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The Resignation of the Proletariat

Gopal Balakrishnan

August 4, 2022

Culture was one of the defining concerns of what was once called Western Marxism. Ostensibly a theorization of the cultural, Vivek Chibber’s The Class Matrix may not speak to those who have come to Marx by way of, say, Adorno. It is essentially a theory primer for sociology students with an interest in the labor movement. Its author is a social scientist now probably best known for his forceful criticisms of postcolonial studies[1] and the debates which that intervention occasioned. Here the fire is directed at proponents of the so-called “cultural turn” who deny the determination of culture by material interests, but also at what he calls “traditional Marxists” who disregard the role of culture in shaping perceptions of material interests. Readers expecting a red-hot polemic may be disappointed, as Chibber’s aim seems to be to stake out a middle ground between these two camps and rise above the fray.

While he goes out of his way to denounce vulgar Marxism, the problem, as he sees it, is not just the culture-blind economism that has plagued this tradition from its origins. The misinterpretation of the rational core of Marx’s social theory assumes another more philosophical form. Those who err in this more metaphysical direction draw inspiration from Marx’s supposedly nebulous jargon of a totalizing social causality — “the self-valorization of capital,” etc.—operating over and above the rational agency of self-interested individuals. Chibber holds this kind of hypostasizing language partly responsible for the opacity surrounding the concepts of capital and class. Marxists are advised to leave behind not only a culture-blind economic determinism but also this sort of muddle-headed Hegelian or Spinozan totalizing. Social theory must be reformed in accordance with what Chibber sees as the rigorous methodological individualism of modern social science. Refashioned in this way, he argues that the concept of class structure can bring into focus different social logics of self-interested agency and, within that framework, locate the role culture plays as a mechanism in its own right.

This conception of the class structure is presumably most applicable to capitalism, for no other form of society comes into consideration here. As Chibber is only concerned with advanced capitalist societies, throughout this work he assumes everyone is either a capitalist or a wage-worker — with no other classes taken into consideration. He occasionally mentions the introduction of capitalism into non-capitalist regions but then skirts the issue of the culture of such transitional social formations by reframing it as another problem: whether individuals with traditional mentalities and customs can comply with the demands of wage labor within a fully capitalist class structure. It is hard to see how his postcolonial opponents will be convinced, as they usually have other kinds of societies and other classes in mind.

Chibber rejects the label of rational-choice Marxist, but, like those who accept this designation, he begins by debunking the idea of structure as some supra-individual order of things. Structure must be reconceived as a set of constraints compelling individuals to act strategically. This reduction of the macro-order of society lays bare the empirically demonstrable micro-foundations of social causality. But the assumption that agency is rational does not distinguish the pursuit of material interests from goals prescribed by some non-economic value orientation. In contrast to the rational choice school, Chibber accords more scope for the operations of the latter type of agency. But he never directly addresses the problem of the motivating force of material, i.e. economic, interests in comparison to what Weberians call ideal interests, i.e. practical commitments shaped by political, religious or scientific worldviews. Instead, Chibber asks what role can such cultural value orientations play in shaping perceptions of material interests and why the latter nonetheless determine the former in the last instance. To this question he provides a more straightforward answer: Material interests ultimately determine the cultural interpretations that rational actors might have of these interests because these interests are the very conditions of their existence and existence logically precedes its interpretation.

This version of determinism is connected logically to his methodological individualism, as the latter is arguably at its strongest when applied to historical contexts where the economic exists as a separate sphere of social action, i.e. where the appropriation of goods and services takes place almost exclusively through exchange relations. These relations establish the means by which the typical individuals of the two opposed classes of capitalist society — exploiter and exploited — appropriate their shares of the social product of goods and services.

The Class Matrix seeks to resolve the main problem facing labor organizers today: Why do workers so rarely act collectively against their capitalist employers even though that would be in their best interest? This question leads him to consider the cultural aspect of class consciousness. In order to frame the effect of culture on a) the perception individuals have of their class interests and b) the capacity of these individuals to act collectively to promote their shared interests, one needs to distinguish the socioeconomic base from its cultural superstructure and establish an order of determination between them. (NB: Chibber does not actually use Marx’s metaphor of base and superstructure — probably as a concession to the tastes of contemporary academia — but, nonetheless, that’s what he’s saying.) The significance of culture hinges then on the causal role it plays in hindering or promoting the solidarities underlying such collective actions by wage workers in fully capitalist societies.

What does culture mean to Chibber? He begins with Raymond Williams’s conception of it as “a way of life inclusive of social practices that distinguish one social formation or one epoch from another, but also the religion, ideology, and arts of these various societies and ages.” For Williams culture also encompassed political and economic institutions and so he could be said to have conceived of the social totality as a way of life.

Chibber then proposes his own alternative definition of culture as “the interpretive dimension of social practices.” How does his definition differ from Williams’s, the only other one he considers? Unlike Williams’s definition, his excludes practices that are political or economic. Also, unlike Williams, he is not interested in distinguishing the culture of one social formation or epoch from another. Finally—in a still more pointed opposition to Williams—he accords no special significance to art, literature, and intellectual life more generally.

He never provides any precise definition of culture and tends to use the term interchangeably with a host of other ones: “discourse,” “value,” “value-orientation,” “symbolic universes,” as well as “moral universes.” Although it is sometimes difficult to pin down what he means by the term culture, when speaking generally he seems to mean something like the following: the interpretive framework or value orientation shared by a particular group of individuals that informs and justifies their conduct in pursuit of goals shaped by that view of the world.

While this formulation defines culture more narrowly than Williams’s, it remains a capacious rubric encompassing almost everything that is neither economic nor political. Kinship, cuisine, plus all that is understood as art and religion is culture; media, education and sports would also be cultural, and so, too, intellectual life and social theory itself presumably. But how could such a heterogenous assortment of wholly different kinds of things, processes, and relations ever constitute a single, internally coherent variable? Culture would presumably need to have a unifying logic of its own to impart a measure of coherence on this disparate assortment, for, otherwise, it would not constitute a variable capable of affecting other such variables.

