How to Stop Paying Lip-Service to Class—and Why It Won't Happen

Julian Markels

Literary and cultural scholars now generally agree that where gender, ethnicity, and class are concerned, class, for some decades, has been bringing up the rear, not only in the attention it receives but also in the practical results of this attention as compared with the attention given gender and ethnicity. Many feel distressed by the imbalance and now strive to correct it, and here I will argue that this is easier said than done in our intellectual situation of these recent decades. For it is not as if we have deliberately shied away from the subject of class for fear of being accused of fomenting class warfare. It is rather that our efforts have been aborted or discouraged because class continues to resist the analytical methods, categories, and vocabulary that have become hegemonic among us because they have proved so productive for gender and ethnicity while also keeping class invisible.

Gender and ethnicity, along with sexual orientation, postcoloniality, and other forms of difference, have been analyzed primarily as geographical sites of identity and oppression. But when you try to analyze class in that way, either you must resort to the conceptually problematic upper, middle, and lower, as sites whose origins, parameters, and persistence remain fundamentally inexplicable, or, for all practical purposes, you must come up empty. Class cannot be understood primarily as a geographical site because, in the imperishable words of my Marxist mentors, "class is an adjective, not a noun".  

It is a particular form of the general process of human exploitation in the daily work that we do rather than our physical characteristics or political disempowerment. Class exploitation in all of its forms produces poverty, of course, and poverty can be understood as a geographical site with its own problematic of identity and culture. But when we speak of the culture of poverty, we don't mean at all what we mean by the culture of women or of African-Americans or of postcolonial subjects, and whatever characteristics class may share coincidentally with gender or ethnicity as geographical sites, it is also a different kind of phenomenon.


My argument is, then, three-fold. First, the full bearing of class on our lives, literatures, and cultures can be grasped only by a Marxian analysis of class, not as a fixed identity site but as a changing temporal process of producing, appropriating, and distributing surplus labor. This is the labor that every community expends beyond what it needs minimally to reproduce itself, and throughout most of human history this surplus has been appropriated, distributed, and received by people other than those who perform the labor. Second, the only Marxists to have gained a significant voice in contemporary cultural studies are those like Fredric Jameson or Gayatri Spivak who have no analytical use for this conception of class and whose work leaves intact the methodological consensus by which class ends up being paid lip-service only. Third, gaining a voice on behalf of class as surplus labor would involve disrupting this consensus and revising substantially the analytical categories and working vocabulary that govern today's scholarship of identity and diversity. It would require us, for example, to deconstruct such terms as multiculturalism and postcolonialism, which confine our attention to the dynamics of abstract power as divorced from concrete labor. Or, to take a literary example, while canonical white male writers like Shakespeare, Dickens, and James have on occasion dramatized the ideological dynamics of class as surplus labor, whereas insurgent feminist, ethnic, and proletarian writers like Atwood, Morrison, and Olsen never have, a Marxian class analysis would require us also to deconstruct the multicultural anti-canon (and curriculum) that we have concocted as an antidote to the disease of white male thinking. And in today's North American academy deconstructions like these just ain't gonna happen.




The concept of class as a particular labor process is not only avoided by many recent Marxists but is now unfamiliar to many non-Marxists. Here I feel unable to take it for granted, so let me begin by elucidating it briefly.  The earliest successful human communities produced more than they needed minimally to survive, and two key questions throughout our subsequent history have been how this surplus gets distributed and who gets to decide its distribution--which then of course entail further questions such as what is minimally necessary to survive and who gets to decide that. But Marx's aboriginal insight is that of surplus labor, and Marxian scholarship during the past 150 years has produced compelling analyses of the different human experiences, feelings, and values created historically by such different ways of producing, appropriating, and distributing surplus labor as slavery, feudalism, and capitalism. 

