Shadowboxing? A review of Vivek Chibber’s The Class Matrix
Platypus Review 152 | December 2022-January 2023
Vivek Chibber, The Class Matrix: Social Theory after the Cultural Turn (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2022).
WHAT IS THE STATE of Marxist scholarship? A quick survey of recent work reveals an abundance of publications. Most are very specialized, for instance, Marx Through Lacan Vocabulary: A Compass for Libidinal and Political Economies (2022) may be essential, but only for the Lacanian Marxists. A blurb declares, “Sure to be on the bedside table for every political psychoanalyst and libidinal Marxist.” Another declares, “A dazzling compendium of the non-relationship between Marx and Lacan!” In general, Marxist scholarship flourishes in the university as Marxism dwindles in the extra-campus world. The scholarship seems defined, and perhaps crippled, by disciplinary realities; it looks inward, not outward.
Vivek Chibber’s The Class Matrix, with the subtitle “Social Theory after the Cultural Turn,” exemplifies this literature, although it tackles a real issue, class. The book partakes of recent Marx scholarship for better and, mainly, for worse. It is a 200-page argument about the importance of a materialist class analysis in Marxism that is set against an approach that accents culture or ideology. The latter moved to the forefront over the last century as Marxists in the Western industrialized countries faced an elementary fact: the Western proletariat seemed unable or unwilling to overthrow capitalism. Why was (and is) that? Was it because the unexpected prosperous stability of capitalism vitiated any revolutionary ethos? Or did capitalism offer its working class enough cultural goodies — amusements, consumerism, sports — that sapped its subversive will? Or was political repression more effective than political rebellion? To put it in more classical terms, when and how does the working class achieve class consciousness, if it does so at all?
Marxists have answered these questions in myriad ways. Chibber makes half-hearted gestures towards that history but is mainly concerned with the recent past and what he calls “the cultural turn” in social theory. Yet Chibber barely makes a case for the importance of the “cultural turn.” What is it? When did it begin? We never learn. The 1990 book by the labor historian Bryan D. Palmer, Descent into Discourse offers a much better account of the history and stakes as academics embrace linguistic culture and surrender class. Moreover, Marxism recedes as Chibber concentrates on “social theory,” an amorphous beast. Much of the book feels like an exercise in shadowboxing — Chibber landing blows on an opponent who hardly appears.
For Chibber, William Sewell, a French historian, is a leading exponent of the cultural turn that devalues a materialist approach. “The challenge to a materialist theory is ably summarized by William Sewell, one of its most influential critics in the 1990s,” declares Chibber; and he quotes Sewell that “even social and economic structures” are “product of the interpretive work of human actors” (25). To declare that Sewell is one of the most influential critics of Marxism confesses one lives in a very small world. Sewell brings to the table a familiar stew of language and culture. Here is the perspicuous Sewell pronouncing on the cultural turn. Culture, he says, is “variable, contested, ever-changing, and incomplete.” He adds: “I would argue forcefully for the value of the concept of culture in its nonpluralizable sense, while the utility of the term as pluralizable appears to me more open to legitimate question.” To this he appends, “Yet I think that the latter concept of culture also gets at something we need to retain: a sense of the particular shapes and consistencies of worlds of meanings in different places and times.”
Against the culturalists, Chibber hammers away at the importance of class structure. Good for him, but he has joined a demi-monde of social theorists who argue about contingency, agency, meaning, and consent in a seminar that rarely remembers reality. “I argue” and “my argument” appear on virtually every page, but a real working class never appears. It is not clear for whom Chibber is writing. The culturalists and their minions? His own language seems a half step from the culturalists he is contesting. “The question for us is whether class is a structure that depends on a highly contingent cultural mediation” (29). For Chibber, it does not. “Culturalists are wrong to insist that class agency . . . is the effect of the actor’s meaning orientation. On the contrary, we can affirm that the proletarian’s meaning orientation is the effect of his structural location” (34). Fine, but does this illuminate anything?
One chapter takes up what Chibber calls the expectation of classical Marxism that the workers will overthrow capitalism. Chibber believes that Marxists drew the wrong conclusion. The class structures “induce workers to prefer individual modes of resistance over collective ones” (48). This does not mean the class does not exist or that collective action is impossible, but the latter depends on many factors. Here again Chibber accepts the sociological cant he is trying to rebut. Class formation can “be understood as the product of some very particular conditions that might have to be produced and sustained, rather than assumed to fall into place through the internal logic of the class structure” (62). Who doubts this? Who is Chibber arguing against? Mummified Marxists who believe the working class is automatically revolutionary? Or he writes, as if it were a hard won insight, “In sum, capitalism places the burden of class formation entirely on the shoulders of the working class” (157). Should capitalists share the burden?
It is here that Chibber’s embrace of seminar theorizing is weakest. He wants to defend the reality of class and explain an absent revolutionary working class without the taint of culture. Chibber tells us that workers have not “consented” to capitalism, which involves culture, they are “resigned” to it, which does not. “Workers accept their location in the class structure because they see no other viable option.” He repeats often the unequal situation of worker and capitalist; the former can quit and starve, while the latter flourishes with new employees. The worker accepts the system because he or she sees no alternative. For Chibber the shift from consent to resignation marks a great advance in Marxist theory, but for an ordinary reader it seems like small potatoes.
