One Hundred Years of Mrinal Sen / by Devarsi Ghosh

Indian filmmaker Mrinal Sen at the Munich Filmfest in Munich, Germany, in 1990. (kpa / United Archives via Getty Images)

Originally published in Jacobin on June 4, 2023


This year marks the centennial of Mrinal Sen, one of India’s most brilliant Marxist filmmakers. His work combined a formal inventiveness that rivaled that of the French New Wave with an unflinching commitment to attacking the hypocrisies of India’s elite.

A hundred years have passed since the birth of Mrinal Sen, one of India’s most brilliant and prolific postwar filmmakers. He was born in Faridpur, a city in what is now Bangladesh but was, at the time of Sen’s birth in 1923, part of the British-ruled Bengal Presidency, a subdivision of the empire in India. In the forty-seven years (1955–2002) in which he was active, Sen produced twenty-eight kaleidoscopic feature films. Each ran roughshod over barriers of time and geographical space. Poverty, hunger, class struggle, anger, revolution, and middle-class complacency haunted his films.

With these subjects, Sen developed and unleashed a kinetic, hypermodern aesthetic. This cinematographic language combined filmed fiction with documentary and newspaper headlines, creating new ways of storytelling that went beyond classical Hollywood-style narrative. Sen’s innovativeness explains why he became popular in Europe, where the experimental films of Jean-Luc Godard and the fairy-tale-like parables of Éric Rohmer were all the rage, but not in the United States. The great Hollywood films of the postwar era focused on stories of individual triumph and embraced an act-based structure that Sen eschewed. While his contemporary Satyajit Ray, author of classics such as The Apu Trilogy (1955–59), Jalsaghar (1958), and Mahanagar (1963), worked masterfully within the confines of traditional cinema, earning him praise from establishment figures such as Martin Scorsese, and, eventually, an honorary Oscar, Sen continued to work on the margins.

As evidence, look no further than a scene from Sen’s anthology film, Calcutta 71 (1972). In one scene, the director takes us to a party full of uptown liberals waxing eloquent about India’s burning political issues in the 1970s: poverty, corruption, unemployment, and so on. Leading the pack is a political figure who laments about the 1943 Bengal famine, widely attributed to Winston Churchill’s policies, which claimed millions of lives. But, we learn, it was the famine that helped this person grow his business as a black marketeer. Later, this same profiteer drunkenly argues for revolution. Meanwhile, striking workers have forced his factories to sit idle. What, the scene forces us to ask, does politics mean to a middle class that can throw around the word revolution so casually while exploiting workers?

All the while a rock band performs live. The music is intercut with images of the famine and on-screen text: “unemployment, degeneration, hunger, betrayal of our ancestors.” Finally, the charade is interrupted by an explosion. From the darkness emerges the disembodied head of a communist activist who was shot dead by the police. He announces that he is dead before adding:

Can you guess why I am here? I have come to tell you that I know who murdered me. But I won’t tell you their names. I want you to find out who they are. You might experience discomfort in the process, but you will not stay so comfortable, so indifferent.

The roots of such storytelling lie in Sen’s past. Unlike Ray, Scorsese, and most great filmmakers, Sen came to filmmaking later in life. He was first an activist, then an intellectual, followed by a short stint as a film critic, after which he eventually managed to find a gig as a director.

Sen’s father Dineshchandra was a lawyer closely associated with Indian freedom fighters. His son had his coming of age as a student in the teeming metropolis of Calcutta, now Kolkata. There he witnessed firsthand the savagery of the Bengal famine. While riots and World War II raged on, Sen associated with the Communist Party’s cultural wing and locked himself up in the library. During the war years he discovered Rudolf Arnheim’s influential Film as Art and turned his attention to aesthetics and film theory. In 1945, Sen published the article “The Cinema and the People” in a magazine rolled out by the Indo-Soviet Friendship Society. By the early 1950s, his first book on cinema, about Charlie Chaplin, was out.

It would take Sen almost a decade and a half to really find his groove as a director. Leftist ideas and a concern for the oppressed masses made it hard for him to translate his cinema into something that a primarily middle-class theatergoing Bengali audience were comfortable with. It was only after the political ferment of the 1970s hit India, creating by a massive distrust in the state, rampant corruption, and the rise of militant communism, that Sen’s career took off. The tumult of the world brought out the best in him.

Sen’s most notable films in his early period include Baishey Shravana (1960), Akash Kusum (1965), and Bhuvan Shome (1969). Baishey Shravana literally means the twenty-second day of the Shravana month in the Bengali calendar, August 7, 1941, according to the Gregorian calendar — the day Rabindranath Tagore died. Sen upends the meaning of this day in Bengali cultural life by making it the wedding date of a doomed rural couple. Plagued by famine and extreme poverty, the man and woman drift apart until the latter decides to take her own life on the anniversary of their wedding.

In Akash Kusum, Sen turns to the story of an urban couple. A young man wants to get rich quick and conveniently falls in love with a rich woman. But this romance comes at a cost: the man feels compelled to present himself as a successful entrepreneur and fabricate a whole life story. The lies compound and eventually their weight becomes too much for him to bear. The film is typical of Sen’s oeuvre insofar as it depicts individuals caught in dilemmas that are the product of their contradictory ambitions. In one scene, a friend tells the protagonist, “Don’t you see how big business is dominating? You cannot make it as a small businessman. Those days are gone.” The hero disagrees: “Don’t talk like a communist.”

Among the film’s highlights is Sen’s use of freeze frames and still photographs. These experiments get intense in Bhuvan Shome, which ended up being a commercial success. Made in Hindi, a decision that guaranteed a wider market in India, the film is a quirky drama about a hoity-toity bureaucrat who rethinks his life after meeting a young rural woman. Although a gentle film by Sen’s standards, his most well-known techniques were born here: use of documentary footage, documentary-like narration and commentary, and animation, all interspersed with freeze frames.

The film’s success gave Sen leeway to make cinema as he pleased, just when Naxalism, a Mao-inspired militant guerilla movement, had taken off in Bengal before spreading to the rest of India in the 1970s. Sen figured he could use the skill set he had developed so far to become a chronicler of the movement. This led to his second period that resulted in the critically acclaimed Calcutta trilogy, which includes Interview (1971), Calcutta 71 (1972) and Padatik (1973).

In these films, Sen is at his most aesthetically footloose and politically blunt. Interview follows a young Bengali man’s daylong ordeal to find the right suit to wear for a job interview with a British company. When his traditional Bengali kurta and dhoti doesn’t impress his prospective employers, a kernel of revolutionary animosity develops in the hero. He hurls stones at a clothes shop and strips a mannequin of its suit.

Like Brecht, Sen insists on the theatricality of the whole performance and never lets the audience forget that they are watching something staged. When lead actor Ranjit Mallick, called Ranjit in the film, is confronted with a film magazine carrying a photo of himself, he turns to the camera and explains that he is in Mrinal Sen’s new film and points to the cinematographer K. K. Mahajan, who has his camera pointed back at Ranjit. Near the end of the film, an agitated Ranjit has to debate an unseen audience in the darkness about his attitude about the whole day. The effect is to prevent the viewer from falling into a passive consumerist relation to cinema and instead maintain a critical attention on what is happening before them.

Calcutta 71 is perhaps Sen’s most ambitious film. In it, he connects three stories about poverty and its dehumanizing effects on oppressed and oppressor alike. The first is set in an unspecified time, possibly in preindependence India, the second during the Bengal famine, and the third shows the postindependence generation’s simmering anger. All three stories collide in the fantastic aforementioned party sequence.

Sen was as much a brilliant humorist as his was a social critic. A wonderful sequence in Calcutta 71 involves a group of business owners revolting against the Communists, carrying banners reading “Rulers of the World Unite,” and play-acting armed violence while the audio track plays the sound of gunfire and bombing.

It is in the third film in the series, Padatik, that Sen starts to question the methods and achievements, if any, of the Naxalites. A young revolutionary finds shelter in the house of an affluent woman who secretly sympathizes with his politics. During his stay, he questions the dogmatic nature of the Naxalite leadership and wonders if there is any point to his revolution.

By the late ’70s, something in Sen had shifted. A melancholy mood, born out of the pyrrhic victories of radical politics, characterizes his films of this period. After the left government won the 1977 state elections in West Bengal, he turned his gaze inward to investigate the responsibility and complacency of the middle class, of which Sen had become a part. The Left ruled West Bengal for the next thirty-four years. During this time, Sen’s work became sparse and quiet, aesthetically stripped down but thematically intense.

