Random and Speculative Thoughts Department:
Re-Evaluating Class Analysis
By Wendy McElroy
Exclusive to The Libertarian Enterprise
[Permission to reprint is hereby given as along as it is not for
commercial purposes and full citation is provided.]
Recently, I have come to question the value of the concept of
'class analysis' within the intellectual framework of individualism.
One reason is the substantive tension that seems to exist between the
concept of class and other theories within classical liberal thought.
Consider subjective value theory as painted by Austrian
economists who argue that it is not possible -- even on an individual
level -- to predict how anyone will value a certain object or
opportunity. It is not possible to predict what anyone will perceive
to be in his own self-interest. Only in retrospect, by examining how
the individual acted on his choices, can you judge what that person's
perceived interests were. That is what is meant by the phrase
'demonstrated preference'. Even then, having analyzing a person's
former demonstrated preferences, it is not possible to predict how he
will perceive his self interests in the future.
Subjective value theory seems to argue against there being a
pre-determined interest of any sort, especially of the sort so
divorced from subjective individual evaluation as that of an
objective class interest. In short, two people who share identical
class characteristics, for example, retiring factory workers at Ford,
may have extremely different perceptions of self interest and, so,
manifest entirely different behavior.
This reservation about class theory hearkens back to a question
raised by Mises' commentary: does it even make sense to talk about
class interests existing apart from the self-interests of the members
of that class? Does it even make sense -- on anything other than an
epistemological or cognitive level -- to deal with a class as though
it were an empirical entity apart from its members?
Yet, despite such reservations, the concept of class obviously
has value in approaching ideas and understanding certain aspects of
social interaction. The 'working class', for example, does describe a
certain economic situation and distinguish it from other. The
question becomes: does identifying who are the members of a class
provide any information about the interests of that class as a whole?
In at least one sense, it clearly could. Marxist and gender
feminist theory claim that, because you belong to a certain class you
share certain interests which predict future behavior. But it is
possible to argue the inverse. That is, because a group has
demonstrated similar preferences or behavior, they belong to the same
class. But a class membership which depends entirely on past behavior
may well have little predictive value for the future.
For example, consider the ruling class who use the political
means. According to their demonstrated preferences, they may seem to
share an interest in, e.g., protecting domestic industry through
tariffs. Moreover, they may also share loose ties to state
institutions which protect and enforce those interests, just as
strangers who use the economic means share ties to the institution of
the free market. In this sense, the class interests of the ruling
class may be said to be institutionalized.
Yet with an apparently strong structure of class interest, we
cannot predict the future preferences that individual members of the
ruling class will demonstrate. History is replete with people who act
against their predicted class interests. Human beings routinely act
out of conscience, obedience, religious conviction, passion, whim,
drunkenness...the list of the causative factors that can determine
behavior seems endless.
Perhaps the most valuable function of class analysis within the
framework of individualist thought is as an methodological tool to
understand history rather than to predict the future. In other words,
in looking back, a researcher might observe that a particular person
was both a pre-bellum slave owner and a voting member of society. His
class -- or, in this case, caste -- affiliation might provide insight
into his voting pattern. Yet, even here, a cause-and-effect
relationship can not be drawn between his caste affiliation and his
behavior since other factors, such as a sincere religious conviction,
might have been causative.
In short, the individualist tradition, within which individualist
feminism is lodged, seems to allow limited scope for the concept of
class analysis. The scope is so limited, in fact, that the concept of
class may be stripped of its predictive and causative value. For
some, this may mean losing a powerful tool of analysis.
A contributing editor to Liberty magazine, Wendy McElroy has
published widely in feminism beginning in 1983 with Freedom,
Feminism and the State (CATO) and most recently in 1995 with XXX: A
Woman's Right to Pornography (St. Martin's Press). Her articles have
appeared in such diverse publications as National Review and
Penthouse. Her 'day' job is writing and editing documentaries, some
of which have been recorded by Walter Cronkite, George C. Scott and