The Journal of Class and Culture: Some thoughts in advance of a launch
The Journal of Class and Culture: Some thoughts in advance of a launch
Deirdre O’Neill and Mike Wayne
The subtitle of Martin Jay’s book Marxism and Totality is The Adventures of a Concept from Lukacs to Habermas. Like ‘totality’ the concept of class has also had a long historical adventure and in all its debates and difficulties it has been inextricably connected to forces beyond the conceptual, beyond disciplines and academia. Very clearly the adventure of class in the modern period begins with the self-organisation of the working class, in whose interests it is to develop an account of their experiences in structural terms and with a degree of antagonism against that other class that buys their labour-power. The rising arc of working class organisation in trade unions and political parties shaped the ‘long revolution’ of western capitalist development from the 1830s to the 1970s. But the counter-power of capital was also at work continuously and through a whole range of strategies gradually acquired, in the absence of World Wars after 1945, the upper hand. It re-organised work places, processes and conditions making it more difficult for workers to organise on their own terms. It expended enormous sums of money lobbying political parties left and right, changing the political and intellectual climate through which workers had once won reforms. And capital promoted an increasingly powerful consumer culture which has had material and ideological effectiveness in promoting values congruent with individualism and competition, eroding the cultures of co-operation and solidarity which are so important to the workers’ movement. One of the strategies of mass culture is to cast class as a nostalgic/archaic category, always disappearing in the rear-view mirror of history as it spears towards the classless future.
After the 2007-8 global crash, the kind of post-social democracy free market capitalism that had been confident and ascendant, lost much of its moral and political credibility. Yet it remains in power. It has dominated the policy response to the crash, establishing the age of austerity, from Greece to the UK. In this context though, it was noticeable that class made a welcome comeback in academia, after several decades where it had steadily lost ground to other perspectives and priorities. Perhaps not surprisingly, sociology, especially the sociology of culture, has been re-discovering the importance of class. There has been a thriving literature on the new genre of class disgust and shaming that has shaped the media and policy making construction of the working class. It should be noted, that while class here returns as a legitimate category of analysis, the working class are now being framed by media cultures as a subject of moral concern, not a political threat. This is symptomatic of the disorganisation of the working class that was responsible for the decline in the concept of class in the academic literature. As well as combating such class discrimination, we have also seen important work critiquing one of the great policy framing ideologies that underpins class disgust, that of meritocracy. A recent book from a sociology of culture perspective is Against Meritocracy by Jo Littler and there is a more historical account of meritocracy in Selina Todd’s newly published Snakes and Ladders, The Great British Social Mobility Myth.
The concept of meritocracy reminds us that class is a relational category, a relation between classes based on alliances, conflict and hegemony. Meritocracy is an ideology of the elites which the middle classes have assiduously taken up and promoted. If Marxism has been strong on the big macro-sweep of history, through the fusion of political science, political economy and historical analysis, sociology has been strong in focusing on the dynamics between the working class and the middle class. The middle class has been that great conundrum for Marxism. Its political conception of class allows it to subsume the middle class into the working class, but this is a subsumption that only has some practical efficacy in those relatively few and short-lived moments of considerable revolt against the established order. And even then, it tends to be only a minority of the middle class who join ‘the workers’ revolution’, while the revolution’s dependence on the conservative bulwark of specialists and experts in the middle class threatens the return of some old hierarchies. For much of the rest of the time, and despite long-term trends that have pressurised middle class occupations with de-professionalising forces (such as new technology threatening to undermine higher education workers for example with online learning), the middle class have been able to struggle to preserve their ‘distinctions’ from the working class. That struggle is as much of interest to the journal as research into the working class is.
This is why although the cry of the Occupy movements some ten years ago of the 99% against the 1% was useful, it was also ambiguous. Yes the 1% named the corporate and oligarchic elite who have amassed vast unimaginable wealth, much of it stashed away out of sight from national governments. But the 99% have important internal and structural differences which it is not helpful to gloss over.
The Journal of Class & Culture will be a home for multi-disciplinary work on classes and it will, we hope, be a journal read beyond academia and indeed have contributions from people outside academia. Along with the standard essay, the journal will be open to a mixed range of outputs to accommodate a diverse range of voices. It will not be a journal of high philosophy and abstraction. Such journals already exist and do important work, but this is not our project. And in the best tradition of internationalism, it seeks articles and contributions from around the world, because the working classes, the middle classes and the capitalist classes are similarly international and interwoven.
Finally, the journal is about class and culture. Class is not properly understood merely as an objectivist entity independent of how it is lived, felt, experienced, represented and understood: all aspects of the concept of culture, which of course has had its own historical adventures that cannot be rehearsed here. Culture is not a moral category. Cultures are not in themselves good or bad. Like working conditions, culture can be very oppressive, but like working conditions, culture can also contain within it the seeds of liberation, transformation and deep reflection as opposed to unthinking habit. Culture is an analytical category, abstracting particular dimensions of reality for close inspection and it is a methodological category, developing certain concepts that seem to capture the specificity of cultural phenomena and distinguish it from say ‘economics’ or ‘politics’. But abstraction and methodology also have to reassemble culture back into its contexts (and here moral judgement does make sense) so that the project is of the cultural materialist kind advocated by Raymond Williams. A materialist concept of culture, for example, has little truck with the idea that class is an ‘identity’ that can be adopted or discarded at will, in the way that sociologists have found the middle class doing vis-à-vis working class cultures. That is a very middle-class habitus (to use Bourdieu’s term) and strategy of disavowal and reverse esteem building by adopting the projected ‘authenticity’ of the subaltern class. These are complex (almost ‘colonial’) dynamics, because class is complex and it deserves a dedicated forum for wide and informed debate.