Kharij (1982) involves a middle-class family reconsidering their values after their domestic help, a little boy, dies accidentally from carbon-monoxide poisoning. Sen’s 1991 film, Mahaprithibi, is his reaction to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany: a family in Calcutta is broken when an elderly woman kills herself. Why? She wonders what was the purpose of her Naxalite son’s death. What did her other son achieve by escaping to Germany? What was the point of it all?

For almost a decade, Sen stayed away from cinema, emerging finally in 2002 to produce his final film, Aamar Bhuvan. Its mood, gentle and optimistic, breaks with that of many of his previous works. Had two decades of global neoliberalism, terrorism, the rise of the Hindu right-wing in India, and old age softened Sen? Aamar Bhuvan, which translates to “my world,” deals entirely with an all-Muslim community in a village. Despite the world burning and breaking, as on-screen text announces in the beginning, people continue to live with love, compassion, and empathy. The film is remarkably kind and full of good-natured people despite all darkness. Rather than a withdrawal from reality, the film is an attack on the prejudice meted out against India’s Muslim minority, made more radical by the Hindu nationalism of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party .

One hundred years on, Sen still stands as one of the most inventive filmmakers of his generation. His work provides a model of how politics and formal inventiveness can be fused in art without kowtowing to didactic simplifications.


Devarsi Ghosh is a journalist based in Kolkata, India.

Why and How Class Still Matters / by Nick French

A custodian working on a stairway at the Zakrzewska Building in Boston, Massachusetts, October 5, 2022. (David L. Ryan / The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Originally published in Jacobin on January 21, 2023


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


It’s fashionable to declare that Marxism doesn’t have much to say about complex, modern societies. But class and the material interests it generates are still the central features of capitalism.

Though Occupy Wall Street, the Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns, and other developments have brought the themes of class and economic inequality back into public consciousness in recent years, this resurgence has been accompanied by denunciations of Marxism as an outdated framework for social and political analysis. Pundits and politicians warn us of the dangers of focusing too much on class or treating it as in any way “more important” than other social identities or forms of hierarchy.

These popular refrains echo claims that have become dominant in academic social theory for decades. Where Karl Marx and his followers saw economic forces as central to understanding social stability and conflict, proponents of “the cultural turn” in social theory give pride of place to noneconomic factors. If class is a matter of a person’s location in an economic structure — whether, say, they own means of production or must sell their labor for a living — then class has little predictive power in explaining why people do what they do, culturalists argue. We should look instead to contingent cultural factors: social norms, values, and religious practices.

It’s easy to see the attraction of these arguments. Despite renewed concern with economic inequality represented by Sanders and related phenomena elsewhere (Corbynism in Britain, Podemos in Spain, La France Insoumise), class-based critiques have failed to capture the support of the working classes on a large scale. The old parties of the Left are in decline, with ever more workers gravitating to the Right. Global politics continues to undergo class dealignment: compared to the early and mid-twentieth century, class is becoming a less and less salient category of political identity and conflict. Partisan divisions are hardening, but no side credibly claims to represent the interests — or can win the loyalty — of workers.

If class is so important, why do so few people think so? Why, as the chasm of economic inequality widens, aren’t workers rallying around the red flag and trying to overthrow the system?

In his recent book, The Class Matrix: Social Theory After the Cultural Turn, sociologist Vivek Chibber argues that dismissing the importance of class analysis is a grave error. A proper Marxist understanding of class, he argues, can rise to the challenge of culturalist arguments in social theory. But more than that, Marxism can give us a framework to understand why workers under capitalism will be more likely to acquiesce to the capitalist system than to revolt against it — and can shed light on how to make revolutionary change a reality.

Economic Structure and Culture

At the core of Chibber’s argument is an elegant explanation of the relation between the class structure of capitalism and culture. Culturalists argue that all intentional human behavior is mediated by the “interpretive work of human actors,” as social theorist William Sewell puts it. For a social structure — like, say, the capital–wage labor relation — to become effective in motivating behavior, the agents participating in that structure must learn and internalize the appropriate cultural scripts.

This argument, Chibber writes, suggests that “the very existence of the structure seems to depend on the vagaries of cultural mediation.” If I am a worker, I must learn and internalize the fact that I have to find and keep a job in order to sustain myself, and I must learn and internalize the norms and habits required to do so (norms of speech and dress, certain skills, a “work ethic,” and so on). If I’m a capitalist, I need to learn and internalize the fact that success means maximizing profits, and I must learn and internalize the norms and habits that allow me to do that (a single-minded focus on expanding market share and cutting costs, for instance, which requires a ruthlessness in dealing with my employees.)

So, it may seem that human motivation is explained by culture “all the way down.” But this isn’t so. Though culturalists are right that people must adapt to certain cultural scripts to participate in social structures, Chibber admits, it doesn’t follow that these cultural scripts have causal primacy in explaining the structure. Instead, the economic structure itself explains why people need to learn and internalize the relevant scripts in the first place.

Consider what happens if a worker fails to internalize the cultural script appropriate to their role. That means they will fail to secure a job; or, if they do manage that, they won’t be able to keep it for very long. The outcome will be destitution, hunger, and worse. Likewise, a capitalist who fails to internalize the script relevant to their role will soon find their firms going under — and if they don’t get their act together, they’ll eventually find themselves in the desperate situation of a propertyless proletarian.

For capitalists and workers alike, the economic structure generates powerful material interests that compel them to internalize the cultural scripts corresponding to their class positions. The fundamentals of their individual well-being are on the line if they fail to do so.

None of this is to deny the importance of culture. But it is to say that, if we want to understand why people in capitalist societies act as they do, economic structure must be given a primary explanatory role. This claim is borne out, Chibber argues, by the global spread of capitalism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Far from particular cultural understandings being either prerequisites or insurmountable obstacles to the development of capitalist class structures, the imposition of capitalism has transformed cultures around the world — including those once thought to be inimical to capitalist relations — to suit its purposes.

The False Explanation of False Consciousness

Marxists argue that capitalism essentially involves the exploitation and domination of the working class by the capitalist class. Because they don’t have access to “means of production,” workers must sell their labor power to those who do: the capitalists. Once a worker secures a job, they are subject to the tyranny of the boss, who will attempt to get as much work out of them for as little pay as possible. Though workers are the ones who produce the goods and services that the capitalist sells, the capitalist gets to keep the lion’s share of the social surplus produced by their employees in the form of profits, while workers receive a pittance in the form of wages.

This antagonism of interests involved in the capitalist–wage labor relationship, and the harms it imposes on workers, leads to conflict. Marx, observing the nascent labor organizations and political movements of his day, thought that this conflict would take on an increasingly collective and revolutionary form: workers would band together to resist their exploitation and eventually “expropriate the expropriators,” abolishing private property and doing away with capitalism entirely.

This didn’t happen. There were, of course, socialist revolutions in countries where capitalism was just starting to develop, beginning with Russia in 1917, but these societies soon degenerated into authoritarian regimes and by the end of the century were evolving in a capitalist direction. In the West, socialist parties gradually accommodated themselves to the capitalist system and eventually moved away from even promoting significant reforms to the system and representing their traditional working-class bases. Even labor unions have now been on the decline globally for decades.

Why didn’t Marxism’s revolutionary prophecies come true? According to thinkers of the New Left, the answer lies in culture. Workers do have an interest in organizing collectively to defend their well-being and, ultimately, in overthrowing the capitalist system. But they have been thoroughly indoctrinated by bourgeois ideology to accept the system as morally legitimate, and anesthetized by the shallow consolations of “the culture industry,” the promise of consumer goodies, and the like. If only workers could pierce the veil of illusion and recognize their true interests, the thought goes, they would revolt.

Chibber deploys his materialist understanding of class to dismantle this argument. The problem with this explanation is that, as a result of their class position, workers daily experience pervasive harms and loss of autonomy at work, anxiety over finding or keeping a job, and the struggle to maintain a comfortable standard of living. To say that the working class in general has fallen prey to ideological indoctrination is to say that ideology has overwhelmed these prominent features of workers’ lived experience — that the influence of “bourgeois culture” is so strong as to induce systematic “cognitive breakdown” — in other words, false consciousness. Worse still, this explanation bizarrely positions the theorist as having more insight into the workers’ experience than the workers themselves.

And, in fact, workers do often resist their exploitation. They shirk when they’re on the job; they call in sick when they’re not; they occasionally engage in acts of petty theft and sabotage against their employer. These widespread forms of individualized resistance show that working people aren’t simply dupes of pro-capitalist myths.

