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J o a c h i m Hirsch
T h e p o s t m o d e r n has a b a n d o n e d class. Class theory is no longer 'chic',
to say n o t h i n g of class politics. T h e d o m i n a n t social theories n o w
accept as fact w h a t democratic theory once treated as fiction: an
individualised 'civil society' where social inequalities are seen not so
m u c h a problem as a structural necessity a n d as providing the basic
incentive to c o m p e t e in a society primarily oriented to 'success' in the
global market. T h e prevailing a c a d e m i c interpretations of our era
certainly contradict the reality of a capitalism in w h i c h national a n d
international inequalities become ever more conspicuous, in w h i c h
neo-liberal strategies of crisis m a n a g e m e n t have not only deepened
existing forms of exploitation b u t generated new ones through 'rationalisation' a n d 'structural adjustment', a n d in w h i c h the pressure of
international a c c u m u l a t i o n increasingly works its u n m e d i a t e d effects
on national political a n d social processes (Hirsch 1 9 9 5 ) .
T h e removal of class from a c a d e m i c discourse, just w h e n globalisation is so palpably restructuring social relations a n d international
conflict in the context of economic d e p e n d e n c y a n d exploitation, has
certainly got something to do w i t h the state of class theory itself, not
least w i t h its traditional focus on class a n d class conflict within the
arena of the nation-state. T h e widespread d i m i n u t i o n of class themes
in postwar theoretical discourse h a d a lot to do w i t h the politicaleconomic structure of'Fordist' capitalism, w h i c h was distinguished by
its strong focus on domestic markets, the development of widely
inclusive mass production a n d consumption, the expanded d o m a i n of
national state regulation, sustained economic growth, a system of
progressive social security provision a n d finally, the institutionalisation
of class conflict. T h e vision of a state interventionist, egalitarian a n d
politically integrated society appeared to have obviated the question of



class struggle as a pressing social problem. It is clear today that this was
nothing more than an short episode in the history of capitalism.
Nevertheless, social transitions, crises a n d the conditions for social
reproduction have c h a n g e d so m u c h that class theory needs n e w
categories a n d perspectives. W h i l e M a r x in The Eighteenth Brumaire
long ago identified decisive contradictions in the relationship between
the class structure a n d institutional forms of liberal democratic politics,
these appeared in s o m e w a y to be resolved by the socially co-operative
arrangements of Fordism. T h e revolutionary a n d reforming struggle of
the w o r k i n g class, from w h i c h Fordism emerged, m a y be understood
as society's reaction to self-destructive tendencies inherent to capital, as
Polanyi ( 1 9 9 0 ) suggested. T h i s illustrates the paradoxical situation
whereby the class struggle, as it were, 'rescued' capitalism. Today, the
problem o f social c o n t i n u i t y in reaction to the self-destructiveness of
capitalist m a r k e t economies is posed in renewed a n d sharper form,
following the crisis of Fordism, global capitalist restructuring, a n d the
withering of traditional labour movements.
T h e existence of liberal democratic institutions a n d procedures at
the level of the nation-state was an essential precondition for the
labour movement's 'reformist' struggles. A relatively closed a n d secure
national society also b e c a m e an unspoken basis for most liberal d e m o c ratic theory. It m a d e the notion of a clear relationship between those
governing a n d those governed - voters a n d their representatives conceivable, l e n d i n g significance to concepts such as 'participation' a n d
'democratic legitimation' ( H e l d 1 9 9 1 ) . A democratic process w h i c h
can e m p o w e r citizens a n d ensure popular control over political institutions is, in p r i n c i p l e , possible o n l y w h e n social a n d political
m e m b e r s h i p is c l e a r l y defined a n d o n l y w h e n a d e m o c r a t i c
government possesses the capacity of a sovereign entity. T h e cornerstone of all legal, political a n d democratic theory, the concept of a
social contract, h a d its decisive justification a n d foundation in the
correspondence between a 'people' a n d a 'government'. O f course, the
reality of this supposed u n i t y of governed a n d governing has never fully
materialised. It has always been true that m a n y of those living within
a state's boundaries never h a d more than formal access to civil rights,
that the possibilities for political co-operation were limited by social
irregularities a n d relations of economic control a n d that the scope for
state action w a s restricted by economic power structures. Moreover, as
the politics of each nation-state h a d consequences beyond their
borders, internal social transitions were also d e t e r m i n e d by international power relations.



