T
H
E

L
I
B
E
R
T
A
R
I
A
N

E
N
T
E
R
P
R
I
S
E


I
s
s
u
e

30


THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 30, June 15, 1997

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 Harry Reasoner.


Next to advance to the next article, or Previous to return to the previous article, or Index to return to The Libertarian Enterprise, Number 30, June 15, 1997.