Why The Concept Of Class Is An Invention Of The Modern Spirit

Carlo Bordoni, Concept Of Class

Carlo Bordoni

The representation of modernity would not be complete unless we go back to the theory of the social classes and to Marx’s interpretation of history as a class struggle to seize power. The classes as the social construction of modernity are necessary to its adaptation and functional to its design, based entirely on conflict and inequality.

Modernity and the middle-class go hand in hand. It was only with the rising middle class that the concept of class was born. It is only natural that classes, given that they are the creation of the same bourgeois culture, are bound to follow the evolution of modernity and decline with it.

This social division based on social status and ownership of the means of production, is dealt with by Zygmunt Bauman in a now historic text, Memories of Class, the basis of which is still valid thirty years later.

His theory, though not carried to the extreme, is that the concept of class and class struggle were actually born in the modern era, and not before, following the systematic implementation of waged labour in the factories. Based on the study of Thompson and other thinkers of the twentieth century, Bauman sets out a series of considerations that, in the light of the changes that took place, appear stringent.

First of all, he refutes the Marxist theory that history is characterised by a continuous struggle of one social class for the prevalence over the other, which is one of the cornerstones of Marxist theory. If so, class struggle is no longer a universal mode of social behaviour, but a contingent fact, caused by a particular economic and social condition (industrialisation) and therefore bound to evolve because of that change in the social-economic condition. As a thinker who was very much bound to the period in which he lived, Marx quite rightly tried to scientifically explain and interpret the reality of the time and its analysis (including the solutions he put forward). Marx has value only within that context. His ideas cannot be exported or adopted as universal laws of the historical process.

The Concept Of Class Is A Consequence Of The Division Of Labour

Class society, which was a product of modernity, is an invention of the modern spirit. It is therefore not a natural condition of the human being, but a consequence of the division of labour. The very idea of class is a modern concept, free from a rigid hereditary transmission, but based on the function practiced within the social context. It depends more on where and when you were born, rather than from whom. Before the advent of modernity, the son of an artisan or a serf was destined to have the same fate as his father with no chance of improvement. The environment in which he grew up, his circle of friends and level of education then contributed to amplify the initial difference and make the gap unbridgeable. On the other hand, the son of a gentleman or a nobleman remained such in spite of all kinds of adversity, misfortune or economic ruin.

Society advanced by imprinting and, for this reason, it can be said to have been a rigid society. Modern principles, on the other hand, have opened up this concern, making it possible to have a place on the social ladder on the basis of aptitude, individual abilities, the quality of spirit, the nature of the work carried out, whilst abolishing the privileges of birth that had hitherto contained the right to belong to the aristocracy within narrow confines.

In this way, it is work, not birth that determines class. Tell me what you do and I’ll tell you who you are: a phrase that can only be applied to modern times because it is only from this moment that the work ethic, the sense of social and personal identity derived from it (modern man identifies himself with his profession more than any other at all times) become crucial. The division of labour, a necessity in every social context (which is what Durkheim’s sociology studied during the nineteenth century) takes on a further function in modernity because of the guarantees it gives to the state.

If the duty of every citizen is to contribute to the advancement of the state through his own work and through sacrifice, the daily grind is no longer a private matter of survival, necessary to feed himself and his family, but it becomes a collective act, a recognised social function to be proud of.

This revolutionary bourgeois ethic, matured over the course of the previous centuries and welcomed as a release from a past that was obscurantist, oppressive, illiberal and unworthy of a civilised community because it requires the contribution of all according to what each can give, ultimately proves to be classist at the very moment in which it separates those who have to do the “dirty” work from those who are exempt from it; with the understanding that it is not because of a privilege “a priori”, but because they are assigned to carrying out a different social function that requires particular qualities, specific training or accessibility to money.

It is money, along with the other key element, private property, that characterises modernity. Let us not forget that the spirit of the Protestant Reformation – a modernist reform, adjusting religion to the spirit of the new times, not coincidentally studied by Max Weber, the most representative sociologist of modernity – assigns a spiritual attribute to economic success, as if success in business was a demonstration of divine favour.

It is money that makes the social ladder possible and of course the transition from one class to another. The ownership of the means of production does the rest, and distinguishes those who have to make do with a tiring and servile job (the working class) from those who do their duty to the state and the community by investing, trading, setting up new industrial enterprises and creating jobs (the middle class).

That liberation from a fate determined by birth and impossible to change, which modernity had decided to achieve in the new society, is thwarted by the new economic “cage” that forces men to remain confined within a lower class because of limited economic means.

