Erik Olin Wright & Class Today
What if we tried a thought experiment? Just for shits and giggles? The thought experiment runs as follows: What if this was no longer capitalism, but something worse? Could we start by describing relations of exploitation and domination in the present, starting with the newest features, and work back and out and up from that?
This might draw our attention to two things. Firstly, to some features of the forces of production. It is still the case that extracting useful organic and inorganic matter from the earth is the basis of social existence. And it is still the case that applying vast amounts of energy in the form of fossil fuels and labor to that base matter is still how the endless array of commodities around us come into existence.
But both those processes seem these days to be subordinated to a third form of relation. At the smallest and largest scales, so much of primary production and secondary manufacturing seems to be controlled by rapid flows and extensive archives and complex algorithms whose concrete existence is in a tertiary form – that of information.
The forces of production that seem most characteristic of the present run on information. They extend all the way into the production process, whether in the form of robots or the detailed and constant surveillance of living labor. They extend all the way out to global networks of measurement, command and control that work in real-time. These networks of information subsume not only inorganic and organic matter and energy in their web but also the human, as we become producers of information even when we are not working. The value of information can be extracted even from nonlabor.
Secondly, the relations of production seem to have evolved to enclose these forces in rather novel extensions of the private property form. Wittgenstein had a rather robust proof of the proposition that there is no private language, but in our time, privatized languages are everywhere, and not just languages. Images, languages, codes, even genes can become private property, produced in quite novel kinds of productive process.
New forms of information, now recognizable as private property, are extracted from a class whose efforts are hardly described by the category of labor, for the simple reason that while labor repeats an action whose form is given in advance, the whole point of these novel processes is to produce unique instances of such forms in the first place. Alongside the worker is the figure of the hacker, producer not of content but of form, and which more often that not ends up being someone else’s property.
One has to ask whether the ruling class presiding over this mode of production is still adequately described as capitalist. It seems no longer necessary to directly own the means of production. A remarkable amount of the valuation of the leading companies of our time consists not of tangible assets, but information. A company is its brands, its patents, its trademarks, its reputation, its logistics, and perhaps above all its distinctive practices of evaluating information itself.
Strangely enough, despite the posthuman turn, in which not just labor but all forms of human attention are subordinated to what Lazzarato calls machinic enslavement, a company is also its personality. Companies really are ‘people’ now, and in more than a legal sense. And they have to be embodied in an actual human, someone the financial markets can believe in.
Some like to talk as if one could just add an adjective or two to capitalism and describe all this. Let’s call it communicative capitalism, semio-capitalism, cognitive capitalism, neoliberal capitalism, or financial capitalism. That sounds comforting at least, as then we know what we are dealing with. But perhaps that’s not quite adequate. Maybe its not the same old familiar endless essence of capitalism cloaked in new appearances.
Maybe the rise of finance is really just a symptom. Yann Moulier Boutang invites us to see finance as something more than speculative excess. It has to do with the whole problem of exchange value in an age where the forces of production are extensively and intensively controlled by information, which is that nobody knows what anything is worth. Financialization is a perverse socializing of the problem of value.
So just for fun, let’s think of it as a post-capitalist mode of production, with a ruling class of a different kind. I call them the vectoralist class. Their power does not lie in directly owning the means of production, as the capitalist class does. Nor does it lie in owning agricultural land, as the capitalists’ old enemy, the landlord class did. And just as there was conflict between capitalist and landlord, so now there is conflict between capitalist and vectoralist.
It was with new forces of production that capital defeated labor in the late twentieth century. But capital in turn finds itself struggling against those who provided the very means of that victory. If one can use an information infrastructure to route around labor’s power to block the production process, one can use the same means to make capitalist producers compete with each other on a global scale.
Remember, this is only a thought experiment. It may have one small merit, and one rather recalcitrant problem attached to it. The small merit is that it enables one to tell a fairly coherent story about what happened between the 1970s and now. For comparison, let’s look at some of the more characteristic language about that period. My examples here are from Erik Olin Wright, Understanding Class (Verso, 2015).
Wright: “The combination of globalization and financialization meant that from the early 1980s the interests of the wealthiest and most powerful segments of the capitalist class in many developed capitalist countries, perhaps especially in the United States, became increasingly anchored in global financial transactions and speculation and less connected to the economic conditions and rhythms of their national bases or any other specific geographical location.” (237) A sentence which, stripped of its decoration, basically says: the cause of financialization is financialization, and the cause of globalization is globalization.