But the liberal democratic assumption of a system of nation-states is

clearly u n d e r m i n e d w h e n subjects cannot vote on political decisions
because they d o not have rights of citizenship; w h e n people live outside
state borders; or w h e n the relevant decisions do not fall w i t h i n the
institutional remit of the nation-state. It w o u l d appear that the process
of e c o n o m i c globalisation a n d the c o n c o m i t a n t structural transformation of the nation-state have finally p u t an end to w h a t was at all
credible in liberal democratic theory. Categories such as 'the people,
'the e l e c t o r a t e ' , ' r e s p o n s i b i l i t y ' , ' p a r t i c i p a t i o n ' b e c o m e d e e p l y
problematic ( H e l d 1 9 9 1 : 1 9 7 ) . ' M e m b e r s h i p ' - whether it is w i t h i n a
powerful interest g r o u p , a security enclave, the richest segments of
society, or even a c o m m u n i t y club or cultural grouping - becomes
increasingly i n d e t e r m i n a t e at both national a n d international levels.
T h e social structure of 'post-Fordism' is m a r k e d b y the link between
growing social division at the national level a n d the expanding
movements o f refugees a n d emigration internationally (Narr/Schubert
1994: 74ff). As a consequence, the notion of a u n i t a r y national society
is increasingly invalidated. M o r e than ever, claims for n a t i o n h o o d a n d
c o m m u n i t y cannot conceal the extent to w h i c h their own material
bases have c o m e into question. T h e s e developments appear to the
indefatigable positivists of m a i n s t r e a m sociology as some a u t o n o m o u s
process of 'individualisation', 'multiculturalism' or a 'pluralisation of
lifestyles'. In contrast, a critical perspective requires an appreciation
that these developments are rooted not so m u c h in the self-defining
behaviour of individuals, or in a generalisation of postmodern values,
as in the d y n a m i c process of global accumulation a n d the massive
restructuring that is b o u n d u p w i t h it.
T h e transformation of w o r k i n g relations is crucial. T h e process of
rationalisation set in motion to bring order to the crisis of Fordism
resulted, in most advanced capitalist countries, in a degree of structural
long-term u n e m p l o y m e n t w h i c h w o u l d earlier have been ruled o u t as
destabilising of the liberal democratic political system. T h e reason for
this development lies in the fact that the traditional Keynesian mechanisms for global regulation no longer hold. A policy concerned principally w i t h increasing the value of capital assets a n d securing international competitiveness must consciously a n d strategically factor in mass
u n e m p l o y m e n t in spite of all rhetorical assurances to the contrary.
Ultimately, it serves to break resistance to the widespread restructuring
of the production process. However, the greater the growth in
u n e m p l o y m e n t a n d the loosening of the social security system, the less
likely it is that social provision will be able to shelter the so-called



'victims of modernisation' w h o have been left out of work. M a r g i n a l

w o r k a n d u n e m p l o y m e n t become ever more associated w i t h material
deprivation. T h e p e r m a n e n t split between e m p l o y e d a n d u n e m p l o y e d
has become as striking a feature of society as the division between privileged elite employees a n d marginalised casual workers.
'Deregulation is the antidote w i d e l y proposed by economic 'experts'.
W h a t is intended is the loosening or dismantling of tariffs a n d legal
restraints, the direct abolition of standardised work practices in addition
to an indirect deregulation of e m p l o y m e n t relations by means of a
growing disparity in pay a n d increased pressure for mobility. T h i s
strategy aims to boost profits through a marked decrease in average net
income a n d the intensification of work; in other words, a fundamental
redistribution of social wealth. Whatever the 'success' of this restructuring, its recognised consequence in every case is the expansion of the
industrial reserve a r m y a n d intensification of social divisions.
T h e effects of rationalisation a n d deregulation set by the w o r l d
m a r k e t are manifest in an industrial ' h u m a n resource' strategy less
concerned w i t h a stable core workforce than with an ever more mobile
a n d easily serviceable 'flexible core labour reserve', w h i c h m a y be
s u p p l e m e n t e d b y short or part-time employees, by subcontracted firms
or b y personnel supplied b y e m p l o y m e n t agencies. D r a w i n g on labour
from c o m p a n i e s operating in low w a g e areas reinforces this trend.
Recourse to 'just-in-time' production methods - involving e c o n o m i cally d e p e n d e n t service a n d supply subcontractors operating w i t h tight
cost margins - increases the n u m b e r s of poorly paid a n d socially
uninsured workers. T h e difference in the level of security enjoyed by
the marginalised, mass workforce dependent on low pay, a n d the
relatively privileged core of workers, in regular e m p l o y m e n t , is
gradually being eroded. T h e heavily regulated a n d relatively secure
e m p l o y m e n t status enjoyed by so m a n y qualified males d u r i n g the
Fordist phase of metropolitan capitalism has been steadily disappearing. All workers stand in an increasingly comparable relation to a
'productivity' a n d 'quality' d y n a m i c w h i c h is u n d e r p i n n e d by enforced
pressure for loyalty, service a n d conformity (Elam 1 9 9 4 ; T o m a n e y
Evidence of marginalisation m a y be seen, for example, in the rapid
increase in the n u m b e r s of G e r m a n workers w i t h o u t e m p l o y m e n t
guarantees or social security provisions. T h e p h e n o m e n o n of the 'new
self-sufficiency', i.e. a shift from formal salaried w o r k to selfe m p l o y m e n t brought on by the pressure of rationalisation a n d mass
u n e m p l o y m e n t , m u s t be added to the picture. T h i s self-employment is



