to a class for-itself as originating from the class structure, for Chibber the structure imposes constraints on the process of class formation.

Marx and other social progressives, Chibber argues, failed to appreciate the implications of their own analysis on this point. The class structure principally constrains collective action through job vulnerability, interest aggregation, and free-riding. Workers enter into the workplace by signing a contract that binds them as individuals to their firms. Their ability to keep their jobs and thus have a stable source of income depends on the whims of the boss. This power imbalance means that an employer needs any given employee a whole lot less than an employee needs their employer—or more accurately, a stable job.

Moreover, collective resistance requires coordinating with other individuals in all their idiosyncrasies and particular concerns, wage rates, and personal relationships. This challenge of organizing is particularly cumbersome because we’ve learned that successful campaigns require supermajority participation to compete with the boss’s power. And collective organizing necessarily occurs through associations that must be socially built and maintained, whereas capital, disembodied from human beings, has a much easier time “associating.” For this simple reason, resistance in a capitalist society is typically channeled into individual, rather than collective, action.

These of course are not the only constraints that make workers coming together and fighting for (let alone winning) their material interests extraordinarily difficult. Chibber’s work highlights those constraints internal to the capitalist class structure, whereas the work of Howard Botwinick supplies us with a rigorous overview of constraints external to the class structure but still fundamental to capitalist dynamics—such as the profitability of the firm both within and between sectors. The presence of these combined constraints means class formation is typically impaired and therefore contingent, regardless of other factors.

This understanding of capitalist stability flows naturally into Chibber’s reformulation of the place of hegemony and ideology. During the post-war period it became common on the Left to assert the indispensable role of capitalist ideology, psychology, and culture in stabilizing contradictions and “buying off” the working class. Chibber’s analysis demonstrates that the recourse to cultural explanations is unnecessary. His main concern here is simply that theories of “false consciousness” lead us to imagine the working class as a bunch of dupes. In his view, workers rationally choose individual over collective action based on the difficulty of organizing; no cultural deformation need be invoked.

Rather than positively consenting to the social order or even making peace with it, the more common phenomenon is for workers to resign to exploitation and indignation. Without sufficient means or exit options to challenge or disregard their exploitative and dominating relationships, they are left with no other choice but to return to the job every day, begrudgingly or not. Hegemony, when it does emerge through economic growth raising living standards, is therefore only added on to the more fundamental dull compulsions of the economic structure.

For Chibber, ideology is better understood as rationalization, not as motivation or causal inducement. It provides a response to objective circumstances, oftentimes in chaotic or destructive ways, but doesn’t alter material interests or the matrix of choices offered by the social structure. This ultimately reaffirms culture’s relevance, not in the generation of capitalist stability but rather in capitalism’s abatement and possible overthrow. Realization of class formation is therefore not about overcoming false ideas internalized through cultural indoctrination but rather brought about through organizing and forging solidarity. Instead of convincing workers that they have an interest in greater material and social wellbeing, the role of organizers is (and always has been) to convince workers that collective action provides the better strategy to satisfying workers’ interests.

In brief, Chibber’s intervention ultimately amounts to getting the fundamentals straight. This point of departure should be obvious to anything that calls itself a Left. It’s a massive historic tragedy that it’s not. The confusion around basic principles in part has to do with the opening of self-doubt in an era of political defeat, but it’s nearly ubiquitous now that the Left is comprised of the global middle class with few roots in working-class institutions.

In a book dedicated to class structure and class analysis more broadly, it’s somewhat odd that we are only introduced to the problem of the middle class at the end, and in passing. It could be argued that this is outside the scope of a defense and reformulation of materialist class analysis, but then the same could be said for the entire final chapter, which is focused on the consequences of the analysis. Chibber could have distilled a cogent Marxist theory of the middle class; it’s unfortunate that the book passes over this opportunity.

Much like the role of culture, the New Left introduced several new formulations for understanding the location of the middle class, specifically as it related to political strategy. The key theorists included C. Wright Mills, Nicos Poulantzas, André Gorz, Barbara and John Ehrenreich, and above all, Erik Olin Wright—the last being a key intellectual touchstone for Chibber and a theorist with the most convincing conceptualization of the middle class.

For Wright, the class structure polarizes interests around two poles: the working class and the capitalist class. “The middle class” is made up of those people who find themselves in a contradictory location, split between the two. On the one hand, many of these people may be wage-laborers or may be under the supervision of the boss or his managerial cronies. On the other hand, these people may themselves be responsible for supervising or managing workers; or they may have a set of unique credentials that give them far greater bargaining power as individuals in negotiation with a boss or firm; or they may fit into what’s been termed in the past the petty bourgeoisie—small business owner-operators, who may be self-employed or employ just a few workers, but are in a significant competitive disadvantage compared to most asset owners.

