When you find the forest, don’t forget the trees: A review of Class Matters by Charles Umney

Class Matters: Inequality and Exploitation in 21st Century is an excellent introduction to Marxist debates on class, but its understanding of class variety and how it changes is limited.

Pluto Press’ Class Matters: Inequality and Exploitation in 21st Century (2018), by Charles Umney, is hard not to recommend. It would serve as an excellent introduction to Marxist debates on class, particularly to non-Marxists or those new to Marxism, and would be useful as a quasi-textbook of contemporary class theories even for established leftists. This derives from its conversational writing style, which is maintained even when discussing complex theories; its fantastic use of examples; and its forthright and well-justified inclusion of almost every key debate on class today.

In spite of this, it does have severe limitations engaging with two crucial aspects of class which are important for understanding its structure today. Firstly, its ongoing heterogeneity and the apparent cultural opposition between “cosmopolitan” and “traditional” groups which underpins the current rise of reactionary politics. Secondly, long-standing debates on the uneven benefits of capitalist exploitation and its relationship to global order, which is particularly important for understanding what problems stemming from globalisation mean for global class struggle.

The key theme of the book is establishing that for Marxists, class doesn’t represent an identity. This is explicitly viewed in opposition to the Bourdieusian work of Mike Savage, whose typology was used for the Great British Class Survey. However, this approach should also be seen in opposition to Weberian theories which underpin the occupation-based measures of class used commonly across political science. Though these approaches differ in the way they weigh cultural and economic factors, they share a focus on class as a way to understand social differentiation over time: how individuals’ life paths are shaped by the forms of power they can wield, and the different forms of hierarchy and antagonisms this enmeshes them into.

In contrast, Umney’s succinct overview of Marxist value theory shows that it views class as a process, rather than an identity. Focusing on why class exists and its role in structuring society as a whole, his approach argues classes should be understood as the process which defines the institutions shaping people’s lives and continually reshapes how they engage with work, as well driving the outcomes from work, and how work changes. Though individuals always experience this through their concrete conditions, and therefore develop class consciousness specifically though the heterogeneous conditions they live in, fundamentally class is bimodal: capital and labour.

The nature of this process is explored over several chapters on inequality, the state, identity, technology, and ideology, in each of which key Marxist debates are introduced. The highlight is the dissection of control, which establishes several crucial points:

  1. Though control is differentiated in individual sectors, it can be identified within every sector irrespective of skill. Furthermore, the overarching way control is measured and disciplined tends to be shaped by wider changes. It is consequently unclear if we can use control to differentiate specific classes.
  2. The state’s relationship to labour is contested as its aim is primarily to ensure capitalist stability. The way in which this shapes control has recently changed, however, and the increasing complexity and alienation of governance from national concerns is causing problems.
  3. The nature of modern class discussion has become centred on identity, with the term “working class” often used to refer to an identity within the wider category of labour. This has dramatic political consequences, not least because it excludes women and ethnic minorities from popular understandings of class.
  4. Technology is only developed in a class context, and although it can appear to have potentially utopian characteristics, the logic of its development reflects attempts to extend control and secure firms’ position in competition. Though technology appears to be more fundamental to how we live our lives, current changes have not disrupted this and indeed capitalism maldevelops technology in a way that prevents any such shift.
  5. The notion of common sense, as an ideology, is what binds together this edifice by presenting ‘the meddler’ as the enemy of stability. It is though this that liberal capitalism turns passivity and scepticism to its advantage, despite providing individuals the tools as workers, voters, and consumers to change things.

In themselves, these chapters provide an excellent insight into modern mechanisms for controlling labour. This is supported by numerous secondary fascinating debates which underpin this book’s exemplary ability to introduce the reader to almost every key question on the way the capital-labour relationship is articulated today. For example, the third chapter includes an excellent mini discussion on the nature of firm size which, although not relevant to its main argument, is developed enough to provide real insight into the problems continually shaping relationships of control and coordination, and potential points at which they can be challenged.

However, contrasting its insight into control, the book seems to actively avoid the ongoing heterogeneity of class. This is problematic, as even within its own discussions of the driving force behind the ongoing political crisis of liberalism post-crisis are the divisions over Brexit within labour, and the tendency to reify the ‘white working class’ as the working class itself.

Though heterogeneity of class, for Marxism, is not a feature of classes themselves, this avoids that “class” is a concrete abstraction. In reality, class only exists as the common features of how diverse forms of labour are organised and reshaped by the need to maintain surplus value creation and distribution. This develops in the specific sectors, cultures, and communities individuals are embedded in and although it’s important to identify universal features such as control, these are an essence of class which all workers experience but never exist alone.

