Capital and the Biologization of Race

Contemporary invocations of Racial Determinism

Perhaps the most recent and influential invocation of genetic racial determinism is Nicholas Wade’s book, A Troublesome Inheritance. Considered a scrupulous challenge to the ‘orthodox’ notion that races – and the immaterial (cognitive, behavioral) differences between them – remain largely socially constructed, Wades’ book argues:

that there is a genetic component to human social behavior; that this component, so critical to human survival, is subject to evolutionary change and has indeed evolved over time; that the evolution in social behavior has necessarily proceeded independently in the five major races and others; and that slight evolutionary differences in social behavior underlie the differences in social institutions prevalent among the major human populations.

Wades’ book has already cultivated positive reviews. Says one Wall Street Journal review (from which Wades’ above quote is taken):

It is hard to convey how rich this book is. It could be the textbook for a semester’s college course on human evolution, systematically surveying as it does the basics of genetics, evolutionary psychology, Homo sapiens’s diaspora and the recent discoveries about the evolutionary adaptations that have occurred since then. The book is a delight to read—conversational and lucid. And it will trigger an intellectual explosion the likes of which we haven’t seen for a few decades (Murray).

Despite the positive reception and the confidence with which Wades makes his assertions, others are not so easily convinced. Jonathan Marks, an Anthropologist and professor at the University of North Carolina, offers the most tendentious published critique as of this paper’s writing: ‘There is little to recommend here. This book is as crassly anti-science as any work of climate-change denial or creationism.’ Andrew Gelman, a Columbia University statistician and political scientist, offers: ‘I see naivete [sic] in Wade’s quickness to assume a genetic association for any change in social behavior,’ insinuating the book represents a timeless racist ‘paradox,’ where ‘at any given moment the racism of the day seems reasonable and very possibly true, but the racism of the past always seems so ridiculous.’

Wade’s book is representative of a long tradition, especially in the United States, of ascribing observed variety among seemingly discrete human populations to innate or genetic markers in terms of behavior, capacity, and cognition. To those skeptics casting doubt over the likes of Wade, his book reminds them of Richard Herrnstein’s and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve (Free Press, 1994), which argues that genetic information, sometimes with environment, shape intelligence, job performance, and deviance rather than intergenerational social mobility or one’s access to education, for example. The Bell Curve alerted Americans that the influx of less intelligent immigrants would further alienate those elites with ‘high intelligence’ from the rest of society, producing a Latin-Americanized institution of inequality. New York University evolutionary biologist and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, was among many scientists, both social and technical, to attack the book and its social-darwinian implications:

The penultimate chapter presents an apocalyptic vision of a society with a growing underclass permanently mired in the inevitable sloth of their low IQs. They will take over our city centers, keep having illegitimate babies (for many are too stupid to practice birth control), and ultimately require a kind of custodial state, more to keep them in check—and out of high IQ neighborhoods—than to realize any hope of amelioration, which low IQ makes impossible in any case. Herrnstein and Murray actually write, “In short, by custodial state, we have in mind a high–tech and more lavish version of the Indian reservation for some substantial minority of the nation’s population, while the rest of America tries to go about its business.”

Echoing the conclusions of The Bell Curve, Frederick Goodwin, an eminent psychologist and head appointee to the Federal Violence Initiative was infamously known to have remarked, at a 1992 meeting of the National Mental Health Advisory Council:

If you look, for example, at male monkeys, especially in the wild, roughly half of them survive to adulthood. The other half die by violence. That is the natural way of it for males, to knock each other off, and in fact there are some interesting evolutionary implications of that because the same hyper-aggressive monkeys who kill each other are also hypersexual, so they copulate more and therefore they reproduce more to offset the fact that half of them are dying … Maybe it isn’t just the careless use of the word when people call certain areas of certain cities ‘jungles,’ that we may have gone back to what might be more natural, without all of the social controls that we have upon ourselves as a civilization over thousands of years in our evolution (Smith, 20).

Likening urban black males to oversexed primates landed Goodwin in a ‘demoted’ federal position: head of the National Institute of Mental Health. Even more interesting (or alarming), however, was Goodwin’s defense to which commentators rushed. One outstanding of these defenders was sociobiologist and science journalist Robert Wright, who wrote a piece to Goodwin’s defense in a March issue of The New Yorker in 1995. Lending credence to one of Goodwin’s arguments (that low seratonin levels among inner city black males produced inner city violence), he asserted that

Goodwin is a victim of a vestigial feature of the American liberal mind: its undiscerning fear of the words ‘genetic’ and ‘biological,’ and its wholesale hostility to Darwinian explanations of behavior. It turns out, believe it or not, that comparing inner-city males to monkeys isn’t necessarily racist, or even necessarily right-wing. On the contrary, a truly state-of-the-art comparison yields what is in many ways an archetypically liberal view of the ‘root causes’ of urban violence.

The rest of Wright’s piece discusses Goodwin’s attempts to identify those genetic and environmental confluences which induce violence, and whether or not treating serotonin levels to this effect would help attenuate the problem of inner city crime. In all fairness, Wright does treat conflicting views (he deems as ‘liberal’) and complicates the discussion with other opinions. However, one picture in his treatment of the issue remains without much qualification or criticism: inner city youth vying for territory and respect are like to primates, who navigate their social ladders by way of fighting each other and engaging in sexual competition, social processes conscribed by the pressures of natural selection. Wright’s piece suggests that because ‘serotonin is one chemical that converts poverty and disrespect into impulsiveness or aggression or low self-esteem, then it, along with other chemicals, may be a handy index of all these things – something whose level can be monitored more precisely than the things themselves.’

The above statement is most useful for the purposes of this paper, aside from much else. An unsettling strategic notion predominates, un-countered. As a solution to social ills, perhaps we can monitor and manipulate those biological processes, genetic materials and endogenous chemicals which mediate an individual’s interaction with her environment. This unsettling piece of the puzzle takes two important directions: (1) while it remains true that serotonin levels very well might relate importantly to violence and the like, Goodwin, et al obfuscate the social forces which give rise to their salience; (2) relatedly, the solutions genetic racial determinists prescribe to attenuate social ills (such as inner city violence) relegate the explanatory usefulness of understanding society’s social organization to secondary importance, instead focusing on individual actors or specific populations and their seemingly discreet natures and biological informations.

This paper will establish several arguments: (1) Race is useless for socially addressing root causes of, and potential enhancements/correctives to qualities such as deviance, behavior, and intelligence, (as qualified by the bio-racial determinists); (2) Race’s most salient function constitutes the ideological product of a historically unequal society, which has instrumentalized racial difference to reinforce its multivariate and intersecting inequalities; (3) Genetics carries the historical ‘imprimatur’ of the history described in (2), and is thus alienated from its own, and very promising, potential.[1] 4. The fundamental force which induces (1, 2, 3) is capitalism, its laws of motion and social-organizing strategies.

What does the Science Say? An Overview

Especially since the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, a great deal of material has been written on race and genetics. Even more broadly, the quest to ascribe every detail of human variation to genetics commands an omnipresence so profound, every-day conversations are subtly steeped in genetic determinism. Expressions such as ‘so-and-so won the genetic lottery’ or ‘it’s in so-and-so’s nature to be such’ generalize. As well, lay assumptions about talent, genius, laziness, preference and the like contain a determinist hue, rendering the process of socialization invisible: ‘he was born playing the guitar;’ ‘you get your kindness from your father;’ ‘Jews love food;’ ‘black people are so good at the bass, because they are inherently rhythmic and groovy;’ the list can continue endlessly. Even prior to the ascendance of genetics, American intellectuals have made a concerted effort to ‘discover’ those qualities and variations, which comprise human diversity, as ‘natural’ or ‘inherent.’ This is a point to which to return, however. Importantly, the specific science on race, genetics, and variation speaks clearly for itself.

Jonathan Marks’ chapter in Human Evolutionary Biology (Cambridge Press, 2010) summates much of the scientific research regarding race and genetics in ten usefully straightforward arguments: ‘human groups distinguish themselves principally culturally;’ ‘human biological variation is continuous, not discrete;’ ‘clustering populations is arbitrary;’ ‘populations are biologically real, not races;’ ‘populations also have a constructed component;’ ‘there is much more variation within groups (polymorphism) than between groups (polytypy);’ ‘people are similar to those nearby and different from those far away;’ ‘racial classification is historical and political, and does not reflect natural biological patterns;’ ‘humans have little genetic variation;’ ‘racial issues are social-political-economic, not biological’ (266-272). There is a great deal to unpack here, and Marks’ chapter serves only as a starting point for the 108 scientific sources he employs, over the course of eleven pages. What is useful here is Marks’ treatment of counterpoints and countervailing assumptions. A handful of his ten arguments will prove useful.

Human groups as distinguished principally by culture. Perhaps the most overlooked factor explaining human variation is socialization, and the vast cultural and historical systems which produce differing socialization-processes:

In distinguishing our group from others, in these socially transmitted, historically constructed, and symbolically powerful ways, we structure most of our daily lives. What makes us group members also renders all of our sensory input and experience meaningful. We think and communicate using the metaphors and symbols of our group. We groom and dress ourselves according to the conventions of our group; indeed the decisions we actually make during the course of our lives are rigidly constrained by the relatively meager options culturally available.

If humans principally differ in this way, genetic variation tells us much less about differences between culturally discrete groups, than it does about variation within groups. The example Marks uses illuminates this point. Consider ‘an imaginary neuropeptide[2] whose variant allele might make its possessor slightly more aggressive.’ The manner in which this successor navigates a slightly higher genetic propensity for aggression will necessarily be dictated by the social, cultural constraints and the tools around her. On the other side of the same coin, ‘culturally mediated responses to [her] aggressive behavior’ would vary greatly, depending on the social environment in which she finds herself (267).

Variation: continuous, not discrete. The task of taxonomizing human variety, for Marks, is ‘a classic square-peg/round hole problem,’ though its pervasiveness in the history of science remains (268). In the 1800s, when ‘race’ was coined, its use as classificatier was employed colloquially, referring to outward appearance (265). Early naturalist GLL Buffon (who coined the term, ‘race’) remarked in Natural History, General and Particular (1749): ‘on close examination of peoples who compose each of these black races, we will find many varieties as in the white races, and we will find all the shades from brown to black, as we have found in the white races all shades from brown to white’ (267). Contemporary of Buffon and fellow naturalist JF Blumenbach wrote in 1755: ‘one variety of mankind does so sensibly pass into the other that you cannot mark out the limits between them.’ Despite Buffon’s and Blumenbach’s focus on continuity, their profession as taxonomists paradoxically compelled them to discrete-ize their observations, a legacy which ‘inheres in the work of population geneticists over two centuries later’ (268).