associated not o n l y w i t h d e m a n d i n g performance a n d m o b i l i t y

requirements, but also w i t h an increasing frequency of e m p l o y m e n t related injuries. I n c o m e for almost half of those self-employed is,
moreover, below the national average in Germany.
T h e worsening economic, social a n d political inequalities of postFordist a c c u m u l a t i o n , a n d the greater dependency, pauperisation a n d
political repression w h i c h correspond to these conditions, intensify the
pressures of enforced emigration a n d refugee movements. Despite
increased control m e c h a n i s m s , m u c h of this migration flows into
expanding cities a n d provides the market there with cheap, possibly
illegal labour, deprived o f a d e q u a t e political a n d social rights (Castells
1 9 9 4 ) . T h e fact that international capital was always founded on
' c o m b i n e d ' forms of p r o d u c t i o n , c o n t r o l a n d e x p l o i t a t i o n
(Balibar/Wallerstein 1 9 9 2 : 215ff) becomes even more apparent in the
urban centres in the w a k e of globalisation.
T h e resultant splintering of the social structure is such that the
existing m o d e l s of class a n d strata no longer have a n y great explanatory
efficacy. Faced w i t h the divisions between multinational a n d local
c o m p a n i e s , pioneering high-tech firms a n d d e p e n d e n t suppliers,
specialist service providers a n d traditional branches of i n d u s t r y
threatened w i t h extinction, it is ever more difficult to speak of capital
ownership itself as giving rise to a single class. At the same time,
marginalised workers in their varying forms, together with the apparently 'self-employed', are growing in numbers even as a relatively privileged stratum of highly qualified a n d remunerated employees, w o r k i n g
internationally in the high-tech, finance a n d m a n a g e m e n t sectors,
comes into being. S u c h a large chasm has opened between those core
employees in international m a n a g e m e n t , c o m m u n i c a t i o n s , financial
a n d service sectors, on the one hand, a n d the rest of the traditional
workforce, the semi-sufficient a n d self-employed, those farmers not
already ruined by agricultural big business, those on low-pay, part-time
a n d job-share schemes a n d the world of i m m i g r a n t s a n d black labour,
on the other, that the difference between working-class a n d m i d d l e class has b e c o m e more tenuous.
T h i s does not, of course, mean that collectivities w h i c h have defined
themselves through similarities in their everyday activities, lifestyle a n d
perceptions of the w o r l d will disappear. In some social science research,
particularly in the field of voting behaviour a n d consumer trends, it
has become conventional to distinguish between different social
'milieux' instead of classes or strata. Bourdieu's notion of 'habitus' is
one example: the m e t h o d a n d style by w h i c h people understand a n d