Work is not enough to overcome the differences, despite ethics, dignity and professional pride, because it does not allow the accumulation of enough money to access a higher status. The first and the most distant promise of modernity is at once betrayed by the onset of new social differences as strict as those of the past, which, however, have a content of ambiguity and deception, since they allow us to catch sight of an opportunity for social and economic advancement open to all, but in reality non-existent and almost impracticable in everyday life. An extremely rigid separation in the heyday of modernity, but destined to fade and dissolve in the process of massification that becomes established at the end of the twentieth century, during which the separation between the different classes will no longer make sense and will be replaced by opposition between the mass and the leader. A prelude to authoritarianism and totalitarianism: betrayal of the libertarian principles of modernity or their extreme consequence?

The Concept Of Class Consciousness

What is it that gives rise to the formation of class? It is undeniable that it is class consciousness, that is, the awareness of being part of a particular social condition shared by many. A special feature (completely new for the times, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century) determined by the contiguity, the uniformity and commodification of labour.

For the first time the factories force a growing number of people to work side by side, sharing the time and the concrete object of their own labour. The phenomenon of forced urbanisation then urges people to leave the countryside and live in the slums, the dilapidated houses that sprung up overnight in the suburbs.

Factory work, repetitive and arduous, is a source of uniformity among workers: all are equal in face of the owners, the differences and peculiarities are erased. The hours of work and the wages are the same and the individual is reduced to being a number that can easily be replaced. No one is indispensable, there is no room for the individual to stand out or to make a career for himself.

Commodification is the determining factor: even in retrospect, the underhand transformation of the worker into a commodity is clear. Bought and sold on the market. Exploited as much as possible and then replaced by a better one. The first to speak of work as economic component of the business system was the economist Ricardo, a forerunner of Marx. However, what appears to be significant in the transition from the pre-industrial to the industrialised economy, in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, is the unusual relationship that is established between the worker and the employer. It is no longer an equal relationship between the one who requests a service and the one who is able to provide it in exchange for an agreed sum.

Hiring in the factory, as every submission to dependent employment, is the downright selling of one’s body and soul. Forgoing freedom in exchange for a hardly sufficient salary soon reveals the condition of servitude and causes alienation. Not only is the employer the absolute owner of the plants, the machines and tools necessary to do the work, but also of the finished product that leaves the factory. The worker, emptied of his status of homo faber and as a passive instrument, experiences the unease of the non-availability of what he produced with his hands.

Now the time of the social classes and class struggle can be confined to the period that goes from the first Industrial Revolution (late seventeenth and early eighteenth century) to the second half of the last century. Almost three centuries: with their Manifesto of 1848, Marx and Engels are located right at the centre of this crucial phase.

However, these are just conventions, while the substance lies in the realization that modernity is in crisis with post-Fordism and the dematerialisation of work. The assumptions of an industrialised economy, born of the Industrial Revolution, have failed. It coincides with the decline of the middle class, the class in power until the advent of modernity, which is under attack from a proletariat which should succeed them (according to Marxist theory) in the management of power. The bourgeoisie as the ruling class (the crisis of the middle class resulting from demassification should also be considered) was dissolved but not without problems, without being replaced by a proletariat. For the simple reason that there was no proletarian class ready to succeed it.

How Classes Can Dissolve

The rigid class distinction is blurred; contemporary society has become more widespread, complex and differentiated. Above all, class consciousness, which was the foundation of that theory, has been lost. Ideology has also been lost along the way, at a time when ideologies and their false certainties were challenged. This is demonstrated by the fact that in the West there are more political parties (except for modest fringes) that invoke the class struggle and make it the core of their programme. The new formations appeal to federalism, to localism, to anti-politics, collaboration, social equality, democracy, liberalism.

If class is a contingent and temporary factor, determined by a particular condition of status, then it seems logical to be able to speak of the dissolution of classes when those conditions change. The sign of change is obvious when the contiguity of work is being lost, through diversification, relocation, job insecurity. What has changed is precisely the sense of social solidarity and contiguity in the workplace, which has challenged an ethic that had long been considered a question of fact.

Frequent job changing – in The Corrosion of Character (1998) Richard Sennett speaks of a change on average every ten years – makes you lose solidarity with other workers and privileges individual interest, which is to be safeguarded at all costs before collective interests and even going against them.

