Pseudo-materialism and class identity

Uncoupled from real material analysis, class labels just play liberalism's rhetorical games.

Years ago, Matt Bruenig wrote a short but important essay on the problem of identitarian deference (ID). In brief, Matt points out a recurring premise in our discourse: that people associated with certain identities should defer — meaning agree with, or at least not argue with — people associated with other identities. Supposedly, this is a way of fighting oppression and arriving at politically enlightened views; but inescapably, ID runs into all kinds of basic logical problems that makes it a completely useless and irrational procedure.

A simple example: if a woman in the discourse takes a position about feminism, ID tells us that I (a man) ought to endorse it. But what happens when different women take conflicting positions, as will almost always be the case? ID cannot tell me how to proceed here. And in fact ID can make it harder to proceed, because instead of admitting this problem and engaging in a conversation about feminism that is substantive, the discourse will often just spin its wheels with unproductive demands for deference.

Ordinarily, the call for ID usually comes up when we are talking about forms of oppression that liberals are willing to recognize: racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on. Increasingly, however, I have noticed it being used in a different way: to call for deference on the basis of class.

Class as a personal identity

The way this always comes up is that in the course of some controversy or substantive disagreement, someone will become interested in the class of one of the speakers. If the speaker is a friend, or a colleague, or a sectarian ally, we will be told that he is poor or working class; if she is a rival, we will learn that she belongs to the bourgeoisie, or the petite bourgeoisie, or the professional-managerial class, or (at last resort) the lumpenproletariat. The effect of these observations, of course, is to affirm or discredit the speaker and his opinion — regardless of what is actually being said.

This is textbook identitarian deference! Instead of substantive deliberation, ID gives us an easy procedural shortcut: all we ever have to do is discover some identity associated with the speaker and then accordingly accept or reject whatever they have to say. The only difference is that in this case, we are bringing up the speaker’s class instead of her race, nationality, or some other associated identity.

But because class ID’s procedure is the same, it also runs into the same simple problems. Since poor and working class people often have conflicting opinions, it does no argumentative work to point out that a speaker belongs to one or the other. This point also holds with other classes as well.

And because class ID deals with all of the same logical problems, it inevitably impedes any kind of sane and productive discourse in the exact same way. Substantive debates almost immediately derail onto claims about the personal class identity of various speakers, and rarely if ever get back on track.

The pseudo-materialist defense

This endless and inordinate fixation on the personal identity of particular speakers is always the most visible symptom of ID. And it’s a big reason to be skeptical of what emerges, on occasion, as a defense that one is not doing class ID: the claim that we merely happen to be talking about individual people in order to illustrate some broader point of material analysis.

Concepts like “the working class” and “the bourgeoisie” are not themselves irrational or pathological, after all. They are indispensable points of reference when we are engaged in material analysis, which inevitably leads us to talking about class struggle. And in the course of explaining how class struggle generates certain kinds of political behavior or certain political enunciations, it might make sense, on occasion, to point to specific incidents involving particular people that illustrate the point.

At the same time, however, one is not necessarily engaging in material analysis simply because one makes a claim about a speaker’s class identity. That is just a kind of paper-thin, purely rhetorical pseudo-materialism that veils ID in flimsy Marxish rhetoric. How can we tell the difference between materialism and pseudo-materialism? A few red flags:

  • When the claims about someone’s personal class are either speculative, unfalsifiable, or factually wrong. The pseudo-materialist often has no real knowledge of a speaker’s income, or assets, or other relevant points of biography, and may not even have any credible way of knowing. “I bet you’ve never had a real job” is a classic expression of this: it is at once a claim about someone’s class and an admission that the pseudo-materialist doesn’t really know. Beginning with some ideological or rhetorical position and then backfilling invented facts about the real world from there isn’t material analysis — it is the exact opposite of material analysis.

  • When the claims about someone’s class are either disproportionate or exclusive. Supposedly, someone’s personal class identity has been brought up as an incidental illustration of some broader point of material analysis: but often there is no actual analysis to be found, materialist or otherwise. Supposedly, it took place in the distant past, or it is implicit — but look around for it, and all you’ll find are people dismissing or endorsing someone’s position by appealing to their alleged personal class.

  • When the implications we are supposed to draw about someone based on their class are supposed to be persistent. That is, when we are told that some person is a member of the working class, this isn’t just meant to give us insight into some particular thing they said or did — it is meant to establish some truth about what they, personally, always say or do. This man is one of the good ones, so we should accept and defend whatever they say or do for the foreseeable future; that woman is one of the bad ones, a PMC, and this means we need to reject them and whatever they have to say.

    Here we see where material analysis is at odds with another major feature of pseudo-materialism: cancel culture. Material analysis makes claims about class, not about individual people. It tells us that the bourgeoisie as a class will tend to behave a certain way and generate a certain kind of ideology — but within this class, individual people may behave unpredictably, erratically, or even against their class interest. This complication is not a problem if you care about politics writ large, but it is a huge problem if you are a pseudo-materialist who just wants to cancel someone permanently.

What’s the problem?

I do not want to overstate the problem class identitarian deference poses for our politics. As you may have noticed, identitarian deference is really just a special kind of ad hominem, a way to prove or dismiss what someone has to say with a claim about who they are. And as you may have also noticed, ad hominem is fun. Playing the class ID game can be a great way to pass the time or blow off some steam, especially when one happens to be on the right side of the issue. There are few things more gratifying than reminding some rich media figure, when he starts lecturing socialists about their privilege, that he is an extremely well-off upper class elite.

The phenomenon of pseudo-materialism, however, is more troubling. It’s a rhetoric that is easy and fun precisely because it plays games like identitarian deference — but it’s also a rhetoric that poses as serious and productive material analysis. And often, you can see how it replaces material analysis. Instead of a rigorous and objective discussion of capitalism and class struggle, the sort of thing that might build class consciousness and rescue socialists from genuine error, we get a cheap exercise in cancel culture and petty tribal / interpersonal sparring.

And in fact, we may even get something worse: reactionary ideology with a pseudo-materialist coat of paint.