Is Karl Marx concept of the class struggle still up to date?

Taken from we are the 99 % percent
Taken from we are the 99 % percent

During the last financial crises Karl Marx and his thoughts regain a lot of popularity. For instance the Occuppy Wallstreet slogan “We are the 99%” refers directly to his concept of the class struggle and supported the movement by organising their world wide protest. His thoughts and concepts seems to be embedded in the minds of the people, but are his concepts still fertile from an academic point of view?

In sociology Marx concept of the class conflict and with it the two classes of Bourgeoisie and proletariat stands beside a lot of other concepts to analyse the social structure (networked with: is diem25 really a democratic movement) Lately the British BBC started the “Great British Class Survey”, which they announce as ground breaking science. This maybe right form a British perspective, but from a German perspective the theory behind the survey is old fashioned. There survey is mainly based on the theoretical framework of Pierre Borudieu and his neo-marxist concept of social, cultural and economic capital. In Germany his concepts were adopted much earlier for instance by Gerhard Schulze in his theory of the “Erlebnisgesellschaft” (experience society) published in 1992.

Slavoj Zizek 2012
Slavoj Zizek 2012

This and several other theories compete in Germany with Karl Marx over one hundred and fifty years old concept of the class struggle. So judged by the criteria of actuality and differentiation the question, if Marx theory is still up to date must be negated. But how does it look like if it is judged by its power of explanation? The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek argues in “The year of dangerous dreams” for the maintain of Karl Marx concept of the class struggle. There he shows how class struggle empowers our recent politics.

He starts with Karl Marx logic of representation which is based on the phenomenon that political representation never directly mirrors the social structure. Using the Party of Order as an example Marx explains that the Bourgeoisie is constituted by at least two factions, each represented by a political party. Both share the interest to maintain there monopole of power. To hide this shared interest they play the game of a fake conflict.

In Germany you can see this mechanism in the conflict between the two great political parties, the CDU and the SPD. Observing that these two parties work quite good together gives a first hint that the conflict between them is just a fake. But there names for the social structure unveils the disguise. While the SPD refers to the old concept of the industrial society the CDU refers to concept which they call Chancengesellschaft (chance society). On first glance these concepts do not have very much in common but both share that they do not have a proper relation to reality. The industry and with it the concept of the industrial society plays – in contradiction to the common sense – only a minor role in the German economic structure (only about 25 % of the GDP). The same counts for the chances of raging to rich. These decline year by year. So the fake of the conflict between the two parties is concentrated in the fake of the concepts by which they settle their conflict.

But because this conflict is their source of power it is very important for them. As Žižek argues Napoleon Bonaparte discovered his own interest, the representation of himself, is represented by the La Bohème. This conglomarate of vagbounds, literati, mountebanks, discharges jailbirds was refused by all classes, so they were forced to represent themselves as individuals. This representation of the ego made it possible for Napoleon to declare that he stands above all class interests while he refers simultaneously to the concrete silent and subaltern class of small holding peasants.

Napoleon (1812)
Napoleon (1812)

Žižek summarises Napoleons sources of power as “standing above all classes, shifting between them; direct reliance on the abject reminder of all classes (the la Bohème) ; plus the ultimate reference to the class of those who are unable to act as a collective agent demanding political representation (the small holding peasants)” (22).

Nowadays in Germany the two great parties have divided Napoleons sources of power between them. While the SPD refers to the subaltern class of the industrial worker the CDU refers to the venturer who is not a member of any class but is seeking for his chance to become a member. This strategy works quite good for the CDU but quite bad for the SPD. This is because the CDU refers to a meaningless term which you can apply to any society while the SPD refers to the shrinking class of the industrial worker (less than 20 % of the German employs).

The paradox of this concept to refer simultaneously to any society and to specific group concentrates Žižek in the conclusion of the “impossibility of pure representation” (22). Because this representation of a society as a whole is impossible this kind of representation privileges secretly a certain class. Seeing the concept of the Chancengesellschaft from this perspective this concept privileges the people who are able to take their chances, which are regularly the rich.

The concept of impossibility of pure representation unveils the disguise of the class conflict between both political parties. As Žižek continues this antagonism is normally disguised by the projection of a foreign intruder. While the SPD prefers the kapitalistische Heuschrecke (the capitalist locust), which kills the German industry for its own profit, the CDU prefers the immigrants who deny the German Leitkultur (guiding culture). This point is Žižeks main argument to maintain by the concept of the class struggle.

“Critics of marxism who insist that there are never just two classes opposed in social life thus missed the point: it is precisely because there are never only two opposed classes that there is class struggle” (24).


model of the social structure of the network society
Model of the social structure of the network society

To underline this argument he shows several bad consequences of this political practice. One is the political mentality of the middle class. On the one hand they do not want that their way of life – to be left to work and live in peace – is disturbed by political struggle. On the other hand they are the main supporters of right-wing political movements like the AFD (Alternative for Germany). The second consequence is the emerge of the new figure of the technocratic and financial “expert who is able to rule in a neutral post-ideological way, without representing any specific interest” (24).

But where in this argumentation is the usual suspect of marxism, the big capital? Žižek puts it back by saying that it is hidden behind a series of displacements mainly based on the disguise of political struggles behind cultural struggles. And if you take a look on the cultural representations of the German political parties, this concept becomes much clearer. While the CDU prefers the popularised classical music of David Garrett the SPD prefers the mainstream pop of Dick Brave and the Backbeats. As the booking of these two famous German artists show, the political parties invest a lot of money in this popular cultural struggle. And this is the way how the economy determines the overall social structure. It determines the way how politics organises their source of power, the representation of conflicts.

To subsume Žižek argumentation the power of politics is based on the class struggle between the upper and lower class while the economy determines the overall structure by controlling the way how politics organises the struggle.

This power of explanation makes Marx concept still fertile from an academic point of view. While the more differentiated other concepts produce better pictures of the society, Marx concept explains how power is executed even in the Erlebnisgesellschaft. But especially in the UK and the US Marxism has developed much further. As Manuel Castells in his really groundbreaking work shows, in our globalised network societies other sources of power like independent media and social movements are able to competed the capatilistic way of regulation. Although Castells argumentation goes much further than Karl Marx, his concept is – by saying that all elements of the social structure are folded into each other – although based on the interdependency of economy and politics.

© Philipp Adamik 2014

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Litrature: Slovoj Žižek (2012): The year of dreaming dangerously. Cornwell.



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