To scope to comprehensively understand one’s status

To what
extent is Marx and Engels’ focus on class useful for analysing politics?

Marx and
Engels’ Communist Manifesto delineates the separation of society into
two classes: the capital-owning bourgeoisie and the working proletariat. This
is said to be a “near universal phenomenon” under capitalism (Wolff, 2002
p.48). Though class is not explicitly defined in the manifesto, Goldthorpe and
Marshall (1992 p.382) describe it as “the interconnections between positions
defined by employment relations in labour market”, and the consequences thereof
for one’s opportunities and the values and identities one adopts within
society. The text is seminal to politics insofar that it addresses the
injustices created by class, identifies the interests of classes who are often
detached from political understanding and decision-making and thus informs
political action. This essay argues that while Marx and Engels’ focus on class
provides a fruitful basis for political analysis and has an intrinsic
pertinence to the politics it has influenced – and continues to influence –
throughout modern history, as with much of political thought, it has wavered in
its applicability to the contemporary world. In an ever-complicating political
and social landscape, Marxist class theory largely fails to address other
aspects of which inequalities are born; identity is not limited to class, and
factors such as race and gender have become increasingly important in politics,
factors which are mostly omitted or questionably addressed. This elicits the
contention that class theory is reductive and limited in its scope to
comprehensively understand one’s status in society. This essay will discuss
both perspectives and aim to evaluate the use of Marx and Engel’s approach to
class in political analysis.

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The
Communist Manifesto postulates the abolition of class as the antidote for
inequality and immorality within society, but displays a lacking consideration
of the many strata on which inequality exists, subsuming social divisions such
as gender and ethnicity under production-based or class-based associations
(Parkin, 1979). It has been criticised for its lack of inclusion of women in
class theory and for being inherently androcentric. Rex and Mason (1986)
ascribes this to the reliance on general (perhaps Eurocentric and/or
patriarchal) models of historical development, and a preoccupation with labour
and production as the most important means to analyse class. Feminist critics
have discerned the way in which women’s unwaged labour is marginalised from
capitalism, as it does not constitute being constructive, insofar that it was
not seen to produce surplus value (Brodkin, 1998). Ariel Salleh (2001) employs
the term meta-industrial class to describe these excluded roles, which
also includes peasant farmers and indigenous hunter-gatherers. This represents,
beyond just women, a whole demographic of individuals whose labours are omitted
from class theory. Fukuyama (2012) also notes that there has been an emergence
of a class below the industrial working class, of racial and ethnic minorities,
recent immigrants and other socially excluded groups such as gays, recent
immigrants and the disabled. Nonetheless, Engels (1884) did show an awareness
of the inferior position of women in Origins of the Family, Private Property
and the State, which he attributed to the role they assumed under capitalism as
an extension of private property: to serve monogamously and, through
child-bearing, create heirs to this private property, and the key to their
emancipation is therefore revolution and the abolition of private property.
Hartmann (1979) identifies Marxist tendency to “subsume feminist struggle into
the struggle against capital”, and recognises that this failure is born of the
fact that they are not alert to the fundamental reasons for sexist oppression:
the intrinsic belief among men that women are lesser, and the fact that they
have a clear vested interest in the continuation of the subordinate role of
women. Typically, this limits competition and affords power and freedom from having
to partake in menial duties such as housework, among other factors which have
been discussed in feminist literature for decades. This suggests a readiness in
Marx and Engels’ thinking to attribute all of society’s shortcomings to the
capitalist system; they criticise bourgeoisie marriage as being loveless and
business-like but fail to suggest fundamental factors that cause gender
inequality to transcend class. In conclusion, Marx and Engels define class
under only materialist terms – what one owns and earns. Despite the intention
of ‘inclusivity’ in the communist state, such limitations render class theory
restricted in its applicability to wholly address or identify reasons for
inequality in politics.