Why Workers (Only Sometimes) Revolt

So, why don’t workers revolt? The answer lies in the costs and risks associated with collective action. Workers depend on their jobs to sustain themselves and their families. It is not the case that workers “have nothing to lose but their chains”: in organizing or taking action with their coworkers, they could very well lose their livelihood. “The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all,” the economist Joan Robinson quipped.

Besides the vulnerability to unemployment, there are plenty of other obstacles to a strategy of collective resistance. Workers have diverse interests that sometimes push against collective action. For instance, while the vast majority of workers would benefit from building powerful labor unions and political organizations in the long run, in the short term, lucky or very skilled workers may be able to secure a better deal for themselves through individual bargaining with employers.

Then, there is the problem of free riding: while everyone benefits from the fruit of collective effort, no individual worker will be worse off if they don’t contribute. That creates a strong incentive for workers to shirk their responsibilities to collective organizing efforts — but, if enough individuals shirk, the efforts will of course fail.

Chibber’s conclusion is that Marx was wrong to think that capitalism would naturally produce its own “gravediggers.” Instead, the material interests generated by the class structure usually militate against collective action and instead push workers to advance their interests by working hard and “keeping their heads down,” while engaging in occasional acts of individualized resistance. New Left theorists who say workers don’t revolt because they’re under the sway of bourgeois ideology make the same mistaken assumption as Marx — they think the reasons for workers’ acquiescence must come from outside the economic structure. In fact, in most times and places, the class structure provides strong-enough reasons of its own to eschew collective resistance, let alone revolutionary activity.

But workers can and do sometimes organize together to fight their exploiters. Under what conditions does collective action become feasible? A crucial ingredient, Chibber argues, is the creation of a culture of solidarity:

[Workers] have to make their valuation of possible outcomes at least partly on how it will affect their peers; this stems from a sense of obligation and what they owe to the collective good. . . . In directing every worker to see the welfare of her peers as of direct concern to herself, a solidaristic ethos counteracts the individuating effects normally generated by capitalism. In so doing, it enables the creation of the collective identity that, in turn, is the cultural accompaniment to class struggle.

When workers come to see their own well-being as bound up with that of others, the normal obstacles to collective action become smaller. They become more willing to take individual risks, and they become averse to free riding on the efforts of their comrades.

Again, culture is constrained by material interests here. A solidaristic ethos is not the same as an altruistic ethos, in the sense of a selfless concern for the welfare of others. Solidarity is rather about forming a sense of reciprocal obligation around shared interests. Knowing that, in the long term, they all stand to benefit from strong workers’ organizations, workers internalize norms that change how they weigh the costs and risks associated with collective action. My sense of obligation to my coworkers may allow me to overcome my fear of the boss’s retaliation; it may encourage me to see an individual wage increase here and now as less important than the security offered by a union contract; it will make me see free riding as a shameful betrayal of my comrades.

Where workers build cultures of solidarity, they are more likely to pursue, and succeed in, strategies of collective resistance. But we should emphasize that class-based organization is not the only way that workers under capitalism might pursue their interests collectively. They also of course belong to formal and informal organizations based on race, ethnicity, religion, kinship, and other social identities. Workers may use such networks to navigate the vicissitudes of labor market competition by hoarding resources and job opportunities; the usefulness of these strategies gives rise to justifying ideologies of racism, ethnocentrism, and the like.

Such collective identities, then — like class — have a basis in the economic structure of capitalism. Yet over time, workers’ prioritizing their identification with (say) members of their race or coreligionists makes it less likely they will forge large, durable coalitions to advance their interests and makes it easier for capitalists to pit workers against each other. (If a union refuses to admit nonwhite workers, for instance, it will sooner or later find the bosses employing those excluded workers as scabs.)

So, the reason to treat cultures of class solidarity as particularly central is not because we chauvinistically regard class oppression as more morally significant than other social hierarchies, as some ill-tempered critics charge. It’s because organizing along class lines is the only feasible long-term strategy for resisting and eventually overcoming capitalist domination and thereby undermining the material basis of racial and other forms of oppression.

Class, Politics, and Class Politics in the Twenty-First Century

It follows that class formation — the transformation of workers from a “class in itself” to a conscious, organized “class for itself,” in Marx’s terms — is an extremely fraught proposition. The material incentives generated by capitalism’s economic structure discourage collective class organization and instead push workers to seek individualized means of pursuing their interests or otherwise to fall back on networks of kinship, race, and so on that pit them against their potential comrades in arms.

Thanks to the heroic efforts of ideologically committed left-wing organizers to build cultures of solidarity, the workers’ movement was born and grew by leaps and bounds in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These organizers were aided by propitious circumstances. Rapid industrialization brought ever-greater numbers of workers into large factories and dense urban centers and decreased workers’ fear of long-term unemployment. In most of the capitalist world, workers were politically disenfranchised, strengthening their sense that they were unjustly treated and making clear the need to organize along class lines to demand political well as economic rights. Workers lived close to each other in city slums, segregated from other elements of society, facilitating an awareness of their shared interests and the forging of a collective identity.

These structural and institutional facts were fertile ground for the growth of powerful labor movements and socialist parties. Those organizations fought for a partial “humanization” of capitalism, redistributing wealth and income toward the poor and working classes. For a while, especially in the postwar era, rapid economic growth meant that employers could (reluctantly) absorb unions’ and left parties’ redistributive demands. Yet a decline in profit rates starting in the 1960s forced employers to be less tolerant, and capitalists began to fight back, successfully crushing unions and rolling back the welfare state across much of the developed world.

This story brings us to the neoliberal period, which workers haven’t yet been able to fight their way out of. For decades, they have suffered from stagnant wages and the erosion of public goods. At first, Chibber notes, workers responded by retreating from political activity and civic life. But recent years have seen active expressions of discontent, in the form of an uptick in strike action (though still at historically low levels) as well as explosions of anger at the ballot box in the form of support for populist, antiestablishment parties and candidates of both the Left and Right.

This pattern of working-class disaffection and anger is understandable in materialist terms — as are the obstacles to a renewal of the organized labor movement and mass working-class political parties. The structural and institutional factors underlying the birth and expansion of the Old Left are no longer in place. Globally, capitalist economies are now deindustrializing, which has meant slower employment growth; the dispersion of workers into smaller firms; and less job security. Workers in most capitalist democracies now have full political rights, and they are no longer geographically isolated in their own densely populated communities but spread out in the suburbs among other classes.

These facts mean the project of organizing workers has a totally different character than it did in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. “Workers’ electoral status and social conditions once worked in tandem with the class structure to push workers toward a common identity,” Chibber writes, “but this is no longer the case.” Their electoral status and social conditions today pull workers apart, exacerbating the tendency to adopt individualized or parochial modes of resistance.

Back to Class

The Class Matrix is not without its flaws. Nowhere does Chibber explicitly offer or defend a definition of material interests, a notion fundamental to his account of human motivation under capitalism and to his distinction between materialist and culturalist explanations of social structure. Nor does he discuss the connections between interests, preferences, and motivations — a topic that has long bedeviled philosophers as well as social scientists, and one on which Chibber makes some controversial assumptions that he does not entirely bring to the surface. (Very briefly: he seems to be working with a definition of material interests as universal components of well-being, rooted in human biological needs and capacities, that systematically regulate people’s preferences and motivations across cultural contexts. That is certainly a plausible and defensible conception of interests, but not, I think, a self-evident one.)

Finally, many of the book’s formulations suggest a dichotomy between individualistic forms of resistance to domination and class-based collective action. But as discussed above, and as Chibber himself acknowledges at points, collective strategies of interest advancement can also take the form of reliance on racial, ethnic, and other nonclass collectivities. There is, of course, an important similarity between individualistic forms of resistance and reliance on parochial networks to hoard advantage: they mean failing to unite workers to challenge capitalism at the root and are, for that reason, ultimately self-defeating.

However, these are complaints about presentation rather than substance. Overall, The Class Matrix is a clear, compelling, and systematic statement of the view that class is an objective reality that predictably and rationally shapes human thought and action, one we need to grapple with seriously if we’re to comprehend contemporary society and its morbid symptoms.

Socialists today face the difficult task of building cultures of solidarity on different, and less favorable, terrain than our predecessors. Whether and how exactly we can do so are questions Chibber leaves to his readers. But his contribution to understanding what class is, and why it matters, will likely be indispensable to finding the answers.


Nick French is an assistant editor at Jacobin.

