It is widely and correctly believed that the rich and corporations, through their vast pools of wealth, influence and control the government. This is true, but only part of the story. If the above was the whole picture, we would expect liberal reforms like campaign finance reform, publicly funded elections, breaking up the two-party duopoly, prohibiting lobbying, and so on to truly create a government of the people, by the people, for the people. Many countries have instituted all of the above reforms and more. Yet, governments still pass legislation overwhelmingly in favor of their rich citizens. How is this possible? It’s time to take a journey through the materialist conception of history — alternatively called historical materialism.
1. What Makes Us Human
Before we can talk about the complicated relationship between governments, classes, and citizens, we got to start a little more abstractly. We got to start by talking about what makes us human. Scientists and philosophers have long thought about this question and have given many different answers. Our rational decision-making abilities is what makes us human. The fact that we have language. We make and use tools. Some even think it’s because we laugh.
What all those answers have in common is that they are in some way rooted in cognitive processes, that is human consciousness. In The German Ideology, Karl Marx comments on those types of answers:
Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence…. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their material life. (37)
Marx was not the first to point out humanity’s unique productive ability here. Aristotle likewise was amazed at our ability to produce things. Bees, to use Aristotle’s example, also produce honey combs, but humans uniquely are the kinds of animals that consciously plan to produce things for their subsistence and beyond. This extraordinary ability shouldn’t be underestimated. It is quite the creative feat to come up with some plan in one’s mind and turn that plan into reality — whether it be something ‘mundane’ like cooking a meal, or what we usually associate the word creative with like painting a picture, playing music, or inventing some new gadget. Every human exercises this creative capacity in some way in their daily lives, whether they are aware that what they are doing is pretty much unique in the animal world or not.
Bees everywhere produce in essentially the same way. Unlike bees, humans have varieties of modes of production, i.e. the way societies organize individuals to produce things. Throughout history, there have been different modes of production. Many economists and politicians, to the chagrin of anthropologists, historians, and some political economists, falsely assert that capitalism has always existed and always will exist in some form.
All modes of production rely on forces or means of production. These are the tools we use to produce the things we need and want. The hammer and nail, ox-driven hoe, the steam engine, the automated car factory are all different means of production that we have used to produce things like houses, agricultural products, bullets, and automobiles.
Means of production must be organized in some way. Someone must plow the farms and work the factories. Our natural ability to produce in conjunction with means of production gives rise to relations of production and distribution. These relations are social in that they take place between different people standing in different economic relations to one another. A slave plantation economy, subsistence farming in Angola, and large-scale mechanized industrial farming in the contemporary United States all have something to do with agriculture. They use similar means of production (even though industrial farming in the U.S. is far more advanced than subsistence farming in Angola). But they have fundamentally different social relations that arise from how they produce and distribute the goods.
The clearest example is the case of the slave economy. Masters quite literally own the means of production — the slaves — and through their ownership devise legal and political means to maintain control over them. In the United States today, most people are wage laborers who work for either capitalist enterprises or the government and goods are distributed through the impersonal ‘free’ marketplace. In the time of the Founding Fathers, most people were not wage laborers. Rather, they were subsistence farmers. Thomas Jefferson recognized this fact when he wrote that the ideal government is a republic made up of subsistence farmers with good, civic virtue. It is no coincidence that the Jeffersonian utopia was limited by the dominant way American colonial society actually organized production and distribution.
2. So What Makes a Class?
To recap briefly, societies have different modes of production. These modes of production consist of the means of production (tools, resources, etc.) and the relations of production and distribution (how society produces and distributes the goods it makes). We can put this in a little equation:
Mode of Production = Means of Production + Relations of Production and Distribution
It is time to talk a bit more about relations of production. Who works the means of production? Who owns the means of production? Answers these questions tells us something interesting about the class nature of the society in question.
We all think we know something about class. From politicians to their mouthpiece journalists, Americans hear about poor people, rich people, and something called the middle class. According to a recent Gallup Poll, 51% of Americans say they are in the middle class (down from 61% in the years 2000-2008). People identify as middle class with incomes ranging from less than $30,000 to over $200,000 a year. Clearly in some sense the person making $30,000 and the person making $200,000 a year have something in common: namely, that they make more than someone making $20,000 and less than someone making $1 million. And yet it is also evident that these two people live qualitatively different lifestyles.
This income-based notion of class is highly subjective. Mainstream political scientists and economists do not try to hide this (well, in the case of neoclassical economics — the dominant ideology — classes don’t even really exist. There’s nothing but rational individuals in the marketplace making exchanges of goods). Buried deep within the history of the technical literature is a tacit acceptance that defining class on income falls prey to the Sorites Paradox. At some point, it’s arbitrary what level of income denotes poor, middle class, or rich.
This subjective notion of class is to the great benefit of the rich and their apologists. If class is just based on some arbitrary divide, then we can just think away the troubles and differences between the rich and the poor. After all, it’s totally arbitrary on this account what makes one poor or rich. So we don’t need to think of complex socio-economic problems in terms of class or institutions; rather, we can just simplify and reduce them to particular problems of an individual’s personality or psychology. And voilà, the poor just need to work harder because the only thing that’s holding them back is themselves.