The alternative to taxonomizing biological groups was suggested in 1938 by biologist (and eugenicist) Julian Huxley, who was studying animal taxonomy. His argument was that ‘since a large component of the variation [existing] within a species is structured as geographical gradients … why not simply describe them that way?’ In the 1950s, zoologists such as FB Livingstone were ready to deny the biological existence of human races, extending Huxley’s ideas to human study.[3] Indeed, it became difficult for evolutionary biologists to taxonomize the variety and gradation they encountered among human populations. In 1899, WZ Ripley divided the ‘races of Europe’ thus: ‘Teutonic (Nordic), Alpine, and Mediterranean. By 1933, Carelton Coon’s revision, The Races of Europe,identified over a dozen (267).

The point is that the ‘clinal pattern’[4] in humans has to do with natural selection and gene-flow, both mediated by, and interacting with, varying environmental and socio-cultural dynamics and contexts. The discreteness with which biologists have classified human races has fluctuated over time, and is deeply informed by ‘a peculiar view of human variation adopted by biologists from the 17th to early 20th centur[ies].’ The gradational view not only contradicts the discrete; it explains, setting aside the political and historical leftovers of antiquated biology, the manner in which human taxonomies have varied intensely over time.

Populations: biologically real. Races: not really. By the end of WWII, evolutionary biologists and anthropologists ‘coined the word deme to refer to the local population that exists as an ecological and social unit in nature.’ Not only did this approach permit scientists to avoid the complications and vagueness of race, the local population, as a proposed unit of analysis, proved extremely effective. On the other hand, generalizing from local populations to race proved to lack cohesion and time depth (268). The question becomes: to what extent do local populations represent ‘anything other than themselves? (ie: races).’ The answer is somewhere along the lines of: they don’t. Despite this and employing microevolutionary study on local populations, scientists have sometimes assumed they represent races which are also assumed to be discrete, which they are not.

Much more variation within groups than between. Perhaps the most useful scientific fact, this shatters the assumption of discreteness. In 1972, Richard Lewontin, a biologist who pioneered the use of electrophoresis in genetic evolution, calculated that there are six times more within-group variation than between groups. Put scientifically: there is far greater polymorphic diversity than there is polytypic diversity. Scientists have found similar results in nuclear DNA in 1997 and 2002. Put simply, ‘the point of a theory of race was to discover large clusters of people that are principally homogeneous within and heterogeneous between contrasting groups’ (270). And that which startles racial determinists underpins the importance of this finding: such groups (principally homogeneous within and heterogeneous between) do not biologically exist among humans. To add, Lewontin’s findings indicate that behavioral and cognitive diversity ‘tend to be localized at the borders of human groups … and are the sort we call cultural.’

Racial classification: historical-political, NOT reflective of natural biological patterns. The racialization of Hispanics in the United States is one contemporary example which speaks to the ‘politically salient’ nature of race-as-classification. ‘Hispanic’ effectively refers to anyone deriving from just south of Brownsville, Texas to the southernmost tip of Ushuala, Chile. In between those two points is an entire region comprised of over 40 countries, peppered with distinct linguistic and culture-systems, indigenous populations, and complicated political histories with countries from other parts of the globe.  Another example: ‘black’ in the United States refers to those of African descent, while in the UK, it referred to those of South Asian ancestry. Anecdotally, a Peruvian friend of mine who’d be considered ‘white’ in Lima was astonished to find out she could identify as a person of color in the United States. Her amazement quickly turned to doubt, and she argued with me that such could not be the case. She was proven wrong, however, over the course of her time in the United States. The point is that race-as-category over-generalizes, glossing over genetic admixture, interrelated-ness, distinctiveness (where it does exist), and so on. The discussion of ‘local populations’ as effective units of analysis (as opposed to races) for microevolutionary study here is useful.

But an even larger, political point must be made. Marks terms race as ‘a sense-making system imposed upon the facts of difference,’ establishing distinctions to appear ‘rooted in nature, rather than in history or politics’ (271). ‘The pervasive tendency for racial classifications to see sub-Saharan Africans as a single group, for example, has far more to do with the politics and history of slavery than with the gene pool of Africans.’ Despite this pervasive tendency, ‘the genetic diversity [of sub-Saharan Africans] is considered to harbor the ancestral gene pool of the rest of the world … thus encompass[ing] more genetic diversity than other ‘races’… constitute[ing] a paraphyletic[5] category, [rendering them] not even taxonomically comparable to other ‘races’’ (272). Over time, not only have the ideas of race changed, the very names with which specific races are invoked have changed as well.

Humans? Little genetic variation. Any two (non-twin) humans share 99.9% of their respective 3 x [10^6] DNA base pairs. Undeniably, ‘biochemical individuality’ thus arises in that 0.1%.[6] Chimpanzees and gorillas, our closest ancestors, in fact possess a ‘greater degree of heterogeneity’ in their mitochondrial DNA and vary more between groups than we do, despite their comparably restricted range. As such, ape taxa ‘represent very different entities than human races.’ The desire to reconstruct human evolution as a ‘series of cladogenetic[7] events’ therefore proves useless, as recent research indicates that a more accurate model of human populations (spanning time) would appear more as a ‘trellis, capillary system, or rhimzome’ rather than a tree, with clearly defined, terminal boughs, branches, and twigs (268).

Racial issues are not biological, but political, social, economic. For the purposes of this paper, this final argument of Marks is the most salient. If ‘white’ and ‘black’ denote huge and overlapping populations as science has established, ‘there can be little justification for ascribing great biological meaning to the perceived discontinuities between them’ (272). Regardless, the reality is that social inequalities are categorically racialized. Reducing inequalities to biological causes functions in two ways: (1) ‘[it] minimizes the role of political-economic factors in producing and maintaining social inequality;’ (2) it implies that ‘biological causes require biological remedies’ (a la, Troublesome Inheritance) (273). Here enters ‘racial pharmacogenomics,’ BiDil, and the like.

The eugenic imprimatur

Some history of Eugenics. Troy Duster is perhaps the most vocal thinker on race and genetics who has demonstrated that eugenics has left its hegemonic imprimatur on the study of genetics. His work illuminates the history of race in the United States, with deep implications for the way in which genetic research is discussed and executed. One such example is the case of drapetomania, a diagnosis developed by Samuel Cartwright, which sought to gauge the tendency and willingness with which slaves opted to escape the plantations on which they worked. Implicit in Cartwright’s work is an assumption about the naturalness of black violence and aggression, a trait he encouraged masters to mediate (Duster, 4). Cartwright advised owners that ‘with the advantages of proper medical advice, strictly followed, this troublesome practice that many negroes have of running away can be almost entirely prevented.’

Despite that drapetomania gained little medical prescience, it embodies the racial history of the United States and its interaction with science in several crucial ways. The Supreme Court had by then decided it was illegal to abscond from service and that ‘negroes’ were not at all entitled to the rights reserved for ‘we the people.’[8]  Writes Duster, ‘under the imprimatur of science, medical and legal ideas converged with the convenient idea that whites had a superior evolutionary status’ (5). To justify racial inequality, and the slave-productive mode in the American south, it was imperative to illegalize absconding. However, on top of this illegality was the designation that absconding itself was a medical aberration, stemming from the naturalness of being a ‘negro.’

Around this time, Darwinian evolutionary theory gained preeminence. While Darwin did not propose a scientific justification for racial stratification, ‘evolutionary theory recast the issue of racial stratification into a systematic scientific framework.’ It was Herbert Spencer[9] who developed a ‘hierarchy of cultures’ based on the ideas proposed by Darwin: ‘as humans can be stratified in evolutionary development, so can cultures’ (6). The imprint Spencer left on then-budding anthropology was enormous. He argued that any culture could be placed on continua of savageness and civility, simplicity and complexity; those considered savage had a limited sense of time based on bird migration or the passing of seasons, where ‘civilized’ denoted the ability to plan and accumulate commodities and productive tasks. Spencer argued that ‘black children in the United States could not keep up with whites because of the former’s biological and genetically endowed limits.’ In his own words: ‘[Blacks’] intellects [are] apparently incapable of being cultured beyond a particular point.’ This conclusion stems from his own continua, which suggest that savageness and civility are not just historical markers, but genetic ones as well.

As biomedical research expanded in the 1900s, physicians experimented with humans to determine racial difference. One such experiment remains among the most horrific: The Tuskegee syphilis experiment (beginning in the 1920s) enlisted African-Americans with syphilis to see if it ‘coursed through black and white bodies in different ways.’ Under the impression they were receiving free health care, the enlisted African-Americans were not given the available ameliorative drugs for the scientists to come to a conclusion. The study was terminated as recently as the 1960s. A similar experiment, conducted in Puerto Rico, was directed by Legion of Merit award-winner and physician Cornelius Rhodes, who knowingly infected Puerto Ricans with cancer to see how they would respond. Rhodes was exonerated of the deaths of his patients.

A similar book, Controlling Human Heredity written by zoologist Diane Paul surveys the history of eugenics in the United States from 1865 to present day. A huge focus of her fourth chapter, ‘The Menace of the Moron’ is the manner in which science sought to segregate the richer, ‘purer’ class from an expanding subset of lowly ‘imbiciles,’ moving into cities at the turn of the century (Paul, 77). The words ‘imbicile’ and ‘moron’ became standard medical terminology, classifying those with mental illness and a history of criminality as such. This was the basis for developing rather extensive asylum and custodial institutions, which became ‘colonies’ for the ‘feebleminded’ in the 1880s. As time progressed, sterilization surgeries such as castration, vasectomies, and spatial exclusion were employed to control the lowly populations and instrumentalize more efficiently prison labor (81). Pictures included in Paul’s book from this time period show the clear and disheartening racialized composition of these custodial institutions.

Crime in the Genes. Duster’s book Backdoor to Eugenics remains a go-to resource for anyone delving into the complicated history of race and genetics and the modern invocation of genetic explanations for deviance, crime and the like. The most alarming pages explore the ‘appropriation of genetic explanations’ by some intellectuals, seeking to root out the causes behind criminal behavior, IQ scores, and mental illness (93-111).

As governor of California, Ronald Reagan supported the creation of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of California at Los Angeles. ‘An important feature for the center’s work, which Reagan endorsed, was the early identification of violent-prone individuals’ (97). Their studies, as well as others, operationalized incarceration numbers, correlating race with criminality. Given the highly disproportionate skew with which black and white people are incarcerated in the United States (whites: 65 per 100,000; blacks 544 per 100,000), their conclusions necessarily suggested there was something distinctive about black genes, as they relate to deviance and criminality (99). This flies in the face of research done nearly 30 years prior, which sought to ‘lay to rest’ these sorts of conclusions.

