- Arjun Sengupta
Images from Google, Reuters
It is often said that the need for social sciences is felt most sharply in periods of social crisis. When established patterns of social life are suddenly disrupted, when social relations we take for granted come under severe strain, when settled ideas seem inadequate for making sense of the drastic changes unfolding before our eyes, understanding how society works becomes an urgent task. The current COVID-19 crisis, given the scale and depth of the disruption it has caused, is surely such a period of upheaval. Across the world, the disease and efforts to contain it have wreaked havoc on the lives of people. Sharply rising rates of infection and mortality, unprepared healthcare systems straining to cope with the disease, and suspension of normal economic activity has resulted in acute uncertainty and distress worldwide.
The pandemic has pushed the question of inequality to the forefront. The shutting down of economies has devastated livelihoods and taken an inordinate toll on the poor. In India, the desperation of millions of migrant workers struggling to reach home presents a stark contrast with the cushioned comfort of the affluent sections. How does one make sense of this glaring disparity? What are the sociological concepts that enable us to come to grips with such inequality?
An obvious contender is the concept of class. Within sociology, there have been two main theoretical approaches to the question of class - one Weberian, linked to the work of the German sociologist Max Weber, and the other Marxist, associated obviously with the trend in politics, philosophy and social theory initiated by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the 19th century. Understanding the basic features of these approaches may be useful.
For Weber, a class is a group of individuals who can expect similar opportunities in life based on the similar resources they command in the market. These opportunities or “life chances” range from income and standard of living to levels of personal and emotional fulfilment. The resources include ownership of material goods, skills and educational qualifications[i]. For example, if you owned a factory, you could hire workers to produce a good which you could then sell on the market. The income or profit that you secured through such sale would assure you a certain level of affluence and well-being. It is this affluence, based on your ability to sell the good on the market, which in turn stemmed from your ownership of the factory, that would make you a member of the capitalist class. If, however, you owned no such wealth or asset, if you had no property which you could sell to secure an income, you would be forced to sell your labour on the market in return for a wage. As a wage worker, your income, and resultantly your quality of life, would be limited. It is this poverty, based on your inability to sell anything but your labour on the market, that would make you a member of the working class. On the Weberian view, therefore, class situation depends on market situation. What class you belong to depends upon the resources you own and can therefore sell on the market[ii].
The relevance of such a concept to the ongoing crisis is obvious. Across the world, one’s access to resources has deeply influenced one’s ability to maintain physical distancing, procure protective masks, sanitisers, and soap, get timely testing and treatment, and avail general healthcare and sanitation facilities. The resource question has also been central to the economic fallout of the pandemic. In India, for example, for a large section of the working class the lockdown has severely curtailed their ability to procure even basic necessities like food. While those with greater resources can ‘wait out’ the lockdown period, for daily wagers each additional day without work can be a challenge to survival. While the rich diversify their activity and switch to online modes of work, most of the working class lack the resources to make such shifts.
But while the Weberian approach is useful in identifying and describing these inequalities, it cannot explain them. The approach tells us, very correctly, that resource owners have better life chances. But it does not tell us why some people have resources and others do not. It does not tell us why the poor remain poor and the rich remain rich.
The Marxist view of class tries to answer such questions. Instead of seeking the source of inequality in the domain of market exchange, it looks for it in the domain of production. One’s class location, on this view, depends upon the objective role one plays in socially organised production.[iii] A class-divided society, at the most fundamental level, is a society characterised by a division between mental and physical labour[iv] - a society where one set of people direct and organise production, while a different set carries out the physical process of production. The class which directs the production, because it does not physically produce anything, will need to extract their means of sustenance from the class which physically produces. Of course, this would be possible only where the class of physical producers produces more than what is required for their survival - i.e. where they produce a surplus. The extraction of this surplus product by the class of non-producers from the class of producers - the appropriation of the latter’s labour by the former - is called, in Marxist theory, exploitation. The key to the existence of classes, therefore, lies in the exploitation of one class by another.
The essence of private property or ownership lies in the ability of one class to appropriate the labour of another. Historically developing forms of property are, therefore, historically developing modes of surplus extraction. In slave societies, where the slave-holder directly owns the slave, the former directly appropriate the products of the labour of the latter. In feudal societies, where the feudal lord owns agricultural land through traditional sanction, the surplus is extracted from the peasant in the form of traditionally obligatory rent, labour duty, etc. Under capitalism, where ownership is principally ownership of commodities (i.e. things that are bought and sold on the market), the extraction of surplus takes the form of an exchange of commodities: the worker sells her labour power - the capacity to labour - to the capitalist and gets a wage in return. With the wage she purchases the commodities she needs for her sustenance. Typically, the total value of the commodities she produces for the capitalist is much greater than the wage she gets for it and therefore much greater than the value of the commodities she can buy. This difference, between the value created by the worker and the value represented by the wage she receives, is the surplus extracted from her.[v] A big part of this surplus, pocketed by the capitalist, is profit.