Chibber sometimes employs the term culture in this broad, conceptually indeterminate sense of “interpretive practice,” but when focusing on his main concern—the conditions of the collective agency of workers—he tends to fall back on a narrower definition of it as ideology, i.e., an interpretative framework that legitimates or otherwise adapts individuals to their position in class structure.

I will argue that this narrower framing of the cultural puts the limitations of his conception of social theory into relief. The following questions arise.

  1. Chibber’s theorization is itself “interpretive practice” seeking to influence the perception workers have of their material interests. Would it not, therefore, belong within the phenomena he is theorizing? As a polemical intervention into an academic field and political scene, it belongs within the phenomenon he is theorizing according to his own definition. The ideological vantage point behind Chibber’s conception of class interest and agency will be made explicit.

  2. If the separation of the political from the economic can be seen as constitutive of the social relations of capitalism, does the distinction of the cultural from the economic also presuppose a comparable separation of the cultural peculiar to capitalist societies, or does the causal framework laid out here apply to all class societies? He neglects to consider the historically specific conditions of the very existence of the cultural as well as the other categories on which his theorization turns.

  3. In Chibber’s account of the determination of culture by class structure, the political is not accorded any specificity as a separate form of individual and collective action. Are there any specifically political forms of individual and collective action that must be distinguished from cultural and economic action in order to understand transformations in the structure of society and the construction of new social orders?

  4. What is the place of intellectual life, of ideas in the broadest sense, and of the conflict of ideas within the domain of the cultural so conceived? The subordinate role that Chibber accords to culture in shaping the course of the class struggle would logically have to include the impact of, for example, debates within Marxism.

In what follows, I will try to show how these methodological commitments shape incomplete and flawed conceptions of capitalism, class, and culture and lead him to draw politically defeatist conclusions. His erasure of the political and the specifically intellectual dimension of culture makes it impossible to conceive how workers could ever come to understand their interests as bound to a long-term historical project of emancipation.

The Cultural Turn

Marx is portrayed as a clean-shaven social scientist who made a large, if not very well-defined, contribution to the field.

One of the enduring problems in social theory is to explain the sources of stability and conflict in modern society. For most of the twentieth century, perhaps the most influential approach to this issue originated in the work of Karl Marx.

Many readers will feel that this bland encapsulation of Marx’s approach does not do justice to the core of his social theory. There is far more to his approach than a theory of “stability and conflict in modern society.” There is his wider conception of history as the genesis of new social relations out of the contradictions in older ones that opens up theorizations of the structure of a whole host social formations — past, present, and even future ones. This wider theorization is known as historical materialism, and if it must be discarded as unverifiable then there seems to be little reason other than nostalgia to call such a narrowly circumscribed remnant of it “Marxist.”

Chibber maintains that with a few exceptions Marxists have up to now adhered to the view that capitalism digs its own grave by spawning a proletariat whose interest is to overthrow capitalism. While this might seem like little more than a caricature of the thesis of The Communist Manifesto, it is at least recognizably based on the latter text. By contrast, Capital goes unmentioned. We are not told if its theorization also relies on the same assumption.

His scanting account of the origins of the cultural turn begins in the 1930s when catastrophic defeats of the working class raised doubts about the destiny of the proletariat. While the objective conditions for revolution had ripened to a bursting point, subjectively the proletariat had failed to assume its historical vocation and this failure was interpreted in cultural terms. From the 1930s to the 1970s Marxists continued to believe that the economic logic of capitalism would lead workers to revolt were it not for the imposition of ideological-cultural norms preventing them from recognizing their own true interests. He claims that these were the assumptions that led the New Left to embrace the study of popular culture. “For the emerging New Left in the 1960s and 1970s, the investigation of popular culture — of the formation of class consciousness — was exciting because it would unlock the secret to class formation.” As intellectual history, this is light fare but it points to developments within or close to the discipline of sociology.

The subsequent fading out of this New Left moment came with a profoundly disruptive change in the historical context.

Whereas Marx’s theory seemed to be in line with the growth of class movements and the threats posed to capitalist rule, the system’s stabilization in the latter part of the century, the onset of neoliberal hegemony, the domestication of the organized Left, and the disintegration of the Soviet Bloc all pushed in the opposite direction.

While the heterodox Marxists of the 1930s introduced culture as a supplement to the traditional economistic conception of class, the onset of neoliberalism set the stage for the advent of a more explicitly anti-Marxist cultural turn. “The Left’s traditional understanding of class increasingly came into doubt, and the doubts reached ever deeper into the theory’s core.” The ensuing valorization of culture eventually put into question the meaning of the term capitalism itself, which came to be regarded as a misleading hypostatization of much more culturally textured and loosely connected social realities. The retreat from the very category of capitalism gained momentum at the precise time when the system it designated was sweeping away nearly everything in its path.

It is ironic that the embrace of radical contingency, the turn away from economic structure, the skepticism of grand narratives — all this was overtaking social theory precisely at the time when capitalism’s remorseless logic was imposing itself around the globe.

Chibber argues that the reason why Marx’s conception of capitalism was abandoned was not because it was wrong about capitalism — whose crisis tendencies were now more evident than ever — but because its predictions regarding the course of the class struggle were falsified. “Marx never adequately theorized the mechanisms that actually govern the transformation of class interests into class struggle.” He holds that the leading proponents of the cultural turn put their finger on the missing mechanisms in Marx’s account. “Class interests would only become politically operative if they were translated into the appropriate cultural codes.”