Wright speaks of a period when “global competition intensified” where there was the “integration of commodity chains and production chains” and the “emergence of a global labor force” and even the “dramatic financialization of capitalist economies.” (236-237) With what means? By whom? These are phrases from sentences that don’t consistently link subjects to objects, and which are fond of passive verbs. This is a theory of history that can be summed up as: shit happens.
Of course, these are statements Wright adopts from a consensus language. We have all agreed to talk about financialization as if that just happened, without requiring actual material practices and techniques. We have all agreed to talk about neoliberalism as if that described an actual agency at work that causes things to happen. We have decided not to be Marxists, in other words. We have decided not to subject the language of the times to its own critical pressure. Marx certainly did not take the abstract nouns of his era as a given.
But this brings us to the recalcitrant problem. Its one thing to play with the language of Marxism. It will at least admit modifiers. You can call this neoliberal capitalism, if you want. The essence – capitalism – takes on a particular historical appearance. But one is not supposed to question the metaphysical construct, wherein capitalism is an essence with appearances, which can end only when its productive capacities are exhausted, when the proletariat break through the mere transitory appearance and transforms its essence into socialism, and prehistory has come to an end with the abolition of the last form of class exploitation.
Here let’s look at Wright again, whose work is in many other respects a salutary example of how to bring analytic rigor to the Marxist tradition. He writes: “At the very heart of Marxism as a social theory is the idea of emancipatory alternatives to capitalism.” (121) And “Unless one retains some coherent idea of there being an alternative to capitalism, a Marxist class analysis loses its central anchor.” (167) Hence even in this social-scientific version of the Marxist tradition we’re not far from the metaphysic, in which history can only be understood through an ahistorical concept – of capitalism. Emancipation is though negatively, as emancipation from capitalism. Therefore, this must be capitalism, the negative of emancipation.
Of course, there’s plenty of evidence for this still being capitalism, or mostly capitalism. The question would be whether something else is emerging, and whether it is qualitatively different enough to call it something else. The problem with an inherited concept, like inherited money, is that we didn’t make it ourselves and come to take it for granted. Particularly if it is part of a whole metaphysical conceptual structure. Maybe we need a bit of good old Brechtian alienation-effect even from heirloom concepts like ‘capitalism.’
Now, all I’m talking about here is a thought experiment: what if we thought about a mode of production emerging after capitalism that was worse? Could that at least minimally explain observable features of the world that might be genuinely strange, qualitatively novel, observable tendencies in recent history? What light would this perspective shed on our habits of thought, our received ideas?
As an example of how one might conduct thought experiments, I turn again to Erik Olin Wright. He is the author of a substantial body of sociological work, both conceptual and empirical, on class. The papers collected in Understanding Class are their own kind of thought experiment. They ask: what can a Marxist concept of class bring to theoretical and empirical work that thinks class as stratification, or which uses class concepts drawn more from the work of Max Weber or Emile Durkheim? Wright deftly shows what a Marxist concept of class can do, where endless capitalism is a given. The addition question I want to ask is what happens if we take away the assumption that this is still the same old capitalism.
Wright has mercifully given up the “paradigm aspiration” (17) wherein Marxism is superior to all the social sciences because it has a superior problematic or method. Those whose memory stretches back away will recall that this led to endless attempts to prove by purely theoretical means that Marxism had rendered all of bourgeois philosophy and social science obsolete. But it hardly ever delivered on the promise of a new kind of knowledge. The “grand narrative” (122) fell apart. And in any case it ended up being produced in the margins of the very same institutions as that bourgeois philosophy and social science.
Instead, Wright makes two sorts of claims. The modest claim is that one can connect Marxist work to other kinds of sociology. Each has its perspective and they illuminate each other. The stronger claim is that the Marxist perspective is a bigger picture, which shows something about the world and history that is beyond the reach of other approaches. Here he does for social theory what Fred Jameson does for literary theory or Perry Anderson for historical thought: make the claim that Marxism offered the point of view from which to interpret and synthesize other bodies of work. If Jameson’s famous watchwords are “always historicize!” then Wright’s might be “always socialize!” where that means to adopt the point of view of a social formation riven by relations of class exploitation and domination as the outer limits of the macroscopic perspective.
