Re/presenting Class: Essays in Postmodern Marxism

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Re/presenting Class is a collection of essays that develops a poststructuralist Marxian conception of class in order to theorize the complex contemporary economic terrain. Both building upon and reconsidering a tradition that Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff—two of this volume’s editors—began in the late 1980s with their groundbreaking work Knowledge and Class, contributors aim to correct previous research that has largely failed to place class as a central theme in economic analysis. Suggesting the possibility of a new politics of the economy, the collection as a whole focuses on the diversity and contingency of economic relations and processes.
Investigating a wide range of cases, the essays illuminate, for instance, the organizational and cultural means by which unmeasured surpluses—labor that occurs outside the formal workplace‚ such as domestic work—are distributed and put to use. Editors Resnick and Wolff, along with J. K. Gibson-Graham, bring theoretical essays together with those that apply their vision to topics ranging from the Iranian Revolution to sharecropping in the Mississippi Delta to the struggle over the ownership of teaching materials at a liberal arts college. Rather than understanding class as an element of an overarching capitalist social structure, the contributors—from radical and cultural economists to social scientists—define class in terms of diverse and ongoing processes of producing, appropriating, and distributing surplus labor and view class identities as multiple, changing, and interacting with other aspects of identity in contingent and unpredictable ways.
Re/presenting Class will appeal primarily to scholars of Marxism and political economy.

Contributors. Carole Biewener, Anjan Chakrabarti, Stephen Cullenberg, Fred Curtis, Satyananda Gabriel, J. K. Gibson-Graham, Serap Kayatekin, Bruce Norton, Phillip O’Neill, Stephen Resnick, David Ruccio, Dean Saitta, Andriana Vlachou, Richard Wolff

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“ There’s a lot of talk about ‘getting back to class,’ as if all the other things that have concerned social theorists for the last couple of decades were a waste of time. Here’s a book that gets back to class a lot wiser for that experience. Even when you don’t agree with the contributors, they make you think, and very productively. What more can you ask from a book?”—Doug Henwood, author of A New Economy
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822327202
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 6/28/2001
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 7.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

J. K. Gibson-Graham is the pen name of Julie Graham and Katherine Gibson. Graham is Professor of Geography at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Gibson is Senior Fellow of Human Geography at Australian National University.

Stephen A. Resnick is Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Richard D. Wolff Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

J. K. Gibson-Graham is the pen name of Julie Graham and Katherine Gibson. Graham is Professor of Geography at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Gibson is Senior Fellow of Human Geography at Australian National University. Stephen A. Resnick and Richard D. Wolff are both Professors of Economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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Read an Excerpt

Representing class

Essays in postmodern Marxism
By J.K. Gibson-Graham

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-2720-1

Chapter One



Beginning (Again): Marxism as a Theory of Class

The essays in this volume undertake a multidirectional foray into what for political economy is relatively unexplored territory: Marxian class theory. For some this adventure may seem long overdue. As Bruce Norton powerfully argues, the political economic tradition has from the outset developed one strand of Marx's thought, the theory of the capitalist totality, at the expense of another, the theory of class. Though each of these has a prominent place in Capital and other writings of Marx, the former has become identified with Marxian political economy as it is now practiced, while the latter has been consigned to relative obscurity. Attracted by the intellectual and political possibilities of class analysis-possibilities that seem unavailable within the dominant forms of Marxian thought-we are motivated to redress this imbalance of interest and attention.

The familiar object of Marxian political economy is the capitalist totality in its various incarnations: as capitalist "system" or mode of production; as the global capitalist economy; Fordist or post-Fordist model of development structuring a "capitalist" socialformation; or simply and baldly as "capitalism." Centering on the process of capital accumulation, theories of the capitalist totality explore the related processes of economic growth, systemic regulation and crisis, transition and transformation, and long waves of capitalist development. The capitalist enterprise is seen as the agent of capital accumulation (though this function is sometimes displaced onto the figure of "finance capital") and thus of systemic reproduction and expansion. The enterprise is also the locus of the exploitative class relation that makes possible the accumulation of capital. In this vision, class is functional to accumulation, a requisite but not theoretically interesting element of capitalist dynamics.

Traditional Marxian political economy strives to understand and trace the logic of accumulation as it unfolds in history. While references to capitalist "laws of motion" may now seem outmoded, the assumption that capital accumulation is the central dynamic of the economic totality is still widely accepted. This theoretical fixation has had consequential political effects. In the vicinity of capitalism's systemic embodiment and its naturalized tendencies toward expansion, anticapitalist political movements have tended to accept the necessity of accommodation. Since they are not poised-by virtue of an ultimate capitalist crisis-on the verge of socialist transition, they have seen themselves constrained to the "reformist" option of creating capitalism with a human (or perhaps a green) face. The progressive project of building an alternative, noncapitalist society is relegated to a revolutionary future, distant and discontinuous from the practical political terrain.

It is this disheartening political vision that has generated in us a desire for a different form of economic and social theory, one that offers a more complex present and a more open-ended future. Here we have turned once again to Capital, a work that may more easily be read for an analytics of class or a discourse of economic surplus than for a vision of systemic dynamics and dysfunction. Marx's analysis of capitalist class relations-those relations involved in producing, appropriating, and distributing surplus labor in value form-provides the basics of an accounting framework, a conceptual apparatus that can bring us to see the world in a different way.