His criticism of the cultural turn takes the form of restating its main tenets in a way that situates them in the framework of his own opposed assumptions that he describes as “materialist.” It should be apparent from what follows that Chibber’s restatements bake in his own assumptions. One suspects that he finds the more extreme assertions of the proponents of the cultural turn (the “all reality is discourse” kind of claim) to be nonsensical and so he charitably restates them to make them more intelligible. One sympathizes but still his responses often fail to hit their target as a result.

For Chibber, “three shifts in the theorization of structure were especially significant”:

1. Constructivism: “interests are not somehow given in the economic condition of workers but are constructed through the agency of social identities.”

Chibber understands this to mean: “[I]t is through the prism of their pregiven identities that actors come to understand their location in the structure.” But the claim that social identity constructs interests is obviously not the same as the claim that social identity is a prism through which actors understand the structure.

2. Determinism: “structure itself was the product of culture.”

He takes this to be the same as saying that culture was a “precondition [of] the structure being viable at all.” But the claim that cultural value orientations produce the economic structure has a very different implication than the view that culture merely makes this structure viable.

3. Particularism: skepticism towards world-historical “grand narratives.”

Chibber equates the rejection of historical teleology with the rejection of totalizing structural explanations. Here he is not misleadingly restating his opponent’s position. On the contrary, he accepts their casual blurring of the distinction between structure and history. The lack of any focus on this distinction is arguably symptomatic of his ahistorical and static conception of the class structure of capitalism, which excludes the problems of its origins, its crisis-driven dynamic of development, and the possibilities for transitions into a new form of society generated by this dynamic.

The proponents of the cultural turn asserted that, since “cultures are variable across regions, the forms of social practice that they generate will also vary.” How does variation between cultures lead to an internal variation in forms of practice? Chibber seems to imply that the positing of cultural plurality logically leads to an emphasis on contingency, because these distinct cultures break down into individually varying interpretations of their rules. “Whatever their normative socialization happens to be, actors could never blindly follow it in the manner of a script because they cannot.”

They could never because they cannot — the language of The Class Matrix is often vague and casual. It is not clear whether this tautology is his or his opponents’ reasoning, but such a plurality of individual perspectives would clearly undermine the internal coherence of these supposedly distinct cultures. Lacking any determinate conception of the cultural, Chibber seems unsure about the level at which it could be said to exist. Is it a collective form of thought and experience, or does the rationality attributed to the individual as an agent put into question the substantiality of any such collective forms?

Chibber’s strategy is to accept the cultural turn’s straw man characterizations of Marxism and then to propose a more “causally reasonable” social theory incorporating its emphases on meaning, locality, and contingency. How would he respond to the criticism that defining culture as a shared interpretation of material interests leaves out what the most advanced theorizations of culture consider to be its most interesting dimensions? Presumably, he would respond by saying that he is only interested in culture as it pertains to its effect on class struggles. Adorno might reply that, even at a great distance from contemporary political concerns, art, literature, and criticism can express a passion for disconcerting truths and that the waning of this subjective impetus has political consequences. In what follows I will stick to Chibber’s focal question regarding the conditions of class agency and show that his conception of culture forecloses the theorization of more radical forms of class agency.

How Should Social Theory Be Reconceived to Best Respond to the Cultural Turn?

1. Social theory must acknowledge massive and significant variation of cultures.

Chibber lays down the challenge to which he will attempt to rise:

Is a structural class theory, of the kind I defend, capable of appreciating the persistence of social heterogeneity, or must it commit to a totalizing narrative in which the juggernaut of a globalizing capitalism swallows up and homogenizes entire regions and cultures?

Some might forcefully dispute this formulation on empirical grounds. American-centered global capitalism certainly has “homogenized entire cultures.” The most relevant aspect of this development, arguably, is not the homogenization of customary life worlds — what and how people eat, their tastes in popular music, sport and clothing — but even looking at this level of the cultural the pattern is simply unmistakable. Of course, the extent and depth of the remaining cultural diversity could still be considerable and politically relevant. But while controversies around globalization and Americanization now typically concern the mixing and conflict of folkways, more important by far is the declining diversity and vitality of high cultures, once the superstructural crown of capitalist societies. Not too long ago there was a great variety of national literatures, cinemas, and intellectual traditions, but these formations have been leveled down and what remains has had to adapt to the global American norms of the world market. The power of this American-centered order has soared with the washing away of ideas of socialism and communism from the consciousness of workers the world around. This more troubling ideological homogenization has taken on — to use some old-fashioned language — world-historical proportions.

Why then does Chibber accept this untenable assertion of a flourishing diversity made by his cultural studies opponents? We will see that his position on this point stems from both his methodology as well as his politics.

2. Social theory must show how precisely culture impacts the class struggle.

Chibber argues that the individualistic passivity of workers is not a phenomenon that requires a cultural explanation, for it can be explained by the class structure itself.

The more fundamental mechanism for capitalism’s stability is workers’ resignation to their situation. . . Hence, they accept their class position, even though they may not deem it desirable or legitimate. I conclude with an account of how ideology still plays an important role in this process — but as an effect of capitalist stability, not its cause.

It is not clear from the above passage whether he understands resignation as itself an ideological phenomenon, i.e., as “an interpretive practice” that adapts individuals to their position in the social structure. Chibber’s notion of resignation seems to be an attempt to explain the common psychological basis of the many ideologies articulating these interpretive rationales, but it does not itself seem to be an ideology. But it is hard to see how resignation so understood could explain the unwillingness of workers to opt for collective action in promoting their interests. Even more than ideological rationales and interpretations, mere resignation would be a passive effect of labor’s atomization and not a “mechanism” in its own right.

3. Social theory should reframe the problem of class formation from “why doesn’t it happen?” to “how is it even possible?”

The class structure locks its incumbents into conflict, and it does so in a way that limits the latter’s explosiveness. Hence, the contingency of class formation is not an anomaly but a predicted consequence of the theory.