In 1960, Paul Bohannan wrote a book entitled African Homicide and Suicide, which found that the African homicide rate is lower than the American, approximating that of the European (100). Moreover, the incarceration patterns in the United States have changed drastically since the early 1900s, expanding vociferously into Black and Latino populations, especially since the 1970s and the inception of the War on Drugs. Michelle Alexander’s excellent book The New Jim Crow discusses the reality of this hyper-racialized system, its ‘revolving door’ dynamic for poorer people of color, the collateral damages it proliferates in black and brown communities, and the colorblind ideologies with which Americans discuss criminality. Duster problematizes the genetic-criminality studies even further, arguing that they excluded the already underrepresented criminality of those from higher economic strata. The designations: white-collar crime, black-on-black crime, and the like stem from this era of criminality studies. Even though blacks are overrepresented in white-collar crimes (fraud, forgery, embezzlement, etc), they are still outpaced by whites by a factor of 3. Despite this, Duster writes, there remains a very clear bias in how people generally think of criminality: ‘when whites commit more crimes at the top, [people] attribute this to opportunity structures; when blacks commit more crimes, it is implicitly more a feature of their race’ (101).

BiDil: the first racial medicine. Moving over to medicine, the foremost example of arbitrary racial invocations is BiDil, the only officially explicit race-directed medicine in the world (at least for now). Pamela Sankar and Jonathan Kahn are among the foremost scholars exploring this issue. In June of 2005, ‘the US Food and Drug Administration granted formal approval to BiDil as a race-specific drug to treat heart failure’ (455). They argue that ‘BiDil’s success … [despite what its proponents say] is one not of personalized medicine, but of exploiting race to gain commercial and regulatory advantage in the pharmaceutical marketplace’ (455). The very first patent for BiDil was nowhere near race-specific, but after its rejection for an NDA (New Drug Application) by the FDA, the developers of BiDil scrambled to make their drug more marketable and relevant. Based on their tests in the 1980s, which tried to gauge BiDil’s success among veterans, the brains behind BiDil revisited the 49 African-American subjects and their response to the drug (457).

Following a hunch that they could successfully pass an NDA if they remarketed and re-patented BiDil as race-specific, the developers of BiDil tested 1,000 African Americans through the New York Heart Association. These subjects remained on their current heart medication and were randomized to receive BiDil or a placebo, additionally. The tests were so successful that the study was terminated, on the grounds that it was unethical to continue, given its success. The FDA changed its mind, and BiDil’s projected market opportunity tripled ‘to $3 billion as NitroMed announced BiDil’s pricing at $1.80 per pill … dwarf[ing] the estimated costs of generic equivalents at $0.25 per pill’ (458). All of these developments rested on ‘tenuous’ purported racial differences in cardiovascular disease rates and drug responses. For example, a colleague of the BiDil developers, Daniel Dries, reported that ‘overall mortality from heart failure was approximately twice as high for blacks as for whites, when, in fact, the best available current data showed the disparity to be approximately 1.08 to 1 (that is, negligible)’ (459).

The grand success of BiDil was not just its lucrative returns, but its developers’ ability to secure ‘market exclusivity’ by invoking racial specificity: ‘the race-specific patent will still prevent anyone else from marketing the generic component drugs as a method to treat heart failure among African Americans until 2020’ (461). For Duster, the story of BiDil is ‘poised to exert a cascading effect – reinscribing taxonomies of race across a broad range of scientific practices and fields.’ Shortly before the FDA approved BiDil, Duster advised that ‘it [only do so] under the condition that further research be conducted to find the markers that have the actual functional association with drug responsiveness – thus assuring the drug be approved for everyone with those markers, regardless of their ancestry’ (1051). BiDil was not approved with that qualification.

The Role of Environmental Racism. But even if mortality and prevalence rates are disparate among black and white heart disease patients, the source does not have to be genetic. The manner in which populations are spatially organized in gentrifying cities, and the continuing history of spatial segregation along racial lines in the United States creates all sorts of problems aside from some of the issues we’ve discussed already. It is well established that, in New York City, for example, higher asthma rates among children correlate spatially with wherever black and brown children tend to live.[10] What sociologists have come to call ‘environmental racism’ provides a social basis for explaining health discrepancies among black and white populations,[11] relating those issues to the legacy or racism.

Kelly Happe’s The Material Gene takes genetics and ideology even further into environmental politics. Very similar conclusions that we’ve drawn with regards to race she extends to the environmental realm. In part, her chapter, ‘Genomics and the Polluted Body’ sheds light on environmental racism, citing ‘evidence surface[ing] in the mid-1980s that industry strategically targeted communities marked by poverty and political disenfranchisement.’ Even further: ‘industry also sought communities with documented antiregulation attitudes; it was effectively looking for communities with no history of economic justice social movements, itself a sign of political alienation’ (163). The result, with asthma rates as one example, was that industry’s costs became externalized to predominantly poor, African American communities. One example she cites is Convent, Louisiana. The population in 2002 was 21,000 ‘of whom 51% could not read or write, 61% were unemployed, and over 65% lived below the poverty line.’ A total of 12 industrial plants operated within 30 square miles, with Convent as the center. ‘While on average, 7 pounds of toxic materials were released nationwide into the air for every person living in the United States as a whole, 2,227 pounds of pollutants were released into the air for every person living near Convent’ (164). Undoubtedly, these sorts of forces play a huge role in black-white health discrepancies, over which genetic racial determinists are too ready to gloss.

Torturous Textbooks. Race as an erroneous and obfuscatory organizing and explanatory category moves even beyond the fields of law and medicine and into secondary school textbooks. Ann Morning’s The Nature of Race demonstrates that ‘the notion of race as a cultural product and not a biological one is disseminated only in a few social science curricula and [remains] the least-taught social sciences at that. At the same time, material reinforcing an essentialist interpretation of race can be found in both biology and social science textbooks’ (100). Her overview of the history of textbooks shows that racial discreteness is still taught, without much qualification or regard for the wealth of sociological and biological materials which complicate racial discreteness. Morning’s study of dozens of biology, geography, psychology, sociology, and anthropology textbooks reveals that ‘textbooks still regularly present race as a characteristic of the human body’ (102). One of the many cringe-worthy examples she cites is a caption of a 1995 textbook, reading: ‘one well-known racial classification system sorts individuals into Caucasoid (left), Negroid (center), and Mongoloid (right) groups’ (79). Recalling our discussion of taxonomy, this classification system is almost identical to the view naturalists held in 1899.

Ideology and Capital

Lewontin discusses in his book, Science as Ideology (1993) the broader social role science commands. Science does not conduct its affairs outside the forces that design society. As such, it is ‘completely integrated into and influenced by the structure of all our other social institutions’ (3). Science, its procedures, results, and questions ‘are all deeply influenced by predispositions that derive from the society in which we live’ (3). Because ‘it is a human productive activity that takes time and money … [it is] guided and directed by those forces in the world that have control over money and time’ (3). Science employs and creates commodities, pays, and is thus deeply influenced by powerful social and economic forces. Such forces

have the power to appropriate from science ideas that are particularly suited to the maintenance and continued prosperity of the social structures of which they are a part. So other social institutions have an input into science both in what is done and how it is thought about, and they take from science concepts and ideas that then support their institutions and make them seem legitimate and natural (4).

All this in mind, Lewontin’s view that science is shaped by society’s productive forces is just as much a description of science and society as it is an explanation for the kinds of biases in science, popular culture and lay understandings of race we’ve explored. Underpinning the capitalist productive force are the following bedrock dynamics: (1) commodities are sold for exchange-value (rather than use-value), (2) capitalists own the means and tools of production, (3) to capitalists, workers sell their capacity to work for a wage. So long as our society prioritizes profit over need, elites who possess the investment function (by default) will bifurcate those who produce for them, so as to continue the inequalities capitalism inheres. The ascendant ideologies that rest upon this social machinery serve to justify, naturalize, and explain why the world works the way it does. Race is but another of these compelling ideologies in which we are immersed.

BJ Fields likens the role of ideology in capitalist society to a ‘certain social terrain, whose map [people] keep alive in their minds by collective, ritual repetition of the activities they must carry out in order to negotiate the terrain’ (113). She continues, ‘racial ideology supplied the means of explaining slavery to people whose terrain was a republic founded on radical doctrines of liberty and natural rights; and, more important, a republic in which all but a minority lived … race explained why some people could rightly be denied what others took for granted’ (114). But the picture, for Fields, is far more complex: ‘if race lives on today, it does not live on because we have inherited it from our forebears in the 17th century or the 18th or 19th, but because we continue to create it today’ (117).

Operating beneath these restraints, genetics is appropriated to ‘create race,’ to explain-away inequalities by pathologizing crime and poverty, by rendering outwardly differing bodies to be more different than they truly are, and – more generally – by generalizing that difference into society where social difference, normatively, should not exist. Just as unfortunate, genetics becomes alienated from its own scientific, and medical potential as a field that can treat, prevent, and assess cancer, multiple-sclerosis, and an unending range of illnesses.

Sources

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow. Free Press. 2012.

Duster, Troy. Backdoor to Eugenics. Routledge. 1990.

Duster, Troy. ‘Lessons from History: Why Race and Ethnicity have Played a Major Role in Biomedical Research.’ Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics. 2006. 2-11.

Duster, Troy. ‘Race and Reification in Science.’ Science. 18 February 2005. Vol 307. 1050-51.

Fields, Barbara Jean. ‘Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States of America.’ New Left Review. May-June 1990. 95-118.

Gelman, Andrew. ‘The Paradox of Racism.’ Slate. 8 May 2014.

Gould, Stephen Jay. ‘Curveball.’ The New Yorker. 28 November 1994.

Happe, Kelly. The Material Gene: Gender, Race, and Heredity After the Human Genome Project. New York University Press. 2013.

Lewontin, Richard. Biology as Ideology: the Doctrine of DNA. Harper Perennial. 1993.

Marks, Jonathan. ‘Ten Facts about Human Variation.’ Human Evolutionary Biology (ed: Michael P. Muelenbein). Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Marks, Jonathan. ‘The Genes Made Us Do It: The New Pseudoscience of Racial Difference.’ In These Times. 12 May 2014.

Morning, Ann. The Nature of Race: How Scientists Think and Teach about Human Difference. University of California Press. 2011.

Murray, Charles. ‘Book Review: A Troublesome Inheritance.’ Wall Street Journal. 2 May 2014

Paul, Diane B. Controlling Human Heredity: 1865 to the Present. Prometheus Books. 1995.

Sankar, Pamela; Kahn, Jonathan. ‘BiDil: Race Medicine or Race Marketing?’ Health Affairs. 11 October 2005. 455-463.

Smith, Robert C. Racism in the Post Civil Rights Era: Now You See It, Now You Don’t. State University of New York Press. 1996.

Wright, Robert. ‘The Biology of Violence.’ The New Yorker. 13 March 1995.

[1] ‘Imprimatur’ is T. Duster’s language, to which we’ll return later.

[2]  ‘An endogenous peptide that influences neural activity or functioning’ (Merriam-Webster).

