class struggle, year zero

For months, even years, we have been listening to the right fulminating about the uselessness of the idea of class struggle, while the left remained either silent or ridiculous on the subject. Last July 10, Christine Lagarde once again declared that “class struggle was important for history books”. Yet it isn’t certain that the right feels as much contempt as it claims for this strange concept, invented and reinvented by the very people who are undoing it day by day. And it is even less certain that a supposedly modern left can be rebuilt on its denial. A new line opens without certainty.

Among the most comical events to precede the collapse of the USSR, we should no doubt include the Duma’s incredible decision to pass a law abolishing class struggle at the beginning of 1988. As if the Soviet Union and its military-bureaucratic class had ever been the instigator of a universal class struggle it could renounce by decree. More to the point: as if a parliament could have the least influence on a struggle that is supposed to take place fully outside of it. And as if, more fundamentally, abolishing the words was enough to abolish the thing itself. In spite of all this, the fact that such an idea could have taken root in the heads of Gorbachev and his advisors, that this kind of confusion could have reigned between reality and ideas, class and the state, the dominant and dominated classes, might say a lot about the destitute state to which this poor concept “class struggle” had been reduced. Taking this kind of statement seriously requires carrying it to its most critical formulation. Almost a century of work by a mixture of Marxist-Leninists and social democrats (both groups recognising the relevance of class struggle, but one of them in order to ignite it, the other in order to adjust it while searching for a compromise in favour of the dominated class) had led to a universal and half-shameful Gorbachevism that consisted in recognising that the concept “class struggle” was a revolutionary concept, and that by definition the so-called motor of revolutions cannot be reformed — one either forgets it, or waits until “reality”, as they used to say — that is, collective, unpredictable violence — sends greetings on its behalf. More precisely, this kind of “universal Gorbachevism” meant acknowledging a quadruple impasse after more than a century of battling fruitlessly for the final victory of the dominated classes: either reduce class struggle to an object of faith or imprecations (the “decisive link” Althusser pounded out); or forget class and concentrate on struggles, whatever they might be (struggles! struggles!); or forget struggles and concentrate on the political offerings of a liberal market (which no longer has classes, only democratic individuals free to choose); or forget everything, faith, struggles, class, and think of nothing other than making sure your own apple doesn’t fall.

On the right, however, especially since Nicolas Sarkozy’s victory, it seems as if there has never been so much belief in class struggle in all its meanings: first, meaning extreme antagonism between two classes defined by their relationship to property. The whole fiscal policy put in place since May almost looks like a chemically pure class policy, so little is it based on a liberal economic rationale — it is a question of giving presents to the haves, no matter how much it costs, and doing everything possible to reduce aid to the have-nots. And then meaning antagonism between different feelings of belonging (or different types of “class consciousness”). His dinner at Fouquet’s and his holidays at the homes of corporate executives are signs of unequivocal allegiance to capitalism’s only officially dominant class — the new rich who no longer define themselves (if not in a purely tactical way) by tradition, principles, even less by claiming to have a natural style or superiority, but only by their success story. And his full policy can be found in the third meaning of class struggle: allegiance in the Universal sense to a particular class of society, or put in more virile language, as a struggle to the death to exterminate or eliminate the opposing class. In fact, it’s been a long time since we’ve heard such an apologia for the only class of workers (or “those who wake up early”) aiming to eliminate all other classes, which they break down into parasites, people on assistance, and idlers.

Moreover, and more theoretically, it would no doubt be wrong to attribute this renewal of classist discourse exclusively to the rhetorical tricks of an electoral campaign . In fact we have to remember that today’s right was essentially built from the postulates of a neoliberal revolution that no longer in any way denies class struggle — nor the concept of class — in the name of social unity, nor denies the idea of a struggle to the death in the name of a necessary national reconciliation, but rather claims to be salvaging its Eros so that it can offer two other versions.

