Class—What Is It Good For?

I recall a conversation I had a year or so ago with a friend of mine. We were comparing our political persuasions and after describing himself as solidly left of center on social issues, my friend proclaimed he was “liberal where it matters.” The implication being, that is, that economic liberalism, or an unshakeable allegiance to labor, were passé. The sentiment is a common one among my generation, I think. Support gay marriage, abortion rights, and gun control? You’re a forward-thinking liberal. Barack Obama is your guy, economic justice, obtained through collective means, an afterthought.

Mine is a generation that came of age in the oughts, when good Democrats opposed the war in Iraq and the Bush tax cuts. Unions, their retreat as consequential actors in the national economy complete, seemed like some strange holdover from the past; Republicans loathed them and Democrats halfheartedly supported them, but we rarely came across their members outside of the classroom or the library or the post office. The most recent social movements, the ones with which we tended to be most familiar — antiwar, civil rights, gay rights, feminist, environmental — weren’t constitutively anti-capitalist. If class was invoked, it was to contrast consumer habits and cultural markers — NASCAR-loving gun owner versus Starbucks-frequenting Volvo driver. With the Left insipid, neoliberalism firmly established itself as the new “common sense“; neoliberals began to set the terms of debate and structure the way most people thought about the world.

The Left that did survive wasn’t unscathed, immune from neoliberalism’s influence. Consider the rise of “green capitalism,” whose proponents proposed, and continue to propose, that we essentially buy our way out of climate change catastrophe (and feel warm and fuzzy doing it!). Under this strategy of change, corporations and localist lefties, if they’re not acting in concert, are not working at cross-purposes at the very least. And naturally, corporate power and capitalism itself are resultantly granted reprieve.

Postmodernists, in assailing essentialism and exalting difference, also contributed to a Left increasingly skeptical of class-based movements, strategies, and analyses. To these critics, understanding the world through the lens of class, relations of production, and the economic “base” of society was hopelessly simplistic. The world was much too complex for such a reductionist exercise. Class struggle was out, identity, contingency, and subjectivity in. Capitalism’s staying power and the declining power of labor unions also reinforced this retreat, as leftists focused on more auspicious sites of struggles.

A decade after the global justice movement hit the United States, Occupy, reclaiming the language of class, declaimed against a rapacious 1 percent. Occupy might not be dead, but it is dormant.

So the question is, what role should class play in the politics of the democratic left? In an era of escalating income and wealth inequality—such that even center-left types and corporate Democrats have expressed alarm—should economic justice and challenging capitalism be our principal preoccupation? And how will our project speak to, and question some of the assumption of, the generation born and bred under hegemonic neoliberalism?

Ellen Willis, the late feminist and democratic socialist, provides some insights in her essay “What’s the Matter with Tom Frank (and the lefties who love him)?” The New Deal-loving Frank famously argued in What’s the Matter with Kansas that the culture wars were an insignificant sideshow, fodder for the GOP’s regressive bait-and-switch. Willis strenuously disagrees:

The cultural radical impulse is rooted in the core elements of the democratic ideal: equality and freedom. There is a clear logic in the progression from affirming that all men are created equal, with the right to choose their government, enjoy freedom of speech and religion, and pursue happiness, to demanding that these rights apply to racial minorities, women, homosexuals, young people, atheists and other groups in one way or another denied them; that the challenge to repressive authority extend beyond government to institutions like the corporation, the family, and the church; that the pursuit of happiness include freedom from sexual restrictions dictated by patriarchal religious norms; that free speech include explicitly sexual and anti-religious speech… Cultural radical demands immediately question and disrupt existing social institutions, yet building democratic alternatives is a long-term affair: this leaves painful gaps in which men and women don’t know how to behave with each other, in which marriage can no longer provide a stable environment for children but it’s not clear what to do instead. Is it really surprising that cultural revolution should cause conflict?

To argue that this conflict has no political significance is to say that democratic values have none—never mind the blood and passion expended by democrats and their enemies.

Willis concludes, “We need to look not to the New Deal but to a new politics, one that recognizes equality and freedom, class and culture, as ineluctably linked.”

Willis has a certain affinity with post-Marxist theorist Chantal Mouffe, a thinker known for — opprobriously, in some circles — displacing class as the central struggle for the Left. Writing in the 1980s with her colleague Ernesto Laclau, Mouffe tried to account for and theorize the “new social movements”:

One of the central tenets of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy is the need to create a chain of equivalence among the various democratic struggles against different forms of subordination. We argued that struggles against sexism, racism, sexual discrimination, and in the defence of the environment needed to be articulated with those of the workers in a new left-wing hegemonic project. To put it in terminology which has recently become fashionable, we insisted that the Left needed to tackle issues of both ‘redistribution’ and ‘recognition’. This is what we mean by ‘radical and plural democracy’.

