Vivek Chibber: on the Working Class, Capitalism, Marxism, Postcolonialism, and the State

Transcript of conversation with Vivek Chibber by Jacobin (audio)

Part I: Why we still talk about the working class

The issue before us is why socialists constantly focus on the working class as a strategic factor in society.

To get straight to the point, there are a couple of fundamental reasons why socialists do so, and I think they are very sound reasons. You can think of this as one, being a diagnosis of what’s wrong in modern society, and two, being a prognosis of what to do to make things better. Both of these point in the same direction.

So let’s start with the diagnosis.

The diagnosis focuses on what kinds of things people need in their life to have a decent shot at happiness, at decent social relations with others — all the things that go into what we call justice, and fairness. Whatever else is needed — and there are many things that are needed for social justice — there are two that just about everybody agrees on.

One is certain basic minimum material goods. People cannot live decent lives if they are constantly worried about having enough to eat. They cannot live a decent life if they don’t have basic health, or housing, or certain material provisions that allow them to strive to what they would regard as a higher end to things: creativity, love, friendship. All of those things are harder to sustain if you don’t have certain basic goods, so first of all you need these goods.

Secondly, autonomy, or freedom from domination. The basic idea is, if you’re underneath someone else’s thumb, if you’re being dominated by somebody else, there’s always a chance that that authority which they have over you will turn into abuse.

Being dominated by somebody else, therefore, means that the priorities by which you live are not going to be your own. They’re going to be the priories of that person who has power over you. Which means that you don’t essentially get to set your agenda, whatever that agenda might be.

Therefore, if in modern society people lack these basic material goods, and they lack autonomy, they experience domination. Whatever else they need, in that kind of society, justice is very hard to achieve.

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