[3] In 1962 FB Livingstone wrote an article for Current Anthropology titled: ‘On the Non-Existence of Human Races’

[4] ‘A  gradient of morphological or physiological change in a group of related organisms usually along a line of environmental or geographic transition’ (Merriam-Webster)

[5] ‘Of, relating to, or being a taxonomic group that does not include all descendants of a common ancestor’ (Merriam-Webster)

[6] http://science.education.nih.gov/supplements/nih1/genetic/guide/genetic_variation1.htm

[7] ‘Evolutionary change characterized by treelike branching of taxa’ (Merriam-Webster)

[8] The supreme court ruling in Dred Scott v. Sanford maintained the constitution’s 3/5s compromise, ruling that no ‘negro,’ free or enslaved were therefor entitled the rights of US citizens such as the right to sue in federal court.

[9] Also coined the term ‘survival of the fittest.’

[10] http://www.cccnewyork.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Asthma-Hospitalization-Map-KT-Large.jpg

[11] I took this term from a lecture given by Colin Jerolmack in an intro to sociology course.

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Snapshots of Inequality

For SocialistWorker.org

IT GOES without saying that capitalism causes economic inequality.

This is actually a point of pride for defenders of the system–they believe that the free market thrives because the deserving few are rewarded. The Marxist critique of capitalism takes the exact opposite position: The tiny few who live so well compared to the rest of us are completely undeserving of their immense wealth–they amassed their fortunes through systematic theft of the labor of the working majority in society.

But we also know that capitalism goes through periods in which economic inequality is more extreme and less so. So what kind of moment are we looking at now? What is the shape and contour of inequality in the U.S. today, six years after the recession that cratered in 2008?

If you set out to answer these questions, here are some of the snapshots of American inequality you would see:

Belief and Reality

People in the U.S. largely believe their society to be far more equitable than it actually is.

A study conducted in 2010 compared the actual distribution of wealth in the U.S. to: first, what Americans think the distribution of wealth is; and second, what they think it ought to be. The results are telling.

What is the actual distribution of wealth? The richest 20 percent of Americans owns nearly 85 percent of the country’s wealth. The richest 40 percent own just about 95 percent. On the other end of things, the poorest 20 percent of Americans own 0.1 percent.

But people in the U.S. believe the wealth gap is far smaller than it is. They estimate that the richest 20 percent owns about 55 percent of the country’s wealth. On the other side of the spectrum, people estimate the poorest 20 percent to own about 5 percent of the wealth. Asked what they think would be ideal, people want a far more equitable distribution of wealth. Ideally, they think the richest 20 percent should own just over 30 percent of the wealth, and the bottom 20 percent should own about 11 percent.

Productivity and Wages

Paul Ryan and the Republicans have turned up the volume on their victim-blaming rhetoric lately (and by the way, the Democrats aren’t much better). Their explanation for the persistence of poverty: “The key is work,” “It’s all about working” and, of course, the dreaded “cultural tailspin” of generations of young Black and Brown men who supposedly understand the value and importance of work.

Not only do these comments demonstrate the Republicans’ deep-seated racism, but they are profoundly disconnected with reality in terms of providing an explanation for poverty.

Since the 1970s, the productivity of U.S. workers has only increased while hourly compensation has remained more or less the same. This yawning gap between productivity and wages benefits the richest 1 percent, which owns 42 percent of the country’s financial wealth. The bottom 80 percent of the population, by contrast, owns barely 5 percent.

Taken together, these figures tell us that U.S. workers have worked harder and harder over decades, while gaining nothing more in wages–in fact, they have lost ground as a consequence of the Great Recession–nor in the financial wealth their labor produces.

This is not an accident–the increase in productivity alongside a stagnation in wages is a direct consequence of neoliberal policies having been implemented throughout the period.

It is a straight-up fabrication and an insult for political and business leaders to claim that the working-class majority or any section of it isn’t working, or isn’t working hard enough. The opposite is, in fact, the case. There is a historic robbery-in-progress undertaken by American business–the corporate boardrooms are the site of the real culture of freeloading.

How Does the U.S. Stack Up Internationally?

The mainstream media and leaders of both political parties insist that the U.S. is the “land of opportunity,” with a strong and functional “engine of prosperity” that ultimately benefits the whole population.

Indeed, “prosperity” does define the U.S. ruling class, but what about the rest of America? Where does the U.S. rank among other countries in terms of equality? Probably not first or second, surely–but maybe fifth or tenth?

On a list of 137 countries, ranked in order of their Gini coefficients–a statistical measure of the distribution of household income in a country on a sale of 0 to 1, where 0 is perfect equality and 1 is maximum inequality–the U.S. isn’t even close to the top 10.

Sweden tops the list as the most equal country, with a Gini coefficient of 0.23. The most unequal countries are Lesotho, South Africa and Botswana, all with ratios of 63 and over.

The U.S.? It’s a lot closer to Lesotho than Sweden. The U.S. is in 97th place, with a Gini coefficient of 0.45, surrounded by Bulgaria and Uruguay on one side, and the Philippines and Cameroon on the other.

Social (Im-)Mobility

At least the U.S., for all its drawbacks, remains one of those countries where those who work hard can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and climb the socio-economic ladder. However wealthy the U.S. ruling class may be, at least it’s possible for even the poorest individuals to rise into the elite, with enough hard work and perseverance.

Right?

Wrong.

The technical term used by economists to describe the ease or lack of ease for people to climb to a higher-earning status is “social mobility.

According to a 2006 study done by researchers the Institute for the Study of Labor in Bonn, Germany, sons born to a father in the poorest 20 percent of the population were twice as likely to stay in the bottom 40 percent in terms of income. Only one in five sons of fathers in the poorest 20 percent made it to the upper 40 percent. The pattern is similar for daughters.

Economists have plotted social mobility–or to use another term for this dynamic, “intergenerational earnings elasticity”–on a 0 to 1 scale, like the Gini coefficient. Once again, the U.S. ranks on the same end of the scale with the most unequal countries–they are, unsurprisingly, the least socially mobile as well.

Incarceration in the Land of the Free

Inequality rears its head in all aspects of society. It very visibly affects the nature of the U.S. prison system. Bear in mind that all this is taking place in a country that already incarcerates more of its population than any country in the world, so those caught on the wrong end of the inequality in the prison system are enduring the worst of the worst by this measure.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, one in 106 white men over age 18 are incarcerated each year. For Latino men in this age group, the figure is one in 36. For African American men, it is one in 15–making it seven times more likely a Black man will go to jail than a white man. The same racial disparity exists for women.

Accordingly, Michelle Alexander notes in her book The New Jim Crow that more Black men are in prison today or under the supervision of the criminal justice system than there were slaves in the U.S. in 1850.

The cost of keeping someone in a federal prison for a year is estimated at between $21,000 and $33,000. At the higher figure, that’s more than triple what the U.S. spends per pupil per year in secondary schools–$10,560 in 2011.

The Gendered Wage Gap

Between 1972 and 2000, the pay disparity between women and men shrank slowly. Since then, the shrinking has stopped almost completely.

Women’s median annual earnings as a percentage of men’s has hovered around 77 percent for the past 12 years. In nearly every occupation, women make less than men for doing the same work–and according to every category into which data can be organized.

The pay gap fluctuates depending on where you happen to live. In Washington D.C., women on average were paid 90 percent of what men were paid in 2012. In Wyoming, women were paid 64 percent of what men made.

Women of color have it the worst. Compared to white men, Black women were paid 64 percent, American Indian women were paid 60 percent and Latino women were paid 53 percent.

There are two standard responses to these statistics. One is that women tend to be over-represented in occupations that pay less. But remember that women are paid less across the board, including within the same occupations. But the gendered pay gap exists even for women who don’t have children–they are paid just over 80 percent of what men make. Moreover, women have become a larger and larger part of the workforce since the 1970s, despite the burden of primary responsibility for child-rearing.

The Average Worker and the “Average” CEO

Since the 1970s, the gap between the wage of an average worker and the total compensation of the CEOs of America’s biggest corporations has grown into a Grand Canyon.

The ratio of CEO pay to the average pay of a worker climbed from 53.3-to-1 before the 1990s got underway to reach a peak of 411.3-to-1 in 2000. Ever since, the ratio has fluctuated in the 200- to 300-to-1 range.

In 2012, the ratio stood at 273-to-1, with average compensation for CEOs at the 350 largest corporations running at $14.1 million a year.

If you were to increase by 50 percent the paychecks of the nearly 1.1 million people working full-time at federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, their total income wouldn’t add up to the bonuses alone given to 165,200 Wall Street employees in 2013 ($26.7 billion).

Even the financial press questions what today’s CEOs are doing to earn so much more than their counterparts from 25 years ago. But the reality is that these modern-day robber barons do little of real value compared to the millions of people whose jobs are much more demanding, and who live even more demanding lives.

The Decline of Organized Labor

At one point in history, there was an important factor countering the inevitable tendency of capitalism toward inequality–the power of U.S. unions to compel higher pay, decent benefits, reasonable hours and workplace safety for a significant part of the U.S. working class.

But like so much else for working people, union power has declined compared to the power of business. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of wage and salary workers who were members of unions in 2013 stood at 11.3 percent. Among private-sector workers, the percentage was a lowly 6.7 percent.

THESE ARE some of the stark facts about inequality in the richest country in the history of the world.

On the one hand, the U.S. does badly, particularly among industrialized countries, in terms of economic inequality, making it a terrible example for anyone interested in making the world a more equal and easier place to live. But precisely because of its staggering inequality, the U.S. ruling class provides a model to the rulers of the rest of the world for imposing the kind of policies that make inequality worse than ever.

This is not an abstract question. A recent study, funded in part by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, concludes that humanity is threatened not only by runaway climate change but the uneven distribution of wealth around the world.

It’s not enough to familiarize yourself with the enraging litany of statistics presented here. It’s not enough to know that the world’s main superpower is among the least equal society among its comparable peers. It’s not enough to understand how Corporate America and the U.S. political leaders who serve it export inequality around the world.

Instead, we need to organize for a different society that eliminates the vast gap between rich and poor by confronting the system that perpetuates the chasm: capitalism.

Capital and Creative Potential

This was a paper written for class. Based solely on Braverman’s Labor Monopoly and Capital.

Broadly, the task of this paper is to think through several questions pertaining to the manner in which capitalism interacts with human nature. The four fundamental questions which will guide the direction of this discussion are as follows, in order of logical relevance:

  1. What constitutes human nature according to the Marxist purview, and why does Marxism offer crucial insights to this effect?
  2. In what ways does capital – as a social relation, shaping the contours and relationships that comprise society generally –capturehuman creative capacity and use it to its benefit?
  3. In what ways does capital thwart human potential, pertinent to the questions raised above?
  4. Given these questions and normatively speaking: what could the alternative to capital look like as far as human creative/productive potential is concerned?

