Vivek Chibber, The Class Matrix: Social Theory after the Cultural Turn (Harvard University Press 2022), 224pp. Vivek Chibber, The Class Matrix: Social Theory after the Cultural Turn (Harvard University Press 2022), 224pp.

Chibber makes an excellent case for the continued centrality of class in capitalist society, but neglects how class struggle arises directly from the system, argues Chris Nineham

This book is welcome for a number of reasons. Most importantly, it makes the case for putting not just class, but a discussion of class interests back at the heart of socialist politics. This would make it valuable enough but, as a bonus, Chibber blesses us with a brilliant take down of what has become known as the ‘cultural turn’ in left-wing theory. This is the idea that has been promoted by generations of left academics, that culture, language and identity are more important in deciding how people behave than the structure of the society they live in.

The main argument of the book really shouldn’t be controversial on the left, but sometimes is. ‘The defining characteristic of capitalism,’ Chibber writes, ‘is a class structure with asset-owning capitalists on one side and a class of asset-poor workers on the other’ (p.22).

This basic division shapes society much more deeply than any other, and it has an overwhelming effect on people without wealth in capitalist society. The majority quite simply have to work for a capitalist or starve. This fact has all sorts of implications. One of them is that it places a certain discipline on working people. Capitalist exploitation is experienced by the worker, Chibber argues:

‘as a kind of economic compulsion. In this the forces acting upon him are quite different from any other social relation … No one has to monitor him or use social pressure to keep him in the fold. He does not have to be dragged back to the workplace or be threatened by social sanctions because his deteriorating well-being is enough to make him reconsider. His economic vulnerability is enough to push him back into the social structure, should he choose to opt out.’ (pp.32-3).

Chibber uses this strong restatement of Marxist basics to challenge what he calls ‘culturalism’. The ideas of the ‘cultural turn’ tried to explain workers apparent buy-in to capitalism as a product of ideology, propaganda or cultural incorporation. ‘Culturalism’ comes in many forms, but includes the ideas of the Frankfurt school in the 1940s, some of the New Left of the fifties and sixties, the subsequent work of Jacques Derrida, Stuart Hall, Frederic Jameson and Mark Fisher to name a few. It paved the way for the politics of identity that influence sections of the left today.

Chibber shows very clearly how the tendency of culturalists to play down economic compulsion can lead to the abandonment of any idea that people lives are shaped by their society:

‘[P]olitics after the cultural turn is unmoored from any underlying economic interest or capacities. It becomes fundamentally open ended – built around identities rather than interests, volition rather than capacities, perception rather than economic facts’ (p.9)

Things have got so bad, Chibber points out, that for many ‘the very idea of an economic system seems rather quaint.’ (p.9)

As Chibber argues, the early New Left variants of culturalism were trying to find ways that people come together and express solidarity in an increasingly complex capitalist world. But soon, in its more extreme versions, language, cultural and propaganda came to be seen as all powerful. In a passage worth quoting at length, Chibber points out the fundamental flaw in this view:

‘It is of course, true that schools, religious institutions, the media, and the state present the status quo as legitimate; the poor are socialized into this view of the world; and that the dominant classes try to capitalize on “their moral and intellectual leadership”. But this is all a description of indoctrination effort. It does not and cannot predict the degree to which the latter is successful. That outcome – the degree to which the ideology is internalised – is dependent on factors independent of the indoctrination effort … above all it will depend on the workers’ actual experience of their class situation and if that experience confirms or undermines the ideology’s framing of the system as legitimate and desirable’ (p.90).

Wise words which if more widely accepted would have saved the left a lot of hand- wringing. Chibber’s point is that working people are not empty vessels, their ideas and attitudes are shaped by a combination of experience and the ideas circulating in society. Given the oppressive and unpleasant nature of working life, experience very often trumps propaganda.

Chibber goes on to make some important detailed corrections to the culturalist case. He challenges for example the standard take on Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci as someone who saw culture as the key to the survival of capitalism. Chibber rightly points out that Gramsci in fact locates capitalism’s survival mainly ‘in its economic function’ (p.94). Capitalist control over society and its ability to create consent was, for Gramsci, more than anything due to its leading economic position and ‘the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production’. (Quoted, p.95).

Explaining acceptance

Chibber’s reassertion of the importance of class in capitalist society and the experience of exploitation for workers’ consciousness is concise and convincing. He also tries to explain what he sees as workers’ general acceptance of the system most of the time, but here he is much less persuasive. He makes the good point that Gramsci’s materialist version of consent doesn’t adequately explain what he calls ‘capitalism’s remarkable stability’ (p.125). Active consent is a factor, particularly at times of capitalist growth and it might be the decisive factor if ‘at all times, workers had a viable exit strategy’. Often, he argues, active consent is replaced by passive resignation:

‘A more plausible explanation for capitalism’s political stability locates itself not in the working class embracing its situation but in resigning itself to it – that is workers accept their location in the class structure because they see no other viable option.’ (p.106)