form their social existence in a w a y w h i c h , t h o u g h not w h o l l y

independent from material circumstances, is actively constructed by
specific socio-cultural conditions. Interestingly, the concept of milieu
can be traced back to w o r k carried out b y the commercial market
research a g e n c y ( S I N U S ) w h i c h d i s t i n g u i s h e d w o r k i n g m i l i e u x
according to the following categories: 'new', 'distinguished conservative', 'technocratic liberal', 'alternative', 'lower m i d d l e class', a milieu
'of social mobility', a 'hedonistic milieu', a 'traditional' a n d , finally, a
milieu 'without traditions'. In contrast another research group led b y
M i c h a e l Vester divided society into a different typology of milieux:
'progressive, successfully modern', 'the classless modern', 'the sceptical
modern employee' a n d a 'contented established conservative centre' - a
group w h i c h corresponds to roughly a quarter of the population
(Vester 1 9 9 3 ; c o m p a r e Schulze 1 9 9 2 ) . Both these investigations c o m e
to the conclusion that society is polarising towards the top a n d the
bottom, p e r m i t t i n g the emergence of a w i d e range in the m i d d l e w h i c h
is highly diverse in its social practices a n d conditions.
It is questionable w h e t h e r such analyses possess a n y validity beyond
their p r i n c i p a l a i m - p r o v i d i n g statistics a b o u t group-specific
consumption a n d voting patterns (compare Ritsert 1 9 8 8 a ) . Motivated
by the objective of generating commercially applicable data about
social a n d political behaviour, researchers cannot avoid distilling out
relatively stable 'milieux'. T h e question arises, however, whether these
milieux are not m e r e intellectual constructs w h i c h only superficially
describe the real fragmentation of society. T h i s is suggested by the fact
that i m m i g r a n t a n d refugee populations, w h o are neither entitled to
vote nor offer strong consumer profiles, are as a rule excluded from
such investigations. A n d just how little can be understood about
c o n t e m p o r a r y social p a t t e r n s from these c o n c e p t u a l i s a t i o n s is
indicated by the increasing unreliability of their election forecasts.
Nevertheless the basic observation of such research - that the social
structure is b e c o m i n g ever more differentiated due to economic shifts
without, however, being s i m p l y defined b y an abstract concept of
'individualisation' - remains correct. Objective disparities in socioeconomic conditions, t h o u g h expressed in different w a y s socioculturally, remain decisive for understanding a n d social positioning. In
view of the growing commercialisation of lifestyles, social differentiation theory - the a t t e m p t to demonstrate social belonging a n d differentiation by m e a n s of objective consumption - appears ever more
important. W e a r i n g particular brand names becomes an expensive
passport to social inclusion.



Social m i l i e u x w h i c h c o m e into being like this, however, are not

independent of their underlying class structure - in the sense of
'objective' material conditions a n d possibilities - although they are less
and less defined by these alone. T h i s is w h y the concept of a 'pluralistic
class society' describes social reality more adequately than talk of an
'individualised' society 'beyond class a n d social rank' (Beck 1 9 8 6 ) .
Nevertheless, between socially advanced 'boutique bourgeois' workers,
on the one h a n d , a n d exploited low-cost workers or refugees forced
into the u n d e r g r o u n d e c o n o m y (whether self-employed or officially
remunerated) on the other, there still exists an important cultural a n d
social divide.
T h e notion of a 'two thirds society' describes a situation in w h i c h an
impoverished a n d socially excluded 'third' of society stands in contrast
to the comfortable majority w h i c h politically dictates crucial social
developments on the basis of its numerical supremacy. T h i s description
is misleading not o n l y because it still posits the existence of relatively
h o m o g e n o u s social groups but also because it misrepresents the ratios
involved. W h a t Robert Reich sees as a split in U S society between an
elite twenty percent a n d a d o w n w a r d l y mobile, or already m a r g i n alized, eighty percent, is probably closer to reality (Reich, 1 9 9 1 ) .
T h e m o d e l of c o n s u m p t i o n typical of Fordism is placed under severe
pressure by these developments. Increased differentiations in wealth,
enforced b y conspicuous displays of social difference, impact upon
consumption patterns. M a s s consumption is nevertheless a notable
feature of post-Fordist capitalism. C o n s u m p t i o n patterns a n d lifestyles
become increasingly differentiated as a result of material inequality a n d
a marketing strategy w h i c h seeks to overcome market saturation by
individualising a n d pluralising the products on offer. T h i s differentiation is m a d e possible by m e a n s of flexible post-Fordist mass
production, w h i c h puts the producer in a position to reproduce the
same product in a virtually infinite variety of styles. C o n s u m p t i o n
shifts its focus, in the m a i n , towards profitable capitalist goods a n d
services, videos a n d computers, electronic c o m m u n i c a t i o n s , clothing,
fast food a n d cars, whilst collective consumer interests such as housing,
health, culture a n d education, the environment a n d so forth become
more restricted a n d u n e c o n o m i c thanks to the dismantling of state
social provision. C a r ownership can easily become b o u n d up with
broader living conditions, so that the attempt to escape poorer conditions results in congestion a n d pollution. A m o n g s t an apparently
endless variety of products, a new form of social deprivation is
spreading - the lack of collective goods - which obviously affects most



of all those w h o do not have sufficient i n c o m e to purchase products

a n d services in the market.
T h e cycle of c o n s u m p t i o n remains unbroken; it follows a logic
w h i c h m e a n s ever m o r e w o r k in order to b u y ever less useful, a n d also
ever more d a m a g i n g , goods (of w h i c h the private car is the symbol par
excellence). However, a contradiction arises as a growing portion of
society c o m e to exist at the fringes of this hi-tech consumer w o r l d as a
result of their low pay a n d u n e m p l o y m e n t . W h i l s t one group works
longer a n d more intensively, in order to c o n s u m e more post-Fordist
products of conspicuous c o n s u m p t i o n , the other works less and less to
b u y post-Fordist mass products. Italian designer clothing labels a n d
their H o n g Kong or C h i n e s e imitations exemplify this difference.

