On the Theory of Social Classes (From the Classical Political Economy to Marxist Theory) john milios

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On the Theory of Social Classes

(From the Classical Political Economy to Marxist Theory)
ABSTRACT: The notion social class attains a well defined theoretical content for the first time in the works of the Classical Political Economists, who defined classes on the basis of the specific income form that each category of people (class) obtains. This approach to classes, when combined with the Classical labour value theory, may lead to a theory of class exploitation of the labour class by the capitalist class. The theory of classes has been, thus, totally banished from the corpus of „modern“ (neo-classical) „Economic Science“. Consequently, „social class“ has been regarded as a mainly sociological category. The sociological approaches to classes are characterised by a certain theoretical ambiguity, since they are, in most cases, based on a form of theoretical individualism inherited to modern social sciences by Political Philosophy. The scientific elements inherent in Political Economy’s class theory were preserved only by the Marxian class theory, which, though, revolutionised the Classical approach, creating a new, purely non-economistic and non-mechanistic „relationist“ class theory. Theoretical approaches which attempt to give the Marxian class theory a „subjectivist“ interpretation, or to reduce it to the methodological individualism of „modern“ (neo-classical) economic theory, are -according to my opinion- of very low analytical value.

1. Introduction

The theory of the classes comprises one of the most controversial chapters of the Social Sciences, in the sense that it comprises a forefront of confrontation between the different theoretical schools which are formulated within the field.

I may, therefore at this point reiterate, as an introductory clarification for what is to follow, the position that was stated by de Ste. Croix (1983, pg. 31): „It seems to me hardly possible for anyone today to discuss problems of class, and above all class struggle (or class conflict), in any society, modern or ancient, in what some people would call an ‘impartial’ or ‘unbiased’ manner. I make no claim to ‘impartiality’ or ‘lack of bias’, let alone ‘Wertfreiheit’, freedom from value-judgements“.

The purpose of the present paper is to defend the ability of Marxist class theory to scientifically investigate the structure of modern capitalist societies, by formulating, simultaneously, a Marxist approach to the notion of social classes.

In order to state the criteria of the basis of which may be made the necessary theoretical evaluations, I will begin with a brief reference to the first theoretical foundation of the notion of social classes in the framework of Classical Political Economy. In this way, the theoretical parameters will become apparent, which determined the articulation of more recent approaches. The Marxist notion of the mode of production, as developed by Althusser in Reading Capital, will be used as a „starting point“ for a more detailed theoretical approach to the class structure of capitalist social formations, whereas a critique to a recently developed subjective-individualist approach to social classes will illustrate the theoretical accuracy of the Marxist approach adopted by this paper.

2. The Notion of Social Classes in Political Economy

The notion of social classes acquires for the first time theoretical - analytical content in the works of the Classical School of Political Economy, which Adam Smith initiated in 1776 in "The Wealth of Nations", and the historical cycle of which is considered to have closed in 1848, with the "Principles of Political Economy with some of their Applications to Social Philosophy" of John Stuart Mill (Roll 1989, Rubin 1994).

The notion of social class first appears, of course, in Ancient Greek and Roman society. However, for the ancient writers, social class consisted of either a clear descriptive term with practical use in the formation of the "commonwealth" of the city (separation of the free citizens into "classes" according to the amount of property), or as a normative notion (a description of an ideal social organisation, in the framework of which are determined, by mainly political criteria - that is in reference to the organisation of power - the "classes")1. The approaches to the classes during the Middle Ages had a similar normative character.

The precursors of Classical Political Economy were, of course, the Physiocrats, who articulated a concept of social classes on the basis of a series of theoretical deductions. However the society (and the classes) that the Physiocrats described was itself idealised, it was a model that they were dreaming of imposing, with the assistance of the monarchy, upon France: an agricultural - capitalist society which derived its characteristics a) from the conviction that only agricultural economy can create a surplus above the costs of production, and b) from the idealisation of certain elements of British capitalism in the second half of the 18th century.

Quesnay (1694 - 1774) thus defined three classes: The "productive class" (that is the capitalist farmers and their farm workers), The "sterile class" (that is the capitalists, the independent workers, and the wage-earning labourers of non-agricultural sectors), and the "class of Proprietors" (that is, the land owners who rented out their fields to the capitalist farmers).

Turgot (1727 - 1781) improved this Physiocratic theoretical scheme, separating the capitalist farmers from the farm workers, and the capitalists of the non-agricultural sector from the workers of this sector. Thus, there emerged an idealised economy with five (instead of three) classes.