The case will be made that capital hinders explosively creative powers that are innate to humankind’s productive capacity. It does so by way of focusing on, and exploiting, very specific aspects of human potential to the exclusion of a wide array of other important aspects. This may seem obvious to Marxists and much has been written on the subject; the next step will be to show how fundamental one’s alienation – from the full range of human creative potential – really is. This dynamic remains a bedrock foundation upon which capital, as a social relation and capitalism, as a global productive system, rests. As the saying goes (whose source I cannot corroborate, unfortunately): most people live lives for which they are overqualified.

This argument will be shown theoretically, at multiple levels of abstraction. Primarily, the excellent work of Marxist sociologist and revolutionary socialist Harry Braverman will prove useful. At the moment, two questions remain un-answered, though: what are the stakes of this discussion? For what reason(s) is it important to more deeply understand, and parse through, these questions? Firstly, capital imperatively induces the working class to sell their labor-power to a capitalist, on pain of starvation. A piece of the broader process called ‘exploitation,’ this relationship between labor and capital leads to two forms of alienation, on part of the laborer. The first is alienation from the commodity or service she is producing. The second is what can be called alienation from oneself. Put differently: alienation from one’s own creative capacity, in the abstract. This will be elaborated upon later.

Secondly and more broadly, capital shapes the social landscape through which both the working and capitalist classes navigate, historically and in the day-to-day. The alienation to which the worker is subject is not borne out of the mal-intent on part of the capitalist. Exploitation needs not devious capitalists. Rather, exploitation necessarily requires both forms of alienation described above. It therefore becomes normal and explained away with expressions like ‘such is life,’ for example. Put another way: the alienation workers experience (for the duration of their lifetimes) becomes a fact unquestioned – a reality with which either they can cope or accept as truth. Over time, alienation becomes an ingrained piece of human experience, one that is taken for granted, as if it had existed since time immemorial. ‘Human nature,’ then, as people come to understand it, becomes something it is not fundamentally, at least in part: definitively competitive, self-interested, downright cruel, cold, and unforgiving. The unfortunate  term ‘homo economicus’ encapsulates precisely this kind of human: one who rationalizes his way through every calculable step of his day based solely on self-interest rather than cooperation, solidarity, and – more fundamentally – empathy.

What Marxism has on offer is not just a useful description of the labor process and alienation along these lines. Marxism does not just include a particular way of looking at and qualifying human nature. The normative vision which nestles itself within the Marxist corpus includes reclaiming human nature, in its freest form, unhindered and unfettered.

What is Human Nature?

What constitutes human conscious and active comportment, by rule of biology? The task of answering this question has been subject to much interesting and useful inquiry, as well as obfuscation and bullshit. We can generally define the criteria of human nature as firstly that which distinguishes humans from other organisms along these lines. Secondly, we can establish that human nature refers to the manner in which humans think, act, and interact with one another.  But before delving into human nature specifically, it will prove useful to establish that which is common to all animals, and proceed from there:

All forms of life sustain themselves on their natural environment; thus all conduct activities for the purpose of appropriating natural products to their own use … But to seize upon the materials of nature ready-made is not work; work is an activity that alters these materials from their natural state to improve their usefulness (31).

It goes without saying that there are some forms of life which do not ‘work’ in this sense, though other forms do, such as the beaver, the bird, the orangutan, and other complex organisms with varying forms of intelligence and complexity expressed in their execution of tasks and reproductive strategies.

However, humans are distinct from other organisms in the following ways, listed in logical order: 1. ‘Work as purposive action, guided by [exceptional] intelligence’ (34). ‘The directing mechanism [of human work] is the power of conceptual thought, originating in an altogether exceptional central nervous system’ (32). As Marx states: ‘[Humans] presuppose labor … rais[ing their] structure in imagination before [they] erect it in reality’ (31); 2. ‘Culture with continuity of experience.’ Humans possess an ‘ingenious form of tutelage: [an] ability to manage symbolic representation … in its highest form, articulate speech’ (33). The ability to symbolically represent purposive action guided by intelligence provides the foundation for culture and the intergenerational continuity of ideas, upon which later generations of humans can add and develop; 3. The dissolution of the unity of conception and execution (35). This is to say, ‘where the division of function within other animal species has been assigned by nature and … in the form of instinct, humanity is capable of an infinite variety of functions and division of function on the basis of family, group, and social assignment’ (34). Adam Smith and other enlightenment economists famously, and correctly, referred to this as the ‘division of labor;’ 4. Labor-power. The human capacity to perform work is distinctly human, not just for the reasons already mentioned. Firstly, because it ‘represents the sole resource of humanity in confronting nature;’ secondly, because it can be used as a ‘factor of production;’ and, thirdly, because the distinction between labor-power and some distinct form of potential energy (such as oil) ‘is a difference upon which the entire economy turns’ (35). This is to say that each human who contributes her capacity to work contributes to a socially complex and interrelated productive process, which requires – in some form – the participation of all humans.

Discussed so far are the fundamental ways in which human productive activity remains distinctly human (both historically and immediately). Above are the principles which distinguish human activity from all other animal activity, from the standpoint of the highest level of abstraction. Before proceeding, it is crucial to note that humans engage each other socially, like a number of other animal species. But humans engage socially in far more complex ways than – say – orangutans. This is not to obfuscate the numerous ways in which orangutans and humans are biologically and socially similar; in fact, the congruencies can be astoundingly alike. But it is quite clear that humans have mastered nature in ways no other animal has in the history of biology, as far as we understand it. In this sense, and following from point (4), it can be said that humans have to a certain extent ‘freed’ themselves from the trappings of instinct. The ramifications of this fact are crucial. Firstly, ‘human labor becomes indeterminate, and its various determinate forms henceforth are the products not of biology but of the complex interaction between tools and social relations, technology and society’ (35); and secondly, we can narrow our focus on labor abstractly (as we have already done), but more importantly on labor shaped by capitalist production and its logical parameters. Now, the discussion can turn toward how capital captures and uses human nature to its benefit.

 How Does Capital Capture and Use Human Creativity?

Like all other ‘productive modes’ preceding capitalism, capital itself possesses its own distinguishable set of rules. This can be referred to as capitalism’s ‘internal logic.’ Labor-power has always played a role in productive society since the dawn of humankind; its incorporation in production has always been required. Though what makes capitalism so historically unique is its employment of labor-power, namely: ‘the purchase and sale of labor power’ (35). Braverman identifies three crucial generalized rules which flow from this fundamental fact. Firstly, workers are alienated from the technologies with which production is executed; secondly, Law requires that workers do not ‘dispose of their own labor-power’ unnecessarily; thirdly, the whole point of employment and production is to ‘enlarge the unit of capital,’ which – by law, and necessarily – belongs to the capitalist, or employer (36). From the get-go, humans’ productive potential is required by capital, though this is not saying anything new about production, historically – regardless of whichever mode of production predominates.

Specifically speaking in terms of capitalism however, there are two ways in which people fundamentally relate to it. The employer’s (capitalist) goal is to enlarge capital, converting a sliver of it to wages, which are owed to the worker who works for him. He privately owns the physical plants, offices, schools, and properties on which labor is carried out; he as well owns the technologies which accentuate the productivity and efficiency with which work is done. On the other hand, the worker rents his labor power out to the capitalist for a stipulated period of time, agreed upon ‘voluntarily’ by both parties in the form of a contract. The worker sometimes owns private property himself, in the form of houses (once he has paid off the mortgage), cars (so long as he is not leasing or renting them), and small-commodities which enable him to go to work in the first place, replenish energy he spent working, and live in relative (dis)comfort. This relationship where the capitalist employs workers who create value based on the time they spend working and the diligence, efficiency, and productiveness must require the capitalist’s willingness to engage in it. For if he does not ‘work’ like the worker, what is his purpose? This is where ‘exploitation’ comes in; the capitalist expropriates a chunk of the value (known as capital, or surplus value) created by the workers, reinvesting it in his enterprise, moving it offshore if he likes, starting a new firm, or keeping it all for himself and his Bugatti collection. Looking at capitalism as a system motored by the investment of numerous capitalists, it becomes clear they all engage in competition with one another. The goal is to profit (enlarge capital) as successfully as possible.

Importantly, it must be emphasized that the worker does not sell his labor, but his labor-power. The employment of non-human activity in the productive process is basically identical to the employment of labor itself; given an animal can only perform a discrete set of tasks, if not only one (38). Because human labor possesses an exceptional cultural quality to it, as described previously, and an imaginative and purposive character, an infinite range of productive tasks may be created by the capitalist for execution by the worker. Moreover, human work possesses an intrinsic malleability, shapeable in ways that animal labor is not, fundamentally. This is how human productive capacity is captured and used by the capitalist, for his advantage. The question now becomes: how does capital, according what has been so far described of the labor process under capitalism, thwart the full potential of human creativity?

Capital’s Thwarting of Human Creativity

Before answering the question raised, it is important to re-establish that human nature is necessarily creative in ways that set humans apart from other organisms, even those with higher forms of intelligence and strategies for navigating the physical and subjective world around them. It is not enough to say – alone – that capital thwarts creativity, or ‘the full potential of human creativity,’ even though this is very true. It must be argued – from the Marxist perspective and from its normative vision – that if capital somehow impinges upon one’s creativity in a manner that is fundamental, it also impinges on that which makes one human. Capital therefore impinges on human nature in the following ways, listed in logical order: 1. Capital alienates the worker from the means of production and the object being produced; 2. Following this, capital alienates workers from the full extent of their own creative potential as exceptionally productive individuals and as a class of individuals who relate to capitalist production in a very specific way; 3. Workers – at home – are alienated from one another (in their own families) from the means of their own social reproduction and the activity which encompasses social reproduction; and 4. Workers fundamentally – and humans more generally regardless of class – are alienated from one another, the communities they could otherwise create for themselves, the families in which they are raised, and others with whom they may share immediate and long term interests.

(1). The most fundamental ways in which workers are alienated from the means of production and commodities (objects of production they produce) is elaborated upon by Braverman in his discussion of Taylor and scientific management and their effects. This principle has already been discussed briefly. Here is where we will flesh out precisely what this means. Already introduced is the ‘separation of conception from execution’ (79). This is to say that the worker does not enter her place of work with the intent of performing the tasks she must complete as she sees it necessary. The tasks to be completed are decided upon by management and the capitalist himself. What differentiates capitalism from feudalism is that capitalist production is carried primarily by profit (as opposed to subsistence), or the accumulation and enlargement of capital. The terms for employment, the object being created and the service the worker provides therefore is decided upon by the capitalist. The worker has not one say over these determinations. She therefore enters her place of work firstly because she must, unless she prefers starving, and secondly because she has what the capitalist needs: labor-power. It therefore does not matter to the worker what she creates, despite the fact that she’s the one doing the creating, day in – day out. This is the manner in which the worker is removed from the object being created.