In Marxian accounts of the feudal class process, for example, farmers have direct access (whether as owners or renters) to the land and tools by which they not only reproduce themselves but also produce a surplus, which is then appropriated and distributed by the lords and priests for whom these farmers feel some measure of fealty in return for protection of their bodies and souls. The power of lords and priests to coerce this surplus is simultaneously political, economic, and cultural: the public offices they hold authorize them to tax, tithe, or gouge rents with the ideological consent of the governed until the system breaks down.

In the class process specific to capitalism, by contrast, neither farmers nor anyone else who must work for a living has unmediated access to the land or tools by which to reproduce themselves. They can gain this access only by selling their labor power in return for a wage that is no longer determined by lords and priests but by the "invisible hand" of an allegedly autonomous, self-regulating market. Their economic bondage and political fealty have been severed and replaced by, respectively, the economic freedom to sell their labor where they choose, which enables them ideologically to feel they can find work that will give them larger portions of the surplus they produce, and the political freedom of electoral suffrage, which enables them ideologically to feel they can find collective redress for the market's incapacity to be autonomous and self-regulating.

This account of class is of course oversimplified, above all in ignoring the regular co-existence and intersection of multiple class processes (e.g., a family in which the husband is a capitalist wage-earner, the wife his feudal vassal, and their daughter an independent home cleaner who appropriates her own surplus), as well as the multiple overlappings of class with gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation at their identity sites. But I hope it is sufficient to indicate: a) that class is a labor process rather than an identity site, b) that it is more often than not invisible to its participants, c) that its different forms are transitory and evanescent in their capacity to influence the formation of human identity, and d) that its present form throughout the world is predominantly capitalist.

When class is viewed simply as an identity site, African-American women factory workers at their site, for example, are said to experience differences of vocational or educational opportunity, of health care or child care, of income or self-concept, that produce different feminist agendas from those of white homemakers at their site or lesbian lawyers at theirs. Yet coextensive with such differences is a single experience common to the great majority of women at all three of these identity sites—that they perform surplus labor and that the product of this labor is appropriated and distributed, whether in the form of canned soup, the family laundry, or "billable hours", without their having any say in how that is done.

This process has been for the most part as invisible to scholarship as to its participants. Differences in gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, along with differences in occupation and income, are written on the body—in physiology, physiognomy, and pigmentation, in dress, ornament, and ideolect, in body language itself—as material identities through which people become subject to domination and oppression. But capitalism's relations of expropriation in which these people are mostly compelled to participate, although themselves material relations, are not thus directly visible. They are a dirty secret to be theoretically inferred, and inferring them requires a different analysis than is ordinarily required to recognize gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation as sites of domination or oppression.

True, these have also been theorized as social processes rather than identity sites, for example in Judith Butler's, David Roediger's, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's analyses of gendered, racialized, and gay identities as socially constructed. But their material embodiments exert a kind of downward pull on their theoretical status. The immediate otherness of appearance or behavior cries out to be humanly accepted even before it gets theorized and no matter how it gets theorized, whereas the otherness of class is initially more abstract and experientially mediated. Meanwhile, inasmuch as the different othernesses mediated by the different class processes of slavery, feudalism, and capitalism have proven to be historically transitory, we can still credibly hope to abolish class altogether—just the opposite of what we hope for gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. Slaves, vassals, and proletarians may need to be celebrated for as long as class persists, but women, ethnics, and queers need to be celebrated not abolished always and everywhere.

When class is thus seen as an invisible process rather than a visible site, diversity and multiculturalism become a whole different story from the one in which we now take so much easy comfort.  If I understand the claims of multiculturalism, they are that every identity category, from women to African-Americans to Latin transsexuals, should enjoy the political benefit of equality before the law, the cultural benefit of equal access to (or total abandonment of) the literary, musical, and artistic canon, and the economic benefit of equal opportunity to qualify for (and receive) equal pay for equal work. But this economic benefit is in one respect incommensurate with the others. The opportunity to qualify for equal pay is only an opportunity to have your surplus labor appropriated at the same rate as everyone else's, and while this can be a big gain for you, it leaves intact capitalism's process of expropriating everyone in a way that a Voting Rights Act or the disruption of artistic canons do not leave intact either the polity or its culture. 