The first version is the one you find in the works of 18th century liberals (especially Hume and Kant according to Hayek). For them, the essentially divided nature of society — divided by the “unsocial sociability” of man, or by the irrevocable opposition between authority and liberty — is the very motor of history, or of human progress, and this is precisely why one should take care not to abolish this struggle. In this sense, class struggle is supposed to establish a “healthy” contentiousness that doesn’t end by being abolished, but rather results in the different classes reaching a maximum of porousness within the limits of the preservation of the principle of their reproduction: a sort of continuous praise for the betrayal of ones own people and the exchange of places. More than 30 years ago, in opposition to illusions of social promotion, Marxist Nico Poulantzos observed that if suddenly all bourgeois became labourers and all labourers bourgeois, it would do nothing to change class structure in our society. The right used to either offer no reply or find this idea offensive. Since Thatcher, that is to say just after, the right only replies: well yes, it changes everything and we’re going to prove it. No longer denigration, but another conception of class struggle.

But neoliberals have found yet another meaning for class struggle, namely that of French liberals of the Restoration (Charles Dunoyer or Charles Comte), but for the most provocative neoliberals and anarcho-capitalists it is also that of Marx (the Marx of 18 Brumaire denouncing imperial bureaucracy, or the Marx of the first page of the Manifesto, which is still only based on pre-capitalist class struggles: “freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman”). From this second perspective, class struggle does not rest on the structure of production relationships or exploitation relationships (owners of the means of production on one side, productive forces on the other), but on the structure of the relationship to the state, or spoliation relationships (tax consumers on one side, producers of taxable revenue on the other). Under the Old Regime, it was a fight to the death against privilege; under the Welfare State, it was a fight to the death against the new “tax consumer” class (civil servants, the unemployed, immigrants, subsidised artists). Furthermore, it takes root no less than Marxist class struggle in one of the two fundamental forms of class hatred: not the hatred of exploitation, but the hatred of spoliation and of contempt for class. In short, it is no less violent or legally eliminatory than the Marxist version, since the antagonism between spoliators and the spoliated is just as radical as that between the exploited and their exploiters: spoliators, like exploiters, cannot survive — at least as a class — the triumph of neoliberal or Marxist revolutions.

This raises a question, especially for the left: is it fair to assume that the concept of class struggle is always politically dangerous and scientifically useless? Without prejudging the different ways to give it back some meaning, we will maintain that the answer is no, for at least five reason:

1. From the point of view of the feeling of belonging. In contemporary societies, is it truly possible to live without any feeling of belonging, like a pure “celibate machine” in the vein of Kafka, Beckett or Blanchot, or a pure, free individual in the vein of Hume or Bentham? Even Kafka, so wrought by the temptations of religion, family, Zionism and socialism, didn’t really manage it: the “celibate” is rather the double who addresses him in the first undated pages of his Diary, who fascinates and troubles him. Beckett never stops repeating in his novels that he’s had just about enough of the “gallery of moribunds” haunting him. And Blanchot needs the promise of communism to tolerate his solitude. As for Hume and Bentham, they never stop sliding away from the defence of egoistic, free individuals, and towards the most reactionary types of belonging: families, private clubs, nations and traditional authorities — as if a return to tradition were the natural path for politics driven strictly by sympathy for individuals. More precisely, not thinking of class struggle in every sense of the expression might be to abandon hope of giving a positive political meaning to the feeling that inevitably recurs in those who do not think or live like the majority, and all express the same revulsion: “I’m not one of you”, “this isn’t my world”. At the same time, it amounts to reducing this feeling to two atheistic alternatives: subjectively, either an ultra-individualistic heroism, or a very private misery; objectively, either a fully experienced feeling of belonging — that of the market — meaning the feeling of no longer being just another man in a world that has become completely homogeneous, or a completely fabricated, narrow feeling of belonging, of being nothing more than a member of a clan, neighbourhood, or club.