Within this removal, or alienation, is another form of alienation: the alienation from the productive process itself and the means with which production is carried out. Braverman refers to this as the dissociation of the labor process from the skills of workers. ‘Management assumes the burden of gathering all of the traditional knowledge which in the past has been possessed by the worker and then of classifying, tabulating, and reducing this knowledge to rules, laws, and formulas’ (78). These determinations are not encumbered by the worker, but by either the capitalist or the management he employs, should his firm require management. Because the productive process is bound by the parameters of capital enlargement, it must constantly be revolutionized toward greater efficiency, productiveness, ease, and inexpensiveness. The labor process therefore becomes ‘rendered independent of craft, tradition, and the workers’ knowledge. Henceforth it is to depend not at all upon the abilities of workers, but entirely upon the practices of management [and/or the self-interested will of the capitalist]’ (78).

The worker therefore enters her place of work as just another piece of machinery, albeit more malleable, disposable, and disinterested. Granted, a worker may enjoy what she does and the wage she receives, though these facets are not required by the capitalist. It is only required that the worker performs the task or provides the service she is asked to provide. While this may seem more apparently true for manual labor, it is just as true for mental labor. For example, a worker who is employed at a call-center produces a good that is mostly mental (this is why we call it a ‘service’ as opposed to a commodity); she talks to clients, answers phones, troubleshoots, etc. It need not matter to the person calling, nor to the capitalist that she is stationed in Bangledesh, despite being hired by a British firm. It need not matter that she enjoys or hates the work itself. It simply matters that she does it based on the demands of the process as designed by management. Moreover, she herself does not own the desk at which she sits, the headset with which she is provided, and the very property on which she works every day. All of these things the capitalist owns and permits workers to use them for however long his productive endeavor requires. So the worker does not own that which she produces or provides and she does not own those tools which she uses to make the product or provide the service. For her time and energy, she gets a subdivision of the value she and her colleagues create collectively, while the capitalist – who organizes all of this – appropriates the value he sees fit. These forms of alienation, both from the product being produced and the process by which that product is produced necessarily lead to the next forms of alienation.

(2). Capital alienates workers from the full potential of their creative capacity in the following ways. Firstly, they take the organization of production (discussed above) as given (89); secondly, they are necessarily de-skilled and the totality of their creative potential is excluded by the capitalist so they may focus a very specific aspect – or aspects – of their productive capacity toward performing a specific task, for the benefit of the enterprise (90); and thirdly, they are habituated to follow the previous principles, and more broadly habituated to the capitalist mode of production (96).

Workers must take the organization of work, as dictated by management and capitalists as given, for their labor-power is employed only to complete the tasks they must complete. This is self-evident, flowing from the previous discussion, and requires no further explanation. If they questioned the ‘for-granted-ness’ of the organization of their work, they can either leave the job, be fired for insubordination, or join the ranks of management to work on how to specialize, organize, and execute the tasks carried out at the workplace. The most important point, however, lies in the second: workers’ skills and tasks are constantly ‘specialized’ to the utmost degree, so the division of labor is most efficient, productive, and inexpensive. ‘Specialization’ – or the division of working labor to this effect – has ‘emptied [craftsmanship] of its traditional content’ (90). Increasingly, work has become specialized, accentuating the degree of alienation from the product and productive process experienced by the worker. Traditionally, ‘the conceptual and design functions were the province of craftsmanship, as were the functions of furthering the industrial arts through innovation’ (91). This is no longer the task of the craftsman, who has been rendered by capital to become a worker, selling his labor-power to a capitalist for a wage.

Finally, working humanity – throughout capital’s history – has been transformed into a labor force, a mere ‘factor of production’ (96), which requires a huge degree of habituation to this effect. Following this trend, an explosion of study has been developed – and is constantly revolutionizing itself – to address not how work is organized, but how to induce the working class’ cooperation with/in the capitalist mode of production (97). Braverman discusses ‘industrial psychology’ and its early role in this process. It has reinvented itself through the decades and centuries to address problems of ‘high turnover rates, absenteeism, resistance to the prescribed work pace, indifference, neglect, cooperative group restrictions on output, and overt hostility to management’ (97). This has resulted firstly with the implicit and widespread acceptance of conflating the ‘interest of civilization not with the immense majority of workers, but with those who manage them’ (98). Secondly, with the increasing need to equip management with control – of a ‘single stroke’ – over their workers. Even without these academic disciplines and societal structures, which nestle in the most prestigious universities, think-tanks, and policy making milieus around the world, the capitalist market coerces workers to this effect, by definition. Because capitalism fundamentally shapes the manner in which people relate to one another, the manner in which people live their lives, and the manner in which the whole of society is organized, the working class is necessarily subject to coercion, manipulation, and policies which ensure the successful reproduction of capitalist society.

(3). Workers are alienated from their own self-reproduction at the home. This is so because once a worker turns in, she returns to her living space (if she has one to call her own) where the fundamental tasks of de-compressing from work, re-energizing for the following work day must take priority. She buys food which she did not produce herself; watches a television with its inundation of advertisements, neither of which she produced herself – and which produce a sense of comfort and encourage passivity; engages with her family whom she can only experience outside the workplace where she spends the majority of her day. Capital shapes the home-life where ‘social reproduction’ takes place. Social reproduction refers to those tasks which must be completed by the worker, which ensures her livelihood and continuity as a breathing, functioning human being.

The term ‘social reproduction theory’ is understood differently among sociologists, broadly speaking. The type to which we are referring is the Marxist conception, loosely outlined above for our purposes here. Marxist sociologists and feminists such as David McNally and Tithi Battacharya have developed enormously on the topic, though we are not required here to go as in depth as they have usefully done. Importantly, these scholars have pointed to several important features within the social reproductive sphere which are pertinent. Firstly, social reproduction historically has divided tasks in the home along gendered lines, with women traditionally taking on a number of household, home-keeping tasks; secondly, both social reproductive labor and productive labor embody an inseparable, though contradictory whole over which the broader process of capital accumulation establishes itself; thirdly and relatedly: ‘bosses have an interest in [ensuring] social reproduction,’ though not necessarily in the workers’ interests (Battacharya, 29).

The gendered nature of household labor which fits in the sphere of social reproduction is fundamentally salient for understanding alienation along these lines. Historically, women have taken on the role of child-rearing under capitalism, which has centered their experience and capacity to work around the daily issues of childcare, finding healthcare for their children, tending to the family’s sick, and ensuring the cleanliness, livability of the house. This continuity of experience among women necessarily separates them from men who have historically taken on the role of ‘breadwinner,’ as the story goes. This has enormous ramifications for the subjective experience of women, as opposed to men (and vice-versa). But the difference is not just subjective, bringing us to the second point, which is more material. Men have traditionally worked to create surplus value, while women have traditionally worked to create a different kind of value at home (closer to ‘use-value’), unpaid, and often taken for granted. This material and subjective gap between men and women have given rise to amazingly terse ideologies about women, men, and how the two ought to relate to one-another. The ideology of gender has normalized what ultimately is a form of labor division, housed within the orbit of capital accumulation: Certain family members sell their labor-power to secure a livelihood, while the others ensure that that livelihood can produce the next generation of workers. It follows that men and women are not only alienated from one another in profoundly subjective and material ways, but they are alienated from their own children, lovers, family members, and friends, so long as the inducement to sell one’s labor-power fundamentally predominates as an imperative. It follows that capitalists have a very specific stake in ensuring social reproduction takes place, but to their own benefit. It therefore comes to pass as world capitalism further neoliberalizes that a single wage cannot feed an entire family, throwing women into the formal work force, while as well coming home to carry out the traditional (ideologically embedded) needs of the family to which she belongs. A wealth of information and theorizing has been expanded upon with regard to this specific development. One of the most unfortunate outgrowths of the neoliberal era as far as social reproduction is concerned is that as families feel ‘the squeeze’ so to speak, gendered violence has proliferated both at the workplace and in the home (36). Not to mention, the capitalist’s growing willingness to (re)commodify social provisioning (which includes removing socialized healthcare, socialized childcare, public education, and the like) has enormous ramifications for the world’s working class (34).  What we have seen from capital, in neoliberal form, is the drive to push back social provisions and a drive to de-commodify goods/services as far as the capitalist sees appropriate. This push has been enormously successful for capitalists, who have reaped unprecedented profits in the United States, for example, while the working class’ wages have more or less stagnated, since the 1970s. On top of that stagnation is a greater participation of women in the workforce.

(4). The picture of humanity under capital thus far painted is not very pretty. To return to Braverman, what we have employed is the Marxist purview, which seeks to look at production (labor’s creation of value) as fundamentally about humans, rather than price fluctuations, stock readings, and values (35). From the individual all the way up to the societal, capital – as a productive arrangement – fundamentally requires innumerable forms of alienation, so much so that we are habituated to them as if they were normal and necessary. While every capitalist competes with one another for a greater market share, each worker competes with the next, offering his labor-power for as cheaply as possible. Capital therefore induces (though it does not require, in the abstract) an infinite array of intersecting bifurcations among the working class, and humanity more generally – just as the labor-process exploits only few of the infinite possibilities housed within humankind’s creative capaciousness. Differences of skin color are elevated to differences in kind, promulgating forms of oppression ranging from racism to what some on the left have begun to call ‘ableism.’ Because capital requires competition, cold and calculating, at its most bedrock level, we are constantly habituated to consider and exaggerate the differences among us more than our similarities. And often, we invent differences without even understanding how or to what end.

What Could an Alternative Look Like for Creativity?

Here and finally, we turn to Marxist sociologist Erik Olin Wright, who outlines excellently the normative vision housed within the walls of Marxist thought: ‘At its core, class analysis within the Marxist tradition is rooted in a set of normative commitments to a form of radical egalitarianism’ (2). He identifies three theses along these lines: 1. Human flourishing would be broadly enhanced by a radically egalitarian distribution of the material conditions of life; 2. Under conditions of a highly productive economy, it becomes materially possible to organize a society in such a way that there is a sustainable radically egalitarian distribution of the material conditions of life; and, 3. Capitalism blocks the possibility of achieving a radically egalitarian distribution of the material conditions of life.

The danger in these sorts of discussions of ‘alternatives’ on the left is that they are often pre-figurative (necessarily difficult to grasp and grapple with), unreasonably idealistic, and sometimes downright ridiculous. What Marxism has on offer is its practical venture of building a radically egalitarian society, fundamentally based on production for need, rather than profit. This project is considered ‘practical’ based on Wright’s second thesis; the material capacity to build such a society – in fact – exists. What lacks is the political will, on part of those whom capital benefits. Other barriers are those innumerable ways in which the working class remains necessarily divided, as if by nature (alienation, in its multitudinous forms). This would explain why more than enough food calorically is produced every year to feed each person comfortably in the world, yet a billion or so people starve and suffer from the worst forms of malnutrition. This would explain why the world’s subaltern poor dehydrate in the several-hundred millions, despite the fact that more water (once perfectly fine for drink to begin with) is used more in the ‘core’ capitalist countries than anywhere else, by a dozen-fold, if not more.