In one of his brilliant summaries, Wright argues that Durkheimian, Weberian and Marxist approaches operate on different levels of the social gamespace, the situational, the institutional and the systemic. The Durkheimian approach is situational, and is about moves within the game. The Weberian approach is institutional, and is about rules of the game. The Marxist approach is systemic, and is about changing the game.
All of these approaches involve class structure that generate class actors who have at least partially conscious intentions, whether it is to make moves that advance them, or contest rules of the game that might advantage some class or other, or to change the whole game to another game more in one’s class interest. My question would be about the class unconscious. Perhaps the game changed of its own accord, as the forces of production push forward into new relations of production, with which our superstructural languages for describing class structure have yet to catch up.
Wright thinks that the opportunity for game-changing, for overthrowing capitalism in favor of a more equal and free society, is not present. “One way of interpreting the history of the past half-century is that there has been a gradual shift in the levels of the game at which, for many analysts, class analysis seems most relevant.” (123) Hence it makes sense to reach out to the Weberians (whose scholarly interests are at the level of contesting the rules of the game rather than changing it) and even to the Durkheimians, whose focus is on the moves actors get to make within given rules of the game. But his overall aim is to concatenate these three approaches as appropriate to different scales, with Marx speaking to the larger and more visionary scale.
Wright resists the death of class counter-narrative, a discourse whose most prominent member is probably Ulrick Beck. Wright offers a supple class analysis and backs it up with actual results. His concept of class has three dimensions: property, authority, expertise. His view of class structure offers class locations at three levels, which do not always neatly overlap. Relations of property generates the class locations of employers, petit-bourgeois, employees. Relations of authority generates the locations of managers, supervisors, the supervised and managed. Relations of expertise generate the locations of professionals, the skilled, the nonskilled.
He is interested, for example, in the “permeability” (146) of class boundaries, so he looks at three kinds of class connection: intergenerational mobility, cross-class friendship, cross-class households. He finds the property boundary the least permeable – a result that won’t surprise Marxists. Class connections between workers and employers is limited. The employee / petit bourgeois boundary is more permeable. Wright frankly acknowledges that in the United States, racial boundaries may be even less permeable, but that does not negate the usefulness of the category of class. Class is only a modest predictor, however “class often performs as well or better than many other social structural variables in predicting a variety of aspects of attitudes.” (154)
David Grusky and Kim Weedon offer what Wright classifies as a Durkheimian analysis of class in which occupation are the unit of analysis. They see class homogeneity only at the micro, occupational level, not in ‘big’ concepts of class. Its more about actual labor markets and how they define occupations. Such occupations act on behalf of members, extract rents if they can, and shape life chances. For them, even academic sociologists and economists count as different ‘classes.’ Which might be the beginnings of an approach to how academics, at a time when, under the threat of vectoral power, their life chances seem diminishing and their means of opportunity hoarding to be failing, cannot quite come together and act on shared interests.
The Durkheimian approach focuses on selection and self-selection into closed groups who interact more with each other than with other groups. Licensing and the formal definition of occupations play a role here. This works well for explaining individual-level outcomes. Wright claims that except in the study of education, income and wealth, this micro approach works better than macro ones of a more Weberian or Marxist kind. The Durkheimians are good on lifestyles, tastes, political and social attitudes.
The key to Weberian theories of class for Wright is opportunity hoarding or social closure, by such means as credentialing, licensing, the color bar, gender exclusions. One could even see labor unions as a form of opportunity hoarding from the point of view of precarious workers, but we’ll come back to that.
As Wright points out, perhaps the most important mechanism of opportunity hoarding is private property itself. “The core class division within both Weberian and Marxian traditions of sociology between capitalists and workers can therefore be understood as reflecting a specific form of opportunity hoarding enforced by the legal rules of property rights.” (7)
Wright brings into the Weberian theoretical frame the Marxist concept of antagonistic classes. Advantages are causally linked to disadvantages “The rich are rich because the poor are poor.” (8) The Marxist concept of exploitation and domination are about control over the lives of others. “Exploitation refers to the acquisition of economic benefits from the laboring activity of those who are dominated.” (9)
It could be argued that class is peripheral to Weber’s work, but his writings on ancient slavery seem close to Marx. Unlike concepts such as status and party, class need not generate identity or collective action. And hence does not fit well with Weber’s habitual explanatory modes.