Not only may we see through the lens of class theory the presence of exploitation (in both capitalist and noncapitalist forms) and trace its socially constitutive role; we may also sense the existence and possibility of nonexploitative economic relations. Not only do we recognize the role of surplus distributions in constituting and (re)producing specific social positions and formations, but also the real and present option of different distributions and the distinct social identities and practices they might foster or create.

The project of specifying the diverse class relations (and thus also class possibilities) that have existed and continue to exist opens up a world of economic variety where capitalism has been understood to reign. It also places an open-ended range of "revolutionary" political options on the ground of the present, where progressive politics has long encountered theoretical barriers to social and economic transformation. By offering a different approach to class theory, Re/Presenting Class (and other works in this emerging tradition) may potentially contribute to a changed configuration of class politics. Perhaps the politics of postponement, so familiar to those interested in class transformation, can be supplanted by a politics of opportunity and attainment.

Materialism in a Poststructuralist Vein

What has rendered accumulation theory intellectually and politically carceral is not the absence of class theory per se but rather the combined co-presences of epistemological realism, economic determinism, and teleological eventualism. These characteristics of classical and contemporary political economy-perhaps it no longer needs to be argued-present a set of abstract and arbitrary limits on what social analysis can say. To confine the potent and adventurous energies of theory within such narrow quarters now seems too obeisant to the authority of tradition, no matter how distinguished that tradition may be.

Indeed, the realism, determinism, and teleologism of Marxian theory (even in their attenuated recent forms) have come under sustained attack from a number of directions. Feminists protesting the obscuring and devaluing of unpaid household labor; unionists struggling for the recognition of state and service workers alongside those in private manufacturing; postdevelopment theorists criticizing the preeminence accorded industrial capitalism in the vision and enactment of "progress"; post-colonialists arguing against the peripheralization of the so-called Third World in and through Marxian theory, activists around gender, race, and sexuality rejecting the privileging of class actors and objectives-each of these is voicing suspicions of a prespecified hierarchy of determination and order of importance.

It is here that the countertraditional work of Althusser (among others) can be seen to resonate with the import of contemporary critiques. In the face of the economic reductionism of the dominant Marxian tradition, Althusser's work signals both the possibility and the political fruitfulness of another reading of Marx. Contributing his thought to debates within the French Communist party and in the philosophical context of an emerging poststructuralism, Althusser was motivated to read Marx not as an economic determinist but as a dialectician and a "materialist"-as one who refuses to ascribe priority and privilege to any social dimension, who honors the specificity of every site, practice, and conjuncture, who opposes the "reduction of the real to the concept." Althusser termed his materialism "aleatory," referring to its disdain for necessity, its respect for contingency and particularity (Callari and Ruccio 1996, 26).

Building on the Althusserian conception of the mutual implication of every social process in every other, Resnick and Wolff (1987) have adopted Althusser's term "overdetermination" (which Althusser himself borrowed from Freud) to signal the existence of a Marxian alternative to economic determinism. From the perspective of overdeterminist theory, the dialectic entails not only the co-implication of political, economic, natural, and cultural processes in every site or occurrence but also the resultant openness and incompleteness of identity/being. This recuperative vision of complex constitution and continual becoming is a necessarily radical one, required as part of a strategy to reopen Marxian theory to the complexities and possibilities that had been forgone through its preemptive closures.

Overdetermination can be understood as a provisional ontology that operates to contradict and destabilize the essentialist ontology of the dominant forms of Marxism (and indeed of the entire Western intellectual lineage). Standing against the essentialist presumption that "any apparent complexity-a person, a relationship, a historical occurrence, and so forth-can be analyzed to reveal a simplicity lying at its core" (Resnick and Wolff 1987, 2-3), it opposes the specification of a causal hierarchy in which some causes are necessarily dominant and others less consequential. Cultural, political, and natural forces cannot be presumed to be less historically formative than the economic, though different analyses may emphasize one or the other.

There is a second, epistemological reading of overdetermination which is as unsettling to the realist epistemology of traditional Marxism as is the ontological reading to its economic determinism. Just as no preordained hierarchy of causes exists to structure social explanation, so too is it impossible to establish a definitive hierarchy of interpretations. Interpretations are constituted within diverse and incommensurable discourses and perspectives. Texts and words are like everything else: complex, open to multiple readings, culturally and politically negotiable and transformable. We may create temporary discursive fixings, but these are always susceptible to destabilization by other formulations and interpretations. No ultimate arbiter exists to determine the "truth" of our understandings.

What might this mean for economic and social analysis, which has so long understood itself as attempting to produce adequate explanation? Clearly it suggests that any particular analysis will never find the ultimate causes of events, nor be able to definitively exclude the effectivity of any social or natural processes. In this context, the question about any relationship (between, say, economic development and heterosexuality) becomes not how important is one in the constitution of the other, but rather how do we wish to think of the complex interaction between these two complexities.

