Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

Who Thinks What about Capitalism? Class Consciousness and Attitudes to Economic Institutions

Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

Who Thinks What about Capitalism? Class Consciousness and Attitudes to Economic Institutions

Article excerpt

Writing about class consciousness at the end of the twentieth century may seem a decidedly anachronistic activity. Commentators around the world have confidently pronounced the `death of class' (e.g. Clark and Lipset 1991; Clark, Lipset and Remple 1993; Kingston 1994; Pahl 1989; Pakulski 1993; Pakulski and Waters 1996) as a cause of inequality and social action; the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe presumably relegates Marxism to the dustbin of history as a now-discredited intellectual doctrine; and class consciousness, with its apparent connotations of the masses taking to the streets to protest the inequities of capitalism, is light years away from the actual conduct of Australian politics. However, in this paper I shall argue that certain economic attitudes are a key component of class consciousness and that class relations shape these attitudes in ways which indicate that class divisions are still a potent basis for the emergence of political ideology. Institutions figure in this story in two ways. First, the economic attitudes comprising an integral aspect of class consciousness are attitudes towards some of the fundamental economic institutions of capitalism: private ownership of productive property, markets as arenas for securing economic outcomes, and working class rights to organise collectively and to strike. Second, the impact of class on these attitudes is moderated by organisational context and associated institutional norms.

Attitudes to economic institutions and class consciousness

To understand how attitudes to economic institutions are related to class consciousness, it is necessary to begin with the economic institutions of capitalism. Put abstractly, capitalism involves private ownership of productive property and the sale of wage labour by propertyless employees. Goods and services are produced for sale in the market and the price mechanism generates economic outcomes (Giddens 1990: 55). These conditions define two basic classes: capitalists who own productive property and employ wage labour; and workers who sell their labour power and are the direct producers. Under capitalism, the choices facing capitalists and workers about how to act to secure economic welfare or gain control over the production and distribution of goods and services depend on two things: ownership status with respect to private property, and institutionalised property rights associated with ownership status.

For capitalists, institutionalised rights attaching to property ownership enable all of the activities we commonly identify as being within the legitimate domain of owners and employers--for example, rights to decide how capital should be used in the market, to regulate and define the activities of employees, to appropriate the income that is seen to derive from property, and to make decisions about how this income is used. The rights and choices facing workers, on the other hand, derive from their lack of ownership of productive property, which compels them to work in the labour market; and the institutionalised property rights associated with employee status--most notably the formal freedom to work for any employer they want. Formal freedom is the defining institutional characteristic distinguishing workers from other direct producers, such as feudal serfs. Unlike serfs who were obligated to work for a specific lord, workers under capitalism have property rights in their own labour power; they are free to choose their employer (Roemer 1988: Ch 3).

Under pure capitalist economic arrangements, if not actually existing capitalism, propertyless individuals have to work for somebody, or rely on someone (a parent or spouse, for example) who works in the labour market. Formal freedom and direct producer status ensure that one set of distinctive working class strategies for achieving economic welfare typically involves collective organisation and the withdrawal of labour. Withdrawing labour is a distinctively working class strategy for securing economic welfare because as direct producers workers can severely disrupt the production process by refusing to work. …

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