Both Marx and Weber see property as fundamental to a relational concept of class. Both grasp distinction between objectively defined class and subjectively lived class. Both thought humans followed material interest in the long run. Weber was much less inclined to think classes would polarize and become the key social dynamic. Marx shared Weber’s view that status groups impeded the effects of the market and constitute an alternative basis of collective action. Both thought the rationalization of market relations would abolish status groups in time.
Marx thought this simplified class whereas Weber did not. Weber thought class determined life chances within rationalized society. He was less interested in deprivation than in instrumental rationality. Marx was more interested in class exploitation in production; Weber in class as factor in determining life chances in the market. Wright: “Marxist class analysis includes the Weberian causal processes, but adds to them a causal structure within production itself.” (46)
For Wright, class in Weber is closely connected to the theme of rationalization. Of Weber’s three sources of power, he conceives of both non-rational and rational forms. Thus the power-source that is honor can appear as ranks and titles, or as a meritocracy. Authority can appear as patriarchal or in a rational-legal form. And material sources of power can appear as consumption groups or as class.
Class is thus part of rationalization, part of the abolition of traditional peasantry, part of the transition from landed aristocracy to agricultural entrepreneurs. Class is part of the rise of the calculation of material interest. The peasant, who owes a duty to the baron, becomes the farmer who pays rent to the landlord. “While class per se may be a relatively secondary theme in Weber’s sociology, it is, nevertheless, intimately linked to one of his most pervasive theoretical preoccupations – rationalization.” (31)
My question here would be to ask: why one would think, if this has given rise to two kinds of rationalizing class antagonism that overlapped and interfered with each other, why might it not give rise to a third? The farmer-landlord antagonism arose out of the ruins of feudalism. The efficiencies in agricultural production that came with this rationalization threw off a surplus population what would become urban workers, in an antagonistic relation to capitalists. And yet landlords and capitalists also had interests that contradicted each other. This is the central theme of David Ricardo’s political economy: the opposition between landlord and capitalist. But did rationalization stop, with the creation of classes of farmer and worker? What happens when the production, not of food or products, but of new information itself becomes rationalized?
Weber did not have a lot to say about labor, but where he did, it was in terms of work discipline. Employers are free to hire and fire. Workers lack ownership, but workers are responsible for their own social reproduction. These are the conditions under which indirect compulsion operates. But it raises the problem of how to get maximum labor effort. Wright: “running throughout Weber’s work is the view that rationalization has perverse effects that systematically threaten human dignity and welfare.” (52) One sees this clearly in the latest impositions on the labor process, such as Uber or Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which make labor both highly autonomous and yet very closely monitored at the same time.
But Weber does not integrate interest in labor discipline and domination into the category of class. Here we need a bit of Marx, for whom, as Wright says, “exploitation infuses class analysis with a specific kind of normative concern.” (53) Exploitation steers research to questions of class as relational in both exchange and production. “Weber’s treatment of work effort as primarily a problem of economic rationality directs class analysis towards a set of normative concerns centered above all on the interests of capitalists: efficiency and rationalization.” (55) Georg Lukacs and Theodor Adorno excepted, one might add.
The Wrightian synthesis of Marx and Weber makes exploitation fundamental, but makes particular use of the idea of opportunity hoarding as that which defines the middle class. From there one could build up a picture of the United States as highly polarized by exploitation, and where middle class opportunity hoarding is being eroded by what he calls neoliberalism and deindustrialization, but which I think can be understood more clearly in terms of new forces of production that instrumentalize and rationalize information, giving rise to new property forms and hence new class relations, including an antagonistic relation between a hacker class tasked with making novelty out of information (the condition of it becoming property) and a vectoralist class that owns or controls the vector of information control and domination itself. Here the Marxist perspective of exploitation and the Weberian one of rationalization can be fruitfully combined.
Beside reaching out to those indebted to more classical approaches of Durkheim and Weber, Wright addresses prominent contemporary social theorists who try to offer original perspectives. Here I’ll treat only his papers on those known outside their disciplines, such as Thomas Piketty, Michael Mann, Guy Standing and former New School professor, the late Charles Tilly.