Another powerful tool of dissolution of the classes is the progressive dematerialisation of labour which, on the one hand, frees man from the fatigue of work, while on the other it undermines one of the strongest powers in the hands of the entrepreneur: the ownership of the instruments of work. This is because immaterial work is essentially intellectual work, based on personal qualities and on communication, which needs low-cost equipment and therefore reduced capital investment.

Contiguity, that was once practiced in the factories, in political party branches, in union meetings, street demonstrations, but also in the social housing of urban peripheries, is now reborn in the non-place of the internet. Because interpersonal communication has changed. It is impersonal and therefore looks for distant contacts which are weak and easy to break. While in the past intensive urbanisation forced people to share limited spaces, apartments are now a symbol of social separation, exacerbated by the massive use of social networks. A separation to which people are often subjected, but which is even more frequently sought, as in the case of gated communities, closed communities in which people are locked up in order to defend themselves and send out the signal of their unwillingness to mingle with each other.

These are weak ties, which lie outside the physicality but experience moments of collective exaltation in improvised gatherings, where people get together to protest or to celebrate, without really knowing each other, often with different motivations, and then disperse and return to their own lives. This is an effect of demassification. The new contiguity is no longer experienced in the factory, but in the town squares.

However, this type of contiguity is not enough to produce lasting effects. It is not solid enough to forge ties between people, to give birth to that spirit of solidarity which induces them to intervene when the other is in need, to make sacrifices, to share what they have with others. On your own computer, you simply have to press a button to delete a friendship that you have grown tired of or to forget people met by chance. The network is able to bring people together easily, but can also drive them apart quickly.

The Crisis Of Modernity

According to Michel Maffesoli the crisis of modernity is characterised by a return to archaic forms of socialisation, fostered by the technological development and, in particular, by network communication. Among these archaic forms there is the community, the need to forge strong ties based on common interests, empathy, willingness to believe in the same values, which are no longer ideological values, but emotional values, personal needs, self-statements, areas of the imaginary. Values rediscovered or constructed artificially in a narrow field and lived by as self-imposed rules, which make you think – just as in a definition dear to Maffesoli – tribal rituals (Le Temps des tribus, 1988).

The building up of a culture and common values to be used within a privileged group, with its own language and symbols, in which they can identify themselves. The need for identification, which was lost with the work ethic, is temporarily recuperated in the community of the imaginary or immaterial. Their function is just temporary and is a replacement. It temporarily compensates for the absence of universally recognised ethical values, and for this reason is characterised, in conformity with the liquidity of the current world, by extreme fragility.

Emotional or imaginary communities are formed and wiped out with ease: you just have to avoid responding, change your nickname and with one click you can delete a world, a friendship you thought would last, the confidence in a group in which you finally seem to be at home. No regrets, guilt-free and, above all, without having to explain yourself. Network communities also have this advantage: of being able to quickly get out of a relationship that you have grown tired of, which is becoming too cramped or unsatisfactory, and to create another. These are the disposable communities in the liquid world, our prêt-à-porter identity that can be worn and replaced as required.

They may even be multiple when interacting with more community networks at the same time, assuming different identities depending on the state of mind of the moment or the want to satisfy different needs. This multicommunity of use well provides for the desire to recover a lost identity and experience different conditions as a result of the sense of anguish and loneliness that we cannot shake off.

The ties created in the network are weak ones and their lack of physicality prevents the formation of class consciousness, the awareness of sharing the same destiny. That physicality, the close daily contact that Marx could not find in the world of the peasant farmers and found that it was, on the other hand, very much present in the urban proletariat.

According to Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt:

the most important communication the proletarians have and that the peasants lack, is enacted in the physical, corporeal being together in the factory. The class and the bases of political action are formed not primarily through the circulation of information or even ideas but rather through the construction of political affects, which requires a physical proximity. And so Facebook, Twitter and the Internet and other kinds of communications mechanisms are useful, but nothing can replace the being together of bodies and the corporeal communication that is the basis of collective political intelligence and action. In all the occupations (…) the participants experienced the power of creating new political affects through being together.

The young people who took to Tahrir Square, who gave rise to the Arab Spring or the Occupy Wall Street movement, felt the need to be physically close, as well as virtually close through the usual social networks. But this, too, like any instrument that can be used on the internet, is not enough to create class consciousness. However, it has been observed that, once the demonstration has broken up, the enthusiasm for the sit-in is over, everyone returns to his own home and carries on with his life. In order to build up class consciousness, neither the network nor the occasional physical contact at events is sufficient. What is needed is that particular painful constraint and the sharing of an identical fate that used to characterise social class and that now no longer exist.