2. From the point of view of the passion of political action for the common good. Love of the common good (for general interest, the common benefit or even the environment) is in fact what regularly motivates republicans, social democrats, defenders of minorities and ecologists to reject the concept of class struggle. Yet, how are this passion and love to be understood in a society that isn’t divided? Is not the meaning of truly political ecology only to affirm that this kind of common good can only have substance when being won against all of those people in whom this ‘good’ is not so common (polluters, frenzied consumers, 4x4 lovers)? In the same way, isn’t the principal objective of minority thinking to spread the idea of class struggle by questioning it in places where one wouldn’t expect to find it: between races, nations, genres and ways of life? And is not the very meaning of republican involvement to enable everyone, no matter where he is or what his origins, to stand up against all enemies of society as a common, public action, like res publica? And is not the original meaning of social democracy that of Kautsky, who regarded it first and foremost as defending the interests of the dominated class within the dominant class’s power structures — in other words nothing but defending a compassionate class struggle? From this perspective, by forgetting class struggle, the whole left is probably sawing off the branch it’s sitting on. Because if it’s true that the left/right opposition and class struggle are never completely hidden, one side would probably be reduced to mere shadow play without the other, or legitimate but local struggles would be elevated to a cheap war-and-justice mythology: Valmy, the Dreyfus affair, Creys-Malville and Stonewall reduced to a tired refrain or a corny old song.

3. From the point of view of the very rationality of political involvement. If we do away with all class struggle, what real reasons — collective, non-specific reasons — do we still have to participate in politics? For those lowest on the social scale, none; it would be more in their interest to worry only about themselves, or let politics become restricted to a fashion phenomenon. From Mancur Olsen to modern political sociology, the literature is voluminous and convincing. And this goes no less for “the dominated parts of the dominating class” as they used to say; if there is no class struggle, looking out for the interests of the most destitute no longer requires any particular involvement or representation politically. From this point of view, the recent defections to Sarkozysm from the left are neither irrational, nor immoral. Is it not rather perfectly rational and perfectly in line with a Good independent of all identification with any particular class to try and apply these ideas when one supplies us with the means, no matter who this “one” is?

4. From the point of view of the kinds of recognition, mutual support, and sharing inherent in politics. Class struggle is commonly criticised for the violence and hatred that often actually does manifest it. But it is almost always a purely ideological process, so much do people forget that at the same time, the many forms of collective, non-violent opposition and mutual support (for civil rights, justice, solidarity, the defence of common interests) are also undeniable manifestations of it. Even the most moderate union, the most favourably disposed toward co-management and cooperation with managers, even the most corrupt “company union” has no sense without class struggle. Even the most unresentful feelings of solidarity, utopia or love of one’s own people are yet more manifestations of class struggle. So the idea cannot be discredited for the violence, the resentment (on the part of the poor) and the bad conscience (on the part of the rich) that it necessarily leads to. There are types of class struggle that appear to be made of nothing but gentleness, assertions of freedom, and admiration for other similarly beautiful vistas. Therefore the three issues of class struggle, violent struggle and struggles based on resentment do not necessarily intersect, just as the term “struggle” is not necessarily synonymous with “war” or “hatred”. And even if those who originally conceived of class struggle probably tragically superimposed these three questions, maybe it should be understood not so much as a reason to renounce class struggle, but rather to think of it differently. Otherwise, the only kinds of expression left for social opposition would be urban revolt, sabotage or terrorism.

5. Finally, and no doubt most importantly: from the point of view of the intelligence of real political relationships. Indeed, through its insane claim to be the foundation of all political history and social relationships, the concept of class struggle made it possible to explain anything and everything. All war, all conflict, all opposition, at a pinch even every quarrel between husband and wife were nothing but expressions of a deeper class struggle. This is the source of the knell the “respectable” humanities were able to toll (economics, sociology, history, geography) against its “scientific” recognition. Sometimes, the concept of class struggle in fact eliminates small differences, while other times it gets lost in futile wars between people who would like to reserve the benefits of the struggle for themselves in advance. It simultaneously explains everything, and predicts nothing (the strict meaning of the concept of “tendency” laws in Marx’s work); it simultaneously addles whatever is interesting (historical complexities, the common interests of all of a company’s employees in a globalised economy, the urban and geographic walls that separate communities, the micro-causality of social relations, the ambivalence of desire, the human spirit’s prodigious capacity for compromise) and claims to make the lowest forms of brutality interesting (rioters, dim-wits, paranoiacs, all of the brutes who start revolutions). Sometimes, certainly. But at the same time, what do we not lose when we cling to an assessment like this? Perhaps nothing less than politics itself, or more precisely the complicated attempt (constant at least since the Renaissance) to conceive a link between science and social change. Yet, without such a link, all sociology, no doubt like all humanities, as Durkheim said again, repeating Pascal, “wouldn’t be worth an hour of pain”.


[to be continued…]

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