This “chain of equivalence” is mighty discomforting to lefties who want to build movements on the basis of bread-and-butter economic issues, conventionally conceived. Willis would retort, of course, that culture issues and economic issues are inseparable, and both indispensable to a Left politics. Laurie Penny put it pithily in a recent Guardian column: “There can be no true democracy, no worthwhile class struggle, without women’s rights.” When I think about an egalitarian political project, it must be, at bottom, about democratizing power relations, reducing human suffering, and emancipating people from domination.

I’ll cut it off there, as this post is running long. Class, the neoliberal generation, and the Left—to be continued.

Shawn Gude

Shawn Gude is a writer, graduate student, activist, and assistant editor at Jacobin. His intellectual influences include Chantal Mouffe, Michael Harrington, and Ella Baker. Contact him at or on Twitter @shawngude.


  1. Are you that much younger than me? 9/11 happened the day before my 21st birthday.

    This seems counter to an argument I saw in the Guardian this week:

    In general, I agree with you though. In the Bay Area, there seem to be many people who Democratic because of social issues and probably pro some kind of universal healthcare but they are too far removed from labor unions or manual labor to be fully supportive of unions. I think they would support unions out of some-kind of big-tent solidarity though but maybe not.

    I still think Unions are necessary for people and for the Democratic Party. I am still a bit skeptical of Capitalism and pro-regulation while not being as far to the left as my friend who thinks money is an arbitrary invention. My ideal would be a mixed-market economy with a strong welfare state including single-payer healthcare, universal pre-K, generous old age pensions and unemployment insurance, worker’s comp, a Constitutional right to form a union, food stamps, etc. Though I am a bit of an old soul in many things including my form of leftism.

    • I’m 23. I’m a fan of Sunkara’s writing (he’s also one of my editors at Jacobin), and I’m not sure his column contradicts anything I wrote above. I think this is right: “That a higher percentage of Americans between the ages of 18 and 30 have a more favorable opinion of socialism than capitalism at least signals that the cold war era conflation of socialism with Stalinism no longer holds sway.” One of the biggest hurdles for leftists vis-a-vis the neoliberal generation is, even for those who lean left, their views are often premised on neoliberal assumptions. As Sunkara indicates, however, they’re not as straightjacketed by Cold War-era thinking. That’s propitious.

  2. “A decade after the global justice movement hit the United States, Occupy, reclaiming the language of class, declaimed against a rapacious 1 percent.”

    Putting all 99% of the rest in a single class is ri-fishin-diculous as far as any intellectually rigorous formal analysis goes. (which was one among many of Occupy’s deficiencies)

    • I don’t necessarily disagree, but it was a class-based message (and, with the 1 percent reaping the preponderance of economic benefits, not an entirely facile message).

    • Depends on how you define class.
      In pure money terms, yes, 99 vs 1 is silly talk. As precarious and vaguely defined as “middle class” is, there still exists a group of people who are Not Rich yet Not Poor either.

      (that said, the Actual Damn Poor seem to be regularly disappeared when it comes to political discourse in the U.S., as if poverty were solved or something. But that’s for another time…)

      However, there are certain methods of obtaining and keeping wealth that such a sliver of the population is able to take up, also involving political power, that identifies them as a distinct class. There’s a reason Occupy picked Wall Street and not some other random gathering of wealth to start their demos.

  3. Most of the wealth of the country is piled up on the east and west coasts. Class doesn’t make much difference until wealth is decoupled from labor. Vast amounts of labor with small profit margins falling to the lower classes.

    The “decision makers” are typically massed inside the pile up of wealth which leads to a blind spots between the upper classes and lower classes. Even the lower classes in the wealthy areas don’t feel the full brunt of economic hardships as those outside the wealthy regions.

    What you end up with is two realities that don’t mesh. The upper and middle classes look at “those radical, bottom of the barrel people” raising hell for no good reason, and the lower classes say look at these “priviledged people” who are living out of touch with the norms.

    The failings of occupy is that the ends weren’t well defined and peaceful means seldom change the root cause of the situation. Someone on the blog once mentioned that in civil war there needed to be 2 opposing sides. What good is class for?

    Wacko maybe. I wish someone would map out monthly sales of AR-15 lower receivers over the last 10 years and see what it looks like.

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