‘How do you deal with slavery in the ancient world?’ Someone asked the person who had just given a paper on class as a ‘reductionist’ category.

‘Well’, came the reply. ‘You need to consider the situation of each individual slave. One slave may be in the mines under brutal conditions, while another may be a slave in a wealthy household, or another may be a skilled artisan. Each individual situation is different, with many determining factors that need to be analysed. So it is not helpful to consider slaves as a class, which is a reductionist category …’

At this moment, I realised once again that liberalism really does mess with people’s minds. The presenter in question had skipped through a number of European philosophers such as Deleuze, Latour and Balibar, claiming some vaguely ‘Marxist’ credentials so as to show how even Marxism had given up on the ‘crude’ category of class. I was waiting to see Margaret Thatcher quoted as well: ‘there is no society’. With this conjuring trick, class had apparently disappeared.

Obviously, class was a real bogey for this person. It had to be fought off and denied any validity. The context of course was the return of class as a way of understanding and acting in the world. We can identify a a wide range of causes: the rise of a range of left-wing movements, even in bourgeois democracies (from Jeremy Corbyn to Bernie Sanders), the strength of angry forces on the right, the decline of the United States and the increasing strength of socialist China with a very different vision for the world. In this context, it should be no surprise that class had returned with a vigour not seen for a while, even in the fraying and disintegrating hegemony of Euro-American practice and thought. Thus, as a desperate rear-guard action, class must be denied any validity, even in the cocoon of intellectual inquiry. It is a ‘reductionist’ category, it is argued, slotting people arbitrarily into ‘boxes’ – standard rhetorical moves you will encounter again and again.

Let me give another example, again in discussions about ancient slavery. Now the emphasis was on manumission and freed persons. In slavery, it was argued, the promise of manumission held a powerful ideological force, ensuring that many slaves ‘behaved’ themselves so as to keep alive the possibility of manumission. And freed persons contributed greatly to ancient Roman society and economics.

Then came the question: ‘But why did the Roman ruling class still see them in terms of slavery?’ I would add that they also viewed peasants, under tenure or not, and even the later coloni (when all were tied to land rather than masters or landlords) in terms of slavery. The answer: you have to consider the individual situations of freed persons. Some became relatively rich and owned houses, while others ended up being poor day labourers. Their individual situations and status differed greatly … By now, the strategy should be obvious: negate class through a thousand qualifications in favour of the private individual. And one can even add a little bit of Max Weber, suggesting that status, if not Weber’s great love of the role a ‘free labour’ (conjured out of thin air), played a role.

This effort to deny class in the name of a pernicious liberalism has a number of levels, not least of which is denying class all round you (I was in the United States, believe it or not, where Trump was president and homeless people crowded the streets). But I would like to stress one point that is directly connected to the examples given: modern liberalism arose in the context of slavery. In other words, liberalism is based on a constitutive unfreedom, the exclusion of many from the category of the free and private individual. The first ideologues of liberalism were either slave owners or strong supporters of slavery. Think of the framers of the American Declaration of Independence, or Hugo Grotius, John Stuart Mill or John Locke.[1] Indeed, they saw what came to be called liberalism as a sober and reasonable position, so much so that abolitionists were regarded as fanatics and extremists who would tear society apart. All in the name of the private individual.

In other words, the power of liberalism is to deny and negate the exclusion and oppression at its heart. If you stress the complexity of each individual situation, class dissipates and you can get on with your individual life in blissful ignorance. Liberalism really does screw your mind.

[1] Tellingly, liberalism arose first and was strongest in three contexts: the revolution of the Dutch against Philip II of Spain (1655-1648), the Glorious Revolution in England (1688) and the American Revolution (1765-83). In each place, the slave trade provided the basis for wealth and power.

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I feel like a stranger in the world, especially Europe. Over the past week or two I have travelled across Europe, from east to northwest, and stayed in different places. It is turning out to be intimately familiar and disconcertingly strange.

Why? After some discussion, it seems as though these are some of the features.

Everywhere it seems as though people are obsessed about refugees and immigrants, no matter what the political persuasion. It is not merely the right-wing groups and parties who make this an issue: nearly everyone seems to feel it is the main problem facing Europe today. But if we take a Marxist approach, then the concern with migrants is a diversion, if not a symptom of the main problem: economics and class.

So let me use this lens to interpret what I see and hear:

  1. A major plank of EU economic policy is a ‘free labour market’. What this really means is that people seeking work from poorer countries will drive down incomes and conditions of those in the richer countries. In other words, the migrant labour situation is standard EU policy. This situation creates the scene for a number of responses:
  2. The recasting of this policy in light of the strange framework of a scarcity of jobs: with limited jobs in the richer countries, the increasing number of migrants seeking work means greater unemployment, crime and so on. Very strange: if workers in the richer countries were prepared to take jobs with lower pay and less conditions, wherever such a job might be, they would still have work – in line with EU policy.
  3. The narrative of the various ‘right-wing’ parties is that migrants from the Middle East are taking jobs.
  4. The narrative of the social-democratic parties is that cheaper labourers from eastern Europe are taking jobs and social welfare.
  5. Speaking of social welfare, the implicit xenophobia of the welfare state reveals its face. Such welfare is only for the deserving within a state, not for the EU as a whole, or indeed wider.
  6. And those who see themselves as middle-class progressives can now blame the workers for being racist and reactionary.