Among wage laborers, what distinguishes a working-class person from a “middle-class person” has to do with authority over others and credentials that reduce the amount of labor market competition. To supervise or manage other workers is to effectively carry out what’s in the boss’s interest by overseeing and encouraging efficiency within the labor process. This responsibility is rewarded with “loyalty rents”, such as higher wages or greater benefits, which then generate a commitment to the firm and ruling-class interests through material rewards like career and promotion ladders. Skills and expertise uncommon within the labor market enable professionals to secure greater autonomy with higher living standards, sometimes even with the power to effectively control assets owned by capitalists. This separates the “lived experience” of professionals from workers while also typically tying them to the firms that reward their special talents.

This is all complicated by the temporal dimensions of class interests (how people’s interests change based on where they reasonably expect themselves to end up, usually within a planned career ladder), mediated class interests (people who don’t work, such as stay-at-home spouses, children, or the elderly, that are dependent on someone else who does have a specific class position), and multiple class positions (where someone receives income from different occupations with different class logics of accruing income). And further, these factors shift as working life changes. Living conditions for middle class people are simply markedly different from those of working people. Recently, however, a lack of job prospects and deteriorating power within their workplaces have led to a flurry of middle-class people crying out that they’re getting a raw deal—ergo, downwardly-mobile, highly-educated Bernie Bros.

Much of this analysis was absent during the recently revived debate on the concept of “the PMC”, right as the Sanders 2020 campaign was in full force. The entries into whether or not the PMC is “real” or a politically useful concept are staggering, including an entire book by Catherine Liu. These arguments have often become circular and dull. While the theoretical problems with the concept have been effectively pointed out many times, the political tension the term was created to address has only been accentuated. As Barbara and John Ehrenreich pointed out in response to a range of critics:

There has been almost no recognition of [the] less physically visible difference: a man who had spent the day unloading freight with constant harassment from a supervisor and a man who had spent the day lecturing to admiring students and anticipating a promotion were supposed, at the end of the day, to engage in political work together on a basis of comradeship and trust.

It’s very easy to say, “Well, just bring these people together around the interests that they do share.” But easier said than done. There are real differences in material interests and socialization that have to be resolved. That’s principally why the Left’s overwhelming location within the middle class continues to be a problem: as Chibber forcefully argues again and again, the socialist political project is centered around the material interests of workers.

It’s frustrating, then, that The Class Matrix was published by an academic press to argue with academic social science. The book is meant to explain the real world from which academics are self-consciously insulated. The people who turned to cultural explanation (or as Ellen Meiksins Wood wrote in 1986, the autonomy of politics and ideology separate from political-economy) didn’t do it primarily because they found the classical Marxist formulations so disappointing in what they lacked or “wrongly predicted.” Instead, given room for doubt, the institutional allure of newly-minted white collar and professional jobs, primarily in academia, the NGOs, and various bureaucracies, made an intellectual degeneration vis-à-vis the cultural-turn not just possible, but reasonable.

As confirmed by Chibber’s argument, it was the dull compulsions of labor market insecurity that enabled the transition. As Russell Jacoby wrote in 1987, “The ordinary realities comprise the usual pressures and threats; the final danger in a liberal society is unemployment: denial of tenure or unrenewed contract… professionalization proceeded under the threat of unemployment.” Academia easily soaked up socialists and New Left radicals, who in turn came to embrace the institutions. The best we got then was a kind of “academic Marxism” that strove for greater rigor and scientific legitimacy within the canonical questions, all while the Left grew further disconnected from workers.

But Marxism is not an academic field. It’s true that it contains within it a research project—the study of capitalism—that, when done right, obeys certain scientific rules and has proven to be more analytically accurate than the “bourgeois” sciences. But as G. A. Cohen has insisted, “social science is not, and never will be, as scientifically developed as natural science.” This is both because those who do the studying necessarily have their own material interests and class locations (that more often than not filter out what questions are worth asking) and because the object of study is human society, which is made up of people who do in fact have the volition to change the world within limitations. The great economist Robert Heilbroner put it better: “The social life of humankind is by its very nature political… What does it mean to be ‘objective’ about such things as inherited wealth or immiserating poverty?”

Normative judgments and political aspirations are therefore inextricable from Marxian social analysis—that’s what the theory is meant to address. Being a Marxist is bound up with seeking an end to the social system called capitalism. Materialism is the method, socialism is the objective. Academics, on the other hand, aim to master knowledge (if they even do that) because it gives them immediate material rewards. But for the Left, theoretical coherence has to be levied toward anti-capitalism minimally, and reformism in the larger sense of trying to undermine capitalism effectively while not yet possessing the means to overcome it. The only reason to do class analysis then is because you’re anti-capitalist—to do it otherwise is either academic perversion or a waste of time.

Chibber would likely agree with such an assessment. In a recent interview, he stated,

If you put ideas like Marxism in a professional environment, Marxism will become domesticated to the interests of the professional class… it will never, ever again find a happy, friendly place in the academy… it belongs out in the street where it always was among the workers and the trade unionists.

So while The Class Matrix exists as an academic work, it points beyond itself to the need for Marxism to return to the questions of concrete organizing and strategy. So please, I ask that you read this “academic book” and help put Marxism back where it belongs.

Cale Brooks is an editor at Jacobin who works primarily with video and is also an influencer content creator.