Though side-lining heterogeneity gives the book a huge amount of space to identify the universal features of class, it also means that its explanation for the changing nature of class is highly limited. In particular, change is erroneously reduced to a universal process rather than a specific one. The core of its understanding of change is globalisation, which is brought into its concrete discussions of control through three particular changes.

First, in its overview of the post-Keynesian restructuring of capitalism, it heavily emphasises finance, taking the development of global capital markets as forcing a focus on the short-term over the long-term - a move that is supported by the ready mobility of capital. This is taken as having a twofold effect on necessary methods of control. First, it rapidly speeds it up, “maximising the discretion of employers to act in a rapid and unencumbered way to respond to market pressure” (p.56). Secondly, it means the locus of profits are with those who are “remote from the day-to-day of the workplace” (p.54) and consequently there is an increased focus on pleasing “alien power” by appeasing ‘the market’ rather than rational investment.

Second, in its discussion of the limitations on the state and the driving force behind complexity, it strongly contrasts the ‘alien power’ of globalisation which, although states created, they can’t control. This is understood as undermining states’ ability to stabilise capitalism, since their role as an an administrator responding to national pressures is undermined (p.112).

Third, Umney views outsourcing as primarily a process which aims to “disorganise” workers (p.87), with cross-national outsourcing in particular identified as an instance of globalisation providing capitalists with even stronger tools to “create competition between groups of workers to extract concessions from them” (p.84). Furthermore, when discussing technology, he specifically views outsourcing as a process in which production is moved to sites where “technology is much less developed” (p.138).

In treating globalisation as an alien power which essentially seeks to erroneously divide workers and reshape the ability for capitalist methods of control to be politically sustainable, the continual unevenness of globalisation is effectively ignored. Consequently, its influence on creating continual heterogeneity on how control is exerted and reshaped among the British working class is neglected. This is a major problem, as the book’s argument rests on class changing in a universal way.

Though finance and globalisation can act as alien powers to many firms, they also represent distinct national projects which states can contend with in different ways, and often do depending on their specific needs and role in global capitalism. The location of the City of London, for example, is crucial to the continual functioning of British capitalism, providing its tax base and covering imports. It also successfully supported the Blair-era social compact, which was reliant on consumer-driven debt and access to wealth for high-cost goods such as homes.

Treating globalisation as an alien power misses the way national forms of capitalism and production, as well as individual capitalists and labour are deeply integrated into it. Thus, regarding globalisation as an alien power assumes globalisation leads to a general decline in the state’s ability; and avoids identifying how globalisation actively reshapes location and the valuation of specific skills as part of a change in how global capitalism functions.

The functional state still exists in the UK; what has changed is the specific projects which UK capitalists focus on, and the social structures that the new sectors depends on. In contrast to the Keynesian era in which mass industrial employment required maintaining a healthy willing workforce, the service sector reorients the core features labour must have; education is more important than access to a well-socialised workforce who can develop tacit skills, and general compliance with control and ability to consume is more important than health.

Treating outsourcing as simply a diversion from proper growth is similarly problematic. Though initially, outsourcing was driven by limited uses of technology, this rapidly changed as competition drove peripheral access to capital goods, forcing out firms that couldn’t increase their use of technology (and driving inequality across the global south in the process). Though peripheral firms are still often behind the “technological frontier”, this is sectorally specific and typically reflects low capacities to utilise service, logistic, and research technologies in low-demand domestic economies. In contrast, use of capital is relatively advanced and continually developing.

The benefits of this for core economies is widespread, not least in the rapid devaluation of consumer goods and the continual gap between the value of peripheral and core labour. This has altered the skills required by the core working class as a feature of specialisation. Though they are delinked from many mass-employment high-wage-growth sectors which could depend on continual productivity increases, they have far greater access to specialised systemic-wide roles in production as well as the high-value service roles which organise global production.

Both these problems force the book to effectively ignore the relative success of sections of the working class, and the specific problems facing others. These privileges and failures are always contradictory, and analysis of them requires something other than the mere reintroduction of concepts of class stratification. For example, older workers tend to find their skills are being dislocated but have far high levels of wealth through homeownership, whereas young workers have stronger skill sets for a service-led economy but low access to wealth. For the global south, this process has also given countries access to much-needed industrial goods while forcing them into patterns of inequality and devaluation.