Is there a theory of the socialist state? We can draw together a theory from a careful study of the experiences and statements of the Soviet Union and China, the two places where a socialist state has begun to emerge. Why? They are the two largest countries where socialism has been and is in power, after a successful revolution. Let me put the proposal in a series of theses, premised on the point that a socialist state is not a federation, not a nation-state, not an empire, not a colonising power, whether externally or internally, but an entirely new state formation.

  1. A socialist state is based on the international category of class, which enables a new approach to the ‘national question’. Only through a resolute focus on class is the recognition of and equality between nationalities fully achieved. To be clear: by ‘national question’ I mean not the ‘nation’ as it is understood now (as an imagined community) but the question of nationalities (minzu), which should not be translated as ‘ethnic minorities’. In each state a number of nationalities exist together. One may approach such a reality either by prioritising ‘cultural-national’ factors (what may be called ‘culturism’) or by focusing resolutely on class. Only with class does one enable the dialectical position in which class unity produces not merely recognition and equality, but a whole new level of diversity. In other words, a socialist state enables a new approach to the dialectic of the universal and particular.
  2. This dialectic is embodied in the dictatorship of the proletariat and peasants. This is a totalising unity based on class that produces new levels of diversity, and it requires a linking of liberation from class oppression with liberation from national oppression. When this link is made, the role of the dictatorship of the proletariat becomes clear: it is the necessary foundation for the equality between and indeed diversity of peoples of different nations, after liberation has been achieved. The dictatorship of the proletariat does so by guaranteeing the rights of national minorities.
  3. A socialist state is the source and embodiment of what may be called affirmative action (polozhitel’naia deiatel’not’). This was first enacted in the Soviet Union on a vast scale and has been followed, with modifications, by all socialist states since – especially China. The program involves a comprehensive effort at social, cultural and economic recreation. Nationalities, no matter how small, are identified, named and established in territories, where local language, culture, education and governance are fostered. Dispersed minorities with no territory are provided with strong legal protections. I use the term ‘recreation’ quite deliberately, for it is very much a creative act entailing the creation of groups, peoples and nations – to the point of creating new nationalities out of groups that had never dreamed of such an existence. The process involves the deliberate intervention by socialists into the process of producing and developing a new society, among which national groups play a central role.
  4. A socialist state undertakes cultural revolution. By this I mean the raising of the many people of the state to a new socialist level. In the Soviet Union ‘cultural revolution’ meant ‘the cultural development of the working class and of the masses of the working peasantry, not only the development of literacy, although literacy is the basis of all culture, but primarily the cultivation of the ability to take part in the administration of the country’. In China, we need to reclaim the meaning of cultural revolution in this sense, and not in terms of the period of the 1960s and 1970s. In other words, cultural revolution means Marxism’s influence on and infiltration into social and cultural assumptions. This is increasingly clear in China, where Marxism is becoming a cultural force, indeed a part of the long history of Chinese culture.
  5. A socialist state is anti-colonial. This crucial insight first appeared in the Soviet Union: the October Revolution and the affirmative action program of the Soviet Union functioned as a microcosm of the global struggle against colonialism. This insight is a logical extension of the argument I noted earlier, in which a focus on class provides a distinct, dialectical, approach to the national question that leads to the world’s first affirmative action program. Once this logic is applied to national minorities, it also may be applied to gender, religion, and then anti-colonial struggles. The logic is clear: socialism has led to a new approach to nationalities, liberating them and fostering them through the affirmative action program; further, socialism is opposed on a global scale to capitalist imperialism; therefore, global socialism engages in and fosters anti-colonial struggles throughout the world. No wonder the Soviet Union actively supported anti-colonial struggles around the world, so much so that what we call post-colonialism, as both an era and a theory, could not have happened without such anti-colonial action. This also applies to China, whose socialist revolution was also an anti-colonial revolution, finally throwing off European semi-colonialism (which dated from the nineteenth century) and Japanese colonialism. China’s involvement today in formerly colonised countries in the world is a continuation of this anti-colonial policy by the most powerful socialist state in history.
  6. A socialist state must deal with counter-revolutionary forces within and especially international efforts to undermine it (the two are often connected). Whenever a socialist revolution happens, we do not find international capitalist countries saying, ‘Wonderful! Go ahead, construct your socialist country. We will leave you in peace; indeed, we are enthusiastic bystanders’. Instead, historical reality reveals consistent efforts to undermine and overthrow socialist states, including the fostering of counter-revolutionary forces within. We need only recall the ‘civil’ wars in Russia and China, the international blockades, sabotage, efforts at destabilisation in Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and the international pastime – found even among international Marxists – of ‘China bashing’.
  7. The communist party is integral to a socialist state. This is a relationship of transcendence and immanence: the party arises from and expresses the will of the masses of workers, farmers and intellectuals, while it also directs the masses. From the masses, to the masses – as Mao Zedong stated. If the relationship is broken, the party loses its legitimacy and the project is over. Thus, the party undergoes constant renewal and reform in order to maintain legitimacy. If a communist party accedes to a bourgeois or liberal democratic system, it is soon out of power, for bourgeois democracy is one of the most effective weapons against socialism.
  8. A socialist state develops socialist democracy. Integral to socialist democracy is the communist party in terms of transcendence and immanence in relation to the masses. In contrast to Greek democracy, liberal (or bourgeois) or illiberal democracy, socialist democracy includes the majority of the population – workers, peasants and intellectuals. Socialist democracy is a constantly evolving process and may, as Mao Zedong pointed out, include – among others – stages of new democracy, democratic dictatorship and democratic centralism. The latter is the reality in China today.
  9. In a socialist state we find the growth of socialist civil society. This is in contrast to bourgeois civil society, which entails a basic alienation between private individual and the state, as well as a systemic exclusion of the majority. Instead of this alienation, socialist civil society operates in a new way, in the dialectical space between official discourse and individual expression, in which the individual finds freedom through the collective. Indeed, socialist civil society is based on a redefinition of freedom, which provides a new universal based on the particularity of the majority, in an explicitly open way. This freedom is a freedom from bourgeois civil society and freedom for the socialist project. Eventually, the category of freedom itself will become an everyday habit.

