Exploding the contradictions

February 9, 2019 (828 words) :: More on Erik Olin Wright, and how his theory of 'contradictory class location' could be relevant to tech worker organising.
Tags: class-struggle, working-in-tech

This post is day 40 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

I’m still sick today, and I wasn’t feeling lucid enough to do anything other than read Twitter and play Dynasty Warriors. So today’s post is again a short one based around Erik Olin Wright, but this time I’ll be making a connection to organising in the tech industry.

Today, Jacobin put out another obituary on Wright, this one by Barry Eidlin: A Life of Contradiction and Clarity. Eidlin summarises Wright’s theories around the contradictions inherent in the structural position of the rising middle classes under capitalism:

the idea of contradictory class locations resolved a thorny problem for Marxist class analysis: where to fit the middle classes? Were they essentially bourgeois or proletarian, some new form of petty bourgeoisie, or something else entirely? The question was far from academic. The answer shaped how class lines were drawn in modern capitalist society, which in turn determined possible class coalitions.

With characteristic rigor, Erik showed that these middle classes occupied a contradictory location within capitalism — sometimes exploited, at other times the exploiters. This meant that their political allegiances were not structurally predetermined. Instead, they would be determined through politics — the dynamics of class struggle itself. The contradiction at the heart of the concept created a dynamic tension that elevated class analysis from a sterile exercise in classification to a concrete assessment of political possibilities.

Wright’s theorising of the concept of contradictory class locations was rooted in empirical research, and he came up with a rigorous typology with 12 sub-classes that you can read about here. The taxonomic details don’t really matter for this blog post, though - the gist is that, in our day and age, dividing the population into “proletariat” and “bourgeoisie” is so reductive that it ceases to be very useful. Within the working class, there are different strata, characterised by their employment duties as well as their personal skills and credentials. As a result, they all have different points of leverage, not to mention different material interests.

This is a really useful concept when thinking about tech worker organising today. By now, we all know that the broad designation of “tech worker” spans a huge range of potential job categories and corresponding levels of remuneration. Some of these workers - service workers on tech company campuses, for example - and have already started to unionise, with organising drives centred around low pay and benefits. Some of these workers (particularly those working in the “gig economy”) are stuck in a legal grey area, especially in the US, and can’t always rely on legal protection even if they have plenty of reason to organise. Some of these workers don’t even think of themselves as “workers” in need of protection, because they’re given a degree of workplace autonomy, or have a vested interest in their employer’s success because they own stock (excuse the pun).

It’s tempting to use these broad categories as a heuristic for estimating potential class consciousness. But the material factors never tell the whole story - people can be driven to organise despite high wages and apparent workplace autonomy. Plus, there’s a level of fluidity that can’t be fully captured by any model that puts people into a finite number of boxes. Some of these subcategories have more in common than they may initially seem, and this will only become more true as the two-tier workforce model spreads deeper into the tech industry.

The tech industry contains a lot of these contradictory roles that Erik Olin Wright theorised about. When push comes to shove, which side will these workers be on, as David A. Banks asks in The Baffler? It’s true, as Banks writes, that “[t]here is no guarantee that a union of affluent software engineers will axiomatically fall on the right side of history.” Their class location is indeed contradictory: as servants for capital, they are well-paid, and given comparatively decent freedom. But they are still workers, and they have gripes about bad management, workplace discrimination, and everyday tedium just like other workers.

The key lesson from Erik Olin Wright’s work is that their class loyalty is, as Eidlin says, “not structurally predetermined”. The only real answer to the question of which side they’re on is: it depends. It depends on the balance of class forces, as manifested through the associational power that has been built within the industry by groups through networks like Tech Workers Coalition and beyond. It depends, too, on people’s personal circumstances, because not even the more teleological aspects of Marxism preclude the possibility of individual agency.

The point is that when the battle lines become clear, people will have to choose sides, and they will make that choice according to a whole bunch of factors, not all of which can be analysed in advance. If you’ve read this far, you probably already know what I think the right side is. So pick your side.

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