Since some became a little hot under the collar in discussion over a previous post on China concerning the question of class, I thought I’d explain.

Put simply, class is defined in both objective and subjective terms. Objectively, class designates the difference between those who work to produce goods and those who extract a surplus from those goods but do not produce them. This objective difference is manifested in division of labour, which operates in complex patterns of distinctions between male and female, mind and body, city and country, material and immaterial wealth. The subjective dimension involves a consciousness of belonging to a particular class. That consciousness includes a complex web of cultural assumptions, modes of speech, social codes, world outlook and religion. Most significantly, class consciousness is determined by a class opponent, the differences with which are marked by opposing assumptions of one’s role and importance within production, and by the cultural assumptions each holds.

To take the classic example from Marx, while the objective conditions for a working class emerged well before 1848, it was only with those revolutions that a distinct working class emerged. How? Up until that point, all had been united on a common front with promises of freedom and equality. However, when the bourgeoisie gained power, the workers expected and demanded the same freedoms. Bugger off, said the bourgeoisie. They aren’t for you. At this moment a class enemy becomes clear. And in that identification of a class enemy, the consciousness of being a working class emerges. Only then is it possible to speak of a ‘working class’, where both objective and subjective factors play a role.

As colleagues in China have explained to me, this analysis works very well there. With the problematic adoption of certain aspects of capitalist economic relations in the late 1970s, they brought with them objective conditions for a working class and a middle class. So you do have a situation where some work on farms, others work in industries that supply most of the world, and others in various management positions. And you do have millionaires, or rogue capitalists, who make their living off the surplus produced. This is a situation that many find highly problematic and much energy is being expended to deal with it. But you do not have the subjective conditions for a working class or a middle class, since the class enemy has not been identified through a crucial incident or series of incidents. All of which means that the loose terminology of China’s ‘rising middle class’ or exploited ‘working class’, bandied about in the Western media, or even among those who should know better, misses the point.

Should a point of class consciousness and the identification of class enemies occur, then that may well be the signal that the Chinese experiment has failed. But if they can manage to avoid that moment and cut back the situation that has created the objective conditions, then they may succeed with their unique experiment.