But why would the non-explosiveness of the class struggle lead to more contingency of outcomes? It would seem that the opposite is true: It is the rare explosiveness of the class struggle that opens up the space for politically relevant “contingencies.” Chibber’s identification of non-explosiveness with contingent outcomes seems to be flatly contradicted by a now-decades-long, global pattern of the defeat of labor. This global effect seems to suggest the operation of an equally global cause.

World Market or the Class Structure?

Chibber characterizes neoliberalism as a massive enhancement of the impersonal power of market competition sweeping before it all the social forms and institutional frameworks that had once curbed and thwarted its laws of motion. The “horizontal” expansion of the system gathered momentum with the privatization of once expansive public sectors, the accelerated destruction of peasant subsistence economies, the collapse of central planning with the fall of the Eastern Bloc and the incorporation of China into the world market. But he also characterizes neoliberalism as an expression of the massively enhanced power of capitalists over workers in all countries leading to the retreat and, in some cases, the near destruction of organized labor. Neoliberalism is a period of the “vertical” intensification of the capital-wage labor relation, a successful employer offensive to increase the rate of exploitation.

Whereas the first simply announced the universalization of the commodity form as the basic unit of economic activity, the second ensured that all this activity would be carried out to the overwhelming benefit of a tiny section of the population — the owners of wealth and capital.

For Chibber, these distinct horizontal and vertical dimensions can be aligned to two structural facts about capitalism.

1. Vertical: The first fact is what he describes as the “asymmetrical” relation between employer and employee — every capitalist can withdraw his capital from any particular productive investment but can also leave it dormant in safe low-return stores of value that stabilizes his social position as a capitalist. By contrast, the worker cannot withdraw his labor power from the capital-wage labor relationship because he doesn’t have an exit option aside from unemployment with all its attendant perils. This asymmetry of options is the precondition of the exploitation of workers by capitalists.

2. Horizontal: The second fact is that “capitalists have to function under a competitive constraint.”

For the historian Robert Brenner this constraint is what defines capitalism. In Brenner’s conception, the capital-wage labor relation can only be explained as a modification of a structurally antecedent exchange dependency subjecting producers to the compulsions of cost competition. By contrast, Chibber never explains the order of determination between these two dimensions of capital. He asserts that “the implication of my argument for class structure’s causal autonomy is that it allows us to explain the global spread of capitalism.” But at no point does he even attempt to explain the horizontal expansion of capitalism, the conditions under which its social relations take root on the ruins of non and pre-capitalist social formations. Was it the “class structure” that drove capitalism’s expansion as a system? If so, which societies’ class structures did so? Or does the entire capitalist system itself somehow possess a class structure?

By avoiding the problem of the nature of the totality to which these distinct class societies belong, he ends up implicitly conceiving of these class structures as coexisting, side by side, without determinate relation to one another. This conception of capitalist class structures in no specific relation or hierarchical position within the world market leads him to reject the view that globalizing capitalism is a juggernaut swallowing up and homogenizing entire regions and cultures. If each capitalist class structure were as autonomous from all the others as Chibber’s model would imply, then one would expect a great deal of national or regional cultural variety and, relatedly, more variety in the outcomes of contemporary class struggles.

Despite the priority, he claims to accord to the capital-wage labor relation, in his historical account of neoliberalism Chibber makes it clear that the unleashing of world market competition was what caused the great transformations of this period. Compulsions of the world market would better explain why capital has been globally victorious over labor. The alternative view that the balance of class forces is primarily the outcome of a class struggle unfolding autonomously in different societies would not be able to explain this extraordinary convergence. The global scale of this development would seem to suggest that the most fundamental dimension of capitalism is not the capital-wage labor class structure of individual capitalist societies taken separately, but rather the overarching economic logic of production for exchange under the compulsions of cost-competition, ultimately operative as a world market totality.

By side-stepping the problem of the order of determination between the horizontal and vertical dimensions of system, Chibber ironically ends up obscuring an essential dimension of the self-interested agency of workers. His conception of competitive constraint applies only to profit-maximizing capitalists. But capitalist social relations compel workers to compete with other workers, and this clash of worker against worker is inseparable from the clash of capitalists. While capitalist social relations deprive workers of the option of withdrawing their labor power from active employment for long, they can always try to leave one employer for another. This personal freedom of the laborer is what makes the capitalist class structure qualitatively different from all previous class structures, for here exploitation is mediated by the compulsions of free exchange. Chibber portrays workers who avoid collective action as struggling in their own individualistic way, but the classic “take this job and shove it” form of agency falls out of view. In other words, his picture of the capitalist class structure misses an essential dimension of the market in labor power underlying it: the rational choices of individual workers moving from line to line in pursuit of the best returns on the sale of their labor power.

Chibber’s neglect of this aspect of the rational agency of workers leads him to the following conclusion: “The power over the distribution of the gains resides with the capitalist.” In fact, seen in a purely structural light this power does not reside with the capitalist. The class distribution of gains is not determined by the diktats of individual employers nor of a united front of employers, but rather by the economic agency of each capitalist competing with other capitalists and each worker competing with other workers on those markets where rages the tug of war. Under normal circumstances the competition of capitalists for available workers will not bid wages above a level that would curtail profit. But capitalists usually do not have to act collectively to ensure this outcome, as impersonal market forces will nearly always do the trick. To put it in the above terms: The “horizontal” movement of workers across all these places of work mediates the “vertical” relation of class power within each of these places of work. And, speaking structurally, it is the former which determines the latter, although given the nature of capitalism as a class society whose dominant economic agents can act, when necessary, with considerable cohesion, the causal arrow can often be turned the other way.

Chibber’s account makes the division of social income between capitalists and wage workers overly dependent upon the power of workers to wrest any wage gains from capitalists via collective action. His verticalism leads him to paint an overly gloomy picture of the longer-term pattern of workers improving their lot under capitalism. Over this long term, workers in core capitalist societies have experienced a massive rise in real wages and in overall welfare, while workers in developing ones are undergoing a significant if still modest improvement. Much of this welfare gain does not hinge on the class struggle.

