Creative classes, marxism,  and an Adjustor's table

Garry Wotherspoon entered the recent Labor Tribune/Ozleft debate to recommend Richard Florida's writings on the "creative class", while dismissing a Marxist understanding of class as outofdate.

Marcus Strom replies...

Dear Garry Wotherspoon

Thanks for dipping into the debate starting on Labor Tribune about the nature of class in modern society.

My main issue with commentators such as Richard Florida (Rise of the Creative Class) is that they barely rise above the level of sociology.

Left at this level, the various social aspects of class formation appear on the horizon as epistemological bumps or breaks with previous understandings of social class. There was Daniel Bell's "post-industrial society"; or Peter Drucker's "knowledge workers"; Pierre Bordieu's concept of "cultural capital"; "technocratic class"; "new class"; and so on.

And now Richard Florida and his "creative class".

Cover - Richard Florida, Creative Class

I haven't read the book, just reviews of it. No doubt there are points of interest here about the nature of the modern global economy and the creative talent it seeks to engage in its relentless pursuit of profit, niche markets, individualised marketing, advertising and so on.

However, fans of such fly-by-night theories usually set up a straw figure of Marx and his analysis of class and the process of its formation. Garry, you seem to be from this stable too. You say: "Some intellectuals of the left haven't read anythying since Marx or Marcuse." I'd venture that some haven't read Marx at all.

Further you say: "Older ideas of class analysis are all well and good, but over time what constitutes the classes of society might well change."

To me this says that your understanding of class doesn't extend much beyond the sociological.

A Marxian understanding of class is more dynamic and more profound than mere sociology. Capitalism changes, its productive forms change. I'm happy to accept the concepts of Fordism, post-Fordism and so on. And of course the nature of class formation reflects such shifts in the way capital reproduces itself. But such a process is contested. As Marx said, "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." For Marx, class struggle was the motor of history; and class struggle is contingent on human agency.

Marxism allows for such change in the nature of classes. Indeed, it is predicated on such a dynamic process. For Marx and the best of his epigones, class is not a category or a static structure, but a social relationship and a contested historical process.

E. P. Thompson, in his seminal Making of the English Working Class, gives a wonderful introduction to understanding class formation as a process that is contingent on broader social relations.

He says:

"There is today an ever-present temptation to suppose that class is a thing. This was not Marx's meaning, in his own historical writing, yet the error vitiates much latter-day 'Marxist' writing. 'It', the working class, is assumed to have a real existence, which can be defined almost mathematically - so many men who stand in a certain relation to the means of production ... [But] if we remember that class is a relationship and not a thing, we can not think in this way. 'It' does not exist, either to have an ideal interest or consciousness, or to lie as a patient on the Adjustor's table."

EP Thompson - Making Of The English Working Class

Such an approach neatly differentiates between a sociological understanding of class as opposed to a political or Marxist understanding. Class, therefore, is a process and a relationship. As the capitalist mode of production changes (and only a fool would argue that Marx thought it was a static system), the various sociological forms of class change.

The point, however, is to understand the essence of the system and the capital-labour relationship, not merely document its surface phenomona. What doesn't change is the fact that labour power is a commodity in capitalist society and that there is a (growing) class in world society that can only rely on the sale of this commodity for its daily existence: the working class. And it is ultimately in the interests and power of this class to rid itself of the mode of production that turns its daily life into a grind of alienated work.

I have no doubt that Florida, self-styled as "one of the world's leading social theorists and public intellectuals", has some interesting observations to be made on creative workers in modern society. However, I suspect his 'theory' will go the way of other such book-selling gimmicks. And I suspect the working class and class struggle will outlast it, too.

Marcus Strom
editor, Labor Tribune


I do not "dismiss" the Green Party as middle-class. Rather, I describe it thus: "The modern Green Party is an unstable petty-bourgeois political formation; its overall direction is to seek a 'green compromise' with capital." (From my review of David McKnight's Beyond Right and Left.)

This is not intended as a sociological description of the Greens as middle class (though many of them are) or to argue that its electoral base does not includes urban workers (which it no doubt does). Rather it is to describe its political program, which while critical of the excesses of capitalism, is not based on the working-class movement and its democratic potential to supersede the capitalist system.

In this sense it is a petty-bourgeois formation. And it is unstable because it will be increasingly torn between accommodation with capital (as we saw when the Greens in Germany backed the Nato bombing of Serbia) and a utopian, Rousseau-like hagiography of nature as a thing to be preserved.


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