The source of profit on the Marxist view, therefore, is the exploitation of the worker. Thus, the relationship between capitalist and worker is not just one of contrast, as in the Weberian account, but also one of contradiction. The life chances of the capitalist depend on the size of the surplus she can extract from the worker. The enrichment of the former, in other words, requires the immiseration of the latter.
This view of class as a relationship of inherent conflict has important implications for how we understand and tackle the COVID-19 crisis. With economies across the world plunging into recession and millions of jobs disappearing, economic revival has emerged as a central agenda for governments. The problem, however, is that in most countries resumption of production means the resumption of production within a capitalist system. Capitalists will undertake production only when they can make profits. Profits depend on exploitation, on the extraction of surplus.
In India, for instance, the dismantling of existing labour protection is being seen as a path to economic renewal. The state governments of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat have passed ordinances suspending basic labour laws in a bid to attract investment.[vi] This, however, is self-defeating for three basic reasons. First, removing labour protection would worsen exploitation and further aggravate the economic situation of the working class which is already reeling from the impact of the lockdown. This would imply a further reduction in levels of demand in the economy thereby deepening the recessionary trend. Second, increased exploitation would compel even larger sections of the industrial working class to move back to villages in search of security and livelihood. Production, of course, despite what capitalists may choose to believe, cannot take place without labour. Third, higher levels of exploitation would further weaken the already fragile defenses that the poor have against the disease.
There is also a more general sense in which capitalism poses obstacles in dealing with crisis situations. Since production under capitalism is subordinated to the need of individual capitalists to make profits, socially coordinated action to fulfill social needs and resolve collective problems becomes difficult. For a society to combat a pandemic of the proportions of COVID-19, a comprehensive, coordinated and planned mobilisation of its resources — its productive capacities, scientific and technological knowhow, natural resources etc. — would be required. In most capitalist countries, including countries of advanced capitalism, such mobilisation has been difficult, inadequate and slow to emerge.
The United States, for instance, despite its enormously advanced medical science and technology, has struggled to produce even basic equipment like masks, sanitisers, protective gowns, and testing kits.[vii] The US today has the highest total number of COVID-19 cases and casualties.[viii] The stubborn resistance of capital to collective planning can be seen in the behavior of some of the largest American corporations. Tesla, for instance, has been openly violating official public health orders and restarting its plants.[ix] At the same time, it has been threatening and bulldozing its workers into rejoining work. Amazon, an American company that has benefitted tremendously from the pandemic, has refused to adopt safety measures despite many of its warehouses becoming COVID-19 hotspots. It has also refused to pay sick leave to its employees forcing many to attend work despite showing symptoms.[x]
The disastrous public health implications of such corporate pig-headedness may well be imagined. America today presents the most glaring proof of how the contradictions of capitalism can become fetters for the resolution of social problems. Class matters and the COVID-19 crisis has driven this home with ferocious force.
[i] Weber, M. (1922). . Economy and Society. University of California Press.
[ii] Wright, E.R. (1979). Class Structure and Income Determination. Academic Press.
[iii] Lenin, V.I. (1919). A Great Beginning. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1919/jun/19.htm.
[iv] Engels, F. & Marx, K. (1846). . The German Ideology. Progress Publishers.
[v] Marx, K. (1867). . Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Volume I. Penguin.
[vi] Roychowdhury, A. (2020, May 18). Labour Rights are in Free Fall. The Hindu. https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/labour-rights-are-in-free-fall/article31609817.ece
[vii] Baksi, S. (2020). Epidemics and Capitalism: Accurate Identification of Contradictions. Economic and Political Weekly, 55(18), 28-31.
[ix] Reich, R. (2020, May 17). America’s corporate elite must place the health of their workers before profit. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/may/17/americas-corporate-elite-must-stop-treating-coronavirus-as-an-obstacle-to-profit.
[x] Featherstone, L. (2020, April 07). How you can support Amazon Workers during COVID-19. Jacobin. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/04/amazon-warehouse-workers-coronavirus-pandemic-crisis.
Arjun Sengupta teaches at the School of Livelihoods and Development in the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Hyderabad.