Capitalist society is fundamentally determined by the contradictory

interrelation of classes a n d a market-based society. In effect, this means
that social status is still decided as m u c h by the individual's objective
position in the production process as by his or her standing as a free
and equal subject of the market. U n d e r the conditions of post-Fordist
restructuring, this relationship takes on a particular d y n a m i c . T h e
transition to a service sector society means a further push in the
direction of an all-embracing capitalism. As the class compromises
brokered b y the trade unions a n d the 'people's parties' (Volksparteien)
continue to disintegrate a n d as the socioeconomic layers of society drift
further apart, the d o m i n a n c e of the market has become more apparent.
T h e market value of an individual's labour is b e c o m i n g increasingly
decisive, a n d w i t h o u t private access to capital, important products of
high c o n s u m e r i s m a n d thus social recognition remain out of reach.
T h e tendency is for each individual to become an entrepreneur, even if
only as a purveyor of his or her own labour. W h o e v e r fails to provide
the market w i t h the required achievements is threatened by social
marginalisation or descent into one of the m a n y a n d diverse subcultural milieux.
T h e prevailing sociological term used to describe this process is
individualisation (see especially Beck 1 9 8 6 a n d 1 9 9 3 ) . As w e have
already established, this does not m e a n that collective social groupings
no longer exist. Rather, the term implies that these groupings are
subject to increasing differentiation. T h i s development is not new; it
was actually a fundamental characteristic of Fordist capitalism. Indeed,
it is rather undergoing a certain degree of accentuation a n d modifi-



cation. T h e d i s m a n t l i n g of welfare-state security, the increasing

commercialisation of social relations a n d the fragmentation of society
c o m b i n e w i t h intensified economic pressure a n d ever greater social
inequality. Seen in abstract terms, individualisation determines the life
of a single female c o m p u t e r specialist just as m u c h as that of an illegal
i m m i g r a n t w h o sells flowers a n d newspapers to p u b customers at
night. However, their respective social opportunities differ tremendously. Yet even the possibilities opened by gaining professional qualifications appear in a different light w h e n certificates offer no more than
an entrance ticket to a precarious j o b market. These prospects look just
as poor for a taxi-driving sociologist as for an academically qualified
cleaner. T h e motorcycle messenger, seemingly the very e m b o d i m e n t of
m o b i l i t y a n d freedom, is not merely w o r k i n g in an extremely
unhealthy, rather dangerous a n d modestly paid job, but is also exposed
to e n o r m o u s risks in old age a n d in the case of sickness.
W i t h o u t doubt, the progressive implementation a n d expansion of
market-based society a n d the dissolution of tightly defined classes a n d
social affiliations are raising individual opportunities a n d freedom of
choice, w h e n c o m b i n e d w i t h a dose of good fortune a n d the ability to
achieve. At least in developed urban areas, relative prosperity a n d the
welfare security w o n by past struggles have allowed the struggle for
sheer survival a n d the battle against material w a n t to recede into the
background of society's general consciousness. At the same time,
conventional socio-cultural c o m m i t m e n t s have been w e a k e n e d by
accelerated capitalist modernisation a n d this has contributed to the
process. T h e observation that subjective lifestyle shaping, self-styling
a n d 'experience orientation' are becoming more important is certainly
not totally m i s g u i d e d . Nevertheless, the catchword 'experience society'
('Erlebnisgesellschafi, Schulze 1 9 9 2 ) is misleading, a n d not just because
it obfuscates the underlying economic processes. If shaping one's
individual lifestyle is b e c o m i n g more important, this is not achieved,
today at least, in the spirit of creative self-determination, but rather as
a result of a passive response to an ever more differentiated a n d aggressively marketed capitalist supply of goods a n d services w h i c h flexible
specialised production has generated. T h e subjective 'aestheticisation
of everyday life' (Schulze 1 9 9 2 ) shows clear signs of a 'totalising
aesthetic of the product'. 'Experience' is above all consumption,
empirical investigations have shown. T h u s the individualisation a n d
pluralisation of society not only remain entrenched within capitalist
one-dimensionality, but this one-dimensionality actually appears to be
strengthened b y it. T h e pluralisation or individualisation of society