But this discussion is not necessarily about those important contradictions and mass-crimes. It is about human nature and humankind’s creative potential and how alienation centrally thwarts them. In a radically egalitarian world where production is carried out based on need; in a world where the worker is not imprisoned by the dictates of capital-accumulation, a wealth of possibilities remains undiscovered, as far as human creativity is concerned. Already beneath capital, a numerous admirable creations and use-values abound. But the regime of exchange-value stifles the collective participation of the working world in the creation and use of some of those use-values, as has been shown. Not to mention, the manner in which basic necessities – sucked into the orbit of exchange and surplus values – become only available if one has the means to consume them. It therefore goes unnoticed quite often that a great deal of destruction and death is otherwise wholly avoidable.

A society based on the radical egalitarian distribution of the material conditions of life would include the following core mechanisms: 1. Production based on subsistence, rather than profit; 2. the participation of workers in the productive process based on Marx’s basic, ethical maxim: ‘to each according to need, from each according to ability’ (3); 3. the collective and democratic ownership of the means of production and property; and 4. a state, or federal administrative body directly beholden to the democratic ownership of the means of production, and the ability to distribute goods in a manner that is egalitarian, and radically so. It flows from these mechanisms that the removal of the market imperative to enlarge capital would be done away with. Workers would necessarily have much less of a cumbersome workday (as their main purpose would not be to create surplus, but use-values), and the capitalist class would cease existing. The collective participation in the productive process is very hard to sketch at this point in time cosmetically, though it would indeed enlarge the amount of free time.

In that free time, the worries of having to survive by way selling one’s labor-power would cease as dictates for how to live one’s life: carefully, timidly, and with a constant fear for the future. One’s alienation from the productive process and the product itself would decrease greatly in terms of oppressiveness, and would cease being a centerfold of production and society more generally. In that greater free time, those who wish to study biology can spend their time innovating vaccinations, making bigger, less cash-strapped advances toward ending cancer, and studying Life on this planet, perhaps on others. One who’d rather spend more time with his family would have the opportunity to do so, perhaps raising his very first daughter. One with a particularly sharp predisposition for musical taste and talent could study and create music, and share it with those who’d like to listen. And certainly those who’d like to spend their time participating in local administrative functions, the egalitarian distribution of commodities and use-values, would be able to do so without having to be rich, useless, and white.

A recent discovery of a piece of an ancient human hand  suggests that the human ability to make and use complex tools may have originated nearly 500,000 years further back than scientists had previously thought. Though the hand belongs to our species’ predecessor (Homo erectus), it suggests anthropologically that our origins as cooperative humanoids, capable of using an exceptional creative, purposive brain, date back hundreds (rather than tens) of thousands of years prior to agricultural society’s dawn. Regardless of otherwise interesting prehistory, a wealth of anthropological study suggests our humble beginnings, leading up to the advent of class society, was predominantly cooperative and subsistence based. Existing for roughly 600 years, capital is wholly anomalous in the span of human civilization, and it has managed to not only stifle our fundamental creative capacity which has an enormously rich history, but it has managed to hurl the planet itself toward ecological ruin.

Given all of this, the task of Marxists is not just to explain, as correctly as possible, the exploitation and alienation to which most of the world is regularly subject, but elaborate upon how capital is fundamentally anti-human, both in the moral and biological sense. Morally, the choice stands not only for itself, but for everyone who wishes to be decent. Biologically, it is evident that capital removes us from the manifold and perhaps undiscovered elements of human nature. It is evident capital requires one’s own alienation from his imaginative power, which is unprecedented in the history of the world, as we understand it.

Renaming as Praxis: the ‘Precariat’ and its (Mis)use

The term precariat is a portmanteau fusing together proletariat and – of course – precarious. Its roots can be traced back to French sociologists in the 1980s, though precariat has taken on a new essence in today’s globalized, neoliberal landscape. The term today is most commonly associated with the works of Guy Standing, Loïc Wacquant, and other contemporary sociologists who are grappling with the quickly changing social universe as globalization and neoliberal policy roll back the advances of the welfare state in the post-industrial world.  Perhaps the one to have written most exhaustively on this topic, Guy Standing has put forth a number of claims which merit a good deal of discussion. Among them – and perhaps the most provocative – is the notion that the precariat is a ‘class-in-the-making,’ ‘distinct in class terms’ – in other words: one that is ‘not part of the working class or the proletariat.’ [1]

The task of this paper will be to challenge the notion that a burgeoning precariat – as qualified by Standing – is indeed not a distinct class-in-the-making but a way of conceptualizing a changing proletariat or working class. Although there is much to critique of Standing’s precariat, there is also much to incorporate into an analysis of how working people – broadly speaking – experience the changing social landscape. However, what Standing’s analysis jeopardizes is a precise understanding of class’ relation to the capitalist productive mode; in fact, not only does it go so far as to obfuscate class, it caricaturizes the Marxist conception of capitalism by way of  implying that the proletarian/working class is an outdated conception – one defined by stability and security.

Before a successful engagement with Standing’s arguments can take place, a definition of the precariat is required. Standing’s approach is that the spread of globalization has fragmented the global class structure, with the precariat standing among the lowest of six other classes: the elite, the established middle class (salariat), the technical middle class (proficariat), new affluent workers, the traditional or (proletarian) working class, and emergent service workers.[2] From here on out, the definition of what constitutes the precariat is elusive. He does offer a number of qualifiers, however. ‘The precariat consists of people who lack the seven forms of labor-related security … that social-democrats, labor parties and trade unions pursued as their industrial citizenship agenda after the second World War:’ labor market security, employment security, job security, work security, skill reproduction security, income security and representation security.[3]

The above insecurities ensure that the precariat receives a fluctuating pattern of income, ‘impart[ing] a vulnerability going well beyond what would be conveyed by the money income received at a particular moment.’ Compounded with this is a lack of support in the form of ‘assured enterprises or state benefits’ that are often considered supplementary to money earnings. The above insecurities serve to dismantle any semblance of ‘work based identity’ for the average precarian, who is career-less, lacking in social memory and without an occupational community; ‘the precariat does not feel part of a solidaristic labor community [intensifying] a sense of alienation and instrumentality in what they have to do.’[4]  Standing clarifies that by no means are the precariat homogeneous: some are interns, some take uptitled jobs, others can be called denizens or urban nomads, etc. The thread common to all precarians ‘is [in] seeing how people come to be doing insecure forms of labor that are unlikely to assist them to [in building] a desirable identity or a desirable career.’[5]

Thus far, I have laid out those characteristics Standing indicates as common to all precarians. And surely neoliberalism has advanced since the 1970s hand-in-hand with the rolling back of social safety nets, workers’ benefits, civil liberties, widening incarceration rates, and a decline in union density in the western capitalist world. The result – as Standing describes well – is a growing sense of uncertainty, precariousness, and dislocation from solidaristic communities among working people. Insofar as Standing describes the quality of life among those who work (predominantly those who earn less), I would argue he is mostly successful. Insofar as he shows that a proliferating ‘class-in-the-making’ is taking foot in the neoliberal world, I will argue he is unsuccessful.

Again, while Standing can assign to the precariat a variety of characteristics, the role of chapter 1 of his book (which seeks to define the precariat) seems to define this becoming class on terms of what it is not:[**]  the precariat is not yet ‘a class-for-itself;’[6] it is not analogous to the lumpenproletariat – ‘the jobless who have no hope of social integration;’ ‘it is not right to equate the precariat with the working poor or with just insecure unemployment, although these dimensions are correlated with it.[7] Standing states, ‘to assert that the precariat consists of people who have no control over their labor or work would be too restrictive … [though] aspects of control are relevant to an assessment of their predicament;’[8] the precariat is not featured by ‘the level of money wages or income earned;’ ‘the precariat does not feel part of a solidaristic labor community;’[9] ‘not all those in the precariat should be regarded as victims;’[10] and – most provocatively:

‘the precariat is not part of the working class or the proletariat. The latter term suggests a society consisting mostly of workers in long-term, stable, fixed-hour jobs with established routes of advancement, subject to unionization and collective agreements, with job titles their fathers and mothers would have understood, facing local employers whose names and features they were familiar with.’[11]

Indeed, the more we consider what the precariat is not, the more restrictive and – I would argue – imprecise the term becomes, a term which is intended to name a becoming-class. The source for this confusion rests on two errors:

(1)      Though Standing distinguishes between class (‘refer[ing] to social relations of production and a person’s position in the labor process’) and status (‘associated with a person’s occupation’), he largely defines the precariat in terms of status, while simultaneously arguing that it is a ‘class-in-the-making.’ This becomes problematic because Standing effectively collapses the two into the same category, invoking one or the other as he sees fit. This leads to analytical imprecision. Standing argues that the precariat has ‘class characteristics,’ in that ‘it consists of people who have minimal trust relationships with capital or the state.’ These can be characteristics of the proletariat, but neither having minimal trust relationships with capital nor with the state are sufficient or necessary characteristics of class, from a scientific perspective. Class is defined – as Standing acknowledges – by one’s position in the general productive mode, not in terms of its broad characteristics.[12] But what does it precisely mean to be positioned somewhere in the general productive mode? Weber’s own definitions were self-admittedly ambiguous. But he did state that a class is defined as some social group within a plurality that share a common

‘specific causal component of life chances insofar as this component is represented exclusively by economic interests in the possession of goods and opportunities for income and is represented under the conditions of the commodity or labor markets.’[13]

But this only outlines the social appearance of a class, not what a class technically is. Weber begs the question of what is class by way of answer. He thinks of classes as social groupings, which they undoubtedly are. But in stopping there, he simply captures the essence of class, rather than how classes relate to each other as well as the technical underpinnings that comprise the overall productive mode. He was aware of this predicament: ‘to treat class conceptually as being equivalent to [a] group leads to distortion.’[14] Standing has committed this distortion in his analysis, and we will get to why in a moment.

There are mainly two ways in which one can be organized within the capitalist productive mode: one can either reproduce herself by way of selling her capacity to work to an employer in exchange for a wage (worker); or one is an employer (capitalist) who extracts the surplus value created by her employees (profit), reinvesting that value into her business. Of course there are numerous groupings (such as the precariat, workers with salaries, etc.) that are distinct from one another in daily experience and status, but insofar as these groupings are different in experience and status, they are not distinct classes.

Both workers and capitalists are locked in an antagonistic relationship, established by the manner in which the capitalist productive mode induces them to possess opposed, objective and material interests. Simply: the capitalist needs to maximize profits – the worker needs higher wages. You cannot take away from one without inversely affecting the other.