The working class under neo-liberalism / by Prabhat Patnaik

Originally published: Peoples Democracy on December 11, 2022

A NEO-LIBERAL regime entails a spontaneous change in the balance of class power against the working class everywhere. This happens for a number of reasons. First, since capital becomes globally mobile while labour is not, such globally mobile capital gets an opportunity to pit the working class of one country against that of another. If the workers of one country go on strike, then capital has the option of relocating its production at the margin to another country; and its very threat to do so serves to keep down the militancy of the workers in every country.

If the workers had been internationally organised, so that strike actions were not just nationally organised but could occur simultaneously across several countries, then such a threat by capital would not have worked; but class actions by the working class alas are not yet internationally coordinated, because of which such threats work. True, even if workers had been internationally organised, capital could still have threatened to shift production to some entirely new location, but this would have been more difficult from its point of view. The fact that workers even in the current production locations of capital are not internationally organised, works in favour of capital and keeps down the level of militancy in each location.

This is simply an instance of the well-known fact that centralisation of capital is a means of subduing the militancy of workers: since centralisation of capital is typically associated with the deployment of such centralised capital across a set of scattered activities or across scattered geographical locations, militant action by the workers in any particular location or branch of activity faces the threat of capital shifting to another branch or location. Neo-liberal globalisation entails centralisation of capital but with a global dispersion, and hence imposes similar effective restraint upon the militancy of the workers.

The second factor working in the same direction is this: even as activities shift from the metropolis to some countries of the periphery, thereby weakening the workers’ bargaining and striking strength in the metropolis, the vast labour reserves of the periphery do not get exhausted, so that the workers in the periphery acquire no greater strength.

The fact that workers in the metropolis get restrained by being linked to the vast labour reserves of the periphery, which is what neo-liberalism ensures, is well recognised. The increasing gap between the conditions of the metropolitan workers and those in the periphery that had characterised capitalism in the earlier period when it had segmented the world economy into two parts, across which neither labour nor capital moved, can no longer be sustained; but  neo-liberalism had always held out the promise that relocation-aided rapid growth of the peripheral economy, would use up the labour reserves there, i.e., that these reserves which are a legacy of colonialism and semi-colonialism (though neo-liberal ideology does not recognise this fact), would finally dwindle.

This promise however gets belied. In fact rather than reduce the magnitude of labour reserves in the periphery, the neo-liberal regime actually increases it. Neo-liberalism is associated there with an increase in unemployment, though this fact may manifest itself as a reduction in the number of days that each worker works rather than as a decrease in the number of workers employed.

This increase in unemployment follows from two characteristics of neo-liberalism. One is the withdrawal of State support from petty production and peasant agriculture with a view to opening up this sector to encroachment by big capital and agribusiness. The second characteristic is the opening up of the economy to freer cross-border flows of goods and services which greatly increases the compulsion of every producer to introduce technological progress in order to defend market shares against imports. Since saving on labour is the typical form taken by technological progress under capitalism, this means a rise in the rate of growth of labour productivity and hence a decline in the rate of growth of employment. Thus, as displaced peasants and artisans enlarge the number of job-seekers in the capitalist sector of the economy, the growth in the number of jobs shrinks in that sector, causing a swelling of the relative size of labour reserves. This fact weakens the position of the working class in all countries.

The third factor that weakens the position of workers everywhere is the privatisation of public sector units. Workers in public sector units are invariably better organised than those in private sector units, a fact evident from the extent of unionisation in the two sectors. In the US for instance almost a third of public sector employees (including in the sphere of education) are unionised, compared to only about 7 per cent of private sector employees. It follows that privatisation has the effect of subduing working class militancy. This in turn subdues workers’ militancy in the economy as a whole.

It is for this reason that France which still has a sizeable public sector continues to witness militant workers’ struggles. In India where there had been a substantial public sector with a history of glorious struggles, gradual privatisation has made such struggles undoubtedly more difficult; it has led to a shift in the locus of unionisation to the small-scale sector.

What is striking however is not so much the fact that neo-liberalism weakens the working class in its struggle against capital, but that despite this weakening neo-liberalism is witnessing at present an upsurge of workers’ militancy. In Britain rail workers have staged several strikes this year, including, during the previous summer, the biggest strike seen for decades. Even at present, the rail workers have rejected the pay offer made by the employers as being too paltry and are threatening further strike action in December and January. Railway workers however are not alone. Postal workers, nurses, ambulance workers and others have been either engaged in strike action or going to be, so much so that the chairman of the ruling Conservative Party has talked of bringing in the army to run “essential services”. In Germany, port workers, public transport workers, aviation security workers, construction workers, and railway workers have all been either engaged in strikes or are soon going to be. The same is true of other European countries. In other words, the relative quiescence of workers that had characterised the neo-liberal era until now is coming to an end.

The typical explanation for this upsurge of militancy that one comes across in the western press attributes it to inflation. Inflation in turn is believed to have been caused by factors, like the Ukraine war or Covid-induced disruptions in supply chains, that are supposedly wholly extraneous to the functioning of neo-liberal capitalism.

This explanation however is inadequate for two obvious reasons: one, neither the Covid episode nor the Ukraine war is extraneous to the functioning of neo-liberal capitalism. This is clear in the case of the Ukraine war whose genesis lies in the attempt to maintain the hegemony of western imperialism that neo-liberal capitalism also seeks to buttress. But even the Covid episode is not extraneous to neo-liberal capitalism: its sweep and intensity owe much to the western reluctance to part with monopoly control over vaccine technology; besides, even the origin of Covid, it now appears from the report of a Lancet-appointed committee, has been in a laboratory which could well make it a fall-out of military-linked research on behalf of imperialism.

The second reason why the current inflation is not extraneous to neo-liberal capitalism is the following. Capitalist crises have this characteristic that attempts to resolve them often simply lead to crises in a different form. The tendency towards over-production that neo-liberal capitalism has generated because of the rise in the share of surplus in output in the world capitalist economy as a whole, as well as in individual capitalist economies, has been sought to be overcome for a long time in the US, the leading metropolitan country, by keeping interest rates close to zero and pumping in huge amounts of liquidity into the economy through what is called “quantitative easing”.

Now, capitalists, in deciding any course of action, evaluate the risks associated with that course. The availability of huge amounts of liquidity at very low interest rates greatly reduces the risks for corporates associated with jacking up their profit margins. This is why several American corporations at the first opportunity jacked up their margins, precipitating the current inflation. Other factors no doubt played a role but this basic cause of the current inflation must not be forgotten.

It is this direct assault on their living standards that workers everywhere are vehemently protesting against. This assault in turn is symptomatic of the dead-end of neo-liberalism.


Prabhat Patnaik is an Indian political economist and political commentator. His books include Accumulation and Stability Under Capitalism (1997), The Value of Money (2009), and Re-envisioning Socialism (2011).

MR Online, December 10, 2022, https://mronline.org/

Press Coverage of Declining US Life Expectancy Evades the Truth / by W.T. Whitney Jr.

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Reporting by the U.S. news services frequently takes China to task for its strict preventative measures imposed to prevent Covid-19 infection. Reports point to economic instability and people’s distress supposedly generated by this uncompromising attitude. The slant of New York Times reporting, which skirts over Chinese lives saved, earned a sharp rebuke on September 9 from the fair.org website, a self-styled “national media watch group.”

Reporter Jim Naureckas imagines the lament of Times writers that, “China has had theenormous misfortune of avoiding mass death.” He is sarcastically contrasting lives saved in China with lives unnecessarily lost in the United States, where Covid-19 deaths now exceed one million. He reminds us that China now exceeds the United States in life expectancy.

U.S. reporting on the downhill turn of U.S. life expectancy is

fertile ground for the emergence of press bias that agrees with establishment leanings. 

The U.S. government recently released statistics indicating that U.S. life expectancy at birth is now 76.1 years That’s a return to the life expectancy level of 1996.  The 2021 figures, down from 77.0 years in 2020 and from 78.8 in 2019 represented the greatest multi-year life expectancy decline in 100 years. Life expectancy for men in 2021 was 73.2 years. That level signified an unprecedented male-female gap of almost six years.

U.S. press coverage of bad news on life expectancy barely mentions international comparisons and neglects the political and economic context of the drop in life expectancy.

Reports in the Washington Post, New York Times, and elsewhere have identified adverse biological or medical phenomena. They point to suicides, alcoholism and drug- overdose victims – “diseases of despair” – and spotty distribution of healthcare services. The reporting attributes the life-expectancy decline mostly to excess deaths from Covid-19 infection. 

In explaining deaths during the pandemic, The New York Times and Washington Post focus on disaster befalling indigenous peoples in the United States. The combined male-female life expectancy of indigenous peoples as of 2021 registers at 65.2 years. Indigenous deaths rates have recently exceeded those of white people by a factor of 10.  

