Class denialism

March 3, 2019 (1552 words) :: The grand delusion of modern-day liberalism is that it denies the existence of distinct economic classes, instead opting to pretend that we're all in it together.
Tags: class-struggle

This post is day 62 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

Yesterday, while doing research for my fragment on imaginary conversations with HR, I came across this TechCrunch article on the horrible working conditions at London-based fintech startup Revolut: How far are you willing to go for growth?, by Danny Crichton. The article is actually quite well-written, and it has some insightful things to say about the (ethical) downsides of the pursuit of growth. But the article ends in a way that I found infuriating:

Let’s be clear: We all love a rapidly growing startup. We all want to invest in or join a winner. But what are we willing to forego to get it? Are we willing to push ethical boundaries? Are we willing to use dark patterns to force those numbers higher? Are we willing to break the law and potentially go to prison? Our love of growth often knows no bounds.

In context, I’m sure Revolut’s decision came easily, but of course, for disinterested observers, the idea that you would switch off the AML system at a banking startup just looks like complete stupidity. Yet, I am not sure I am ready to blame the employees of Revolut (or its leaders, frankly) before I place the blame on a culture that demands extreme growth and dislikes it when the consequences come to bear. You can’t get extreme growth without something breaking. We need to decide which value is more important for us.

On the one hand, I welcome the attempt to pinpoint the blame on systemic factors, rather than simply treating Revolut as one bad apple. On the other hand, who is this “we”?

There’s a metric shit-ton of heavy lifting done by this agentless “we”, this shrugging resignation where any negative consequences are waved away as merely the minor downsides of a choice we all made. As if the consequences of this culture, and the power to change it, are distributed equally among those implicated. As if the pursuit of extreme growth, and all its attendant consequences, is something we have all decided to embrace after a long deliberation. As if there is no difference between the investors and founders who derive material benefit from this kind of growth, and the employees (or prospective employees) who throw their lives into the startup for comparably little financial gain.

This tendency to assume the university of agency is a fairly common one, especially among liberals/centrists. It manifests as hand-wringing over a perceived decline of civility, as the political centre ground gives way to extremes at both ends. Why don’t we just all decide what values are important to us, the centre-fetishising pundits implore. Surely we can reach common ground through bipartisanship.

If I had to boil left politics to one key insight, it’s that there isn’t always a common ground. The reason is that the mechanics that underpin capitalism give rise to discrete classes: one class with ownership over the means of production, and one class with ownership over nothing but its labour-power. Each class has its own imperatives, and sometimes, those imperatives are opposed.

Of course, like any politically useful model, this is a vast oversimplification; you can’t neatly divide the whole world into those two classes without a lot of hand-waving. But even though the utility of this model may falter in the middle of the spectrum - see this fragment on the concept of “contradictory class location”, for example - it still offers a lot of value at the margins, by contrasting the stratospherically different economic situations at the very top vs the very bottom.

Take, for example, the difference between Jeff Bezos and your typical Amazon warehouse worker. The former never has to worry about meeting his material needs, and he has enough money to satisfy his every spiritual urge: he can build rockets, or buy a venerated century-old newspaper, or even donate billions of dollars to charity - all while barely making a dent to his net worth. He can spend his days plotting how to expand his empire, knowing that he has the power to do basically anything he wants. The latter, on the other hand, has to hand over most of their waking hours to an authoritarian regime that enforces rigid controls on their every move, merely in exchange for being able to afford the bare necessities of life. There are massive differences in power, available options, and material concerns between the two.

All this to say that in the context of our economic system, there is no singular, monolitic, universal “we”. There is no especially “we” that encompasses both Jeff Bezos and his warehouse workers. Any political worldview that assumes a “we” as the subject of economic change is misguided, and it’s a suspect one - the entire basis of our economic system is to ensure that there is only “us” vs “them”. As a result, attempts to universalise are merely eliding the question of which side is being championed.

Whether this elision is due to ignorance, or political cowardice, or malevolence, it almost doesn’t matter. The effective outcome is still apologism, where the system’s intrinsic divisions are papered over under the pretense that the system concerns everyone equally.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that what is good for Jeff Bezos is not necessarily good for America, or for the world at large. Of course, there will always be efforts to pretend otherwise, simply because it’s a useful way to maintain ideological buy-in for the status quo. But take one look at the wealth inequality figures and you’ll find a hell of a lot of empirical evidence that the system is not working for most people.

I’ve been reading Sam Marcy’s High Tech, Low Pay, a book on the effects of technological change on working class composition. It was published in 1986, but seems to still be weirdly relevant today. There’s a paragraph on the antagonism inherent in labour relations, and although this is a common (Marxist) idea, I want to quote it anyway because it puts it rather nicely:

[…] the relations between the employer and employee, the boss and the worker, have their foundation in the existence of irreconcilable class antagonisms. These antagonisms do not lend themselves to solution by such vague terms as fairness and justice when each class views morality and justice from a different perspective [emphasis added]. These different and opposing conceptions are based upon the struggle over the paid and unpaid portions of labour.

A similar point is made by Jacobin founder Bhaskar Sunkara, in an interview for New York Magazine:

I think freedom for working people today means limiting the freedom of those who benefit from the inequities inherent in class society. So if you’re an employer and you risked everything to set up a business — and you own machinery that you want operated or a storefront you pay a mortgage on — a socialist wants to intrude on your freedom by dictating that you can only employ your workers for 35 hours a week. And that if you need more labor than that, you’ll have to hire a different shift of full-time workers or pay time and a half to your existing workforce. Or, more fundamentally, in fact, that your business should be run as a cooperative and that shares should be given to your employees.

Now, someone loses something here. But something is gained for the people who used to work 12 hours a day but now work seven hours a day. That five hours is their personal time, time to reach their potentials, time to watch the NBA, time for whatever. Socialism is not so much about trading in freedom for equality but rather posing the question, “Freedom for whom?”

The “for whom” is crucial. At the risk of sounding like a postmodern stereotype, there is no overarching, universal “freedom” that has any meaning; there is only freedom for a particular subject, in a particular domain. And sometimes, a particular type of freedom for one subject conflicts with a different kind of freedom for another.

This brings us back to the concept of “class denialism” and why it’s so inaccurate: it suggests that we’re all on the same side. It suggests that freedom for one is freedom for all.

And look, it’s a nice vision, but it’s one that’s far removed from our present economic reality. Whatever freedom capitalism may bring in the realm of consumption, its central pillar of wage-labour is one that precludes the possibility of agency within the realm of production. Anyone who has nothing to sell but their labour-power has little choice but to subject themselves to domination in the workplace for 8 hours a day.

Now, some are able to work under conditions that mostly align with their desires and interests. Most, however, are not. And the latter’s lack of freedom is not an aberration - it’s the direct product of a system that prioritises the freedom of a few to curtail the freedom of others.

In the situation, freedom can’t be won by appealing to the universal. You have to pick a side.

Thanks to Jason Prado for letting me steal his idea of “class denialism”.

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