The
maturation of capitalist economies has given rise to the middle classes, beyond
the scope that Marx and Engels hypothesized, which provides another shortcoming
of Marxist class theory: it grossly underestimated the growth and subsequent
socio-political significance of the middle class.  Dubbed by Ehrenreich and Ehrenreich as the professional-managerial
class, members of this class do not possess means of production in the same
way as the bourgeoisie (or that which they do is of negligible economic
significance), yet they do not fall within the purview of what is traditionally
thought of as proletariat wage-slavery (Boudin, 1912). Marx and Engels named
this class the petit-bourgeoisie, described by Lenin (1944) as a class
which “owns or rents small means of production which it operates largely
without employing wage labour”. Though Marx believed they would remain a
minority in modern society, they exist, effectively, in all modern democracies
and have an increasingly important influence in politics and role in dynamic
contemporary societies (Lash and Urry, 1987). Particularly in post-industrial
economies in the later twentieth century, wherein economies made the transition
from secondary to tertiary sectors, the middle classes expanded disproportionately
to the bourgeoisie and proletariat, causing Marxist theory to lose its clout and
political appeal (Fukuyama, 2012). Furthermore, Fukuyama (1989) contends
Marxist theory in
The End
of History and the Last Man, stating that in modern society, we have
effectively all achieved freedom and security under liberal democracy,
suggesting that communist ideologies and applying Marxist ideas of class to
politics of today are obsolete, as society has reached its final form. Or, perhaps
an Aristotelian approach to class is better fitted in contemporary politics,
and complements Fukuyama’s contention; Aristotle affords more attention to the
middle class and recognises the importance in maintaining a numerous middle
class to prevent political oligarchic dominance, or widespread poverty and
populist revolution. The middle class has a role in realising stable democracy
under which people are effectively given equal rights. Both theories undermine
potential for the proletariat revolt in the way that Marx predicts.  This shows that when considering actual
contemporary social structures, particularly in the West, there are other
approaches to class which are more appropriate than that of Marx and Engels
owing to the argument that their predictions have somewhat failed to realise in
reality.

Yet, some
argue that the middle class is dwindling and Marxist class theory is regaining
relevance. Marx predicted that the petit-bourgeoisie would decline as
the result of their polarisation between the bourgeoisie and proletariat, and this
has been evident in the fact that inequalities continue to increase in many
capitalist economies, such as the U.K. and the U.S. This is sometimes called the
middle-class squeeze: where in real terms, wages of middle-income earners
declines and they come to rely on credit, while top-income earners remain
unaffected. Fukuyama proposes that while today we can enjoy material luxuries
such as “cheap cell phones” and “inexpensive clothing”, home ownership and
comfortable pensions become increasingly difficult to afford as a result of stagnating
wages. Durrenberger (2017) adds that most people, under contemporary
capitalism, believe that they are part of a vaguely defined, materialistically
comfortable ‘middle class’, a common sense and comfort that leads them to
believe that class does not matter. Yet, the true reality of exploitation and
inequality is “veiled by political illusions” (Marx). This in itself proves
that Marxism is still important in instilling class consciousness in the
greater population, further, illuminating the phenomenon of false
consciousness, which prevents entire classes from perceiving the reality of
their situation, insofar that the ideology underpinning capitalist regimes
appeals to the needs and interests of the middle and working classes without
reflecting them, therefore reinforcing it (Attarian, 2017). Therefore, Marxism
is integral in understanding the dynamics between classes and instilling a true
class consciousness and awareness of how class has caused inequality to
inform political action. The capitalist system is actively creating these
commonly held notions (where in reality, the middle-class is actually part of
the working class), leading many to believe that resurgence of class consciousness
must be “actively constructed” too to counteract this (Payne, 2017).

Carrying
on from this, in a contemporary political discussion of Marxist class theory,
his importance in the recent revival of socialism and upsurge of Marxism,
particularly among millennials, cannot be ignored.

Moreover,
the cases of the U.K. and U.S. are a mere microcosm of a far larger, worldwide
picture and the application of class theory should not be limited to sovereign
states – inequality exists across the globe. The relative poverty of nations
(such as those in Sub-Saharan Africa) is not totally by the fault of individual
workings of their governments, but fundamentally a result of mercantilism,
capitalism and colonialism.

The
conclusion that can be drawn this discussion is that it would be reductive to
dismiss Marxist approaches to class as outdated and therefore not useful in
contemporary politics, rather, it must be seen not as ‘a totality’, if it ‘is
to represent productive articulations’ with the emergence of new social
movements. (Butt, 2006 p.14) In this regard, Marx and Engel’s work serves as
evidence that ‘white male theorists can analyse social processes in a way that
facilitates productive dialogue between disparate social locations’ (Butt, 2006
p.21). Furthermore, it is widely accepted that class is a natural phenomenon,
and will therefore be a crucial focus in political decision making. 

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