These articles, and others throughout the period of the pandemic, have pointed to the particular risk Covid 19 infection poses for non-white populations. Press reports have cited Black and Hispanic mortality rates that are from two to four times higher than those for white people. Reports have leaned on public health data showing that “communities of color” had suffered from much chronic illness beforehand that compound difficulties in recovering from Covid-19 infection. 

Reporters have described medical care for these chronic diseases as poorly accessible or of low-quality. They imply that racism is the factor that largely accounts for the increased Covid-19 death rates among ethnic minorities. If so, getting rid of racial oppression would be the best way to reduce human loss from the pandemic and restore decent life-expectancy figures.

The reports also cast blame for Covid-19 deaths on unhealthy living habits, environmental pollution, and access to guns. Recent articles attribute now deceasing death rates from Covid-19 among Black people to protective actions taken by people themselves (not government action). The Times article, seemingly alone, does mention “a fragmented, profit-driven health care system.”

Otherwise, inquiry into the nature of U.S. healthcare is missing. Unsurprisingly, there are no calls for universal access to healthcare, improved preventative care, additional first-contact care providers, removal of financial barriers, and higher quality of care.  Lacking too is discussion of steps taken on behalf of education, housing, adequate nutrition, and safe retirement; all of these, taken together, promote good health.

Not much appears about the disjointed, inaccessible, unavailable care for illnesses, chronic or otherwise, that white people may experience together with Black people. The overall emphasis in the reporting is the special vulnerably of non-white people and, recently, the apparent role of racism in accounting for lowered life expectancy.

There is silence on social class. Seemingly alone among the major U.S. media, Newsweek highlighted the contrast between reduced U.S. life expectancy and Chinese and Cuban gains. The 2021 life expectancy of both countries, 78.2 years and 79 years, respectively, was higher that year than that of the United States

China and Cuba are socialist countries that redistributed wealth and opted for working-class political power. U.S. media and elected officials are reluctant to acknowledge successes of socialist countries, that by nature are oriented toward the good of working people.

Writing in 1991, Vicente Navarro, public policy and public health expert, notes that “class is rarely discussed in the scientific and mainstream media in the United States.” He adds that, “even if blacks and whites died at the same rates, most blacks would still have higher mortality rates.”

He elaborated in 2004:

“The United States is one of the very few countries that do not include class in its national health and vital statistics. It collects health and vital statistics by race and gender but not by class, even though, as I have shown, class mortality differentials are far larger than race or gender differentials. Class discrimination is the most frequent and least spoken of type of discrimination in the United States.”

Navarro’s remarks provide perspective to the biases in press coverage that are described here. Presumably press silence on developments in which working people have a stake does suit opinion-shapers for whom red-scare is a time-tested tool. Anti-Cuban sentiment and China bashing may play a role, but those postures too may stem from red-scare.  Navarro has the last word: “The capitalist class is extremely powerful.”

The heroic journalist John Pilger once explained that, “Journalists can help people by telling the truth, or by as much truth as they can find, and acting not as agents of governments, of power, but of people.” He asked recently: “do we live in a Media Society where brainwashing is insidious and relentless, and perception is filtered according to the needs and lies of state and corporate power?”


W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.

Pledging “pain,” Federal Reserve declares war on the working class / by Marcus Day

“Working Class Day of Action” Call for better living and working conditions (Photo: Elitsha)

Originally published: World Socialist Web Site on August 27, 2022

In his speech Friday at the Federal Reserve’s annual summit in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell made one thing clear: America’s financial oligarchy is determined to make the working class bear the cost of the deepening economic crisis.

Speaking more bluntly than he has previously, Powell pledged that the U.S. central bank would sustain higher interest rates in the name of fighting inflation, with increased unemployment and economic “pain” to be expected as the consequences. The Fed is widely anticipated to again raise rates by 0.5 to 0.75 percentage points in September.

“Reducing inflation is likely to require a sustained period of below-trend growth,” Powell said.

Moreover, there will very likely be some softening of labor market conditions. While higher interest rates, slower growth, and softer labor market conditions will bring down inflation, they will also bring some pain to households and businesses.

Behind the Fed chair’s grey-hued euphemisms stands a ruthless class policy. With “softening of labor market conditions,” Powell is describing a deliberate jobs bloodbath, in which higher rates will encourage mass layoffs and the inevitable calamity this entails for workers and their families. It will mean staggering rises in poverty, hunger, substance abuse, foreclosures, homelessness and suicides, under conditions of an already acute social crisis.

There can be no doubt that the target of the “pain” Powell is referring to is the working class.

Powell bemoaned a so-called “out of balance” labor market and outsized demand for workers, saying,

The labor market is particularly strong, but it is clearly out of balance, with demand for workers substantially exceeding the supply of available workers.

This cynical argument—that a labor shortage and overly large wage increases are the primary drivers of inflation—defies the most basic economic logic. If the cause of high inflation in the United States were wage increases, then workers’ wages would be rising at a level comparable to, or higher than, the level of inflation.

Workers’ pay has risen in nominal terms far below the rate of inflation, resulting in a 3 percent decline in real wages over the course of the past year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, falling as much as 5 percent in some states.

The labor shortage itself is in large part the consequence of the ruling class’ catastrophic response to the COVID-19 pandemic, in which mass infection has been ever more deliberately enforced in the short-term pursuit of profit. As many as 4.1 million Americans have left the labor force and are unable to work due to the debilitating impact of Long COVID, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution released this week. The U.S. Census Bureau has estimated that as many as 16 million people in the U.S. are suffering from Long COVID.

In reality, corporate price gouging, not wage growth, has been the primary factor driving inflation, an April study by the Economic Policy Institute found. Meanwhile, corporate profits continue to set record after record.

Profit margins at non-financial corporations have hit a 72-year high, according to data released Thursday by the U.S. Commerce Department, reaching 15.5 percent for the first time since 1950. Profits increased 8.1 percent over the past year, even after accounting for higher capital stock replacement costs from inflation.

The oil and gas giants have been in the forefront of this bonanza, with the five largest companies taking in $55 billion in profits during the second quarter of 2022 alone, as they profiteer from the U.S.-instigated proxy war against Russia in Ukraine. The intent of U.S. imperialism and its allies is to make the working class pay for their predatory wars abroad. In the UK, energy prices are set to rise 80 percent this fall, to £3,549 a year, roughly $4,200, and to as high as £6,600 in the spring, with catastrophic implications for working families.

The pro-corporate trade unions, for their part, have been working around the clock to impose the demands of the companies for below-inflation raises, higher health care costs and longer hours. Earlier this year, United Steelworkers President Thomas Conway boasted of a “responsible” contract the union coerced oil and gas workers into accepting, lauding it for not adding to “inflationary pressures,” parroting the lying claim that wage increases are driving higher prices.

Already, the Fed’s rate increases are beginning to have their intended effect, triggering a wave of mass layoffs, including 38,000 in the technology sector through mid-August. Job cuts are now spreading more widely throughout the economy. Hospitals and health care systems are increasingly slashing positions and reducing services, Kaiser Health News reported Friday, despite the health care chains receiving massive bailouts to the tune of billions of dollars during the pandemic.

Layoffs are beginning to accelerate even as many sections of the economy are already threatened with disaster and virtual collapse due to understaffing and brutally long hours, as in the health care industry and the railroads.

In his speech, Powell alluded repeatedly to former Fed Chair Paul Volcker, whom he has previously presented as his intellectual North Star. Appointed by Democratic President Jimmy Carter and retained by Republican President Ronald Reagan, Volcker oversaw a program of economic “shock therapy” in the late 1970s and early 1980s, raising interest rates to double-digit levels in order to induce mass unemployment and break the back of the militant workers’ struggles that had dominated the preceding decade. “The standard of living of the average American worker has to decline,” Volcker declared in 1982.

In the present, workers are being told by the Biden administration, the political establishment and the corporate and financial elite that they must sacrifice—and accept a lower standard of living—in the name of the “national interest” and the struggle against supposed “Russian aggression.”

But history shows again and again that the demand for “shared sacrifice” by the ruling class and its representatives is nothing but a swindle, aimed at enriching the financial oligarchy at the expense of the working class and increasing its exploitation.

The response to the ruling class policy of austerity and war must be a conscious political program representing the interests of the working class, unifying the struggles of workers in every section of industry and across national boundaries. This year has already seen an eruption of class struggle internationally, drawing in ever-larger layers, from manufacturing workers to dockworkers and truckers, pilots and flight attendants, nurses and educators, among others.