must not be understood in the final instance as an objective trend, but

must instead be seen to have arisen out of changed societal perceptions,
w h e r e the individual's power to shape his or her own destiny appears to
be e n h a n c e d despite the persistence o f social inequality a n d traditional
socio-cultural affiliations falling by the wayside. It is not least the
consequence o f political a n d ideological developments in w h i c h the
capitalist unravelling of institutionalised class compromises plays just
as big a role as the critique l a u n c h e d by the social protest m o v e m e n t s
against bureaucratic a n d standardised mass consumer society. T h e
existence of a neoliberal h e g e m o n y since the collapse of the Fordist
social project is pivotal, in w h i c h capitalist restructuring a n d social
critique have b o t h played an i m p o r t a n t role. T h i s complex of
economic, political a n d ideological processes a n d struggles contributes
considerably to the legitimation of current societal upheaval.
Real freedom always presupposes a certain degree of equality a n d
security w h i c h can be translated into a materially founded c o m m o n
c o m m u n i t y . At the s a m e time it includes the right to a n d the possibility of difference, for e x a m p l e in relations between the sexes or
through the expression of different cultural orientations a n d ways of
living. T h e contradictory relationship between freedom, equality a n d
difference is b e c o m i n g ever more critical in the process of radical
escalation towards an entirely market-based society (Balibar 1 9 9 3 :
99ff). T h e creation of nationally b o u n d , a n d thus relatively h o m o g e neous, societies was an i m p o r t a n t prerequisite for capitalist develo p m e n t . N o w it is b e c o m i n g apparent that the growth of a global
capitalist e c o n o m y is b e g i n n i n g to reverse this process, i.e. m o n e y
relations are not o n l y u n d e r m i n i n g their own natural foundations, but
also the social preconditions w h i c h have existed until now. T h e disappearance of a ' c o m m u n i t y ' - w h i c h under prevailing economic conditions has to discipline a n d 'normalise' its members through the application of force - can indeed be greeted as a m o v e m e n t towards liberation. T h e irony, however, is that those w h o are driving the restructuring process w i t h such determination are precisely those w h o
consider this d e v e l o p m e n t to signal at the same time a dangerous
erosion of values.
T h e relationship between political democracy a n d economic class
structure thereby takes on a new a n d explosive character. If one
assumes that capitalist society derives its staying power from the fact
that political a n d social forms are developed by society to preserve itself
a n d its ecological foundations against the threat posed by commodification, a n d this presupposes, in turn, the existence of m i n i m a l d e m o c -



ratic structures a n d meaningful participation, then the consequences

of globalisation are s o m e w h a t alarming. T h e y point above all to the
u n d e r m i n i n g of d e m o c r a c y at its very foundations: at the level of the
nation-state. T h e danger of societal self-destruction at the hands of
society's own e c o n o m i c d y n a m i c is ever present today - catastrophe
after catastrophe, global environmental disaster, mass poverty, military
conflict a n d latent or open civil war are all evidence of this fact.
T h e b u r n i n g question remains that of finding a foundation for an
emancipatory, democratic social movement, whose horizons extend
beyond factional a n d defensive warfare. T h i s assumes, of course, that
opposition from the exploited a n d oppressed w i t h i n a globalised
capitalism will c o n t i n u e to be characterised by partial, isolated forms
of resistance, w h i c h often pit groups in struggle against one another.
Chances seem slim that such struggles could be unified into a c o m m o n
front against international capital. To conceive of liberation in terms of
an heroic final battle between opposing classes w o u l d certainly be to
repeat a mistake. Real revolutionary processes have little to do w i t h
masses united under a General staff, or w i t h the expression of simple
a n t a g o n i s m s , b u t are rather produced w h e n contradictions a n d
conflicts are distilled: they c o m e about w h e n varied interests a n d
oppositions disregard existing differences to form a movement. T h i s
does not take the form of an idealized process of unification, but is an
historical process in w h i c h people reflect on their different experiences,
build understandings w i t h others, a n d m a k e difficult compromises.
Central to this process is that people struggle, that a rebellious
consciousness is sustained a n d prevented from regressing into nationalism or sexism.
As the grip of global capitalism tightens, posing new challenges to
those seeking to beat an independent path in national politics a n d
development, the prospects for struggles w h i c h confine themselves to
the national arena d w i n d l e . Precisely because capital is organized
systemically on an international scale, emancipatory possibilities today
require the cultivation of a new internationalism; an internationalism
w h i c h , if o n l y because the scope of state power is dwindling, must be
based on organisational forms that are a u t o n o m o u s a n d capable of
extending solidarity to overcome conditions of social a n d political
fragmentation. Restricted to the national state level, social movements
fail not merely because of this reduced sphere of action, but also