On the other hand, paradoxically, Chibber is far too optimistic about the conditions for collective action. One of the reasons why people don’t stand and fight collectively against their employers is that when the job market is tight — when workers have potentially the most leverage — a critical mass of them will likely have the option of finding employment elsewhere under more satisfactory conditions.

The same ongoing increase in social productivity that generates surpluses for capital formation leads to rising real wages, both of which come from more goods being produced more cheaply. Recognizing the rationality of individual workers means recognizing most of them have an expectation — though they could be wrong here — that this world-historical trendline will continue, just as most are aware that socialism and communism have been tried and are perceived to have failed. Capitalism is not just powered “from above” by compulsory accumulation but also “from below” by hordes of enterprising workers and discriminating, novelty-seeking consumers. Resignation is only one aspect of this clamorous, universal hustle. When attempting to identify the reasons why workers do not collectively resist, a fuller picture of both the dull compulsions of competition and the awareness that workers have of its historical dynamic of development is called for.

From the Economic to the Political Class Struggle

In Chibber’s view, the only means by which workers can expect to increase their wages and conditions, even in this context of the growth of revenues from rising productivity, is by collective action.

If there were a mechanism to guarantee an equitable division of the additional revenue from the increased productivity between employer and employee, there would be more reason for workers to cooperate.

Given the extraordinary collective action problems workers confront (more daunting than Chibber recognizes), it seems as if the possibility of constructing such a mechanism would be remote. But this discouraging result is simply a consequence of his own narrow framing of the class structure. For there exists, of course, a mechanism that has long been employed to secure a more “equitable distribution” of the revenues of growth: the political system and, more precisely, its taxing and spending powers. Chibber avoids addressing problems posed by the separation of the political from the economic that would destabilize his notions of class structure and class conflict. This separation necessitates, in turn, a set of relations mediating what has been separated, that constitute the terrain upon which class struggle above a certain level must take place. Gramsci delineated the contours of this terrain in a suggestive formulation: “The problem will therefore be that of establishing the dialectical position of political activity (and of the corresponding science) as a particular level of the superstructure.”[2]

The most fundamental relation of state to society emerging from this separation is the fiscal nexus whereby the state reproduces itself out of the tax revenues it receives in exchange for the considerable services it provides in upholding security and promoting economic development. The best regime for a dynamic capitalist society will not coddle incumbent capitalists but will, on the contrary, selectively expose them to the pressure of more efficient and even foreign competitors, while also protecting workers and consumers from the threat of predatory forms of exploitation impeding growth. In the wider capitalist world, only advanced states approach this standard and to widely varying degrees. In the exercise of its duties an advanced capitalist regime will have a “state interest” in the welfare of workers and consumers, and this protective function opens up some limited possibilities for workers to assert themselves collectively. Progressive taxation and public expenditures institutionalize a certain society-wide balance of class forces, stabilizing the system. But on those few occasions when governments with more radical ambitions come to the helm, these means can be used to destabilize it as well, provided there are powerful parties and movements committed to its overthrow.

Where is the locus of this transformative collective agency within the capitalist totality? Classical Marxists assumed that it took shape in a political sphere that formed between the coercive core of the state apparatus and a class-divided, capitalist economic order, a zone of the transubstantiation of social fractures into political struggles. What were the main topological features of this sphere? At its center was an electoral regime of party competition, but the representative institution was surrounded a wider political sphere of mobilizable opinion where otherwise atomized members of the opposing classes articulated their real and perceived shared interests, their grievances and hopes. (The sheer existence of a capitalist state effectively secures the interests of the propertied, thereby obviating the necessity of their having to control government policy directly, though this doesn’t prevent them from trying.) It is only through this transformation of interest groups into representable political subjects that large scale class consciousness and an enduring capacity for collective action was thought to be possible. Over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, politics in the core of the world system was penetrated by international ideological conflicts that inspired new forms of class mobilization eventually even in societies without institutionalized parliamentary arenas. With the possible exception of Gramsci, Marxists failed to theorize the historically unique conditions of the existence of this Kampfplatz mainly because most of them assumed that this arena of politico-intellectual contention was a permanent feature of the capitalist epoch.

It is often wondered what Marx meant when he said that the peasants of France who gave electoral sanction to the coup d’état of Louis Napoleon did not constitute a class and could be compared to a sack of potatoes. What he meant was that, despite its common plight, each peasant family squashed up against the others; these small, ruined proprietors did not have the capacity to articulate a common interest and represent themselves in the political sphere. The point is not whether Marx was correct about the peasantry but rather that his conception of class formation hinged on this standard of political self-representation. By excluding this political mediation of the conflict of classes, Chibber’s workers would seem to be forever consigned to the potato sack.

Class struggles that put the structure of society into question arguably can only take place in the context of a political sphere where hegemony in its intellectual aspect is at stake. By ignoring this politico-intellectual mediation, Chibber’s conception of the class structure bolts down the only escape hatch workers have from their social imprisonment, forcing him to place all his hopes on their cultural orientation: “The indispensable ingredient, in addition to a favorable external environment, is cultural — a shift in workers’ normative orientation from individualistic to solidaristic.” In the absence of these enabling conditions, the entire burden of fostering solidarity falls on the shoulders of dedicated organizers.

This is why it takes a great deal of backbreaking work to create the culture of resistance, trust and commitment, and steely determination required to challenge employer power in capitalism. It is because workers have good reason to respect the constraints under which they subsist.

Workers seem resistant to all this arduous effort on their behalf, but Chibber fails to offer a satisfactory account of why they are more so now than in the past. He explains this in partly cultural terms as the disappearance of older life-worlds of labor following quasi-automatically on the heels of deindustrialization. But if this were the reason for the fall of the house of labor the situation would be bleak indeed, as this trendline currently appears to be irreversible.