Wright thinks Charles Tilly’s approach to durable inequalities is closer to Marx than Tilly wants to acknowledge. Tilly was against individualist approaches. Explanations of inequalities have to be relational. He offers a structuralism of types of social relations and types of mechanism. The types of social relation are chain, hierarchy, triad, organization, categorical pair – of which organization is the most durable kind. The types of mechanism are exploitation, opportunity hoarding, emulation and adaption.
Structural relations are solutions to problems generated within social systems. For example, Problem 1: how to secure stable access to resources?
Solution 1: opportunity hoarding and exploitation. Problem 2: how to sustain and even deepen exploitation and opportunity hoarding, and sustain trust and cooperation among those who benefit? Solution 2: categorical inequality. Problem 3: how to stabilize and reproduce inequality? Solution 3 emulation and adaptation lock distincions in place.
Wright sees Tilly as importing Weberian ideas into a Marxist framework. Culture is not an autonomous superstructure, as in certain post-Marxist theories. Nevertheless, Tilly goes beyond Marx in attempting to subsume gender, race, nationalism under a unitary framework. For Tilly, forms of categorical inequality make exploitation more efficient. One could perhaps usefully extend this to think about how what one might shorthand as algorithmic mechanisms of discrimination, which work so subtly with databases rather than categories, might reinforce exploitation in our time.
Michael Mann’s work is approached a bit differently by Wright. Here his interest is in the disjunction between how his theory treats class and some of his more specific findings. In his theory, Mann sees class only in terms of collective actors, not structural locations. But in particular studies, class location does seem to shape individual interests.
Crucial here is the distinction Wright makes between class structure, class formation and class actors. This might correspond very loosely to three scales of analysis: the Marxist, Weberian and Durkheimian perspectives, respectively. Mann, like Bourdieu, thinks that class structure that produces no class actor is just ‘class on paper,’ an academic exercise. Class has competing forces against it: ethnic, racial, linguistic, national, religious, gender.
Mann’s social theory works off two clusers of concepts: sources of social power and forms of organization that deploy those powers. There are four sources of power: social, ideological, economic, military. The kinds of organization are expressed as dichotomies: collective / distributional; extensive / intensive; authoritative / diffuse.
In Mann’s world, the pursuit of goals requires entering into power organizations that determine the structure of society. This is an agency rather than a structure centered approach. The creation, reproduction or transformation of social structures is the result of goal directed actions. Rather like rational choice theory, Mann starts with actors and their goals, only his approach is not individualistic.
Class in Mann is a kind of collective actor among many that comes together in organizations to deploy economic power resources. He pairs the concept of class with that of segment, which cuts across class and groups actors of different classes in particular industries. Class, for Mann, is of little sociological interest.
In working through the formation of the middle class, Mann actually becomes rather more interested in class structure and class formation. For Mann, the middle class is composed of three separate categories: The petit-bourgeois, professionals and careerists. The economic situation of all three tie their life chances to capital accumulation, and their relation to the state forces them together. They have similar consumpti0on patterns and may all be investors of small amounts of capital. They are held together by ideological and political citizenship.
Mann rejects the classic Marxist distinction between class in itself / class for itself as teleology, but so too does Wright and many more sophisticated Marxists. Wright: “One can believe that class relations and class structures are real and generate real effects without also believing in any one-to-one mapping between the complex structure of class relations and the formation of collective actors.” (108)
Here Wright’s signature concept of contradictory class locations proves very useful. Actual jobs are a mix of property relations and authority relations, and might be located in class terms differently along those axes. Class changes over time and is mediated by family and community. One might be born into the petit-bourgeoisie but end up a waged-worker. One might be working class and marry a shop-keeper, and so on. Class can be a bit messy. One is reminded here of Jean Baudrillard wry remarks in America on Marxist academics managing their stock portfolios.
Thomas Piketty deserves credit for putting inequality back on the agenda as more than a mere problem of unequal opportunity. His empirical work shows that the sharp rise in income of the top 10%, is really that of the 1% or even the .1%. A fair bit of this came from the rise of super salaries rather than income on capital. The CEO ‘class’ are setting their own pay. Here I would want to inquire as to how, in a political economy running on information, the capacity to control (but not entirely own) the means of production accrues to a class that presents itself as the celebrities of information control itself.
