Academic Talk: An Expanded Marxist Approach


Academic Talk is an AWOL blog feature that steps out of the newsroom and into the classroom — highlighting theory’s relevance and manifestation in the country’s conversations.

In the latest New Left Review, London-based academic journal, Erik Olin Wright expands the scope of his Marxist critique — which has been an important citation for over three decades — and details why his analysis has particular importance in the present American idiom.

Wright’s work has principally exercised in the classical Marxist tradition, distilling class issues with mind to structured mechanisms of exploitation and domination. His new approach eschews a critique monopolized by classical currents, and instead fuses one together with stratification research and the Weberian perspective.

Stratification approach: a way of categorizing people by the material conditions in which they live: education, cultural capital, family backgrounds, and other social connections which manufacture class by inequitably dividing the finite resources, and conferring more power to certain jobs over others. Of course, the power enjoyed by those in the endowed stratum is dependent upon the poverty of the lower class.

Weberian Approach: This introduces the idea of Opportunity Hoarding — that is, the only way certain jobs sustain power is by excluding other from access. This can be achieved through requirements (entrance exams, tuition costs, risk-aversion to loans to lower-income people) and professional accreditations and licensing.

The first is simply causal: the rich are only rich because the poor are excluded from the resources. In the second, the advantages and disadvantages are a product of the way things are: the rich are rich because they have valuable attributes which the poor lack .

Wright notes that synthesizing classical Marxism with the stratification and Weberian theories carries special difficulties within each tradition. But instead of picking one, a more trenchant critique encompasses all three:

I now take the view that these different ways of analysing class can all potentially contribute to a fuller understanding by identifying different causal processes at work in shaping the micro- and macro- aspects of inequality in capitalist societies.

How the US industrial economy fits into all of this:

Socio-economic systems differ in the degree to which they constrain the rights and powers accompanying private ownership of the means of production, and thus in the nature of the class division between capitalists and workers. The US has long possessed among the weakest public regulations of capitalist property. This is reflected in a number of crucial characteristics: its very low minimum wage, allowing for higher rates of exploitation than would otherwise be possible; low rates of taxation on high incomes, which enable the wealthiest segments of the capitalist class to live in extraordinarily extravagant ways; weak unions and other forms of worker organization that could act as a counterweight to domination within production. The result is that, among developed capitalist countries the United States probably has the most polarized class division, viewed along the axis of exploitation and domination.

Using the Wright pan-Marxist approach to identify the country’s structural-industrial economic division, Is there any hope in reviving a truly robust public sector, and a well-planned, more equitable social democracy?