Class the DNA of society

Is class, rather than race, the key to understanding today’s South Africa? Complexity has been the theme of a number of recent Mail & Guardian articles that have dismissed the choosing of one or the other as simplistic. The most recent of the complexity champions has been Tahir Wood.

Despite the title of Wood’s article, “Class exists but can we say the same of race?”, he does provide space for race. Whether he allows sufficiently for the complexity of the relationship between the two is open to question. I think he doesn’t because his understanding of class is too simple.

Despite this disagreement with him, which I shall explain, let me endorse Woods’s conclusion: “‘Race’is simply bad ideology. Humanity urgently needs to find a better way of talking and thinking about people … if our species is to thrive.”

Class offers “a better way” but it is an understanding of class that differs from Wood’s. In its general use, class has been sanitised to be used descriptively rather than analytically. Used descriptively, it simply accepts the inequalities within society and gives names to the various income and status groups that characterise hierarchical structures — the rich and the poor, at its simplest; the upper, middle and lower classes, at a more complex level.

But used analytically, it can question why and how these inequalities arose, are sustained and change over time.

Marx used class analytically. Wood also uses Marx but he unproblematically uses the widespread view in which class is determined by whether or not one owns the wealth of society. In this respect, my understanding differs from Wood’s.

Viewed historically, classes come into being only when the productivity of society is greater than what is required to sustain the bare essentials of life — food, clothing and shelter — for all its members. Once there is an economic surplus, a new and different society emerges, which is shaped, in all its complexities, by how that surplus is taken from its producers and appropriated by initially semi-producers and then non-producers. The complex of producers and non-producers are historically specific,with classes (the specific form in which this antagonistic and unequal exchange takes place) being the DNA of each society.

As Marx wrote: “The specific economic form in which unpaid surplus labour is pumped out of the direct producers determines the relationship of rulers and ruled, as it grows directly out of production itself and, in turn, reacts upon it as a determining element.

“On this, however, is founded the entire formation of the economic community, which grows up out of the production relations themselves, thereby simultaneously its political form. It is always the direct relationship between the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers … which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure, and with it the political form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the corresponding specific form of the state.”

“Race” is the way in which surplus was stolen to form “the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure” of colonial and apartheid South Africa. Race was not invented to “understand” the “subjugated” Africans, as Wood argues, but rather to dehumanise them and, thereby, to make morally acceptable their ruthless exploitation by people who wished to see themselves as moral beings.

Over time, however, the racism — the body of associated prejudices — was passed on from one generation to the next until it became part of the normal way in which South Africans — the subjugated no less than their oppressors — think and behave and organise themselves; in the “corresponding specific form of the state”, as Marx put it.

This is the origin of the racialised thinking that still dominates all aspects of our lives, 24 years after the abolition of all the laws promoting and protecting race as the “specific economic form in which unpaid surplus is pumped out of the direct producers”.

What is it about the present that keeps race thinking so alive today?

Capitalism is the current, general form in which that appropriation of unpaid surplus takes place worldwide. South Africa remains the capitalist society it has been since the late 19th century. What is new is democracy.

Universal franchise has created the anomaly of a black elite without the economic power that goes with political power. Without in any way disturbing capitalism, which automatically breeds inequality, the political elite have capitalised on the injustices of apartheid, along with the glaring poverty that is overwhelming black, because black people are the overwhelming majority of the population, to make “race” the basis for their exclusive access to wealth and “transformation”.

The established (once all white) members of the ruling class reluctantly tolerate this perpetuation of race-based binary thinking. The exclusive focus on (elitist) black transformation ensures the security of an untransformed capitalism, on which their wealth and privileges depend.

Class, in other words, is much more than just one aspect of the social complex. The social complex is, instead, the form through which the wealth produced by workers is appropriated, distributed, legitimised and, ultimately, made normal. This is why class is the genetic code for the whole of society. — Jeff Rudin, Alternative Information & Development Centre

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