A petit-bourgeoisie (small-capitalist) class fits into this schema. They ‘compete for a portion of [created value] against both big capital and the wage demands of workers.’[15]  Some are self-employed, others are salaried or waged while also possessing investable capital (perhaps inherited). The growth of precariousness in the neoliberal age has indeed changed the social landscape. It has expanded – to some extent – the petit bourgeoisie in the US, for example, since the 1970s. Opportunities for full time employment are shifting and ‘work previously done by full time employees is [now sometimes] contracted out, and the rise of information technology [has allowed for] decentralized small manufacturing.’[16] This is the extent to which precariousness has changed business as usual. Not at all does this imply that a precarious ‘class-in-the-making,’ wholly distinct from the proletariat, may soon indeed become a ‘class-for-itself.’

Moreover, to return to the discussion of appearances, Standing attempts to distinguish ‘proletariat’ from ‘precariat’ as a class by way of differentiating the precariat from an image of what he thinks the proletariat is:

[Proletariat] suggests a society consisting mostly of workers in long-term, stable, fixed-hour jobs with established routes of advancement, subject to unionization and collective agreements, with job titles their fathers and mothers would have understood, facing local employers whose names and features they were familiar with.[17]

But one cannot define a term precisely by way of identifying what it ‘suggests!’ That is obfuscation and – frankly – poor social science. A botanist would be laughed at if he were asked by another botanist to define a tomato by stating that ‘a tomato suggests pizza or pasta sauce.’ This might seem drawn out, but it is the root of Standing’s analytical error.

Especially as it was taking hold in a newly industrializing Europe, the proletariat did not have ‘fixed hour jobs with established routes of advancement.’ Nor was it ‘subject to unionization and collective agreements with job titles.’ Marx discusses – in numerous places – not only the precariousness of proletarian work, but the precarianization of work as capital advanced:

‘The growing competition among the bourgeois, and the resulting commercial crises, make the wages of the workers ever more fluctuating. The increasing improvement of machinery, ever more rapidly developing, makes their livelihood more and more precarious; the collisions between individual workmen and individual bourgeois take more and more the character of collisions between two classes.’[18]

And in Capital:

‘The higher the productiveness of labour, the greater is the pressure of the labourers on the means of employment, the more precarious, therefore, becomes their condition of existence, viz., the sale of their own labour power for the increasing of another’s wealth, or for the self-expansion of capital.’[19]

All of this is to say that Standing reinvents the wheel by claiming a new class is becoming, when really what ought to be meant by ‘precariat’ is this: a distinct group among the proletariat whose expansion has been conferred by neoliberal advance. Indeed, workers’ productivity rates have skyrocketed while their wages have remained static, bringing on a heightened degree of uncertainty and precariousness for especially lower wage earning workers. The world financial recession has made conditions for workers more austere, but a more austere working class does not a new class make.

(2)     Not only is there a remarkable sameness between the precariat and proletariat. We also find Standing’s restrictive idea of what constitutes proletariat frozen in time. But where – in time – has this static, stereotypical image of the proletariat been fossilized and why?

Standing puts forth that the working class enjoyed ‘stability’ and ‘established routes of advancement’ during the Fordist, pre-neoliberal period of capitalism (before the 1970s). This was a period in which the laborist model predominated – one including strong left-labor coalitions in parliament, strong welfare states, and a higher availability of social or de-commodified services. Standing acknowledges – rightly – that this has changed; the social landscape is always changing due to shifting political forces (this is the thrust of dialectics). The advance of neoliberalism has brought with it the systematic destruction of these sorts of services, a destruction wedged by a globalizing class of capitalists who have only further concentrated their wealth to record-breaking extents.

But why – then – has Standing not acknowledged that the proletariat has changed as well? Better yet, why does Standing insist that the proletariat is a thing of the past, existing today only in remnants? I think it has to do with the manner in which a collective ‘social memory’ has been demolished by the ideological advance that has gone hand in hand with the neoliberal. The cards have been dealt in the elite’s favor for the past forty years to such an extent that social scientists on the Left feel the need to found a ‘new vocabulary’ to qualify and quantify the conditions under which we find ourselves.[20] But as Standing knows: ‘no revolution comes from simple understanding.’[21]

But this level of reimagining or re-naming comes from a real problem, conferred by the advancing ideology and structures of neoliberalism: the destruction of once strong and resourceful solidaristic communities, ones which commanded their own common languages and political perspectives that could represent the interests and experiences of working people. Standing notes ‘the precariat does not feel part of a solidaristic labor community, [thus intensifying] a sense of alienation and instrumentality in what they have to do. Actions and attitudes, derived from precariousness, drift towards opportunism.’[22] Unions – once a source for incubating solidarity – have now instrumentalized in this manner. In the United States, they have been nearly eviscerated, inducing bureaucracy and a rationalized way of assessing political questions. The organized left is in shambles and is compelled to be opportunistic in their political strategizing, given their low level of resources and the forces they face.

This lack of resources/organizational capacity not only affects the agency workers and the left have in realizing political outcomes, it affects their politics; it affects the manner in which they conceptualize revolutionary change. Marx wrote in The 18th Brumaire:

The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service.[23]

Standing conjures up a spirit of the past – the antiquated proletariat, working in steady, fixed-income industrial jobs, unionized and relatively secure. But this is only an image – a fleeting memory, at best. And now that precarious labor has augmented, seemingly replacing stable careers and job security, we find it necessary to give new language to ‘new’ phenomena. Akin to ‘the beginner who has learned a new language [and] always translates it back into his mother tongue,’ Standing ‘assimilates the spirit of a new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old.’[24]

This is why his definition of ‘precariat’ relies so much on what precariat is not, namely – what it is not anymore: it is the case the world has changed since the 1970s. It is the case the social landscape has shifted beneath the feet of the working class. The fact remains – however – that the bedrock institution of modern society is waged labor. The fact remains that a working (proletarian) class works to produce surplus an elite class exploits and re-distributes on its own terms.

The stakes that are attached to this discussion are – in fact – quite high. Indeed one task of social science is to ascribe language to the world that is changing before our eyes. But Newton would be reluctant to relinquish the theory of gravity after his first flight. He would condition it, perhaps – but would not be convinced to leap from the aircraft.

Insofar as Standing’s contributions highlight modern conditions, the precariat is useful shorthand for the kind of labor with which segments of the proletariat are pained to engage. But the real test of a theory is to match its hypotheses to the conclusions it makes, and how observations of the material world mediate the process between hypothesis and conclusion.  But the precariat as a designated, distinct ‘class-in-becoming’ does not live up to this rigorous standard.

This is why Standing can amazingly state that ‘[lumpenproletariat] is not what will be meant [by precariat] in [his] book,’ yet devote an entire section asserting that the precariat encompasses ‘the large layer of people who have been criminalized, convicted; … temporary career-less workers, migrants, denizens, criminalized strugglers, welfare claimants,’ namely those whom the employment process designates as not ‘socially useful.’[25] This is why Standing can remove himself from the ‘technological determinist’ camp, yet assert that ‘the internet, the browsing habit, text messaging, Facebook, Twitter and other social media are all operating to rewire the brain’ and that ‘digital living is damaging the long-term memory consolidation process that is the basis for what generations of humans have come to regard as intelligence.’[26] Is it really true that ‘the digitized world has no respect for contemplation or reflection’? Is it really true that the dawn of the digital millennium has claimed – as casualties – the literate mind and a society made up of ‘individuals with distinctive combinations of knowledge?’[27] Or are these the musings and ideations of every academic who received his BA in 1971? The short discussion of ‘some’ (who?) evolutionary biologists who claim that electronics are returning the human mind to its primitive state – that the scholarly mind is an historical aberration – is un-scientific, at best. That biological regression and its ‘evolutionary implications’ are given one iota of legitimacy with scant sourced material is outstanding.[28]

This is not a personal attack, but an attempt to draw out the idealism of Standing’s assertions and the fact that his conclusions do not match his starting points. It is a glaring contradiction to assert the precariatized mind is distinct in that it experiences ‘the four As,’ when segments of the proletariat have always done so since the dawn of capitalism. Entire swaths of the post-industrial labor force in the United States and the UK have been buried, never experiencing ‘ladders of mobility to climb.’[29]

All of this is to say that these conclusions and such a framework influence the manner in which Standing envisions the precariat moving forward for themselves. The hindrances which keep the precariat from becoming a ‘class-for-itself’ are: a lack of solidarity; a ‘fear of failure;’ the ‘disavowal of empathy;’ not being professionalized and thus withdrawn from a ‘community with ethical codes and mutual respect [strengthened by] long-established norms of behavior;’ a ‘lack of social memory;’ that it lacks job-commitment.[30]

These are all perhaps very true; the precarian consciousness is mired with self-competition, anomie, and alienation. But Standing does not discuss what transforms these plagues common to all segments of the working class, precarious or not. He gives the impression that these problems lend themselves to a ‘dangerous’ class, ‘conducive to intolerance.’[31]  In so concluding, Standing implies that the precariat has no agency in affecting change for itself, oddly omitting the question he mentions at the outset of his analysis: whether or not the precariat can become a ‘class-for-itself.’ The conclusion is messianistic and cautionary: ‘action is needed before that monster [the precariat] comes to life.’[32] It is not action-in-the-abstract that is needed, but self-action and self-activity. Marx was not the only political economist or social scientist to observe that the working class had a structural advantage in waging revolutionary change, by virtue of their contribution to the labor process. Such a possibility is not off the table by virtue of the fact that the social landscape has shifted. Neither should it be that what is ‘dangerous’ about the precariat is its presumed intolerance for economic affluence and progress.

There is a way and need for moving forward. This is becoming clearer as the oceans acidify. But we need to be clearer about the world around us and the forces against which all working people are up against. It is not enough as praxis to re-name. What is lacking here is a real political discussion of what it will take to realize an end to precariousness and where the precariat fits into this strategic equation. A concrete and political discussion of why a ‘politics of paradise’ is needed not just to ‘respond’ to the precariat’s fears, insecurities, and aspirations – but to fundamentally change those conditions which induce them, before our planet overheats, leaving us very little to change in the first place.


[1] Standing, 6-7

[2] Ibid, 7

[3] Ibid, 10-13

[4] Ibid, 12

[5] Ibid, 16

[6] Ibid, 7

[7] Ibid, 9

[8] Ibid, 10

[9] Ibid, 12

[10] Ibid, 13

[11] Ibid, 6

[12] Ibid, 8

[13] Longhofer, 274

[14] Ibid, 275

[15] Sharzer, 87

[16] Ibid, 88

[17] Standing, 6

[18] Marx, Manifesto CH 1

[19] Marx, Capital Vol 1

[20] Standing, 7

[21] Ibid, 2

[22] Ibid, 12

[23] Tucker, 595

[24] Ibid

[25] Standing, 9

[26] Ibid, 18

[27] Ibid, 19

[28] Ibid

[29] Ibid, 20

[30] Ibid, 23-4

[31] Ibid, 25