The broad support for the campaign of Will Lehman for international president of the United Auto Workers shows the enormous potential for this developing movement in the working class to find a progressive outlet. Lehman, a Mack Trucks worker and socialist, has explained that he is running in the UAW elections in order to organize a rank-and-file movement from below and take power back from the union bureaucracy.

The emerging struggles of workers against the soaring cost of living and the impact of the capitalist crisis must take up the socialist and internationalist perspective Lehman is advocating so that the needs and interests of workers—not the financial oligarchy—determine how society’s resources are organized.


World Socialist Web Site, August 27, 2022, https://www.wsws.org/

Opinion: This American For-Profit Healthcare System Would Just as Soon Kill You as Look at You / by Richard Eskow

To this system, it doesn’t matter whether a person lives or dies as long as it gets paid. That’s why our healthcare costs are so high, even though our life expectancy is so low.

When I was growing up in the Rust Belt, there was a phrase people would use to describe an unusually vicious or cold-blooded kid in the neighborhood (and there were a few). “He’d just as soon kill you as look at you,” they would say.

Our healthcare system is the most direct killer of all. It is designed to be indifferent to human suffering, to life and death.

I thought of that phrase when a graph went around recently on left-leaning social media comparing life expectancy and health care costs in the United States with those in other industrialized countries. It went viral, even though the information it contained has been widely discussed for years. That’s the power of a well-crafted image.

Why are our costs so much higher and our health care outcomes so much worse? There are a number of reasons, but the most important one is: our health financing system is sociopathic. That’s not hyperbole. Ours is a system that would, quite literally, “just as soon kill you as look at you.”

I found a graph on U.S. life expectancy that was produced by Max Roser, who runs a website called Our World in Data (ourworldindata.org).  

About this graph:

  • It doesn’t include the disabilities, loss of productivity, economic stagnation, and poor quality of life created our inferior health system.
  • It doesn’t break out the vast disparities in American healthcare outcomes by race or class.
  • It ends in 2018, so it doesn’t include the more than one million people who have died so far from Covid-19 in this country, much less those who died elsewhere.
  • Nor does it include the billions of dollars the government directed to private pharmaceutical companies and other vendors during the pandemic, only to have them overcharge us for the products they then developed at public expense.

And remember: when we talk about longevity, we’re not just talking about people losing the last few years of life..that’s tragic enough. But infant and child mortality bring down the curve, too, as does premature death at all ages.

Racial Disparities

During the decades covered by this graph, Black infant mortality rates were 2.5 times that of Whites. Race is a longtime predictor of health outcomes. These statistics, which I prepared for Bernie Sanders before a Baltimore speech in 2016, are all too representative of Black America’s experience:

  • If you’re born in Baltimore’s poorest neighborhood, your life expectancy is almost 20 years shorter than if you’re born in its richest neighborhood.
  • 15 Baltimore neighborhoods have lower life expectancies than North Korea. Two of them have higher infant mortality than Palestine’s West Bank.
  • Baltimore teenagers between the ages of 15 and 19 face poorer health conditions and a worse economic outlook than those in economically distressed cities in Nigeria, India, China, and South Africa, according to a 2015 report from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Here’s another statistic: Black children are seven to ten times more likely to die of asthma than white children. That’s one I take personally, since I nearly died of asthma myself as a child (despite being white) and it’s a terrible way to go.

I could muster more facts and figures, but you get the idea. The racialized nature of the American healthcare system—which is instrumentalized through economic discrimination—both disables and kills. That’s why, since the arrival of Covid-19, age-adjusted statistics show that Black Americans have been especially hard hit, with death rates that are approximately 67% higher than those of Whites and approximately 2.2 times higher than those of the group with the lowest adjusted death rates (Asian Americans).

Class Kills

White America is catching up, at least its poorer neighborhoods. “Deaths of despair”—suicide, opioid addiction, and alcoholism—were ravaging lower-income White American men even before the pandemic, contributing to the USA’s declining life expectancy (as seen in the graph above).

A paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) showed that living in an area with high economic inequality was, like race, a strong predictor of Covid deaths.  In 2020, nearly 46,000 people in the United States killed themselves. White men, who make up 30 percent of the population, committed 70 percent of the suicides.

Class is a killer.

Indifferent to Suffering

Our healthcare system is the most direct killer of all. It is designed to be indifferent to human suffering, to life and death. To this system, it doesn’t matter whether a person lives or dies as long as it gets paid. That’s why our healthcare costs are so high, even though our life expectancy is so low.

Medical providers and institutions get paid for the services they provide, whether you live or die. The more services they provide, the more money they make. Health insurers operate under an even more perverse set of incentives. Their rates are based on the overall volume of services expected, which they then mark up. Their business practices are designed to shift as much cost as possible to the patient, while at the same time restricting the patient’s freedom to choose. They drive patients to providers who accept the insurance company’s low rates and agree to its restrictive rules about medical care.

That system is designed to be expensive. Let’s say you’re paying for a plan with a $5,000 deductible. As Sarah Kliff and Josh Katz documented for the New York Times, a colonoscopy at the University of Mississippi Medical Center will cost you $1,463 with a Cigna plan and $2,144 with an Aetna plan. If, on the other hand, you have no insurance at all, that colonoscopy will cost you “only” $782.

Kliff also reported on the case of a couple whose baby died while in the hospital. Although they had insurance through Cigna, the couple subsequently received a bill for $257,000 in what was described as “a dispute between a large hospital and a large insurer, with the patient stuck in the middle.”  This system is indifferent to the trauma it inflicts on patients or their survivors.

It’s About the Incentives

Outcomes are also a matter of indifference. People are billed, no matter what happens. One study found that the average cost of treating accidents in the United States with fatal outcomes is $6,880 if the patient dies in the emergency room and $41,570 if they die in the hospital.

Some historians claim that ancient court physicians in Asia were paid for every month their patients remained healthy. That may or may not be a myth. What is definitely not a myth is that, in many publicly-funded health systems worldwide, health professionals are paid by salary and not by volume, while hospitals are given a fixed (or “global”) budget to provide care. That creates less of an incentive for “churning” patients and more of an incentive to focus on patient care.

That’s the kind of system we should have. Instead, we have a system where they charge $2,144 for a colonoscopy and $41,570 for an unsuccessful treatment. That’s a system where they’d just as soon kill you as look at you. It doesn’t matter. They make money either way.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Richard (RJ) Eskow is a freelance writer. Much of his work can be found on eskow.substack.com. His weekly program, The Zero Hour, can be found on cable television, radio, Spotify, and podcast media. He is a senior advisor with Social Security Works.

Common Dreams, August 3, 2022, https://www.commondreams.org/

Understanding the “Middle Class” / by Anita Waters

Middle Class USA

Who, or what, is the “middle class”? Most people identify themselves as middle class, but what does that mean, and what difference does it make?

This article’s first focus is on the concept of middle class, especially the way people understand it and use it, from the perspectives of those who answer survey questions to the analysts who study social inequality. The way “class” is defined and used has the effect of rendering some social processes invisible.

Second, Marxist analysis offers a much different conception of class, one that brings to light social dynamics hidden in the bourgeois perspective. Third, what are the material conditions and consciousness of the U.S. “middle class” today, and what are the political pressures that are bearing down on different segments of the economy?

Economists, pollsters, and many policy researchers define class with reference simply to individuals’ or households’ annual income. For example, the Pew Research Center arrays all income data points in a line, from lowest to highest. The very middle point is the median. Then, people with incomes of less than two-thirds of the median are labeled “lower income.” “Upper income” are those with incomes twice the median or more. All those in-between are “middle income” or “middle class.”

The advantage of this technique is that it offers a specific measure that can be used to compare inequality across time and place, data which the Pew Research Center regularly reports. The disadvantage is that it hides the impact of a host of other factors determining one’s relative position in the economy, like wealth and social status. And, unlike a Marxist analysis, this view of class, with its more or less arbitrary boundaries, doesn’t recognize that classes are collectivities that have a social reality over and above their individual members, and that act more effectively for social change than any individual member could possibly act.

Some use the term “middle class” simply to distinguish it from those with the least income, who become known collectively as “the poor.” Reverend William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign, for example, criticized the Democratic Party’s sole focus on the middle class, which he contrasted with the interests of the poor, as he said about poverty at a recent online meeting:

Neoliberalism isn’t going to fix this. The middle class isn’t going to fix this. And as Pope Francis has said, trickle-down has failed us.

