Karl Marx revisited: or, the cynical class structure

Many of you are familiar with the idea of social class. There is, of course, the idea of social class as portrayed in popular culture. Social class has been around since time immemorial -- the Romans, for instance, had a class system, and the current incarnation of the Wikipedia page on this topic renders it well. If you wish to find out more about the Roman class structure, click on the link -- I don't know, it's only Wikipedia. At any rate, you already know in your heart if you are rich or poor or middle class.

The modern discussion of social class and of class structure has a lot to do with the writings of Karl Marx. Marx's ultimate project was that, under capitalism, people were formally equal (or at least potentially so), but that inequality between persons took the form of capital. In the Marx depiction of capitalism, value, under capitalism, takes the form of an impersonal process running peoples lives. You can see this running-of-your-life in the requirement that you have a well-stocked resume, a career, a nice interview demeanor, and a stylish business suit if you want a good job. You must personify value if you want to get ahead. You work for money, and money buys the things you value, and you are therefore chained to the pursuit of this value from the day you stop being children to the day you die.

Capital is defined as money designed to make more money, and thus value designed to make more value. Capital rules value, which rules you, and unless you work for the government or for a cooperative business you work for capital. Some of you know full well that you work for capital.

Back to Marx. In Marx's description of class society, there are two basic classes under capitalism:

1) Capitalists, the owning class. They control capital, and thus their possession of capital keeps them awash in money, property, commodities, i.e. value.

2) Workers, the working class. They create value through their hard work, and they get paid diddly-squat for it so that the capitalists can have everything.

Now, Marx knew there were more than two classes in capitalist society -- but his primary interest was in showing how capital worked, and so those were the classes discussed in his magnum opus Capital. There are of course other classes under capitalism -- there are the landlords and the managers and the political class and so on. That's another discussion.

What's important about the Marx description of social class -- why we don't just discard it into the waste-bin of 19th-century German literature -- is that the relation between Marx's two classes is one of exploitation. Exploitation is the constant, common to all relationships within capitalism. Capitalism is what scholars since the playwright Plautus (254 – 184 BCE) have called the bellum omnium contra omnes, the war of all against all. Everyone wants a piece, and usually one has to do more than just hold a sign up on Exit 14 of Interstate 5 in Ashland Oregon saying "Anything Helps" to get that piece.

But the bellum omnium contra omnes isn't really an individual war, and not everyone participates in the same way. The war within capitalism is a war of teams. Moreover, the people instigating the war are not in the same group as those who have somehow gotten through life with their common sense intact. And perhaps we need to generalize who's being exploited, and who are the exploiters, since it isn't always through the capital/ labor relationship that exploitation occurs.

Perhaps an even more forceful Latin expression for the nastiness that is going down here is Homo homini lupus, "man is wolf to man." We will see this expression hard at work later in this diary.

In this regard, perhaps we can say that Marx was, in his focus upon capital, being too nice to capitalist society. A more cynical view of social classes in capitalist society would start with the elaboration of two basic social classes:

1) The predators -- that class of people who don't really give a damn about others, love, or the future of the human race, folks interested mainly in legal robbery. The predator thinks about what can be done to take everything you've got from you, leaving you destitute if necessary. Medical insurers and cutthroat landlords and Amazon to its employees count among the predators. Predators are divided among each other -- obviously each would like to attract juicy prey before the others -- but united in every public gesture in their common contempt for the great masses of prey. Their ultimate truth is reflected in that quote of the 19th-century robber baron, Jay Gould: "I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half." Or in the words of Homer Simpson:

The rest of predator discourse is either the babblings of Donald Trump or Joe Biden or thirty-one flavors of dishonesty, the purest of which was probably Barack Obama invoking Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela for his own reactionary purposes at a fundraiser back in 2012.

2) The prey -- people, fundamentally good human beings, who believe that supporting one predator over another is the best route to safety.