Though these forms of heterogeneity do require universal control, are continually shaped by national policies on equality and immigration, and require infinitely more complex methods of state stabilisation due to the need to manage an ever-larger division of labour, they are not alien. Indeed, they often depend on and reflect highly specific national projects of capital that rely on maintaining a larger system to continually extract surplus value. Similarly, the reaction of the state to changes in capitalism is not alien. The methods that the state utilises to maintain stability have always been relative, supporting only specific groups of labour at the expense of others.

The continual heterogeneity of class, and the problems we see today, need to be understood in this context and cannot be reduced to undifferentiated universal change. This is notable in two areas which, despite their key relevance today, are missing from the book’s conclusions.

The most prominent omission is that of culture. Heterogeneity plays a role in how culture is used to disorganise class. The book rightly observes that the media’s obsession with perceived cultural divisions between the ‘middle and working’ class is a tool of division which allows parts of capital to co-opt the term ‘class’. However, heterogeneity is required to understand the concrete conditions which allow this to flourish. Globalisation did allow cultural differentiation to occur as core economies specialised in education-led skills centered on urban centres and created massive skill dislocation. Though both workers across both cities and towns face substantial problems, both the geographic space they exist in, the sectors they tend to face, and differences in community trajectories means cultural differences are not false but instead reflect different problems and successes of each group. These differences need teasing out, particularly as they seem fruitful for driving division at a political level, not hiding.

The second omission, which is crucial for a developed theory of class, is a discussion of global class structures. Heterogeneity isn’t a national phenomenon, and in contrasting the global and national as an explanation for systemic change, this book tends to conflate its object of study - the British working class - with class as a general category. Though the former is national by circumstance, the latter, like capital, is only global. This problem appears as a set of unanswered questions in odd positions Umney takes, such as viewing the core working class as the “biggest losers” relative to the emerging peripheral middle class in the current era (p.41). Though there is some truth to this in terms of absolute and relative changes in income growth, it is unsatisfactory considering extensive and continual gaps between the core and periphery in spite of peripheral development. Positions like this beg a discussion on the nature of global class and forms of control writ large, and necessarily require understanding heterogeneity due to the huge diversity of institutional and cultural mechanisms through which capitalists exploit labour. In the absence of this, some of the book’s conclusions seem overwrought, and although I think Umney did intend to write a book about class in Britain specifically, his appeal to universal models and inclusion of wider debates make this less clear.

These problems are therefore not just one of the book’s scope - rather, they actively undermine its core conclusions about how we should understand class and what this means for how we should engage with the concept to make a better world.

Though I would advise this book as it provides an excellent introduction to Marxist concepts of class, its problems are impactful and it consequently it should only be taken as an (extremely readable) starting point which can only be utilised analytically with a deeper investigation into change.

Behind the need to understand change is that, although class is a process, its heterogeneity defines the direct problems it causes and the way in which solutions to these problems are envisioned. Theories of class which avoid heterogeneity, which the theories developed in this book tend to do, avoid understanding the nuance of capital’s governance. In particular, it fails to identify how the benefits of capitalism are unevenly distributed and state resources are used to solve the problems which particular individuals face as members of the working class with their own distinct conditions and communities.

In the midst of the current resurgence of reactionary forms of governance by capital, a failure to address how heterogeneity functions is highly problematic. These changes do have a strong basis in specific classes, in particular in the US and UK, older peri-urban groups with an experience of both industrial and post-industrial capitalism. Trying to challenge this with a universal model of class runs into major problems, as it can end up overassuming the problems these workers face are universal and not dissecting the specific benefits and problems they face relative to other parts of labour. Our theories need to include both a recognition of class’s universal features, which drive our understanding of how exploitation is organised and changing, but also its heterogeneity so we can diagnose why the drive to end exploitation isn’t prioritised evenly across all groups of labour and what shapes their alternative objectives.

We also need to ensure we not only expand our analysis at the national scale, but move beyond it. During a time when the Western Left finally seems to be seeing some successes pushing itself forward in core economies, maintaining its global perspective is not just an analytical necessity but a political necessity too. I doubt Umney would disagree here, and indeed his critical diagnosis of labour at the end of the book shows an adept understanding of the struggle the left faces ensuring more radical positions are injected into their program. However, unless we ensure that an understanding of class as a global uneven phenomenon is included in our analysis, our attempts to ensure social democracy understands class may end up defaulting to national narratives. Even radical Social Democracy in one country would fail, and that is a problem we cannot afford at this time.