A second example perhaps more immediately germane to literary study is the discourse of postcolonialism, which is conceptually a first cousin to multiculturalism and which in most of its variants either avoids or renounces the subject of class as surplus labor. Postcolonial theory arguably provides the main impetus for the cultural studies movement that now aspires to engross the curriculum, and the epistemological basis for this aspiration is what Aijaz Ahmad calls "the post condition"—an epistemological condition common to postmodernism, post-Fordism, post-nationalism, and post-Marxism in rejecting master narratives such as that of surplus labor persisting in identifiable configurations over lengths of time we can recognize as historical periods following each other in comprehensible succession.

The term "postcolonial" was evidently first used in connection with the political emergence from Western rule of independent national states in what was then called "The Third World".  Not only did the geographical boundaries of these new states often include diverse populations with different languages, literatures, music, and religions. The states themselves proved unable either to achieve economic independence or to sustain a genuine political independence. This twin failure is routinely characterized by postcolonial theorists led by Homi K. Bhabha as a failure of both nationalism and Marxism, which then left the colonial subject to make her own way in a new post-  world. Any agency she might find by escaping the essentialized identity of Gayatri Spivak's subaltern she exerted initially by migrating to the metropole of her former colonizer, either literally by moving to London or culturally by remaining in Mumbai or Kingston to create anglophone fiction, music, or painting. Either way, she was then faced with a struggle to use her native resources to creolize the metropolitan language and hybridize its literary, musical, or visual forms—that is, to proliferate as many new cultural identities and differences as there might be local communities in her native country or emigrant communities in the cities of the metropole. Language and culture became for her a stand-in for class, and "heterogeneity" became a byword of postcolonial studies parallel to "diversity" in multicultural studies.

If I understand postcolonial theory here, it ignores two key features of pre-postmodern history. First, today's geographical and cultural migrations, in their manifold fissions and fusions, replicate those of Africans and Irish, Asians and Slavs, Latins and Middle Easterners to the United States during the last two centuries. We Americans have been there and done that, and our immigrants were inexorably incorporated into the slave, sharecropping, and proletarian class processes of the world's fastest growing and soon overpowering capitalist empire. Their political, artistic, and intellectual achievements—e.g., voting rights and Brown vs. Board of Education; blues and jazz; the theory of double-consciousness and the theory of Ebonics—were and are produced in conjunction with their massive immiseration by these class processes. Harriet Tubman, Zora Neale Hurston, and Thurgood Marshall appear on first-class postage stamps while the latest statistics indicate that one out of ten African-American males ages 18-26 is forming his identity in prison while immersed in the class process of slavery, and one out of four who are not in prison is forming his identity while immersed in the reserve army of the unemployed. 

Second, this class immiseration is indiscriminately rampant today in London, Mumbai, and Kingston, irrespective of the movement of peoples and proliferation of identities, because in our post-Marxist era capitalism has spread across the globe in precisely the manner specified by surplus labor theory. The hand of the market is not just the figment of a master narrative written by Adam Smith or Karl Marx. It is also the material process through which postcolonial women are paid 74c for making a $125 pair of shoes while postcolonial children sleep in the streets and take their meals at garbage dumps. Or as Angus Calder puts it in approved theoretical fashion, as a Scot who can speak with some authority on the subject, 

Post-colonial theory exists in English. (A student from Leipzig I spoke to recently, though specializing in African Literature, had never heard of it.) However, the philosophical tradition preferred by Bhabha and others is a Continental European one…The philosophical basis of "post-colonial theory" derives from European "post"- Romanticism—precisely the same source as the Orientalism denounced by [Edward] Said. If such theory is "sold" to and "bought" by intellectuals in tropical countries formerly under imperial rule, this is not altogether unlike the processes whereby Manchester cottons ousted the native textile industry in the Indian sub-continent, and the Japanese now in turn sell cottons with African patterns to Africans.