Marx's Capital can be read as a social analysis undertaken within an overdeterminist method. In its three volumes, Marx produced a detailed theoretical examination of the ways that capitalist class processes constitute and in turn are constituted by other social processes, generating an extensive knowledge of capitalist exploitation and surplus distribution. In the sense that class is the focal concept of the analysis, Capital can be said to be written from the "entry point" of class. In other words, the centrality of class is a feature of the particular analysis rather than a given of the social order.

Since it is not possible to establish "objective" validity outside the frame of a particular analytical regime or project, the question of the choice between different theories or entry points involves not which is more accurate or true, but the consequences of choosing one rather than another. Different questions will produce different answers, and those answers will make a difference. They will be socially constitutive, "performative" in shaping understanding and action. Thus it is a matter of (political) consequence rather than a matter of indifference what kinds of knowledge we produce and what effects we hope to produce with it.

Given the difficulties and inconclusiveness of social theory and analysis undertaken from an overdeterminist perspective, one might be tempted to ask "why bother?" What does an overdeterminist and antirealist approach have to offer, other than daunting complexity and uncertainty? Again the answer has to do with the project of opening what was formerly closed. Not only is overdetermination a method for widening the space of political effectivity in the process of social determination, a space that had shrunk or even disappeared in traditional political economy, it also foregrounds the openness of identities to political projects of resignification. In the absence of the closures of necessity/determinacy and of structurally ordained identity, there is room for the contingent efficacies of politics, including the politics of class.

Accounting for Class

In Capital we encounter Marx's project of creating a knowledge of class society in its specifically capitalist form. The three volumes of Capital offer not only a critique of classical political economy, with its reductive conceptions of "human nature" and social dynamics, but also a positive theoretical intervention that might be called "accounting for class." Via the accounting of labor as necessary and surplus, the first volume of Capital made the process of (capitalist) exploitation intelligible. By mapping the distributions of surplus value to a variety of social destinations, the second and third volumes brought into visibility the socially constitutive role of capitalist class relations. Taken together, the three volumes offer the rudiments of a language of class.

While the notion of a surplus above and beyond what was necessary for reproduction had long figured in classical political economy, Marx was the first to produce a discourse of exploitation that hinged on the distinction between necessary and surplus labor. As he defined it, necessary labor "is the quantity of labor time necessary to produce the consumables customarily required by the producer to keep working," while surplus labor is "the extra time of labor the direct producer performs beyond the necessary labor" (Resnick and Wolff 1987, 115). In an exploitative relation this "unpaid" or "unremunerated" surplus labor (or its product) is appropriated by someone other than the producer.

The necessary/surplus labor distinction cannot be grounded in the ostensible reality of the body's "basic needs" for subsistence but must be seen as a particular way of fixing meaning. What is necessary and what is surplus is not predefined or given, in some humanist or cultural essentialist sense, but is established relationally at the moment of appropriation itself. The boundary is an accounting device, inscribed on the body rather than emerging from within it, and the desire to move it can be seen to have motivated political struggles historically and to this day.

Marx used the distinction between necessary and surplus labor to identify what for him was the principal and as yet invisible violence of capitalism: the existence of a hidden flow of labor (taking the form of "surplus value") from the worker to the capitalist. Each worker in a capitalist enterprise produces in a day enough wealth to sustain her- or himself (for which she or he is compensated in the form of a wage) and also a surplus which is appropriated by the individual capitalist or by the board of directors of the capitalist firm. The exploitative process in which surplus labor is produced and appropriated is for Marx a class process, and the positions of producer and appropriator are class positions.

But the class positions identified by Marx are not limited to these two. The structure of Capital turns on a second distinction between what Resnick and Wolff have called the fundamental and subsumed class processes. The former involves the moment of exploitation in which surplus labor is produced and appropriated in value form (explored in volume 1), while the latter and no less important moment involves the distribution of appropriated surplus value to a range of recipients (explored in volumes 2 and 3). In the subsumed class process the surplus labor that has been "pumped out of [the] direct producers" and temporarily condensed in the hands of the capitalist can be seen to be dispersed in myriad directions -within the enterprise (into the accumulation of productive capital, or management salaries and benefits, or compensation for workers in marketing and sales) and out into the wider economy (for example, to financiers, merchants, landlords, advertising agents, governments, charitable organizations, organized crime, and others who provide conditions of existence of surplus value production).


Excerpted from Representing class by J.K. Gibson-Graham Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Toward a Poststructuralist Political Economy 1
Reading Marx for Class 23
Exploring a New Class Politics of the Enterprise 56
Ivy-covered Exploitation: Class, Education, and the Liberal Arts College 81
Nature and Class: A Marxian Value Analysis 105
The Promise of Finance: Banks and Community Development 131
"After" Development: Re-imagining Economy and Class 158
Development and Class Transition in India: A New Perspective 182
A Class Analysis of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 206
Sharecropping and Feudal Class Processes in the Postbellum Mississippi Delta 227
Communal Class Processes and Pre-Columbian Social Dynamics 247
Struggles in the USSR: Communisms Atempted and Undone 264
References 291
Contributors 317
Index 319
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