#M2013: Judith Orr on the definition of class

Ruth Lorimer writes:

Judith Orr led off a session titled “What is class?” on Friday morning. She started by discussing a recent BBC poll on class that focused on cultural capital. In contrast, Judith argued that class is not about strata, or inequality – these approaches end up seeing the working class as simply the suffering class, and rob them of any agency.

The Marxist view is fundamentally different – it’s about an objective social relationship between exploited and exploiter. It’s a dynamic relationship rather than being about static categories. The trappings of class are just a surface description – they don’t get to the heart of the relationship. 

Judith argued that capitalism is always in flux, constantly revolutionising the means of production, but that exploitation of the majority by the minority remains the core of the system. There are intermediate layers, but “middle class” is a sociological concept. These layers have more control over their working conditions but they can be pulled both ways. 

It is useful to make a distinction between the sociological and political definitions of class. But although Guy Standing’s idea that there is a “precariat” class is problematic, we do have to relate to the fact that people have different experiences of that relationship – neoliberalism has hugely changed the subjective experience of the relationship between exploiter and exploited. 

Judith argued that the working class can be the tribune of the oppressed. But there was a weakness in the discussion: the failure to analyse the relationship between exploitation and oppression. It’s not always class that drives people to struggle – oppression too is often the driver. It’s not enough to simply declare that socialists are the “tribunes of the oppressed” – you have to talk about how this works in practice.

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