The technicalities of Piketty’s work centers on the capital / income ratio as a way of measuring value of capital relative to total income of economy. Wright: “Piketty’s basic argument is that this ratio is the structural basis for the distribution of income between owners of capital and labor: all other things being equal, for a given return on capital, the higherthis ratio, the higher the proportion of national income going to wealth holder.” (133) As growth declines, the capital/income ratio rises. There’s a rise in the weight of inherited wealth, while concentrations of income also rise. It’s the worst of both worlds: a rentier class plus a meritocracy of appearance-peddlers carving up the world between them at the expense of everyone else.
Pickety starts out with a class analysis, but loses it once he gets into the empirical work, where he treats CEO income as return on labor, as most income tables do. Wright: “In the modern corporation many of the powers-of-capital are held by top executives…. They occupy what I have called contradictory locations within class relations… They exercise their capitalist-derived power within the class relations of the firm to appropriate part of the corporation’s profits for their personal accounts.” (136)
But is their power really capitalist-derived, or is it now something else? Something like a joint managing of appearances between those who represent a firm to the market, and the market that is supposed to value it. But how to value it when so much of its asset-base takes the form of information? A firm is among other things a brand, a slew of patents, a logistical process, a corral of expert hackers turning out new intellectual property. How can information be turned into value, and an opportunity to be hoarded, when there aren’t really private languages, and information is in principle a non-rivalrous good?
Wright points out that Piketty does not separate out real estate from capital. There might be good reasons to do so. Elsewhere I wrote about Matteo Pasquinelli’s arguments about how landlords now increase their rents by extracting the information-value that the presence of either the hacker class, or of those parts of the middle class that manage rather than create information. One could think further here about Ricardo’s ancient tension between ground-rent and profit, but with the focus shifted from the rural to the urban, and the monopoly rents to be extracted from urban locations.
Guy Standing is the name most associated with the now widely-discussed idea of the precariat as a class rather than just a bad life chance. He offers a three-dimensional definition of class, as structured by relations of production, relations of distribution and (interestingly) relations to the state. He identifies seven classes: plutocracy, salariat, proficians (professional + technician, working class, prevcariat, unemployed, lumpen-precariat. The precariat have insecure insecure jobs. Their sources of income other than wages disappearing. They become less citizens of the state and more mere denizens. Not only are their jobs precarious, they are vulnerable within relations of distribution and marginal to the state.
The precariat includes people bumped out of working class communities and families. They experience a relative deprivation in relation to a real or imagined past. It also includes migrants and asylum seekers for whom it’s the present that is absent. They have no home. The precariat increasingly includes people falling out of an educated middle class – think academic adjunct labor – who lack a future. For Standing this makes a potentially dangerous class.
Marxists might think of the precariat as workers who (in Weberian terms) experienced poor life chances. Standing thinks there are antagonisms between the precariat and the working class. But do the precariat and workers have distinct interests? Wright thinks not. He thinks they share an interest in changing the game (although one might want to say more here about how workers and the precariat might have different interests about the rules and moves of the game). Unionization, for example, can secure some sort of steady work for the workers in the union at the expense of those without – a side-effect of unionizing academic adjunct labor that is rarely discussed.
Certainly the most controversial of Wright’s propositions is one that picks up on the work of Wolfgang Streeck and others on class struggle and class compromise. For Streek, arguing in a Durkheimian vein, capitalism works better when there are constraints on rational, self-interested action. Capitalism works better when there’s non-capitalist social forms present, based in trust, legitimacy, responsibility.
The wrinkle Wright introduces is to argue that the level of constraint on elf-interest that is optimal for capitalists is below that which is optimal for workers. Capital seeks to remove constraints to augment its power even past the point where these are economically inefficient. Wright: “… the zeal to dismantle the regulatory machinery of capitalism since the early 1980s was driven by a desire to undermine the conditions for empowerment of interests opposed to those of capitalists – even if doing so meant under-regulating capitalism from the point of view of long-term needs of capital accumulation.” (183)
Although perhaps one could see this a bit differently by separating out the interests of the capitalist and vectoralist class. The regulatory regime emerging in the last quarter century favors the mobility of information – and not just finance – as a means of coordinating economic activity transnationally, at the expense not just of workers but of those forms of capitalist enterprise tied to physical plant and infrastructure, and thus with an interest in local, regional or national relations of trust, legitimacy and responsibility.
