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May 15, 2005

Intellectual Bankruptcy of NY Times on Class

It's one thing to be intellectually simplistic in an off-hand statement of a larger news article. But when the New York Times sets out on a multi-week series on "class" in America, it is shocking to see the authors writing so stupidly about the issue.

What they are writing about is economic opportunity, whether children can make more money than their parents. Fair enough, but that's only one part of the issues at stake in discussions of the concept of "class" historically. All they really discuss are gradations of status, not class, which is not just about individual success but about the broader operations of the economy.

To be sophisticated neoliberals, the authors make the obligatory idiotic mistatement of what Karl Marx said on the subject:

When societies were simpler, the class landscape was easier to read. Marx divided 19th-century societies into just two classes; Max Weber added a few more.
In fact, Marx described society as riven by multiple classes inherited from the feudal age-- landowners, peasants, large business owners, petit-bourgoisie, guild workers, unskilled workers, the criminal class, and so on.

What Marx argued was that the nature of capitalism was encouraging a flattening of class distinctions, where the vast numbers of the population would increasingly make their income through wage labor, while a very small number would own enough capital to earn most of their income through returns on their wealth. This is an issue not of a continuum of status and income but of asking whether a person's income comes from working for other people or whether a person contols other peoples' labor. Class in this conception is a process effecting the whole economy, not a description of individual status.

Nothing in Marx's idea of class was incompatible with some degree of economic mobility, at least for a tiny segment of the population. In fact, many of the emerging capitalist class of Marx's day were nouveau-rich, displacing the old feudal lords who had previously dominated society.

The New York Times , because of their obsession with individual status, ignore these structural issues of class and the economy. But if they did pay attention, it would be obvious that Marx's prediction of a flattening of class towards a division between a small handful of owners versus wage earners is more true today than in Marx's day. Many of the small capitalists of yesteryear, running small shops in towns across the country, have been replaced by Wal-Mart managers working on salary, while a much tinier group of people control the capital that decides whether other people are employed or not in those big corporations.

There are interesting classic issues of class to analyze in the modern economy, say the status of the owners of subcontractors, companies totally dependent on big corporations but officially operating as separate firms. This is a pervasive phenomenon but does not override the increasing domination of the economy by larger and larger companies that straddle the globe, even as more and more workers around the world share a common position as workers for those global corporations.

Given the complexity of society, it's actually an easy intellectual exercise to catalog the differences between people -- the apparent program of the New York Times authors in coming weeks -- but the harder exercise is to understand commonalities that transcend those surface differences. The interests of the elite are in emphasizing those differences to keep workers divided against each other economically and politically.

We'll see how the series proceeds, but it's a pretty inauspicious start intellectually.

Posted by Nathan at May 15, 2005 08:58 AM