Ellen M. Wood’s “The Retreat from Class” , published in 1983, is uncannily predictive of the course of neo-liberalism. Though she is pretty highhanded with us epigoni of French Theory, what she says about the disappearance of class within political discourse – and cultural discourse in general – is totally correct, at least in the Anglosphere.
Of course, class only disappears in the minds of the bien-pensants, not from their daily lives. Class as lived experience is overwhelmingly present, from the counter people at the sandwich shops where David Broder checks in on the proles to the shores of the mini-mansion subdivision universe.
Neoliberalism is neo because, unlike classical liberalism, it proceeds logically from the dismantling of the labor theory of value. In terms of class, this means writing out the working class, and substituting as its pertinent tri-fold structure the wealthy, the middle class, and the poor. The wealthy are described as wealth makers. The middle class are economically autonomous, and the poor are government dependents.
Within neo-liberalism, then, taxing the wealthy is justified by the government services provided for them, and not as a countermeasure to the level of exploitation that creates that group. The middle class, if it demands something from the government, is displaying moral culpability: how dare, for instance, middle class kids demand free secondary education? Obviously, they simply want bribes. And the poor never work – the goal is to get them to work. Then we can pull away government support for them.
Class, which used to indicate a position in the spheres of production and circulation, becomes, in neoliberalism, a proxy for income.
Politically, income is a very weak guarantor of solidarity. The search for solidarity turns elsewehere – to various identities, which, in the absence of a robust sense of production and circulation, take on the primary roles in structuring our lives, and thus the politics concerning our lives.
It is interesting to me that Marx talks about life, not about economics, when speaking of what determines our consciousness. Life is at the center of his thinking, yet it is consistently read out of his thinking. When we read that Marx doesn’t accord enough force, or accords no force, to ideas, the people saying this are usually at work. They are usually academics writing ideas in books that, among other things, will gain them tenure. The ideas that they are talking about come from the great names. They are not talking about the ideas of the sandwichmaker at Subway. Why?
What we know of the life of the sandwichmaker – or of our own lives – is that we perpetually sacrifice our idea time to our work time. Marx has a pretty keen idea of what space, in the course of a life in which twelve hours a day is devoted to repetitive work activities, is going to go into ideas that are going to be written on paper.
The neo-liberal triumph is to make this all seem delusory. Instead, we have the great ideas of the great ideamen – usually men, but under our new more liberal standards, even women are accepted! – and then we have the daily lives of people who, if we don’t watch out, will want free government services.
It is in this way that neo-liberalism moves from being some set of “ideas” about the economy to a cosmic vision of how things are and ought to be.