because a nationally oriented politics runs the risk of embroiling itself

in spatial competition w h i c h threatens to deepen inequalities between
O f course, objective c o m m o n a l i t i e s such as exploitation a n d deprivation are a basic prerequisite for social movements a n d struggles. But
experience of these social conditions is extremely diverse, particularly
at the international level, a n d movements only become powerful once
they succeed in developing convincing concrete Utopias. If a n e w class
politics is to e m e r g e u n d e r these conditions it will develop on the basis,
not so m u c h of objectively given experiences, but rather, of a politically
constructed vision a n d project. W h a t is necessary, first a n d foremost, is
a search for visions of a better w o r l d in w h i c h the bonds of dependency, instrumentalism a n d extra-human modes of coordination m a y
be broken. Traditional models of social democracy offer no answer to
this problem. It is no longer merely a question of material prosperity
a n d distribution, b u t also one of freedom a n d h u m a n dignity. A new
'International' m u s t therefore take the form of a radical m o v e m e n t for
democracy a n d h u m a n rights. Such a movement can develop most
q u i c k l y through a growing network of a u t o n o m o u s l y organised a n d
internationally active organisations a n d groups of organisations. T h i s
has already been witnessed in certain fields, such as a r o u n d ecological,
women's, peace a n d h u m a n rights concerns (see Hirsch 1995a: 183ff
a n d Hirsch 1 9 9 5 b ) . W h i l s t starting points for an international
m o v e m e n t are already evident, they are still largely absent from trade
union politics. O f vital importance to these new organisations a n d
projects is their a u t o n o m y from the national state a n d party apparatus
w h i c h is necessarily subject to the logic of the competition a n d
T h i s n e w politics called for here d e m a n d s a recognition of existing
differences - diverse historical traditions a n d ways of living as well as
divergence of material interests. Given increasing social inequality,
stark disparities in material standards of living, a n d often conflicting
political frameworks, a new internationalism will be possible only after
dispelling the illusion of a c o m m o n ground, so that diverse starting
points a n d interests m a y be appreciated a n d respected. If interests a n d
goals are not identical, critical engagement over differences a n d the
building of c o m p r o m i s e is required. T h e success of this d y n a m i c
process requires, finally, that struggles are conducted in the first
instance locally. In s u m , it should be underlined that the question of
class theory a n d class politics has to be understood more than ever
using the Gramscian concepts of politics a n d hegemony. A revolu-


T H E S O C I A L I S T R E G I S T E R 1999

tionary m o v e m e n t should be seen, not as a simple class movement, b u t

as a process of b u i l d i n g a new h e g e m o n y w h i c h embraces very different
a n d of course conflicting interests a n d actors, w h i c h is rooted in
concrete experiences in alternative social practices, a n d w h i c h a i m s at
a thoroughly n e w a n d still u n k n o w n m o d e l of a truly free society. W e
cannot, of course, look to a n y narrowly defined proletarian party
process - a notion that was in a n y case questioned from the start - as
our model. W h a t that means in concrete political a n d organizational
terms remains open to further theoretical consideration a n d , above all,
to a critical e n g a g e m e n t w i t h concrete movements in struggle a r o u n d
the world: from M e x i c a n Zapatistas a n d Brazilian landless people, to
French transport workers or airline pilots. A totally new conception of
both the form a n d content of revolutionary politics is needed.
As social polarization has dramatically increased in the w a k e of
capitalist crisis a n d restructuring, a reinstatement of class struggle to
the central place it once held within critical theory is needed. A theory
of society w i t h critical a n d revolutionary aspirations must be capable
of adapting to the changing historical circumstances it seeks to understand. Class politics in globalised capitalism cannot be expected to
conform to models generated out of the historical experiences of the
nineteenth a n d early twentieth century. T h e aim is no longer one of
liberation from poverty t h r o u g h industrialisation a n d technical
progress s p a w n e d by capitalist development. T h e problem is not the
'fettering', but rather, the catastrophic liberation, of productive forces.
State power structures are characterised m u c h less by the existence of
opposing c a m p s than by the increasing totalitarianism of neoliberal
one-dimensionality. To this extent the 'democratic question' is more
central n o w than ever before. Given the technical possibilities available
to h u m a n i t y , social emancipation today must refocus on the task of
abolishing the conditions in w h i c h the individual exists as a wretched,
degraded a n d servile being, to quote M a r x once more. However, w h a t
this m e a n s practically is rather more complicated than M a r x imagined.
T h e Utopia w h i c h was once called socialism or c o m m u n i s m has
disappeared just as m u c h as its concrete historical manifestations. It
must be recognised that social liberation does not mean the implementation of a ready-made social model. Social liberation must rather
consist in creating space for the realisation of, not one, but a multiplicity of different life-plans a n d conceptions of society. Such objectives are not served by a n y traditional concept of a homogeneous class
movement. T h e y m u s t be achieved through a multiplicity of social
forms. It m u s t be realised that capitalism, which is only n o w showing