Sociologist Mary Pattillo, in her 2005 study of “Black Middle-Class Neighborhoods” in the Annual Review of Sociology, writes that defining the middle class is difficult and that her article might better be entitled “Black Non-Poor Neighborhoods.” Trade union discourse tends to rely on the term to describe the benefits of good union jobs. Columbus Ohio building trade union activist Dorsey Hagar, for example, says that union jobs get workers “on that direct path to the middle class where they’re providing for themselves and their family.”

Besides income, some people understand “middle class standing” as a social status, like occupational prestige and years of education. Sociologists today define the middle class as an ever-changing assortment of different occupational groups in “a heterogeneous and historically shifting middle class rather than distinct entities.”1 Others define middle class by levels of consumption, such as aspirations for home ownership, children’s education, health insurance and economic security, as in a 2010 Commerce Department document prepared for then Vice-President Joe Biden.

If being middle class were just a matter of self-perception, almost all Americans would be in the middle class, according to one 2015 survey, which found that well over 85% call themselves middle class. Racial identification matters too; whites are far more likely to define themselves as middle class than are African Americans with similar incomes.

In Marxist analysis, the understanding of “class” is very different. It starts by looking at large-scale social processes, and finds the basis of social classes in the relations of production in the economy. Those who own and control the means of production, and who are able to take ownership of all that is produced, form the ruling class; in capitalist society the ruling class is the bourgeoisie, while in feudal society, it was the landed aristocracy.

Those who sell their labor power to the owners of the means of production are the proletariat or working class. Instead of class as a characteristic of individuals, Marxist analysis studies the way classes act in society as collective actors. Struggle between classes is the “motor of history,” driving all social change.

Classes are rooted in the common material interests that derive from a similar relationship to the means of production. But that is not enough to unite or empower a class. To be a class “for itself” as well as “in itself,” a class needs a “community, … national bond, and … political organization,” as Marx said in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The small-holding French peasants he studied had common material interests, but they lived apart from one another and were unaware of those commonalities. They were just, in Marx’s words, “the simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes.” As a class, the peasantry was only as powerful as the sum of its parts.

A class’s real power, over and above the sum of its members, is derived not just from common material interests, but from the class’s awareness of itself as a class engaged in struggle with other classes. That class consciousness was what empowered the industrialists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to defeat the landed aristocracy, and it will be what empowers the proletariat to defeat the capitalist ruling class.

Historical materialism predicts that society will become more and more polarized into two great classes, in conflict with each other. But other classes exist simultaneously. Some are vestiges of earlier stages of class relations, like the remnants of the landed aristocracy. Marx recognized that throughout history there are strata in society that are between the two great classes.

New technologies may bring changes in class relations that hasten the demise of the old system. One of these “middle” classes for Marx was the occupational group of merchants who emerged from the separation of production and commerce at the dawn of the industrial age.

When the Pew Research Center or the New York Times refers to the “middle class,” they are referring to a sector of the working class. Roberta Wood in her pamphlet “Marxism in the Age of Uber” has an expansive vision of the working class as 90 percent of the U.S. population:

The working class of the 21st century includes rideshare drivers, nursing home aides, baristas, warehouse workers, UPS package handlers, teachers, engineers, research scientists, and I.T. folks—alongside factory, construction and farmworkers and incarcerated labor.

Even before the pandemic, the non-poor working class was being squeezed financially. “The costs of housing, health care and education are consuming ever larger shares of household budgets, and have risen faster than incomes,” according to a 2019 article in the New York Times.

Today’s middle-class families are working longer, managing new kinds of stress and shouldering greater financial risks than previous generations did.

Then, the pandemic economy hit. The effects of loss of jobs and income have been severe and will reverberate for years to come. Working families face food insecurity, utility shut-offs, loss of health insurance, and eviction. According to a Pew Research Survey, about a quarter of all adults in the U.S., and one in every three low-wage workers, lost their jobs.

More women than men, and especially Black and Latinx women, report having trouble paying their bills, and are more likely than men to have borrowed money, used savings that had been set aside for retirement, and gotten food from a food bank.

Small business owners, the petty bourgeoisie in Marxist terms, is seen as a “middle” class, torn in their loyalty to the working class, which is closest to it in material conditions, or to the ruling class, to which it improbably aspires. Owners of small businesses and independent professionals may employ a handful of individual workers, whom they exploit by appropriating the surplus value of their labor in the same way that big corporations exploit workers.

In the U.S., this sector is very engaged politically; one study found that 98% of small business owners were registered to vote and 62% have contributed to campaigns. A survey from before the pandemic showed that a majority of small business owners benefited from the 2017 tax cuts and believed that their businesses would be better off if Trump were re-elected.

Some members of this group endorse the extreme right. As C. J. Atkins pointed out, the Atlantic documented that the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol on January 6 were “a cavalry made up of ‘business ownersCEOsstate legislatorspolice officersactive and retired members of the military, real-estate brokers,’ and others.”

An article in the Washington Post revealed that almost 60% of those charged in the Capitol insurrection “showed signs of prior money troubles, including bankruptcies, notices of eviction or foreclosure, bad debts, or unpaid taxes over the past two decades.” Downward mobility no doubt fueled their anger.

But this sector is still powerless compared to big business. Like the working class, it is vulnerable to the vagaries of the capitalist economy of boom and bust. Small business owners were hit hard in the current recession. In September 2020 it was estimated that 100,000 small businesses that had shut down due to the pandemic had closed permanently. Black-owned businesses closed at twice the rate of white-owned businesses. That was even before the autumn surge in cases and further lockdowns.

These times remind me of the saying, “Every woman is six weeks away from welfare.” It recognized the vulnerability of working women in particular, who often had sole responsibility for their children as well as themselves. Even if comfortably situated today, lulled by the idea that they had joined the middle class, job losses or medical emergencies could quickly drive people into poverty. Only the ruling class is protected.


Originally published on CPUSA.org under a Creative Commons license.

Footnotes

Melanie Archer and Judith Blau, “Class Formation in Nineteenth-Century America: The Case of the Middle Class,” Annual Review of Sociology, 1993, vol. 19, no. 1.

Anita Waters is Professor Emerita of sociology at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, and an organizer for the CPUSA in Ohio.

MR Online, July 14, 2022, https://mronline.org/

Amazon Labor Union and the awakening of the American working class / by Julien Arseneau

Economic conditions had first transformed the mass of the people of the country into workers. The combination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests. This mass is thus already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself. In the struggle… this mass becomes united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself. The interests it defends become class interests. But the struggle of class against class is a political struggle.

– Karl Marx, 1847

A wave of unionization in the United States is enthusing and inspiring workers all around the world. The first Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, is now represented by the independent Amazon Labor Union. Every week, dozens of Starbucks coffee shops are filling to join Starbucks Workers United. A first group of workers at an Apple Store signed their cards to join the Communication Workers of America. There have been 589 union applications to the National Labor Relations Board so far in 2022, double the number compared to the first four months of 2021.

These struggles to get organized are all part of the same process. The crisis of capitalism is crushing workers, and they are beginning to fight back. They increasingly understand that they can rely only on their own means.

The United States is the most powerful capitalist nation in the world. Socialism cannot ultimately achieve victory without the success of the American working class. The struggles we are seeing now are just the beginning of the awakening of this colossus that will change the course of history.

Not out of nowhere

American workers have suffered constant setbacks for decades. While productivity grew by 70 per cent between 1979 and 2019, wages only grew by 12 per cent during the same period. Not surprisingly, this coincides with a decline of the union movement. Union membership has fallen from 20.1 per cent in 1983 to a meager 10.5 per cent in 2018. Workers are more and more exploited, all the while the main organizations through which they defend themselves have declined.

The youth is bearing the brunt of the crisis. “Millennials” and “Gen Z” have known nothing of the golden age of capitalism. Precarious jobs are the norm. Houses are impossible to buy and rents are rising. The rate of unionization is lowest among young people: 9.4 per cent among 25-34 year-olds, and a meager 4.2 per cent among 16-24 year-olds.

COVID-19 struck a working class already squeezed like a lemon. Online sales exploded with the pandemic, putting Amazon workers under enormous pressure–employees having to urinate in bottles to keep up. Service workers suddenly became “heroes,” “essential workers”– but stayed at starvation wages and in worsening conditions. American workers are among the most stressed in the world: 57 per cent report being stressed on a daily basis, compared to a global average of 43 per cent.

Add to that the current inflation rate, which reached a whopping 8.5 per cent in the U.S., an all-time high in decades. Anyone who doesn’t get an 8.5 per cent pay raise is therefore experiencing a pay cut. And all the while, CEOs received record bonuses of $14.2 million in 2021!

