Preferred Citation: Resch, Robert Paul. Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1992 1992.

Introductory Conclusion

Marxism and the Collapse of Capitalism with a Human Face

The failure of a kinder and gentler capitalism makes possible a revival of Marxist social theory not only by discrediting capitalist humanism as a viable political ideology but also by bringing into strong relief the existence of the professional middle class as a distinct and relatively privileged class , not a "life-style" more or less synonymous with citizenship.[7] This class—existing in a contradictory position between the ruling class, which actually owns the means of production, and the white- and blue-collar fractions of the working class—is something like a new petty bourgeoisie. It possesses, in the form of symbolic capital (credentials, degrees, and bureaucratic positions), assets analogous to the personal property of the traditional petty bourgeoisie, and it fiercely defends these assets against threats of "devaluation" from below (from the working class seeking equal opportunity) and from above (from the capitalist class always anxious to de-certify and de-skill labor power). Despite its contradictory class position, however, the professional middle class overwhelmingly supports capitalism. Indeed, the hegemony of the capitalist system relies heavily on an ideology of meritocracy whose truth is manifested in the existence of this class and whose allure assures the compliance of the working class for as long as upward mobility is even a remote possibility.

The restructuring of global capitalism has made the illusions and limitations of upward mobility more transparent than they have ever been before. It is abundantly clear that neither the small liberal humanist fraction of this new petty bourgeoisie (concentrated in the public sector, the media, and the universities) nor its larger social Darwinist fraction (concentrated in the private sector as corporate managers and providers of professional services to capital) speaks for "the people," much less the working class. If the social Darwinist fraction of the professional middle class has arrogantly and ruthlessly spearheaded the attack on the white- and blue-collar workers, the liberal humanist fraction has cravenly submitted, with only occasional crocodile tears, to the "inevitability" and even the "rationality" of the onslaught.

Having abandoned economic determination and class struggle as explanatory principles, neither the postmodern nor the neo-liberal Left was able to comprehend, much less resist, the restructuring of global capitalism. Both were equally unable to respond to the politics of re-


sentment created by the New Right to manipulate shamelessly the fears and anxieties of those endangered by economic dislocation. The befuddlement of the "radical" fringe of the professional middle class paled in comparison to the ideological trauma experienced by its much larger and much more influential "liberal" fraction. Unwilling to criticize capitalism—that is, unwilling to point out that it was capitalism and not the "welfare state" that was destroying the standard of living of the working class—liberal politicians and social theorists were struck dumb by events. After decades of attacking the secondary "dysfunctions" of capitalism while constantly expanding and justifying its primary relationships of exploitation and domination (and carving out a comfortable class position for themselves in the process), liberal members of the professional middle class were powerless to explain the end of prosperity or escape its immediate political consequence—a right-wing populist pogrom directed against themselves.

The web of illusions spun by liberals during the age of prosperity—illusions about the end of class struggle and economic crises, illusions about the autonomy and neutrality of the state, illusions of capitalist democracy protecting "the people" from "special interests"—legitimized a particular regime of capitalist accumulation, one that promoted mass consumption coordinated with mass production and stabilized by an interventionist state. This regime of accumulation, referred to by Structural Marxists as Fordism, emerged in the aftermath of World War II out of fears of a return to pre-war depression and class conflict and was designed to accelerate the valorization of capital within the national market, maintain full employment and rising wages, and create a stable political consensus for capitalism. Pioneered by the United States and exported to Europe after the war, Fordism did introduce a period of unprecedented, if short-lived, prosperity throughout the capitalist metropoles—a prosperity flawed only by a dizzying increase in corporate wealth and power and by a relentless subsumption of everyday life to commodification and the cash nexus. Prosperity lent credence to the liberal web of illusions—so successfully, in fact, that the working class ceased to believe in the reality of its proletarian status. White- and blue-collar workers accepted the illusion, reinforced through a formidable network of ideological apparatuses, that they were primarily "middle-income" consumers and not "working-class" producers.

Unfortunately, Fordism was a national capitalist structure inscribed within an international capitalist mode of production. The interna-


tional integration of capitalism engineered by the United States and imposed on Europe and Japan by American economic supremacy has proven to be the most fundamental creation of the post-World War II decades. With the recovery of Europe and Japan, Fordism became increasingly dysfunctional for capitalist accumulation and increasingly "irrational" from the perspective of capital. Pressures of inflation and competition during the sixties produced a classic confrontation between the standard of living of the working class and the profitability of capital during the seventies, an "accumulation crisis" whose outcome during the eighties—economic restructuring for capital and "austerity" for everyone else—was a foregone conclusion. However, given the fabric of lies that had been woven around Fordism, the international economic crisis provoked large numbers of working-class voters to strike out not against capitalism, the real cause of the problem, but against the only "conceivable" causes—"permissive liberals" (incompetent administrators who had lost touch with the work ethic) and "the idle poor" (economic parasites who, like the liberals, lived comfortably on welfare provided by the largesse of hardworking Americans). The capitalist ruling class, architects and beneficiaries of Fordism, gratefully turned the intense but misguided resentments of middle-income workers—the real targets and ultimate victims of economic restructuring—against a series of carefully selected political and ideological scapegoats whose only common denominator was their lack of economic power.

Sadly, it is only now, after the internationalization of capital has reduced their vote to insignificance and their middle-income lifestyle to standards unthinkable two decades ago, that the majority of citizens in the capitalist heartlands of North America and Europe are beginning to realize they were duped by the Thatchers and Reagans of the world. In the face of steadily declining standards of living for the working-class majority and steadily increasing wealth concentrated in the hands of a minuscule capitalist ruling class and a shrinking minority of professionals and managers, is it possible for a social theory committed to telling the truth about capitalism to re-emerge? As illusions of upward mobility yield to the realities of class polarization, perhaps recognition of their working-class status will cease to elicit reactions of disbelief, shame, or outrage from the majority of "the people." The illusions of capitalist democracy and upward mobility may become harder to sell—perhaps economic determination and class struggle might even re-enter the lexicon of social theorists for whom the end of class struggle has been axiomatic for decades.


Introductory Conclusion

Preferred Citation: Resch, Robert Paul. Althusser and the Renewal of Marxist Social Theory. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1992 1992.