I noted earlier that many readers will respond incredulously to Chibber’s claim that all Marxists have hitherto believed in a pure economic logic of capitalism that would inexorably shape the working class into a collective willing and able to overthrow capitalism. But somewhat reframed, I think he is on to something. Most Marxists have, in fact, assumed that, since capitalism constitutes a working class, it also constitutes the objectively existing collective interest for the individuals who comprise this class. Chibber might be groping towards the conclusion that capitalism does not constitute such a collective class interest for workers — they are on their own. It follows that any collective action on their part would be an ephemeral consequence of intense organizational efforts. The “for-itself” of collective agency would be unhinged from the “in-itself” of collective interest.

A further implication of Chibber’s claim may be even more destructive to “traditional Marxism.” Its proponents once assumed that the expansion of capitalism — and, with it, the terrible destruction of pre-capitalist social formations — was an objectively necessary condition in some epochal sense for the transition to socialism and beyond. The implication of Chibber’s ahistorical conception of the capitalist class structure is that even this view may no longer be tenable. The significance of the title of the book now becomes more apparent, for these are bitter pills. There are, however, good reasons to reject such conclusions. Even if one can no longer believe in a sweeping vision of history culminating in the victory of communism, despair is unwarranted. Properly conceived, the pessimism of the intellect breaks the spell of defeat, for the intellect itself has unpredictable powers of renewal and innovation. If this is not materialism, then so be it.

Classical Marxism Theorized the Contradictions of Capitalism at their Most Extreme

“For the Marxist framework, as well as for its critics, the road to instability leads through class formation.”

The classical Marxism Chibber caricatures held that “the road to instability leads through class formation,” but only because it conceived of capitalism as riven by insurmountable contradictions. Its conception of capitalism as explosively crisis-prone brought another dimension of the world system into sharp focus: a rivalrous inter-state order. Classical Marxism conceived of the capitalist system as a world economy operating within another anarchic order of warring states whose great powers would seek to overcome these crisis tendencies through imperialist aggrandizement. The clash of these expansionary powers threatened to aggravate these underlying contradictions. Chibber’s conception of the class structure not only brackets the domestic political sphere, it erases this inter-state dimension of the capitalist totality. It was this geopolitical context that made it possible and necessary to form an international. This world now seems remote to us, but imperialism is still with us and bringing it into sharper focus today might make it more apparent what the connection is between domestic struggles for better conditions for workers and the costs of empire.

For Chibber, Gramsci represents classical Marxism at its best, an exception within a wider formation that supposedly saw workers as destined to organize themselves to overthrow capitalism. But he sees him as being less of a culturalist than his later followers would be. Gramsci’s innovative strategic thought conjoined the political to the intellectual plane within an orthodox Marxist conception of the contradiction between the relations and forces of capitalist development.

Two principles must orient the discussion: 1) that no society sets itself tasks for whose accomplishment the necessary and sufficient conditions do not either already exist or are not at least beginning to emerge and develop; 2) that no society breaks down and can be replaced until it has first developed all the forms of life which are implicit in its internal relations.

In considering these principles, Chibber hints at a vector of historical development within his otherwise static conception of the capitalist system:

What happens if capitalism sinks into a period of stagnation in working-class life chances? Such a situation should have a direct impact on the acquisition of consent, which, in turn, should undermine the political status quo.

But it turns out that the problem of a contradiction between the relations and forces of production applies to the past but not so much now. No speculations on the epochal limits of capitalist development enter into his perspectives on the present.

Multiple Capitalisms and the Social-Democratic Exception

It was noted that, while the intellectual history of the Left is not Chibber’s main interest, his polemical objectives compel him to enter the fray. This lack of interest leads to misrepresentation of the views of other Marxists that comes to a head in his characterization of the post-war New Left, about which he says the following:

They were tacitly accepting the argument that the structure was the location of capitalism’s destabilizing mechanisms and that its sources of stability would therefore have to be found outside that structure.

Here he neglects the “outside mechanism” that was arguably more often emphasized as the decisive factor stabilizing capitalist power: Keynesianism and other forms of state intervention that were thought to have neutralized the crisis tendencies of capitalism. This omission may seem strange because, for Chibber, the interesting aspect of the problem of diversity within capitalism is not cultural but rather “institutional”: “To relegate all diversity to zones that are exogenous to the economic sphere radically underestimates the space for diversity within the economy.” Chibber has in mind the diversity introduced by social-democratic reforms. At their most advanced, these have fashioned societies that are, he argues, so egalitarian as to put into question in what sense they are still capitalist.

If this is so, we have a system that not only allows for institutional variation but is so permissive as to be constraining in name only. As Fred Block queried, is there any point in retaining the concept at all? . . . A critic might respond to the dismissal by insisting that if this is capitalism, why object to it?

As noted earlier, Chibber’s own assumptions lead him to accept the idea that there is no one capitalist system but only multiple capitalisms. But he maintains that the cause of this multiplicity is not cultural but rather “institutional.” And yet, even when discussing the history of social democracy, its specifically political-party institutions are barely mentioned. One could say Chibber comes to praise social democracy not to analyze it: “the central political development in the twentieth century — the rise of social democracy across capitalist nations.” He justifies giving it this rank by attributing every development towards a more egalitarian, less insecure version of capitalist society to social democracy. But this exaggerates its significance even on this limited reformist score. Anyway, the welfare state was not just the product of social democracy. In much of Europe, more conservative Christian Democratic parties were equally responsible. In Germany, its modern history begins with Bismarck’s reforms, while in the US it took shape, such as it is, in the complete absence of social democracy.

