Some of the recent conversations at the edges of the recent controversy in the UK Socialist Worker's Party have reminded me of some ongoing concerns. A small number of posts have brought up the old question of class vs. gender, which in itself has never been a terribly productive conversation despite its commonality. Within these conversations, a small, but distinctive group of marxist men will begin by accusing those opposed to them of engaging in 'identity politics', demand that 'class' be put at the center of the conversation, and then proceed to defend themselves based on their authentic class position. In effect, their rejection isn't of the concerns of identity, but in demanding that their identitarian concerns be put ahead of others. What's ironic in this construction is that feminism in its academic and activist forms have largely rejected this identitarian tendency. In effect, the men in the conversation project their own identitarian concerns onto the much richer and complex feminist project expressed by their feminist counterparts. I want to take this as a point to argue that a marxist historical materialist project should reject the notion of beginning with a standpoint in identity at all, whether that be class, race, or gender, but that it should conceptualize those formations within the context of the struggle within complex structures of accumulation. In order to make this argument, I want to look at the reasons that Kathi Weeks rejects the centrality of class analysis in her text, The Problem with Work, and then turn to the arguments made by Etienne Balibar about the formation of class in his work with Immanuel Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities.
Weeks frame her critiques of the primacy of class within a set of socialist feminist concerns, noting that it often it plays a powerful role in the erasure of a variety of structures of exploitation and domination. She gestures towards the focus on division of labor as advocated by Iris Young. Such an analysis would allow for the complex mapping of the modes of exploitation and domination in the workplace, and out of it. It also recognizes the wholesale destruction of working class cultural practices that marks the 20th century in a complex and uneven manner. But she brings up something more significant in the following passage,
"So by at least one way of reckoning, class and work belong to different fields of analysis, and my project pursues the critical study of work instead of class analysis and antiwork politics as a substitute for class struggle. But there is another way to approach class that does not produce such a sharp contrast with the category of work and that yields a different, and I think, more compelling approach to this territory. The distinction between the two fields of analysis becomes rather less clear when class too is conceived in terms of a process rather than an outcome. Process notions of class disrupt the functionalism of static mappings of class formations by attending to the practices by and relations within which they are secured, re-created, and challenged. If class is figured as a process of becoming classed, it may be that work--including struggles over what counts as work--could be conceived as a useful lens through which to approach class; in this way. the struggle against work could be a terrain of class politics.
But let me add one caveat: rather than conceiving class groupings and relations as the ground of antiwork politics, as that which provides its fuel and organizational form, it might be better to think of them as what might emerge from these efforts. By this reading, class formation, or what the autonomist tradition calls class composition, is best conceived as an outcome of struggles rather than their cause. The particular composition of the working class that might emerge from this politics of work--that is, the collectivities that might coalesce around its issues and the divisions that might develop in the interstices of antiwork struggles and in relation to postwork imaginaries--remain an open question." (Weeks 19)
Weeks' approach to the category of class doesn't act to reject its usefulness, but reimagines it in such a way as to think of it primarily as an effect of struggles, rather than as a cause of them. That is to say, class composition is created through the struggles that occur in response to the modes in the various laboring structures that they operate within. That approach recognizes that class composition can only be understood in mobile terms, that is as 'processes', rather than 'static mappings.' We might indeed draw on the Deleuzian language implicit in Weeks' formulation, and state that class composition and decomposition can be only understood within the lines of flight and apparatuses of capture that constitute the terrain of struggle. Although Weeks doesn't spell this out, it also becomes significant that class formations are inevitably products of defeat in the worst cases, and compromise in the best cases. They reflect the oscillation between capitulation and resistance that defines the history of class struggles. Therefore, such historical formations must be learned from critically, precisely because any simple embrace of such formations is simultaneously an embrace of the present situation. Instead, the recomposition of class resistance must be open-ended, and without a predetermined goal, defined by goals produced by its own struggles, rather than embracing the image of success constructed by dead struggles of the past.
Etienne Balibar's work in Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities provides a useful lens of analysis in order to understand this process within a historical perspective. He begins by noting,
"What seems very clear, then, if one looks at the actual text of Marx's analysis, is not that there is a predetermined linking of forms, but rather an interplay of antagonistic strategies, strategies of exploitation, domination and resistance being displaced and renewed as a consequence of its own effects." (Balibar 164)
The class form is then produced through a complex structure of social relationships, defined by exploitation and domination on one hand and resistance and solidarity on the other hand. A shifting set of forms must be largely understood as an effect, rather than as a cause of the 'interplay of antagonistic strategies' that shape and form it. Balibar will go on to point out that this fact means that the splits and conflicts found throughout working class history "are no accident but represent the very substance of this relationship." Class identity is not only an effect of the complex and overdetermined structure of the class struggle, but it is also an extremely unstable and shift formation.
Balibar then goes on to spell out the historical terms that define the shifting nature of that particular formation.
"I want to suggest, to begin with, that what showed itself in the nineteenth and twentieth century as a relatively autonomous 'proletarian identity' needs to be understood as an objective ideological effect. An ideological effect is not a 'myth', or at least it cannot be reduced to one(all the more so since it does not imply that the 'truth of the myth' lies in individualism, since individualism is itself, par excellence, and ideological effect linked to the market economy and the modern state). In the same way, it is not possible to reduce to a myth the presence on the political stage of a force that identifies itself and is acknowledged as the 'working class', however intermittent its direct political acts may be, however variable its unity and divisions. Without its presence, the persistence of the social question and its role in the transformation of the state would remain unintelligible.
But what the work of historians does force us to register that there is nothing spontaneous, automatic or invariable about this ideological effect. It is the result of a permanent dialectic of working-class practice and organizational forms in which the forces in play include not only 'living conditions', 'working conditions', and 'economic conditions' but also the forms taken by national politics in the framework of the state (for instance, the questions of universal suffrage, national unity, wars, secular versus religious education and so on). In short, it is a constantly overdetermined dialectic in which a relatively individualized class is formed only through the relations it maintains all the other classes within a network of institutions. (Balibar 169-170)
Balibar moves on to state class is not only an effect of struggles, but the very conception of an autonomous notion of class is constructed as a particular way of negotiating a series of historical struggles, one that negotiates a series of differences and conflicts in order to frame and form those very struggles. He makes the point of pointing out that this statement doesn't turn class into a myth opposed to the 'real' individualism, which is itself a distinctive ideological effect of the particular nature of the market economy and the modern state, and that one cannot deny the reality of this ideological structure as a political force. But one has to look at a complex series of forces, that cannot be reduced to the reductivist understanding of the workplace. Instead, the working class is formed through a series of political questions that may seem incidental to it, including religious questions, questions of suffrage, etc. One might push this farther when looking at the proletarian structures of the United States and elsewhere to focus on structures of race and gender contained in the division of labor itself. Our concept of the proletariat or independent working class has either resisted those forms of domination, or it has all to often contributed to them, but those questions are not incidental to the notion of a relatively autonomous working class, instead they form the very fabric of that structure, and cannot be separated out of the process.
In effect, the question of identity is crucial to any historical materialist practice, but one that must be understood largely as an effect, or perhaps more generously, a part of the complex and overdetermined process that structures a particular regime of accumulation, which is itself in constant transformation.