This issue of Catalyst is dominated by two broad themes: the role of symbols and media in modern capitalism, and political transitions in the Global South.
We open with a wide-ranging interview with Robert McChesney, perhaps the most important scholar of the media today, on the significance of the scandal around Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. These two firms, a social media behemoth and a secretive political-consulting firm, recently ignited controversy. At issue was Cambridge Analytica’s acquisition of millions of Facebook users’ private data, then used by them to target voters on behalf of political campaigns. The scandal opened a window to the deep ties between media firms, political elites, and the internet, and raised profound questions about how access to information is not only becoming centralized, but also tied to a previously unimaginable surveillance apparatus.
The link between class and symbolic production is also at stake in this issue’s longest segment, which is a far-reaching debate on Pierre Bourdieu’s political theory. In Catalyst 1, no. 2, we published Dylan Riley’s critique of Bourdieu’s account of class and power. Riley suggested that even while Bourdieu is regarded as an alternative to Marx’s class theory, in fact the former’s account of class is internally inconsistent and lacks empirical warrant. We now publish two responses to Riley, one from George Steinmetz and Johan Heilbron, two leading exponents of Bourdieusian theory, and another from sociologist Michael Burawoy.
At the heart of this debate is the role of culture, or symbolic struggles, in the constitutions of class. Whereas Riley deems Bourdieu’s valorization of culture and symbolic production to be detrimental to a viable class theory, Steinmenz and Heilbron view it as necessary to any viable account of class. Indeed, they see little of value in Riley, dismissing his article as a romantic reassertion of Marxist economism. Michael Burawoy, on the other hand, accepts much of Riley’s argument. Burawoy agrees that Riley has located genuine weaknesses in Bourdieu, but while he acknowledges much of the critique, he urges that there is still much that is valuable in the French sociologist’s work. Riley’s careful and very elaborate response takes on his critics arguments point by point; in so doing, not only does he offer a model of intellectual engagement, but also a powerful reassertion of Marxist class theory. Taken together, the pieces in this segment constitute one of the most important recent debates in class theory, and certainly the fiercest exchange between exponents of the Marxist and Bourdieusian approaches.
Turning now to how class struggles are playing out in the world, we have two essays analyzing political transitions in China and South Africa. Ho-fung Hung tells us what to make of changes in the Chinese constitution, which have effectively made the current leader, Xi Jinping, president for life. As he observes, this move confirms that the claims of mainstream commentators, who predicted that market liberalization would hothouse political liberalism, were fantasies. Instead, the tightening of the authoritarian noose in China is a direct consequence of its integration into the global economy.
Michael Smith’s essay on South Africa is a useful coda to the essay we published in Catalyst 1, no. 2 by Sam Ashman, Zach Levinson, and Trevor Ngwane. In that earlier article, the authors expose the looming crisis faced by Jacob Zuma’s African National Congress (ANC). Smith analyzes the recent presidential transition from Zuma to Cyril Ramaphosa. Once the leader of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, Ramaphosa would seem to be the last chance for the ANC to revive its political legitimacy. But as Smith observes, its steady implosion is matched by the continued paralysis of the South African left. Even while Ramaphosa scrambles to restore his party’s political fortunes, despite his continued embrace of austerity and neoliberalism, its rivals to the Left are unable to hasten its demise.
Also centered around the Global South, Aruna Krishnamurthy reviews a recent book on the value of postcolonial theory to Victorian literature. One of the strategies of the field in recent years has been to absorb literary figures who one might never associate with postcolonial studies. In this case, the novelist is George Eliot. In The Postcolonial Eliot, Oliver Lovesey makes the case that Eliot’s work can be fruitfully analyzed through the prism of postcolonial theory. Lovesey builds his case by employing a “contrapuntal reading,” pioneered by Edward Said in his analysis of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. But as Krishnamurthy argues, the attempt is not convincing. Eliot is better understood in the manner advocated by Raymond Williams, as an advocate of the English laboring classes. The failure reveals the pitfalls of an approach, and a field, that insists on seeing everything through the prism of empire, suppressing obvious dynamics of class.