Chibber argues the employer holds so many of the cards in capitalist society that capitalism ‘positions workers in such a way that they will typically find an individualised course of class reproduction more feasible than one reliant on collective organization’ (pp.62-3). So, rather than following Marx’s ‘optimistic prognostications’ the most appealing means of increasing job security is by making oneself ‘more attractive’ to the boss’ (p.64). Non-class organisations become preferable to class-based resistance:

‘In a situation of generalized labor market competition, the easier means for increasing one’s security is not building formal organisations for collective action – since this inevitably runs into conflict with employer – but relying on informal networks into which workers are born. These most commonly are networks of kin, caste, ethnicity, race and so on. Since workers essentially inherit these connections ready-made, they become a natural source of support in normal times, and especially in times of dearth’ (p.64).

The outcome, for Chibber, is that ‘workers’ identification with their class is more likely the exception, not the rule’ (p.50) and even that ‘the more rational course of action is for workers to tend towards an individual resistance’ (p.75). In this deeply pessimistic world view, the issue becomes not one of explaining why workers don’t fight but of imagining ‘how working class associational power and the pursuit of collective class struggles is achieved at all’ (p.67).

There are a number of problems with this account. The first is the rather important point that the individual or communalist approaches to resisting exploitation that Chibber describes by and large don’t work. It is true, all sorts of aspects of capitalist life propel us in those directions. It is true that for a tiny number of workers ingratiating yourself with the boss or relying on networks of patronage will lead to benefits. But overall, for the majority, they are dead ends. As Chibber himself argues so vividly in the first part of the book, capitalism is driven by the iron law of profits, and all managements are forced to seek the most favourable possible terms of exploitation, which means relentlessly attacking wages and conditions. They may promote particularly servile workers or cultivate various ethnic or religious favouritisms but they will do this in order to divide workers and pursue the lowest possible wages for the majority.

In contrast, however hard it can be to pull off, collective workers’ organisation can get results. Statistics repeatedly show that workers in union-organised workplaces and industries tend to be better paid than those in unorganised ones. It is generally true too that strong racial divisions in workplaces lead to lower wages for all, racism being for example famously one of the causes of historically low wages amongst black and white workers in the US south.

So while Chibber is of course right to want to understand why workers don’t always organise and why they often look to individual solutions, his claim that the individualist response to exploitation is ‘the more rational course’ is just wrong. Of course collective organisation doesn’t always work, but it is the best chance the majority of workers have to push back against exploitation.

Ignoring alienation

This leads to the second problem in Chibber’s account. His view that capitalism itself provides obstacles to the development of a militant class consciousness is important. But what is odd is that, apart from the references to Gramsci, he ignores the fact that this insight is central to Marxism and the Marxist tradition itself. Chibber sets up his argument as being in opposition to a classical Marxism in which he claims there is ‘a simple connection’ between class structure and class action (p.18) Now it is possible to find quotations from Marx taken out of context that support such mechanical thinking, but it wasn’t what Marx meant. Chibber is really critiquing a distorted, Stalinised Marxism, not the revolutionary tradition of Marx himself.

Marx clearly made the distinction between class as an objective category and as a conscious collective when he wrote of the difference between ‘the class in itself and for itself’.i Far from arguing that socialism was an inevitable outcome of class struggle, he and Engels warned of the danger of ‘the common ruin of the contending classes’.ii The comment in Capital that the ‘dull compulsion of economic relations completes the subjection of the labourer to the capitalist’ on which Chibber himself draws, makes it absolutely clear that he believed there were aspects of exploitation under capitalism that encouraged subservience and passivity.iii If they were fatalists, why would Marx and Engels have spent so much of their lives actively fighting in the movement for socialist politics?

This is important because Marx and Engels provided a more convincing explanation of the ups and downs of working-class resistance than Chibber does. For them the impact of capitalism on workers’ lives was always contradictory. They regularly remark on capitalism’s tendency to create competition between workers as well as forcing workers to unite and resist at other times.iv They also argue that the process of production itself creates a sense of powerlessness amongst workers and that there are aspects of it that conceal the robbery at capitalism’s heart.

The drive to maximise profits leads to an extreme and inhuman division of labour, to ruthless discipline, regulation and monitoring of every movement. Labour itself is turned into a commodity. As a result, commodities can come to dominate our lives and even our thinking. All this has the effect of obscuring the real relations of production. Marx called this ‘reification’, or ‘commodity fetishism’, arguing that ‘a definite social relation between men’ ends up assuming ‘the fantastic form of a relation between things.’4

The Hungarian revolutionary Georg Lukacs was one of many Marxists who have developed these ideas. He summed up the way in which alienation and reification can overwhelm the worker:

‘Neither objectively nor in his relation to his work does man appear as the authentic master of the process; on the contrary, he is a mechanical part incorporated into a mechanical system. He finds it already pre-existing and self-sufficient, it functions independently of him and he has to conform to its laws whether he likes it or not.v