Hence we can read Wright’s conclusion against the grain: “Enlightenment of the capitalist class to their long-term interests in a strong civic culture of obligation and trust is not enough; the balance of power also needs to be changed. And since this shift in balance of power will be costly to those in privileged positions, it will only occur through a process of mobilization and struggle.” (184) But what if those capitalists tied to actually producing things in a particular place already know this, but they have lost power to a quite different kind of ruling class, which operates at a higher level of abstraction, or in Weberian terms, at a new stage of rationalization? They own or control the information about things, rather than the things themselves.
Hence to imagine new kinds of class compromise might require a rethink about which classes could compromise. First, one has to have some perspective on the impulse to think all class compromise as illusion or stalemate. Could there be a non-zero-sum game between otherwise antagonistic classes? Working class organization may actually have positive effects for capital accumulation, as it enables problem solving, negotiation, skill development, tech change.
But perhaps that only worked when particular capitalist employers were able to exercise something like a monopoly on the production of a given class of product or in the context of a mercantilist strategy of restricted consumption at home while expanding exports abroad and sustaining rising wages as a return on rising productivity. Such as would describe Japanese manufacturing in its heyday, for example.
Since there’s no way to change the game, Wright looks to those who wanted to change the rules within the game, such as those Scandinavian social democratic inheritors of Ernst Wigforss, such as Walter Korpi and Gøsta Esping-Anderson. But one has to ask if its possible to revive social democratic strategies from the era of the great national manufacturing industries in an era where the information vector greatly lowers the cost of geographic dispersal, and puts manufacturing regions in direct competition with each other.
Wright advocates for some salutary counter-hegemonic strategies, based in geographic rootedness, local public goods and worker’s cooperatives. But one has to wonder if, in an era where the forces of production drive increasingly abstract processes of rationalization, which appear then as transnational legal and treaty forms protecting information as private property, such things are all that viable.
Wright: “Changes in technology may make the anchoring of capitalist production in locally rooted, high productivity small and medium size enterprises more feasible.” (143) One might call this the Brooklyn-effect, after the boom in small business, even manufacturing, there. But while the actual products have some connection to locality, the information infrastructure such localism has to rely on belongs to the vectoralist class. Amazon, Paypal and so forth all get their cut.
Thus, where Wright says, “I assume that an exit from capitalism is not an option in the present historical period” (239) – I think we have to question that assumption, but not in a good way. Maybe this is already not capitalism, but something worse. Its not just a rentier bubble of speculation spooling out of the “real economy.” (244) One could no longer know in advance which part of it is real at all – and perhaps one never could. This is an era not just of so-called neoliberalism’s “aggressive affirmation and enforcement of private property rights” (237) but of the creation of new forms of private property, and new antagonistic relations over it, particularly in the form of intellectual property.
There’s a lot to be said for the way Wright subsumes rival social theories as collaborators within the larger frame of a fairly traditional Marxist sociology. But perhaps that in turn has to be put back in contact with the historical study of the transformation of the forces of production, and in particular how information emerges as both a technical and social force. One could then, as a further step, bring this perspective together with the study of the metabolic rift, wherein the instrumentalizing of information mobilizes the whole planet as a rationalized sphere of resource extraction under the sign of exchange value. To the point where this rationalization becomes completely irrational, threatening to take the whole planet down with it.
Here it might be helpful, in Bogdanovite fashion, to press on some other metaphors at work in Wright, viz: “A society is not a system in the same way that an organism is a system. It is more like the loosely coupled system of an ecosystem in which a variety of processes interact in relatively contingent ways.” (121) In the Anthropocene, it may turn out that ecosystems are the ones that are tightly coupled. But that would be a whole other thought experiment.
Maybe we need an asocial science that rethinks whether one can even conceive of the social as a separate domain of analysis at all. On the one side, the social meshes seamlessly with information technology; on the other, it depends on planetary scale resource mobilization causing catastrophic metabolic rifts. One might be in need of an even ‘bigger’ conceptual framework within which to rest Wright’s partial synthesis as a component part.