This cocktail of declining wages, worsening conditions, inflation and rising inequality was bound to result in an explosion sooner or later.

Shift in consciousness

A shift in the consciousness of workers and young people in the United States has been apparent for some time. We have commented many times in recent years on the numerous polls showing the growing interest in socialism and communism in the U.S..

But a related phenomenon is the rise in unions’ popularity. Despite low union density, union approval is at 68 per cent, the highest level since the mid-1960s. Among 18-34 year-olds, the figure is 77 per cent.

Not surprisingly, the enthusiasm for recent unionization drives is also high. In the case of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), an immense 75 per cent of Americans agree that Amazon workers need a union. That number rises to 83 per cent among 18-34 year-olds, and even reaches 71 per cent among Donald Trump supporters! The enthusiasm reaches across all strata of the working class, beyond the usual partisan divide of American politics. It also shows that many Trump supporters could be drawn to class-based policies, if a real workers’ party existed in the U.S. to defend such policies.

The recent organizing drives demonstrate what Marxists have been saying for a long time. How many times have we heard that class-based politics is dead because “the working class has changed”, or worse, that it no longer exists? That yes, in Marx’s time there were factory workers, miners, but that today “it’s different”? Of course, it doesn’t take much insight to realize that the working class has changed a lot in 150 years. The service sector, retail and entertainment, in particular, has swelled in the last few decades.

But the same old dynamic of class struggle has been making its way into these sectors as well. Restaurant workers, retail workers, warehouse workers, tech workers, all sell their labor power for a wage, surplus value is made off their backs, and they begin to realize the need to defend themselves against their bosses’ greed. This is what we are seeing now. To quote Karl Marx, this is how workers move from a class “in itself” to a class “for itself”.

What is happening in the U.S. belies all the cynics who had abandoned the working class. Some people said that jobs in the fast food industry were impossible to unionize, for example. The statistics seem to prove the pessimists right, as the unionization rate in food services is only 1.2 per cent. As well, the major union federations seem to have abandoned these workers, seeking to organize mostly large workplaces—and in so doing, bring in large amounts of union dues.

And yet, the Starbucks Workers United campaign has the wind in its sails. More than 200 locations are in the process of a union vote since the first victory in Buffalo. All it took was one good example to get the ball rolling!

The struggle at Amazon is particularly emblematic of the 21st century version of class warfare. Here we have Jeff Bezos, the second richest man in human history, facing an independent union drive led by Chris Smalls, an ex-Amazon employee fired in 2020 for staging a walkout to protest the lack of protections against COVID-19. It had even been revealed that Amazon executives wanted Chris Smalls to become the face of Amazon’s unionization effort because they thought he was “not smart or articulate.” Their contempt backfired spectacularly.

Here, too, we were led to believe that unionizing Amazon was not possible. The Washington Post said last year, following the failed unionization drive at the warehouse in Bessemer:

Today’s workers might come by car from an hour away and aren’t so easy to reach. The very productivity that makes Amazon financially attractive to organize leaves little time for workers to pause and make friends with their co-workers, building social networks unions can leverage.

Those are structural disadvantages the union is apt to face at whichever Amazon facility it targets. So while the name of the town might be different in future organizing drives, the result might be much the same.

The Amazon Labor Union has proven all the pessimists and skeptics wrong. As a result, more than 50 warehouses have contacted the ALU since the Staten Island victory!

These great events are having repercussions beyond the borders of the United States. A Calgary Starbucks is currently trying to join the United Steelworkers. Members of Unifor have distributed leaflets to organize Amazon warehouses in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, explicitly referencing the Staten Island victory. Canada is currently lagging behind the radicalization to the left of the American working class. But make no mistake: inflation and wage erosion, rising rents and inequality are making their way here too. And the working class will get on the move here also, sooner or later.

Lessons

It is not just the very fact of unionization at Amazon, Starbucks and the like that is of interest to Marxists. More than that, it is the manner in which these results are achieved that should be assimilated by labor activists.

Amazon workers suffered defeat last year in Bessemer, Alabama. But the organizing drive did not include any concrete demands. Under these conditions, it’s not surprising that hundreds of workers were skeptical.

The same dynamic seems to have been replicated in the Amazon organizing drive in Alberta last year by Teamsters Local 362. Workers reported that union organizers were hard to find to answer their questions, and the local’s vice-president even said, “We’re not here to get your $30. We’re here to help improve the workplace, see if we can negotiate higher wage increases… We can’t guarantee them anything.” In terms of inspiration, we’ve seen better!

The Staten Island campaign contrasted drastically with this approach. The ALU openly put forward bold demands: a wage of, precisely, $30 an hour, and two paid 30-minute breaks and a paid lunch hour. So the campaign offered the promise of tangible results, rather than simply focusing on getting a union. Contrary to a common misconception, demanding small, “reasonable” changes is not more realistic. On the contrary: workers will not take the risk and spend time and effort on a fight for small, meaningless changes. But they’ll fight for bold demands that are worth their while.

What also sets the ALU campaign apart is its grassroots nature. Union president Chris Smalls, the former worker fired for previous attempts to organize, camped out near Staten Island’s JFK8 warehouse for 10 months. He and Derrick Palmer, a warehouse employee, gave all their time to talk to workers, got them involved and answered their questions. The campaign was funded via a GoFundme that raised $120,000, compared to the $4 million Amazon put towards fighting the ALU. An article from The City does a good job of explaining how the two leaders built the movement:

While Smalls spends the bulk of his days outside of JFK8 or at the bus stop, Palmer continues to work inside the four-story building, talking to workers and stationing himself in the breakroom during his free time to gauge support when he’s not working in the packing department…

Both men, and a handful of other organizers, have spent recent weeks hitting the phones, making calls to every JFK8 worker who is eligible to vote in the upcoming union election–roughly 8,300 employees.

Some of the workers reached by phone have asked to meet the organizers in person to discuss the unionization effort. For those workers who have questions, they typically center around union dues and how they work, Smalls said.

“Once we answer their questions, they’re easy to flip because they understand that Amazon is giving them false information.”

Workers did not simply accept Amazon’s anti-union tactics. At mandatory anti-union meetings, workers interrupted consultants to debunk their lying arguments. Workers even collected information about the consultants, and distributed flyers that identified them with photos so that workers would not talk to them! The workers refused to be pushed around, and countered each blow with creative methods that caught the employer and its highly paid anti-union agents off guard.

Smalls himself says their campaign was very different from the usual union campaigns:

They [the traditional unions] like to organize differently than what we’re doing. We’re more out there. You’re not going to find another union president that camps out for 10 months.

Too often, union drives are conducted in a bureaucratic manner, without involving the rank-and-file and without confronting the employer’s dirty tactics head on. It almost makes it seem as if union leaders don’t trust workers. And as we have seen, they often focus on just the unionization in itself, without linking it to actual demands that can inspire the workers.

What the ALU campaign shows is that the labor movement desperately needs to revive the methods of workers’ democracy. In strikes, in pickets, in campaigns within the labor movement, there needs to be maximum space for workers to take things in their own hands. The ALU drive shows what can be accomplished when you involve the rank-and-file and let workers bring their creativity to bear, and when you aren’t scared of making bold demands.

“The revolution is here”

Such were the words of Chris Smalls following the ALU victory. We fully share the enthusiasm of these activists who have accomplished what many people thought was impossible. The leaders of the major unions have much to learn from the methods of struggle used in this first victory at Amazon.

With the teachers’ strikes in 2018 and 2019, the largest mass movement in U.S. history in May-June 2020, and the rise of strikes last fall (“Striketober”), the impressive wave of unionization is a continuation of the return of the American working class. Similar events will occur in Quebec and Canada as well.

It will not be a straight line, but the very experience of the capitalist system will push workers into struggle. Inflation, which is not about to go away, will make it ever more difficult for hundreds of thousands of workers to pay their bills.

Needless to say, the bosses won’t just let workers organize and fight without resistance. Class struggles of epic proportions are brewing. We are only at the beginning of a process that will lead more and more people to the conclusion that capitalism itself must go, and give way to a socialist society where workers are in charge, instead of a minority of the rich.

We’ll leave the last word to an article in the American magazine Newsweek, which comes to the same conclusion as the Marxists:

Wages, the price of buying a house or rent, food costs and the battle for leverage between employers and the fate of smaller businesses against oligopolies will be the defining issues. The class politics that have long dominated Europe are now here with a vengeance, and they will stick around until they are addressed.

Under his headstone in Hampstead Heath, Karl Marx should be smiling.

Originally published in Fightback on April 26, 2022

MR Online, April 29, 2022, https://mronline.org/