A final question: will the socialist state ‘wither away’, as some elements of the Marxist tradition suggest? Perhaps, but only in a future situation in which the majority of countries are socialist. However, even in this situation is more realistic to see that the socialist state will take on new features so that it becomes a communist state.

As part of my Sacred Economy project, I have been enthralled by the animal remains that provide insights into the basic features of the economies of the Levant, with subsistence agriculture at their basis. Sheep and goats have turned out to be the key, with small numbers of bovines for traction.

But what about the much-debated pigs, with their lovers and not so enthusiastic consumers? Were they fostered and consumed in that largely dry zone between Egypt and Mesopotamia. The remains of pig bones fluctuate over time, with abundant distribution during the Chalcolithic, declining to a low in the Late Bronze Age, rebounding in the early Iron Age for a while, until full resurgence in the Hellenistic era. When they are present, they are so pretty much everywhere; when absent, the same applies. Rather than laying the cause of such a patchy pattern on an emerging ideological aversion to porcine products (and investing wasted energy in trying to determine ethic identity in the basis of pig remains), it is more realistic to focus on the limited possibilities of pigs within a subsistence survival institutional form. Although pigs provide good quality meat, they fare ill under temperature extremes, requiring relatively high levels of water. Pigs are limited to the 250 mm isohyet, much higher than that required by sheep and especially goats. And they do not provide fiber or milk for human consumption. Our porcine cousins provide only limited resources, under certain conditions, and are thereby not always the best option when conditions are tough.

As a footnote, it is worth noting that where the conditions were more well watered and therefore favourable, class issues often turned on the humble pig. More often than not, pigs were used by common farmers and shunned by the ruling class. A similar situation applies to Egypt, where the riverine environment is more favourable to pigs. Here the abundant remains of pigs are limited to the rural population, while they were denigrated and avoided by the ruling class.

‘Were you born in Berlin?’ I asked her after she sat down next to me. We were both on the train from Berlin. Thrilled to find someone from Australia since she had lived there recently, she was keen to talk.

‘Yes’, she said.

‘So do you speak the Berlin dialect – Berlinerisch?’ I said.

‘Only when I am angry’, she replied. ‘My mother was from outside Berlin, so she made sure that I did not grow up speaking the dialect. But my father, he is from Neukölln and he speaks it well and truly’.

‘But why do you speak it only when angry’, I said.

‘It’s not a good dialect’, she said.

‘But why not?’ I said.

‘It’s a working class dialect’, she said. ‘In the west, it was very much the dialect of the lower class, while the upper class looked down on it’.

‘What about the east?’ I said.

‘There it was the official language, spoken by everyone’, she said.

‘Is that still the case?’ I said.

‘Of course, east and west no longer exist as they did’, she said. ‘But these differences are still present’.

‘Yeah, I guess such deeper differences don’t disappear overnight’, I said. ‘But do you think that’s a result of the emphasis on workers in the communist east? The language of the working class becomes the official language’.

‘I suppose so’, she said. ‘But now that difference, between a capitalist west and communist east, is overlaid by the difference between middle class and working class’.

‘So a double condemnation’, I said. ‘It marks one as either from the old east or from the working class, or both – at least in terms of the ruling class’.

‘Yes’, she said, laughing. ‘But it’s still not a good dialect’.

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.