Chibber’s structural class analysis leads him into a corner where the only exit is more drab sociological theory. Chibber has successfully convinced himself that capitalism is stable, and class subversion unlikely. He is aware that he borders on a structuralism that enthrones stability. To escape this trap, he introduces ideas about agency and contingency, but his analysis becomes murkier and murkier. Chibber believes that agency and contingency both play a role in his structural approach, but only if we see the relationship as causal. “Structural accounts [of class] can be formulated in a causal language.” In this case “structural theory does not efface agency so much as it helps us understand it” (125).
But where does this take us? Chibber explains: “Agency can be taken to be present in both kinds of processes, determinist and contingent; where they differ will be in how conscious actions are connected to the background conditions.” If this is unclear, he explains, “In the case of deterministic explanations, the background conditions will be a part of the explanation for the action . . . But where those conditions do not exercise a causal influence on his action, we can deem the latter contingent with respect to those conditions—they are causally irrelevant to his interventions, hence making the latter contingent with respect to the former” (127). Hello?
The problem here becomes obvious. Chibber has surrendered a Marxist idiom, even tradition, for mainstream social theory. Blessings on him, but what does this theory explain? It would seem very little. Is “meaning orientation” better than a Marxist dialectic, which is never mentioned? “Class formation—of the kind predicted by early Marxism—is anything but automatic.” Chibber avoids “class consciousness” like the plague because it suggests culture and subjectivity. But his preferred term, “class formation” simply melds class and class consciousness into one confusing entity. Class formation “happens when workers become inclined to choose collective strategies over individual ones for the pursuit of their interests. But this requires a set of circumstances only contingently available . . . Broadly, collective action becomes more likely when the risks and costs associated with it are reduced, when workers feel a sense of confidence in their capacity, and when they develop a sense of common purpose” (156). After all his pathbreaking theorizing, we are given a series of truisms that anyone could offer.
No one demands that a book on class and Marxism must immerse itself in the history of these issues. Insofar as this history — except for the always popular Gramsci — does not even inform Chibber’s discussion, however, the danger is falling behind not advancing beyond it. Well over a century ago Lenin presented the issues that Chibber ties himself in knots about. Lenin may have been wrong, but his What is to be Done? (1902) put it much more sharply than Chibber: “Everyone agrees that it is necessary to develop the political consciousness of the working class. The question is, how that is to be done and what is required to do it.”
While Chibber writes that Marxists believed that the working class is automatically revolutionary, a not insignificant Marxist called Lenin in 1902 declared the opposite. While Chibber blathers about consent and resignation, Lenin states that the working class is reformist or trade-unionist, not revolutionary. “The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own efforts, is able to develop only trade union consciousness.” That is, it seeks reform, not fundamental change. The conclusion he draws remains striking. “The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals” which for Lenin included Marx and Engels. This means that socialism has to be brought to the working class “from without” by intellectuals.
For Lenin organization was the crucial link between theory and praxis, and the intellectuals must join the party, heart and soul, that was to bring socialism to the working class. Lenin had his critics on the Left, notably Rosa Luxemburg and the Right, Karl Kautsky. Again, Chibber need not rehearse these arguments, but by ignoring them he does not take us far. From Chibber we hear nothing about intellectuals, political parties, working-class organization or the nexus of reform and revolution. If the classical Marxist literature leaves him cold, Chibber could avail himself of the old sociological literature that raised similar questions, for instance Werner Sombart’s Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? (1906) or Robert Michels’s Political Parties (1911), which is in fact a study of the bureaucratic and reforms tendencies of German socialists.
But Chibber floats above all that. It is telling that his few efforts to fathom the current political reality with his structural class theory fall flat. He observes that a new discontent stalks the land but has mainly abetted the Right wing. The links between a Left and working class, which has become populist, have snapped. The reason for the absence of a labor Left “are not well understood.” Does Chibber’s nifty “meaning orientation” help explain this? He has forgotten about it. Rather, missing today are “the parties, syndicates, radical unions, mass organizations of the Left, and so forth that were the catalysts behind class formation.” In the last two pages of his book, Chibber tells us about “catalysts” of class formation, the first we have heard about them. “It seems plausible to imagine that the culture of resistance fostered by the structural and institutional setting in the early twentieth century also fostered the political organizations that gave it shape and direction.” And now also for the first time a “culture of resistance” shows up. What happened to his resignation? The ringing conclusion? “Thus, the class matrix today constrains and shapes the political terrain much as it did a century ago—but in ways that differ substantially from the earlier period.” Thank you, professor. Could you sign here? I am dropping the class. |P
 Eds. Christina Soto van der Plas, et al. (New York: Routledge, 2022).
 Bryan D. Palmer, Descent into Discourse: The Reification of Language and the Writing of Social History (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990).
 William H. Sewell, Jr. “The Concept of Culture(s),” in Beyond the Cultural Turn, eds. Victoria E. Bonell and Lynn Hunt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 57.
 Ibid, 57–58.
 V. I. Lenin, What is to be Done? (1902), available online at <https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/>.