The prey tell everyone to vote for Biden, because Trump is worse. Or they are like that individual on the Never Biden Facebook group who told people to vote for Trump, because a vote for Trump would cancel out a Biden vote. The prey are like senior citizens who support politicians who promise cuts to Medicare and Social Security. The prey support screwed-up unions, screwed-up politicians, screwed-up salespeople. They are happy with their crap insurance. They don't complain when they're being ripped off. Cops are sometimes both predators and prey: predators, because they use guns, and prey, because their efforts sometimes support the domination of the uber-predators, the ruling class.

So yeah, that's American society in a nutshell: predators and prey.

In the Marx universe, the idea was that a working class association would bring a revolution into being. The prey, au contraire, are by definition not revolutionary, which is they end up looking like "losers" in the eyes of idiot participants in the Social Darwinist rush to die with the most toys. The Marx universe recognizes the prey in a dawning sort of way, in the notion of the "lumpenproletariat." The "lumpenproletariat" were a working class that couldn't participate in Marx's idealized revolution. Here is Marx, in 1850, in The Class Struggles in France, discussing the lumpenproletariat:

For this purpose the Provisional Government formed twenty–four battalions of Mobile Guards, each a thousand strong, composed of young men from fifteen to twenty years old.[73] They belonged for the most part to the lumpen proletariat, which in all big towns forms a mass sharply differentiated from the industrial proletariat, a recruiting ground for thieves and criminals of all kinds living on the crumbs of society, people without a definite trade, vagabonds, gens sans feu et sans aveu [men without hearth or home], varying according to the degree of civilization of the nation to which they belong, but never renouncing their lazzaroni[74] character – at the youthful age at which the Provisional Government recruited them, thoroughly malleable, as capable of the most heroic deeds and the most exalted sacrifices as of the basest banditry and the foulest corruption.

Marx, you may have noticed, had trouble with the concept of the proletariat -- the working class. The proletariat could not be both what Marx wanted them to be -- and what they were in fact -- at the same time. If you can find it, the issue is examined in detail in David M. Lovell's Marx’s Proletariat: The Making of a Myth (1988) without Lovell producing any resolution of the problem. Here I'm trying to suggest one.


What's necessary of course is for everyone to band together to end the game. We need to all stop playing by the rules of Social Darwinism, upon which capitalist society is based, and to 1) stop being prey and 2) get the predators to stop being predators.. Such a solution will be especially necessary in the hiatus caused by the coronavirus, as plans for actually doing something in the US about the virus are being held up by predators.

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Cassiodorus's picture

Dated 18 March 1862:

It is remarkable how Darwin rediscovers, among the beasts and plants, the society of England with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘inventions’ and Malthusian ‘struggle for existence’. It is Hobbes’ bellum omnium contra omnes and is reminiscent of Hegel’s Phenomenology, in which civil society figures as an ‘intellectual animal kingdom’, whereas, in Darwin, the animal kingdom figures as civil society.

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"The war on Gaza, backed by the West, is a demonstration that the West is willing to cross all lines. That it will discard any nuance of humanity. That it is willing to commit genocide" -- Moon of Alabama

Individuals don't evolve, gene pools of groups of individuals of a given species evolve. Natural selection places a selection pressure on the genetic group moving it in some genotype direction, for instance longer beaks for birds when the flowers of main food supply are deeper. Survival of the fittest individual is just a complete misreading of Darwin and the modern science of Evolution. The phrase Social Darwinism is nothing short of bigotry, xenophobia and racism. And you know where that leads.

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Capitalism has always been the rule of the people by the oligarchs. You only have two choices, eliminate them or restrict their power.

Cassiodorus's picture

@The Wizard is what capitalist philosophy did with Darwin. Its apotheosis was Hitler.

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"The war on Gaza, backed by the West, is a demonstration that the West is willing to cross all lines. That it will discard any nuance of humanity. That it is willing to commit genocide" -- Moon of Alabama