“The reduction in income and wealth inequality in the middle decades of the twentieth century, so famously demonstrated by Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and others, was made possible by the antecedent increase in the bargaining power of labor.” While it is true that Piketty acknowledges the role of labor unions in reducing inequality, the main levelling force his study identifies is taxation imposed by states to pay for war — a development in which the presence or absence of social democracy did not matter much.

When Chibber thinks of social democracy, he has Scandinavia in mind. How could the rise of Scandinavian social democracy be “the central political development of the last century”? He does not even try to argue that it could become a practical model for the ambitious reform of capitalism elsewhere, let alone its replacement. The total population of Scandinavia is a little over 20 million out of a world population of around 7.5 billion, but, of course, size is not decisive in determining historical impact. Some small polities have changed the course of history. For example, the Athenian polis of the classical period was the site of a great intellectual opening, the birthplace of what could be called social theory among other things. By 20th century standards, Scandinavian social democracy was an intellectually modest affair and so remained a development of only regional significance.

Intellectuals and the Class Struggle

Gramsci underscored the strategic significance of intellectual superiority in the war of classes: “A theory is ‘revolutionary’ precisely to the extent that it is an element in the conscious separation and distinction into two camps and is a peak inaccessible to the enemy camp.”[3] The stance of intellectual superiority in relation to the enemy camp — not always entirely warranted — was one of the subjective conditions of modern revolutionary politics. It was only due to the energy sustained by this presumption of superiority that the thought of inaugurating a new historical epoch — a world civilization for, at least, many thousands of years to come — became a motivating “value orientation” for millions. These were goals that some people thought worth dying for, as the most ambitious revolutionaries from the late 18th century expected to be regarded by posterity as the heroic founders or even just the unknown soldiers of a new order that would recognize their service. As members of a heroic pantheon the most resolutely atheist Marxists of that time believed in a kind of immortality, an attitude whose effects on agency is very hard to account for on the assumptions of methodological individualism. From his own counterrevolutionary perspective, Alexis de Tocqueville vividly portrayed the emergence and expansion of this strange new political subjectivity.

Revolutionaries of a hitherto unknown breed came onto the scene: men who carried audacity to the point of sheer insanity, who baulked at no innovation, and, unchecked by any scruples, acted with an unprecedented ruthlessness. Nor were these strange beings mere ephemera, born of a brief crisis and destined to pass away when it ended. They were rather the first of a new race of men who subsequently made good and proliferated in all parts of the civilized world, everywhere retaining the same characteristics. They were already here when we were born and they are still with us.[4]

Conditions of the Emergence of the Workers Movement

Chibber enumerates the fortuitous conditions under which a workers’ movement could have arisen.

  1. “The transition from agriculture to urban manufacturing.”

  2. “The establishments where they worked solved some collective action problems for them. This was the era of massive factories that employed thousands of workers.”

  3. “The fear of long-term unemployment was mitigated to an appreciable extent. . .”

  4. “The residential layout of urban centers deepened the separation between the classes.”

  5. “Until the second decade of the century, workers in virtually the entire capitalist world were disenfranchised.”

It follows that the overturning of these conditions is what has led to the worldwide defeats of labor. Deindustrialization — encompassing the transition from a large manufacturing to a majority sector labor force (1), the breakup of large scale manufacturing establishments (2), and the transformation in residential patterns (4) — can be seen as the destroyer of older traditions of class solidarity.

Here again, a historical dimension of the development of the productive forces is introduced into his otherwise static and ahistorical conception of a capitalism seen in the light of an ideal type. But Chibber does not tell us where he thinks the trend line of development is going: Is there any chance that subsequent capitalist development might recreate some of these fortuitous objective conditions, and if it never does, what then is to be done? As of now, the situation looks grim: “The institutional and organizational environment has mutated even more profoundly, making for a political environment that would scarcely be recognizable to the organizers who first built labor institutions.”

But the only factor relating to the political environment he mentions relates to the enfranchisement of workers (3): They were open to radical ideas when disenfranchised but then lost interest upon getting the vote. Chibber comes close to implying that once liberal democracy is in place revolution becomes impossible, in which case Francis Fukuyama and not Karl Marx will have the last word on modern society.

He mentions — again, in passing — the demise of the wider workers movement inclusive of its ideologies and party formations: “The political vehicles committed to solving the organizational puzzle in the previous era are also missing today — the parties, syndicates, radical unions, mass organizations of the Left, and so forth that were the catalyst behind class formation.”

Gestures aside, it seems likely that there are two reasons why Chibber has avoided any explicit theorization of the political. One is that the disciplinary division of labor encourages the isolation of its object from other theoretical approaches both from within and outside his own discipline. Here that object is the impact on class conflict of the variable of culture, conceived in the light of a narrowly defined problem of social causality. The other reason concerns his relation to the Democratic Socialists of America in his capacity as a contributor to Jacobin magazine and editor of the journal Catalyst. He might want to avoid mentioning the dependence of the whole DSA milieu on a wider left-liberal world of intersectionalist activism, journalism, and advocacy in the orbit of the Democratic Party whose main ideological feeder system is the progressive university. But Chibber is certainly aware of the scale of this problem and hints at how deeply rooted it is.

Even electorally, as Thomas Piketty has very persuasively shown, the social democratic parties in the West no longer look to the working class as their base and are far more reliant on the professional, college-educated strata. Hence, whereas there was once a natural and organic relationship between the self-styled “Left” and the working class, this is no longer the case.

In his measured concluding remarks, he briefly raises the political consequences of this demographic change of the constituencies of the Left.

To the extent that members of the class have expressed their discontent, they have done so with the means available to them, and the only such means universally available at present is the ballot box. No wonder, then, that the discontent has tended to be electoral in form and that the explosion has been populist in content, whether on the left or right. The new populist wave of the past decade is the new face of working-class rebellion today. Whether it evolves into something more substantial will depend on labor’s ability to solve the puzzle of class organizing in the new setting.