For Marx and those that built on his ideas, it is the combination of the competitive side of life under capitalism with the sense powerlessness that comes from alienation that explains workers’ passivity much of the time. This, however, is only one side of the picture. Exploitation also regularly creates resistance. Labour power is in Marx’s words ‘a peculiar commodity’ because its owners, workers, have personalities. This means they can and regularly do try and limit its consumption by the purchaser and even rebel against their status as commodities. As a result, capitalists have a difficulty famously summed up by Henry Ford, when he said, ‘why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?vi

As we have seen, capitalists are under constant pressure to increase the rate of exploitation in various ways, to hold down wages, lengthen hours, introduce labour saving technology and so forth. These kinds of attacks are normally experienced collectively and they often run into workers’ collective resistance. The very process by which it achieves its profits is also the process which generates opposition.

This double-sided reality of capitalist exploitation is the best way to explain periods of passivity and periods of resistance amongst working people. Of course, political strategies and traditions play a crucial role in determining outcomes. At periods of high levels of class struggle they become decisive. But developing a useful politics of resistance depends on understanding that there is such a thing as objective class interest, that class-based resistance is still the most effective response to exploitation, and that because of that, workers time after time throw themselves into struggle. Of course socialists need to be creative and innovative in how we fight, but we can only work out the best strategies and tactics through a constant interaction with other workers involved.

The final chapter of Chibber’s book reveals a surprisingly conventional view of neoliberal capitalism, recycling many mainstream myths about the nature of production today. Chibber talks of a shift in the Global North from an industrial to a post-industrial or service economy, characterised by ‘smaller and decentralised establishments’ as opposed to the ‘classic large manufacturing units of the interwar years’ and a Global South characterised by mass semi employment and ramshackle informal jobs. Such a view reinforces his pessimism. The reality is actually very different. The neoliberal years have seen a traumatic reorganisation of global production, and the savage attacks on workers that cleared the way for it have set back working-class combativity.

As the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has shown however, the global working class has grown significantly during the last four decades. The ILO estimated that wage earners became the majority of humanity around about 2013. Manufacturing remains dominant in important areas of the globe, forging mega-concentrations of working people.vii Average workplace size in the northern economies has changed little in the last forty years and workers in the so-called service sectors in transport and logistics, education, health, retail and communications have been at the forefront of recent strike waves.

Socialism and struggle

Chibber’s pessimistic view of the potential for collective struggle leads him away from the frontline. For him ‘new strategies and institutions’ have to be developed somewhere away from the workplace as a ‘first step’. Then and only then comes ‘the arduous task of attracting the multitudes of labouring families to the agenda’ (p.178). This is a view of class struggle engineered or inspired from above or outside. It plays down the level of struggle that is already present and it reverses the historical dynamics of mass workers’ movements. Socialist ideas have from the start emerged out of working-class struggles. It was the militant workers of Paris who taught Marx of the importance of class struggle in the 1840s and that the bourgeois state has to be overthrown in 1871. It was the workers of St Petersburg who proved to Lenin the value of the soviets in 1905. Workers’ uprisings in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1968 inspired the New Left by showing that Stalinism was not socialism and suggesting again the possibility of socialism from below.

This is not to embrace a theory of spontaneity. Socialists drew important lessons from these experiences and reapplied them in vital ways to the struggle. Nor is it to ignore real problems on our side. Working-class politics matters, in fact my worry is precisely that Chibber is turning political and subjective problems into objective ones. He eloquently rejects the idea that capitalist culture has us all hypnotised. But he is in danger of swapping one pessimistic theory of entrapment for another, which, because it appears more materialist, can be even more disempowering. It is a theory that does not fit the facts and will not help the left.

We need to view previous high points of struggle not as memories from a long-vanished collective past but as inspirations for the present and the future. Rather than portraying today’s working experience as uniquely atomised, we need to be clear that socialists and trade-union activists have always had to struggle against the sense of powerlessness that comes from competition and alienation. Now more than ever we need to put the case that collective struggle is a necessity, not one response amongst other equally valid reactions.

Class struggle in the US remains stubbornly low, but everywhere there is a deep class resentment against the prevailing set up. From Sudan to South Korea and from Chile to China, the crisis has already sparked explosive working-class struggles in the last few years, not to speak of the current wave of strikes in France, Greece and the UK. Socialists’ job is to try and support and generalise these actually existing workers struggles, to try and apply the lessons of the great struggles of the past and, alongside those involved, find ways of turning the current resistance into a challenge to our catastrophic world order.

i See Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, (1847) Chapter 2:

ii Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848) Chapter 1:

iii Karl Marx, Capital (1867), Vol 1, Chapter 28.

iv In an 1875 letter to Lavrov, for example, Engels refers to the reality of life under capitalism as ‘the war of every man against every man’:

v Georg Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness, (Merlin 1971), p.89:

vi Quoted in John Rees, The Algebra of Revolution (Routledge 1998), p.72

vii See Chris Nineham, Radical Chains: Why Class Matters, (Zero 2023), pp.110-13.

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Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.

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