Insofar as postcolonial theory reproduces Said's Orientalism, only now as practiced by scholars of colonial origin ensconced in Western universities, it also threatens to deny both the historical and cultural experience of expropriation among postcolonial subjects wherever they might reside.


Postcolonial theory appears to be extending the grip of multicultural theory on the curriculum and scholarship of literature departments, and among the literary works being rendered invisible by this new hegemony are those that struggle, sometimes successfully, to represent class as surplus labor in form as well as theme. In The Marxian Imagination I analyze a baker's dozen of such works, and also mention a dozen more, whose fictional representations are formally centered on the human relations and feelings produced or influenced by the experience of class as surplus labor. These works range from King Lear in 1606 to The Poisonwood Bible in 1998; their authors include Emily Bronte and Charles Dickens, Henry James and Edith Wharton, Grace Lumpkin, William Faulkner, and Meridel Le Sueur—either canonical or putatively canonical writers stalking the same master narrative across nearly four centuries of white male curriculum. Here I have space for only one example, The Poisonwood Bible, and even then for barely a sketch. 

The mother and four daughters who narrate this novel tell how they were brought to the Congo by their Southern Baptist missionary patriarch just when that country's postcolonial hope was destroyed by the CIA assassination of its president Lumumba and installation of the puppet Mobutu; how Nathan Price's baptizing the natives in a river habitat of crocodiles while teaching them to plant crops alien to their soil led to the death of his youngest daughter, killed by a snake planted by an outraged shaman; and how his wife Orleanna then absconded with their remaining three daughters and returned to the U.S. with one, while the other two, Rachel and Leah, married and remained in Africa to give this postcolonial novel its focus and coherence as also a novel of class. 

Orleanna begins the narration as the guilt-ridden mother returned home, and among her first words to the reader are, "You'll say I walked across Africa with my wrists unshackled, and now I am one more soul walking free in a white skin, wearing some thread of the stolen goods: cotton or diamonds, freedom at the very least, prosperity". Here at the outset this once-cowed wife holds herself personally responsible for participating not only in her husband's religious mission of saving African souls but also her country's class mission of expropriating African labor. Her oldest daughter, Rachel, goes through three marriages to white men variously engaged in this same mission, and she ends up in French Congo as the widowed proprietress of an elegant hotel catering to businessmen engaged in establishing the new infrastructure of expropriation.  

Her sister Leah marries the exquisitely tattooed village schoolteacher, Anatole Ngemba, a Lumumba activist who is in and out of Mobutu's jails for the remainder of the novel, while Leah is subject to both intermittent malaria and intermittent ostracism by the native people. They manage even so to join other families in starting an agricultural commune wherein to raise their three sons, and, precarious as that turns out to be in Mobutu's IMF-type economy, they return to the U.S. in the hope of finding both a future and an identity there. They enroll as graduate students at Emory, Leah in agricultural engineering and Anatole in political science. But on their family walks in the streets of Atlanta, its citizens are horrified by Anatole's tattooed face beaming over his mongrel children, and Leah decides that "I can't drag a husband and sons into a life where their beauty will blossom and wither in darkness". So they return to Mobutu's Zaire, where Anatole is again imprisoned and they consider moving to Angola once he is released—another postcolonial country just a step behind the Congo in having its political and economic independence destroyed by the U.S. drive to immerse the world in capitalism's surplus labor process. Leah assesses their Angolan prospects in the last pages given her:

No homeland I can claim as mine would blow up a struggling, distant country's hydroelectric dams and water pipes, inventing darkness and dysentary in the service of its ideals, and bury mines in every Angolan road that connected food with a hungry child. We've watched this war with our hearts in our throats, knowing what there is to lose. Another Congo. Another wasted chance running like poisoned water through Africa… 

But with nothing else to hope for, we lean toward Angola, waiting, while the past grows heavy and our future narrows down to a crack in the door.