its true colours, cannot be shaped, formed or harnessed to collective

purposes. D e m o c r a t i c politics, if it is to earn its n a m e , must a i m not
just to modify existing societal conditions, but actually to remove
t h e m . It is a matter of revolutionising economic, social a n d political
relations in their entirety in a w a y w h i c h w o u l d transcend all traditional notions o f a socialist revolution.
At the same time, conditions for such a revolution have never been
so diverse. In the centres of capitalism at least, the option of a political
revolution along traditional lines is neither plausible nor desirable. In
contradistinction to m a n y peripheral countries, it is not a question
there of creating the economic a n d social preconditions for a reasonably
functional liberal democracy. W h a t is required instead is a revolution in
life patterns, social relations, modes of consumption, ways of working
and conceptions of progress. At the same time, capitalist state rule has
become all-inclusive, pervading all aspects of life, a n d has thus become
progressively 'totalitarian'. Precisely as a result of this, it has become
technically a n d politically vulnerable to an extent never witnessed
before. Elections to positions of state power do not have a n y of the
revolutionary potential that mass acts of refusal do, actions w h i c h reject
day-to-day conformity w i t h the system, based on a practical awareness
that not everything needs to be tolerated. It must be understood that
capital is not constituted by objects or people, but is rather a set of social
relations in w h i c h everyone is involved, a n d which everyone reproduces
through their everyday practical behaviour. T h e state a n d political
parties form part of these relations. Globalisation and neoliberalism are
not simply imposed on us from outside. T h e y are produced and
stabilised by everyone through everyday practices, ways of living, modes
of consumption, relations between the sexes and current value systems.
As for effecting a radical change to this situation, the ruling engine of
economic a n d political development can be derailed more readily, the
more comprehensive a n d complicated its machinery becomes. A n d
through this very process, new a n d genuinely democratic politics a n d
institutions can be formed.
T h e contradiction inherent in talk of a 'class society w i t h o u t classes'
is only an apparent one. C a p i t a l i s m denotes a society in w h i c h
exploitative material relations a n d their attendant social conflicts
represent the m o t o r of development a n d structural change. T h i s is
particularly evident in the crisis of Fordism a n d subsequent global
restructuring. Analysis of capitalism must be class analysis (Ritsert,
1 9 8 8 b ) . At the s a m e t i m e , objective class conditions manifested in the
process of production a n d appropriation of societal surplus are being



overlaid b y a m u l t i p l i c i t y of cultural, ethnic, racial, national, gender

and social divisions a n d differences. T h i s is a fundamental characteristic of capitalist society, b u t in the current process of restructuring, it
is proving to have an even greater influence. T h i s is w h y material socioeconomic position provides ever fewer clues to social consciousness
a n d political behaviour. In terms of the distribution of individual
opportunities, class affiliation nevertheless does still have a profound
effect. But increasingly cultural a n d political relations are superseding
economic class position - exemplified b y the impact of the c o n s u m e r
a n d m e d i a industries a n d the structure of the international political
system - so that class is submerged ever more deeply beneath m u l t i p l e
layers of social relations a n d political consciousness, nearly b e y o n d the
point of recognition.
Seen in this light, an anti-capitalist revolution has perhaps never
been as attractive an option as it is today, particularly if it seeks to
incorporate broader social antagonisms such as relations between the
sexes a n d between h u m a n beings a n d nature. T h e globally networked
and technologically advanced capitalist system is not only always
teetering on the edge of crisis, but is also more economically a n d politically vulnerable than ever before. But taking advantage of this vulnerability will require overcoming capital's cultural hegemony. Today,
people appear less able than ever to look beyond their everyday breadand-butter social obligations, to develop a sense of the opportunities of
w h i c h they are continually stripped a n d to perceive the affront to
h u m a n d i g n i t y experienced every day within the lives t h e y are forced
to lead. T h e ideological h e g e m o n y of the capitalist w a y of life has
probably never been so anchored in our group consciousness as it is
today. Increasing social f r a g m e n t a t i o n c o m b i n e d w i t h g r o w i n g
inequalities at the national a n d international level do not necessarily
act to counter this hegemony. Indeed, these factors can actually consolidate its power in direct proportion to the level of general acceptance
that there is no alternative to current social relations.
A real revolution must therefore encompass more than social a n d the
political transformation: it must be a cultural revolution as well. T h i s
cannot m e a n the same thing everywhere, b u t at the same t i m e , m u c h
can be learned from the traditions a n d experiences of others. In this
way, the diversity, decentralization a n d multiplicity of struggles should
be seen as more than the unfortunate necessary result of diverse
economic a n d political structures; rather they are potentially positive
factors in the development of revolutionary theory through the
practical struggles of our time.



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