Summary: Here anthropologist Maximilian Forte looks at America’s changing social structure (the rise of the 1%, death of the middle class) using perspectives from Rome, Marx, and modern identity politics. It’s one of his best essays, worthwhile reading about America’s most serious problem (fracturing our social cohesion, making solutions of the others difficult or impossible). This is the material that should shape Campaign 2016.
By anthropologist Maximilian C. Forte.
From Zero Anthropology
Reposted with his generous permission
Middle class to proletariat
The word “Proletarian” has acquired many layers of meaning over the centuries, possibly in part because the many, historically changing situations of proletarians became more complex. Since the advent of western European capitalism in the 16th century, proletarians were defined as “members of the lowest class”. By the mid-1800s, they were “the lowest class” composed of “indigent wage-earners”.
For Marxists, proletarians were defined by their relationship to production — they rented out their labour in exchange for a wage, with wages kept lower than the market value of what they produced, and were separated from what they produced since they produced for exchange, and not for their own use. Lenin’s vision of the future involved a dictatorship of the proletariat, in the socialist phase toward communism.However, as anthropologists have argued, there have been many different degrees of autonomous access to resources among rural proletariats worldwide, simultaneously involved in both production for use (subsistence) and for exchange (cash crops). Some advanced the term “polybian” to describe people with multiple sources of income, besides that earned from wage labour.
Finally, Immanuel Wallerstein cautioned that the ultimate aim of capitalism was not the full proletarianization of workers — that is, reduced to a total dependency on wage labour to sustain themselves, because that would ultimately make capitalists responsible for the welfare and reproduction of the workforce. That is hardly the first priority of those committed to the ceaseless accumulation of capital. The ideal is maximum profit, which means wages held as low as possible. One can depress wages when it is known that workers have other sources of sustenance, where either they have their own plots of land where they can grow their own food and/or participate in the so-called informal economy as hucksters.
But when proletarians have no alternate avenues, then the need for “a job” and for wages, is at an absolute maximum. One of the fatal flaws of neoliberalism is that it has reduced a great many of us to exactly this state of total dependency on capitalists, at the same time as they have shirked all social responsibility (minor philanthropic palliatives aside).
Editor’s note: One of the great innovations of the post-WWII is corporations’ pushing wages below sustenance levels, forcing employees onto food stamps and Medicaid.