Her words come 490 pages after her mother's opening words to the reader, and mother and daughter together frame a narrative wherein postcolonial migration in either direction—from metropole to colony or vice versa—offers very little hope of new identities to be mediated discursively by multicultural hybridization. It offers instead a crack in the door for any remaining hope to escape the master hand of surplus labor in stultifying the formation of all identities. The Poisonwood Bible brings formally into focus a dynamic of class that multiculturalism and postcolonialism have found no way to identify, let alone to explain.

This feminist, multicultural, postcolonial novel of class was on the NYT bestseller list for over a year. It became a selection of Oprah Winfrey's Book Club, it led to the publication of Kingsolver's earlier books in a boxed set, and it produced a website, It created in short a large, popular, no-brow audience such as cultural radicals can only dream of for a novel that speaks to their ideals. Yet to my knowledge The Poisonwood Bible has made barely a ripple in literature departments—nothing like the feminist wave once made by Surfacing, the postmodern wave made by Gravity's Rainbow, the African-American wave of Beloved, or the postcolonial wave of The Satanic Verses. On the crest of those waves dozens of related novels became marketable commodities and dozens of academic careers were spawned, sustained, and rewarded. But The Poisonwood Bible is to all appearances too traditionally humanistic, above all in joining class with gender and race in a single narrative of economic expropriation as well as political oppression, to become a conference- or career-spawning icon.


This brings me finally to the most difficult and tentative part of my argument— that multiculturalism and postcolonialism have exhausted their intellectual capital without doing justice to class at a time when the American university is engaged as never before in commodifying their discourses and in that process reaffirming itself as what Althusser called an ideological state apparatus. 

Here before going further let me repeat emphatically what I said at the outset, that during my academic lifetime the scholarship of multiculturalism has been liberating beyond what anyone now short of retirement age can imagine. The methodological parochialism and ideological blindness of the white male academy into which I was inducted are certainly good riddance, and the cultural justice achieved by multiculturalism has enlarged by leaps what Jim Phelan rightly calls the life of the mind—for us who are in a position to lead that life. But for us the justice of multiculturalism lies within reach essentially without reference to class. Not only can we attain it without having to confront the injustice of expropriation; it can also satisfy our political amour propre before we ever get to expropriation. Universities like ours, in turn, as they model themselves increasingly on corporations seeking increased market share, can make a mantra of diversity without risking market share and, in so doing, interpellate us as scholar subjects all the more firmly.

But people my age can also remember a time in American public life when there was serious discussion (Keynesian and not Marxian), not only of equal opportunity and recognition, but also of full employment, universal health insurance, and a Guaranteed Annual Income. That was also a time when the discourse of class as surplus labor was widespread enough to occur sometimes in universities: labor studies was a recognized specialty in economics departments, political theory (including Marxist theory) in political science departments, proletarian literature in English departments. The intellectual diversity represented by these fields has now been disappeared, along with public discussion of full employment and a guaranteed income, during just the time when multiculturalism and postcolonialism have been ascending to curricular hegemony.

Just as there used to be talk of surplus value and a guaranteed income, so too the old patriarchal academy had its dialectical upside, in trying to understand the relations between aesthetic and historical configurations that might entail master narratives, just as the multicultural academy has now found its downside in dissolving all such configurations into the conjunctures on which post-isms arise without engaging class. I said at the outset that the scholarship of multiculturalism has not shied away from class by conscious choice. But what about unconscious choice? Is it too much to suggest in conclusion that the post-condition purges us of historical memory just when the conjunctural present shows us on which side our career bread is buttered?  If engaging class as surplus labor would indeed rock the market-share boat at research universities, it will be useless to look to these universities to end lip-service to class. For it is not just that the epistemology of the prevailing  –isms appears incapable of doing that. The alternative just might have to be a Marxism whose talk of surplus labor as master narrative is noxious to the metabolism of the research university as an ideological apparatus. 

(A colloquium paper delivered at Ohio State University on Oct. 15, 2004)    

THE RED CRITIQUE 10 (Winter/Spring 2005)