Neoclassical economics: “Bootstrap harder Oliver. You can’t just expect handouts in life.”
Socialists analyze class differently. Class has not so much to do with your income (although that’s part of it). It has to do with your relation to the production process. In other words, someone’s class is dictated by whether they work the means of production and whether or not they own the means of production.
Different modes of production have had different answers to who owned and worked the means of production. There have been many societies of small, subsistence farmers collectively owning and working the means of production. These kinds of societies gave rise to relations of production characterized by communal ownership of the means of production. Who owned and who worked the means of production had the same answer: peasant farmers and their communities. The workers and the owners had one and the same interest, namely satisfying human needs because the workers and owners were the same people.
(The reader astute in economic history will object to this oversimplification and point out the existence of nonproductive classes like priests, feudal lords, soldiers, generals, merchants, and so on. This is an entirely accurate objection. The above simplification is for presentation purposes. A full treatment of complex pre-capitalist social relations is beyond the scope of this blog post.)
Capitalism is a fundamentally different mode of production. We can characterize capitalism as an economic system of generalized commodity production with private ownership of the means of production with market distribution of goods. Commodities are products whose sole purpose are realizing profit in the marketplace. In short, all economic activity is oriented in capitalism towards making profit, not satisfying human needs.
Private ownership of the means of production entails that there is a group of people who own the tools, resources, factories, etc. to produce goods and group of people who do not own those things. We call the group that owns the means of production capitalists or, if you’re feeling fancy, the bourgeoisie. (Another name for means of production is capital, hence the origin of the name capitalist). Those who own no means of production and have nothing to sell but their labor-power we call the proletariat or wage-laborers.
It does not take much thought to see that capitalists and wage-laborers have fundamentally different interests dictated by their standing in the production process. As owners of the means of production, capitalists will want to extract as much value from their machines and workers as possible. They will push for wage-laborers to work harder for longer hours at lower pay. Wage-laborers will want to see that they are paid as highly as possible for their labor. These different class interests give rise to class struggle. What is stopping the workers who greatly outnumber capitalists from just seizing control of the means of production and running society democratically themselves?
3. The Executive Committee for Managing the Common Affairs of the Capitalists
In order to manage the antagonisms stemming from different class interests, it is necessary to have a powerful apparatus with the monopoly of violence and the pretense of universality and impartiality of law and order. This apparatus is what we call the State or government. Every class society has had a State. But the contemporary form of the State is relatively new in history. Some historians trace it to around the 1600s, others to 1700s-1800s. Whatever the year, it’s obvious that for most of human history, both the economic system and the political system did not remain constant.
It is important to see the relation between class antagonisms and the State. Capitalists hold disproportionate economic power over wage-laborers because of their ownership of the means of production. The State emerges to manage the class antagonisms in society and protect the interests of the dominant class. But because the State is a geographic entity compromising an area that includes more than just owners of the means of production, you will never see representatives of the State openly acknowledge its class nature. Even the most egregious and obvious examples, like monarchies and slave-holding societies, masked the class nature of the governments through ideologies like the divine right of kings or the inferior nature of the enslaved peoples.
The economic power of capitalists translates into political power in the State. Liberal reforms like campaign finance reform do not fundamentally change the nature of the State because they do not address the source of the capitalists’s power. They are merely surface modifications, akin to putting a band-aid on a cancer patient. This does not mean that such reforms aren’t valuable. Rather, it shows the limitations of liberal reforms.
Governments cannot be amended to not serve the rich so long as ownership and control of the economy stays in the hands of a few individuals. Political democracy will be a sham until democracy in the workplace is realized. This will come about only by ending private ownership and socializing the means of production, i.e. bringing the economy under the direct, democratic self-management of the working class.
Addendum: What about race, sex, culture, and so on?
The above introduction to historical materialism is necessarily brief and oversimplifying. Societies are more complicated than just social relations coming from our place in the production process. It would be doubtful how useful historical materialism would be if it completely ignored the particular problems that come from different treatments of race, sex, and even the powerful influence of culture. However, this post was meant as an answer to the question in the title. A fuller account of the role race relations, sex disparities, and cultural problems is something I hope to talk about in more detail in later posts.
Nevertheless, historical materialism does often get accused of being class reductionist by both leftists and rightists. Friedrich Engels was well aware of these criticisms in his own time and even the role Marx and himself played in giving the impression that their theory was some naive economic determinism. I’ll end this addendum quoting a part of a letter from Friedrich Engels to Joseph Bloch:
According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure: political forms of the class struggle and its results to wit: constitutions established by the victorious classes after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and then even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas, also exercise their influence upon the course of historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form.
Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that younger people sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to emphasis the main principle vis-à-vis our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to allow the other elements involved in interaction to come into their rights.
Likewise, the class nature of American society has been severely downplayed or ignored. Occupy Wall Street may have placed emphasis on the 1% of income holders, but it has done little to talk about ownership and control of the means of production. Mainstream political scientists, economists, politicians, journalists, and media pundits contribute to this nonsense that class is somehow not a part of American society or at least it’s a contemporary aberration of this holy city upon a hill. They wish to return some golden age where class differences did not influence public policy. That is a dangerous fiction.