Adam Smith puts an end to these normative approaches, placing as the object of his analysis that which he perceived as the substantial content of human economy in general, (and which, according to Marx was nothing more than the historically determined social framework of capitalism): the economy of generalised commodity production. Within this framework, he defines the classes on the basis of the objective position of the individuals who constitute them in economic life. In other words, the objective class integration of each individual in considered to be the consequence of his (her) specific economic function, independently from its particular technical or natural characteristics.

Following suit, each class is defined by the Classical School of Political Economy, in relation to the particular form of income which is earned, independently from whether this income is acquired in one sector of the economy or another.

Smith thus defines three classes. The capitalists (owners of the means of production), who gain profit as income, the workers who gain wages as income, and the land - owners, who gain rent as income (from the renting of their fields to the capitalist-farmers).

This concept of the class division of society remains a steady theory of the Classical School2. In addition, this concept of the Classical Economists about the class division of society may imply a theory of class exploitation. More specifically, the view of the division into classes according to the particular type of income, in connection with the (eg. Ricardian) labour theory of value (according to which the value of a merchandise is determined by the total labour which is spent for its production), leads to the theory of surplus value: That is the perception of profit as a part of that net (new) value, which although it is produced by the workers, it is acquired by the capitalists.

Profit emerges since wages comprise only one portion of the produced (by the workers) net value, since "the natural price of labour is that price which is necessary to enable the labourers (...), to subsist and to perpetuate their race“ and it, therefore, „depends on the price of the food, necessities, and conveniences required for the support of the labourer and his family“ (Ricardo 1992, 52).

The theory of surplus value was developed, of course, by Marx; there is, however in an implicit form in the work of the Classical Political Economists and particularly of Ricardo, as is otherwise apparent from the excerpt that we have just mentioned. Furthermore, the labour theory of value inevitably concludes with a perception of competition between capital and labour. Because if we ignore the land-rent (and wearing down of the means of production), "the whole value of commodities is divided into two portions only: one constitutes the profits of stock, the other the wages of labour" (Ricardo 1992, 64). Thus, given the value of a commodity, which „is regulated by the quantity of labour necessary to produce it, (...) profits would be high or low in proportion as wages were low or high“ (Ricardo 1992, 64).3

It is not by chance, then, that the theory of social classes constitutes a constituent element of economic science, as long as the Classical School dominates in it. From the middle of the 19th century, that is, from the moment that those theoretical approaches, which originate from the apologetic ideological stand dominated economic thought (from the effort to defend, if not sanctify the capitalist system in opposition to its critics), from that moment then, the notion of social classes is gradually omitted.

With the work of J. - B. Say (1767 - 1832) there is already an attempt to: a) replace the labour theory of value with the theory of subjective utility (as the determinant factor in the formation of prices) and b) replace the theory of classes with the theory of "production factors". According to this last concept, which constitutes the theoretical foundation of contemporary neo-classical theory, each of the (three) major "production factors" (capital, labour, land) produce that portion of the net product which the possessor of the said "factor" receives as income. (Rubin 1989, p 301-306).

Contemporary neo-classical theory erases any element of the classical theory of the classes which could be implied even in the concept of "production factors", as it introduces the model of "circular flow of income" (the "income cycle"), which describes the reproduction of the "economy". In this model, there appear only two types of economic subjects: businesses and households. The households (or more precisely the individual members of the households) are possessors of the various "production factors", which they offer (exchange) to enterprises for an income. With their income, the households purchase "goods" which the enterprises "offer" (produce).

With the income cycle, any mention of the social relations of production disappears. Consequently, the social classes are also omitted as a theoretical constituent category of Political Economy. (See also Weeks, 1989, 12 ff.). The individuals (members of the household) decide on the „quantity“ of "production factors" that they offer, according to the income that they "wish" to acquire, or to their "choices" between "free time" and "labour". The dominant (neo-classical) economic theory excludes any concept of class antagonism, or of class exploitation.

The removal of the concept of "social classes" from the theoretical system which is called "economic science" lends an unadulterated sociological character to this concept. It is solely Sociology then which considers the social classes as one of its objects of study, which is often related to the concept of power. The latter concept (of power) was articulated initially, of course, within the frame-work of modern political philosophy and political theory (Hobbes, Machiavelli, Spinoza) to describe the "political dominance" of the sovereign or the state, independently of any concept of social classes: Power is approached as being the process or the result of the "unification" of separate individuals into a "political community"4.

The sociological approach to the concepts of "power" and "social classes" does not overturn this fundamental positions of political philosophy, according to which power and society are not more than the "socialisation" and the gathering into a "Polity", of separate individuals, who are perceived as being the protarchic (free - willed and reasoning) beings of each "community".

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