He has little in common with the kind of Marxist who concurs with his colleagues and allies that the ideology of white workers is the main obstacle to social progress. Although Chibber doesn’t say so explicitly, he conveys to his readers who might be labor organizers or community activists that the best way to reach workers is by embracing a universalistic ideology open to the great unwashed.

Subalternism versus Marxism

Unfortunately, Chibber’s attempted re-theorization of class and culture ignores the most politically relevant aspect of the problem. This problem is the existence of a set of powerful cultural-ideological compulsions — rules backed by sanctions — that have come to govern and mobilize opinion on the more progressive wing of this college-educated strata of incumbent and aspirant professions. He avoids mentioning the main tenets, practices, and institutions that enforce progressive value orientations, not so much on the working class directly, but rather on its would-be organizers within the wider ranks of the college educated. If culture is understood to be ideology relating to the vagaries of the class struggle, this massive transvaluation of the left scene would be relevant. For here we are dealing with values which affect directly the ability to create enduring, large-scale solidarities.

The progressive sector of most advanced capitalist democracies (and here, as elsewhere, Americans call the shots) is in the course of being reorganized as a tightly integrated, multi-institutional system of ideological discipline. Terry Eagleton said it memorably: “Philistine administrators plaster the campus with mindless logos and issue their edicts in barbarous, semiliterate prose.” But this clumsy guidance from above now extends far beyond the university, and in every sphere where it operates it responds to vociferous demands for the recognition of previously marginalized and newly conceived identities from below. The empowerment of the marginal that characterizes this progressive spectacle recalls the original meaning of the term “subaltern” as referring to drill sergeants. It is noteworthy Chibber does not devote more attention to this trans-institutional set-up as it forms a structure whose reproduction can be easily explained by self-interest. Readers will know that, however skeptical and sad or bemused you may be about the excesses of this regime, you are not going to speak out if you know what’s good for you. Those who — somewhat nervously — go out of their way to minimize the significance of this new ideological supervision obviously can’t be taken too seriously. What else could they say? Many comfort themselves with the thought that the current ideological Gleichschaltung is less overtly coercive than previous ones. With this in mind, the typical left-wing academic finds it easy to dismiss reactionary rants comparing wokeness to the Cultural Revolution or fascism. Since the spotlight is mainly directed at those who are insufficiently progressive, leftists who disapprove of its perceived excesses will most likely only feel resigned and not actually threatened. And, as a result of their resignation, they will tend to shun any ideas that would predispose them to reject with disgust the pablum that this whole milieu spews and feeds upon.

It would be a mistake to conclude that all this is unrelated to the focal problem of The Class Matrix. For the new ideological compulsions make exceedingly difficult the formation and reproduction of any living space of intellectual contention — arguably the indispensable condition of that rare sort of explosion of thought which launches every great movement. At its best, Marxism was a political culture of spirited polemics and ruthless criticism that incubated a whole host of great innovations. Think of the impact of Capital — once described by its author as “a brick lobbed at the bourgeoisie” — on the formation of the workers movement and the immense power of intellectual attraction the latter once had, and the outpouring of thought it provoked. Academic sociology itself rose in reaction to this provocation.

Chibber looks beyond recent academic debates to the wider left scene, addressing the more rational element in the post-Sanders landscape. The prospects of this cohort are now uncertain. What now subjectively characterizes this element is a mood of mellow resignation expressing a deep waning of intellectual passion. For more than a decade, ephemeral anti-capitalist upsurges have stimulated interest in the theoretical traditions of the workers movement. These scenes implode whenever the pressure of this progressive ideological environment makes itself felt, often in paroxysms of purging and recrimination. Repeated meltdowns have had a corrosive impact on not just the morale but also the intellectual level of the remnant Marxism which holds on in and out of the university. Though a generation of young socialists arose after the last financial crisis which was not on the whole culturally inferior to the one which launched the New Left, the current crop shows no sign of generating its own great intellectuals (the still living few of this stature are now all academics who started writing in 60s and 70s) or, indeed, the organizations by which intellectuals might transmit contingent explosions of thought into innovations of praxis.

All those who become communists or remain committed to it enter into a tradition, and Marxists have always been traditionalists in this sense: “We feel ourselves linked to men who are now extremely old, and who represent for us the past which still lives with us, which we need to know and settle our accounts with, which is one of the elements of the present and one of the premises of the future.”[5] Gramsci’s main concern was not on culture as some nebulous set of attitudes and feelings but rather on the role of the producers of ideas and the conditions of their production:

A human mass does not distinguish itself does not become independent in its own right without, in the widest sense, organizing itself, that is without organizers and leaders, in other words without the theoretical aspect of theory-practice nexus being distinguished concretely by the existence of a group of people “specialized” in conceptual and philosophical elaboration of ideas.[6]

His reflections on this topic are usually passed over now as an embarrassing elitism, but it might now be useful to revisit his thinking in the light of the manifest inability of an intellectually diminished left scene to relaunch the socialist project. Lenin once stated that without the introduction of socialist ideology into the ranks of the proletariat by intellectuals, the highest level of consciousness and self-organization this class could attain was trade unionism. Chibber’s book reminds us that not even a spontaneous trade union consciousness can be assumed, and that collective action now entirely depends on intense organizing by activists. Whether this remains the case in the coming era, for the time being it would seem as if this would drastically increase the importance of the intellectual level of these organizers and the purity of their hatred of capitalism nurtured at the peaks of theory. Today’s activist ideology cannot motivate such goals. If the goal is to build a new and better world ideas must once again become the motor of history.


[1] Vivek Chibber, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (New York: Verso, 2013).

[2] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 137.

[3] Ibid., 462.

[4] Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution, trans. Stuart Gilbert (New York: Doubleday, 1955), 157.

[5] Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, 147.

[6] Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, 334.

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