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Class War is a Bad Strategy for Progressive Politics

There has been a rising call by some on the Left for class war as the necessary, and perhaps imminent, resolution of social and economic inequality.  While the desire for change is understandable, the concept of class war is based on a Marxist model which, though it provides a rhetorically powerful social analytic, is not an effective strategy for Progressive change.    What is needed instead is a political strategy which brings together the Gramscian concept of “hegemony” with a social constructivist analysis in order to de-stabilize the Rights’ constructions and usages of capitalist values.

According to Marx, capitalists of the nineteenth century had constructed an ideology which was a “camera obscura”; an upside-down, distorted view of social relations.  Contemporary calls for imminent class war rely on Marx’s assumption that the materiality of workers’ conditions would eventually force them to see capitalism as an exploitive system and they would revolt against it.  Ultimately, reality would prevail. 

The difficulty for Marx, and those who call for class war, is that, historically, workers do not revolt against the inequalities of capitalism.  Despite seemingly intractable inequalities, workers do not interpret the materiality of their lives in the same way that Marxists do.  Instead of revolting against the economic system, they accede to capitalism and attempt to find accommodation within it.  The supposedly objective facts of inequality do not overcome the meanings that capitalists have attached to them.  To many, the “camera obscura” is reality.

In the early 1900s, Antonio Gramsci proposed that “hegemony” was the underlying cause of the workers’ acceptance of capitalist views.  According to Gramsci, particular viewpoints come to dominate - become hegemonic - when their basic tenets are reflected in all aspects of society and are accepted by most people as natural and “common sense.”   

A strategic Progressive politics needs to build on the Gramscian model of hegemony while, at the same time, moving away from the overall Marxist model of revolution.  Rather than relying on the Marxist rubric of a singular material reality, whose revelation will destabilize capitalism, Progressive politics needs to figure out how current doctrines of capitalism, class difference and inequality have come to function hegemonically even though their benefits are aimed at so few.

The dominant perspectives which give meaning to economic relations are not derived from an observable and measurable material reality.  Instead, they are a strategic effect of the melding of capitalist values with dominant American norms.   The Right realized decades ago that they could achieve political victory while adhering to social, political and economic agendas which favored only a small number of people.   In order to accomplish this, the Right strategically re-interpreted dominant American norms such that policies and programs which protected the interests of the wealthy are now viewed by many as evocations of freedom and equality.  This strategy of the Right was based on the realization that large numbers of people would consent to the furthering of economic inequalities if such disparities were interpreted through the lens of what theorists denote as Classical Liberalism.  


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By the term “Classical Liberalism,” theorists are not referring to the contemporary liberal/conservative divide.  Rather, the term represents the conceptual basis of much of American political thought, most pointedly espoused in John Locke’s seventeenth century text The Second Treatise of Government – an essay which, in many ways, formed the theoretical template for the Declaration of Independence.  Out of Locke’s pre-governmental State of Nature emerge the foundational principles of individualism, freedom, equality and private property.  According to Locke, the usage of money in the State of Nature is evidence that men have agreed to disproportionate accumulations of property based on “different degrees of Industry.”  The Lockean paradigm thus interprets economic disparities as effects of differing individual wills and capacities. 

 By intertwining economic and class relations with the dominant norms of Classical Liberalism, the Right succeeded in re-constructing economic inequality as solely the effect of hard work and industriousness.   However, the political alterations resulting from this intertwining were not limited to the re-coding of inequality.   Classical Liberalism undergirds and infiltrates many aspects of American society, and linking Rightist values with Liberal norms meant that the family, religion, freedom of speech, the right to bear arms and economic inequality all now appear as differing but interchangeable fruits of the Liberal tree.  

A Marxist call for the destruction of the capitalist ideology becomes problematic when the Right has intertwined that ideology with Classical Liberalism and re-inscribed inequality as part of the American Way of Life.  However, Gramsci believed that all hegemonies were unstable and subject to continual resistances.  Thus, hegemonies are constructive but not determinative and need to be continually reasserted. 

The challenge for Progressive politics is to find those moments when the Right’s hegemonic constructions are the most unstable in order to disentangle what the Right has constructed.  Instead of proclaiming an imminent loss of faith in capitalist ideas, Progressives need to consider more fully how those ideas have been constructed and sustained by the Right, and how they can be re-interpreted.  

The philosopher Michel Foucault noted, “there is no single locus of great Refusal, no soul of revolt, source of all rebellions, or pure law of the revolutionary.  Instead there is a plurality of resistances.”   Rather than attempting to foment a frontal assault against oligarchs, Progressive politics needs a focused and strategic disruption of the Right’s interpretations and usages of hegemonic American norms.  We need to be armed not with pitchforks, but with scalpels.   As Marx wrote,  “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways: the point, however, is to change it.”

Richard Goldin

Richard Goldin, PhD teaches political theory at California State University, Long Beach

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