Volume 1 No. 2 Spring 2017

Editors' Note

  • Robert Brenner & Vivek Chibber

The first Catalyst offered an indication of the range of subjects the journal intends to deal with. It communicated, as well, our ambition to explain contemporary capitalism and examine how the capitalist system shapes political, social, and cultural life. Our second issue continues this agenda with a series of essays on the theory and practice of class today. Mike Davis launches the new issue with a vigorous defense of the classical socialist view of the working class and its centrality as a political agent. This is an iconoclastic argument in today’s intellectual climate, even within the Left, where the working class is too often viewed as a spent force and a bastion of conservatism and privilege. Davis defends both the possibility of working-class politics and also its necessity — endorsing the idea promoted by Marx and generations of others, that what is at stake in workers’ struggle against capital is the fate of humanity itself.

Davis’s defense of working-class agency is complemented by Kim Moody’s study of changes in the structure of work and the nature of labor markets since the 1980s. Focusing on the United States, Moody argues that scholars have overstated the novelty of the current work regime, particularly the precariousness of employment and the reduction in workplace size. They have, as a result, exaggerated today’s obstacles to organizing, which are formidable but by no means insurmountable. Moody insists that the emerging economic landscape is actually creating new vulnerabilities for capital and novel opportunities for labor organizing. We just need to figure out how to exploit them.

Both Davis and Moody work with the traditional Marxian conception of class, one that has been the subject of considerable attack from multiple viewpoints over the past few decades. Among the most influential of these alternative class theories is that fashioned by Pierre Bourdieu, considered by many to be the preeminent sociologist of this era. Bourdieu’s viewpoint is notable for breaking with social science tradition by nesting its conception of class in an understanding of capital that goes beyond the economic so as to build cultural and social dimensions into its very definition. In response, Dylan Riley argues that the resulting framework for theorizing class fails, not only in comparison with its classical rivals, but even with respect to the particular social phenomena it defines as its core concern.

Riley is not content, however, to expose Bourdieu’s logical inconsistences and to bring out his empirical inadequacies. He rounds out his critique by asking how a theory containing such glaring flaws and offering such meager intellectual returns could become so widely accepted among scholars. The answer, he provocatively insists, requires shifting the inquiry to the realm of ideology and sociology of knowledge — i.e., to understand its acceptance in terms of its fit within the general intellectual culture and self-image of left academics.

The vicissitudes of contemporary class politics are examined in two international contributions. Sam Ashman, Zachary Levenson, and Trevor Ngwane offer a sweeping analysis of South Africa since the infamous Marikana massacre of August 2012, when several dozen striking miners were cut down by South African police. Daniel Finn analyzes the dynamics of Irish politics since the turn of this century, but especially after the 2008 recession. In each of the countries under examination, the authors draw out the ways popular movements have increasingly resisted the neoliberal turn and created major openings for radical politics. But they are quick to register the uneven success of left political organizations in taking advantage of these opportunities. The analysis of the current conjuncture is extended in an interview with Vanessa Williamson on the Trump phenomenon, which continues the line of inquiry opened by Mike Davis’s essay in our first edition.

Catalyst prioritizes debate as a fundamental method for developing our theory. In this issue, Mike Parker offers a critique of the wide-ranging analysis of the rise and fall of the American auto industry presented by Joshua Murray and Michael Schwartz last issue. Murray and Schwartz argue that American auto manufacturers lost out to their Japanese rivals because of their unwillingness to continue with the flexible system of production that had originally been introduced by Henry Ford in Detroit and taken to new heights by Toyota. Parker contends that these authors offer an unduly rosy analysis of the Japanese system in arguing that it is a win-win arrangement, which cooperatively involves both employers and workers in production and thereby benefits both. He asserts, on the contrary, that the effectiveness of Toyotism lay ultimately in its ability to subordinate its workers to the needs of profitable production and that, pace Murray and Schwartz, American companies ultimately had no choice but to embrace the Toyota system as the only way to sustain their competitiveness. Murray and Schwartz will reply in our third volume. Our review essay in this issue considers the spate of recent books that seek to describe and explain what they see as the retrograde politics of the white working class, especially in the South and Midwest. Chris Maisano notes how alien, even exotic, the working class has become to academics and journalists. For all their celebration of agency, they find it difficult to recognize workers’, especially white workers’, reasons for their choices, which are instead explained in terms of defects in working-class culture and psychology. Maisano insists that a meaningful analysis must begin from workers’ actual interests and identify the limitations on their ability to realize those interests. Only when one understands the structure of constraints under which they are obliged to operate can the basic rationality of their decisions be appreciated.

As the status quo continues to dissolve into crisis, we need to see as a central challenge the aim of better understanding how the situations that we confront express the general workings of capitalism. We hope that by bringing the analysis of class to the fore, the essays in the second edition of Catalyst can contribute to that goal.